Imagine pushing an old woman out of the way to get to a meeting because you’re late. How does it feel? Now imagine being late for a meeting because you helped an old woman across the road with her shopping. How does that feel?
Let’s unpick this a little: Our survival depended on being part of a group cemented with lifelong bonds of trust, friendship and intimacy. We evolved to care for each other. Our feelings were attuned to build good relationships. We could not survive alone.
This is the way we were made.
Society today is very different, and we see each other and the world around us in very modern ways. We tell new stories. We live in a material world. We have recreated ourselves as individuals. We are psychological beings and we live inside our heads, however, beneath the surface of technology and our sophisticated sensibilities, we are still human.
We still need each other.
Our recent success has depended on our ability to organise ourselves into larger and larger groups. We came together in tribes to control territory. We developed farming technology. We settled in villages, towns and cities. We became farmers, craftsmen, traders, soldiers, bureaucrats, politicians, rulers, healers and magicians.
We made alliances and made war with our enemies.
Traditional systems organised society into social groups, castes or classes. There was very little opportunity to improve one’s lot. Social status and power came, as it still does, from controlling access to resources and building distribution networks. The status quo was maintained by beliefs that defined rights and responsibilities of our different roles.
Our behaviour is governed by social agreements, which regulate the way we think and what we do. Breaking these social norms is a threat to the status quo and risks social exclusion. As hunter-gatherers, rejection meant we would become prey to the next large predator that tracked us down. In modern society, we are more concerned about signs of social status.
We are disempowered as individuals
We have developed social technologies that have given us new opportunities for social mobility. Everyone, we are told, can make it if they try.
We enjoy the fruits of our efforts as we please. We pay taxes to the state to provide the infrastructure that enables us to get on with our own lives. The poor, the sick and the old are someone else’s responsibility. The Law keeps us safe. Our purpose is self-improvement.
We are all individuals running around in swarms, each of us looking out for ourselves. We measure our self-worth by our ability to solve problems, control ourselves and control things around us.
We live in a world of abstractions, dissociated from ourselves.
A constant sense of low-level threat cuts us off from the most important human sense we have: the feelings we have in our bodies. We have become addicts to dopamine fixes in exchange for our attention. We strive to achieve personal goals in a search of meaning. We fill the gaping hole in our emotional lives with distractions, new experiences and buying stuff.
We are hungry ghosts devouring everything in our sight, but we are never satisfied.
The writing is on the wall. We are not just being ravaged by epidemics of stress, anxiety and depression, the systems that regulate climate are failing. If we carry on with business as usual, we face the certain and immanent prospect of catastrophic systems failure and societal breakdown.
We know this but do not know what to do. There is a mountain to climb and there is no map to follow or leader that we can trust. We are rabbits caught in the headlights of a juggernaut of chaos bearing down on us. As individuals we can do nothing. As lots of individuals we can do nothing together.
A compass for ethical action
We need a compass for ethical action to escape the sense of internal conflict. We need to reconnect with ourselves and with others. We need to remember our humanness. We need to disrupt the chronic patterns of reactions that are making us run around in circles like headless chickens.
First, we need to stop and reclaim our attention.
We can find ways of disengaging our attention from the internal narrative; of problem-solving, of self-criticism and blame. We can regulate our social media habit. We can go for walks and just look at things and get into our senses.
Mindfulness and kindness
Mindfulness meditation practice is a more formal approach to retraining attention. It reconfigures our awareness of feelings AND teaches us how to listen to them. This takes effort so long as we are trapped by a separate sense of ourselves: The more we try, the harder it gets. The harder it gets the more we get frustrated. The more we get frustrated, the more we fight with ourselves. The more we fight with ourselves, the more we are trapped in our story…
We can only really escape the traps we make for ourselves when we feel connected to others. We can only really forget ourselves when we feel we are among friends. This is why, traditionally, contemplative practice has always taken place as part of a community.
Mindfulness and kindness go together.
We can imagine what it feels like to help an old woman cross the road and feel good about it. If we remain vigilant, we can listen to our feelings to guide us: to cultivate helping, sharing cooperative behaviours that enable us to build strong alliances with others.
We can treasure the intrinsic rewards of sharing instead of hoarding and possessing. We can replace distractions with relationships and build more sustainable social norms based on humane and inclusive values. We can set our intention to connect with others: to talk, to listen and understand each other. Only then can we act collectively to change the status quo.
Our life becomes meaningful when we use our feelings to build relationship that enable us to work together – to play and survive as we have done since the beginning of time. We forget ourselves. Things become clearer and we can set intention in a field of possibility. We can tap into the power of the most powerful social mind that nature has created.
The technical solutions are out there but we have failed to implement them so far and time is running out. We have to start by using our feelings as an ethical compass to guide us.
Our challenge is to understand ourselves and then act together.