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. 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 a returning student completing my undergraduate degree at a small state college in the geographical center of California. Since no river ran through that part of the Central Valley (which is rainless for six months of the year), I established a routine a few times a week of driving 20 minutes outside town to walk and take sittings beside the Merced River, the same river that runs through Yosemite Valley.
My time by the river was always deeply insightful and regenerative. There were many riparian species of birds and other wildlife to observe along the lush banks. Often a profoundly meditative state would ensue from the undirected observation, as the observer fell away and attention gathered and effortlessly quieted the mind.
The inquiry into what used to be called “the riddle of man” intensified to a climactic degree in me during this period. For years I was driven to find out: How did this existential contradiction between the dynamic order of nature, which unfolds in seamless wholeness, and the increasing disorder of man, which ensues from separation and fragmentation, arise?
After all, humans evolved along with all other life on earth, by same basic principles that Darwin had discovered in the mid-19th century. Yet even in my late teens, over 40 years ago, it was clear to me that the human race was moving in the opposite direction of life, destroying the earth and ourselves.
During deeper states of meditation, when thought falls silent and symbols no longer mediate what one is experiencing in the moment, 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 taking off from nearby Castle Air Force Base, which is no longer operational. I also knew at that moment that the behemoth was going to fly directly over my head. I had seen and heard them before of course, these monstrosities of the nuclear age, but they always took a flight path away from where I walked and sat in meditation.
Used most recently to rain ‘conventional’ carnage upon America’s enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, 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 evil order come.
It took the plane nearly a minute to reach the place where I was standing. The animalistic flight reaction was strong and I started to run, but there was no escape. Even 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.
After starting to run, defiance rose within me and I stopped, held firm, and gazed into the belly of the beast.
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, as shatteringly clear as the black thing with huge engines pile-driving me into the ground.
Beyond words, in my shaking gut, I saw: This thing is man; I am this thing. The fear was gone, and the horror was gone. There was just the fact—a woefully misguided species possessing the power of suns, 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 being looking into the darkest core of myself as man. The nuclearized B-52, I saw, was the epitome of nature gone wrong, a culmination of man’s wrong turning, the total misuse of the evolutionary adaptation of ‘higher thought.’
Without self-knowing, disorder inevitably emerges out of order with the evolution of symbolic thought. Insight is the remedy, for it acts on thought, quieting the mind and putting thought in its rightful place.
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. My prayer is that it doesn’t take that much for you.