One of the blessings of living in the “Age of Information” is having almost all of the world’s cultures (their ways of thinking, living, and expertise) available to us “second-hand.” Through audio, video, and text formats we journey, vicariously, to the far reaches of the Earth and see what is to be seen there; to the canyons of northern Mexico; the mountains of Tibet; the polis of Ancient Greece.
Wherever we go, we find that in these autonomous “spheres” of culture, humans have cultivated special knowledges that may be relatively unknown in the other spheres. For example, in his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall uncovers the secrets of the Tarahumara, who have hid themselves well in the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico–a culture centered on running as a ritualized sport, supporting a healthy community on many different levels. Building the culture around running has resulted in the Tarahumara attaining seemingly superhuman levels of physical fitness and achievement. They can run literally hundreds of miles in the desert heat, and it’s not a “big deal” for them. It’s just what they do all the time.
And yet, in the West, many of us bemoan running even a few miles consecutively. What’s more, we are, as McDougall points out, plagued by an endless list of problems related to physical health that are basically unknown to the Tarahumara running culture. So do we have something to learn from them?–obvious, isn’t it?
Take another example: the Tibetans. Tibet has a rich history of spirituality and meditative tradition that goes back thousands of years. In his audio course, Mahamudra for the Modern World, Reggie Ray presents the idea that in Tibet were perfected some practices of meditation originating with the Buddha’s teaching, collectively called the Mahamudra (“innermost heart of the Dharma,” says Ray). These techniques are a unique and powerful way to get in touch with, and unlock the powers of, our own inner capacities not only for presence and open-heartedness, but for a deep sense of peace, joy, love, and overall well-being–a sense of being ‘at home’ on the Earth and in a relationship of gratitude with the flow of life. An embodiment of this (and case in point) is the Dalai Lama.
And yet, once again, that kind of deep awareness, presence, and love is uncommon among Westerners. While the ‘mindfulness movement’ gains momentum, the underlying psychology in Western countries, from a mindful point of view, is the same as it has been: rushing, business, distractedness, self-absorption, image-obsession, etc., etc. It is often reported that people struggle to sit still for a few minutes at a time, doing nothing, or are perturbed by just being in silence. This is no one’s fault, and there’s not even anything wrong with this (and certainly not anything wrong with the people who have experienced this). It’s just an example of how different the Western psyche is from the psyche of some of the Tibetan population, with respect to mindfulness.
Well, what do we in the West have going for us that these other cultures don’t? Perhaps many things, but an external observer would have to say, if they were to get to the core of ‘Western excellence,’ that it involves our intellect, imagination, and mind-based creativity. It has to do with technology, art, literature, science, philosophy; critical analysis in general–all of these, and everything that stems from them.
It’s really our capacity to see things in different ways and create whole new paradigms, theories, and artistic expressions that is our great virtue, and simultaneously, our hubris. As Alan Watts pointed out in his lectures and writings, the concentration of our (Western) consciousness in the “head-space” (from which all these good things derive) leads us to feel separate from the world and to use our knowledge to try and control it.
Nevertheless, the mind-based creativities or expressions are, indeed, our unique expression of human flourishing–granted that, nowadays, countries like China and Japan, in the East, are also excelling technologically and scientifically in a way that exceeds their Western counterparts. Even still, one would have to admit of something special being expressed in, say, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings; a Beethoven symphony; the philosophy of Immanuel Kant; the scientific theories of Stephen Hawking. Call it ‘the crystallization of Western creative potential,’ or something less fancy; call it what you will. But the point is it’s real and it’s something that originates within the Western mind.
So we could carve up a philosophical picture that makes these observations: first, Western culture exhibits head-based brilliance, but other cultures have cultivated knowledges that ‘give life to’ physical vitality and spiritual awakening; second, our Western struggles pertaining to health on the physical, mental, and emotional levels are directly related to overlooking what these cultures have learned.
People have observed this before, but too often we may see ourselves, in the West, as fundamentally different from, say, the Tarahumara or Tibetans. The truth is that while our minds have been trained in a way that conforms to the people around us, on the genetic and spiritual levels there’s no fundamental difference between us. This basic unity provides a foundation for McDougall’s point that what the Tarahumara have achieved in physical health is available to us, too; we are born to run. Add to that Ray’s observations in Mahamudra that, actually, Westerners are, in some ways, perhaps better able to undergo the meditation training of the Mahamudra than people who have grown up in that culture.
So we don’t have to land on the almost self-chastising remark that “we ought to learn something from them!” “We” do have something to learn from “them,” but that really begins with the awareness that “we” and “they” are truly US, and they have something to learn from our culture as well. By trading knowledges and joyfully sharing what each culture has cultivated in their autonomous spheres, we create a Global Consciousness in which we gather and apply the secrets that allow for the actualization of human potential on all levels; true human flourishing.
And because this Global Consciousness includes the self-awareness of the meditative and spiritual traditions of the East, it does not lead to the vain glorification of separate egos, but rather the celebration and community-based support of what humans can accomplish when they come together. We actually ascend to higher levels of consciousness, well-being and creativity when we are genuinely seeking to help others ascend as well, not when we are bent on self-improvement alone. “Everyone together”–that’s the way!