By Bill Brauer
Like everyone else who isn’t an essential worker, I have time these days to contemplate where human society may be headed. Only now, such contemplation doesn’t seem so much an entertaining diversion as it does the essential work we all need to be doing.
Any of us who have been willing to hear it have been warned for years that a global pandemic was inevitable. Inevitable. We were told it could trigger the collapse of our way of life. We were even advised how to prepare. Mostly, we didn’t listen. Now the pandemic is here and has our attention.
If you search, ”existential threats to the human species,” you get pages of lists. And virtually all of them contain the usual suspects: nuclear war, natural and genetically engineered pandemics, ecosystem collapse, AI and nanotechnology, global warming, out-of-control cyberattacks. Notice the human component in nearly all threats. We have met the enemy.
A few of the more thoughtful lists include a particular human proclivity which seems to me to be a prerequisite for the other threats to arise: delusion and misinformation. The OED calls delusion a false belief or opinion about ourselves, others, or our situation. Clearly, if we lead lives based on false beliefs and misinformation, our actions will not be synchronized with reality and reality will win. And when we carry these delusional habits forward from the personal into the societal, we — as a global community, a species — enter a downward spiral leading to the aforementioned existential threats.
The good news in this story begins with the fact that the downward spiral is knowable and vulnerable to our curiosity. If we want to know how and why we are so unsettled or our culture is in such disarray, we can begin by directing our attention toward our personal patterns and pay attention to any discrepancy between what we hope for, what we fear, and what is actually happening.
This shift from ignoring our patterns to cultivating curiosity about them and seeing them for what they are is the path of mindfulness meditation. When we sit with simple presence, neither controlling nor trying to manipulate what arises, the storylines of our self-generated misinformation campaign begin to become transparent. We can see through and beyond our delusion and build confidence in our ability to sit with the way the world actually is. If we can sit with it, we can know it, and if we can know it, we are far more likely to be able to change it.
Returning to the lists of all the ways we threaten our own wellbeing, we might acknowledge the likelihood that each possibility listed will visit the human realm. That’s why they make every list! In fact, many of the threats cited are already present, and some are well under way. Delusion and misinformation are going to get increasingly costly.
We are going to be challenged as never before and so we need to marshal our resources as never before, to adapt to conditions not seen in recent human history. All the known qualities of resilience will be required: how to roll with the punches; how to cultivate emotional and physical stamina; how to give up our personal preferences and seek the common good. All the old ideals have suddenly become essential for our survival. We will have to train for this.
And training is the key. The confidence to dare to do this will come from discovering we have the capacity to rise above our personal agendas and still thrive. This discovery is exactly what mindfulness meditation training offers. There is the old saw that getting old isn’t for sissies. Well, it looks like the coming months and years aren’t for sissies either. People of all ages will need to find the bravery to stay engaged with a world that will challenge us as never before.
This is going to be interesting.