A spaceman went travelling – a parable

26/11/2013 § 3 Comments

A wandering spaceman one day came across a blue planet. Awestruck with its beauty, she approached and saw how it teemed with life, holding billions of creatures of marvellous beauty and diversity. Filled with joy and delight, she decided to pay a visit.

Landing on earth, she soon encountered creatures called humans, walking around on two legs. These were the most extraordinary creatures she had ever come across. They were beautiful, complex, mysterious, creative, capable of great courage, wisdom, compassion and nobility. Yet equally, she observed, they could be selfish, dull, brutish and capable of great cruelty and wilful ignorance. They had produced great works and yet had fought each other and wantonly destroyed each other and their cultures.

At the time of this visit, there were an awful lot of these humans on the planet and this was causing more than a few problems. The humans simply weren’t very good at sharing. They had got used to dividing up the planet into pieces, staking claims to parts, using up all the resources and then moving on to claim more. In recent times they had become particularly fond of a dark liquid, the remains of ancient sunlight that had been buried deep underground for millions of years. Strangely, it seemed, they weren’t actually eating this (it didn’t appear tasty anyway), Instead they used it to move themselves about rather aimlessly, to make playthings or status symbols that they quickly threw away, to grow food for animals that they then ate (a highly inefficient process, the spaceman observed) and to preserve their bodies at a constant temperature when their bodies were anyway well able to adapt to changes in temperature. All very mysterious, the spaceman thought.

It appeared that in the past there had been humans who had managed to live in harmony with the planet but somewhere along the way the knowledge had been lost. The spaceman was struck by the contrast between the unity of the planet from space, with no boundaries visible, and the numerous social boundaries created by humans on the planet itself.

Being very clever, the humans had invented complex ways to organise themselves. The most complex and impressive were called corporations, which were used to manage the processing of the planet’s resources – the digging up, refining, distributing and converting into (largely useless) items. These corporations also disposed of the waste, burning it or burying it in large holes in the ground. Yet the humans were not so clever are all. They had applied the same principle in the design of these systems as they had when exploiting the planet’s resources – the principle of domination. Some humans, the majority in fact, were viewed as simply more resources, to be processed for the benefit of others, a small and powerful minority. These privileged few, bizarrely, were treated as “owners” of these human systems. The owned were thus, the spaceman noted, robbed of their essential humanity.

By design the corporations served their owners and those who the owners had appointed to run them, their foremen (the so-called “board of directors”). For example, they paid staff as little as possible in order to maximise what was paid to the owners, and they viewed the planet in all its richness as something only fit to be converted into abstract figures known as money. The planet burned for the rich man’s pleasure.

Meanwhile these “owners” were able to deny any responsibility for the actions of their corporate slaves, through a clever device called “limited liability”. Nothing to do with me, they said.

So powerful had these corporations become that they had taken over, in mostly subtle ways, the governments which had been set up to represent the mass of people as a whole.

The spaceman was for some time very critical of these owners and their foreman. How could they behave in this way, she wondered? Yet, looking more closely, the spaceman realised that her initial judgments were erroneous. They were not, she observed, any worse (or better) than other humans. They were not, for the most part, evil or willfully bad. They were simply blind, ignorant, unable to see the big picture – and this applied to the oppressed and to the oppressors alike. Both parts colluded, unknowingly, in maintaining this unfairness, this fundamentally unjust set-up. They all lost out through their inability to see the whole.

The spaceman went to a quiet place and sat for a while, in sadness at the waste she had witnessed. The poisoning of oceans, lakes and rivers, the despoliation of grasslands, pristine forests, the relentless destruction of life. The waste, above all, of human potential.

She touched despair. Could nothing be done to help these remarkable creatures to help themselves, she wondered.

After a while, she got up and created a space. It was a beautiful space, peaceful, calm, inviting. She sat down in the centre and waited. In time, a human came and sat in the space. One by one, others joined her. There came into the space rich and poor, black and white, young and old, tall and short, male and female. Eventually, when the space was filled, the spaceman got up and started to talk.

“Listen” she said “If you can only learn to get on with each other, to share this beautiful planet, then there is more than enough for all of you. And to do that, you need to learn to sit together, to think together, to be together without strife. You need to learn not to judge, yourselves or others. You need to learn to listen to your hearts, to the innocence of your children, to the wisdom of your elders, to the rocks and streams and trees. To the planet.”

The people listened and sat quietly. After a while, one spoke “We’ve heard this all before.” he said. “Some have even tried it. But it doesn’t work.” “We can’t do it.” continued another. “It is our nature to fight, to be greedy, to seek to dominate each other and the planet. We know in the long run it doesn’t serve us but we can’t help it. We can’t change our nature.”

Silence returned for a while. Then an old woman spoke. “It is also our nature to be kind, loving and generous.” she said. Why can’t we simply choose that?”

A child piped up. “My granny is right. Can’t we listen to her? Please!”.

Eventually a tall man spoke, quietly but clearly. “What can we do?” he asked the spaceman.

The spaceman was about to answer and then stopped herself. “You know what”, she said. “I think you have to work that out for yourselves. I think that maybe that is why you are here. You have everything you need to get yourselves out of this mess. You all have the capacity to make a positive difference. Use it. And in doing so, simply in the attempt, you will find riches untold.”

“You live in a world of abundance and beauty, filled with wondrous creatures, of fabulous life in all its forms. If I could give you one gift it would be to see the world through my eyes. Your world is perfect – it is just your vision that is faulty”.

There was nothing more to be said. It was time to go. The spaceman wished the people well and took off, heading back to her home in a distant galaxy. She smiled to herself as she sped home at thousands of times the speed of light. “What a crazy bunch of mixed up people” she thought. “I wonder what will happen to them…”

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§ 3 Responses to A spaceman went travelling – a parable

  • donsalmon says:

    Lovely.

    It sounds a bit like our “magic wand” exercise.

    Back in 1992, Rabbi Michael Lerner and left-wing activist David Levine held a conference, with the aim of developing a “Compassionate Action Network.”

    About 500 people attended. The idea was to bring together the “spiritual” and “political activist” (mostly leftist) communities in the New York area. Generally, the groups (at the time, not quite as much now, given the development of things like “Occupy Spirituality”) held each other in somewhat polite – at times not so polite – contempt.

    It was quite successful, though over the course of several meetings, the spiritual people got quieter and quieter while the political folk got louder and louder. I eventually started a separate group, “the Compassionate Action Network Meditation group” which continued at the New York Open Center for 3 years. Unfortunately – ultimately proving the political activists’ critique – we talked a lot and meditated a lot but never got anything done:>))

    I look back on this project quite fondly and would like to think perhaps something from the CAN effort percolated into the Occupy movement (and maybe even inspired some of the Occupy Spirituality Efforts?)

    But I remember most fondly a conversation I had with a very intense Marxist during the 3rd or 4th meeting of the original CAN.

    We were having a discussion about “Inner” vs “outer” means of bringing about change in the world. I fully agreed that outer action was necessary, but said it had to be on a foundation of inner change.

    To use Patrick’s wonderful story, my point was that as long as we have a “consciousness” of domination, we might get rid of exploitive corporate structures but we might create a “holistic” semi “sustainable” society but the domination-bound consciousness was likely to undo whatever apparent “good” we have created.

    Well he would have none of it. Subjectivity, consciousness, the “inner” world were all illusions – if not delusions – and what we had to do was (he was much more sophisticated than this; I’m putting it in playfully childish language here) “go out and fight the bad guys.’

    I didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere, and we took a brief break from our conversation. During that break, I had an image, and later, I offered it to him.

    This is the version of that image that we put in our book on yoga psychology:

    Imagine you were handed a magic wand. With the first wave of the wand, you could end hunger, provide abundant clothing, shelter, and other material goods for everyone on earth. All political constitutions would be instantly rewritten to allow for both maximum liberty and equality, all laws amended for the greater good, all business and medical institutions reshaped entirely to be a means of service rather than individual gain. In short, all institutions and structures would be completely transformed with one wave of your magic wand. How long would take before the individuals living in such a world would begin to reshape that world according to their own desires – changing the laws, institutions, etc. to serve their own ends, with some amassing material goods at the expense of others?
    Now imagine a different wave of the magic wand. This time, all outer institutions, structures, laws, etc. remain exactly the same. However, even as your hand lifts for this wave of the wand, the hearts of all people begin to be filled with love and compassion, their minds illumined by intuitive wisdom, their vision imbued with the ability to see the Divine Essence in all. How long might it take before such people would spontaneously create a world endowed with beauty, one dedicated to the material well-being and spiritual unfoldment of all beings?

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I was not actually expecting it to have much of an effect on him, but to my amazement, it “stopped him in his tracks” – he got it. He was very quiet and thoughtful, and basically concluded by saying he would think long and hard about it.

    Finally, here is the commentary on this thought-experiment that we have in our book (by the way, you’ll notice this is a very different way of approaching an integral perspective from that of Wilber – as it takes Spirit or “the Divine” as the fundamental background and source of everything; for more, see http://www.ipi.org.in)

    If we take inner change to be fundamental, then efforts toward implementing external change can be seen from a deeper perspective. We can still work for the equitable provision of material goods, just laws and political institutions. At the same time, however, we can recognize that the purpose of these changes is not primarily to assure the survival and comfort of our fellow human beings, but rather to create conditions that would be most conducive to the awakening and flowering of the Soul – individual and collective. We can further recognize that, as the Soul of humanity continues to awaken, it will naturally bring about a greater transformation of the world than anything our minds can imagine.
    To say this scenario sounds overly optimistic or a bit naïve may seem to some a gross understatement. In the past 24 hours, more than 45,000 people have died of starvation, and another 13 million tons of toxic chemicals have been poured into the atmosphere. More than three billion people in the world subsist on the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar per day, and a majority of the earth’s population does not have access to basic health care. To make things worse, we have the material resources to rectify this. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development report, it would require approximately 65 billion dollars a year to provide universal access to such basic services as education, health care and safe water for the entire population of the planet– about the same amount of money spent in Europe each year on cigarettes and on perfume in Europe and the United States combined.
    We’re not suggesting that everyone stop smoking or using perfume, nor that a weekend workshop in yoga psychology would provide the immediate resolution of these problems. Evolution takes place over billions of years. However, with the emergence of increasingly complex grades of consciousness, the evolutionary process appears to be speeding up. Most people would agree – whatever their philosophical bent – that in the past century the pace of change has quickened dramatically. A small but growing number of observers of the global scene contend we are in the midst of a cultural and spiritual awakening that is unfolding on a scale of decades rather than centuries. There are individuals and groups throughout the world who, in line with these emerging possibilities, are actively creating businesses, developing legal and political structures, organizing communities, and engaging in other activities which are helping to bring about a cultural, and perhaps even spiritual renaissance.

  • thanks Don – I enjoyed your comment as usual. I suppose I see our evolution as a matter of co-evolution. Individuals will evolve and consequently so will institutions – institutions will evolve and consequently so will individuals. I am completely convinced of the coming of the spiritual awakening you talk of, the more so after an amazing meeting today with Sebastian Parsons of Elysia Commons (see here: http://sebastianparsons.wordpress.com/author/sebastianparsons/.
    And like you I feel it is speeding up. Patrick

    • donsalmon says:

      Thanks for the link, it looks wonderful. Jan and I are thinking of moving to a remarkable sustainable community, Coggins Farm, just adjacent to Warren Wilson college outside of Asheville, NC. It won’t be fully “operative” for a few years, but people are hailing it as one of the most innovative experiments in sustainable living in the US. I’ll keep you posted as it develops.

      On this day of thanksgiving, I repeat my gratitude to you for this site. I had a particularly unpleasant exchange the other day with a postmodernist former Vedantin who has succumbed to a particularly strange breed of pessimism. What a breath of fresh air to come back to this site!

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