The success of self-help books has led to a supersaturated ‘I’. It’s time for the next spiritual step, a leap in human consciousness: the leap to we. In our modern society, we’re all linked to one other. And the answer to our political, economic and spiritual challenges lies in co-operation, in a realisation that we are nothing less than we. Witness the birth of a new way of thinking.
I’m fed up. We’re fed up. With the culture of greed. With road rage. With hollow international agreements. With modern-day emperors, who believe they can impose democracy on other countries. With pharmaceutical companies that won’t lower their drug prices causing the unnecessary deaths of millions of people. With the wall that is being built between Israel and the Palestinian territories. With neighbourhoods that take away kids’ only playing field because some woman is worried about her car getting dented. I’ve had it with all this short-sighted, egotistical behaviour, which puts immediate individual. satisfaction – or own group interests – above all else.
I still have hope. I have hope because I’m not the only one who is fed up and resistance, our resistance, is growing. Ever louder is the cry against the senseless violence, against media corruption, against the threat of environmental disasters, against profiteers and liars at the top, and against the artificial borders, walls and masks that separate us from one another. Ever louder is the call for direct democracy, sustainable entrepreneurship, tolerance and for new values. And yet… who can tell us what we need to do to create these new values and how to apply them? Which party, which individual or which movement will point the way through the jungle of good intentions. Is there an answer to our global crisis?
Yes, there is. The answer is ‘we’. And the good news is, that we have already taken the first steps to activating that answer. Is it a movement? Is it a new group of thinkers? Whatever the case, more and more public opinion leaders are coming to the same conclusion: we.
All over the world leaders in different disciplines are giving the new ‘we’ feeling form.
Psychologists see us entering the ‘transpersonal age’.
Philosophers predict a move from ‘socio-centric’ to ‘world-centric’ thinking.
Political scientists recognise the increasing importance of global governance.
Astrologists see the age of Aquarius dawning; a movement that will carry us away from the old patriarchate – which defended the right of the strongest – to an intuitive lifestyle and a feeling of solidarity.
In the business community, the top-down approach is making way for equality, inspiring leadership and increasing room for creativity.
A growing number of spiritual leaders underlines the similarities among the world’s religions and sees compassion and an ethical lifestyle as a universally applicable source of transformation.
Pedagogues see children learning ever faster and more easily. Away with memorising spelling and times tables; knowledge seekers are increasingly turning to the Internet.
Even ‘hardcore’ scientists are coming around to the potential of the Zero Point Field (see Ode December 2003), which shows that everything is connected to everything. It appears that everything and everyone is continually resonating and communicating with everything and everyone. At the deepest level you and I, him and her, this and that are only one thing: we are We.
In short, the world appears to be preparing for a global transition from an egotistical consciousness that was geared towards survival, to a general consciousness that embraces the entire cosmos and evolution. It’s no longer everyone for themselves, but one for all. We’re entering the age of world citizenship.
‘But wait a second,’ I hear you thinking, ‘paradise on earth has been proclaimed before.’ Indeed, throughout the ages a myriad of dreamers, philosophers and gurus have preached about the coming of a soul-saving merger of the narcissistic individual with the community. But their predictions have never amounted to much. Inter-group tensions have always ended up toppling the card houses before they could reach the heavens.
So why should you believe my prophesy? What makes this era different than others? Is this truly a unique moment in world history?
Yes, it seems so. The challenges facing the world community are nearly all global in nature. It makes no sense to tackle global warming on a local scale. Immigration problems cannot be solved nationally, but only by co-operating with neighbouring countries. The same holds true for drug smuggling, oil prices, anti-terrorist measures, dealing with dictators, protecting human rights, eradicating child labour and sweatshops and regulating international cash flows.
Jean-François Rischard, vice president of the World Bank, is convinced: we are engaged in a fight for our very survival; a fight to stop the destruction of the earth. In his book ‘High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them’, he writes that it is a collective battle that leaves us no other option but to join hands. After all, whatever the answers to our modern problems may be – developing and using alternative fuels, greener technologies and applying or scrapping gene technology – they affect us all. Co-operation has become the key to our survival.
Of course, there have been other points in history when a ‘we’ feeling was crucial, such as following both world wars. But there is a big difference between the we of then and the we of now. There was little room in that former we for the individual and for personal development. Across the board, the old we thinking assumed that all the individual had to do was surrender in order to find freedom in the arms of the collective, the herd. The ‘I’ was seen as a source of evil that had to be sacrificed. The individual became a weak-willed victim that could be manipulated by others or by the group.
The new we is different. It is a we wherein the individual maintains his independence. The ego remains intact and, in fact, has an important role to play. The ego takes root, protects and ensures that every choice is freely made. The ego could even be said to form the basis of we; instead of merging with it, freedom has become an integral part of solidarity. A solidarity from which the ego actually derives the strength and inspiration it needs to further develop. A solidarity woven from countless threads.
A friend of mine had a T-shirt bearing the message: Them = Us. Those words perfectly capture the transition. There is no longer any ‘they’, because we are all connected. And this marks a sharp contrast with the former we that was not inclusive, but judgmental of ‘the other’ that didn’t belong to the core group. The old we excludes what it considered strange or threatening. It was ‘us’ against ‘you’. The old we was the we of the herd and the family, of the monasteries and the army, of working groups and teams, of football club supporters and national teams. The old we stands opposed to the new we. The new we is curious to meet and connect with others. It sets out in a collective search, hunting for answers that serve the common good. The new we is convinced that one plus one is three.
Paradoxically, the new we is a direct result of the wave of investments in personal development that has been flooding the modern Western world since the 1960s. In contrast to the previous period, the advent of therapy, meditation and yoga ushered in an era of unprecedented individual development. But while esoteric literature and self-help books continue to weigh down bookshelves, and newspapers are full of advertisements for courses and training seminars, we appear to be reaching a limit. The ‘I’ is becoming supersaturated. How much more time and attention can we spend on our ‘I’ without sinking into fatuous narcissism?
This limit is in keeping with the healthy psychological development of a maturing human being. Beyond the highest ideal of self-realisation – in line with the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid – glimmers the challenge of the new we. After all, isn’t the essence of human spiritual development in fact the transcendence of our ego and the discovery that we are a part of the universe? Huge groups of people are ready to follow in the footsteps of the few wise spiritual masters that for centuries have served as role models. We is the next spiritual step. We is a consciousness that your inner self can experience, not an external identity with which you need to join.
The new spiritual we is gathering strength worldwide. An estimated 2% of the world population has embraced the new we. This is in keeping with the findings of sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson. In their book ‘The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World’, they explain that a new subculture has developed, both in the United States and in Europe, that is interested in personal development and global justice. This group – men and women, young and old, black and white, well- and poorly-educated, rich and poor – rejects cynicism and materialism, and actively seeks practical ways to express their idealism. The authors, who studied the issue for 13 years, speak of pioneers; trailblazers of what may be the next step in civilisation, for their numbers are swelling to an influential, critical mass.
The modern economy provides the strongest evidence of global convergence. The influence of multinational companies reaches much further than the shop floor or the office cubicle. Products are manufactured using materials from every corner of the globe. Mergers and joint ventures have become so commonplace that newspapers now often dedicate only a few lines to them whereas 15 years ago they would have consumed copious amounts of column inches for days. Co-operative ventures between multinationals and local parties or interest groups, which ‘responsible’ entrepreneurs now refer to as stakeholders, have become common practice.
Mutual dependence has become so integrated into the world economy that one has to ask how much longer we can reasonably speak of ‘national economies’. Even in a system that continues to thrive on personal interest and competition – not exactly concepts that belong to the new we – it is clear that co-operation points the way to continued economic success.
These economic developments are being stimulated by the IT revolution. The world is connected through a series of global telecommunications and information systems that have penetrated every aspect of our living environment. Time and distance, borders and differences are rapidly disappearing.
Nowhere is this development clearer than on the world wide web, which is probably giving the biggest boost to the burgeoning global we. Internet knows no boundaries between cultures, races or religions and through it everyone can connect to anyone at any given moment. Internet is the foundation of a new world – but don’t confuse this claim with the dotcom slogans of a bygone economic bubble. Internet is the joint creation of a wild and eclectic group of people that meet and learn from each other, that stimulate and help one another, that can love each other as friends and family members.
Internet has also proven to be an extremely successful means of mobilising people. An e-mail calling people to protest can rouse 10 or 100 thousand people around the world. Alternative globalists may be the finest example of a movement that has tapped the power of the Internet. They have shown themselves capable of mobilising masses of people at a moment’s notice during street demonstrations from Seattle to Prague and from Genoa to Cancun, forever changing our perception of these cities.
In fact, the alternative globalists deserve an honourable mention as the pioneers of a movement with a far-reaching awareness of we and solidarity. Their resistance is aimed at organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the IMF, whose policies – in their view – don’t strengthen unity but create greater contrasts: between rich and poor, between North and South. The political answers that are expressed at ‘anti summits’ and in the books they write propose solutions, which are leading to more equality and justice on a global level.
Not only is the world coming together politically, spiritually and economically, but biological developments also point in that direction. Every ecosystem is a complex matrix of life forms that are jointly evolving. Plants need insects for pollination, lions kill off the weakest antelopes, thus reducing the chance of contagious diseases spreading through the herd. The examples are endless.
Humans are also part of this co-evolution. We developed from our ancestors due to our ability to increasingly adapt to changing circumstances. That process started gradually. But some 50 thousand years ago we took a giant leap forwards that formed the basis of our modern culture. This leap was the result of increasing population densities, which in turn demanded physical adjustments. Humans found an ingenious solution: they changed the way their brains functioned. They made them more flexible and more creative thereby ensuring that they could better handle the increasing complexity of their social environment. The nomadic hunter ultimately became a modern city dweller, thus planting the seed that would make the family unit the foundation of society.
Individualisation, combined with the increasing complexity of modern society and the pressure of population growth now appears to be forcing humanity to take another evolutionary leap forwards. The brain needs a ‘we gene’ to enable it to better handle modern challenges. You can see the we gene in the making when people collectively mourn following a disaster. The brutal attacks on September 11, 2001 had a unifying effect that spread far beyond Manhattan’s borders. It was a dramatic and painful lesson for humanity in mutual dependence. The first reaction of President Bush – ‘You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror’ – appears to be a misplaced after-effect of the old we thinking. Reality is different now: it isn’t about the world joining up to take sides with the United States, but rather the Americans having to join the rest of the world. That lesson, which is slowly sinking in at the White House, will go down in history as a global policy reversal. This was the birth of a new way of thinking, a realisation that we are all in the same boat.
What makes silent vigils and radical events such as 9/11 so important is that during those moments nothing stands in the way of the we feeling. There is only one we. No other we, no they. Such moments are transformative. The we that exists between people changes them. Following such an event, many have the feeling that they have experienced something special, that they have changed. For a brief moment they were a part of something larger than themselves. They experienced a broader cohesion – call it ‘self-transcendence’ – a wholeness that gave them self-confidence and made life meaningful.
Years ago during my first Zen retreat I experienced this type of extreme we feeling. The plan was to meditate for seven days from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. And all that time we were to remain silent. I looked forward to it. I was accustomed to the challenges that went with meditating on a regular basis. I was expecting some muscle aches and other unpleasantness as I got used to hours of sitting. But then, or so I hoped, the great silence would settle over me like a blanket.
I was wrong. It was hard. Really hard. The first day started with pain in my right knee and back. It was bearable if I shifted my position just slightly, but in the days that followed what started as a slight prick in my joints became a huge needle, then a kitchen knife and finally a dagger. I also found it difficult to remain silent, particularly during meals, which became a joyless chorus of lip smacking and swallowing.
Just when I began to seriously consider giving up, something changed. The pain didn’t subside, but became irrelevant. I could distance myself from it. And the people sitting to the right and left of me in the meditation room, slowly changed from strangers to friends that I felt I had known for years. Their closeness gave me comfort. If I felt that they were having difficulty with their position or that their thoughts were wandering to painful memories, I sent them feelings of love and encouragement. I didn’t even know their names.
Gathering with others in the same room, living according to the same rhythm and collective concentration meant we became tuned into one another without losing the focus on ourselves. For me it was as if we slowly changed into a single body. When we all stood up from our cushions for a walking meditation, we moved as one. The act of placing our feet on the wooden floor became the footstep of one large body.
Once you have experienced we in all its power, as I had during the Zen retreat, you are never the same again. You find that subsequent important changes no longer start with you, but with the world. You develop a truly open and respectful attitude towards everyone. You develop a stronger sense of compassion; compassion, for example, for refugees and the homeless, who are usually branded as strangers. All of a sudden it seems odd that we expect immigrants to adapt and settle into our country yet we can’t distinguish a Korean from a Vietnamese.
You can even experience the we feeling in the heat of competition. Bill Russell, an American basketball superstar during the 1950s and 60s, recalls moments when it felt as if he and his fellow players were floating above their bodies: ‘All our movements changed into a rhythmic, musical dance between both teams. Although each team was doing everything they could to win, the competition no longer mattered.’ When Russell witnessed a spectacular move by one of his opponents, he found himself hoping that they would score. Everyone was playing their best game, at an amazingly high pace, and every pass, every fake became a work of art. Yet Russell could anticipate each ensuing moment of the game in advance and felt so deeply connected with all the other players it sent chills up his spine. During the match, both teams formed a we that went beyond themselves.
At the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder we can approach every human being openly and lovingly. Even our opponent, ‘the enemy’. Especially ‘the enemy’. It is possible, but it is not always easy. The old we – the we of ‘us’ against ‘you’, of dogmas, judgements and rigid opinions – continues to stalk us. But the pattern is clear: we are leaving the age of I and entering the we era.
The path to we starts close to home. Talk to others about the new we. Bring it up in conversation. My experience is that such discussions create new, open communities. They bring we-makers together in a relationship without rules, laws or fixed agendas – fragmentation disappears. Real conversation – dialogue – requires skilful listening and speaking.
In the United States, the early Quakers were very adept at this. During their meetings, which were open to everyone, people only opened their mouths if they truly felt the need to express themselves. As long as someone was talking, he or she could not be interrupted. Nor was it tolerated to attack the speaker or question their words. You spoke on your own behalf and assumed full responsibility for what you said. This is how the Quakers addressed the problem of slavery. It took years. Their joint decision to free all their slaves came 100 years earlier than the rest of America. What’s keeping us from using that same approach to start an open dialogue with refugees, terrorists or prisoners? Or with avaricious company chairmen and politicians?
The we teaches us to listen first, to abandon our pre-conceived notions and reserve judgement. By listening the new we can make a great contribution to bridging the world’s conflicts and disparities. Just think of the small-scale but heart warming initiatives in the Middle East whereby Israelis and Palestinians explore their future together, showing us there is an alternative to the old paradigm of judgements and accusations.
If hierarchy makes way for the new we, the structure of global society will change. With the help of the Internet, direct democracy will replace the old fashioned – hierarchical – indirect democracy. Just as companies under the influence of the emerging we become increasingly emancipated and break-up into smaller autonomous units, so too will states and governments emancipate and give responsibilities back to networks and individuals, to us. Politics will go back to the town square in Athens where it belongs, according to the metaphor. Close by, so that everyone feels involved and responsible. The new perception of spirituality will bridge religious gaps and bring people of different backgrounds closer together.
The new we does away with walls, because he who builds a wall, shuts himself in. And I have discovered that I can even let go of my annoyance with bad drivers. As I once read on a poster: ‘Love your neighbour, because that’s me’.
Jaap Westerbos’s book Wereldwijd wij (Worldwide we) will be published shortly by Altamira-Brecht. Westerbos is a cook and an artist. Under the pseudonym André Wolf he previously wrote ‘De tao van stampot‘ (The Tao of mashed potatoes) and a column in Ode about cooking.
Old and new We
THE OLD WE
emphasis on parts
differentiation I and we
span of control
products and results
knowledge is power
insearch of simplicity
THE NEW WE
emphasis on wholes and networks
integration I and we
many truths side by side
span of support
relationships and people
knowledge is free
acceptance of complexity
freedom in solidarity