Human beings are born egocentric. As infants, we are not just the center of the universe… we are the totality of the universe. We make no distinctions between our hunger, our mouths and our mothers’ breast. As toddlers, everything we touch is Mine! There is no relating to the experience of any Other. It is all and only about Me. Egocentrism serves a critical purpose at this stage. It ensures we develop a healthy sense of self that will support our biological imperative for survival.
Developmental psychologists have observed that somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 - given adequate nurturing and minimal trauma - we (hopefully) develop into ethnocentric beings. Life becomes about our expanding circles of “tribes.” My family, my home town, my country. Older siblings start watching out for younger ones. Kids on the basketball court stop ball hogging and start passing... For some, tribes can get paradoxically both wider and narrower as we identify with race, religion, education and economic class. Whatever its form, ethnocentrism serves a critical purpose at this stage. It ensures we develop a sense of community that offers safety, health and cultural norms that support the biological imperative, as a species, to survive, thrive and procreate.
The challenge is that most human beings never develop beyond ethnocentrism. It is the reason for much of the conflict that exists between human beings. It is responsible for the increase in publicly displayed aggression such that we have witnessed this past year, and for much of the social and economic inequity that exists in our world. It is why we have wars. As a species, we are stuck in ethnocentrism.
While we sometimes see hints of world-centrism - the next stage of development - in, for example, the widening interest in sustainable and regenerative farming and in climate change consciousness and activism, I want to propose that "centric”-thinking itself is actually what limits human development. What if drawing circles around ourselves is responsible for the seemingly destructive impact our species has on this living organism we call Earth? What if our drawing of the lines between us and them - any us and them - is what limits our worldview?
Separation does seem to be at the core of our destructiveness. Farmers separate the cows from the field, depriving them of their natural food while depriving the soil of its natural fertilizer. Upper gastrointestinal (GI) physicians see their work as distinct from lower GI docs. And like children who think they are invisible when they cover their eyes, nearly all of us have embedded the illusion that we can “throw it away” when, in fact, there is no “away.”
And it gets even more dramatic… My biggest OMG moment about how we humans have separated ourselves came when I googled “define nature.” The result from the Oxford Dictionary states “Nature: The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.”
What? Really? Everything else?? Literally everything on the planet except humans and human creations??? As if we are made of some alien substance. As if our breathing, eating and excreting, and procreating are somehow “unnatural.” I was, for a moment, uncharacteristically at a loss for words...
When did we separate ourselves and lose the natural connection? It wasn’t always this way. When we nostalgically admire “native” cultures, we underscore how they saw themselves a part of the ecosystem in which they lived. When they hunted, they never killed more than the herd could sustain. When they harvested, it was a regenerative practice that kept the soil fertile and the fruits going strong. They had a relationship with the wind and could smell the rain coming. The pulsing of their lives was in time with the cycles and the seasons and the natural rhythms of the earth. Even though they could be competitive within their tribe and with tribes beyond their own, their framing was not in centric circles. Their cultural narrative was (still is) a connection consciousness that included time and space - not just all that was around them, but also that which came before and seven generations into the future. This is missing for us in industrial cultures, a lost stage of human development.
So, how do we recover? How do we begin to repair that which we have - in our ethnocentric stuckness - brought to such disrepair? How do we challenge the very nature of our human identity, especially right now, when our cultural narrative is fraught with inequity, aggression and violence between tribes?
My default is to study. And then wrestle with what I learn. And then bring people into the conversation and discover the patterns and illuminate the connections. If I find myself feeling closed, I come back to curiosity, and if I need to, to compassion. As I read Jonathan Haidt describing the moral foundations both shared and not shared between liberals and conservatives in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics, I see where I have been closed to the Other. As Peter Wohlleben narrates The Hidden Life of Trees and brings the forest to life - “family” takes on a new meaning and a walk in the woods will never be the same. As Ed Yong intimately describes in I Contain Multitudes how bacteria in our gut and on our skin are our partners in health, I cannot help but begin to see “them” as “us”.
The blurring of the lines between us and them in many ways mimics the “totality” feelings of our infancy, only with a grown-up consciousness, “Life” rather than “I” is at the center of the universe. We understand that our actions cause ripples out into the universe beyond ourselves, even beyond what we can see. This doesn’t mean we are going to stop making decisions ego, ethno, or even anthropocentrically. Our survival impulses are strong and when threatened, it is natural to go there. But if we rise to the challenge to learn more about the complexity of life beyond the narrow human experience - to frame life with a connection consciousness - our decisions are made with a wide lens and for the long term.
I know this can feel daunting. Where to start? (From where you are.) What is the path? (One foot in front of the other.) It is the mission of The Academy of Natural Rhythms to provide experiences that kickstart the adventure and offer inspiration, refreshment and companionship throughout the journey. Read with us as we learn about the intelligent and connective mycelia distributing nourishment under our feet, and about the bubbling magic and nutritional powerhouse of lacto-fermentation. Come walk with us in the woods and activate all your senses. What do you hear? What do you smell? How does it feel? Dive into a Natural Rhythms workshop for an experience more focused on changing your world. All life exists in the flow of nourishment. Can you sense it?
As we reclaim this lost stage of human development, recovery and repair will be a natural consequence. The impact that the intricately interwoven connections have on all our systems - our food, sleep, relationships, energy levels, our general health and the health of all the other life systems in our view - will be subtly and dramatically evident. Moment by moment, the days of our lives will never be the same.
About the Author
Sarah Gabriel has been learning and teaching about "Human Sustainability" - the flow of energy and resources that keep us healthy - for decades. She finds deep nourishment in the Aha! moments that expand our world view.