Ubuntu: Beyond Individualism

Too often we regard our spiritual life as a separate atomic entity, rather than a ripple of wholeness...

"We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources.... What is needed is not transcendence but 'inscendence,' not the brain but the gene." ~Fa. Thomas Berry, 'Dream of the Earth'

We take pride in our "individualism," but before we were born up here on the surface, our umbilical cords were woven underground, entangled in the genome. All these little nipples and penises crying, 'Me! Me!' But dank down in steamy blackness, we love to lose our roots in one another. "You" and "I" are the trembling of a single bliss.

Darwin spoke of the "entangled bank" to describe the interconnectedness of species in the evolutionary web of natural selection. Modern physicists also speak of "quantum entanglement" to describe the way particles manifest from the vacuum, not as individuals, but as interrelated and coexistent waves in one ocean of energy. Yet despite all the evidence of bio-physics to the contrary, we still insist on regarding our "selves" as separate atoms of consciousness.

American culture has taken "individualism" as far as we can without destroying our planet. The political Right has developed an economic system that rapes the earth and enslaves the masses to enrich elite individuals with private wealth. On the other hand, the Left has developed "entitlement" programs that lack true collectivity, rarely asking the "entitled" to give anything back to the system that sustains them.

In foreign policy, "American Exceptionalism" has pillaged the Third World, because American Exceptionalism is just another term for imperial domination by a handful of privileged elites who feel no social responsibility at all. Such a foreign policy does not empower America: it bankrupts everyone.

Economically, our obsession with individual self-gratification creates a culture of hedonism that, for all its consumption and waste, only heightens our anxiety and robs us of true satisfaction. For real fulfillment lies in Seva, service to the community.

Individualism envisions a multiplicity of peak experiencers competing for private happiness. This vision is hopelessly incomplete. For the peak of the wave is momentary, but its base is everlasting. The peak is private and singular, but its base is the whole sea, embracing all other waves.

At life's surface sensory level, we seem to be individualized; but upon deeper analysis, we are one unified energy-field, vibrating into particles that are literally embedded in each other.

There is, in fact, no creature more dependent than a human being, who spends more time in the womb than any other, and whose childhood debt to mother and community is unparalleled among earth's creatures. We are inter-dependent parts of a global society, not separate sparks of "me"-ness.

When President Obama said, "You didn't build that," he infuriated those who have made a fetish of American "me"-ness and exceptionalism. But no truer words were ever spoken. Every human accomplishment is entangled in a tapestry of economic causes. The so-called individual is a matrix of her cultural conditioning. Her wave may give that cultural ocean a unique expression, but it is always an expression of the collective whole.

The delusion of individualism results in a confusion of soul and ego. We regard our spiritual life as a separate atomic entity, rather than a ripple of wholeness. In Christianity, this results in our obsession with independent salvation, "my" eternal status in heaven. Too often, I disregard Christ's call to lose my separate soul in service to others.

Meanwhile New Age seekers, stoked on novels like Hesse's Siddhartha and Kerouac's Dharma Bums, romanticize the quest for individual "self-realization." This adolescent vision of private enlightenment abandons the traditional Buddhist and Yogic emphasis on Sanga and Satsang: the inter-dependent community of disciples.

Spiritual organizations fail when they do not honor the complimentary opposites of human nature. We are both particle and wave, peak and sea. We are a strange and wondrous paradox! If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we lose our whole humanity.

Either we take the non-dualist approach and pretend that there is no individual ego at all. Or we take the hedonistic approach, and pretend there is no collective responsibility, no Sanga. But the wave cannot deny the sea, nor the sea its playfulness.

The wave is only powerful when it contains the sea. The sea can only dance when it plays in the wave. Root down. Then dance.

"One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality, Ubuntu, you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity." ~Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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