A Crisis of Consciousness
The Call for Wisdom
Behind our various unsustainable policies and practices lies an unsustainable mode of consciousness inherited from our distant past. True sustainability will only be possible once we free our minds from these outdated attitudes and beliefs.
Many aspects of the current global crisis stem from shortcomings in human thinking and values. Even if these are not always the direct cause of a problem, they may still lie behind our failure to implement sustainable solutions. Yet, when faced with yet another environmental, economic, or humanitarian crisis, our normal response is to tend only to the external symptoms of the crisis. If we do not also look to change the underlying attitudes and mindsets that guide our decisions and actions, then it is not surprising that the symptoms keep recurring. As Einstein's famously put it, "we cannot solve our problems from the same consciousness that created them".
Many have tried to trace the origins of our unsustainable behavior to some historical perio—the European enlightenment, the development of civilization, the shift to agriculture, or the rise of patriarchy. I argue that the root goes back even further, to our development of tools. As well as paving the way for human culture and much of what has made us the magnificent beings that we are, this shift also sowed the seeds of many of our current failings. At each stage of our cultural evolution, our intentions were good; we applied our emerging technologies to improving human well-being. However, our growing ability to reshape our the world according to our desires seduced us into the belief that the path to feeling good lies in having or doing something—i.e. by changing the world in some way.
This approach certainly has value when there is indeed something to do or to change—if we are cold or hungry, for example. But this mindset also has significant limitations. We in the developed world who have most of our material needs met, and enjoy the basic comforts of life, still focus on having or doing more. Yet studies show this doesn't actually make us any happier. Satisfaction levels have remained remarkable flat over the last fifty years, despite dramatic improvements in so-called "quality of life", and tremendous technological innovations.
Our whole culture reinforces this mistaken mindset. Media and advertisements continuously tell us that we lack something, we cannot be happy as we are; only by getting something new or doing something different will we find fulfillment. They do not point out that any satisfaction we may find don't last; before long we are back in the cycle of samsara seeking yet another transient satisfaction.
The world's wisdom traditions have repeatedly seen the shortcomings of this way of thinking. In addition to causing many problems in the world, our attachment to how things should be also lies at the root of much human suffering. A recurring theme amongst these traditions, both Eastern and Western, is the liberation of the human mind. To this end they have developed a variety of processes and practices to free us from dysfunctional modes of consciousness. In this context, the current widespread interest in personal awakening, and the development of human consciousness, is not some self-indulgent distraction from the real problems facing us, but an essential ingredient in the transformation of culture, opening us to the wisdom we need to navigate our way safely through these turbulent times.