Gandhi once said that the seeker after truth should be humbler than dust. Considering that we are made from cosmic dust, and that after our bodies are done living we return to dust, humans are well suited for humility. We believe that when we adopt a humble mindset, we become more open to receiving wisdom. When we are more compassionate toward that which we do not understand, we believe we also become better equipped at finding our way toward truth.
Even the composition of everything around us remains mostly a mystery. The universe is comprised of 5% observable energy + matter and 95% unknown dark energy + matter.
NASA explains that 95% of what’s in the universe is unknown.16 This whopping percentage is the sum of two-thirds dark energy and one-third dark matter.
No human knows where dark energy comes from, or what it is exactly, yet scientists recognize that this energy is responsible for the universe expanding. Dark matter is currently unexplainable. What scientists have observed, however, is the gravity of dark matter. Whatever this strange stuff is, the effect of its gravity is seen by how it pulls on light matter like stars and galaxies. The only reason we know dark matter exists is because stars and galaxies move in relation to this gravitational influence. Yet, dark matter is different than a black hole. In fact, it defies any description beyond being dark. No one has come up with a clearer understanding of the phenomenon and so we’ll have to settle for being a bit clueless as to dark matter’s exact properties for the time being.
This state of puzzlement is completely okay because changing degrees of knowledge about our surroundings is a quality that is naturally baked into our scientific principles. Fundamental to all scientific theories is the knowledge that someday they will be supplanted. Current theories allow us to make reasonably accurate claims about the world and the future, but there is always room for greater understanding. The scientific method has granted us a peek into the true nature of reality. There are incalculable mysteries to uncover. Perhaps some mysteries are conceptually impossible for humans to ever truly understand. Yet, this limitation is no reason
to be disheartened. There’s a great deal of value in the awareness of one’s own ignorance.
Plato recounted his teacher Socrates saying, “I neither know nor think that I know.” In our modern era, this statement has been adapted to, “I know that I know nothing.” In the interest of humility, we are well served to remember how little is still known about areas of research like Earth’s oceans, human brains, and the nature of matter itself. It’s no wonder that we still have much to learn about the complexities and implications of consciousness. To become aware of our own limitations and ignorance is to pause before the beautifully complex composition of life and to marvel at incomprehensible wonders.
In confronting how little we know, we can create greater space to learn. We gain knowledge when we get out of our own way and work together. We also benefit when we are more considerate of the countless other species living on this planet.
Most of the designs made by humans place humans at the center of importance. This act of hubris can cause considerable harm. To help correct this design flaw, we can learn to
implement xeno-design—or the concept of design with awareness of the other in mind. In this way, we can drastically improve the human-centered systems designed at the expense of workers’ wellbeing, and responsible for wasting untold resources. Through xeno-design practices, we can outline a means of making space for all that exists, thus coming into greater overall balance with the rest of life on Earth.
Professor john a. powell (who directs UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and who intentionally spells his name in all lower-case to emphasize that one does not take power over another) explains how humans evolve along essential needs to make meaning and belong. The main challenge to belonging occurs through four main areas of separation: from the divine, from nature, from each other, and from oneself. In countering the destructive effects that come from these areas of separation, powell describes how science and spirituality each strengthen a narrative about bridging divides between people and with nature. Pursuing practices that prioritize belonging within communities big and small, will have a tremendously positive impact on the systems that humans design in the future. Human-made systems, like government or economy, must also respect, and account for, the many different experiences a diverse population of people will have throughout life. In other words, the more we acknowledge the commonality of how each of us occupies a subjective reality, the better we can become at creating opportunities for people to feel a sense of belonging in society’s collective reality.
When people struggle to have their basic needs met—like not having access to food, shelter, or hygiene—life takes on a disproportionate degree of suffering. Yet, when these challenges are overcome, and when no injustice is inflicted, there is an abundance of joy to be experienced. The vibrational frequency of bliss is ever present, and can be accessed when the appropriate conditions for thriving life are established. Inspiration and positive vibrations are continuously coursing through a vast array of matter. There, in that groove of goodness, is where we want to focus. There is where we want to grow. There, where the heart, mind, and body synthesize through love, is where we intend to work, improve, and innovate.
Perception shapes experience as much as experience shapes perception. Perception is also subjective and prone to miscues. While we are limited by the lens through which we look, we can also expand our worldview from seeing ourselves in relation to all else that exists.
“In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.”
— cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter
The theory of “predictive processing” describes how half of what we call reality is generated from entirely within our own heads.17 Our expectations are based on what we’ve been taught, told, and trained. Because of this inherent bias, we are going to misperceive and miscommunicate with others. To improve as people, we need to figure out how to let go of our inherent biases and become less prone to self-deception
We can start by acknowledging that our brains hallucinate our perception of reality. We layer our realities and combine them into social agreements, forming a generalized consensus reality.
“If hallucination is a kind of uncontrolled perception, then perception right here and right now is also a kind of hallucination, but a controlled hallucination in which the brain’s predictions are being reined in by sensory information from the world. In fact, we’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.”
— Anil Seth
Neuroscientist Anil Seth continues to explain, “We don’t just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in.” That’s because our perceptual predictions (what our brain expects to see based on repetitive experiences) work in concert with the oncoming input we receive to shape what we perceive as reality.
Our expectations come from the countless complexities comprised by everything affecting our nature and nurturing throughout our individual, and multi-generational, spans of life. It takes a great deal of energy to see beyond that massive set of conditions. Yet, there are ways to move beyond limitations.
Those who practice meditation often speak of sensations transcending physical or temporal boundaries. Heart rates and breath can be controlled to experience different electrical patterns and waves throughout our bodies’ billions of brain neurons and trillions of cells. Or, consider the experiences reported by mediums who describe the reception and channeling of psychic information from a realm out of reach to most…there are possibly many layers of reality being expressed by countless individuals around the globe at every moment. What else might we be missing?
It’s hard to keep track of how much confusion we encounter. There’s a great deal of information we do not properly understand because of our own limits of perception. As well, there’s a constant onslaught of information coming at us that is designed to intentionally deceive us. Whether it’s in the form of foods labeled to divert attention away from harmful ingredients, or “pay-day loans” that disguise their predatory motives, often when we are told one thing, we soon find that the reality we actually experience is quite different. There’s value in exploring that disconnect, in questioning the accuracy of what we’re being offered, or asking ourselves why we feel betrayed. By slowing
down our response, by jettisoning expectation and by following our intuitive curiosity, we can make strides to clear the path toward gaining greater awareness about what we encounter.
Think about the popular perception of how aliens might appear upon arrival, how human or animal they are made to look in sci-fi stories, we are most likely deceiving ourselves. What if, instead of individuated beings like ourselves, an alien species is more akin to tiny particles?
“Suddenly the entire sky seemed to be filled with points of gold. Then it was coming down on us, like fine pollen, like yellow dust. It lay on our roof slopes, it sifted down onto our sidewalks, covered our shirtsleeves and the tops of our cars. We did not know what to make of it.”— Steven Millhauser, The Invasion from Outer Space 18
By becoming more open to a wider array of possibilities for far-out scenarios, as well as more simple day-to-day encounters, we can subvert our own limited perception. Wires get crossed and sometimes perceptions don’t align. Yet, as with any miscommunication, the pain of disconnected perspectives can be remedied by listening more carefully. In this way, we can learn much from our mistaken perceptions and move on with greater knowledge.
Time speeds, lags, drags, blends, and blurs through impermanence. With sophisticated mechanical measurements, we might think we have a handle on time, but this sense of control is another common misconception.
We feel time’s elasticity in our most intense moments: the slow motion of a car crash, the sped-up fury of a panic attack, an action-packed sports play replayed down to the second, contrasted with the forgettable seconds spent staring at the ceiling from the couch.
“Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin…into the future…” — Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like An Eagle”
Time can be measured in clear minutes on our mechanical clocks. But our biological clocks document time very differently. We can chart time a thousand ways and yet it still remains so slippery to perceive. Time seems to move faster as we age, as each moment becomes a smaller fraction of our overall experience.
In the 1988 American television series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, hosted by journalist Bill Moyers, mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us, “Everything in the field of time is dual” and if you “put your mind in the middle” of this duality, you gain access to the eternal. While dualities persist, Campbell relates how, “I know that good and evil are simply temporal apparitions.”19 By this he means we do not need to choose between these polar opposites if we can learn to let go of time. In that free space, so many other possibilities emerge…
When we stop letting time explain who we are and where we are in our lives, we gain a different sense of self. If we count our age in days rather than years—as does author and teacher Peter Russell with his online day counting tool20—we might significantly shift our perception of personal experience.
There are entire groups of people who relate to time much differently than the majority of global society does. In the Amazon, the language of the Amondawa tribe does not have a word for time. Because the Amondawa people do not speak of time, they also do not refer to their ages. Instead, they change their names to reflect different stages of their lives (as one changes by becoming involved in a partnership, or becoming a parent or grandparent) or as they achieve a different status within their community. Without the passage of time being the signature reference for where someone is in their life, one’s identity instead becomes a reflection of the relationships they experience.21 Imagine living just one day without being concerned by the time indicated on a clock but, instead, following the natural rhythms of the sun in the sky to guide your own rhythm of waking, working, eating, and sleeping. In contemporary society, we most likely do not have the support system of an entire tribe to give shape to our schedules without the introduction of time. Yet, we can still gain insights by relying less on time to tell us when to perform certain acts, or even who we are meant to be.
The influence of time can easily permeate our experience of life. In Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, German psychologist Marc Wittmann explores different dimensions of time and the concept of how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes our emotions and sense of self. Wittman’s book highlights how when we pay such close attention to time in order to feel like we are in control of the different phases of our days, then our days—through detailed schedules and calendars—become reflections of time. In other words, the more that we account for time in giving shape and meaning to our lives, the more that our lives become an expression of time itself. 22 In this sense, human perception and the measurement of time are bound to one another.
If we can let go of time as a key reference for how we organize our days and how we catalog our memories, then time will cease to be such an important indicator of our identities.
In the absence of an authoritative sense of time, we are able to experience ourselves nonlinearly, and with more expansiveness. We come to sense the varied flows of time. And, with this practice, our self-perception can become more of an evolving process in a constant state of redefinition. We can then begin to regard events and experiences in our lives as integrated, corresponding elements rather than fixed, static moments. With these new processes in play we can work toward a better understanding of more etherial phenomena, like how one singular smile can pass between strangers or throughout generations of a family.
Humans will not be the saviors of our planet. That’s not our role, because that’s not any one species’ task. Humans are not in charge of the planet, we are a part of the planet.
Our responsibility as a species is to return to our rightful place within our environment. While our role might not be to save the entire planet, we can certainly save ourselves from the constant destruction that is waged through forces of greed and fear. Untold advantages will occur as a result. Through our miraculous technological capacity and compassionate care, humans can make a tremendously uplifting impact on the overall health of our world.
“Humans are legitimately the measure of all ethical questions — these are our issues, not nature’s.”
— Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould
Human ecology is a multidisciplinary field of study that examines the relationships between humans and our natural, social, and built environments. By considering the various, multifaceted sociological, economic, and environmental circumstances we’ve created and the relationships between them, we can gain a more dimensional awareness of the many ways in which our thoughts and actions matter.
A shift in human priorities toward collective harmony will have beneficial consequences for other species as well. Making human relationships more robust will have huge implications for humanity’s overall relationship with the planet. If we can shift our spending habits and let go of our reliance on fossil fuels, we’ll also be helping Earth. Yet, we should not fool ourselves into thinking our actions are all too important, or even irreplaceable.
As the release of carbon dioxide and methane gas from increased human activity continues to raise the average temperatures around the globe, we will have to learn to cope in ways that we never have before if we want to protect against our extinction. Yet, even if we fail, Earth will continue to live long after humans become an after-thought, just as Earth’s existence extended long before humans ever arrived.
Even Earth itself has its own expiration date. Our planet has the luxury of life-sustaining solar power for another six billion years, at which point the sun will run out of gas. Yet, six billion years is a considerable amount of time to enjoy life on Earth and see human evolution express its tremendous potential. Humans won the evolutionary lottery with the complex network of neurons and cells that constitute the human form.
Our planet contains an incredible record of evolutionary innovation. By looking closely at the intense proliferation of multi-celled organisms that occurred during the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago, we can witness a history of spectacular evolution. As life maintains the opportunity to thrive on this planet, what might the capabilities of consciousness have in store for our collective future?
Despite this miraculous chance that life has bestowed upon our species, human activity—and specifically the activity of the most affluent—still produces a great deal of pollution. It is a sad truth of the modern era. We are in an acute moment of disillusionment in our society. It has become all too common to lose the desire for a deeper understanding of one’s purpose in this universe. Many people are feeling increasingly bereft of direction. This lack of meaning manifests in all sorts of hazardous ways. Vulnerable people fall into extremist ideologies often out of a search for purpose. A certain darkness has descended upon humanity courtesy of all the exploitive technologies and business models that keep markets humming. We need to strive harder to turn back toward the light of positive activism and optimistic belief. Our ability to act upon positive ideas that connect us to each other and the natural world is what will make the greatest difference in establishing a positive future.
- The Power of Humility
- Healthy Habits
- Environmental Actors
- Economic Priorities
- Lessons Ahead