“All large scale human cooperation is based on… sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity.” **
Vision quests nearly always include a profound encounter with different orders of “reality,” as one’s current dreams and stories – often separating us from the earth, ourselves, and each other – encounter that primal reality which gave birth to humans in the first place. While headlines about “fake news,” and “alternative facts” make clear there’s a battle over reality – what it is or isn’t, and who decides — the news of today barely scratches the surface of deeper and more important issues concerning “reality” and the role that imagination plays in it.
We experience three kinds of reality, that can interact in harmonious or conflicting ways. First is objective or primal reality, which can be measured by science and comprises what we call the physical universe – rocks, oceans, rabbits, lobsters, gravity, heat, etc. Objective reality is independent of anyone’s beliefs or feelings about it. You can disbelieve in gravity and call it a Chinese hoax, but if you fall out of a plane, you’ll plummet to earth at the same speed as everyone else.
Subjective reality is based on an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. It is an internal experience, and whether that be a dream or fantasy, an emotion like sadness, an acid trip, or a child’s pretend friend; it is unique to and localized to the person – there is no outside evidence of its presence, and it’s perceived by no one else.
We also live within “intersubjective realities.” These have little or no objective existence, but — communicated among and agreed on by many people — they acquire immense power… enough to blind us to the fact they are totally imaginary, and often arbitrary as well. For example: the idea of a “week…” There are natural recurrences in nature, but repeating cycles of seven days exist only in our imaginations. Yet seven billion people organize their lives and cooperate with each other based on this fiction. Other intersubjective fictions — like the set of rules defining money, stories and definitions of nationality, race, or what makes a “family,” beliefs about God, and legally created-fictions like “Toyota” or “Google” — form the context or “reality” in which we act, think, and live.
Subjective realities are important, though they’re often dismissed as “unreal.” Sometimes this makes sense, especially if your inner, subjective experience is at odds with other aspects of reality. How many times have you heard someone claim, “I’m not angry,” while observing them clench their jaw, mold their hands into fists while their face turns red. Their statement – sometimes delivered at high volume – contradicts the objective reality – measurable in blood pressure, adrenaline, muscle tension, etc. — that their body is expressing right before your eyes. Or, if you hear “voices” that instruct you to kill your sister, you’d be defined as mentally ill – these instructions are in direct conflict with the “right to life” in the Declaration of Independence – part of the intersubjective reality of those inhabiting the “United States.”
But subjective realities or inner states can also represent important truths that have yet to be expressed in the outer world. Dreams do not fit the standard for reality held by our cultural consensus, but they can be invaluable in expressing feelings, longings, and desires the conscious mind is unaware of. Mystical experiences of rapture, the spirit-filled journeys of shamans, and the enchanted worlds inhabited by primal peoples would also not fit the standards for reality – the intersubjective, but arbitrary standard held by those mostly unhappy souls considered “normal” today.
When one’s inner world is ill-matched with the outer – with society’s rules and expectations, for example – it doesn’t follow that you’re ill-adjusted. It may well be – and this feeling is often expressed by those returning from a quest – that the consensual reality of today is too small, too shallow, and too devoid of meaning to give one’s commitment and allegiance to. Feelings of depression around going to work may be about work – the job, the people, or the mindless pursuit of conformity or money – and becoming well-adjusted may be like a death sentence. If this is one’s truth, it’s good to know it. Trusting your inner voice – listening to your subjective reality – is not easy. Changing one’s commitment or direction will require allies, a community subscribing to a different set of values – a new reality — that can support and feed the seeds in you that want to grow.
Intersubjective realities occupy an enormous slice of our conscious bandwidth, their unexamined assumptions crucial factors in the best and worst of human behavior. These shared fictions have led to unprecedented achievements and power far beyond that of any other species. Believing Pharaoh was “the representative of god,” led to a national identity and the ability to administer a vast empire that – with just wood and stone for tools — built pyramids and controlled the Nile. Google raises money, hires programmers, and works to develop something – cyberspace – that never existed before. Entities — like nations or the European Union – organize and create common goals and commitments between hundreds of millions of people who have never met each other.
But the creation and sharing of imaginary realities has also led to the Holocaust; genocide of the Native Americans; ecological disaster; the Crusades; and the subjugation of women (their inferiority being “common knowledge” and pronounced by God himself).
The world defined by theist religions has faded, and the western world’s new fiction and belief – humanism – states there’s something special about our species. Different versions say it’s because we alone have eternal souls, are self-conscious, have an inner life, or have developed our reason and intellect beyond any of the other animals. True or not, (and science says not) this modern “religion” about human specialness has spawned the modern democratic state – with its Bill of Rights granting all people agreed-upon freedoms (speech, religion, due process, rights to vote, etc.). Proclaiming human life the highest valued, it asserts that the highest good – their development – will result from granting them the maximum liberty to do as they please.
All well and good… so far. But the shared belief about the sacredness of human life has a shadow — believing that all those other, non-human lives – from coyotes to coral reefs – are not so sacred. We, or fictional entities like corporations, claim the right to do what we want with our “property,” to bludgeon or bulldoze other forms of life out of existence.
People are rarely put on trial for killing animals, but they are often prosecuted for damaging someone else’s property. Many say they want to “get more in touch with Nature,” while the meat they consume comes from animals who have never seen the light of day or been able to turn around in their cages. Today, primal, objective reality – plants, animals, and entire ecosystems – is at risk of being destroyed or irreparably damaged by the forces of, and assumptions behind, imaginary realities humans have created and live within.
In the vision quest process, a participant walks into the solitude of nature, consciously leaving the daily world – our intersubjective dream – behind. This allows the engagement with outer primal reality and inner reality to expand and come to the fore. As that happens, conflict between beliefs – many of which disconnect us from the earth, ourselves, and each other – and the encounter with the living, sensuous Earth and a vibrant inner life is highlighted. This creates an opening and a possibility to sever some of the unconscious beliefs – downloaded since infancy – that define the world and limit the possibilities of who we can be today.
Our time and culture need a new mythology, one that relinquishes human specialness (and separateness) in favor of community and the family of life… that acknowledges the sacredness of it all. Without it, we’ll never feel at home, like we belong, and the chance of avoiding ecological disaster will be slim. Finding, creating, and claiming this “dream” is meaningful and worthy of our souls. It’s a dream worth living.
Sparrow Hart — May 10, 2017
** My thanks go to Noval Noah Harari, writer of the books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, for some of the ideas that inspired this post..