From Cosmopolitan to Sylvapolitan
Modernity and its Discontents
Modernity is rooted in an assumed split between Nature and culture, and beneath that, between the spiritual (often assumed not to exist at all) and the material worlds. This rift first appeared eons back with the emergence of human self-reflective consciousness, but only within the last 500 years has it widened to a chasm. This latter period began when a great faction of the human collective decided to stop passing the ‘talking stick’ that circulates thru the tribes of creation, and simply . . . walked away with it. It coincides with the decline of the church, the rise of materialist science and mercantilism, and the popularization of the Faustian myth warning of the dangers of knowledge stripped of ethics, of taking power without responsibility for outcomes.
This chasm, a self-preserving, self-glorifying egoic contraction away from the other tribes of creation, has since normalized itself in human cultural forms. Examples include the tenacious medieval view that nature is a tempter, leading the devotional away from God, or the Reformation view of nature as a feminine force to be raped of her secrets by the minions of science, or the ‘Enlightenment’ understanding of Nature as great mechanism made by a divine craftsman who had long since departed from his handiwork.
In the last 200 years the industrial revolution has brought with it the perception of nature as a great toy chest to be ripped apart with impunity. Ideas sourced in Darwinian notions of evolution (though note here that Darwin often has as little in common with Darwinians as Jesus has with Christians), popularized the view that there is no guiding intelligence to nature, that it evolves by a series of blind accidents, and can therefore be tinkered with at will. The legacy of such attitudes has created a rapacious social machinery of domination and consumption. Wrought of scientific, industrial, military, government, and popular cultural forces, it carries the momentum of the centuries, and like a runaway train, is hurtling itself full speed into the 21st century. As a collective, we are all passengers.
The trajectory of this train is invisible to many people. They are often busy gazing out the window at the consumer wonderland on the billboards. Others flip thru magazines that tell how to get ahead in the modern (i.e., suicidal) economy. Many are simply satisfied to eat breadrolls and discuss sporting events with their neighbors. Their denial of where the train is heading cushions the ride, their unwillingness to hear those warning of a coming precipice allows them to sit undisturbed. Yet deep down, wired as we all are into the human (and planetary) collective, their remains a distant, yet persistent, foreboding.
Dualism is a materialist view that considers the limits of reality to be set by the apparent opposites that construct the ‘horizontal’ world, the hot and cold, the light and dark, past and future, left and right. These opposites are thought to be mutually exclusive, polar and apart, and in no way containing the seed potential of the other. Dualism justifies the much vaunted ‘real world’, the surface world, reality as it appears, not actuality as it exists.
Despite appearances, with a little proactive awareness (deeper inquiry), one can see that opposites only exist as permanent and irreconcilable by way of a narrow perspective (e.g., left and right depends on which way you are facing, and where are up and down located in outer space?). Exclusive attachment to polar opposites results in stunted perceptions. These normalize themselves in a dualistically framed mind, which has no provision for the underlying, unifying actuality of spirit; it cannot understand that all opposites rise from common roots.
The spiritual / material and nature / culture oppositions are primordial dualisms of modernity. Like parent plants, they have seeded further dualisms, including the separation of within / without, above / below, mind / body, individual / society, passion / reason. These assumptions and the conundrums they create have given work to such influential thinkers as Descarte, Rousseau, Marx, Pasteur, Durkheim, and Freud. Their analyses of dualistic conflict have founded academic industries, keeping generations of scholars busy hammering out the intricacies of a problem-based reality.
What those adhering to dualism cannot reconcile they often exclude. This invariably sets up a conflict between the excluder and the excluded. This is convenient for valuing one thing as superior to another, for justifying all manner of domination. It is a core principle behind racism, sexism, and specieism. It separates the dominating group as the ‘real’, ‘civilized’, or ‘normal’, from the Other as ‘primitive’, ‘less able’, or ‘deficient’.
Reductionism is the divide and conquer approach to understanding reality. Its reduces a system (a galaxy, a car, a pile of sand) into its components (at whatever scale) and then adds them back up as a way of understanding the system. It deals with the interactions or relationships of these components secondarily, or ignores them altogether.
The rapid progress of science and technology owes itself to reductionism. It gives us great detail about the material design of things – their ‘machinery’ – and how they may be altered to serve our purposes. While it has told us how to take the world apart, it tells us little on how to put it back together again. This is because nature does not assemble things, it grows them. Growth is the province of synergy, which understands systems in terms of the relationships that form them. For example, synergy creates a forest, while reductionism seeks to know the forest by focusing on the trees.
Dualism and reductionism have been validated by the apparent successes of the societies built upon them. For example, production strategies based on the systematic and institutionalized domination of nature have ushered in an era of unprecedented human inventiveness and material well-being. It has been hard to imagine any domain in which these principles could not be put to good use. Simply, they appear to work.
These principles (ideologies of separation) are the foundations of a larger, rationalist knowledge structure. This knowledge is constructed as something outside of us (we’re the blank slate) that we then internalize, or possess. The knower is active, the thing known is passive. Nature is seen as something outside of us, as passive, to be possessed. A dog, e.g., is no longer a member of a tribe of creation that we live with co-creatively, but a pet, that we ‘own’. Civilizations are built on plundering, on the concept that things of the world are to be owned, possessed. Capitalism is built on this. ‘Time’ is another example. We have time, but we can spend it like money.
This knowledge is enshrined in universities, where it informs the priests and guardians of conscensus reality, aka ‘professors’, in their pronouncements of truth or falsehood upon the world. It is the variety of knowledge that structures scientific investigations. The act of knowing thereby becomes a distillation of ‘facts’ by excluding all that is not measurable and repeatable. This knowledge is very specific and made potent by its focus. It is not meant to address the ecologies in and by which humans live, nor to include every aspect of existence. Nevertheless, science has been so crucial to modern economic expansionism and consequent cultural identity, that its knowledge has been made into a world view. In other words, a small cult of rationalists (which can be largely traced to the 17th century Baconian Puritans that founded the London Royal Society) have come to rule the Western mind. The various phenomena excluded from science for methodological reasons have become excluded from the dominant modern perspective.
What happens when you create a society out of a research method? Principles of exclusion and reduction applied to social forms is most telling in the long lineage of monocultural forces native to modern society. These include: an authoritative God who brooks no competition, a mechanistic and gender-biased science that is set up as wholly objective and universal, and a monopolistic intertwinement of military, corporate, and governmental interests. Monoculturist tendencies reduce gardening to agribusiness, forests to timber, land into real estate, plants to chemicals, customers to profiles, responsibility to laws, education to licenses, and patients to their illnesses.
In much of the world, all this has resulted in increasingly irrational government pronouncements and actions, the rise of fundamentalist ideologies, an escalating climate of fear, the spectre of a Garrison state, a de facto war on nature, an intractable addiction to fossil fuels, record obesities, cancers, auto-immune disorders, and consumption of anti-depressants. These all tell of societies increasingly strained, and often failing, to normalize themselves to their growing dysfunctions.
The great diversity of stories, the ‘gene bank’ of worldviews that comprise our collective heritage, has suffered the fate of the many peoples that held them. Forces of colonization, of military, religious, and economic conquest, have altered long held symbolic and ritual bases for co-creating the world. They have wreaked demographic collapses through disease, slaving, and market processes; devalued local knowledge as a triumph of reason over superstition; and cast a generally derogratory eye over rural peoples generally and colonized populations in particular. This has idealized an ecology of knowledge reduced to a singular story. Born of a superiority complex, this story can only know the ‘other’ in patronizing or fearful ways. It thereby alienates humans from the world and nature becomes, as the quintessential modernist Sartre proclaimed, “mute”.
However, it may be that Sartre, along with much of humanity, has simply forgotten how to listen.
This great forgetting has defined modernity. It has led to disenchantment of the world. It is the origin of the cosmological fragmentation that divides knowledge into academic fiefdoms, the economics that disregards reciprocity to the land, and the politics that ignore the needs of future generations. It supports blindness to the rights, needs, and domains of others.
Nevertheless, it is upon this collective amnesia that modern ideals of human development and behavior have evolved.
These ideals have condensed themselves in the figure of sophistication known as the ‘cosmopolitan’. Also known as the metropolitan man, the worldly woman, the polished bon vivant, the figure of culture, and so on, this person is considered to be open-minded, refined in tastes, dispassionate, socially skillful, and possessing an urbane or international outlook. It describes a life lived in the pursuit of a wide range of experiences, allowing a great breadth of understanding, which is generally turned to practical effect. It connotes the flowering of the individual in the contemporary world, and for many gives direction, focus, and meaning to the drama of modernity.
However, the scope of these experiences, and the understandings gained from them, are limited by the founding myths of modern civilization. While cosmos literally means ‘an orderly universe’, and politan ‘a citizen of’, the cosmos of modernity has been truncated by the divisive ideologies and singular knowledge that informs it into a narrow slice of reality.
Those trained in this ‘cosmos’, i.e. the well educated cosmopolitan, generally live in, or derive their sustenance from, the cities made possible by the advancement of science and technology. These cities, except for the few adaptable plants and animals, are generally mono-species environments. In them we talk, walk, work, and play with each other and so go thru life nearly exclusively in relationship with other humans. We are therefore deprived of the more full-spectrum social experience that we have evolved with as a species. The livelihoods of the cosmopolitan are usually aligned with the economy that supports the city, and by extension global industrial culture. This economy has long exercised power without responsibility and violates nearly every principle known to attend healthy ecosystems (the Gaian dharma). Carl Jung succinctly sums all this up with his realization early in life, that compared to the natural world, ‘for all its wealth of learning, the urban world was metnally rather limited.’
The consequences of modernity, the dues owed on a Faustian bargain, are creating a world very different than the one the cosmopolitans have been socialized to deal with. The ‘real world’ of the cosmopolitan is dying. It has reached the end of its life span, and as dawn follows night, the earth, in her infinite compassion, is birthing a more ‘actual world’ thru those humans open to receive it.
With healthy diversity, other ways of knowing the world are never eclipsed, but wan and wax depending on individual and social circumstance. It is a tribute to the organizing intelligence of creation that when a knowledge disappears or is in some way forbidden, it sets up a strong polarity, a strong tension to regain equillibrium. This force is now pulling hard on much of humanity to step out of the cosmopolitan trance, to break free of the hypnotic attraction cast by consumer fetishism, desert-born monotheism, scientific materialism, economic fundamentalism. and their mantras of superiority.
This pull towards balance generally manifests itself as the feeling, either gradual or sudden, that something is wrong with the cultural script one is born into or taught. It may be felt as a missing constituent, an absence of something that seems to be present in other cultures. This leads to a search for wholeness, and often the discovery of entirely new ways of perceiving the world, of living one’s life. For example, the huge income disparities in the world can be felt as a disequillibrium, an injustice that somehow needs to be rectified. It may lead one to look at the need to belong, and how in a large scale society this is directed towards status groups and their pecking orders. Yet one can discover that we are a tribal organism by nature, existing best in communities of 10-100 people. In such a social environment, where all people are aware of each other, the need to belong cannot be exercised as a divisive strategy. It can only be exercised as consideration for others and the egalitarian ethos that brings about. With this realization, one may then seek out smaller scale communities to ‘normalize’ one’s social self, or work to defuse the status games in one’s life.
Likewise, the lack of a life force concept in one’s culture could lead, e.g., to an interest in prana and the study of ayurvedic medicine, and open one to the world of resonance cosmologies. Similarly, when one grows up being taught nothing about interspecies or interdimensional communication, one might seek out the assistance of a Teacher plant, or spirit guides, which could open one to the magic and mystery of indigenous consciousness, of an enchanted universe.
This call from the earth to remember may come as a personal or collective crisis. It may take the form of illness, a great loss, or deep and protracted suffering. This may precipitate a new understanding of the world, one that diverges from concensus perception to the point of irreconcilable differences. In such a situation, there is no way back (other than the route of denial), and the steps forward are often into the unknown. To continue, one must trust and surrender to a higher guidance.
Crisis therefore offers great opportunities for change. It engages the self-renewal practice of dying and being reborn to oneself. This cycle of growth is seen thruout all of Nature. Just as the seasons dissolve into and emerge out of one other, just as the harvested fields must be tilled under to prepare for new crops, so one is presented with an opportunity to be transformed. There is a choice, to seize this opportunity, or to pass it by. Those who take it emerge into a world beyond the nature-culture split, beyond the conventions of the cosmopolitan. Reborn into the sylvan cosmos, the society of Nature, one is awakened to a new, full-bodied life, to live in a new, full-spectrum world. Such a one can be called a sylvapolitan.
The sylvapolitan grows out of the compost of the cosmopolitan. By taking up the nutrients of the historical phase of separation (e.g., rapid development of the rational mind, technologies such as the internet, and the democratization of the world’s sacred traditions) and reconstituting them in dialogue with the natural world, they are brought back to the tribes of creation as a common wealth of nourishment and creativity. This is much like the archetypal hero’s quest, or myth of eternal return. The sylvapolitan is a cosmopolitan who has returned home, transformed and matured by the challenges of ego-entranced existence.
This homecoming is marked by re-membrance of a native fluency in the ecology of knowledges that mediate the sensory world. A full spectrum of understandings comes from learning, e.g., the language of smells: odors, fragrances, stenches, and stinks; exercising the imaginal cognition, dreams and visions, allowing the mythic world greater vibrancy; or working the hands to know spirit in formation thru touch, thru massage, or sculpting.
Reality thereby becomes ‘ecologicalized’ by having the appropriate knowledges linked up to its many dimensions. The world then moves from the cosmopolitan metaphor of a ‘single screen’ reality to that of a many faceted jewel. By turning the jewel, one appreciates the many colors and luminosities of life as it shines in the world. To live in a multi-faceted reality impels one to develop an agility in perspective, a tolerance for diverse viewpoints, a fluidity in boundary making, and an ability to shapeshift.
The sylvapolitan thereby experiences the world thru its many attributes, yet grows in sensitivity to subtle areas of connection between ‘self’ and ‘other’. To exist in this paradox, to hold fast to unity while being buffeted by the powers and passions of diversity is a way to realize great strength and wisdom. These qualities of a sensitive strength over a forceful one, an abiding wisdom over a manipulating knowledge, are native to a world that talks back, that can respond in kind, one that is fully and completely inhabited by an ecology of souls. In such an organismic landscape, rocks, gardens, waterways, volcanoes, clouds, cities, and highways all pulse together in ever-changing relations of harmonics and dissonance. These create metabolisms, nested within one another in increasingly more encompassing ‘bodies’: cells, individual plants or animals, human families, towns, forests, coastlines, nations, landmasses, humanity, the atmosphere, the earth itself, and so on.
Thru being in conscious, participatory relations with the world, the sylvapolitan develops the ability to read the pulses of these telescoping bodies. Their interrelated needs, goals, temperaments, health, illness, crises, and cycles of life and death can be ‘read’ thru various signatures; these include changes in atmospheric activity, seasonal intensities, geologic movements, plant and animal populations, human social forms, and individual bodies, behaviors, moods, and vitality states.
As a pulse reader of the planet, the sylvapolitan is attuned to its life. Its problems become the sylvapolitan’s problems, its solutions the sylvapolitan’s solutions. Such a one is called upon to perform the Gaian dream, to become the solution, to embody the changes, to act out the transformation of life on planet earth, to bring the future into the now. In this way the sylvapolitan is a defining, growing edge of species development.
The sylvapolitan is to various degrees realized in the many cultures that support direct communion with the sacred and practice relational indigeneity. These include the more esoteric elements of many religions, such as the Sufis, Gnostics, Essenes, Sadhus, Rastafarians, and Mt. Taoists; the wisdom figures of earth-based cultures, such as tribal elders, storytellers, diviners, and medicine people; those that advocate stress reduction and embodied awareness of the world, such as body workers, yoga and tai chi chuan enthusiasts; practitioners of life force-based medicines, such as ayurveda, TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), aromotherapy, and bioenergetics; advocates of sustainable technologies and life ways, such as permaculturalists; those engaged in earth-issued spiritual healing practices, including sweat lodges and work with teacher plants; those in the devotional or spiritual arts and sciences; and those who simply have a comprehensive grasp of the current state of the planet and devote themselves to its positive transitioning.
The term sylvapolitan refers to both a path of individual self-development, and the culture that supports it. Its describes a life of spiritual growth, which in essence is universal, but in circumstances very particular to this time in history. The human – nature split of modernity is the surface manifestation of a deeper rift between humans and our divine nature. The pull towards reunion will be effected thru a healing of the world we have destroyed. In doing so we will ourselves be remade by the world, revitalized and reconstituted as the sylvapolitan.
The cosmopolitan, like the sylvapolitan, describes both a universal figure (a materialist not yet awakened to the spiritual life) and a circumstance particular to modernity (a 500 year reign of dominance). However, the era of the cosmopolitan has matured, has grown to adulthood. It is now faced with an intiatory passage that must involve the death of its founding assumption, and thereby its root sense of identity. It remains to be seen when, how, or even if this transition is made.
Meanwhile, some adherents to cosmopolitan culture resist the change, and move into the contractive, fear-based strategies typical of dying civilizations. Other elements of it, such as green technologies, and social justice movements, have already filtered thru to the sylvapolitan world, creating models and fields of attraction for those to follow. However, most migrating out of cosmopolitan culture have only imperfectly relocated themselves. Many find themselves betwixt and between worlds, partly in one culture and partly in another.
For example, we are largely hostage to an infrastructure dependent on fossil and nuclear fuel, though most of us are aware that the longer this dependency is sustained, the more unpleasant the outcome. Individually, someone may have undergone a health crisis which woke them up to the wonders of a wholistic lifestyle. Though they now eat organically, mediate and pray daily, and work diligently on improving their relationships with others, they are still employed at a job that they are unhappy with, subject to junk food binges, and addicted to T.V. Another person may have a great intellectual grasp of sylvapolitan culture and enthusiasm for it, but resist living it for any number of reasons, and, visa versa, someone may love to do yoga, in essence a sylvapolitan practice, but have no grasp of its possibilities as a spiritual way of life.
Still another person, amazed and infused by a Teacher plant or its chemical counterpart, and blossomed briefly into the sylvapolitan world, is left with choices on how to integrate the experience. S/he may replicate the Faustian ethos of modernity and seek the power of the experience without working on purifying oneself to handle it responsibly. This strategy is best facilitated by drugs, those vitality imposters that – on the surface – appear to operate beyond the reciprocity principle of the Gaian dharma. However, the actuality of drugs is that one ends up chasing a high of ever diminishing returns, which to an extent normalizes one in the cosmopolitan culture of addictions. In contrast, s/he may choose to accept the challenge of applying oneself to the teachings of that brief bloom into the sylvapolitan world. This requires one to engage in responsible and free flowing dialogue with the natural world, and to embark on a path of self-discipline at the service of self-understanding.
Whether precipitated by a Teacher plant or not, when one awakens to a life of spiritual growth one begins to become aware of what inhibits that growth and what supports it. Currently, one must be able to recognize the glamor bardos of late stage cosmopolitan culture – the mega-malls, the image-spins of lifestyle magazines, the cult of celebrity, the hubris of military might and religious right – and forgo indulging in them. One must become aware of the myriad addiction triggers woven thru the economic landscape – the supermarket tabloid headlines, the free coffee and donuts, jumbo sized-anything, internet porn –and be careful of their influence. One must be conscious of the seduction of normality, and be aware that the group mind, unconscious of itself, is easily manipulated and often ebbs to its lowest common denominator in a climate of fear and denial.
It is thru attunement to a body-based intelligence that these attractions become understood as distractions, because what looks good or sounds good to the senses often doesn’t feel good to the body. The body is the primary instrument of navigation on the path of spiritual growth in this world. It is thru the body that one is aware of the deeper currents of one’s life that always flow towards union with the divine, it is thru the body that one is aware of the layers of oneself that obstruct this flow.
It is thru self-purification of the body in the crucible of relationships that these layers are dissolved, that space is created for inner transformation. When the forces of equilibrium are unleashed they move like storm winds from a high to low pressure area, or a river broken free of a dam. The body is blown free of the detritus of its past and it drinks of the nourishing waters of spiritual renewal. The seed of spirit within sprouts, grows into a spiritualized body, and flowers into the realm of the sylvapolitan.
As one moves into sylvapolitan culture, one’s life becomes increasingly given over to the cultivation of radiance. In its early phases this is felt more as an attraction to life force, and in its mature phases more as an attraction to the divine. The body is operative at a higher frequency, and resonates with a more subtle world. The fabic of existence is felt as silken, translucent, and composed. Light pulses thru objects as magic thru wands; reality is frictionless as dualisms melt together; thoughts condense easily into actions; and feelings are transparent to their source. The membrane between the worlds is stretched thinner and one must capacitate oneself to handle a greater intensity of spiritual force. The body inherently knows how to unfurl itself before these forces. It knows how to take more of a charge, to dissolve and reconstitute itself to take even more of a charge, to allow the spirit maximum radiance. In this way the body is reorganized from a higher dimension of itself, and becomes a more direct expression of the actuality from which it arises.
This is the path of the sylvapolitan. It can be understood as a curriculum of transformation, an ongoing process of expanding and shedding (but every shedding is in someway an integration) selves, of dialoguing our uniqueness with ever more encompassing identities, allows the earth, and ultimately the Divine, to become conscious thru us.
© 2008 Morgan Brent