Very often, when we are striving to understand or make use of something complex, we break it down into its component parts and then examine and manipulate those parts in isolation.
This technique has produced its fair share of scientific discoveries and industrial breakthroughs (think of electricity, chemistry, the centrifuge, pasteurization and the assembly-line process). But it has also caused its share of harm and unanticipated side effects (think of petrochemicals, split atoms, refined grains, and, well, the assembly-line process).
We’ve done this sort of splitting apart in our daily lives, too. Post-agricultural, post-industrial life is all about negotiating separations that our earliest ancestors never struggled with — at least not in the same way. Nature vs. civilization. Work vs. home. Sacred vs. secular. Personal vs. professional. Production vs. consumption.
To be sure, life in the time of our hunter-gatherer friends had its own complexities and dangers. But it probably didn’t produce the sort of existential dread and frenzy that many of us feel today as the result of having our time, energy and instincts pulled in so many different directions.
What are we supposed to make of a reality that has us coming home from long, bruising days at work only to find we have virtually nothing left to offer the spouse and kids for whom we’re supposedly “providing”?
What sense are we supposed to find in a world where we work so many hours to afford our big, comfortable houses that we have very little time to enjoy them? Where most of the “time-saving” products we use every day are produced with chemicals that persistently poison the land, water and air? Where medical science can prove that it’s the very nature of our daily lives that’s making us chronically ill and unhappy, yet we’re encouraged to embrace drugs and surgical interventions that will allow us to continue living precisely the same way?
I guess what I’m asking is this:
In a cultural context characterized by this sort of separation, disassociation and alienation, what is a whole life, anyway?
The answer I keep coming up with is that we know wholeness when we feel it. And we miss it terribly when we don’t. We are fortunate, I think, to have a built-in sensing system that gives us constant, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, feedback about how close (or how far) we are from a state of thriving wholeness.
I was reading an interview with author Michael Pollan the other day in which he said: “The health of our bodies is tied to the health of the community and the health of the earth. Health is indivisible.”
That stuck me as so right. I think it’s exciting to be living in an era where so many of us are arriving at similar conclusions at the same time. It’s also exciting to be living in an era where the tools and methods of science and technology are rapidly confirming that it’s far more worthwhile to emulate nature’s integrated intelligence than to try to outsmart it.
Today, some of our world’s best scientific minds are engaged in “biomimicry” projects: studies and undertakings that imitate nature’s models, systems and processes to solve problems in life-friendly ways — ways that are not only sustainable, but often regenerative.
Nature cannot be well understood or well sustained, we’re discovering, through separation, extraction, isolation or momentary analysis. In nature, everything is connected, cyclical, open to change.
Clearly, our own bodies and lives are part of this rubric and are subject to the same nature-based principles: “Life creates conditions conducive to life,” those principles teach us. “Life adapts and evolves.”
Slowly but surely, we’re figuring it out: We accomplish more and create better results when we bring our hearts and souls and healthy bodies to our jobs. Our hearts and souls and bodies all do better when we spend plenty of time playing, loving, resting, reflecting and enjoying nature. No individual, no community, no resource, no action or reaction can really be considered “separate” from anything else.
This issue of Experience Life is dedicated to the spirit of wholeness, balance and integration. Here’s to being part of the big, indivisible picture.