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Imprisoned by nonsense

We inherit our language and with that our understanding of the world.  

Language and words connect us; they also reveal us.  Words map and represent our inner lives and provide an opportunity for that to be shared.  

Ideally, throughout our lives we grow, become wiser and more inclusive, and deepen our understanding of the world.  This development can be seen as us developing our epistemological position, epistemology being the theory of knowledge which addresses questions such as “How do we develop knowledge?”, “How do we know what we know?”  Another way to say this is that we step up onto higher platforms through which we see the world, an increasingly wiser platform, increasingly more inclusive. 

Each platform is like a step on a ladder and stepping up to the next step provides a new view.  We will still know the views from the rungs below us but not the ones above us.  

Ideally, we periodically outgrow the rung we are on.  We sense that our perspective is limited. Someone might make a comment that belongs to a higher rung. It resonates with us and leads us to move up to the next step on the ladder.  Or we might experience something that no longer fits our simpler way of seeing the world.  A classic example of this is becoming a parent.  We might have felt it was all about ‘me’ but the birth of a child stretches us to feel a love and an interdependence with our little child that is quite new, and challenges our established ways of being and thinking.

Philosopher Ken Wilber describes our life-viewing platform as being hierarchical.  The lowest level is the ‘egoic’.  From here it is all about ‘me’.  I see myself as the centre of the universe.  I interpret everything in relation to ‘me’.  I have a spiritual experience and I conclude that I am special. I am unique, I have a special relationship with the universe, I might even feel that I am chosen.  I am the new Jesus or a Guru.

From the egoic platform we believe success is up to the individual, that everyone can do it, that we are independent of our social, cultural, political, family and any other context.  We believe in meritocracy.  An example of that could be a quote by Michele Ruitz: ‘If people are doubting how far you can go, go so far that you can’t hear them anymore.’ 

The next level is tribal or ethnocentric.  From here I belong to a group, a nation, a party or a clan and I believe that we are better than, we are the ones who get it, who understand things the way they really are.  From here I see others as inferior, and it is therefore OK to exploit them.  

If I have a spiritual experience from this level, I experience it as something that happens to people of our group, of our faith or our type of people.  We are the ones who understand the world as it really is, we are the ones with the solution, we are the chosen ones.  The others are wrong.  

From here we believe in team effort, we know that we can’t do it alone.

A comment on this comes from a Native American Chief: ‘When Jesus Christ came upon the Earth, you killed Him. The son of your own God. And only after He was dead did you worship Him and start killing those who would not.’

The next level is ‘world centric’.  From this place I see all humans as having various qualities, as possessing various potentialities. If from here I have a spiritual experience I see it as something that can happen to all humans under certain circumstances.  I see success as being something that was possible due to the time I was born, where I was born and the wider context of my life.  But also due to the ‘team’ I surround myself with and personal characteristics.

The final level is integrated and here I know the butterfly effect, I know that we are all interconnected and interdependent, that what one person experiences affects the rest of us.  That the fact that 2/3 of the species present in the seventies are now gone, is not only sad but something that affects all life on the planet. If I have a spiritual experience from this place, I know it as something that arises when the self is dialled down, when thinking is put in its place, that it is the truth powering through in a little glimpse.  Native American Tecumseh observed: ‘Before the palefaces came among us, we enjoyed the happiness of unbounded freedom and were acquainted with neither riches, wants, nor oppression.’ 

And Chief Seattle: ‘The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.  All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.  Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’

From the integrated perspective we see the problem with the idea of success.  We know it as an external label reflecting where you have focused your attention in your life.  And therefor also where you have not focussed your attention.

We have little phrases in all cultures that we repeat and believe in.  Words and language hold us prisoners as we live within them.  They can bring us down the ladder or stop us from sensing the higher levels of seeing things.  Our language reveals our epistemological position, the place from which we see the world.   

Consider a saying that has become familiar from advertising: ‘You deserve it’.  ‘You deserve’ belongs on the egoic platform.  It is individual, me-focused, and there is no concern for consequences on the environment. When we feel deserving, we easily become frustrated with others when things don’t go our way.  We easily blame others or feel we are not good enough, or are unfairly treated as the deal is that I should get some reward, right?

From a Buddhist perspective ‘you deserve’ is delusional thinking, as is most thinking arising on the lower rungs.  And delusional thinking is a cause of pain and suffering.

The integrated perspective knows that we were promised nothing.  Sit with the idea that we were promised nothing.  Try it: ‘I was promised nothing’.  Often the feeling that comes up is humility.  And humility brings up gratitude, and gratitude invites in compassion.

Another example is that we say we ‘take a breath’, as if we are in the driver’s seat of breathing.  It is just as well we are not or we would have died a long time ago as we would likely have been distracted and forgotten about it!

We are actually being breathed.  Everything that needs to breathe to stay alive is being breathed.  It is amazing and again humbling.  We can influence and direct the breath but the breathing itself is being done whether we pay attention or not.

‘Take a breath’ belongs on the egoic platform, an Anthropocene perspective, where we humans are in control, where each individual does their breathing separately from everyone else.  When we say ‘the body is being breathed’ we are on the integrated platform and immediately become aware of the shared breath.  We become aware that we are dependent on the breath to live, just as all life is, and that what is done to the planet affects all of us.  We feel and know that our job as temporary visitors is to ensure the health of the planet.

Why does it matter?  It matters because as Wilber says, all wars start from the egoic or ethnocentric perspective.  It is not religion or politics that drive us to war, it is a low level of understanding the world.  

I can’t help but think how relevant this is to politics, if we have a two party system, then the system will keep those within it in stuck in the ethnocentric way of understanding.  And that is what we see in debates, in political discussions.  

There are many things we can do to ‘climb the ladder’:

Meditate and practice mindfulness

When we observe sensation, feelings or thoughts, we see them arising out of nowhere.  This nowhere, what might that be?  It is a constant, the nothing, yet something.  And something we all share.  

Challenge yourself and your understanding

Exercise good rhetoric, ask yourself if your beliefs match reality, if your beliefs are even realistic.  


Look closely at anything, and ask what it has taken to create this.  Inevitably you will end up involving the sun, the moon, the stars, soil, rainworms, birds, trees etc. 

Diversity raises our awareness.  

Spending time with people who are different to us is good for us, it opens us to the world centric view.

Many years ago, I was the Doyenne of the Air Attaché Association of London, meaning I hosted many events for new attaché spouses.  One of the things that became really clear was that irrespective of where we came from in the world our desires, needs and deeper values were the same across cultures.  

Remember the lower rungs will always be part of who we are.  When we feel unwell, when we feel threatened, we tend to regress, risking to at least momentarily lose sight of the higher rungs.  It is a sign of both resilience and wisdom to catch this and know it as just a product of the state we are in.

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