I first began to consciously question the value of Civilization in 1997. I was visiting Northhampton, Massachusetts, with a new lover. We were enjoying that early stage shortly after meeting when the intensity of sensation is so strong that your world is blown apart, making space for the new to enter and blossom, including the mystical. We went a book store I had never been in, and I found myself following my feet as they led me quickly down one of the aisles to a particular shelf. There, my hand reached up and picked out a book without my eyes reading the spine. The book was “My Name Is Chellis and I am Recovery from Civilization” by Chellis Glendenning.
I devoured the book in the days that followed, sating a hunger I hadn’t been aware of. Glendenning’s lucid text explained so much of the depression I had been experiencing in my life. Among many other salient points, she demonstrated how Civilization disconnects us from the natural world and how Capitalism appropriates our instincts in order to peddle us its wares. Glendenning turned on a light in my head that never went off again and has illuminated much for me in the time since as it has grown in brightness.
Four years later, inspired by the protests in Seattle against the WTO in late 1999, I moved to the West Coast and dove head-long into political activism. (The lover had become a partner and then an ex; as is typical, the magic was traded first for the mundane and then for the wretched.) In my new circles, I met forest defenders, anarcho-primitivists and rewilders, all of whom shared Glendenning’s disdain for Civilization, and some of whom took it much further, in both attitude and in action. This is when I first heard the name “Babylon” applied to Civilization in general and to Cities in particular. I’ve never been too fond of the term — Bible stories don’t inspire me much — but I’ve often shared the anti-Civ sentiments of those who use it.
Babylon, after all, has wrought annihilation seemingly everywhere: the clear-cut forests, the polluted rivers and oceans, the dams and drained wetlands, all the animals and plants going extinct, the mines and the powerlines, the massive blight of mono-culture farming, the ranches and slaughterhouses, the nightmare of nuclear power and its wastes that threaten to poison the planet for tens of thousands of years. I have walked through landscapes of tree-stumps, where the understory plants were dying in the sun and the ground was ripped open by machines and dragged logs, waiting for rain to wash the soil away. I have counted the rings of murdered giants and experienced a visceral rage that any human could sanction the killing of a creature that much older than any of us; how are they not our elders? And I have felt sorrow for the critters in the road run over by the logging trucks; how are they not our siblings?
I also know that Babylon has brought about Climate Change, which has the potential to wipe out most life on the planet, quite possibly in the near term. Here, too, I experience a profound sadness.
My experiences in nature have also been marked by other emotions: joy at the sight of desert wildflowers, wonder at the anatomy of insects, humility in the presence of towering trees. I have been cleansed by freely running water in a way that runs deeper than my skin. I have inhaled air so palpably alive that I felt like I had never breathed before. I have eaten wild food and felt a feral energy course through my muscles. I have built campfires whose dancing flames awakened visions behind my eyes of other times and places. I have laid on sand in the sun at the ocean and experienced a tranquility that goes beyond words. These tantalizing tastes of a life led outside have exceeded in satisfaction the so-called rewards manufactured and force-fed by Babylon.
Knocking Babylon is popular, and I certainly understand why. I’ve raised my own voice to join that condemnation more times than I can count, and I expect I will again. The City’s noise, lights, pollution, lack of vegetation and crowds — and most of all, the oppressive, psychic social pressure — have nearly always been disconcerting when I have found myself in the grid. As for the culture, its institutions, history and hypocrisy, I can flay it all from top to bottom, inside and out, backwards and forwards. Just read my blog, or, if you’ve known me in person, recall any number of tirades you heard. I have desired to escape Babylon and that journey has taken me through radical anti-Capitalist politics to small-scale organic farming and now to wandering. Wandering and wondering.
I am writing this essay on a solar-charged tablet computer, camped out in the Mojave Desert, “in the middle of nowhere.” If I want a pack of cigarettes of my favored brand, I have to drive over 50 miles for them. I don’t see other humans for days at a time, though I can hear nearby vehicles when the wind is low and at nighr can see twinkling headlights on the I-40, fifteen miles away. This choice of locale is all about being far away from the physical structures and cultural arrangements of “Babylon.” I don’t want to be there right now.
As I had hoped (though not limited to the ways I foresaw), I am finding this remote vantage point fruitful for trying to grok the nature of Babylon. The physical distance from the City and the wide open spaces of the desert have brought the topic into sharper focus for me because, of course, I brought Babylon with me. And I’m not talking about my tablet computer when I say that.
When I was an urban farmer, I often found myself trying to remove wild Blackberry bushes. Hacking all the vines to the ground does not accomplish the task; they just regrow. Chopping them down and then covering them with cardboard and mulch the way the Permacultists do is also ineffective; eventually they poke through, or re-emerge around the edges of the smothered zone. The only way to succeed is to dig down deep, following the roots and pulling them as you go. They will twist, turn and dive under concrete sidewalks, penetrate cracks in stone walls, and entangle themselves with their neighbors. It is arduous labor. So, too, is harvesting the roots of many wild plants that are medicines and traditional indigenous foods. Those growing in rocky soils can only be successfully and respectfully brought into the light with the right tools, attention and patience. Practice also helps, naturally.
It is the same when seeking the root causes of our contemporary conundrums. It is simple to call Babylon “evil,” and leave it at that, and we can use stridency, subtlety or wit when we do so. But is it actually that simple? Over the years, through observation and reflection, I have come to suspect that Babylon — the City, Civilization — is merely like the above-ground portion of a Blackberry: a mass of thorny vines that blocks the sun and spreads vigorously, smothering other life, but unlike the real Blackberry makes no fruit. But the roots that produce this monster — what are they? Perhaps unearthing that truth out could produce a harvest that, like medicine or food, is vital to living.
As I delve deeper, I sometimes find myself thinking, “If only it was just ‘Babylon’!” If tearing down the cities would solve our collective problem, then at least we would be facing a goal within the realm of our imaginations, even if virtually impossible to undertake. But it seems to me that our real challenge is much more difficult. It is a crisis of consciousness.
Put another way, Babylon is a symptom and its cause is a deeper sickness that we could call, “The Disease.”
What is The Disease? It is invisible, insidious, indulgent. Most of us are not only carriers, but are suffering from full-blown outbreaks. It is an exclusively human ailment, but when and how we were infected with it is unknown, though some ancient mythology offers hints. It was flowing through our veins before the first field was plowed, animal herded or tower erected. There is no cure that can be administered. Treatment can be attempted, but the process is arduous, and there is no promise of success.
A few people have recovered from The Disease, and an even smaller number born immune. They are described by others with words like “enlightened” or “transcended.” But this handful of healthy humans cannot take credit for their condition; though some might have invited it, none of them brought it about with any particular action or attitude. It just happened to happen to them. We can’t look to them as examples of how to be. So we can strike “follow a guru” off our list of possible approaches. The ego-mind might deviously attempt to assign us one by telling us that that’s not really what it’s doing, so we must remain vigilant. We must also be wary of others who want to elevate us as their own gurus; we all know what happens to people who are set on pedestals: they get knocked off.
But those of us who have not “transcended” (and probably never will) can still try to come to terms with The Disease. If the wisdom of many teachers throughout the ages is to be believed, the way to do this is to see it for what it is, with the most astute observation and closest attention we can muster, whereby we can accept it, which is to say, to refuse to deny the reality of our infection, and to learn to live with it. Then, though still present, it would lose its power over us.
This is the work — or “The Work” as some have called it — that I referred to earlier as “arduous.” From my own experience, I can certainly attest to that. In this effort, there is no goal that is attainable and no path that is clear because, in this aspect of living, “goals” and “paths” are both fictions manufactured by The Disease. Can it feel like floundering? Hell yeah. But the other option — letting The Disease rage unchecked — is to be an unconscious but full participant in the perpetuation of Babylon, no matter where we are, what we are doing, or who we are with. Even when we are all alone.
How do we observe The Disease? Look inside and… listen. What do you hear in your head? The answer is: your thoughts, of course. There’s a constant running dialogue about yourself, your appearance, choices, social standing, relationships, emotions, etc., etc. Am I a good person? Did that barista think I was cute? Should I have spent the money on something else? Will I get that promotion? Why doesn’t my partner understand me? I wish I didn’t feel so depressed. It goes on and on, none the better for when it’s a “positive” spin we’re putting on it: I’m so cool because that bartender thought I was hot, my paycheck is big, the boss loves me, my partner adores me, and I feel like I’m top of the world.
This is the voice of the ego-mind. I’m not using Freud’s clinical definition of the ego here, nor applying it in the sense of, “He’s got a big ego.” I am referring to the part of ourselves that is constantly telling a story to ourselves about ourselves, and then trying to get other people to believe it. The ego is a natural component of most humans; it needn’t be eliminated and it has its purposes. It develops during childhood as a means of self-definition but should be relegated to a submissive role with maturity. The Disease prevents us from growing beyond this stage. So in Babylon, everyone still operates with the child’s ego. There are no actual responsible adults.
Like the Blackberry vine, The Disease has many thorns:
It is mundane, speaking in conversational tones. It is also fond of spectacle, and revels in drama.
It acts as if it is your own best advocate. An eagerness to please you is its apparent motivation.
It is constantly conjuring up explanations, misdirecting the intellect to do so. Order is offered for the chaos that it itself creates in you.
It is up and running nearly every waking minute. A sudden shock can silence it, but it soon returns.
It chooses your friends and enemies, and can reverse them at the drop of a hat. Picking a side is one of its favorite occupations.
It the predator that most threatens you. It leads you to your own downfall and — logically — tries to bring about the same for everyone and everything around you, sometimes with what it calls “hate” and sometimes with what it calls “love.”
Dis-ease. Un-ease. Lack of ease. This is what it is. A manufacturer of difficulty, where none need exist. It is the agent of our fundamental disconnection from “the natural world,” which is to say, from the experience of living. Without The Disease, Babylon would be impossible. We would have no desire to build such a frightful machine.
For being omnipresent, The Disease of the overblown ego-mind can be hard to see. Like fish in water, it is what we swim in. Or rather, what we think we’re swimming in. The ego-mind creates this illusion, limiting our consciousness to a narrow bandwidth.
The Disease alternately casts us as devils or angels depending on what will best serve it in a given moment. We should not accept either label. Guilt and hubris are inventions of the ego-mind, which is why they are so prominent in the culture of Babylon. The hanging head and sunken shoulders of the ashamed, the puffed chest and ostentatious strut of the proud: it is a false choice that presents only characters like these to play. How can we avoid such dichotomies? To try to answer that question, I believe it is helpful to examine the difference between discernment and judgement.
Discernment is to see and comprehend, which is useful for survival and decision-making. Discernment shows us when fruit is ripe for picking, which wood is good for burning and what weather the wind is likely to bring. Our senses, experience, and intuition are its chief informants. Its development thrives on curiosity, a sharp eye and enthusiasm, and can foster real connection with the world around us. Discernment is practical. It can reveal “good for” or “bad for” in terms of a particular set of objective criteria. For example, “this berry is good,” by which we might mean mature, tasty or nutritious, or “this wood is bad,” by which we might mean rotten, over-dried or of a type too smoky for our cooking fire. A sunny, hot day is good for hanging laundry and bad for a long hike toting something heavy. A cool, rainy day is good for doing mending and bad for drying berries. Discernment is informative; it can help us see The Disease.
Judgement is a different beast altogether and is commonly misunderstood in our society. Generally, what people mean by “judgement” is “negativity,” but this is only half the picture. “Positivity” is the other and it is no more useful. To judge is to see and then merely to label, based on subjective criteria. These criteria are inventions of the ego-mind, whether they are sourced from religion, education or peers. Judgement’s “good” and “evil” only exist when we call them into being, and nothing in the universe changes when we do so except our perception of it. The conditions of the berries, wood and weather are entirely unchanged, but we have papered them over, and obscured them from ourselves. Judgement thrives on apathy, blindered vision and laziness, and fosters a disconnection from the world. Judgement is our own personal propaganda machine; it feeds The Disease.
What discernment and judgement have in common is that they both become stronger when we exercise them. Their by-products, however, differ greatly. While discernment can bring satisfaction — a full belly, a warm fire, a productive day — or dissatisfaction — a grumbling stomach, a lack of kindling, a missed opportunity — judgement only inflicts suffering, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the successes or failures of discernment for its own purposes: “I’m a good person because I was on it today” or “I’m a bad person because I was off my game.” The labelling of the self as good or bad — “awesome” or “asshole” — is entirely unproductive, except in feeding the ego-mind. The state of the plate and the hearth are effective lessons on their own.
Central to judgement is the act of comparison, with various gradations from “best” to “better” on the good side and “worse” to “worst” on the bad. It’s a rare moment when the ego-mind rates anything at the exact center of the spectrum, and in those cases it usually finds a reason to turn the dial one way or the other pretty quickly. Then we know how we ourselves measure up, compared to others or to an ideal. It’s always about that. Not that we “know” of course; we have merely convinced ourselves, in that moment anyway. It’s actually just a belief. And like every act of faith, it is motivated by hope or fear or both.
Hope and fear are closely akin and both exist only in the company of judgement. “Hope” is “good” and “fear” is “bad.” But hope has no power to change anything, and fear has no utility. Both instill subservience when we give into them. Though in some moment it might seem that they have been aroused by another person or a situation, in truth they emerge only because they were already there inside us waiting for our ego-mind to deploy them. They find their strength solely within.
(The “fear” that we feel in the face of danger is something else: that’s the will-to-live instinct, which is shared by other creatures. The choices that follow — of fight, flight or freeze — are best handled by our discernment. Judgement will be of no assistance there. The will-to-live instinct is not immutable; it has been transcended by some humans and it is said that other creatures, both fauna and flora, willingly give themselves up as prey under certain circumstances. These are topics for another time.)
Hope, fear, judgement: inwardly they manifest as turmoil, stress, tension; outwardly as domination, violence, greed: the drivers of Babylon. The modus operandi of The Disease is to sic them on our emotions. This is serious business, and not something to shrug off as trivial. The hijacking of our emotional life by our ego-mind is at the heart of our crisis in consciousness. It is only because we do not relate to our emotions clearly and honestly that we are capable of committing ecocide.
The wanton destruction of life on our planet is accompanied by an intense sorrow, borne on the wind, welling up from the earth, flowing through our very blood: the cries of animals cruelly put to death, the pain of plants pillaged and poisoned, our brothers and sisters bombed, tortured and enslaved. Like radios picking up broadcasts, we cannot help but feel the emotional reverberations of these actions, but the ego-mind makes a noise that drowns out the signal. Raw, feral energy is channeled into narcissistic domesticity. This is why everyone is so numb. This is how Babylon carries on.
For being so apparently obsessed with we think we are feeling at any time of day — whether it’s happy, sad, angry, jealous, relieved, etc. — we give very little consideration to what genuine emotions actually are, and what it is to experience them.
Emotions are sensations that come and go, passing through us at their own pace and without our bidding. They are part and parcel of living in a human body. We can not control them any more than we can control sights from our eyes, sounds from our ears, tastes from our tongues, scents from our noses, and tactile sensations from our skin. That is, when our eyes are open, our brains receive a visual picture of our environment that we “see.” We can’t help it and no conscious choice is necessary to make it happen. Yes, we can close our eyes, plug our ears or pinch our noses, but this only blocks the stimulus; it does not make the stimulus go away or affect the organ’s inherent capabilities. Only by injury or removal of the organs themselves can we make them stop functioning.
Emotions, on the other hand, can not be blocked from at all, short of serious brain trauma. Our perceptions of them can be magnified or dulled somewhat with various substances, but they don’t go away. Like the other products of the senses — sights, sounds, tastes, etc. — emotions are conveyors of stimuli, and nothing else. None of them are good or bad in and of themselves, just as the colors or shapes that the eye sees are not good or bad. They merely exist and are something that is being shown to us.
Of course most of us have preferences regarding the products of our senses. For example, we could assemble a group of a dozen random people and ask them to label the following sights as beautiful, ugly or boring: a maple tree turning color in autumn, the skyline of Manhattan, a corn field, a 1963 Jaguar XJ, a freshly harvested Oshalla root, a tarantula spider, a mother nursing her baby. It’s very unlikely that everyone would give the same answers for all seven items. We can agree that “there’s no accounting for taste.” We can also observe that tastes change over time. The person who spits out a sip of beer at age five might be putting away a six-pack every night at twenty. Clearly, preferences are superficial; their validity cannot be objectively proven through discernment. They are the subjective products of judgement, and nothing more.
When it comes to something like what kind of chocolate we prefer, or whether we even like chocolate or not, it hardly matters, but the ego-mind also extends preferences to our emotions. That’s where there’s real trouble. Each emotion is judged along the continuum of “good” and “bad” to the finest grain possible. One can’t simply feel happy or sad in a moment, one has to feel happy or sad about feeling happy or sad. Our experience of the emotion is hijacked by the ego-mind and now we aren’t experiencing it anymore — we are experiencing our thoughts and judgement about it instead. This self-obsession prevents us from feeling the pain of the planet, even though it is wailing so loudly.
Ultimately, the ego-mind is attempting to control life itself by throttling our emotional experience of it. But just as trying to control the picture given to us by the eye or the sound given to us by the ear would be futile, so are our efforts to corral our emotions. It is not possible. So we end up engaging in self-torture, which is then turned outward onto whomever or whatever is available, whether creature or concept. We defeat ourselves first, then move on to the planet, using Babylon as our tool.
What would our emotional lives be like if we were not afflicted by The Disease? I can only imagine. I have spent some time here in the desert trying to experience sorrow directly, free of the ego-mind’s attempts to explain, direct or dull it, and I can tell you it seems virtually impossible most of the time. The chatter doesn’t want to stop.
But I did experience a few “gaps” between the monologues and debates. What I felt then is not easy to put into words but I guess that makes sense: the unanalysed experience would necessarily be bereft of explicability in words. This is, perhaps, where expression could happen through non-verbal communication: music, movement or visual art.
I also can’t tell you “how it felt” in conventional terms because it wasn’t “good” or “bad” and the ego-mind’s entire vocabulary seemingly exists exclusively along that spectrum. All I will dare say, and this still doesn’t pin it, is that it felt like I found myself in a limitless place. It was not the world of boxes and boundaries that my ego-mind insists everything fits into. Will I ever find that “place” again? I don’t know. But I know that hoping for it won’t help!
So if the problem is not Babylon, then is there any point to being physically separated from it? To leaving the City, if only for a spell? To trying to create alternative communities that are based on older ways of living? Yes, I believe so. Going out into the wilderness can be powerful, humbling and instructive, for sure. When we are away from the noise of Babylon, our own internally-generated noise can be more clearly distinguished. The internal manifestations of The Disease can be easier to observe.
I want to stress “can be,” though. We can eat by digging roots, collecting berries, gathering acorns, catching fish and hunting game. We can clothe ourselves by tanning hides and sewing them to order. We can shelter in a long house, tipi or umucha. We can treat our injuries and illness with plant parts. We can nap flint for tools, start fires with drills, and carry water in skins. We can do all this and more and still be complete slaves to our ego-minds, purveying Babylon.
All of these activities, it is true, have the potential to help us to focus on the arduous work of seeking freedom from The Disease since, by their nature, they are grounded in the physical, are practical in application and encourage the development of discernment. But all of them can also be expertly accomplished without diving deep inside at all.
Above all, this is what is key: a conscious, unwavering intent to dig as one’s highest priority. The ego-mind can quickly adapt to a new venue and play its same games with no handicap. I have experienced this myself, intimately, out here in the desert.
Looking back over everything I have written here, it occurs to me that its essence could be boiled down to these two famous quotations:
“We have the enemy and he is us.” (“Pogo” comic strip)
“You tell me ‘It’s the Institution’ / Well, you know / You better free your mind instead.” (John Lennon, in the Beatles’ “Revolution”)
So flip to the funny pages or put on some tunes. You’re as likely to find some truth there as anywhere else… if that’s what you’re looking for.