In the early 1980’s, after 15 years of intensive philosophical inquiry into the question of how human disorder could evolve out of the natural order, I had a shattering experience that answered the question for me at literally a gut level.
Ronald Reagan was in office and Mikhail Gorbachev was as yet unknown outside the Soviet Union. The Cold War was at its nadir, and many people justifiably feared a nuclear holocaust, as they do now. For nearly 40 years an uneasy truce had held, nearly rupturing several times, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the time, I was at a small state college in the geographical center of California. Since no river ran through this part of the Central Valley (which is rainless for nearly six months of the year), I established a routine of driving 15 minutes outside town a few times a week to walk and take a meditation beside the Merced River, the same river that runs through Yosemite Valley.
My time by the river was always deeply regenerative. There were many riparian species of birds and other wildlife to observe along the lush banks. Often a deeply meditative state would ensue from the undirected observation, as the observer fell away and undirected attention gathered energy and swept away psychological memory and the past.
My inquiry into the ‘riddle of man’ peaked during this period. I simply had to find out: How did this great contradiction between the dynamic order of nature and the increasing disorder of humankind arise?
After all, humans evolved along with all other life on earth, by same basic principles that Darwin had discovered in the 19th century. Yet even in my late teens it was clear that the human race was going in the opposite direction of life, fragmenting the earth to the breaking point.
During deeper states of meditation, when symbols no longer mediate what one is experiencing, the entire organism becomes tremendously sensitive. Colors are far sharper, and one hears things much further away than during ‘normal,’ mediated consciousness. It was during such a state of greatly heightened sensitivity by the Merced River that one of the most shattering events of my life occurred.
I heard it first as a distant roar. In the next instant I knew exactly what it was—a B-52 from the nearby Castle Air Force Base, now closed. I also knew at that moment that the thing was going to fly directly overhead. I had seen and heard them before of course, these behemoths of the nuclear age, but they always took a flight path away from the river.
First built in the 1950’s, many are still in use. They were last used to rain ‘conventional’ carnage upon America’s newfound enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, but B-52’s were designed to deliver nuclear bombs to Soviet cities in the event of war. At that time, these huge planes carried nuclear weapons on their training runs, ready to be armed in minutes should the terrible order come.
It took the plane the better part of a minute to reach the place where I was standing. My flight reaction was strong, but there was no escape, and the car was some distance away. The noise grew incredibly loud, and the ground began to shake.
Suddenly the monstrous thing was on top of me, its engines screaming beyond the range of hearing, roaring not just in my ears but also in my chest and guts. The thing was so close I could read lettering on its underbelly.
It all came together at that moment, all the years of questioning and probing into the human condition. I wanted to find out, and here it was, the evil of man as shatteringly clear as the hyper-sound waves pile- driving me into the ground.
Beyond words, in my shaking gut, I saw: This thing is man; I am man, the maker of this thing. The psychological separation that gives rise to evil was gone, and with it, the fear and horror were gone. There was just the fact—a woefully misguided species possessing the power of stars, exemplified by this machine of pure destruction. I saw a strange beauty in the contradiction, and felt a cosmic sorrow and compassion.
I was a naked human looking into the darkest core of myself as a human. The B-52 was an epitome of nature gone wrong, a culmination of man’s wrong turning, the total misuse of the evolutionary adaptation of ‘higher thought.’
Without insight and understanding, disorder inevitably emerges out of order with the evolution of symbolic thought. Insight and understanding remain the virtually untapped remedy. The answer I was looking for was within me, as it is within all of us. It just took a
lot of noise and shaking for me to see it.