Written by Brad Dixon / everFIT
John Lawrence Hill is an author and law professor who is very concerned about international human rights. This book is a manifest on how humankind can save ourselves while in turn saving the planet. He has since written other books that have a similar theme – The Case for Vegetarianism: Philosophy for a Small Planet (1996), and The Political Centrist (2009).
There are certain prophets that say our western societies are doomed to “die out in our air-conditioned cages, victims of overabundance, overpopulation, and genuine, deep-rooted existential apathy”. Hill talks about how humans are, and what our potential could be with daily habit changes. He strongly believes (as do I) that nature has an innate ability to evolve and flourish when given the right conditions, just like human beings. Hill discusses how we are all connected, with each other and the natural world, so all have a role to play in allowing each other to thrive in harmony with a thriving planet. An “enlightened” society is one that has become integrated, non-judgmental, and compassionate. A society that considers the bigger picture before acting, and fully understands the importance of our beautiful planet to support a thriving community. Hill choose to strengthen his position in the book by talking about his own personal transformation through the undertaking of regular meditation (20min up to 2 x day), and transitioning to a plant-based, vegetarian diet.
In the introduction, Hill busts out a beautiful Henry David Thoreau quote “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.” Talk is cheap, our walk creates meaningful change. Your talk talks but your walk talks far louder. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach……….and I could go on. Hill sums up the first chapter by asking the philosophers and policy makers to “relinquish the arm chair for the world. We must never abandon dedication to ideas, but must bring ideas to the world, marshaling them for practical application in the quest for human fulfillment……the need for discipline and development does not mean that life must be dull and ascetic, quite the contrary, such a life can be filled with love, joy, mischief, and fun. In short, life must become a celebration of our potential, and our potential is unlimited.”
The first chapters in the book define the different strands of philosophy from the Western and Eastern schools of thought and how the “self” is defined. In the history of the East and West there are three broad definitions of what man (and of course this includes women) is. The self concepts are the Soul (religions of the west), Atman (religions of the east), and Ego (modern scientific outlook). There is much overlapping between these modes and it’s time we looked for commonality rather than fight about the differences. Extremes will not help humanity to attain the higher step of living for which we are all striving. Jung (a student of Freud) described the ego as the moment to moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and intentions. An everyday awareness of our individuality. The self is a little harder to define. Jung talked about it being the centre of our personality, a drive to be fully whole. Getting to know our true self is life’s goal and is biographically represented in modern thought by the lives of Christ and Buddha. The wisdom, charm, and loving compassion of these two incredible beings creates a huge impact. It is of little wonder that Buddha and Jesus Christ (both of whom Hill describes as “undoubtedly enlightened”) were deified by their followers after their deaths. Jung put three pillars forward in regards to the notion of self
- Humankind has greater psychological potential – the optimum level of psycho-spiritual functioning has yet to be achieved by most.
- The realisation of this innate potential is possible
- Selfhood is achieved by the unification of separate parts of our personality.
These pillars laid the groundwork for humanistic psychology. The greatest humanistic thinker of all is Abraham H. Maslow. Maslow claimed as part of his Hierarchy of needs that self-actualisation is an “instinctual need in humans to make the most of their abilities, to strive to be the best they can” or “the desire to become more and more of what one is, to become everything one is capable of becoming.” Abraham H. Maslow not only looked at the hierarchical structure of needs, but also at how to reach true potential through his studies of some truly extraordinary humans. Maslow believed that less than 1% of the population obtains “self-actualisation”. He studied several subjects (living and dead) to work out the habits and characteristics of these “actualised” individuals. From his studies of Lincoln, Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Einstein, Henry Thoreau, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others he documented the following list of traits:
- Realistically orientated and accept themselves, others, and the world as they are.
- Problem-centred rather than self-centred.
- Have an air of emotional detachment and a need for privacy
- Autonomous and independent
- Appreciative of people and the world in a fresh, rather than stereotyped way.
- Most have had profound mystical or spiritual experience, though not necessarily religious in nature.
- They identify with mankind and their relationships with a few people are profound, deeply emotional, and not superficial – for them ALL people are equal.
- Do not confuse means with ends, and have a sense of humour that is philosophical, detached, but not hostile.
- They are creative and engage in creative pursuits.
- Resist conformity to culture and transcend rather than merely cope with the environment.
Maslow then wrote about what was required to bring about “actualisation” (or enlightenment) once the lower needs are meet. These needs are arranged in a hierarchy from the most basic to the more complex. The first two base levels are called deficiency needs (involve need for something that is lacking – physiological eg air, water, shelter, warmth, Security eg safety, employment, health, stability) and the top three are growth needs (belonging and love, Esteem, and self actualisation). The growth needs are never satisfied and can’t be worked on until the lower needs are taken care of in most cases. These is a struggle for most of humanity due to our massive rifts in resources, opportunity, and hope:
- To experience everything fully and unself-consciously.
- To make GROWTH choices rather than DEFENCE or fear-based choices.
- To follow the “inner voice” not some socially imposed or internalised standard.
- Take responsibility for your own actions
- To know what you prefer and be honest about it.
- To be the best you can be at something
- To appreciate your peak experiences.
- To discover who you are, and what you would like to be
Maslow’s construct of a self-actualised human embodies someone who is altruistic and isn’t ruled by simple short term pleasure. He has described this 1% “without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves…..they are working at something which fate has called them to somehow, and which they work at and which they love, so that the work/joy dichotomy in them disappears.”
An actualised or fully self developed individual looks beyond occupation, castes, race, religion, sex, age, and general status in society. They look at the ability to thrive in life for all humanity transcending smaller utilitarian concerns. According to Hill, an enlightened individual goes further, extending this protective construct to all sentient beings (e.g., animals). Writings in oriental history has many examples of the doctrine of non-violence extended to even the smallest insect. The obvious practicality of this outlook is not the point. What is important to take away is the pervasive moral duty that helps direct overarching action on a daily basis. Just because it’s impossible to do no harm whatsoever doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to create as little harm as possible with our daily choices.
Hill presents a very simple developmental hierarchy with only three levels that many of us can associate with (Hill used the term “man” – I will use “person”). Having person, Doing person, and Being person. This is a spectrum someone moves along as they grow, mature, and evolve toward being a person that starts to think and act more from the perspective of “we” rather than just “I”. From a total consumer and taker to a person that strives to give back and be of value. It’s interesting to me that Western culture is a real blend of the haver and doer, and the traditional Eastern teachings are more of a morph between the doer and being.
The Haver (at the lower end of human development) is someone who readily identifies with stuff or the tangible. The relationship between the Having personality and the external world is ownership. They find meaning in the material things they own – car, house, label clothing, even friends they “possess.” Their self worth is reflected in the things that they own. This rigid identification makes them the most “psychologically unstable” of the three types. The having type can never find peace, joy, or confidence staying at this level as the very act of ownership drains the object of the sought-after quality. It is this irony that makes the pursuit of “stuff” an unending one. Havers make the best patriots – “My country, right or wrong!” Havers will use religion as a social, political, and economic tool for furthering their own ends. Hill discusses the true goal of religion as comprehensive self development. One gradually coming to understand oneself better. To realise hidden motivation in routine behaviour and habits, while communicating effectively, and co-operating with others.
“The more one possesses, the more one is possessed.” Nietzsche
The Doing person finds significance in experience. Western culture is starting to shift towards experience replacing possession as a dominant mode of personal identification. They identify with their occupation, travel, where they have traveled, who they have been with. The nature of the relationship with the external world is that of experience – the consumption of life events. The Doing personality (unlike the Haver who holds on to constants) wallows in the uncertainty of continuous movement from one experience to the next. In the early stages, they seek “quantity of experience” rather than quality of life which can lead to a degradation of any morality. If a “doer” stays too long in this mode, they are at best an affable, flexible, easy-going socialite who has pride in getting along in a variety of situations. At worst, they are a master of disguise without a solid sense of self, and when the mask is removed have no substance.
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Nietzsche
The Being person is the least populous of the three stages and is the apex. These people are characterised by a marked absence of dependence on external conditions and circumstances. They have learned to find joy in external things and experience without psychological dependence on them. These people have found an inner source of grace and stability with awareness of a greater sense of self knowledge. Real personal integration can only occur when lifestyle habits are aligned with the subject’s talents, desires, and capacities. It is important to note that there is no one state of universal “enlightenment” or one path towards achieving “self realisation.” We need to encourage everyone to find their own path and all help each other along and up. Hill also talks about the difficulty of love, openness, compassion, and humility in a world in which many of our leaders and culture put a premium on aggressiveness and hostility. As William James wrote, “It must be confessed that as far as the world goes, anyone who makes a saint out of himself does so at his own peril.” A Being person isn’t as concerned about a “why” as existence itself is the highest reward. They find the locus and basis for the good and meaningful within, so there’s no need to go searching in external things or experiences.
“It is wisdom to know others. It is enlightenment to know one’s self.” Lao Tzu
Changing our habits are indeed part of how we change ourselves. One of the first steps in this process is becoming aware of our behaviours. There are many brain processes happening at any given time, and only a small fraction of these correspond with conscious thought. The vast majority are unconscious. Nevertheless, they still have a profound effect on our behaviour. This is why I believe meditation is such a powerful tool in stopping the cultural busyness and starting to get to know yourself. When you stop and become aware of what inner dialogue is going on, and tagging thoughts and feelings, then you can start to become more aware of thoughts and impulses, and begin to make real change. So what good is a “being” person to the world? Wisdom unused is worse than ignorance, it is a renunciation not of self but of others. Isolated mountains, caves, or ivory towers may be important to renew strength and motivation for purpose, but not for permanent retreat.
Towards the end of the book, Hill makes some lovely observations. In place of technological or financial progress, we must begin to orient life around a psycho-spiritual vision of progress or growth. Freedom of choice is a significant, even overwhelming, reality in everyday life. This is evident when we go down the aisles at the supermarket. This kind of freedom has permeated every corner of our modern lives. It can create analysis paralysis and decision fatigue. Having some fixed boundaries and limited choice in life allows more security and stable growth on a personal level. Fixed enhancing habits carried out consistently can create transformation in a gradual process. It can be discrete, coming in stages, bursts of growth interspersed with periods of slow progression and plateaus. Life should be lived not just to accumulate money and stuff, but to accumulate wisdom; not to develop a financial portfolio or a social media feed, but to develop oneself and real relationships. Love, joy, and humor, not despair, cynicism, and highlight reels, should mark our lives. Unfortunately, any progress in our culture has been attributed to scientific advances, more than moral or compassionate development.
One of the most fundamental results of psycho-spiritual development is the progressive obliteration of those fine lines that separate us as humans, our sex, race, colour, religion, and taking it further and having empathy for animals and our natural world. To oppress is to distinguish. The Greeks could enslave the “barbarians” as these foreigners were from “a lesser culture.” American slavery was justified as the “negro” was less of a human (3/5 of a human, if the Constitution was to be cited back then). The process of moral progress must look at breaking down the gap between the oppressor and the oppressed. The essence of progressive morality is the willingness to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself – with respect and appreciation.
“Life should be – and can be – a process of getting better. Everything we do should add up to making us more wise, compassionate, humane, and happy. Life should be a process of accumulation, but it is wisdom, love, joy, and compassion for others, and the natural world that should be accumulated.”
I found this book utterly refreshing. I love when I read something that resonates, backing up my thoughts on how progression should be measured. Our society has been told to change so we can literally save our planet. Most of us live in our busy little bubble consumed by growing to-do lists. We are losing authentic connection with each other and our natural world to the detriment of our wellness, and the planet’s ability to sustain life. Moving from a consuming “haver” to a human “being” by championing compassion and love for all is not a “woo hoo” hippy thing. It’s THE thing that we need to find within us, then pursue with passion.