by Charles Eisenstein

The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the convergence of crises that is birthing the transition

The Winners and the Losers


Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. We are like the frog who jumped into a well and, unable to see anything else or remember the vast world beyond, declared himself suzerain of all the universe. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite.

This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment (actually I can think of no better definition of violence than the reduction of life); hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilization for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.

From the weeding of a strawberry bed to the coercion of a child to the elimination of enemies in the name of national security, the cultivation and control of the world inherently requires violence. Violence is a built-in feature of our world-view; it is implicit in our conception of ourselves as separate beings in a universe of discrete others competing for survival; moreover the objectification of other beings, species, people, and the earth itself enables and legitimizes violence toward them. Violence seems not to be violence when it is only a weed, only an animal, only a savage, only an enemy, only a thing. Dehumanization of the victim is a well-known enabling device for torture and genocide, but dehumanization—turning human into object—is just a special case of our off-separation of ourselves from the rest of the world. To the extent that this is an artificial, illusory separation, the root cause of violence becomes clear. It is simply the result of an ignorance of the very deepest kind—that we know not who we are.

Thus it was that the great avatars of peace in human history counseled not more self-control, not an intensification of the effort to be nice, but rather a surrender into our true selves, which are not the separate, discrete selves of present-day science and religion. Buddha was suggesting no less when, asked “What are you?” by people awestruck at his radiance, answered simply, “I am awake.” This is what a human being really is. And Jesus too was saying no less when he spoke of God’s love—not for what we might or could be, but for what we truly are. Moses on the mountaintop asked the divine source, “Who shall I say sent me?” The answer: “I AM”. I am what? Everything and nothing. When you take us apart, that special part of us we call self (soul, spirit, mind, consciousness) is not there. Thus we are nothing. When you separate us from any other part of the universe, we are less. Thus we are everything.

Because our demarcation of self and other is a false one, the violence we commit upon the other is actually committed upon ourselves. Here again we find a warning from some of our most venerable spiritual teachings. The doctrine of karma states that the effects of our actions are inescapable, that what we do to others we do to ourselves. Yet, characteristically, our religious institutions twist it to mean, “Be good or you will be punished.” The Golden Rule works the same way. Since its original meaning, “As you do unto others, so you do unto yourself,” is incoherent nonsense to the dualistic mind, we have perverted it into a rule, a standard of behavior to strive toward. Originally, both the doctrine of karma and the Golden Rule were mere statements of fact based on a different conception of self.

The statement “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, and elsewhere) falls victim to the same dualistic misinterpretation. Instead of a rule, we might construe it as a simple statement of fact: As you love your neighbor, so do you love yourself. Self and neighbor are not actually separate. Jesus was not going around uttering simple moral platitudes. However, as he was speaking to people immersed in the myth of the separate self, it is no wonder that his teachings were immediately misinterpreted and written down in their current form. The prescriptive and proscriptive forms of spiritual teachings—that is, the do’s and don’ts—coincide with the institutional interests of the political powers that coopt all religious movements from the moment of their founders’ deaths, if not before.

The only way the dualistic mind can grapple with the idea of karma or the Golden Rule is to assume the existence of an external Judge, a cosmic referee who weighs one’s actions and metes out the corresponding rewards and punishments. When you and your neighbor are fundamentally separate, then there is no intrinsic reason why what you do unto your neighbor should necessarily come back to affect yourself—especially if you take sufficient precautions. An omniscient God is needed to bring those consequences to you. The idea of God as a separate power external to nature who enforces morality is therefore a crutch for the mind lost in the myth of separateness, a means of understanding the consequences of our treatment of Others. As such the idea of a supernal God might have a salutary effect in the short term, but runs the risk of reinforcing the illusion of separation. That is what has happened in most contemporary Christian churches, which treat humanity’s trashing of the earth as a secular matter, not one of the utmost spiritual urgency.

From the dualistic perspective, what I’ve heard some Christians say, that there can be no morality without a belief in God, is actually true. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”[8] Otherwise, what is to stop me from doing ill to my neighbor, as long as I take enough precautions? In theory, I can get away with it. We can go ahead and clearcut the forests. Maybe the consequences won’t come back to haunt us, and if they do, we can manage them. This leads again to a world under control. We can get away with treating the world as a resource, a thing, an other, as long as we can manage the pragmatic consequences of that—and there is no reason to think we can’t. We can do unto the world whatever we like with impunity, as long as we are clever enough. This all changes with the understanding that self and world, man and nature, are not truly separate. For then there is no escape; then, any effort at control can only postpone the inevitable. The idea of a separate, omniscient, judging, rewarding and punishing God mediates this understanding to the dualistic mind. Unfortunately, the dualistic conception of God invariably leads us to think in terms of pleasing God, obeying God’s rules, seeking to gain divine rewards and avoid divine punishments. It leads us, in other words, right back to the regime of control.

By creating an artificial cleavage between self and other, the dualism that divides the world into two parts severs us from part of ourselves. It leaves us partial beings. To fill up the incompleteness we add more and more to ourselves, more property, more material and spiritual baggage, more ego, more self-importance: an expanding territory of self that seeks to subordinate the whole world by bringing it under control. However, by seeking to own as much of the world as possible, we only exacerbate the alienation from the rest of the universe, whose infinity dwarfs us into insignificance no matter how much we acquire. The interior wound—the loss of our inner connection to nature—is never healed by the accretion of more and more self on the outside.

The root of the world crisis is not inherent selfishness or greed that must be overcome. The solution is not to make do with less, sacrifice our best interests, or impose limits on ourselves. These solutions spring from a mentality of scarcity, and it is precisely the mentality of scarcity (which is implicit in the quantization and propertization of the world that makes the infinite finite) that motivates us to hoard and accumulate, possess and own, keep and guard, fence and control. Consider the opposite mentality: “The good things of the world are abundant. There is plenty for everyone. My needs are abundantly provided. I can have my heart’s desires.” Someone living in such a mindset has no need to own, hoard, or control, because after all, there is plenty. Indigenous hunter-gatherer societies amazed their initial visitors with their guileless, open-handed generosity. As Columbus wrote of the Arawak (before murdering and enslaving them), “They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it… Of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it…”[9] Was an intense acculturation process applied to Arawak children in order to override their inherently greedy, selfish natures and impose the desire to share? I doubt it. Intuitively, we describe their behavior as childish, innocent, or guileless—adjectives that suggest that theirs is the original state of the unspoiled human being. Fully immersed in the reality and the mentality of abundance, sharing came naturally. When “mine” is not a concept, sharing is easy.

Characteristically, some modern anthropologists try to explain away primitive generosity and gift relationships in the terms of economics: costs and benefits to the separate self. Marcel Mauss set the tone in the early 20th century when he tried to analyze gifts as a competitive means to put other under obligation,[10] an idea echoed by modern theorists such as Richard Posner.[11] Both see gift-giving as a means to generate prestige and as a kind of insurance policy in the absence of accumulative mechanisms in primitive societies—if I give you a gift you “owe me one”. While such motives undoubtedly exist, to see them as primary is to project our own cultural biases. Such ideological contortions are necessary to preserve the assumptions upon which they rest—our civilization’s understanding of self and world. From the perspective of the discrete and separate self, altruism simply does not make sense unless some transactional model can reduce it to selfishness in disguise.

Derrick Jensen describes Ruth Benedict’s attempt to categorize cultures into good (life-affirming, non-violent, egalitarian, gentle, friendly, and free from cruelty, harsh punishment, exploitation, jealousy, humiliation, and depression) and bad (violent, aggressive, cruel, warlike, competitive, and hierarchical), and to discover what rule or factor distinguished them.[12] Her conclusion: “The social forms and institutions of nonaggressive cultures positively reinforce acts that benefit the group as a whole while negatively reinforcing acts (and eliminating goals) that harm some members of the group. The social forms of aggressive cultures, on the other hand, reward actions that emphasize individual gain, even or especially when that gain harms others in the community.” So it is not necessary that “mine” not be a concept, only that social forms and institutions discourage the accumulation of mine. Universal mechanisms of sharing, for instance, obviously make the hoarding of possessions irrational.

But before we conclude that we must change our “social forms and institutions,” it would perhaps behoove us to dig a little deeper and ask, “From what basis do these social forms and institutions arise?” While hunter-gatherers indeed had intricate mechanisms to maintain an egalitarian society, these social forms arose naturally out of their sense of self, which was still not so rigidly defined as discrete and separate. Possibly, the objective, outward rules and taboos—Benedict’s “forms and institutions”—only became necessary as the separation of self progressed through the Paleolithic. In any event, we cannot hope to produce, ex nihilo, new social forms of positive and negative reinforcement in the absence of the proper substructure: a broader, more open sense of the self.

We have become confused. Rational self-interest has become the dupe of our culture’s perceptions, so that it is neither rational nor in our interest. Our selfish behavior is only superficially so; actually it conflicts with our true best interests. Chief among such behavior is that which ruthlessly maximizes the perceived benefits of the skin-encapsulated ego. Limiting our destructiveness is not a matter of reining in our natural selfish impulses; it is a matter of understanding who we really are. When we do not know who we are, of course our selfishness cannot benefit our true selves. Hence, the endemic misery in our society among its winners and losers alike.

It would be one thing if, indeed, the world were essentially a competitive arena destined to have winners and losers. We would then be justified in making every effort to be among the winners. The sad truth, though, is that in our society, the winners are among the biggest losers of all. Now, that is a bold statement indeed. Reading it, you may suspect I am deficient in knowledge or compassion. What are the petty troubles of the rich compared to the horrendous suffering of our culture’s victims? What’s a little angst or depression next to starvation, destitution, murder, genocide, tyranny, torture, the smashing of cultures, the looting of ecosystems? Surely I must be oblivious to the true magnitude of the horror.

The litany of our culture’s victims is nearly endless—the indigenous peoples, the poor, the ecosystems that have been sacrificed in the interests of wealth and power—but we could hardly blame the exploiters if the alternative were to be themselves among the victims. Who can blame someone for being good to themselves? If the world is in essence “lunch or become lunch” (as I once saw ecology defined), then we cannot blame someone for striving to be in the former category. In such a world, an appropriate ethical system would have the winners be as nice as possible to the losers, offering safety nets to the poor, remediation to the environment, limits on how big a winner you can be. This, in essence, is political liberalism, which does not question any fundamental assumptions. In addition, saintly individuals and their imitators might cast themselves among the losers on purpose (even though they could be a “winner” if they so deigned), thereby demonstrating just how nice they are, refusing to take more than their share, nobly sacrificing their chance to enjoy the rewards of privilege. Of course, unless you actually are a saint, this self-sacrificial mentality eventually generates resentment at those who decide to enjoy the fruits of being a winner, a resentment often apparent in social and environmental activists. But all of this assumes that the winners really are winners. And that is a deception! Our winners have successfully maximized their “rational self-interest” only to find the promise of secure happiness betrayed.

Do not waste your energy being angry at the rich and powerful. As the Bolsheviks unwittingly demonstrated, nothing much changes even if the rich and powerful are overthrown. Moreover, that anger is in fact counterproductive. Often, the hidden message of activist rhetoric is, “Do not be too good to yourself,” or “You are bad for being good to yourself.” No wonder so many people are turned off. Those who rely on guilt or shame to persuade us to limit our participation in the destruction of the planet and its people are, in a very subtle way, perpetuating some of the deep axioms that drive the destruction in the first place. They are resorting to a form of control, control over an iniquitous human nature. In a subtle way, they reenact and reinforce the same war of conquest that has left the planet in tatters.

Another hidden assumption is that the good life, whether we unabashedly pursue it or nobly sacrifice it, is actually a good life. It is not. We are chasing a mirage. We have been tricked, duped into the aggrandizement of a narrow self that ultimately doesn’t even exist.

The clearest indication of the fraud comes when the program of control (temporarily) succeeds. Even when all the bases are covered, every eventuality anticipated, even at the very pinnacle of health, wealth, and power—even then an enervating ennui creeps into life, starting with the empty crevices, the moments of boredom, and ultimately spreading to engulf the entirety of existence. Initially deniable, perhaps, by intensifying the success, the power, the stimulation, it comes back stronger and stronger until it holds every waking moment in merciless thrall. This is not a new phenomenon, as Lewis Mumford observes:

An Egyptian story . . . reveals the emptiness of a Pharaoh’s life, in which every desire was too easily satisfied, and time hung with unbearable heaviness on his hands. Desperate, he appealed to his counselors for some relief from his boredom; and one of them put forth a classic suggestion: that he fill a boat with thinly veiled, almost naked girls, who would paddle over the water and sing songs for him. For the hour, the Pharaoh’s dreadful tedium, to his great delight, was overcome.”[13]

And in Ecclesiastes we read,

. . . I gathered me also silver and gold, and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I gathered me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, musical instruments, and that of all sorts . . . And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced because of all my labor; and this was my portion from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”

The depredations of our culture in the name of security, ease, and control have created untold misery in this world, and for no good reason. Not only is life at the pinnacle of success infamously devoid of intimacy, community, authenticity, and meaning, but even the security and control to which these have been sacrificed is a sham. For the sake of security we have shut off real living, and in return have received not even security but only a temporary semblance of it.

Imagine how fatuous our attempts at security will seem, when one day the multiple crises engendered by the regime of objectification and control converge to engulf us. How pathetic, how futile are our locks and gates, insurance and investments, résumés and expertise, when the intrusion of a personal calamity puts the lie to our illusion of control. All the more for the collective, global calamities that are already written into our future.

To reverse the tide of destruction that has engulfed our living planet, our society, our communities, and our psyches, it will not be enough to try harder to be nice. Religions have enjoined us to that attempt for thousands of years. It hasn’t worked. Yet, religion and conventional control-based morality concludes that we must try harder yet—we must do even more of what hasn’t worked. If that were the only solution, it would be bad news indeed, and the despair of so many activists would be justified. Even if trying harder succeeded, we would be consigned to an eternity of trying, of struggle. Is peace, sustainability, and goodness, individually or for the world, only possible through unending struggle against ourselves?

This book proposes another way: a shift of consciousness that will expand our sense of self and thereby change our selfishness into a force for healing. The problem is not selfishness, it is that we misconceive the self. We need not expend superhuman efforts to build a tower to the sky. The sky is all around us already.

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[8] This quote is usually attributed to Dostoevsky, but David Cortesi ( contends that these words actually do not appear in The Brothers Karamazov, as commonly attributed. I have seen other versions of this sentence quoted as well. Perhaps it is a matter of translation. In any event, the sentiment is surely there.

[9] This quotation is all over the Internet. I have not bothered to track it down in Columbus’s actual journal, which is typically the source cited.

[10] See Mauss, Marcel, The Gift, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000 (originally published in French in 1925)

[11] Posner, Richard. “A Theory of Primitive Society, With Special Reference to Law”, Journal of Law and Economics, April 1980

[12] Jensen, Derrick, A Language Older than Words, Chelsea Green, 2004. p. 212

[13] Mumford, Lewis, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, Secker & Warburg, 1967. P. 206

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