I recently overheard a conversation between two people discussing the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), an international research centre near Geneva, which in 1995 had a budget in the region of 500 million pounds sterling contributed by 19 European states including the United Kingdom.
The first speaker asked, 'What is the point of all this expensive high-tech research from the point of view of the man in the street?'
The second speaker replied, 'What is the point of the man in the street?'
This essay is an attempt to answer the latter question, at least partially.
One thing that sages of all ages, races, cultures and religions have continually stressed is the paramount importance of self-knowledge. The Flemish mystic, Jan van Ruysbroek (1293-1381), wrote: "Knowledge of ourselves teaches us whence we come, where we are, and whither we are going". If this rings true for you as a person in the street, then perhaps you will agree that it makes sense for you to spend some time attempting to acquire knowledge of your personal 'point' before you finalise your opinion about, and attitude towards, the activities and expenditures of states and other organisations which you help to support, whether voluntarily or otherwise. At the very least, it is necessary to have some sense of a personal purpose in life as a first point of reference to enable us to decide whether or not we are living economically as individuals.
In this essay, I shall endeavour to express the results of some reflections upon myself as a representative 'man in the street' and indulge in some speculations which I hope will strike a chord or two in other men — and women.
As usual in this series, my reflections and speculations are grounded in the hypothesis that I am essentially a unique manifestation of an immortal Spiritual Being which temporarily "owns" a mortal material body and that my personality results from the interaction of the Spiritual with the material in the varied circumstances in which my body has found itself during this and, quite possibly, in previous incarnations.
I further assume that you and I share the same Spirit, and that we are therefore essentially One. The superficial differences between us arise from the infinitely varied conditions to which we have been exposed because of the relativistic nature of the material world, and from our individual responses to different circumstances. It is our individuality in space-time that makes variety possible.
As I grow older, it strikes me more and more forcibly that Nature's way of exploring its own potential for growth and development is to produce very large numbers of 'living particles' and cast them loose from their 'parents' to 'make their own way in the world'. Rather like the products of the junk mail industry, the vast majority of Nature's particles are expected to end ignominiously in the equivalent of the trash basket without creating any new 'business'. Nevertheless, each particle is marvellously endowed and, given the right conditions, is potentially capable not only of reproducing 'more of the same' but also of 'inventing' new adaptations or creations whether ideological, artistic, utilitarian, or complex. The relative few which survive, adapt, and thrive in an environment hitherto perceived as 'hostile' extend the bounds of possibility for their descendants.
The enormous variety of living species inhabiting the Earth, each wonderfully adapted to survive in its own particular environment, is ample testimony to the overall success of Nature's superficially wasteful strategy. When we become conscious simultaneously of the beauty and magnificence of the whole of Nature and the unremitting painful struggle for survival and growth on the part of the individual representative of each and every species, we gain a valuable perspective on the significance of our own individual lives as potential contributors to an infinitely greater whole.
Whereas the great majority of species seem to have developed as 'specialists' optimised to thrive in a rather limited environment, the species Homo Sapiens (or Man) stands apart from the rest. Of all Earth's creatures, Man is incomparably the most marvellously endowed in respect of mental and psychic potential. Given conscious awareness, he has made the evolutionary leap to reflection and become capable of discerning cause and effect in his interaction with the rest of Nature. He has thus liberated himself from the limitations of dependence on any particular microclimate or way of life, has colonised the entire Earth, and has aspirations to extend his domain to other planets. But we must not overlook the fact that these impressive advances have been purchased at the cost of much toil, pain, grief, determination, struggle, and perseverance on the part of countless individuals in combating climatic discomfort, hunger, thirst, fatigue, disease, and accidental damage as well as the destructive opposition of other, more timid, members of the species. It is not possible to reckon our indebtedness to these, mostly anonymous, heroes and heroines.
Once begun, the speed of this new development in evolution has been phenomenal. The physical body of Man represents countless millennia of evolutionary development, and it reached its present state probably not much more than 100,000 years ago. Since then, it seems that the most significant developments have been attributable to willingness to take physical and psychic pains in the exercise of creative imagination. So I suggest that Man represents a turning point in evolution. In Man, the main thrust of evolution is no longer the adaptation of the physical form but the development of the psyche. The emphasis has shifted from the material to the Spiritual.
You and I are immensely privileged to be individual representatives of a magically creative and enterprising species. We continually compliment ourselves on our wonderful technology, and perhaps we are entitled to take some sort of collective atavistic pride in these achievements. But we should always remember that technology only takes advantage of what we have discovered about some of the marvellous arrangements whereby the material universe is held together, and that the Creation may have many more wonderful secrets yet to be revealed. So are we not obliged as individuals to maintain the struggle to advance, not only in material science and technology but also in the further exploration and development of psychic realms?
If we take that obligation seriously and begin to exercise our exploratory and creative faculties, we quickly find that by opening up new vistas for endeavour, we may also have exposed ourselves to new forms of opposition which must be overcome. Endeavours in the psychic domain encounter opposition of a predominantly psychic nature. We have mastered many techniques which help us cope with the adversities of physical Nature, but we are still 'babes in the wood' when we venture into psychic territory.
For a start, it comes as something of a shock to realise that whereas we are accustomed to thinking of physical nature as being mostly 'out there', the psychic territory we have set out to explore is mostly within ourselves. In coping with physical hardship, we are buoyed up by the companionship of other people like ourselves who share our difficulties and we are often able to band together for mutual help and comfort. But when we 'go within', we find ourselves alone — and may be 'lonely' unless we have grasped at least some of the implications of our essential Oneness with the All. A sense of 'being all alone in the world' gives rise to fear — perhaps the most fundamental form of fear. So the pioneers of psychic exploration must be at least as courageous as their evolutionary ancestors in overcoming both their own fears and organised resistance from psychically timid contemporaries who still cling desperately to the illusion that matter is all that really matters. Hence arise the current obsessions with material comfort, sex, food, drink, drugs and various forms of passive entertainment which serve as distractions from the psychic quest which is simultaneously enticing and terrifying. And hence also, when contingencies rudely break through the distractions, arises the despair that makes individuals succumb to the feeling that they are mere helpless victims of cruel circumstances.
In pursuing the quest for meaning in my life, it helps me to reflect that I am essentially a Spiritual Being endowed with the power to form an intention and take practical steps to realise it. I am free to think what I like, believe what I like, express what I like, and do what I like within the limitations imposed by my physical body. It is only my physical body that is subject to limitation — whether by Natural phenomena such as gravity or constraints imposed by superior physical force exerted by other creatures or combinations. Within such limitations, the only restraints upon my actions are those I impose upon myself, whether out of abject fear or unconscious conformity with prevailing mores or prudent consideration of possibly adverse effects upon myself or others. When I exercise my freedom in action, I must accept the consequences of these actions. In other words, I am personally responsible for whatever I think, believe, express, or do. And I venture to suggest, my dear unknown Reader, that the same is true of you.
This has implications which extend beyond you and me as individuals to the wider context in which we live, move, and have our physical being.
If we define responsibility as 'the power or ability to act appropriately without superior authoritative guidance', it follows that responsibility is a personal quality, not a burden imposed or qualification conferred from without. And it is immediately obvious that some people have more of that ability than others.
Children have to learn to become responsible: indeed, I would suggest that this should be the principal objective of education. For the sake of convenience, it is often assumed that children have become responsible at some arbitrary 'age of maturity' — which, in my lifetime has in the UK been officially reduced from twenty-one to eighteen, and even to sixteen for some purposes. However, I would contend that because different individuals develop at different rates, are exposed to widely different cultural influences, and attain abilities to greater or lesser degrees, chronological age is but a poor guide to responsibility. Indeed, it seems to me that there is an open-ended scale of responsibility along which we can progress as individuals without ever reaching a conclusion. This is just another way of saying that education continues through life — and possibly beyond.
The more mature we are, the less we are inclined to blame other people or circumstances for what we perceive as our misfortunes, and the more we are prepared to recognise the extent to which our own actions have contributed to whatever subsequently happens to us. We increasingly appreciate that it is usually futile to ascribe blame to anyone, even ourselves, and that our apparent misfortunes are always experiences from which we can learn and which contribute to our psychic progress.
When we begin to explore our own psychic potential, we find ourselves confronted with the daunting task of being objective with regard to our own feelings and emotions. If and when we succeed in being honest with ourselves, we still have difficulty in giving adequate expression to our personal truths. We are unable to 'open ourselves up' to other persons because our languages have in the main been designed to express relationships between the sensible objects of the material world. To converse about the intangible inner world, we must either invent a new language or use everyday terms in allegorical (i.e. peculiar) ways, reducing the possibility that other people will understand what we are trying to say. This difficulty increases our sense of loneliness.
For example, I am aware that the word 'psychic', which I use extensively in this essay, conveys to many people the idea of some extraordinary, or paranormal, faculty by which we become aware of things we can't discern with the physical senses. Well, it can mean this; but I am currently using the word in the more general sense which refers to the Spiritual, interior, aspects of humanity including the whole gamut of feelings and emotions.
Fortunately, in Spiritual communication, actions speak louder than words. The kindly glance, the smile, the gentle touch, the fond embrace, can be more eloquent in the service of Love than the most sublime poetry. And I need not stress the significance of the baleful look, the rude gesture, the blow from the fist. Actions such as these are direct and spontaneous translations of Spiritual feelings and emotions into physical terms. But such immediate and spontaneous media of communication are not available at a distance and, to communicate using the Internet, I must struggle to find common words which will at least give some reasonably adequate impression of what I find within myself.
Responsibility is essentially a psychic quality. It relies on development of a sense of values which take cognisance of the interaction between the expansive, creative, cohesive forces of love and the inhibiting, destructive, divisive forces of fear as experienced and interpreted through the exigencies of human life. It is concerned with kindness, hate, cruelty, truth, falsehood, shame, guilt, knowledge, ignorance, selfishness, selflessness, freedom, justice, and any other quality for which there is no concrete linguistic expression. Nevertheless, such qualities are all recognisable among the contents of our conscious awareness, and the process of becoming more responsible necessarily includes becoming more keenly and more constantly aware of the contents of our individual consciousness.
We must also be aware that there is such a thing as 'group consciousness' which results from the collective desires and choices of groups of persons. Such groups are of all types and sizes ranging from unitary families to whole nations and all mankind. Although few of the individuals comprising a group may be fully aware of the extent to which they are influenced by group consciousness, it is pervasive in subtle ways and its members may find themselves carried along with the momentum of the group to such an extent that they are individually reduced to the status of automata. Furthermore, group consciousness is more powerful in its potential for action than individual consciousness because great things can be accomplished by the enthusiastic efforts of many individuals united in a common cause.
The responsible person who wishes to live in harmony with his neighbours and their common environment will therefore seek to create group consciousness in all the circumstances of everyday life. However, no group, as such, can be responsible. Responsibility is a personal quality. The members of a group are therefore jointly and severally responsible for whatever is done in their collective name. For a group to be fully effective, it is essential that its individual members be enthusiastic in its service.
Just think for a moment of all the groups you belong to and consider whether or not your personal consciousness is entirely in harmony with the aims of the group and the means it uses to attain its ends. If you find yourself out of sympathy with the aims or activities of a group, should you not seek to exercise leadership by trying to change its consciousness?
The individual person is the ultimate indivisible quantum in the exercise of responsibility. All human groups are composed of individual persons. Changing the consciousness of a group, large or small, can therefore be accomplished only one person at a time, and large-scale change takes place by influencing one person after another. However, if every person you influence in turn proceeds to influence yet more persons, and so on, wonderful results can flow from your efforts even if you are not always aware of them.
The downside is that the larger a group becomes, the less significant is the influence of the individual member. Any group which has more than, say, fifty members, requires an organisation to make it function consistently as a group. Thereafter, control of the group passes to its officers, and it is vulnerable to being 'taken over' by a dominant single-minded personality who may subvert it to his or her own purposes — particularly as the majority of members are unlikely to share the leader's single-mindedness.
The larger the group, the less likely it is to be motivated exclusively by love and the more likely it is to rely on fear — particularly the fear of being an outcast from the group's society — as a means of control over its members. This explains why true democracy (government of the people by the people for the people) can never be realised in practice except in small groups — certainly comprising no more members than the electorates of the Greek city states in which the the idea was born. In the larger context, the best safeguard of individual freedom is an electoral system that enables the individual members of the electorate to join together to get rid of an unsatisfactory representative or dictatorial leader before he or she has time to do too much damage. It is an unfortunate fact that even this minimal requirement gets increasingly ineffective the bigger the political group becomes, the more remote it is from the individual unit of responsibility, and the more its cohesion depends on mass media communication. But the more individuals are prepared to sacrifice their individuality in exchange for the comfortable sense of belonging to a more powerful group, the more psychic creativity is stifled and Spiritual evolution frustrated. Thus the large, monolithic group is ultimately self-defeating because the Spirit will always assert itself and there will always be a minority of frustrated individuals courageous enough to rebel against group constraints and diktats.
If you feel you cannot change the consciousness of a group which you fear may lead you into having to defend policies or actions which you cannot condone, an alternative course may be to leave it. But parting with a group may require great courage. Would you, for example, find it easy to leave 'secure' employment with an organisation whose trading practices offended your sense of values? Would you be ready to face forcible expulsion from your national society by imprisonment or worse as a consequence of opposing, or refusing to act in accordance with, politically imposed legislation you found unacceptable? The exercise of personal responsibility is not always easy.
If you cannot find a group with whose consciousness you feel 'at home', perhaps you should try to start your own group as a means of extending your influence for what you believe to be good. But be aware that if you are successful, such a creation will sooner or later grow beyond your personal control and may be subverted to uses of which you would not approve. Just think of the atrocities which have been perpetrated as a result of the collective consciousness of large businesses, religious groups, political parties, or even nations.
On the other hand, membership of a congenial established group can not only enable you to live more economically as an individual; it can also be the most effective means of further education in becoming more responsible. I assume that you wish to become more responsible or you would probably not have read thus far. It is a difficult course to follow on your own, and you will benefit tremendously by becoming associated with people who share your aspirations. Many members of an established group will have advanced much further than yourself in achieving a sense of Oneness with the All, and will gladly provide support, encouragement, and valuable pointers to accelerate your progress in the most exciting and rewarding of all adventures.
The acid test to apply to any such group is its commitment to the sanctity of your personal responsibility. It will therefore not oblige you to subscribe to any dogma but will leave you free to decide for yourself whether and to what extent its teachings are true and appropriate for you. The aims of such a group will be primarily educational, and it will not have any religious or political agenda.
A small number of such groups or 'schools' have existed for thousands of years, and there are some at work in the world today. If you are genuinely trying to find a personally satisfying solution to the problem of 'the point of the man in the street', my personal experience suggests that you will sooner or later find whatever help you need.
The world is always in need of a supply of truly responsible people who can be trusted to govern themselves without harming themselves, society, or the Earthly environment. Only such people can effectively combat dictatorship on the one hand and moderate self-destructive licence on the other. If every living individual made a point of putting the cultivation of personal responsibility at the top of his or her agenda, what a wonderful world this could be!