IF HUMANITY as a whole were a person, what developmental stage do you think we are we in? If you said adolescent, you’re in good company. Author and visionary Duane Elgin has asked people all over the world this question, and most think humanity is in its teenage years: testing limits and boundaries, innovating without regard to past or future (for better and for worse), focusing on social standing and image, and doing all those things that teenagers do.
One characteristic of adolescents is that they don’t think their parents or grandparents know anything — they think they are smarter then those who came before. There is some truth to that: adolescents are more forward thinking and so likely to question how it’s always been done, and to see the glaring, problematic areas of the culture that their elders have grown used to and complacent about. But of course, there are things that elders DO know.
Just as we all have family elders, we also have elder cultures — indigenous, land-based, traditional cultures. They know something about how the world works that modern people don’t. It is inevitable: they have spent their collective lives deeply tuned to the natural world, and have carefully preserved and passed on their knowledge in stories, practices and complex, symbolic cosmologies.
One key theme that runs through these elder cultures is some kind of deep expression of and attention to reciprocity and balance, both personally and collectively—something that has been largely discarded by modern people, who, for example, think nothing of working endless hours while neglecting their relationships, their health, their spiritual lives, and their souls. Most of us who have been living in Western cultures have done that, and may be doing it now.
Here in Ubud, Bali, this is a prevalent culture clash: the Balinese are obligated by tradition to maintain balance, and it interferes with their ability to work like a westerner and thereby succeed in Western-style business, which is now beginning to dominate in the tourist facilities largely owned and operated by foreigners. I’ve spoken with business owners who shake their heads and feel bad for the Balinese, wishing they would just have fewer ceremonies and family or village obligations so they could rise up the ranks and not be stuck in lowly jobs. I wonder how many consider that the Balinese might know something they don’t about balance, and it could be far better for the Westerners to learn from and adapt to them than have it go the other way?
Often, it seems that when we in the west talk about the evolution of consciousness, there is a subtle assumption that we are at the pinnacle, just as the Western business people think they know so much more about success and the good life than the traditional Balinese. Perhaps the first step as adolescents is to humble ourselves enough to open and learn from those cultures that have somehow survived and thrived for thousands of years without making a big environmental mess. In other words, listen to our grandparents instead of just dismissing them as sweet and quaint, but hopelessly old fashioned and out of tune with the times.
How does this happen collectively? Here in Bali, it’s easy to see that it starts with each of us individually. One foreign business owner successfully learning from and adapting to the Balinese way sets an example for all the others. And this is also true where you live because the collective is made up of individuals. Just as our little decisions add up to habits, and habits make a life, all our little lives add up to a collective way of life. Change moves in positive directions when individuals recognize the importance of their small decisions and step forward with a fresh example that others can join with.
One match can create a forest fire. One seed: a meadow of flowers.