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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 42 furtively in my peripheral vision, but perhaps it might serve as a useful thought experiment when the changes, local and global, that are reshaping our world so rapidly cause us to feel anxiety, fear, or anger. For me, it is axiomatic that while pain is inevitable in life, suffering is produced by the mind, frequently by our condi- tioned ideas of what is and ought to be. I find it helpful to remember that in the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth, modern humans (one of twenty humanoid species that once existed) have only been around for an estimated one hundred thousand years, the mere blink of an eye in a universe that is 15 billion years old. Twenty-three percent of the universe consists of dark matter, 73 percent is dark energy, discovered eight years ago, which leaves the measurable cosmos—what we can experience—at only about 4 percent. During our brief, flicker-flash time here, there have been long periods of stagnation in our social evolution, notably the Dark and Middle Ages, which lasted a thousand years. But since the seventeenth century of Descartes, and certainly since the European Enlightenment, civilizational change has seemed relatively constant, sometimes marked by brief, in- tense periods that compress paradigm shifts and technologi- cal developments so far-reaching one is tempted to compare them to the movement of tectonic plates that alter continents and reshape the surface of the earth. Old and often cherished ideas and ways of life die; new experiences arise and require a new vocabulary, a new grammar, a new vision. For example, a glance at the thirty years between 1895 and 1925 discloses a startling shift from the horse-and-car- riage world of my great-grandparents (who lived a hairs- breadth from slavery and when average life expectancy was forty-seven years in 1902) to one in which the era of the Victorians ended, quantum mechanics provided a deep- er understanding of matter than Classical or Newtonian physics, and new forms of art emerged (poetry’s free-verse movement, the revolt against formalism, the paintings of Pi- casso and sculpture of Eric Gill), and new philosophical and conceptual models took hold. In a very short time, our lives filled with the all too familiar “furniture” of the twentieth century. Just three dizzying decades produced such forms as the airplane, radio, modern naval submarine, diesel engine, typewriter, electric iron, talking pictures, television, x-rays, zippers, and the calculating machine—all came into being and restructured the possibilities of lived experience. However, even that period of accelerated change seems lethargic when compared to the florescent moment we find ourselves immersed in at the beginning of a new century (and millennium). Given the sequencing of DNA, and the expo- nential progress in such fields as biotechnology, robotics, and nanotechnology, our children may live in a world as experi- entially different from the twentieth century as our time is from, say, the eighteenth. As a species, we have sent probes to Mars, Venus, comet Tempel 1, and to objects in the outer solar system like Saturn’s moon Titan—all with the aim of clari- fying the origins of our universe and delivering knowledge unknown to our predecessors. (A company with the wonder- fully ludic name Genetic Savings and Clone will duplicate your cat for only $50,000.) “Chimeras,” creatures genetically engineered with the traits of two species—florescent animals, for example—are already among us. Two years ago, scientists achieved “quantum teleportation,” the transfer of physical characteristics between atoms. A time may come, and soon, when stem cell research allows us to grow livers and kidneys keyed to our individual DNA, thus removing the likelihood of such organs being rejected by our immune systems. “People have this sense that as twenty-first-century humans we’ve got- ten as high as we’re going to go,” says Greg Wray, director of Duke University’s Center for Evolutionary Genomics. “But we’re not played out as a species. We’re still evolving.” Yet that evolution, of course, is contingent on whether we as a species can survive. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a sermon delivered in 1954 that “The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdis- tanced the spiritual ends for which we live. ... The real prob- lem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make it a brotherhood.” HOW REMARKABLE it is that half a century after King deliv- ered that speech our era looks eerily like the time of Petronius, author of the Satyricon, at the end of the Roman empire. On the global level, we often feel that we are helpless spec- tators to a war on terrorism that the vice president of the United States warned will continue well into the next gen- eration. The Iraq war, now three years old, with its “thou- sands” of strategic errors Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confessed the United States has made (which include, many would say, invading that country after cherry-picking basi- cally flawed intelligence), leaves Americans of conscience and goodwill in a daily state of anxiety and suspense greater than Our children may live in a world as experientially different from the twentieth century as our time is from, say, the eighteenth.