This section of my blog is dedicated to the precious ideas, practices, philosophies and insights that have come to us from the people of the past and I have chosen to call it Ancestral Wisdom.
I wanted to kick it off with an article that focused on one question: why is ancestral wisdom important?
Cultural connections are always important. People and societies become backwards without them.
When a society embraces a good idea, or holds on to one, when it solves an important puzzle, that’s an asset for other societies, who can improve their quality of life by simply copying the good example. I call these horizontal connections.
Sometimes, the solutions to our puzzles are available thanks to the people of past ages.
I call learning these vertical connections.
When people embrace personal development and form many strong vertical and horizontal connections, they are finding inspiration for transformation from all the combined wisdom of humanity past and present they can get hold of.
By means of cultivating these connections, we can cultivate our personal and collective culture.
Culture intended as a combination of beliefs, habits, practices and reference material, comes together into a sort of navigation software that informs our choices and the way we see the world.
Nobody really operates without a culture because everybody has a worldview, a set of practices, habits, beliefs and reference material.
But, is the resulting culture any good?
It makes a dramatic difference whether your worldview is that you are a victim in a hostile world or that you are an energy that is maturing through life.
Whether your reference material is more like the Tao Te Ching or like Jersey Shore or like something else.
Whether you make a living by selling AK47s in Africa or by saving lives as a nurse, or indeed whether your life teachers are arms dealers or nurses.
Whether you have a skillset that spans the manual, the academic, legal and linguistic or whether you can’t even tie your shoelaces.
Can’t we just continue as we are?
My premise is that First World Culture needs an upgrade, because of the following reasons:
- Problems of the emotional sphere are widespread: loneliness, alienation, anger, bigotry, low self esteem, etc.
- It’s widely regarded as responsible for the rise of mental health issues.
- There is an explosion of non communicable diseases (diabetes, cancer, heart disease, autism, etc.).
- Politics are dominated by narcissism.
- It destroys the environment, as well as the tribal cultures, flora and fauna who make it their home.
- As things stand, social, economic and environmental collapse are on the cards.
What’s meant to be the source of this cultural upgrade?
In my opinion, vertical and horizontal cultural connections.
It’s our outlook on life, our worldview, the component that urgently needs an upgrade.
We put up with wars waged in the name of money and power, with the commodification of all that is holy, with environmental damage, we put up with information outlets run by vested political interest, with the illegal persecution of whistleblowers, we put up with leaders who make radical choices without looking any further ahead than the next quarter.
Perhaps since luxury goods and entertainment are on the table as part of the deal, we deem the deal good enough. Why? It’s a question of outlook, an outlook that has the dystopia built in.
With the due exceptions, however, First World Culture is just fine.
Modern countries are very well organised.
Social mobility exists and the individual has opportunities for a better quality of life.
Sure there should be more, but compared to hereditary indentured servitude, hereditary cast systems and the like, it’s lightyears better.
Malnutrition, lack of sanitation, lack of transport links and lack of healthcare are rare.
Science and modern technology are a huge help, making life a lot easier for a lot of people.
Education has its limits(i) but if you want to expand your skillset in a First World country, the sky’s the limit.
Again, with some sad exceptions, we have overcome superstition.
All the convenience of the modern world actually facilitates the drawing of these vertical and horizontal connections.
Can you imagine what it would take to travel the world and connect with far-away cultures even 150 years ago?
Can you imagine what it would take to learn foreign languages or any other skill that long ago, if you wished to?
Can you imagine how difficult it would be that long ago to gain access to Daoist and Buddhist texts just to name a few? Would translations even exist back then?
How easy is it to organise trips, even down to the minutest detail today? And finding language courses, finding courses in oriental philosophies, literature, discussion groups, festivals and how affordable it all is today compared to most of history?
The problem with First World Culture is that it has a self-destructive, narcissistic and immature streak.
We live in an individualistic age but we haven’t come to grips with how it works just yet.
To be individualistic, first of all one needs to realise what their self-interest actually is.
We are part of an organism-like interconnected system, so self-interest cannot be understood as separate to the interest of the other.
If a camel is carrying you across the desert, but you left your packed lunch at home and you decide to eat the camel, you will die for sure. You would have misunderstood self-interest.
This is my portrait of how self-interest is pursued today.
Self-interest doesn’t mean being the one who always gets one up over the others.
It doesn’t mean getting too hung up on ambitions or megalomanias without regard for non-you either.
According to the Vedic tradition of the Yuga Cycles, it will be a couple of millennia before a different kind of self-interest becomes commonplace, but life is showing us that it’s time to get that ball rolling.
It will be a self-interest where people have really understood the concept of interest but also that of self, because it is in fact a self/environment duality.
Your environment contains absolutely everything that isn’t you, in fact I call it non-you. Life is a you/non-you interaction experience.
Therefore, looking after your environment goes in tandem with caring for your self-interest.
The amount of friction your actions and philosophy have with non-you may be a good gage of your understanding of self and self-interest.
I think that distant future needs to start being built today, how?
By drawing vertical and horizontal connections of learning with the people who have already solved the puzzles that keep us behind.
I will do a separate article on the many examples of contemporary wisdom, but today I want to focus on ancestral wisdom: our vertical connections.
Culture worth preserving and reviving
From Mexico to India, from Namibia to Siberia and from Japan to Sicily, humanity is rich in cultural traditions that have been carefully handed down the ages and contain everything, from physical and metaphysical awareness, to our relationship with others and our importance as part of a cosmic and environmental whole.
We bring a unique ingredient: we are advanced in science and technology, in legal and political systems and much more.
My suggestion is that ancestral wisdom is the “upgrade patch” we need to combine the comforts of the modern world with the wiser, cosmically and environmentally connected ancestors.
Thankfully we live in an age that, not only allows us to travel easily and affordably (COVID permitting) to gain insight and experience first hand, but that has also produced a lot of works on ancient cultures, previously thought of as primitive, that prove that finer cultures than our own have existed(ii).
In our rich past, we have gone through ages when cultures were built and other ages when cultures were destroyed.
Unfortunately, our view of history begins with the bronze age, which is the beginning of what I call the age of the sword and pretty much ignores everything that came before that.
An age where enlightened thought was being lost and had already become the exception, lasting until the 1500s CE, sadly only to be replaced by the age of guns and money, which endures to this day.
In the centuries straddling the BC and CE millennia, man’s reverence for all that is good, experienced its lowest, saddest ebb.
Bloody wars of conquest were commonplace and the world’s repositories of ancient knowledge were purposely burned to a crisp in China and famously, in Alexandria, Egypt.
Many wise people of that age were burned at the stake, superstition, inequality and injustice abounded.
On the other hand, we can see through the mists of time, the outlines of the high cultures of prehistory, at the feet of the monuments they’ve left around the world.
Archaeology has very limited resources and the amount it dedicates to prehistoric digs is tiny.
As a result, society doesn’t know about the peace loving, scientifically minded astronomer cultures that operated at Stone Henge, Newgrange, Kamyana Mohyla, Nabta Playa, Göbekli Tepe and countless other sites across the world, from North America to Japan.
Thankfully this period is studied to some degree and even though it would be great if countries made bigger investments in digs of this kind, they are cultures that enjoy a growing amount of specialist and public interest.
The main thing we’d be wise to learn from the high cultures of prehistory is their outlook on life.
This outlook has miraculously survived in remnants, through the shamanic lineages that have made it to this day, in much reduced form, passed down the generations by amazing cultures who have done their best to protect this ancient treasure through the millennia of the age of the sword and still hanging on for dear life through the follies of the modern world, which before it acquires the maturity for peace again, will be at the peak of its destructive power and irresponsibility.
Other remnants of this prehistoric enlightenment survive in the philosophy of India, China and Latin America just to name a few.
Since so many remnants exist, we can expose ourselves to them, learn something new and help them pave the way for a bright future, which is there at the horizon, but must be earned first.
People in ancient high cultures saw themselves as part of an integrated network that span every visible and invisible layer of existence, imbued with divinity.
Every being is a manifestation of the soul of their species and in turn these souls feed into the soul of the earth, which is experiencing its own life and is going through its own cycles.
Each individual is there for a reason, as part of a biosphere kept in balance by a consortium of cosmic powers.
In the middle of this concert of cosmic consciousness is man and his world, who millennium after millennium is there to observe the seasons come and go, the Saturn returns come and go, the great cycles come and go.
Sometimes aware, sometimes not, with his senses clouded and his intellect dampened, frustrated by challenges he is unable to perceive and comprehend.
People with this sort of outlook cannot lack respect for themselves, for others or for nature, their sense of the sacred is too developed and they know that everything is connected.
Thanks to that outlook, I think they fared better against their own fears, frustrations, grief and the indulgences of the ego, and suffered a lot less from anxiety, depression, alienation and existential dread.
For modern people to draw connections like these, means to combine technological advancement with a more mature outlook and finally coming of age.
The solutions to the non-communicable disease problem, the mental health problem, the emotional health problem, the leadership problem and the environmental problem are available today as different levels of the same path. A path that begins with the individual and spreads onto society at large.
The irony of progress is that we have acquired wisdom in some areas and lost it in others.
Wisdom is the ultimate intellectual property and over the centuries we’ve thrown a lot of it away without batting an eyelid.
How can a step forward be real progress when it is followed by a step back?
We have made some genuine strides in the modern world. They have come at a great cost and must not be lost, instead they should be treasured as upgrade patches onto the ancestral wisdom that we’ve abandoned long ago.
We now have the unique opportunity to have a modern world that is connected to the ancient wisdom, or an ancient world that has gained a lot of experience and overcome a lot of obstacles over the millennia, as it were.
The key lies in the personal development of the individual, gained not just through academic education, but by seeking those horizontal and vertical connections, that can enable her to mature in the human sense, instead of just accumulating knowledge, so we can have communities that are educated in a much truer sense, who will put at their centre the wellbeing of the person, the community and the environment.
(i) You’d think that after completing 13-18 years of full-time education, your children would know how to look after themselves physically, domestically, socially, financially and bureaucratically, right?
Education stats go up but common sense seems to be disappearing fast. Why?
Western education focuses on notions and the intellect, but never on consciousness.
As a result it doesn’t produce mature and educated human beings.
People leave schools and universities no different, no more life-capable that when they arrived, albeit full of notions, with the accumulated stresses of having done so.
If they acquire adulthood somehow during their education years, for sure it wasn’t the curriculum.
People are also wondering about schools for the upper classes, what do they teach?
With so much real culture that such schools could be teaching, they focus instead on upper class etiquette.
Thus, new generations of people with more money than sense are moulded.
(ii)Here’s three recommendations for you of key texts:
Susan Brind Morrow – Dawning moon of the mind – (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015)
Laurette Sejourne – Burning water: Thought and religion in ancient Mexico – (Shambhala 1976)
Marcel Griaule – Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas – (International African Institute 1975)
1- Ancestor worship in Japan
2- Altars of offerings of thanksgiving to the ancestors
CREDIT “File:Korean ancestor veneration-Jesa-01.jpg” by by Joseph Steinberg (Baltimoron in Korea) at Flickr is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0