Ekodo: The Gift – Part 2
In Part 1 of this story (available here) a young woman journeyed on a quest to understand the underlying causes of unsustainable modern culture, and the underlying solution to a sustainable existence on this fabulous planet Earth. After years of reading, reflecting and musing clarity unexpectedly flooded in while she danced at a student party. [From Part 1]: “She immediately launched a desperate search for pen and paper, as if dragged by a wild mare – any paper, envelopes on the cluttered beer-stained kitchen table clumsily bumped by drunken strangers, margins of yesterday’s crumpled newspaper, the cardboard backing of a spent cereal packet, and she began to scribble down notes lest she lose this epiphany in the haze of this Friday night festival of wild abandon.”
Her notes read:
All living systems produce a surplus of energy, and this energy goes into maintaining and growing that system. But growth cannot happen indefinitely because resources for each system are finite. To avoid collapse, a system must channel a portion of its surplus energy away from growth and into “unproductive” forms of ecological expenditure – such as contributions to the environment of the system.
A scientist and I were walking in a tropical rainforest and he saw a palm tree with a huge fruit pod and commented that this was very inefficient because all that energy could otherwise have been spent on growth of the tree. I knew he was wrong and now I know why. He was seeing that palm tree with individualistic modern eyes and could not understand how important it is for that plant to shed this part of its annual production and give it to the rest of the ecosystem. By being “inefficient” the plant has been able to persevere for countless millions of years of evolutionary selection to be growing successfully here right now as an integral part of this ecosystem.
Plants routinely produce far more fruit and seed than they need for reproduction, and this feeds other creatures in the broader system upon which they depend. This unproductive energy could otherwise have been channelled into growth. But if the plant grows too much too soon it must die sooner because its physical structure can only get so big.
Regenerating ecosystems grow until they reach the physical limits to that growth as they mature. But when they stop growing, surplus energy is still produced and gets channeled into increasing biological diversity and habitat complexity. Old growth forms like tigers arise as emergent features of a system that long ago reached its physical limits.
An economy grows for a period, reinvesting the surplus energy into maintaining and growing the system but eventually must find a way to channel a share of its surplus into non-productive expenditures. Without systematic unproductive investments an economy is destined to collapse from the curse of its own productivity – the natural consequence of outstripping one’s limits to growth. This “accursed share” of surplus production needs to be safely destroyed – and if not it will destroy the society itself, whose relentless production and consumption overshoots the capacity of the physical system that sustains it.
So many pre-modern cultures were and are seen as “inefficient” when viewed through a modern cultural lens that has a deep aversion to “unproductive” behaviour. But these pre-modern cultures were able to endure for far longer in their respective landscapes precisely because they were “inefficient” – they safely destroyed the accursed share by spending it “unproductively” on festivals, funerals, follies, pyramids, arts, symbolic warfare, and ostentatious ritual consumption and Dionysian wild abandon.
In pre-modern cultures gift-exchange was an integral part of this fabric that developed as a way to safely manage surpluses. Portions of the accursed share were and are given away as gifts to friends and enemies in exchange for symbolic power and prestige and to satisfy the gods in an ingenious cultural logic opaque to the mundane modern gaze.
But modern cultural eyes saw unproductive expenditures as a sin. In modern societies even unproductive sexual acts and unproductive sexuality became outlawed as a measure of the cultural prejudice against the joy of joy for its own sake and non-productive sexual expression. Colonial governments destroyed the tribal gift-exchange economy in order to manufacture a colonised brown consciousness capable of being harnessed to the yoke of disenchanted modern economic production for the principle benefit of the metropolitan homeland.
And the cultural roots of growth as the assumed unquestioned principle of economic nature run so deep that a massive global population now blindly marches toward self-annihilation. Driven by an unsustainable system of finance, governments are elected over and over to give unconstrained license to banks to manufacture almost unlimited wealth for themselves. The banks do this by over-leveraging our deposits to create fountains of loans and market them as the false means to have what we cannot afford. All of these loans are subject to interest payments that now require us to grow the whole economy by the interest rate every year to avoid collapsing the financial system – all on a finite planet that is not growing by the interest rate.
The global ecological and financial crisis is merely the global signature of institutionalised greed and ignorance writ large. Selfishness has always been in human societies but modernity made it sovereign. But an unsustainable economy does not even serve self-interest. To compromise one’s prospect of future survival is hardly self-serving. It is simply stupidity. More effectively serving the self comes with dynamic reciprocity delivered through mutual generosity: between individuals, groups, and the broader system itself. Look after the interests of the broader group or system and the law of reciprocity will kick in and look after the self. It is simply ignorance that assumes that the self is better off if it cheats other individuals, the group or the system.
But where can we turn for the source of the wisdom of generosity? A theory? A culture? Yes they can help but there is a deeper wellspring that trumps all theories and is more accessible and more powerful.
The seeds of selfishness lie in language itself because language creates the illusion of the separate self by naming the illusion as “me” and naming the complementary illusion “other”. This is because all language names things that are separate from other things. To understand what we mean by “tree” we need to understand what a “tree” is not – otherwise we say “look at the tree” and the person does not know where to look. When we explore the “tree” we soon discover that it cannot be separated from the non-tree. Without “water”, “sunlight”, “minerals”, “pollinators”, “soil”, “oxygen”, “carbon dioxide” and countless other non-tree elements the “tree” cannot exist. There is no actual boundary between the real tree and its other.
The world is an interconnected whole that cannot be torn apart in the way that language (any language) demands. Many cultures understood this, which is why they have poetic languages, and myths of origin that point to the creation of the world through the separation of opposites. For one example: first a void, then the act of speech separated light from darkness, and so the world (the collection of things we name) is created. These myths of origin tell us far more about language and how meaning comes into being than about anything physical. Mystical and mythical interpretations of such myths recognise this and benefit from it, but literal interpretations miss the point entirely. And scientistic sceptics (like Wagner in Faust) wear their own ignorance on their sleaves when they attack such myths and the traditions and moral compasses that are enriched by them.
The source of our wellspring of wisdom and generosity is our own body and its experience. So rather than search for the solution in this culture or that theory, we can instead repeatedly reawaken to the wisdom of the body and the senses that always dwell beyond the reach of language in the immaculate “silence” of the interconnected world itself – a domain without boundaries at all, and thus free from the ground of the separate self – a domain that cannot be named or known but is ceaselessly experienced and is always ready to hand. We hear that sound freely, and without language there is no “listener” and no “bird” – there is just sound, and the interconnected world experiencing itself right here.
Already bathed in this void the experience of self grows to include “bird”, “wind”, “mountain”, “river”, “that man”, “that woman” – all things that language calls “other” are no longer experienced as other. And from this wellspring we can recognise our modern global folly more easily because we are not so easily blinded by stories and distractions that defy our actual experience of what we call pollution, habitat destruction, conflict, poverty and suffering.
We bear witness to this experience freely and without reservation because we are just being true to our experience, which is our self-nature, our authentic human-nature. And from this we are inspired to do something about the suffering we witness because we identify with those who suffer and sense that they are not “other.” And we are compelled to give to those who suffer because acts of gift-giving are merely a distribution of resources from one part of our self-nature to another, that when exchanged makes our self-nature happier. And the experience of this happiness is a driver of more compassionate action because it escalates the experience of joy (which is just nature telling us that we are getting it right), because to fully live is joyful. And here the greatest good is also the highest happiness in a celebration of existence that is simply loyal to the interconnected world that we are.
And with the relentless outpouring of giving and receiving of gifts we restore the balance of nature that is a balance because of the relentless giving and receiving of gifts through all living systems. Here even biological competition can be seen in the broader frame of the vastly bigger force of cooperation – even the cooperation between predator and prey as mutually dependent, ever-changing populations, individuals, and genes.
The opposite of greed is generosity. The opposite of control is freedom. And true freedom is unbounded and delivered through the great gift of giving up control and allowing creativity to unfurl. We can practice the gift of giving up control by giving up the urge to name everything and in so doing allow our unfettered experiences to flourish. Here we relinquish the desire to control our experiences by naming them. Instead we simply experience fully and freely in the ever-present free-fall of boundless existence. At the heart of this performance we are at ease – when we accept free fall as the normal condition of our existence as we meander with the flow of our self-nature.
Perhaps it has merely taken us this long in our evolutionary development to see the full effects of the tool of language used without moderation, and awaken to the realisation that this tool works best when regularly returned to its box. We discover that the rose without any name smells the sweetest of all. And so we have the chance to mature as linguists because after a million years or so, the novelty of language has finally worn off. This allows us to more freely choose a moral path – not because we are driven by fear or guilt but because of the joy it brings when we do it.
On those occasions when we are unencumbered by naming, we need no beginning and no end and instead dwell in the eternal now – eternal not because of duration but a quality of experience that we can gesture towards in the form of poetry and art. And then we can re-awaken to our enchanted and mysterious life, and rest from the urge to explain and instead joyfully perform our life as a compassionate quest, simply because we cannot stem the enthusiasm for caring that overflows in all directions and in no direction at all.
Each epiphany is a peak experience, and we revel in its ecstasy for a while and then find a path down each mountain and walk each piece of new-found wisdom into our daily lives, only to discover that the path down each mountain is just as challenging as the path up. But we are ready for challenges because no journey is a rich adventure without them.
And we are grateful for our errors because they are ceaseless gifts we give and receive as playful opportunities to learn and grow inside. And we learn and grow without relent. And we live our lives as a fabulous enchanted journey scaling peaks and wading rivers and all the while overflowing with gratitude for the privilege and the blessing of being born into every moment as this.
* * *
She found herself alone, sitting at the kitchen table, shivering slightly in the night air. The party had long since finished and everyone was either asleep or had gone home. Lights were still on in the living room, hallway, bathroom and the porch outside. She gathered up her collection of papers, put them in her shoulder bag and then walked through the house turning the lights off. The per clunk of the front door as she pulled it closed reminded her of her grandparent’s house, which also had a front door with scalloped glass panes framed with white painted wood. She strode down the path to the gate with a lightness in her step in the still night air. Turning into the street she looked up past the flickering streetlight at the pre-dawn sky and smiled at the morning stars.
For other Happyzine posts by Sean Weaver, just type: ‘Ekodo’ in the search field at top right of this page to locate his collection of Happyzine articles. ‘Ekodo’ turns environmentalism into a martial art and is the name of a training programme for sharply compassionate environmental practice that Sean leads with his wife Jo. Sean is a forest conservation consultant through his company ‘Carbon Partnership’. He and Jo live in Golden Bay with their two young boys.