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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Alchemy, Wealth and Eternal Life

“I look to heaven and I see
there's a silver dollar
in the sky shining down on me.”

-       Sitting In the Sun, Louis Armstrong
Reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, many thoughts cross my mind.  Each stems back to the same place – the nature of perception. Or, as we refer to it in more concrete, rational, scientific terms – cognition.

I’m an anthropologist by training, a traveler by nature and a linguist by inclination.  I’m also hard-wired to be pro-social, which is why I have always been fascinated in that which connects people and that which cleaves us apart.  The pursuit of this understanding has taken me around the world, from small communities in Ecuador to hot spots in Bosnia to the Pink Palace in Ontario.  A little story cuts to the root of what I have learned so far:

When I was living in Italy, a key Other identified by many of my Italian friends were the Maroccini – the Moroccans. The epithets used against foreign Moroccan workers were the same as has been used against any Other in history, whether it be the Gauls, the Irish, the Chinese or First Nations:

- They don’t think like you and I;
- They are corrupt, immoral, dangerous;
- They are intentionally out to get us;
- They are not to be trusted, therefore:
- We must defend against them, through offense if necessary.

It’s a deep-rooted fear of the unknown which quivers beneath the surface of many a mind to this day.

During a trip from Italy to Morocco with a busload of Moroccans and over weeks spent in various parts of Morocco proper, I heard the exact same prejudice raised.  This time, it was about the Italians on the part of Moroccans. South of the Atlas, I frequently heard the same words spoken by small-towners and Tuareg, but in reference to the big-city folk from Casa.

Of all the wonderful riches of diversity that separate ethnicities, linguistic groups, religious groups and political groups, people fundamentally have one key thing in common – a mistrust of each other. That mistrust is instinctual, limbic-based and fortified by a deficit of understanding.  That lack of awareness helps leave one with the feeling of being unempowered, of not having control.

Why, though? Why does surface or anecdotal knowledge lead us to focus on differences between people, when the similarities are so pronounced?  In my experience, language is the key. We codify everything – nature, people, positions – by giving them names.  Trouble is, the naming of things applies levels of value that are not intrinsic to the subject in question. Codification allows for more complex communication, certainly, but it equally imbues whatever's being defined with significance beyond its internal fabric.  We automatically mistrust what we don't understand, because it is different.  That mistrust wedges itself into our definitions.  That cognition-level stigma restricts us from knowing a subject on its own terms; instead, we know things in terms of what they mean to us.

The Other provides a clear example of this.  When you define a person as different than you, they become foreign, unknowable, threatening. Conversely, if we used the elements we have in common to form the base of understanding, diversity becomes an opportunity for growth, difference becomes a positive, the unknown becomes a teacher.

That variance in perspective leads to the great irony of alchemy, the mystical search for immortality and immediate wealth that played a role in fostering the development of modern science and Western thought in general.  The perspective that developed alchemy has left us with individual-focused definitions of wealth and life - a perspective which leaves us searching for answers to problems that exist in our perceptions alone.

This framework and the quest for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone is core to Western thought; therefore, it has informed the institutions and infrastructure that form the skeleton and nervous system of Western civilization. Our health care system is designed to help us individually live longer.  We want to live longer to enjoy wealth.  At the same time, we try to get rich as quickly as possible to be able to enjoy our wealth for greater parts of our lifespans (hence the inevitability of get-rich-quick schemes). Or, we tackle the problem from a slightly different angle and seek immortality and wealth through legend. It’s the same choice Achilles grappled with – glory or immortality, only now we define this by saying it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

When you define riches as that which are rare and difficult to obtain, you automatically set yourself on a competitive trajectory. Precious metals are rare, so it’s those at the top of the food chain who get them. Money doesn’t come easy, so it is seen as important. Unless you’ve got access to financial wealth – in that case, it’s some other rare commodity you seek, with your money, that helps define you as rich. This can be an artist’s work (which gains much value once it’s clear that their output is irrevocably limited) or a pet or pelt of a nearly-extinct animal. The pursuit of wealth is a perpetually isolating one, intrinsically twinned with the fear of losing something – something you have already, or perhaps the next opportunity if you don’t move quickly enough.

The big secret of the Philosopher’s Stone is this – you cannot turn common stones into gold, but there’s no particular reason why gold must be exclusively valuable. In fact, you can choose to value that which is all around you, if value is not prescribed as something you can have to the exclusion of others. Hence the Satchmo quote that kicked this article off – the glory of a sunset is a wealth everyone can attain when wealth is seen not as an individual end but as a personal, connective beginning.

What of the other quest of alchemy, the Elixir of Life, which is essentially the same conceit as the Fountain of Youth? The same principle of codification applies here. When you identify things in terms of possession, you either have something or someone else does.  If there's something someone else has and you don’t, you must’re probably missing out. There’s a reason why anxiety and depression are connected to consumption. Equally, when you view life on the individual level, it is short, your time is limited, the stress is on to get what you can with the time that you have.

This is what we do – we start inward, then expand slowly outward. We worry about our own lives, then the lives of our families, our self-identified groups, our communities and somewhere way down the line, our species and the general ecosystem. Yes, we in the West understand the circle of life, ashes to ashes, etc, but we don’t really believe it. Life is a trajectory, not a cycle; when we’re done, we’re done. This is all there is.

Of course, we could dig deeper, if we wanted to - cells within our body die and are replaced all the time. The fabric of who we are changes over the course of our lives - we're literally not the same people at our deaths as we were at our births. That same perspective can be applied to society; the death of an individual does not mean the end of society, just as the end of a society doesn't imply the end of the species.  Individual deaths actually facilitate the adaptability of the whole – as true for cells as it is for political parties or business ventures.  These days, in social contexts, we refer to this adaptive process by a new name – creative destruction.

It is widely recognized that the business which proves itself incapable of innovation is destined to fail, just as the body or society that does not adapt cannot last.  Of course, that which is successful will invariably incorporate elements of that which came before, as is the nature of evolution.  Existence IS a cycle of regeneration, not a trajectory; death is a starting place, as much as an end.

Yet our society is built of individuals seeking their own survival and benefit; that is the perspective that informs everything from the way we plan cities or conduct ourselves in traffic to the way we fund health care programs (again, designed to keep us ticking for as long as possible). Going inwards, we don't see the loss of a limb as the loss of self; so long as the self is intact, the limb can be compensated for (when it comes to impacts on our cognitive abilities, however, there is a sense that with neurological challenges, a measure of the man is lost).  At the outer (governance, corporate) level, individuals are often viewed the same way, though the emergence of the knowledge-based economy is changing this.

Systems are built with focus on how to support the individual, then expanded to groups and models. Institutions - public, Not-For-Profit, Private - worry about achieving their own interests and mandates first, frequently at the expense of others in their field. This is why we are being weighed down by the burdens of duplication, gaps and overlaps; repetition and inefficiency results when you look from the ground-up, rather than from the crowd inwards.

It is no surprise that the more densely integrated global society becomes, that trend is starting to change.  It’s also no coincidence that this change is being accompanied by a deeper understanding of cognitive function and how individual perception informs crowd behaviour.

Have we strayed from the quest for the Elixir of Life?  No – we’ve just given it some background.  The nature of existence is cyclical, but the nature of cognition is linear.  The major religions touch on the circle of life – ashes to ashes, dust to dust, etc – but they do so from a linear fashion.

Consider: Hindus believe in reincarnation. There’s comfort in knowing that, in some way, your individual existence will go on. Buddhists, on the other hand, are focused on Nirvana – the ending of one’s individual existence. Samurai in feudal Japan looked at life from a completely different perspective – they focused on death. In the Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo tell us "The way of the warrior is death." This doesn’t mean Samurai were suicidal; what it meant was, the individual acceptance of death took away the fear of ending.  By accepting an end was inevitable, they had no resistance to living life fully.  Lao-tzu put it thusly:

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

When you perceive wealth as personal, it is fleeting.  When you view life as individual, it, too, is fleeting.

Alchemy is the pursuit of the eternal through the lens of the individual.  The eternal, though, is beyond the grasp of the individual – it is not achieved through chemistry or industry, but by shifting one’s perspective beyond the self.  Don Tapscott calls this “networked intelligence.”  That expansion of self is a proven generator of wealth.

The real magic, then, happens when we sublimate the self and allow ourselves to connect with the matrix of the eternal.  Wealth is not isolating, but shared.  Life is not personal, it is systematic.  We move forward, as they say, together.

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