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Dharma as Education for the Meta-crisis (Part I)
This is the first chapter of a larger article I’ve been working on called DHARMA AS EDUCATION FOR THE METACRISIS. The other segments will hopefully follow in the days to come. The current introductory module will focus on defining this particular constellation of concepts. What is dharma? What is a metacrisis? And what do they both have to do with education?
Dharma (not dhamma -- etymologically I prefer the aggressive Sanskrit R to the toothless Pali M!) is a very general term in these essays. It is not meant to imply only Buddhist or Hindu spiritual wisdom as opposed to any other kind. I mean to suggest the entire body of insights & skills associated with the esoteric-developmental aspects of philosophy, science and religion. Specific beliefs, phrases and social organizations are (variably successful, variably complete) local ethno-geographic adaptations of a shared human collection of practices and understandings that cultivate existential wisdom.
I do not view this “collection” as a fixed body of information that only needs to be downloaded into human minds but rather it is more like a dynamic conversation. A creative activity. And, in fact, it is networks and lineages of human conversations that remember, transmit and organize the locally-adaptive forms of wisdom-practice. Mushrooms emerge locally and periodically from an underlying invisible web of mycelial interactivity.
This activity that promulgates wisdom-skills & wisdom-insights is not a uniquely religious phenomenon in the sense of organized, pre-rational belief cults. It is a way of life. A way of being. In fact words like “dharma” and “tao” are often translated simply as THE WAY.
Dharma, in this sense, may be found equally well among scientists, pagans, monotheists, folk customs, etc. It is a natural human affordance like language, art, politics and sex — present, in various degrees and styles, within all human groups under a wide variety of names. It purports to make people more insightful, virtuous, knowledgeable, focused, meaningful, collaborative, lively, deep, productive, harmonious, naturalistic, authentic, connected, contemplative, balanced, clear, etc. It is essentially the ancient human scheme for developmental education.
In fact, the classic religious word disciple originally meant — “learner.”
That handy little fact helps us bridge between so-called wisdom-teachings and the entire field of teaching in general. Long before the existence of state-sponsored school systems, esoteric and exoteric religious networks were providing many varieties of ongoing education. It is no surprise that universities evolved from monasteries and scientific philosophy was birthed in the spiritual cults of ancient Greece. There is a single great effort at work to progressively develop toward deep, satisfying and effective understandings of reality and ourselves.
So let us refer to Dharma as the trans-disciplinary organization of a comprehensive, multidimensional, open-ended education project based around meaning, empowerment and virtue — and utilizing a basic inter-cultural set of developmental practices.
Probably you know what education means (although probably not as well as we all should) but what about the term “metacrisis?”
The metacrisis is the large scale, accumulating intersection of problems & fragilities that accompany the successes of modern civilization.
We have undoubtedly made some wonderful progress with the underlying logic of our economics, politics, academia, news media, group decision-making methods, ethical speech fads, child-rearing practices, etc. These are powerful but imperfect strategies for human society. Our energy systems are disrupting the regulation of our climate. Our political incentives have created a reckless and feckless managerial status quo that is not agile enough to serve the citizens. The technology of defense has grown into a money-making scheme armed with weapons of mass destruction. Improved communication tools have sown the seeds of an irrational mistrust of all information. The side-effects of progress are creating an accumulating nexus of crises — and obstructing all attempts to make further qualitative human progress via other modes, moods and methods.
The metaphysics and motivations of modernity are not a complete rupture with history. Many excellent customs and many bad habits from antiquity are still operating today. Problems of egotism, pollution and political instability are very old. However today they are running at the speed and scale of modern civilization and we see their combined dark aspects more clearly than ever.
Perhaps the governing symbol of our era is that of a massive, ambiguous and complex crisis. One is reminded of the pulp horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft who frequently described how vast, alien and multi-tentacled monstrosities could arise from the underbelly of modernity and send the shockwaves of madness in all directions.
Unlike the devastating crises of the ancient world, the current and emerging situation contains many elements that threaten to undermine and overturn the most basic constituents of the reality in which humans have evolved. Our civilization has hacked the genetic code. We unleashed the thermonuclear power of the split atom and become dangerous factor in the functioning of the climate. We can have sex without babies and make babies without sex. Machines are now quasi-intelligent and children are being plugged into virtual reality simulations. Strange chemicals are found in local streams and huge islands of garbage are roaming the oceans. This more difficult to understand than any previous moment of human crisis. Everything seems dramatically normal & abnormal at the same time. We oscillate wildly between hope and helplessness. Instability, stagnation and meaninglessness seem bubble up in all directions.
There is a complex tangle of problems with multiple causes and — worst of all! — many of those causes are the very things that we have counted upon for our successes. However it is not impossible to untangle a tangle. It is just tricky and involves the repeated and frustrating observation that we have been pulling on the wrong thread and making the knot worse.
Our giant ball of hyperobjective twine, currently hovering over the whole world, may yet contain a glimmering thread that leads to paradise — but only if we can carefully tease it apart from other threads that lead to hell.
In his poetic opus Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche prophesized an era that would be dominated by the “dark cloud” of the Last People. The last people, he says, believe that their system cannot be changed. They barely feel anything but nonetheless act like they have recently invented happiness. They gape at the universe as though it were a mute conundrum deprived of meaning. They look at the stars, blinking, and say “What is a star?” They peer at love, blink and wonder, “What is love?” What is anything anymore? There are so many opinions and so much conflicting information and so much stagnation of meaning that souls are flattened and emptied.
But this is also a hopeful prophecy.
Out of Zarathustra’s dark cloud will come the flash of ultrahuman lightning. This symbolic burst of brightness represents the people who evolve beyond the metacrisis. They are better than past humans at accessing meaningfulness, creating coherence, feeling value & transforming worlds. Previous human strategies for living well and solving problems will seem like an embarrassing, haphazard and barely successful prologue to these ultrahumans.
Is such a thing possible?
Zarathustra asks us to gamble on this idea — volunteering to join him in intending the emergence of a trans-conventional civilization. To survive and thrive beyond the metacrisis involves accepting the risky feeling that we may be able to succeed. We may be able to become adequate to the situation.
Nietzsche’s vision is that the collaboration of adventurous free spirits, experimental philosophers, new artists and healthy, good-humored saints can create the preconditions for a culture that overcomes and inhabits the metacrisis. We must raise a generation capable of a truly planetary politics on the grand scale. We must rediscover, invent and distribute practices that could bring forth a civilization that can build living cathedrals on top of unstable ground.
Their goal is a world that maximizes peak experiences, promulgates flow and massively distributes “empowerment feelings” upon which our senses of value, joy & meaning are based.
So — good news? Maybe.
Nietzsche was probably more like a Vedic rishi or poetic yogi-saint than our philosophy textbooks have implied. Although he asks us to risk all of our conventional moral and metaphysical assumptions in the exciting leap across an abyss, he was nonetheless a very moral man, deeply concerned with the pedagogy of education and the cultural preconditions for a post-nihilistic epoch of evolutionary spirituality. Or, at least, that is an interpretation that allows us to return to our themes of Dharma and education.
If we accept this twin assumption (that there IS a metacrisis BUT it can potentially be turned to our advantage) then what is needed in order to accomplish that fabulous feat?
More complete education.
The reason we need better, more effective, more daring, more authentic, more innovative, more virtuous, more liberating education is two-fold. Firstly, we do not yet have all the solutions to our problems. Secondly, we do not know how to handle the solutions we do have.
We must, on the one hand, live well with mystery, understand our limitations, harness complexity, invent surprising solutions, start powerful virtuous projects and co-discover new kinds of science. On the other hand, we must also get way better at learning, evaluating, validating and implementing good ideas that solve many problems simultaneously. How do we do all that?
Learning to do all that requires an education that outperforms our current cultural options. We need to learn more & be more. More than what? More than the civilization in which currently exist. Our insights, capacities and vision must exceed the habits that sustain the type of society that currently dominates this planet. We have to be as good AND better than modern civilization. Therefore we need educational processes to exceed the level that is currently being generated.
Modern and pre-modern education do not have the solutions. They have not produced the embodied understanding, the tools, the minds and the communities that are capable of producing wide-spread, large scale, multidimensional, qualitative well-being and virtuous power at a rate capable of handling our emerging and predicted problems. A transmodern form of education — building on an enlivened synthesis of ancient, modern and postmodern wisdom — MIGHT be able to deal with the situation.
It would at least give us a chance.
Now, I doubt that anyone will be shocked by the notion that we need a better, fuller, more humane, more powerful style of learning. But how do we get education to a higher level?
To be continued in part II…