Waking Up in Time

Challenge -- Crises as Opportunity

When a seed -- or an animal -- or a man is ripe, it must mature to its next phase. Or rot.

Stewart Edward White

The various environmental, economic, and social problems confronting us are symptomatic of a deeper underlying crisis -- a crisis in our thinking, perception, and values.

This crisis has been coming for a long time. Its seeds were sown some fifty thousand years ago, when Homo sapiens, the creature with an enlarged neocortex, began to use its complex brain in new ways. Something different was walking on the Earth -- a species whose future was determined not by its genes so much as by its ideas. A species that could begin to understand the Universe in which it found itself. A species with unprecedented creativity. So new were these developments that some anthropologists gave this species a new name, Homo sapiens sapiens, the “wise human being”

Quite naturally we turned our new capacities to the creation of a better world for ourselves. A world in which food was plentiful and available all year round. A world in which we could protect ourselves from cold and rain. A world in which disease did not strike us so young or so often. A world in which we could live longer and more fulfilling lives.

We set out with the best of intentions: to reduce suffering and be more at peace. But unwittingly we fell into assuming that the inner needs we were now experiencing could be met in the same way as our physical needs -- through having or doing the right things. Not realizing that true peace could be found within ourselves, we became seduced by the material world and by all its fruits.

The consequences of this error were at first benign. Only later, as our tools grew more powerful, did problems appear. For not only did technology amplify our ability to satisfy our physical needs, it also amplified our ability to satisfy our psychological needs. Our burden on the world rapidly increased, and suddenly we found ourselves a threat to millions of species -- including ourselves.

Seeing the writing on the wall, we have begun awakening to our responsibilities, both for what we have done, and for what we should do. But then, at the very time we most need to change, we find ourselves unable to let go. Clinging to our many comforts, we seem unwilling to bear the modest discomforts that would enhance our chances of survival. Too many people seem to prefer to risk annihilation rather than give up their beliefs and attachments.

So we stand by, watching the living Earth erode, and wonder how humanity could continue to be so crazy.

The crisis that has been brewing for millennia is upon us.

Crises as Drivers

Crises are generally seen as undesirable; they imply danger and potential misfortune. There are good reasons for this. A crisis is a sign that the old ways are no longer working, and something new is being called for. In such times there can be very real danger; if appropriate responses are not made rapidly, then the old order may begin to collapse.

This is all too possible with humanity today. If we do not address the deeper spiritual issues underlying the many problems we face, it is very likely that civilization will fall apart.

On the other hand, any crisis, big or small, personal or planetary, also presents an opportunity -- something the ancient Chinese seemed well aware of. Their word for crisis, wei-chi, is written as a combination of two characters, one meaning “danger,” the other “opportunity.” The opportunity may not always be easy to see, but it is always there. It is the chance to remedy what is wrong and move on to a new way of being.

In this respect crises are a challenge -- the challenge to recognize what is no longer working and seize the opportunity to learn, make changes, and progress. As such, crises can play a crucial role in evolution.

Evolutionary Crises

In the previous chapter we considered the early planetary crisis that occurred as simple bacteria began running short of food -- the first of many food crises. The response to this crisis was a new way of obtaining energy -- photosynthesis.

Over the next billion-and-a-half years oxygen -- the “poisonous” by-product of photosynthesis -- accumulated in the atmosphere, until eventually it threatened to extinguish life on Earth. Life responded to this crisis with a new type of organism, one that could feed on oxygen.

Later, as cells grew larger, they faced a different sort of food crisis. If a cell’s diameter doubled, its surface area quadrupled while its volume increased eightfold. To keep this larger volume fed, the cell’s walls had to absorb nutrients twice as fast. The larger cells grew, the more difficult it became for them to feed themselves. Another crisis, another danger, and another sign that something new was called for. The response this time was the multicellular organism -- cells stayed the same size, but the organism of which they were part was free to grow.

Today, life on Earth has arrived at another crisis. The values that have guided the human species throughout most of its development are no longer working. Preservation of the self may have been very valuable in prehistoric times. It may also have been valuable when the world was a collection of independent communities and states -- although, even then, self-centeredness among those in power often led to greed, exploitation, and corruption. But today such values have become extremely dangerous. Directing powerful technologies with a global reach, they spell disaster.

Once again the old way -- in this case, our mode of consciousness -- is no longer working. Once again a new way is being called for.

The Opportunity

This is the real opportunity nestling within our global crisis: the opportunity to develop a new mode of consciousness -- a new way of seeing, and a new way of thinking. This could be the new evolutionary adaptation waiting to emerge. Not, as we have seen, a biological adaptation -- there is no time for that, and even if we could genetically re-engineer ourselves, it would not hit at the heart of the problem. What the crisis is driving us towards is inner change -- a transformation into truly wise human beings, no longer fettered by self-centeredness.

It is driving us towards a new perception of ourselves; a new sense of purpose; a new way of being. We are being forced to awaken from our dream.

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