Individual Responsibility - A Spiritual Perspective

by Peter Russell

Closing Speech given at Conference "Is the Future My Responsibility?" Ennis, Co Clare, Ireland, 2001.

If you went along to your doctor because of a bad stomach pain, and all the doctor did was give you a pill to take away the pain you would not feel very satisfied. A good doctor would ask what the cause is. Is it something you’ve eaten? Is it a virus? Or perhaps just stress? But lets find out the cause and treat that as well as the symptoms. Otherwise the problem is likely to keep recurring.

We need to be doing the same with the various problems facing humanity at this critical time. As well as doing all we can to repair the damage we have done to our planet, and to ensure we don't do more damage in the future, we also need to ask what is it in ourselves that leads us to behave as we do? If we don’t ask those deeper fundamental questions I don’t think that we are ever really going to get out of the crisis we are in.

We like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent species on this planet. But it is now becoming clear that we are destroying our planetary habitat. If we carry on as we are, we wont be here in thirty or forty years time. Yet despite this awareness we don’t change our behaviour. We continue destroying our habitat. Is this intelligent? It’s more like insane.

The question we must ask is Why? What’s wrong with us?

Some people argue that there is an intrinsic fault with humanity. We are self-centred, short-sighted, greedy beings, and that’s it. If that were true we may as well pack up and go home now. There’s not much hope. But I don’t think the problem lies in the way we our brains are wired, but in the way we think–in our attitudes, our assumptions, and the programmes that run us. What we think is important in life. In other words, our values.

The Real Bottom Line

When we begin to look at our values we find that there are several layers to them. On the surface we may value things like possessions, money, social status, the roles we play. But then we need to ask why do we value these things. If you look deeper you find that these things are important because they may give us a sense of security, stimulus, acceptance or attention. But why are these things important to us? What’s beneath them? What is it we really want? What is really important to us at a fundamental level?

The answer comes down to something very simple. We want to feel at peace in ourselves; we want to be happy. Basically we are looking to feel OK in ourselves.

This is our true bottom line–how we feel inside. Usually when we talk of the bottom line we mean our material or financial bottom line. But the one thing we all want is to feel happy. We may call it different things–inner peace, fulfillment, contentment–but the truth is we want to feel good inside. I write a book because I get some satisfaction from doing so. I go swimming because I enjoy it. Even things I don’t actually enjoy at the time, like going to the dentist, I do because I believe that I’ll be happier later in life if I put up with a little discomfort now.

There are two points to notice about this fundamental drive. First, it is common to each and every one of us. As the Dalai Lama once said, "In the final analysis, the hope of every person is simply peace of mind." In this respect we are united. Even the people you don’t particularly like, the people you think are stupid, the people you judge as evil, your apparent enemies, and your closest friends, we all want exactly the same.

The diversity amongst us stems not from what we each want at a fundamental level, but the ways we try to find that contentment. Often the way one person tries to find ot conflicts with the way another person is looking for it. The conflict lies in the assumptions we have about what will make us happy. But underneath we all seeking exactly the same thing.

Second, and most importantly, what we are looking for is something internal. We are looking for a better state of mind. Its an internal goal not an external one.

Looking in the Wrong Place

There’s nothing wrong with seeking a more satisfying state of mind. Where we have gone wrong is the ways in which we seek it. And that is where our values come in–the assumptions and programming that we bring to bear on events. We’ve got locked into a belief that says whether or not you are happy and at peace depends upon what you have and what you do. In essence this belief system says that your internal state of mind depends your external circumstances.

Now that belief does have some validity. If the reason you are not happy is because you are sick, or hungry, or cold, then there may indeed be something in your external environment that needs to be changed. You do need to do something, or get something.

Several hundred years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, the reason most people were not happy was probably to be found in their external circumstances. There was a lot of disease, the winters where hard, food often in short supply. We today with all our luxuries can easily forget just how hard life could be in former times. We live in a totally different world. Most of us–and by "us" I mean those here in this room, the more fortunate members of the human race who have the time and money to be able to come to a conference like this–have our basic needs for food, water, shelter and clothing taken care of. If we are still not happy and at peace the chances are that it is something inner that missing. It could be that we are not feeling recognised, or not loved. Or a lack of meaning and purpose. Or a feeling of insecurity. These are all inner needs. But what happens is we are caught in this belief that says if your not feeling happy go and do something, go and get something, go and be somebody. Our attention is focused on changing the world "out there" in order to satisfy some inner need.

This belief is fed to us from the day we are born–by our parents, by education, by the media. I know my parents just assumed this was the right way to bring me up. They were trying to be responsible and ensure I had a good life. I remember when I was about twenty-five, I’d been to visit my parents and was just leaving the house when my mother decided to give me a little talk. She said "You’ve been to university, you’ve done well and got your degrees, you’ve traveled round the world, don’t you think its about time you got a job" Being in a more reactionary phase of life, I asked "Why?" My mother replied that there would come a time when I wanted to get married, buy a house, be able to go on a holiday, and such things. I kept asking "Why?" and she kept coming up with reasons why it would be a good to get a job. Finally, probably out of some frustration, she said "So that you can be happy. of course". I said "But aren’t I happy?" She looked at me and said "Well I suppose you are, yes" And since then, whenever the subject has come, she’s said, "as long as your happy, that’s the main thing".

The Root Cause

It is this belief that what we have or do determines our inner happiness that drives consumerism. We believe that buying things can make us happy. I don’t think that is the case. It may appear on the surface that things make us happy, but if you look more deeply at what’s actually going on, it is clear that we are being told by the advertisers and marketers that we’re missing something–the Channel dress or whatever it is–and that we cannot be happy without it. They create an artificial sense of missing something, and with it an artificial sense of unhappiness. We want something we haven’t got, and when we do go and buy it that wanting goes, and we feel happier again. You feel a wonderful relief, because the wanting has ceased. But it does not last for long. Soon there is something else we believe we need, and again we feel dissatisfied. The point is that it is not the buying of something that makes us happy, but buying it relieves us of the feeling of dissatisfaction that we have created for ourselves.

Much of what we consume we consume not because of some physical need. We consume in order to satisfy some inner need. But since no external thing can ever really satiate an inner need, we keep on seeking, keep on buying, in the vain hope that if only we bought enough of the right things we will eventually find fulfillment. But all along we are looking in the wrong place.

This is a brought out in a popular Sufi tale in which the character Nasrudin is out at night on his hands and knees underneath a street lamp in front of his house. His neighbour comes by and asks what he’s doing. "Looking for the key to my house", says Nasrudin. So the neighbour gets down to help him look for it. After a while, when they still haven’t found the key, the neighbour asks where exactly Nasrudin had dropped it. "Somewhere in my house", he replies. "Well why are you looking for it out here?" "Ah" says Nasrudin "there’s more light out here".

We may laugh, but that in a way is exactly what our society would have us do. We’ve lost the key to inner fulfillment. But rather than search for the answer inside ourselves we look out to the world around us because there is indeed more light out there. The human mind is still such a mystery. But the external world is a different matter. There’s more light there. We know how that works and how to change it. We can reshape it into computers, wonderful clothes, cars, almost anything we can imagine. This is the world we can manage. So we set about controlling it in some way or another, in the hope that we’ll create the right circumstances for inner peace.

Advertisers understand this. If you look at any advertisement and analyze it, you’ll find that it’s basically saying buy this product, this service, this software, this credit card, or whatever, and you will feel better for it. They know what will hook us–but unfortunately they don’t tell us that it won’t actually work. My favourite example is of car hire company that used to be just outside Heathrow Airport on the road into London. Outside was a big banner saying "Rent from us and be assured peace of mind". They know that’s what we are looking for, but they keep us looking in the wrong direction.

This belief that if only I had more I would feel better also lies at the root of so much greed. The more I have, the happier I’ll be–or so we think. It likewise underlies the love of money. We love money not for itself. Who would love little bit of paper or metal, or electronic digits? What we love is the ability of money to buy the things, the experiences, the opportunities, the friends or whatever that we think will bring us peace of mind.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this belief is that as well as having damaging effects on the world around us, it also damages our inner world. If you live according to the assumption that if only you had or did the right things you’d be fulfilled, then you easily get into an anxious state of mind. You start worrying about how things are going to be in the future. You start thinking: Will I have what I need to be happy? Will people like me? Will I have the security I need? Is my job safe? What’s going to happen to the stock market?

The irony is that we are all wanting to be at peace, to feel fulfilled, yet worry produces the very opposite. If you’re worrying you’re not at peace. Some people seem to spend their whole life worrying whether there going to be happy in the future. They never stop worrying long enough to be content with the present.

This way of thinking also has a damaging effect on our personal relationships. We begin looking at others and judging them according to how they might help or hinder us in our search for happiness. And when we start judging others we cannot be said to be truly loving them. I’m not talking about romantic love so much as uncondtional love–the kind of love that accepts someone as they are, who every they are. It is not liking them because they are going to be good for you in some way, but honoring the being, however it manifests, whatever we might think of their behaviour.

A Crisis of Consciousness

The crisis facing humanity today is not so much an environmental crisis, a political crisis or an economic crisis; it is essentially a crisis of consciousness–a spiritual crisis. Any crisis, whether it’s a domestic crisis, a social crisis, or a global crisis, is a sign that the old way isn’t working anymore. This is both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that if you just continue shoring up the old way of doing things, the crisis doesn’t go away. The opportunity inherent in a crisis is to adopt a new way of thinking and acting.

As a species, we’ve come to a point in time when the old way of thinking doesn’t work anymore. The old way says, take from the world, control your surroundings; what you have and what you get is important. This may have worked in the past, but it is not working anymore. It isn’t working for the our planet–as is clear from the increasing pollution, resource depletion and environmental degradation we see around us. Nor is it working for us human beings. it no longer delivers the satisfaction we seek.

There was an interesting study done back in 1957 in the USA. Researchers polled a cross section of the American population, asking people if they were happy with their lot in life. Back then, 30% said they where happy with what they had. In 1992, thirty five years later, they ran the same poll. Now over the intervening years the GNP had more than doubled, the number of square feet that each person had to live in had doubled, the number of cars per family had tripled, the number of television channels had gone up from a handful of black-and-white to hundreds in colour. All those indicators of so-called quality of life had risen. Yet in 1992 the number of people who said they where happy with their lot was exactly the same–30%. That seems to me to be good evidence that simply raising the material quality of life more and more doesn’t actually led to greater fulfillment.

Inner Freedom

The real challenge today is not how to create even greater freedoms in the world us, but to start looking inside ourselves, to ask how can we free ourselves? How can we free human consciousness? That is why I am so intrigued by what is happening here with the Ceifin. It’s beginning, in its own way, to address that question.

Until now consciousness is something our culture and science has ignored. We know so much about the material world from quarks, to quasars, from DNA to quantum physics. And we can build wonderful things with this knowledge. But we still don’t understand how thoughts arise in the mind. If I look at my own mind I think it would be wonderful if I could switch off 90% of my thinking. Most of it I have to admit is totally useless. Or consider our feelings. It would be nice not to feel so anxious at times, to be more compassionate, but we know very little about how to do that. Nor do we understand much about how to direct the attention. I doubt that any of us can keep your attention on one single thing for a whole minute. Our minds are always wandering.

There are, of course, some who have explored these questions. Mystics, yogis, philosophers and others examined their own minds first hand and looked at how the human mind gets trapped in various habitual patterns. Their quest has been to free the mind, to allow it to be more at peace, and more compassionate. This is probably the most important question that we now need to be asking at this time. How can we free up the human mind.

A Shift in Perception

The answer it appears is much simpler than one might expect. Its an answer that has been discovered time and time again by different people throughout the ages. The Greek philosopher Epictitus put it very succinctly some eighteen hundred years ago: "People are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them". It’s not what happens to us that makes us happy or unhappy, its the way we interpret events that is key.

An example that I often use when I’m working in corporations, which gets the point across to people who probably have no interest in anything spiritual, is to ask if they being in stuck in a traffic jam makes them upset. Most usually say yes. But, despite what seems to be happening, it is not the traffic jam itself that is causing the upset. All a traffic jam can do is stop cars moving. If you’re getting stressed, upset, or angry it’s because the voice in your head is telling you this isn’t good. Its the voice of fear, the voice of worry. You’re no longer in the present moment; you’re thinking about the future. You’re going to be late for that appointment, or late getting home; and if you’re late things won’t go so well. You may be criticized, or miss something. So you start feeling upset.

Now somebody else could be sitting in the same traffic jam, but be saying to themselves: "This is wonderful. This is the kind of situation I’ve been waiting for all day. I’m not having to sit through another boring meeting, nobody is presenting me with their problems, there’s no pile of papers to wade through, no computer beeping to tell me I’ve got an email. I can sit back, put on some music, and relax for five minutes.

So we have two totally different responses. One-person taking a step closer to a heart attack; the other a step closer to enlightenment. The only difference is what is going on inside their head. It has nothing to do with the external world.

The truth is that so much of the suffering and dissatisfaction we experience is self-created. This is what so many of the great spiritual teachers have recognized and taught. It is what the Buddha recognized two-and-a-half thousand years ago. His story is interesting because it closely parallels what is happening in the world today. He was born a prince in a very wealthy family. But in his early twenties he realised that having all these riches didn’t bring an end to suffering. So he decided to leave the palace, give up his luxury lifestyle, and set out to seek a way to end suffering. He is said to have spent six years as an ascetic, studying under various yogis and gurus, trying just about everything, including virtually starving himself to death. Then one day he realised that maybe that was all wrong. He was just sitting down under a tree, meditating, when he realized that the causes of suffering lay within and so did the way to end suffering. Some children where passing by and said, "You’re looking very happy today. What’s up" And he replied, " I am awake". So the children said "We shall call you Buddha", which in the language of the time meant "the awakened one".

The Buddha encapsulated his awakening in the four noble truths. The first is that we all suffer. We all experience dissatisfaction in some way or other. The second is the realization that we create that inner discomfort for ourselves because we desire things to be different than they are. The third truth is seeing that it needn’t be this way. As in the example of the traffic jam, there are different ways of seeing anything–some lead to suffering, some don’t. The fourth noble truth explores how to change your way of relating to the world so as not to create unnecessary suffering in yourself or others.

We today are in a very parallel situation. We have riches and luxuries far beyond those of Buddha’s time. Yet still we find that having almost anything we desire–Channel dresses, BMWs, or whatever–doesn’t bring an end to suffering. And many of us are likewise seeking other ways to end suffering. That is one reason there is a such a growing interest in meditation, personal development and alternative spiritual practices. Gradually we are waking up to the same realization that the Buddha had. We always have a choice about how we see things.

The trick is learning how to make that choice. One thing that I’ve found very useful is to just ask myself the question, Is there another way of seeing this? Whoever I’m dealing with, whatever I’m faced with, to simply ask if there is another perspective? I don’t go looking for something, but turn the question over to my deeper self. When I do that, the still small voice within often comes up with a much more compassionate perspective. One that feels a lot easier, and is freeing for me. And it usually opens up a whole new way of approaching the situation.

Inner Space

The next great frontier for human development is not outer space, but inner space. We have given ourselves wonderful freedoms in the physical world. What we need now is the inner freedom–freedom from out-dated beliefs and values–that will allow us to manage our lives and the world around with wisdom.

To be sure, there’s many people in the world that do not yet have as much freedom as we do. Some 85% of the world is still in poverty; 70% of the world doesn’t have decent housing; 50% doesn’t have even enough food. These are real problems, and they do need attention. But in addition to working to raise the quality of material well-being in others, we also need to be working to raise the inner well-being in our own society.

We don’t need yet more material growth. The sort of growth we need is inner growth. The spiritual growth which our culture has turned its back on so much. To quote Star-Trek we need to boldly go where no modern culture has gone before–the exploration and development of human consciousness

We cannot afford not to. If we carry on the way we are going its pretty clear there is no future for humanity. Or rather a very depressing negative future. We have to begin to move in a new direction.

Not only is this important for dealing with the many challenges that will face us. It is also going to be critical for handling the ever-accelerating pace of life. Whatever the future is going to be like, one thing is certain; the pace of change is going to be going faster and faster and faster. One consequence of this is that it will become increasingly difficult to predict the future. Very few of us could have predicted five years ago where the Internet was going to be today. Ten years ago, much less so. So how are we going to predict what the future is going to be like in five or ten year’s time?

People talk about the winds of change. I think we are going to be in a storm of change, or rather a hurricane of change. In such situations, those individuals and organisations that will thrive will be those that have the greatest flexibility and stability. Its not going to be so much the external things that count, but how we are inside.

For some years I’ve been arguing that what we need is the equivalent of an Apollo project for the human mind. The Apollo project, you may remember, began when John Kennedy said that if we put sufficient effort and research into the project we could put a man on the moon in ten years. Nine years later the first human beings stood on the moon. The New Apollo Project that I would like to see happen would do the same for human consciousness. It would saying, it is possible to free the human mind from out-dated assumptions and values. We can step out of our old mindsets. We don’t have to continue the way we’ve been going. There’s plenty of examples of people who have done it to know that it is possible. We don’t need to remain trapped. What we need is a concentrated research into how to create a shift in values and make inner freedom a practical reality for all people.

To an extent a shift in values is already underway. Over the last 30 years there have been a number of studies on values. These have shown that people are steadily moving away from materialistic values to values that focus on development of the person and greater responsibility for society and the environment. It is happening, but it’s not happening nearly fast enough. It needs to be facilitated and encouraged. That is why I personally am so excited by what is happening here and Ceifin.

I also think it is very appropriate that Ceifin is being founded in Ireland. Maybe its one of the few places in the world where it could happen. And maybe this is a chance for Ireland to really lead the world. I say that as a British person, because for the last 12 years I’ve been spending a lot of time in Ireland. I come here because the values here touch upon the values I knew growing up in England. Sadly, however, as England has succumbed to increasingly materialistic attitudes, these values have waned. And it is happening here too. But Ireland had not yet gone as far down that slippery slope. Here there’s a greater chance of still be able to touch the heart. That is still here and while it’s here, let’s go for it. It may be the best chance humanity has.

Date created: 10-Mar-04