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We sense that we have reached the end of something. Since the millennium, commentators of every variety have been trying to get a handle on the collective significance of the continuous crises besetting us in modern times: banking crises, terrorist crises, sovereign debt crises, climate change crises, energy crises, food crises, ecological crises, man-made and otherwise.
“The world as we know it is going down,” a Wall Street broker told reporters in September 2008, after Lehman Brothers collapsed and Morgan Stanley threatened to follow suit. It is the “end of capitalism as we know it,” declared the filmmaker Michael Moore when the American auto giant General Motors filed for bankruptcy. It is the end of our dependence on fossil fuel, announced President Barack Obama, about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. It is the end of nature, wrote Bill McKibben in his book of the same name. It is the end of oil, wrote the journalist Paul Roberts in his book of the same name. It is the end of food because it is the end of oil, declared Roberts in his follow-up book. For those who take stock in the Mayan Long Count calendar and the apocalyptic significance of 2012, it is the beginning of the end of the world.
But the crises we face on many fronts are symptomatic of a deeper problem, with more potential repercussions than those of any single cataclysmic event. They are simply a measure of the vast disparity between our definition of ourselves and our truest essence. For hundreds of years we have acted against nature by ignoring our essential connectedness and defining ourselves as separate from our world. We’ve reached the point where we can no longer live according to this false view of who we really are. What’s ending is the story we’ve been told up until now about who we are and how we’re supposed to live—and in this ending lies the only path to a better future.
In this book, I have an audacious mission: to revolutionize the way you live your life. This book is going to rewrite the scientific story you’ve been told about who you are, because the current version has reduced us to our lowest common denominator. At this very moment you live contrary to your truest nature. I hope to help you to recapture your birthright, which has been sabotaged not only by modern society but, more fundamentally, by modern science. I wish to wake you up to who you really are, to do nothing less than to return to you your authentic self.
The leitmotif of our present story is the hero up against it all. We take it for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle. Consequently we remain constantly vigilant, poised to wrestle with every behemoth—at home, at work, among our acquaintances and friends—that strays across our path. No matter how pleasant our lives, the vast majority of us maintain a stance of operating contra mundi, with every encounter some sort of battle to be fought: against the coworkers who seek to usurp our jobs or promotions, or the students who raise the bell curve against which we are judged; against the people who take our subway seat, the shops that overcharge us, the neighbors who have a Mercedes when we drive a Volvo, and even the husband or wife who has the temerity to insist on maintaining an opinion that is different from ours.
This idea that we operate against the world has its origin in our basic understanding that this self of ours, the thing we call I, exists as a separate entity, a unique creation of genetic code that lives apart from everything else out there.
The most enduring statement we make about the human condition, the central fact of our existence, is our solitude, our sense of separation from the world. We regard as self-evident that we exist as self-contained, isolated beings, living out our individual dramas, while everything else—other atoms and other cells, other living things, the land masses, the planets, even the air we breathe—exists as something distinct and wholly separate.
Although we begin life from the uniting of two entities, from there on in, science tells us, we are essentially on our own. The world is the irrefutable other, carrying on impassively with or without us. Our hearts, we believe, beat finally and painfully alone.
This paradigm of competitive individualism offers us a view of life as a heroic struggle for dominion over hostile elements and a share of strictly limited resources. There’s not enough out there, and others may be fitter than we, so we have to do our damnedest to get hold of it first.
A multitude of influences—religious, political, economic, scientific, and philosophical—writes the story that we live by. Nevertheless most of the big ideas we have about the universe and what it is to be human derive from three revolutions: the Scientific Revolution, or the Age of Enlightenment, and the two Industrial Revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which transformed the cultural and socioeconomic conditions of the West into our modern developed world. These movements largely created the modern sense of our own individuality by drastically altering our vision of the universe from a harmonious, benevolent, and interconnected whole to an amalgam of separate and unrelated things, competing with each other for survival.
The Scientific Revolution launched a relentless march toward atomization, as scientists believed they could understand the whole of the universe by studying its individual components.
With the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, described a universe in which all matter was thought to move according to certain fixed laws within three-dimensional time and geometrical space. Newton’s laws of motion and gravity depict the universe essentially as machine, a vast clockwork of separate parts that can always be relied upon to follow predictable behavior. Once Newtonian laws demonstrated that the trajectory of virtually everything, from single objects to the motion of the planets, could be reduced to a mathematical equation, the world came to be viewed as dependably mechanistic. Newtonian laws also demonstrated that things exist independently from each other, complete in themselves, with their own inviolate boundaries. We ended with the hairs on our skin, at which point the rest of the universe began.
The French philosopher RenÉ Descartes wrote of man’s essential separation from his universe in a philosophy that banished any kind of holistic intelligence from nature and portrayed matter as mechanistic and corpuscular. Even our material bodies lay outside of our conscious selves: one more well-oiled and highly dependable machine.
The Newtonian paradigm of world-as-machine was further reinforced with the arrival of the most influential machine of all: the steam engine. Steam and the development of machine tools not only transformed the production of food, fuel, heating, manufacturing, and transport; they also profoundly affected human beings by separating them from the natural world. In every way life was broken down into regular sequences. Work was now dictated by an assembly line, and workers became one more cog in the wheel of production. Time was parceled out in minutes, and not through the seasons of planting and harvest, and marked through the punching in of a clock. The vast majority of people working in factories no longer followed the rhythms of nature, but the rhythms of the machine.
The Second Industrial Revolution, in the nineteenth century, introduced modern technology with the advent of steel and petroleum manufacturing and led to the rise of a middle class, which in turn paved the way for modern capitalism and the promotion of the individual and his interests. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 and considered one of the founding philosophies of economic theory, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith argued that the “invisible hand” of the market, created by natural supply and demand, and competition between self-interested individuals would naturally best serve society as a whole. He famously believed that we do best for others by giving way to this fundamentally selfish nature of ours and looking out for Number One: “By pursuing his own interest, [the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he intends to promote it.”iintronote1
Undoubtedly the scientific discovery with the most pervasive hand in our current worldview is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. When assembling his ideas for On the Origin of Species, the young Darwin was profoundly influenced by the concerns of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus on population explosion and limited natural resources.iintronote2 Darwin concluded that, since there wasn’t enough to go around, life must evolve through what he termed a “struggle for existence.” “As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive,” Darwin wrote in Origin, “there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.”iintronote3
Darwin was at pains to note that his catch phrase “struggle for existence” was not literal but highly elastic, encompassing everything from the search of tree roots for water to the reliance of a pack of animals on each other. It was actually the British philosopher Herbert Spencer who first coined the term “survival of the fittest,” after an enthusiastic reading of On the Origin of Species; after some persuasion Darwin accepted the term,iintronote4 eventually adding the subtitle: Or The Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Malthus had provided Darwin with a central metaphor to explain the mechanism behind nature’s drive to propagate and thrive, and as an inadvertent consequence, Darwin unleashed upon the world a metaphor that came to represent the human experience: life as war. An individual or population thrives only at another one’s expense. Despite Darwin’s liberal use of the term, almost immediately the narrower meaning of the metaphor stuck, offering a scientific framework for all the various burgeoning social and economic movements of the day. Most subsequent interpretations of Darwin’s work, even in his lifetime, promoted a vision of all aspects of life as a battle over scarce resources, in which only the toughest and most single-minded survived.
The English biologist Thomas Huxley, the Richard Dawkins of his day, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his role as Darwin’s vociferous mouthpiece, generously extended the view of dog-eat-dog competition in his belief that it was responsible for the evolution of culture, ideas, and even the human mind. Huxley was convinced that it was in the natural order for human beings to put their own interests above all others.iintronote5
Thanks to newly invented telegraphic cables and advances in printmaking, the wider interpretation of Darwin’s theory quickly swept across the globe. “Survival of the fittest” made for a perfect fit with Smith’s brand of enlightened competition in the marketplace, but besides Western capitalism, the theory of natural selection was also used to justify the Chinese revolution and the “whitening” of Latin American indigenous culture with European stock.iintronote6 Writers such as the Russian-born Ayn Rand used fiction as thinly disguised polemic to applaud the process whereby each of us attempts to gulp the biggest breath of a strictly limited amount of oxygen.
The metaphoric representation of life as a race to the finish line has been used as intellectual justification for most aspects of modern industrialized society, which regards competition as society’s perfect shakedown mechanism, separating out the economically, politically, and socially weak from the strong. The winners have a right to winner take all because the human race as a whole would benefit from it.
The final important influence on our modern scientific definition of ourselves occurred in 1953, when the molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick claimed to have unlocked the “secret of life” by unraveling deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic coding in the nucleus of every cell. Thereafter many scientists came to believe that within the coiled double helix lay every individual’s lifelong blueprint. Each of our cells, equipped with a full pack of genes, would live out its preprogrammed future, while we were held hostage by our genetic destiny, powerless to do anything other than observe the drama unfolding. As with every other kind of matter, the human being had also been atomized—reduced, in a sense, to a mathematical equation.
Modern-day interpreters of Darwin, the neo-Darwinists, have woven competition and struggle into the latest theories of our biological makeup by proposing that every part of us acts selfishly in order to survive; our genes—even our ideas—are engaged in competition with other gene pools and thoughts for domination and longevity.iintronote7 Indeed some scientists invest genes with the power to control every aspect of our lives, considering the body an accidental byproduct of a greater evolutionary endeavor.iintronote8
Modern evolutionary theory has removed any vestigial sense of moral design or beneficence from the natural world: nature has no stake in cooperation or partnership, but only likes winners, of any sort. The vision of a purposeful and harmonious whole has been replaced with blind evolutionary force, in which human beings no longer play a conscious part.
Many psychologists argue that competitiveness is hardwired within us, a natural biological urge as inherent as our basic urge to survive. After we stop fighting over food, water, shelter, and mates, the theory goes, we begin competing over more ephemeral prizes: power, status, and, most recently, fame.
Consequently for more than three hundred years our worldview has been shaped by a story that describes isolated beings competing for survival on a lonely planet in an indifferent universe. Life as defined by modern science is essentially predatory, self-serving, and solitary.
These metaphors—the mechanistic view of the universe, the “red in tooth and claw” sense of ourselves—have seeped into our consciousness to permeate our every day. Our paradigm for living today has been built upon the premise that competition is the essential calling card of existence. Every modern recipe in our lives has been drawn from our interpretation of life as individual and solitary struggle, with every-man-for-himself competition an inherent part of the business of living. Our entire Western economic model is built on the notion that competition in a free-market economy is essential to drive excellence and prosperity. In our relationships we extol our inherent right to individual happiness and self-expression above all else. We educate our young by encouraging them to compete and excel over their peers. The currency of most modern two-cars-in-every-garage neighborhoods is comparison and one-upmanship. The world, as Woody Allen once put it, “is one big cafeteria.”
The individualistic, winner-take-all zeitgeist of modern times is to blame for many of the crises we presently face in our society, particularly the excesses of the financial sector, with its insistence on a bigger and better profit every year, at any cost. Before being jailed for his part in the energy company Enron’s vast array of fraudulent activities, CEO Jeffrey Skilling bragged that his favorite book was neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and he periodically fired the entirety of those of his workforce achieving the bottom 10 percent results as a means of improving the overall “fitness” of the herd.iintronote9 This mind-set is responsible for the raft of deceit that now goes on in every sector of society, from the 50 percent of college students known to cheat on exams to corporate cheating, even in sectors designed for the public interest. Up to three-quarters of all published research on pharmaceutical drugs in the medical literature is now believed to be ghostwritten by public relations firms hired by drug companies, with serious and even potentially fatal side effects routinely concealed.iintronote10
The danger inherent in our current worldview is apparent in the ways that it has been taken to its extreme conclusion and used as a justifying principle for sociopathic behavior, from mass murder during the Third Reich and the eugenics of the twentieth century, to modern ethnic cleansing and serial murder. Eric Harris, for instance, was sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Natural Selection” on April 20, 1999, when he and Dylan Klebolt, armed with propane bombs, assorted Molotov cocktails, an Intratec TEC-DC9 blowback-operated semiautomatic handgun, a Hi-point 995 Carbine semiautomatic pistol, a Savage 67-H pump-action shotgun, and a Stevens 311D double-barrel sawed-off shotgun, sauntered into Columbine High School and opened fire.iintronote11
Although our Newtonian vantage point has afforded us technological mastery over our lives, the worldwide collapse of our global economic model in 2008, the current ecological crises, the threatened shortages of water and food, the exhaustion of petroleum sources all expose the extreme limitations of this mind-set, which now threatens our planet with extinction. On a personal level it has left most of us with a distinctly hollow feeling, as though something profound—our very humanity—has been trampled on in our daily wrestle with the world.
We urgently need a new story to live by.
For the past fifteen years, ever since I began pondering the meaning of cutting-edge discoveries in physics and other branches of science,iintronote12 I have been struck by how much of scientific theory, and consequently our model of the way things work, is currently going up in smoke. With every new finding in the sciences, yet another cherished notion we hold about ourselves is overturned. An entirely new scientific story is emerging that challenges many of our Newtonian and Darwinian assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival. The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of cooperation. Quantum physicists now recognize that the universe is not a collection of separate things jostling around in empty space. All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment. Rather than a cluster of individual, self-contained atoms and molecules, objects and living beings are now more properly understood as dynamic and protean processes, in which parts of one thing and parts of another continuously trade places.
This revolution is not confined to physics. Extraordinary new discoveries in biology and the social sciences have profoundly altered our view of the relationship between living things and their environment. Frontier biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have all found evidence that individuals are far less individual than we thought they were. Between the smallest particles of our being, between our body and our environment, between ourselves and all of the people with whom we are in contact, between every member of every societal cluster, there is a Bond—a connection so integral and profound that there is no longer a clear demarcation between the end of one thing and the beginning of another. The world essentially operates, not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them—in a sense, in the space between things.
The most essential aspect of life is not the isolated thing, whether a subatomic particle or full-fledged living being. It is the relationship itself: the inseparable, irreducible Bond. This connection—the space in between—holds the key to the life of every organism, from subatomic particles to large-scale societies, and also the key to our viable future.
These discoveries suggest that the idea of the individual as an individual thing distinct from other things is a fallacy. There is nothing—from our subatomic molecules to our entire being—that we can define with any certainty as a wholly separate body that can be isolated and ring-fenced. The “individual” is only the sum of an infinite number of inexactly defined parts, and the parts as we currently understand them are shifting and transforming at every moment. In every way individual things live life inextricably attached and bonded to an “other.” Nature’s most basic impulse is not a struggle for dominion but a constant and irrepressible drive for wholeness.
These new revelations from the frontiers of science represent a reversal of the process of atomization that began with the Age of Enlightenment. The new story that is being written around the globe adds up to the beginning of a recovery of our holistic view of ourselves as inextricably bound to everything we see around us.
These discoveries hold not only vast implications about how we choose to define ourselves, but also vast implications about how we ought to live our lives. They suggest that all our societal creations, invested as they are in competition and individuality, run counter to our most fundamental being—that a drive for cooperation and partnership, not dominance, is fundamental to the physics of life and the biological makeup of all living things. They imply that most of us in the developed world are not living in harmony with our true nature. That we are constantly affecting and being affected by all matter in a constant and ever evolving Bond demands a drastic change in the way we relate to ourselves and all other living things.
We need some new rules to live by. We need another way to be.
This book offers a new metaphor to live by. It rejects the central tenet of orthodox science: that matter, even subatomic matter, exists in isolation and is complete in itself. It suggests that the dance of life is not a solo, but a duet—that every part of you connects to an essential and irreducible Bond. It acknowledges that each of us is so tightly interconnected with our world that we can only hope to live authentically when we live by a very different story.
We need to adopt a new definition of what it means to be human. We need to look at our universe with a fresh pair of eyes. Applying these new discoveries to every aspect of our lives requires nothing less than making ourselves anew.
The Bond ultimately posits an alternative future in which a new paradigm for living in partnership and connection replaces the metaphor of battle. I hope to offer you an entirely new vision of yourself and your place in the world, not as its master or its competitor, but as its cooperative partner.
That new vision starts with the understanding—shocking in the breadth of its implications—that nothing in the world is separate. In fact in the most basic sense there is no such thing as a thing.
© 2011 Lynne Mctaggart