Listening with the heart in the immediacy of music’s presence and its melodious flow [“A Fine Frenzy” & “Sigur RÃ³s” while writing this blog post], every question is an answer as it dances into being and sometimes also into action. Then, “How to be”, or “What to do”, is not a question but a feeling-focus within the living mystery of awareness. Choices are made intuitively without appearing in the mind’s “I” – right and wrong are not considered.
Yet when we reflect on this and try to embed our behavior within our sense-making at large, what is natural to us needs unpacking and unraveling. At least in communication and collaborative meaning-creation. So let’s have a go.
(In the video: Sigur RÃ³s – GlÃ³sÃ¡li)
Our ethics and mores are those guidelines, the deep symphonic structures as it were, that steer how we are and what we do in our streaming-moment life. Dave Pollard, whom I had an inspiring conversation with the other day, touching on these matters, says, “We do what we must, then we do what is easy and finally what is fun.” I don’t really know if I agree with this sequence as I haven’t been studying it in real life very much, but it seems clear to me that we indeed do what we must, and what we must is most likely determined by our true ethics, the moral that we have – partly in spite of ourselves; which means, well, we do what we must. So really, the ethical powers forcing us to do just that are stronger than our own power of decision, or we’d go for the easy way or for the fun. Most likely.
Maybe what some call instincts are just these powerful ethics… But you don’t think that our instincts are ethical, do you? You would want to reserve ethics for some loftier rules?
Consider this: Ethics is really all about what is right and what is wrong, how to be and what to do. And aren’t instincts just those forces which compel us to do so? Fixed, imprinted action patterns that move us in the right direction? If you believe that instincts are real – which is open to debate afaik – than certainly survival and, consequentially, procreation (which is what instincts are concerned with officially) are right. They, and some luck and whatever else, have helped us to still be around on Mothership Earth.
Ah! You say, “Not every form of survival and certainly not every fashion of procreation is right, and instincts don’t care.” Well, now you force me to disclose that I’m very certain that we’re a bit more free than the theory of instincts allows. I believe that there is some freedom of movement on every level of life; even bacteria moving towards food and away from danger have some degree of freedom in the paths they take… we’ll come back to this later, I think.Right now we’re concerned with human beings, right?
When considering how to be and what to do for you and me, for human beings, it seems our choices and the forces that determine these are based on one of two possible ways to think about what we “must” do and what is right, and consequentially what is wrong. Most of us, even if we don’t do much thinking about this (which I don’t usually), we derive what is really the right thing to do from some transcendent source, a source beyond us – if not divine then similarly lofty, some higher authority. You will see how much you are ‘married’ to this way of thinking when I say that all real ethics emerges from the body, from nature, from what you are as a bodily living, breathing being. And to derive what is right, good, beautiful, true from some transcendent or disembodied source is, frankly, part of the the disaster that is upon us ecologically, economically and also socially. [So now how do you feel, what do you think?]
What we are and what we do is part of a larger context. I’ve been contemplating the folk wisdom “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” In my last blog entry I expanded this to a more specific, “A living whole is exponentially more than the sum of its members.” And since we are members of a larger whole, a society, we should expand it even more to “A living field whole is incomparably more than the sum of its wholes”.
Living wholes determine what is right, good and beautiful, or to use Dave’s terms, what we must, what is easy and what is fun, for all its parts and members. So clearly, our society and the groups we belong to – families, clans, other groups – have very particular “ideas” about that. I put “ideas” in parenthesis here because these are often not obvious or conscious to a family’s or group’s members. They might even deny that they have these ideas – to them, when pointed out, they would be simply part of reality, like the air we breathe. But we can know them as ideas nevertheless, these forces constellating a living field.
A group’s ethics is sensed immediately by all its members. When you deviate you feel uncomfortable and when you go against it you feel very uncomfortable. (Not that we necessarily feel comfortable with what we must do or be, but that is a different. We do what we must if we want to belong for longer, because if we don’t we risk being cast out, which is much more uncomfortable than any discomfort we might presently be experiencing by being who we have to be and doing what we must.) Our conscience is really the a ‘proximo-meter’, the instrument that by the strength of certain feelings tells us the degree of belonging to our group. Conscience, far from being a transcendent or divinely given something, is a finely tuned sense of the super-social animal we are. What, for instance, instantly causes a bad conscience in your family might not even activate in your chosen group of heart-friends…
The result of our historical cultural development so far has, despite everything I’ve so far suggested, led to the situation that transcendent ‘laws’ that tell us what we should do are part and parcel of every groups ethics. These moral rules have usually been created by some greater authority, traditionally by a religious entity through the mouth of its prophets and/or mystics. This can be a deity, several deities or more recently in history also some lofty concepts brought to that group or society by scientists, philosophers or other experts on transcendent content (Jesus, Mother Kali, Immanuel Kant, Ken Wilber, Albert Einstein, to name a few). You know these are transcendent ideas when you can easily get away with paying lip-service; actually often, if you really practice them and put them into real-world behavior you get into trouble and become really uncomfortable as you are pushed towards the perimeter of the group and are threatened to be cast out.
Real ethics are always embodied ethics, they express in how the whole is and what the whole does in everyday life, transcendent ethics are disembodied and lip-served only. Real ethics are practices, transcendent ethics are mostly theories of what is right and true, their real-world consequences are caused by the debates, the struggle, the fights (and sometimes wars) between their adherents as to which is the right theory and doctrine. Surely, some tenets of transcendent ethics are actually embodied by groups and put to (rigorous at times) practice. But that is, I would venture, because it meshes so well with a previous and prior embodied ethics in the first place.
It seems to me that any whole’s prime directive of its real ethics is connected with its existence and duration, with its sustainability to use a modern word. You’ll only call this egotism if you believe in the economic version of Darwinism; you know, the one that relates all evolution-value to ownership (my genes, my turf), to separate being, to competition for scarce resources and what derives from that. But if you really understand that at the very root every living whole is first of all metabolic, which means that it turns what is outside into ‘building blocks’ of itself and gives away some of itself to the outside, you see that that “egoic Darwinism” is real rubbish (gibberish coming from a elite-group of alpha-males and those that lick up to it).
A whole’s metabolic relationship with its ecology – the whereabouts it is embedded in – means: the whole changes its ecology by being around for a longer time. So the prime directive of a living whole by it’s very nature is not egoic but altruistic: it will ‘want’ to change the ecology such that all others except direct enemies will flourish, simply because then it flourishes also. Any living whole is nourished by other wholes, and in turn it’s feeding other beings that feed other wholes that feed other beings and so on. This is living nature bootstrapping itself towards greater and more diverse wholes by metabolic relationships since a couple of billion years on this Mothership, and I’m sure all over this Cosmos. The thrivability of any living whole is contributing to the thrivability of life as a whole – which, en passant, explains beautifully the richness and diversity and creativity of life…
As strange as it may seems, a real ethics, one that helps you and me, takes its clue from exactly this – from living wholes prime directive, “Keep on thriving”, and from the simple fact that we are metabolic by nature.Consider, for a moment your body. It’s an amazing and large ecology of uncountable collaborating and also symbiotic species. In our intestines countless micro-organisms help break down the food we ingested with their own metabolism; we actually live from their ‘waste’; on our skins countless micro-organisms keeping us covered well with their metabolic acts…
So what is our body’s ethics? How to be this amazing wonder of collaboration between a large number of different cells plus countless micro-critters that live inside and on us, this immense ecology that forms the living whole that is you and me, and what to do?
My guess would be, to let go of the hold of transcendent ideas and disembodied theories us, and helping our friends and neighbors to see them for what they truly are useful for: marvelous playthings and clever tools wherever their use is appropriate. And also to simply be our feeling and take the emotionally intelligent way. In the 21st Century, it seems to me, we are learning to trust the inherent wisdom of whole living beings as intrinsic members of living ecological wholes. We’re letting go into the music of life that reveals its beauty in its flow in time.
Playing it by ear…