With this post I bring to a close Chapter 5 of That Which We Already Know. For those of you who are just happening upon this blog, please note that I am bringing this work to fruition in sequential order and with a minimum of editing being done on previous posts. Each post is written to stand on its own, more or less. That said, I hope you'll consider exploring this work from the beginning. Enjoy!
Chapter 5 (conclusion)
At the moment of our human birth there is no question as to the naturalness of our being. We are each a living, breathing, physical organism arising out of and interacting with this physical world with the totality of our being. But while all the other beings of the animal kingdom remain immersed in their naturalness for the remainder of their lives, we humans are an altogether different animal. We inherit the neurobiology made possible by millions of years of evolution – neurobiology that will eventually give rise to the fully developed self-awareness that makes us stand apart from all of the other animals and the rest of the natural world. We might think of this developing self-awareness in positive terms, as the dawning of the light of our humanness. We might also consider it in negative terms, however, as our descent into the fallenness of our fully mature state of being.
Perhaps it is on account of the latter that we tend to look back on our childhood days with such nostalgia. We were much more firmly rooted in the present back in those days. If not completely carefree, we could at least relinquish those cares with much more ease from moment to moment. We could learn that there are burglars “out there” in one moment, and then we could run off and play without a single care in the world in the next. We could see images on the television of a war raging somewhere “out there” in the world, and then we could run on over to a friend’s house as if we were oblivious to the existence of such darkness. Sure enough, those concerns would return, and many more. After all, we’d only just begun to fall. But it was our orientation toward the present moment that enabled us to return so easily to our gloriously uninhibited and spontaneous childhood state – one of full-functioning engagement with the world.
During those most glorious of childhood days we had just enough self-awareness to keep from tripping over our feet as we ran like the wind down the street. We had just enough self-awareness to know how far up into the tree we could climb without unduly risking falling on our heads. We had just enough self-awareness to keep from burning ourselves on the stove or steering our bikes out into the busy traffic. On the other hand, our burgeoning self-awareness had not yet grown so overwhelming as to distract us from full immersion in whatever activity we were engaged in, or to inhibit us with self-consciousness.
Sooner or later, though, the child must learn to meet the challenges and dangers of the “outside” world, and we adults would be remiss in not helping them along in that regard. And so the list of things for the child to fear keeps growing longer and longer – in part due to the developing child acquiring a more accurate assessment of an already fallen human world, and in part due to an expanding awareness that there is indeed a self to be harmed, and many ways for that harm to be inflicted.
The Buddhist concept of karma makes sense in this regard – not in the sense of some cosmic payback system for all of the good and bad things that we do, but in the sense of created patterns of existence and behavior. There is karma that we share with all living things in that we need to take something from our environment in order to survive. This is the karma that is stored in and expressed by the respective genomes of all living things. There is also karma that only we human beings share: the “hardwired” neurobiology that gives rise to self-awareness, for instance, and the “programmed” karma related to our social mores, myth, and historicity. Similarly, there is the familial karma of shared genetic tendencies overlaid with shared experiences and interpretations that are passed down in story and imitated behavior from generation to generation to generation. Of course, there is also the karma that most of us think of – those idiosyncratic patterns of thought and behavior, whether unconscious in nature or purposefully replicated – stored in our neural networks and in the very muscles that bring it to life.
The children of our Stone Age ancestors had substantially less to learn from their elders when compared to the children of today. Little was required back then in the way of toilet training and personal hygiene, for instance. There was no alphabet to learn or multiplication tables to memorize. There were no schools and no “careers” to prepare for. Learning and work were seamlessly integrated into day to day existence, and day to day existence was seamlessly integrated into the totality of the natural world – just as it was for any other of the animals of the forest. Sure, there were tools to be made – the flint-knapping of spear points, and the carving of needles and fishhooks. Other than a few such notable and uniquely hominid exceptions, however, our Stone Age ancestors hunted in a manner similar to other social predators; they gathered in a manner similar to other foraging animals; they read the seasons and they wandered and roamed similar to other migrating animals. Each and every action grew out of the reality of the natural world. Just as a bird builds its nest in precise fulfillment of its need, with nothing superfluous nor incomplete, so our Stone Age ancestors lived from day to day to day.
Oh, how different life is for we modern humans! How insufficient the sufficiency of the forest has become! How insufficient we have become! With self-awareness has come the nagging sense that we don’t have enough, that we don’t know enough, that we aren’t capable enough – that we are lacking and incomplete. This sense of insufficiency and incompleteness is prominent enough to have earned a central place in Alfred Adler’s very influential theory of Individual Psychology. In Adler’s view, it is the manner in which the developing child deals with these feelings of insufficiency and incompleteness (inferiority) that determines the type of person that she will become.
While our fallen forebears only eventually came to realize their “nakedness” back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden, we modern humans come to realize it all too quickly. With nakedness comes shame and fear of the shame that might be. With nakedness comes fear of harm and insufficiency. With nakedness comes fear that we might lose that which we perceive ourselves having gained, and scheming in order to get that which we fear having to live without. Our nakedness, of course, is simply our human neurobiological karma manifesting self-awareness, blossoming forth from the ground of our being. With burgeoning self-awareness our genetic predispositions become manifest within the social milieu in which we are raised. The fears of our parents and our neighbors and our nation become our own, often keeping us in our fallen state for the remainder of our days. Such is the nature of our karma.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nature's Fan – Girl with a Child by Shu Shen via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank