What exactly do I mean, then, by “soul” and how does this help us understand why the uncovering of what I call soul purpose has become so uncommon in the contemporary world? For an answer, we’ll need to cross a threshold into a domain of discourse and experience that in the materialist precincts of the West would be considered “mystical.” Otherwise you might dismiss my perspective simply because it’s unfamiliar or perhaps feels dubious at first. So let’s begin by reviewing how commonplace the “mystical” is in the lives and existence of other-than-human beings. Then, perhaps, you’ll find it less surprising, esoteric, or mysterious that such extraordinary and astonishing realities apply to us humans as well.
An Underworld and Ecological Conception of Soul (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute www.animas.org)
This is the fourth part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)
Friday, December 1, 2017
What Every Flower, Frog, and Fox is Born With
The mysteries to which I refer here concern, in their essence, ecological place or niche — the fact that the young of all species are born with an understanding of their place in the world. By “place,” I don’t simply mean geographical location or habitat. Rather, I mean a creature’s ecological niche — its function, role, or “profession” within its community or ecosystem. The young of all species, in other words, already know at birth how to be members of their species. This innate knowledge includes basic-yet-vital items such as how to move around, what to eat and not eat, how to avoid predators, and how and when to mate and with whom. But by far the most important knowledge they are born with is how to contribute to the world their unique skill or offering. They, in other words, are born with what we might call ecological purpose, an implicit knowledge or apprehension of their place or niche in a wildly complex and differentiated world of multiple habitats and countless species. They are born with all the capacities they need to serve the world in a way no other creature can — including how they can further develop or co-evolve their own niche — and they do not have to be taught or shown “the one life they can call their own”; this knowledge and capacity is inborn. They do not have to go through an initiation process to uncover it. Although birds and mammals learn a lot of behavioral specifics from their parents and primary social group, most of the capacities that enable them to function as members of their species are innate. The newborn of species other than birds and mammals — 95% of all species — receive minimal to no parenting beyond being conceived and birthed. They are born with all they need to know to have a good chance of survival, to be who they are, and to provide the “ecological functions” only they can.
This is entirely natural and ordinary, but it is also utterly astounding and miraculous, even mystical. The common-but-misguided Western philosophical impulse to try to explain this reductionistically in terms of genetics misses the most essential point. Genetics might be one piece of how this knowledge is transmitted (part of the “mechanism”), but the method of transmission is categorically and conceptually distinct from whatis transmitted, and the unfathomable mystery remains that this knowledge and know-how exist and are transmitted at all.
You might say we humans, too, are born with a version of such capacities: for example, our precious innocence enables us to inspire other humans to provide the love, nourishment, and basic shelter we need; or, more mysteriously, our capacity to easily acquire human language. But it seems other species are born with a far greater innate understanding of their place in the world. And, as far as we can tell, they never have identity crises. The fact that we do, and regularly, says something significant about us as a species or about our contemporary cultures, or both.
Many examples of the innate knowledge and know-how possessed by other species are absolutely staggering. For example, consider the annual migration of monarch butterflies: They fly immense distances from their summer habitats in the eastern U.S. and Canada to their winter homes in Mexico, or from the Rocky Mountains to southern California. They manage this long and wildly complex navigation even though it takes four generations to complete a single migration. Furthermore, they arrive at the very same trees their great-great-grandparents tenanted the year before. None of them learn how to do this from other butterflies. They are born with the knowledge of how to migrate thousands of miles, through countless habitats and weather systems, and end up in precisely the one spot that is theirs, something akin to finding a needle in a haystack. This is downright mystical. And, as it turns out, this sort of miracle is entirely commonplace on Earth.
Given that such mysteries are demonstrably true for other species, how could we doubt something comparable is true for us? In the contemporary world, we tend to believe that everything important that we know we learned from others — parents, other family members, teachers, books, the internet, and so on. And indeed we’ve learned quite a bit this way. But we, too, like all other species, are born with certain innate knowledge of our unique place in the world, of our ecological niche, of what has been called our destiny or our genius. The problem is that this knowledge is not conscious when we’re born because, after all, we’re not conscious of anything in our first couple years. And by the time our conscious self-awareness develops — somewhere between our third and fourth birthdays — we are more than busy with other things to be conscious of, like the enchantment of the other-than-human world or how to be a member-in-good-standing of a particular family and peer group and a particular culture or ethnic or religious group. Learning these things is the natural priority throughout our childhood and early teen years. But — and here’s the rub for us humans — by the time our conscious knowledge of self and world is established in our mid teens, we have strayed a long ways from our deeper, innate, unconscious knowledge of self and world, which is now obscured, buried, unremembered. It’s still there within us, but we can’t access it and we might not even know it exists. Consequently, as soon as our basic cultural and ecological education is complete, it comes time to “remember” the knowledge we were born with: our particular, destined place in the world, our original personal instructions for this lifetime. All healthy cultures provide initiatory processes (much more extensive and categorically different than a rite of passage) to help their youth uncover just that. In the Western world, these initiatory processes were forgotten and lost millennia ago.
Next week, we’ll further explore the nature of individual uniqueness, especially on the ecological level.
To read part one, two and three click here.
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