by Geoff Olson
• In a scene from the 1999 film, The Matrix, a mysterious figure in shades confronts the main character, Neo.
“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad,” Morpheus quietly says to Neo.
Anyone who’s gone through personal loss, poor health or grief is not unfamiliar with this sense of dislocation. And we all get an inkling of Neo’s existential nausea while browsing the media’s daily disaster feed. At times, it seems this whole show has been poorly scripted, miscast, weirdly directed and badly produced.
Suffering is inseparable from existence – that’s the first “No Bull Truth.” But why so much of it? Even Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins expressed puzzlement over this in a recent Guardian Weekly interview:
“From a Darwinian perspective, it is clear what pain is doing. It’s a warning: ‘Don’t do that again.’ If you burn yourself, you’re never going to pick up a live coal again. But you might think a little red flag in the brain would be enough to do that. Why does pain have to be so damned painful?”
For centuries, scientists, philosophers, artists, musicians and writers have expended a supertanker’s worth of ink and art materials to examine the mystery of life’s joys and sufferings – or at least supply us with enough beauty to make the crib-to-coffin effort seem worthwhile.
As the hippies insisted, there are both good and bad vibes. Some vibes can irritate or hurt, like the sound of a jet engine at close range or fingernails against a blackboard. Others can kill, like gamma rays and earthquakes. Some vibes thrill, like the rhythmic excitation of nerves at the skin’s surface during sex or a passage of beautiful music that raises goosebumps.
Like all multicellular organisms, humans are comprised of sets of vibrations, nested like Russian dolls. At the bottom level are the particle/waves of the subatomic world, which weave together the atoms of carbon, oxygen and other elements in our bodies. These elements, the dust of long-dead stars, are joined up by electrochemical bonds into long-chain molecules that compose the mitochondria and other organelles inside cells that chime like tiny clocks to circadian rhythms.
People age and die, hemlines rise and fall, empires emerge and vanish, all according to the constructive/destructive interference patterns of psyche, soma and society, which interact with the cycles of the planet itself: oceanic decadal periods, ice ages and the precession of the equinoxes. The whole biospheric/civilizational shebang, from anaerobic bacteria to antiballistic missiles, is vibrating in a profoundly complicated way, like the strangest music you’ve never heard.
Who can possibly make complete sense of this ancient song of creation, occasionally harmonic but often dissonant? There are plenty of authors on my bookshelves with answers. Needless to say, they aren’t in total agreement on the score or how to rework the arrangements.
Some of the authors blame today’s global disharmony on the fossil fuel economy, which threatens the environment and generates endless resource wars. Others connect this with the attacks of 9/11, arguing they were state-inflicted wounds meant to accelerate the military-industrial-security complex and prosecute a war on terror that “may not end in our lifetime,” in the perverse words of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Some authors go back to the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney revolution, with its enthusiastic savaging of the public sector and the alphabet soup of trade agreements – NAFTA, FTAA, FIPPA, etc. – that have allowed transnational monopolies to dominate global markets and governments through predatory capitalism. For others, the 1963 assassination of JFK was the true moment when the empire crossed the Rubicon. For his part, novelist Gore Vidal traced the rot back to the signing of the National Security Act in 1947. Or was it the classified and compartmentalized Manhattan Project, which successfully married covert spookery to publicly-funded scientific research so Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be lit up with an atomic torch in 1945?
For Albert Einstein, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe,” words that have taken on even greater power in the age of Fukushima.
Author William G. Griffith insists the American fall from grace began with the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1913 and its funny-money fiat currency. Some thinkers extend this argument, insisting the world has been dominated for centuries by bankers who profit from the debt generated by endless wars and conflicts.
Or is it capitalism itself that’s the problem? “Everything solid melts into air,” wrote German economic historian Karl Marx of capitalism’s immense power to transform, which modern economists now happily describe as “creative destruction.”
The late historian and urbanist Lewis Mumford targeted civilization itself, especially the institution of divine kingship and the introduction of holy war. And according to eco-primitivist activist Derrick Jensen, civilization is not only inseparable from war, it is war. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and writer Riane Eisler see it somewhat differently: the 5,000 year-old dominator culture of patriarchal societies conquered and erased the supposedly peaceful, matriarchal cultures of the Mediterranean.
US policy analyst and radio host Andrew Bard Shmookler offers a sobering rejoinder, insisting tribal animosities and violence go beyond gender. The heavily barricaded, heavily armed city-states of the ancient Near East may have arisen under the banner of patriarchal invaders, but they were driven by necessity by that Malthusian curse: the conflicting trends of growing population and fixed resources.
Anthropologist David Graeber insists debt, war and slavery have been inextricably bound together since the beginning of civilization. In fact, minted currency had its origins in war-making and the slave trade, he argues. Going even further back, anthropologist Jared Diamond describes the invention of agriculture as the “worst mistake of all human history” because it meant the stockpiling of food resources, leading to all of the above.
“Recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered,” Diamond wrote in Discover magazine.
If that’s not sobering enough, a Homo sapiens is a “biological freak, the result of some remarkable mistake in the evolutionary process,” according to the late novelist and thinker Arthur Koestler, who drew on the work of Canadian neuroscientist Paul MacLean. In this theory, the last ice age shaped our species’ cerebral cortex into a maladaptive monster. Our thoughts and feelings are perpetually out of synch in this quickly evolved kludge, leading to religious mania, brutality, perversion and all manner of collective delusions, Koestler insisted.
So let’s sum things up here. Hairless primates expand their territories, leading to conflict with others of their own kind and an escalating arms race in stone, bronze, iron and steel – along with the closely aligned forces of debt, slavery and war. They smash open the atomic nucleus like a clamshell and fashion nuclear weapons out of the pieces while consuming what remains of the Earth’s resources like there’s no tomorrow. Good times.
If you prefer, there are alternative explanations offered by the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and other holy books. I understand the appeal of believing all life’s answers can be found in one volume; it sure cuts down on shelf space. But if you’re not big on answers from organized religion, how far back would you like to go to figure out where things went wrong – back to the origin of life, perhaps?
“Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating,” mythologist Joseph Campbell told journalist Bill Moyers in a 1988 interview. “But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been.”
Zorba the Greek put it more succinctly in a novel of the same name: “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
And if Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis has not given you a satisfactory answer, you can always blame the quantum-scale hiccup that supposedly created the whole damn cosmos. Billions of years ago, a perfectly symmetrical state collapsed into the “broken symmetry” of the Big Bang, say cosmologists. The operative world here is “broken.” Duality itself was birthed in the fires of creation and the phenomenal could not exist without imperfection.
Yet the “candle must be worth the flame,” as philosopher Alan Watts once observed. To believe otherwise – that the universe should never have bothered to exist – seems a cosmically perverse position to hold. It’s certainly a bad idea to share on a date. (Much better to quote Canadian poet Leonard Cohen’s line about there being “a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”)
Life’s little pleasures, passing ecstasies and rewarding challenges somehow trump all the chaos and pain written into the cosmic charter. With that in mind, a number of authors on my shelves endorse the idea of looking within as much as looking without. “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself; if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have is that of your own self-transformation,” said Taoist thinker Lao Tzu in 6th century, BC.
But as Vancouver-based author Stephen Gray observed in a public talk, “No matter how much inner work we do ourselves, if we don’t speak up about the egregious behaviour that’s dominating the planet on the external level, then it won’t matter what we do on the inner level.
“The inner work is a kind of a grounding, otherwise we just recreate the same cycles again… but then it has to step beyond that, particularly right now… without creating enemies or the Other,” said the author of Returning to Sacred World.
As conscious beings, are we able to awaken in time to which vibrations/cycles serve the greatest number for the greatest good? Or are “good” and “bad” forever stuck together like back to front or light and dark? All the wise words I’ve come across in my brief existence seem to offer a patchwork of clues, but no master key. If there is one it’s probably found elsewhere: in the stars, down the rabbit hole or as near as my next breath.
This article represents part four of the “Vibes” series.
image © Agsandrew