Over 300 million years ago, the land mass now known as the Middle East was covered by swamps and shallow seas and populated by countless forms of life. Now, the residue of those creatures and plants have transformed into oil deposits beneath the sands of the region. When that oil is resurrected and processed, it becomes energy, and the world is hungry for it. Most addicted of all is the United States, and that addiction binds us to its custodians: the countries and peoples of Arabia, including Iraq.
Around 5,000 years ago, humans migrated into the same lands to settle and develop the area that has long been called “The Cradle of Civilization.” It is formed around an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and at its center was once the city of Babylon, just a stone’s throw from present-day Baghdad.
While the land has preserved the oil, the cultures of the region have acted as caretakers, too. But they have, instead, preserved a worldview for the last several millennia. They have retained, with remarkable faithfulness, the prevailing views held in the days of the Old Testament. It is a rigid, harsh, and sometimes brutal approach to life and social order. But in the unforgiving environment of rock and sand, brutality can easily appear to be a survival skill.
While the original inhabitants of the Cradle did not themselves spawn humanity, they did play a pivotal role in the development of civilizations and cultures worldwide. Few surviving cultural traditions contain no trace of the views, values, and beliefs originated there. Even the Garden of Eden is believed to have been located in what we now call Iraq.
In the thousands of years since the Cradle gave birth to civilization, many variations have emerged in our individual and cultural paradigms, but we still retain some of that original belief system. For many, it is the core around which all other perspectives are formed.
The kill-or-be-killed, eye-for-an-eye simplicity of that ancient world are proving to be hopelessly out of date. It was at best a crude approximation of true wisdom, and the farther our world moves into the future, the more inadequately such views serve us.
But ancient thoughts do not die easily. They have an almost genetic tenacity. To make matters worse, the demands placed upon us by our social and technical evolution require us to continually upgrade our views of life, the universe, and everything. This is a new kind of challenge for humanity. We are called upon today to make deep, sweeping changes to the very core of our psyches, that no other generation of humankind has ever had to face. Because it was never necessary, or even particularly important to make such changes, we have neither traditions, nor institutions, nor technologies to aid us. And the stakes are unimaginably high: nuclear annihilation among them. Clearly, we must adapt successfully or perish.
I have long found that taking a symbolic view of such phenomena can offer great insights into their real meaning. In today’s world, for example, America can be viewed as the preeminent symbol of humanity’s journey into a future that is both brave and beautiful. Conversely, Iraq (and the Middle East at large) is symbolic of the dogged preservation of antiquated values. And the two are now at war.
America is a forward-looking, young and eager force, bound by an addiction to ancient energy without which it believes it cannot move ahead, while Iraq is a veritable treasure trove of ancient thought and, of course, energy (a.k.a. oil). The struggle is one of technology against thousands of years of ruthlessness, guile, and tough-mindedness. It is a classic engagement indeed.
What no one seems to see is that in bombing Baghdad, we are symbolically trying to rid ourselves of our own latent views that have been held in trust for all these centuries. We are frustrated at the limitations they represent to us. We are appalled by barbaric practices, both public and private. And, of course, we require the energy.
For its part, the Arab world believes their cultures and value systems are, both figuratively and literally, quite sacred. They see the U.S. as imperialistic, high-handed, and to some, the personification of evil. As I said, it is clearly a classic struggle.
But one cannot obliterate a thought with a bomb, and beliefs are nothing if not thoughts. So when the U.S. and its allies drop explosives on the heartland of the ideas they think of as their enemies, they accomplish nothing they intend to. It is not possible. Even a nuclear explosion is not powerful enough to do that job. I have found that there is only one way to divest one’s self of any troublesome idea: withdraw life support from it. In other words, the way to kill a thought is to refuse to think it.
Translating the symbolic into practical terms, the way to deal with Iraq or any other stronghold of offensive belief is to turn away and never look back. No, I don’t mean the “sanctions” imposed by the UN years ago. I mean cutting off all relations to everyone with whom we have such differences. Unfortunately, that would not just include Iraq, but virtually all other Arab nations as well as Israel and many others. But there is one little problem: we would have to do without what they have that we want, which includes, of course, energy in its liquid form.
So, what separates us from making a clean break with our own past is our addiction to ancient energy. It seems to me that symbolically that translates into one simple fact: our belief in new sources of “energy” still lags behind our belief in the ancient ones.
Oil is only a symbol for a much deeper energy, though. It is also symbolized by ancient religions, ancient customs, ancient beliefs, ancient superstitions, and more. Is it really time to cut all our ties with those old, well-worn artifacts of our heritage? Are we really ready? It would seem not.
This, of course, raises the question of what will have to happen before we are ready. I think religious thought and practice may be the best monitor of our progress, past and future. In the last half of the twentieth century, traditional religions worldwide changed more than they have in centuries. People by the millions began finding them long on tradition, but short on real wisdom that could guide them on the difficult path into their individual and collective futures. They began to shop around. In the ‘60s, the Eastern religions gained in popularity for a while. In the ‘70s the “human potential movement” made a brief, but dramatic surge into the spotlight.
Since then, it has been something of a free-for-all. The only two patterns that stood out in the noise were the falling back by some onto “fundamentalist” religious dogmas, and the emergence of “New Age” philosophies, propagated by teachers both living and dead. But these are all just experiments, of sorts. They are desperate attempts to grab onto something that at least gives the illusion of solidity. When they fail, as most of them must, you just jump to the next, and the next, and the next. But what then? What does one do when one can no longer take any known dogma seriously enough that it offers even temporary comfort?
That seems to be the question most in need of answering, and yet the one least often asked. The answer, however, is quite simple: look into yourself. I never said it was going to be easy, just simple. In the end, the answers we cannot provide ourselves, we may have to do without.
The good news is that increasingly there are those who learn that this is true, and who, often at great personal sacrifice, devote themselves to finding the means to real self-discovery. Anne Sekel said, “You cannot find yourself, only create yourself.” So it is really about self-creation. There has been a veritable groundswell of interest in the “technology” of self-creation in the last quarter century, and it continues to build. How long will it take to change our world in that way? The most accurate answer is: less than a nanosecond. It may, however, take considerably longer to arrive at that moment. Meanwhile, we will presumably busy ourselves with Iraqing the Cradle and other equally fruitless occupations.