Unlearning Civilisation

spent some of his earlier years as a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. In later years, he became a peace activist and produced  the Nonviolent Jesus blog. Currently, he lives in Texas in the United States where he is becoming active in the Transition movement.
The first step in unlearning civilisation is so simple that we instinctively reject it. It is to see with our own eyes and feel with our own hearts. We are deeply conditioned to distrust ourselves, preferring the massive data banks and lavishly-funded scientific projects of the industrial behemoth. We believe that we can accurately perceive reality only through the lens provided by the latest analysis. What we see with our unaided eyes is tainted with subjectivity, thus untrustworthy. Truth can only be perceived with the aid of the most advanced sensors, after years of computer modelling by teams of specialists scowling over endless data. To the civilised, truth cannot be perceived immediately, but must mediated through a set of well-tested filters that remove the stain of subjectivity to yield the smooth objective residue of truth. That odourless residue alone is trustworthy.

Writers such as Keith Farnish in the Underminers directly challenge the civilisational narrative. But the psychological tentacles that feed its life are very deep, deeper than the Tools of Disconnection he presents, though these work exactly as they are portrayed. While his tactics may well contribute to undermining the civilisational infrastructure, more concentrated effort needs to be spent on building the psychological and philosophical underpinnings that can replace the structures of meaning which civilisation implants in its subjects.

The flimsiness of this structure of consciousness-modelling becomes obvious once we inquire into the roots of our sense of certainty, the inner proof that truth presents us. These roots come from our experience of life, instincts we have built over years to guide our actions into a path that brings tangible rewards. When we look at our path through life, we see that we trust the truths of civilisation not so much because of our faith in scientific methodology than because of the premiums that such belief delivers. Believing in a technological methodology aligns us with the forces that control this world. It situates us in a hierarchy of power. While we may not occupy a prominent position in that hierarchy, nevertheless knowing one’s position furnishes us with an easily grasped sense of meaning. One plays one’s role in in a story one has come to share with those in the same hierarchy and feels proud of that role, a pride that is constantly reinforced with material delights.

This sense of reward for our participation in the ‘story of progress’ has come to be a substitute for that instinctive sense of truth which arises from our inner being. Try as they might, the manipulators of meaning cannot expunge that inner sense even with all the perks of the social climb. In the end, the false sense of certainty with which we are infected also infects our sense of truth, the false always gaining its power from its distorted reflection of the true. But the ersatz truths proclaimed by the apparatus of language manipulation cannot attain a deeper sense of truth than that which is instinctual, because it must feed off the living blood of reality in order to give substance to its lies. Otherwise, the organs of distortion would have no referent to misrepresent and lose their power to deceive.

Before we can overthrow the external civilisational mechanism, it must be overthrown in our own minds, though these two operations are not necessarily sequential. Otherwise we don’t really understand what we fight and can easily find ourselves defeating the wrong enemy. My primary motivation in joining the struggle against the current civilisation is to end the violence that is its lifeblood – violence against the free individual, against true community, against the indigenous peoples, and against every biome that deserves to play its role in the entire web of life.

Unless we live from a moral centre larger than civilisational myths that treat breaking laws that protect corporate crime as the ultimate offence, we will not attain the freedom of action necessary to create a different world. We live within a system that treats its own preservation as the ultimate law. But resistance has to be founded on an unconstricted moral law, not the dissolution of morality. We must find a moral centre beyond the boundaries of civilisation if we are to be strong enough to mount resistance to the field of death.

We are born into civilisation and as soon as childhood’s blossom fades, we find ourselves fleeing as if from some disaster that no one can name. It is a race for position that promises the security of material abundance. But this security is dependent on measurable performance and sooner or later performance falters and the Leviathan has no mercy. Until we make real the lack of balance with the earth in our own lives, we cannot arouse the inner deadness long enough to break the increasingly implacable demands of productivity. These demands are precisely calibrated to ensure that we are barely able to emerge from work-induced lethargy. The inner energy of our being is as much their property as what bubbles beneath the cap rocks and its being drained from us just as efficiently.

Inner peace is not a commodity that can purchased within the borders of civilisation. No drug, no iPad, no vacation, no career triumph can assuage the unrest, the snake nest that keeps us in sleepless agony. What we seek lurks in death and solitude and will not show its face to us unless we are ready to accept real danger. And how could we take such risks when we are so glutted with conveniences and cheap pleasures? Yet something that will not die keeps gnawing away at every excuse we offer.

Once in a while a drop of balm falls on our soul and a sense of deep refreshment opens in us like the mighty river of justice that Dr. Martin Luther King so often invoked. We have no idea where it comes from, but the speaking waters have touched our lips and we feel a power that fills us with a sense of wholeness. For one moment, what civilisation has defiled is washed clean and we understand peace is something other than the cessation of hostilities.

After it fades, this refreshment makes us feel the sting of our enslavement all the more acutely and plants in us the seed of rebellion. But what does this refreshment consist of? From a civilisational viewpoint, it consists in the de-instrumentalisation of one’s existence. Everything in this civilisation is subsumed into the chase: raising production while creating a sustainable environment, ending violence through legislation, and getting the right numbers on the profit report. Each of these is a box that prevents the happiness it falsely promises. They are the result of a delusion that they can allay the anxiety that stutters through every decision and commitment. A reversal of this would be to feel the goal well up within us – instead of pretending to love each other for the sake of family peace, we seek peace because we love each other. We do not instrumentalise our love into a series of crowd management techniques, but find the richest avenue to express the love that waits neglected within.

In our depths, technique executes and wreaks its damage. Technique is the encapsulated experience of others long dead who once were alive and in that life, they reached out for some truth within their world. By letting go their love of comfort and routine, they grasped something new and made it their own. As they made it more and more real to themselves, they finally were able to formulate it in a way so that others could make their own as well. In doing so, these sharers extended the insight. But lurking at the foundation was an impulse both finite and mortal. It did not encompass all that we are able to become. The surge of life that once lived in the technique now has become a brutal slavery destroying the source of life. The brutality becomes more and more amplified, in a futile attempt to drown out the truth.

The lesson of the past 500 years is that if you work at technology long enough, with dedication and persistence, you can achieve predictable results. But predictability is nothing but ashes in the mouth if it doesn’t include the well-being of all our relations, as the Dakota people tell us.

The first step in unwinding the ache of civilisation is to step into silence. Once we shed our anxious need for constant distraction we come face to face with a deadness in ourselves and it is intensely painful. But if we have the courage to stay inside the pain, we will discover a healing power, a loosening of the tension that drives us. The machine has inflicted a false shape on living flesh, our flesh and earth’s flesh. It has mangled our inner being and the healing will take long, but it must begin in emptiness.

If you can hold still within the emptiness, not seeking to ‘enhance’ it or make it your possession, you will start to feel what you have long wanted to feel, but never allowed yourself to feel. Those feelings are the limp green leaves that lay along the brook which died from the effluent that streaked through the stream. The burning poison of work discipline that scalded the leaves within. Life fluxes within us and blossoms outside. The ecological revolution happens in our hearts, then spreads into the waterways, finding unknown springs of untouched water, those speaking waters which bubble with eternal freshness.

Within emptiness is the power of change, a change not limited by the categories of a dying world view encapsulated in the prison called ‘objectivity’. To be objective means to make objects of all that is perceptible. It is to draw a circle around those resonant presences that fill us with their joy and vehemently deny that they can reach beyond the limits of their ‘object’. The ability to transcend object consciousness arises from silence because objectivity is an attempt to silence the noise of life.

And when this happens, you needn’t twist your experience into the shape of a known religion. Instead religion cracks open to reveal a fire hidden within its petrified form. Belief is shown not to be a deception, but a promise, a promise that can only be fulfilled in sidelong glances, never displaying itself bare and whole. Matter becomes the outer crust of the inner spiritual volcano.

  1. Thank you for this, Boyd. “Civil” groups are so ensnared in solutionism that they too often miss the point: transformation must happen from within and it must occur within a space of “silence”, “emptiness” or “letting go.”

    1. Thanks, Seth. The ecological crisis, though it has material aspects that must be fought with material means, cannot be responded to adequately with those means alone. It is a question being asked of us by every living consciousness in the non-human world and we must answer with our whole being.

  2. Some profound thoughts here, Boyd. And mostly very comforting.
    If there is one place I had trouble following you it was here:

    “Otherwise we don’t really understand what we fight and can easily find ourselves defeating the wrong enemy. My primary motivation in joining the struggle against the current civilisation is to end the violence that is its lifeblood…”

    So, we are fighting to defeat an enemy, joining a struggle against a violent civilisation. Aren’t we caught in something of a paradox here?

    I don’t know how but somehow we need to avoid placing ourselves in an oppositional stance to civilisation. We need somehow to heal, detoxify, transcend it.

    How? I’m feeling my way in this just as much as the next person. All i can say is this: truth is the lotus flower that grows from the toxic mud of lies.

    1. You bring up a good point, Robert. My thought here probably wasn’t as clear as it should have been. I’ve been reacting strongly against those who simply condemn civilization and think it should be removed “by any means necessary.” That was partly what I meant by the “wrong enemy.” The enemy is not just the exploiting corporations and their government enablers – it lives in our violence and narrow focus on material success in our campaigns too.

      Peace with nature requires peace in our own hearts. I agree with Thich Nhat Hanh: “It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful means.”

      The war I was thinking of was the one against the violence that lives inside us. It is a willingness to embrace and transform the pain, to stop pushing it away, to let it wash through us and cleanse us in a way that will make our external campaigns far more potent.

      Thanks for helping me to clarify this for myself anyway.

  3. Thank you, Boyd, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. It reminded me of a contemporary incongruity about which I find myself often wondering: namely, the incongruity of fighting the ecological/environmental battle online, before the screen, via blogs and other kinds of social media campaign. Time spent online is time spent in the heart of “the machine”, and is time disconnected from both the natural world and our silent selves. Yet, how on earth is any political or environmental change to be effected today, if not through the use of online technology? For this is where everyone is and where all discussion and persuasion takes place. Thus, while your argument for silence and solitude is appealing, it doesn’t face up to this dilemma, i.e., that contemporary environmental politics seems to require that one embrace the technology that is part of the problem. Perhaps you’ve already given this some thought.

    1. Thanks, Robert, for your thoughtful points about web-based activism. My view is that there are far more interconnections between us than those available online – that our influence extends beyond the reach of the electronic voice.

      There are more methods of resistance than direct action, online activism and lifestyle changes. There is also inner work to be done and this too is a potent act of resistance. Ending a way of life that makes us lose ourselves radiates a psychological resonance that strengthens the forces of peace, including peace with the planet. Without inner commitment to a broader alignment with the life we wish to nurture, our efforts risk strengthening the very power we think we are challenging.

  4. Thank for you this vivid and thought-provoking piece, Boyd. I think this thought of yours, The ecological revolution happens in our hearts, then spreads into the waterways, finding unknown springs of untouched water, those speaking waters which bubble with eternal freshness, particularly resonated with me. I come from a religious background (Episcopalian, with several members of my family either were or are ministers) and though I don’t claim any particular religion now, I do claim spirituality as shaping the way I view the world. My influences are a hodge podge – something I’m more or less okay with. Anyway, my point is I appreciate all that you wrote and those lines in particular because you highlight what has been for me a huge hole in environmental activism – a lack of spiritual awareness or centeredness. It’s the same way I feel about political systems – I don’t believe in their efficacy because I feel like a fundamental aspect is missing. Unless we are able to sit in our own individual silences without freaking out and seeking distraction, we will never be able to shift collectively as a society. You say it much more succinctly than I (if I understand you correctly!) so I’ll end here. Thank you!

    1. Dear Hannah, You have picked up on my main point exactly. The obscurity of some of my thoughts comes from trying to characterize the spiritual aspect of ecological consciousness without falling into the numerous traps that such thinking is likely to fall into – on the one hand the materialistic ideology that ultimately leads to hopelessness or violence and on the other, various types of spiritualism that freeze creative encounters into a conditioned responses that don’t really engage the destructive realities we face. Dark Mountain seems to be a place that fosters those creative encounters with ecological realities that transcend the boundaries of previous approaches so that we can forge new, more adequate responses.

      1. Thanks, Boyd — and Hannah for the original comment. I was wondering whose ideas in the area of spiritually-oriented ecology you find congenial. Are you familiar with the work of Schumacher, or Thomas Berry? I ask because this area interests me very much, and also because I have the impression that, amongst contemporary environmental activists, overt discussion of the spiritual dimension is not exactly encouraged. — with the exception, that is, of groups such as the Berry-inspired Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. Any thoughts you may have on the matter would be appreciated. With thanks, Robert

  5. Dear Robert, Thomas Berry has been a key influence on my thought, and many recent thinkers associated with him such as Brian Swimme have further awakened my sense of the universe as a living and immensely intelligent being. An ecology that confines itself to the careful and safe statements of yesterday’s truth, one that is ideologically blind to the living presence cannot see that what we face is not mere “resource depletion”, but a spiritual crisis whose major symptom is the desecration of the planet, a spiritual being of great power and wisdom.

    Overt discussions of this kind are obviously repressed because they break many deeply embedded taboos, particularly scientific ones. Perhaps we are being called to let go of those taboos and embrace a no less disciplined and exacting method of exploring reality, but one no longer locked in the slavery of materialism. It is precisely the idea that nature consists of “dead matter” that opened the gates to its current destruction.


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