Flavors of the human experience

At a talk by Wade Davis last night, I was inspired by the variety of human experiences he showed: people who dedicate their lives to meditation; cultures that evolved to prize generosity above all; nomads and sequestered nuns. There was also a lot of discussion about the value of a spiritual life, and in learning about the mind, versus technological progress.

I just wrote a fair chunk about why it is important for humanity to survive. I’ll probably still publish it, but Davis’ talk made me realize that a lot of my conclusions were based on our ability to evolve technology.

But what if, as Kevin Kelly writes, technology is a force pursuing its own agenda? And what if instead of us using it, it is using us? Davis showed that the western view of the earth as a resource is the minority view. Most other cultures see it as a stewardship; a responsibility. Similarly, the attitude of viewing our role as technology’s evolvers is unique to my culture; others value relationships and mental/spiritual growth much more highly than the ability to shape and change our physical world.

Technology itself is a particular cultural strand, and a relatively small slice of the human experience seen around the world and throughout history. By focusing on it almost exclusively, our culture has ignored vast areas of growth, health, and happiness. (See: surveys on happiness around the world, or the poor health care value we have in the U.S., or the high divorce rate here). Other cultures have grown tremendously in these areas.

One of my favorite quotes is by Lhasang Tsering, a Tibetan writer and philosopher, who said “For centuries our best minds, our saints and our philosophers concentrated all their time and energy to understanding the nature of the mind. And who can say which would really matter in the end–the landing on the moon or the understanding of the mind?”

So what would it look like to incorporate other cultures’ learnings into our own? For one, we might start making more decisions based not on their tangible, technical value, but on their social and spiritual value. Davis shared one quip about the obligation to eat whatever you’re served as a guest in a new culture: “You can always treat the giardia, but you can never rekindle the relationship that was hurt by your perceived act of superiority” (refusing food).

We could revere other languages, which Davis called “flashes of the human spirit” and “canaries in the coal mine of a culture”, studying, preserving, supporting, and using them for insights into other ways of thinking and being. (To those who propose a single, universal language to promote communication and commerce, Davis says “Great–let’s make it Tagalog or Quechua then”, which usually drives home the point that giving up your own native tongue feels like a tremendous loss). In some Anaconda (Amazonian rain forest) tribes, you can only marry someone who speaks a different language than yours. How’s that for tolerance!

And we would practice and honor religions more. One thought I had along with that of technology using us is that the greatest technological advances have come along with the collapse of much religious practice. It made me wonder if technology, to further its own agenda and become central to our lives, had to first displace and eliminate religious reverence from the landscape. Preserving religious practice, both our own and that of others, seems essential to protecting and growing culture.

Fortunately, humans are not so single-minded as technology. We can, if we choose to, incorporate several different strands of culture into our lives. We can enjoy and contribute to technology, and build strong relationships, and revere the divine. Certainly it takes discipline and practice, but it can be done. What is dangerous is becoming too entrenched in any single cultural strand and having that turn into ignorance or intolerance of other ways of being.

Davis described one cultural (and, um, chemical) experience from a rain forest tribe as “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity.” Now who would want to ignore something like that?

“Having obtained the difficult-to-obtain, free and endowed human body, it would be a cause of regret to fritter life away” – one of the Ten Causes of Regret