Adventures In Self Discovery To Transform Your Life

Chapter 3 How We Got this Way

From nature’s point of view, the purpose of life is to move our genes forward into the next generation. All the rest just keeps us alive and interested while we get it done. Every human being is the result of an age-old recipe for survival. “Don’t get killed, make babies.” The recipe has a few simple rules for surviving.

• breathe
• maintain body temperature
• drink water
• eat
• sleep 
• evacuate
• have friends
• make babies.

This recipe works to adapt our bodies and behavior to an ever changing world. Our survival as a person, a family and a group depends on following the rules. Our bodies make sure we pay attention by giving us pleasure and pain to show us what works and what doesn't. These ancient patterns still operate and are enforced. They have great power in our lives even though we are not aware of it. You can only change your experience by working with them to get what you want. Let's look at what we need to know to make those changes.

What It Takes To Be Human
All of us are built to survive, to reproduce, to create and to die. Our bodies are set up to be alert for trouble and for opportunity. We spot the tiger behind the bush, the low hanging fruit, the safe cave. We are built to learn a language, to see causes, to work with numbers. We fear heights, mimic others and take care of family and friends. We watch, imitate and learn from others. Then we turn this input into the knowledge, beliefs and practices that make up our culture. We suspend disbelief to play and to pray.

Humans are built to live in and identify with small groups. We care, share, cooperate, reciprocate and work together. We cooperate because it keeps us alive. That increases the chance of passing our genes along to the next generation. Trust is the basis of our interactions. Trust and take care of yourself, your family, your tribe, your nation, and all the people like you. We learned to cooperate to specialize and exchange stuff. You can do your thing and I will do mine and still everything that the group needs will get done.

Our cultures all embody prestige, status, inequality, jealousy, punishment and hostility to outsiders. Our life stories are all about conflict, distress, guilt and rivalries. They happen between and among friends, family and competitors. We distrust strangers. Difference is error. Error is danger. This side of human nature says, “Don't take my food or mess with my family and friends or I'll kill you.” Conflict is what we do. Some people will compete, cheat and kill to get what they want.

All of these behaviors were necessary to keep us alive and thriving from cave to condo. They are ancient directives built into our bodies. They generate patterns that repeat over and over to shape families, tribes, cities and civilizations. They are the roots of the rights and rules that we turn into laws and enforce with police and armies. They are built into our cultures and into our bodies and behavior at the deepest level. As you become aware of and then work with them, you can change your life.

How We Built Community
People hunted and gathered food together, then invented farming and settled down. Tribes merged into communities and cities began to appear. We learned to specialize and to trade. We invented money. Our cities multiplied and expanded, becoming nations. Our major innovations (fire, farming, animal breeding, cities and writing) produced radical changes in civilizations over thousands of years.

In a community there will be folks who believe there is enough to go around if everyone takes just what they need. Their survival is built on cooperation, nurturing, support and protection within the community. These people feel they have enough. They can share with others. They are open, like to explore and make friends with strangers. I will call them cooperators.

There will also be folks who believe there is not enough to go around. The world is a threatening place where you have to compete to get what you need or take it away from someone else. Competition requires self-discipline and hard work. It sorts out the best people who deserve their wealth just as the poor deserve their place. To ensure order and stability, competition and authority must be maintained no matter what. I will call them competitors.

The differences appear to be partly genetic, partly familial and cultural. Cooperators tend to breed cooperators into cooperator families. Competitors do the same. The differences are not absolute, yet they tend to polarize communities. A shifting balance between these belief systems defines a culture. They shape how we structure power relationships, resolve problems, distribute resources and deal with outsiders. Do you think you are more of a cooperator or a competitor?

Our cultural beliefs drive us to value and to seek money, power, sex, fame, status and security. We reflect on the past and learn from it. We try to look ahead, to imagine futures, to anticipate problems, then to make plans and go for it. We study to get into a good college, get a good job and work long and hard. Then we can retire to the nursing home of our choice, watch television and wonder if this is what we wanted out of life. These behaviors are deeply embedded and largely unconscious. Recognizing their effects and changing them is not easy. We will explore that process as we go along.

Change begins with the recognition that there's plenty to go around. You already have enough. Getting more will only use up time that is better spent enjoying what you have now.

Gathering Together
People organize into groups to share common interests. Groups are built to preserve order and to protect the group. They shape and direct individuals and reward their leaders. Rules are needed to build conformity and control power; the golden rule and the rule of law and so on. We learn to honor and obey private property, the government, the church and impartial courts. We support credit, a free press, copyright and religious morality.

People are great copycats. We pass on what we learn to other people so all of us can keep up to date. Our cultures are built from memories and know-how so each generation does not have to start all over. Culture is our collective intelligence. The group has multiple stories that bind its members. People invented writing 6,000 years ago to keep us all on the same page. Now everyone in our group can share beliefs, a religion and enemies. Having a culture doesn’t mean we actually understand the world. It does make us good at looking out for our interests.

All around the planet, people do not vary much. Every human has a place in a culture, a position in one or more hierarchies. Think about that for a moment. Make a little inventory of the groups you belong to and your place in the hierarchy of each one. There are millions of groups with different points of view. Each has slightly or radically different directions for living. You, your family and your group define normality and abnormality for you.

People organize around families. Siblings compete. Spouses cheat. All societies are built around differences in status, prestige. They develop power, wealth, in-group conflict and hostility to other groups. Our social rules have remained the same for centuries, even as our technology has changed rapidly. Humans can cooperate and work together by knowing each other's reputation. They know who can be trusted in reciprocal exchanges. Most of us are followers. Only a few are leaders, even fewer are innovators. The most charismatic, shrewd, sociopathic or powerful people tend to rule. They get away with whatever they can without getting caught or overpowered.

Builders of The Pyramids
These are our ancestors. Everything they thought and did is reflected in some way in our lives today. Every group has its own world view and network of social, political and legal rules. Rules that keep it organized and operating. Some groups believe that a superhuman order governs the world. They worship a God or gods who lay down the laws for human behavior. Other groups believe that a natural order governs. Liberalism, capitalism, communism and nationalism all tell us how to behave.

To get things done every organization of human beings soon develops a hierarchy. It builds a structure of power. Ages ago, we organized hierarchies of business, government, religion and the military to support and protect our communities. These institutions both serve us and constrain us. In the hierarchy there are rulers, managers and followers. Rulers make the laws, managers execute them and private citizens follow them. Rulers change. Laws change. The managerial class adapts. The people get along.

Large organizations must have an efficient way to make decisions and delegate tasks. A small group of smart people emerges to manage the hierarchy. Everybody gets ranked according to status or authority. This elite controls information and resources to maintain and protect the hierarchy. They work to preserve and defend the bosses privileges and to protect their own members. Large organizations tend to be auto-toxic. From a meritocracy they tend to evolve evolve into a corrupt oligarchy. Within the hierarchy, cells of opinion form, expand and replicate. They claim to know how the world works and what you should or shouldn't do. Eventually, the organization becomes crippled by its own ingrown, limited version of reality.

Oligarchs are not necessarily evil. Most are empty. They play out a role, driven by competitive consumption, living in communities of fear. You might envy people who live in gated communities and fly to guarded islands to play. Remember, gates and guards are built by fear. Of what? Not us. The most ferociously greedy and grasping folks live within their gates.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord Acton

The collapse of a civilization is driven by self interest, greed and competitive self-enhancement. Status rules. Hierarchies tend to empower the few by disempowering the many. Hierarchies create rigid belief systems to shape our thoughts to their purposes. They make greedy demands on resources. Sooner or later, the demands become unsupportable. The beliefs are seen as empty and exploitive. The people resist. Eventually they have to walk out on the culture and it collapses. Their gods, beliefs and certainties go down with them. Many times urban concentration and cultural demands outran vital resources. They drove a civilization to collapse. Mesopotamia, the Aztecs and Mayans, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia come to mind. We are well along in this process.

There are basic beliefs that link people in our country. We believe in justice, equality, liberty, human rights and money. All the universal principles we believe in and build our lives on exist only in our imagination. We make them up and live by them. We write them down and teach them. We share them and insist others play the game. These myths disappear when people stop believing in them. The cultures they define vanish with them.

The future is uncertain. Nobody knows. Out of the interactions and clashes within a hierarchy comes a changing and uncertain balance. It can result in a tyranny or, maybe, in liberty for all. It is a matter of having fair rules, following them and defending them. Neither the rulers or the ruled are capable of imagining, installing or protecting fair rules.

The key is not to resist or oppose our oligarchs and hierarchies. Resistance simply empowers them and wastes our energy. The key is to detach, to turn away from their needs and values and look out for our own. Stop for a moment and take a look around you. You can build a rewarding life from what is around you in this moment. Happiness comes from wanting and getting and enjoying what is available to you now. You can abandon the past and allow the future to emerge from where you are and what you have now.

What Drives Us
The core problems of humanity spring from fear and greed. Greed drives a Circle of Desire. Humans are always a little dissatisfied. We always want something. We follow a pattern of wanting, getting, enjoying, having, worrying, protecting, losing interest – wanting the next thing. We repeat this circle over and over, each time trying to expand and improve on what we have.

“From the moment one has obtained something desired, it is no longer desirable.”
The Kama Sutra

Whatever You Own Owns You
The greedy mind can never rest. It must always be getting something. The process of getting temporarily calms or distracts us from the empty need. But, possession does not satisfy greed. It only reveals the fear of loss, the emptiness of desire. We are all the slaves of what we own. We must worry about it, guard it, defend it. We are controlled by what others allow us to own. My house, my car, my family, my street, my country, my flag, my faith is all by agreement with the neighbors. You leave my stuff alone and I’ll respect yours. Together we’ll hold off the outsiders.

Ownership and property are fictions. They are maintained by group agreement or force. Nothing really belongs to anyone. Where do the dead keep “my house”, “my car”, “my family”, “my street”, “my country”, “my flag”, “my faith”? There is a neat story about a greedy Persian king who was widely hated for grabbing everything in sight. He knew he was hated. As a final gesture he had two holes put in his coffin for his hands to stick out of.  His subjects could see he wasn't taking anything with him.

We know that we are not any of our possessions or relationships. We can appreciate them as they pass us by or we pass them by. We can learn to let go of any possessions or relationship without being destroyed. In the end, we can’t really hold on to anything.

Be Careful About What You Want
Every desire comes with attachments...a string of your attention, thoughts and feelings. The more strings that attach you to your possessions, the less free you are to make choices or move in new directions. We get caught up in needing and wanting. When we do not get what we want, we feel loss and resentment. When we get what we want, we feel good. We come to value short term stuff.

Being honest, most of us would admit that we have many more possessions than we need. Possessions can useful (tools, for example) and enrich our experience. Usually it is the way we use the tools that satisfies, not the tools themselves. But, we can become attached to them and make them all important. We imagine that the more we have, the happier we’ll be.

Take a look at how you use your possessions. Consider all the stuff you own. What do you actually use? How much do you really need? How much do you waste? Do you share stuff you don’t use with others? Next time you just have to have something, remember the answers to these questions.

Define “Enough” For Yourself
When is “enough”? When does getting what you want slip over into mindless accumulation? The wealthy are wonderful examples with their delusions about what is important. Money is the means of life, not the purpose. What good is it to pile up riches you can’t possibly use? Money is necessary to survive and be happy but it is not enough. More money will not help if you already have enough. Life is not just a business. Life is about friendship, love, caring for others or working for a cause.

This could lead to an adventure (3). Say for a week, month or year you decide to:

• Decide what “enough” means and learn to say it out loud and act on it.

• Give away anything you haven’t used in the last year.

This would free you from the burden of many possessions and free up the surplus for others to use. It would also free up a lot of attention to direct at your core purposes. You could imagine the life you want to live and set a path toward it. If this was your last day on earth, is shopping what you want to be doing? Really?!

Our circle of desire drives us to find and get the newest, best thing. Our luxuries turn into necessities we can't live without. Competition with our neighbors adds fuel to the desire. “What's that noise? Damn! John's got a new power mower." Our desires for food, water and sex can usually be satisfied. The desire for money, power, fame and security can never be satisfied. They are mainly valued and measured in terms of having something new or more than someone else or just more. Some of us believe there is not enough to go around. Those that have must hoard and guard their advantage. They know other people want their stuff and they must be prepared to defend it or even strike first. We are still animals.

This circle of desire repeats, becoming ever more insatiable. It scales. There is always more just out of reach. The millionaire discovers multimillionaires and must become one. They, in turn, struggle to become billionaires. This insatiable desire and competition for achievement, for wealth, for influence becomes pathological. Greed allows and supports corruption. The economic system gets looted. Wealth accumulates and builds on itself. The 400 wealthiest people in the world have more than the 300 million poorest. Our culture gets polarized between the super wealthy and everyone else.

Throughout history a pattern seems to repeat in cultures. A few people feel that they can never have enough. They get trapped in a circle of greed. They shift the economic balance and concentration of resources into their hands and control. This leads to rigid hierarchies and  overexploitation of resources. In time the civilization collapses.

Locked In

For six years I was a partner in a major New York management consulting firm. I worked on new business development projects for large companies. I came to see that modern corporations are locked into their own Circle of Greed. Stockholders demand that their shares pay dividends and increase in value. So corporations must make a profit by selling more product and services.

Growth is mandatory. Getting larger involves more complex business structures which develop self-regenerating hierarchies. Constant growth requires consolidating power and resources. Destroy competitors, fix prices and fiddle the books. Over time, corporations overgrow their market, hierarchies stagnate, freeze and the company becomes obsolete. often replaced by an innovator who then repeats the pattern.

Five of the world's top ten largest companies are oil based. They can't change much. I know this from working on new business projects for Standard Oil in the 1960's. To keep the cash flowing and profits up they have to keep drilling, refining and shipping oil until there is no more cheap oil. They must fend off competition from any direction. Alternative energy is a threat rather than an opportunity. It's growth will obsolete huge refineries, pipelines and shipping. It's sell oil or die.

Other top 10 companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon work on a different dynamic. You are their oil well. These companies suck up every bit of information they can get about you. They peddle it to companies who then try to sell you products and services through ads or directly. Selling to you depends on exploiting your access to information. Same dynamic. You buy or they die.

Our personal Circle of Desire is the essential support for the corporate Circle of Greed. Social media, like Facebook encourage us to display ourselves. They capture our data and sell it to corporations. They, in turn, show us ads, take our order and deliver it in two days, anywhere. We happily cooperate. We put the details of our lives on Goggle, Facebook, Amazon and others. They get assembled, analyzed, sold and serviced. Ring your bell?

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” 
Marshall McLuhan

Our Circle of Desire has to be fed and motivated. This keeps the corporate Circle of Greed spinning and the factories producing ever more. More and more information about us is gathered and analyzed. Our desires and fears get stimulated more often. Entertainment equals eyeballs. Captured attention opens hearts and minds. Desires lead to dollars spent. Our economic systems calls for human robots who can be trapped by trivia to view, desire and spend endlessly. These twin circles interlock and power our culture. For now.

It's All About Money
At first, people exchanged stuff with their neighbors. Then they invented the traveling salesman so their surplus could be sold far afield. A smart guy got tired of carrying the heavy stuff back and forth. He concentrated on high value, light stuff like rare shells. He talked a farmer into exchanging three shells for a goat. The idea caught on and money was invented. We can represent the value of our goods by shells or gold or paper...or electrons in a computer.

Money is one of our strangest inventions. Money is used to represent the value of a person's work, a credit that can be exchanged for something we want. We symbolize the value of money with metal, paper or some object we can exchange or maybe just numbers on a page.

Money is made of trust. If we all believe in and place a value on something thing, we can transfer the value along with the thing. Cowry shell anyone? In a sense, all money is a con. It is a social technology for transferring credit. We used to exchange stuff that we agreed was of equal value. Then we agreed on a way to symbolize that value. That's when the shells, rocks, coins and eventually paper money came to represent value. We kept accounts to keep score. We agreed that we could transfer the credit represented by the money. We could buy something or pay a debt somewhere else.

It gets stranger. Banks can loan ten dollars for every dollar a customer puts in the bank. Those loans are based on trust in the future ability of the borrowers to pay them back. The one hundred dollars in your savings account supports one thousand dollars in loans. If too many of the loans are bogus, the bank will go bust. If everyone wants their money back at once, the bank will collapse. Our fantasy and trust is that the bank will remain solvent.

Until recently money was paper backed up by a government promise. Today the value of money has become ephemeral. It is just numbers in the 'Cloud' somewhere. They are  traded by computers in microseconds based on imagined differences in imaginary products. People invent their own money like Bitcoin. Other people accept and trade with it.

The value of money is illusory when anyone can invent a new form or governments can inflate or deflate it by choice. All money is a fiction. The value is in the head of the holder. BitCoin, credit cards, dollar bills? Disbelieve and the value disappears. We have to believe in it or we face chaos.

The need to control drives people. Money is the means. The more you have the more you can buy or steal and keep from someone else's use. Fictitious capital is created by investments in mortgages, public debt, electronic moneys and credit. We also use money to represent the value of intangibles such as sub-prime mortgages. They can form speculative bubbles that burst and take down an economy.

Money may be sought as a means for the enjoyment of life. Most of us work and our labor produces a value that is represented by money. That money is a token that can be exchanged for the material things we need. We work long and hard enough to survive or even thrive. We work to sustain a life that is meaningful as well as rewarding in itself. Money may also be sought as a possession. The more income you have the more you can set aside or invest to bring in more money.

In working, we produce enough product to pay for our wages, for the employer's operations and to produce a profit. Increases in value come from increasing sales and/or reducing wages and production costs. Business uses some of the surplus value to invest in expansion or to defend against competition. The rest is profit. Profits have to be maximized to allow for capital accumulation and to pay the shareholders. We get paid, the plant gets maintained and improved, the owners make a buck and the shareholders get satisfied. What's not to like?

But...what if there are too many products chasing too little money. What if people don't buy because they have too little money and too much debt?

Reducing labor costs increases profits. Reducing wages also reduces the buying power of workers. Millions of workers are being displaced by robots and computers. That includes professionals like pharmacists, lawyers and paralegals, accountants, astronauts, as well as factory workers, drivers, store clerks, seamstresses, telemarketers and soldiers. Soon enough, only jobs that can't be done by robots and computers will be left. What about your job? The problem is that automation displaces workers who were also buyers. Poorer or unemployed workers buy less or nothing.

Corporate use of job export, automation and computerization has risen. More businesses are disappearing than are starting. Expansion of chains and consolidation of services squeeze the smaller guys out. Maybe half of American jobs could be lost in the next twenty years. They will be displaced by automation, networked software and elimination of middle men. Data factories employ a small fraction of the people needed in automobile factories. About 20,000 people work for Google, about 200,000 work for General Motors. Google is worth $350 billion, General Motors is worth $40 billion. Entire industries are gutted by processes that destroy jobs without creating new ones. The old hierarchies are breaking down. power is getting concentrated in a handful of digital geeks. They behave much like their predecessor captains of industry.

Entrepreneurs build new businesses that create new value in the community. Their heirs turn that into rent. We might better turn the flow of money in the direction of creating a just, equitable and prosperous society. Wealthy people monopolize the economy by controlling the means of production and financing. They also control the political process and the media. Their aim is to compound their immense wealth and power. The oligarchic 1% of the population now controls global wealth and power. The 1% take a piece of the economy worth 2 trillion dollars every year, about four times the federal deficit. This is taken by fixing the legislative and legal systems. One in nine people worldwide do not have enough to eat. More than a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. It is hard to admire or respect the 84 people who have the same amount of wealth as the 3 1/2 billion poorest people.

This money could be put to better use. We can care for distressed people, support education and rebuild our road system. We need a balance between individual liberty, private interests and state power. It has shifted too far away from the democratic toward the plutocratic. Capitalist interests get protected against any serious social opposition. Politicians get bought and directed by the rich elite. Today we are free and we are powerless. Most people have no influence over what our government does. Economic elites and special interest groups do. Trust in corporations, governments and the press is disappearing as they sell us out.

People are trained into conspicuous consumption. Consumption is more than 70% of the US Gross Domestic Product. We are trained to desire, buy, display and consume more of the latest everything. Trying to mirror the shallow, greedy, fearful image of living presented by the media makes us captives in an unreal and trivial world.

People's work is the source of value that drives an economy. Workers must produce more value than they cost. The surplus gets used in continual expansion of the means of production and in accumulation by shareholders. The system requires endless compound growth to keep going. People must provide it by ever more acquisition. Earn more, spend more.

Endless novelty drives consumer desire and purchasing. There can never be enough. The more we have the more we need. The more we need the harder we work and the more debt we assume so we can buy more. The mass of us end up having less and owing more. People in debt have already spent the future. Soon there won't be enough people with enough money to buy the ever increasing flow of marginal products. Where will the endless compound growth required keep the system going come from? Then what?

If my understanding is correct, the wealthy are driven to accumulate endlessly. The money must be taken from the rest of us, as long a we have any. Much of it just sits there accumulating interest but not producing value for everyone. We need to find a way of balancing this out. Otherwise we will experience more and more joblessness, foreclosures, wage cuts, firings, loss of social services, bankruptcies and defaults. If we are to live in a civilized way, we need to become more flexible. We must shift our interest and skills away from the structure we are now feeding and dependent on.

Just like money, many of the stories people live by are fictions. Companies, human rights, laws, nations and gods are examples. These are inventions of the human mind. You won't find them in nature, yet we believe in them and act as if they were parts of the structure of the universe. Like money, these fictions cloak our understanding of how the world works. We'll run into most of them again as we go along. You already have the understanding to recognize and go beyond them to build the life you want.

©2012-2018 Keith Gilchrist - not for distribution or reproduction
5,063 words 15 pages 1.21.17 adv 3 Beta 1

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