We live in a challenging time. As a result of the coming together of several significant factors, this moment in time is turning out to be especially consequential. Here in the West, after centuries of relative stability and consistency in our ways of thinking, we are beginning to look around and see other possibilities. This new openness is clearly related to a series of crises that have been emerging in Western culture. One of these is the crisis of disconnection.
The Copernican revolution, despite its brilliant impact in both science and philosophy, ended up leaving us inhabiting a cold, purposeless universe in which the appearance of humankind shows up only as a cosmological accident, an epiphenomenon of matter. Far from being at the very center of a divinely ordained and ordered cosmos, which was then believed, we found ourselves radically de-centered, condemned to exist as the sole beings that are endowed with intelligence and purpose, yet in a silent, mindless, aimless, mechanical universe.
In many preceding eras and cultures, human beings have felt a deep sense of connection with the world, seen, for example, in their willingness to listen to the various ways that nature spoke to them. Even in medieval Christian times, the natural world was regarded as an expression of God’s glory and benevolence. In our post-Copernican world, however, we experience a profound, cosmic loneliness. Nature no longer has anything to say and remains silent in the face of our analytical probings. Adrift in a boundary-less realm of space and time, devoid of a spiritual dimension to our lives, we find it increasingly hard to make sense of ourselves or our reason for existing. The universe has become “disenchanted.”
This sense of deep and seemingly ineradicable loneliness and disconnection is beginning to seep into our bones. We can see it at a very practical level, for example, in the epidemic of depression now sweeping much of the Western world. We also recognize its symptoms in our loss of community life and even in our relationships with one another. In the U.S., there are a growing number of people choosing to live alone. In our business organizations, we are failing to find opportunities to pursue fulfilling lives. Instead, we have become obsessed with a single game called “More, Faster, and Short-term Profits,” regardless of the cost in terms of the impoverishment of human relationships and the loss of the dignity of work.
Even medicine and some schools of psychology have contributed to our sense of disconnectedness and alienation from the universe by stripping human beings of any spiritual dimension. We no longer sense our dependence on one another and on the universe, which used to be seen as our fundamentally benevolent source. Our whole understanding of ourselves has, as a consequence, been profoundly affected. We are losing the balance between our individuality, our community, and nature, a loss that goes right along with the reductionism of Western science, which raises the status of the parts over that of the whole.
Blind to our multiple connections with the world, instead of seeing life as an opportunity to serve, we fall into a mood of ingratitude. We consider ourselves to be primarily the worthy recipient while failing to engage in any kind of reciprocity, let alone generosity.
Just as we become disconnected from nature and society, so we also become alienated from ourselves, particularly in regard to our emotions and our bodies.
This may at first seem puzzling in this age of psychotherapy. Perhaps we should see the growing demand for psychotherapy as itself a measure of the degree of our emotional and physical malaise. What has arisen in response to our sense of alienation, of course, is the pervasive “self-help” movement. As anyone who buys books knows, the self-help section of most bookstores is usually one of the largest.
No doubt such a flood of advice regarding how to live is not all misguided. Clearly, many people are genuinely helped by this trend. But much of this guidance appears to be aimed at learning to manipulate ourselves, just as we have dedicated ourselves to acquire knowledge in order to manipulate and control nature. Unfortunately, this is not a very effective approach to the learning that appears to be needed, precisely because it focuses attention on the isolated self.
It is true that we are individuals born with particular predispositions. But, we tend to forget that culture, society, and nature are also dimensions of self. One clear sign of this radical impoverishment of our sources is a pervasive lack of passion in our personal and professional lives. We hold passion as an opposite of intelligence. It is a common occurrence to encounter people who consider us foolish or naïve if we dare to show passion for anything. Passion can be understood as a mystical act, constituting nothing less than a predisposition to fuse with the world. Whether we lose ourselves in a task that we are deeply engaged in or melt together with another person in the act of making love, passion shows up as an experience of merging with our surroundings.
Service may also engender passion, as we are drawn to become ourselves in the act of aiding and supporting others. Passion, then, is the emotion of connectedness par excellence.
We unquestionably need moments of passion in order to lead healthy, fulfilling, satisfying lives. But how can we experience passion when we find ourselves living disconnectedly in a meaningless world? What we are left with all too often is passion limited to the physical act of sex and little else, a situation that renders our lives dry and deeply unsatisfying.
A New Path
If there is one overarching way to describe the global process of transformation now underway, it is perhaps to suggest that we are now witnessing the emergence of a new discourse, or set of discourses, grounded in the integration of Eastern and Western ontologies. Traditionally, Eastern thinking and practice have centered on pursuing wisdom and the art of living through contemplation, meditation, closeness to nature, and, more generally, a mystical approach to consciousness aimed ultimately at merging with the absolute.
In the West, we have for centuries focused on separating ourselves from the world, accumulating knowledge for the sake of better understanding and exploiting its resources (including what in the business world we now call Human Resources). This has been carried out using rationalistic/scientific modes of thinking that have proved extraordinarily powerful and I've accomplished this task
Our critique of Western thinking is not intended, in any way, as an outright rejection. That would be absurd. Rather, we prefer to adopt the move advocated by Ken Wilber of including and transcending current modes of thought and practice. What we are aiming for here is to achieve a better balance by integrating the Eastern emphasis on contemplation and merging with the West’s focus on analytical understanding and effective action. Such an integration would overcome the historical but unnecessary antagonism between these two diverging paths, taking hold of the best of each tradition.
To be more precise, what we are proposing here is a recognition that the process of fusion and separation constitutes the dynamic aspect of what it is to be human in this world. When we merge, we connect, but the very nature of fusing means that we are often unaware of the intrinsic nature of connection. Correspondingly, when we become observers, we step away from the world for the sake of understanding and of generating effective action.
Addressing the pressing issues of today's world require that we master both dimensions of this dynamic. We need to bring them into balance, while at the same time acknowledging the mystery that ultimately underlies them both.
How does disconnection show up in your life? How can you find the balance between fusion and separation? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
If you enjoyed reading, you can find this and other essays in Julio Olalla’s book, From Knowledge to Wisdom.
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Author: Julio Olalla
Julio Olalla, Newfield Network founderJulio Olalla, MCC, founder of Newfield Network, is regarded as a pioneer of the coaching profession and transformational learning fields. Julio has trained thousands of individuals and organizations, CEOs, and government figureheads to challenge traditional thinking and create stronger leaders to navigate the turbulence facing our global community.
Originally an attorney with the Chilean government, Julio made his way to the U.S. after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. He is based in Boulder, Colorado with a travel schedule that takes him worldwide.
His multi-cultural perspective makes him an in-demand, trusted advisor of Fortune 500 companies, international governments, and high-profile individuals. Julio Olalla is a sought-after keynote and motivational speaker, addressing audiences on leadership, organizational learning, education, emotion, and executive coaching. He is dedicated to generating a healthier, more sustainable way to inhabit the planet.
Julio Olalla is the author of From Knowledge to Wisdom.