An edited extract from DisConnected: The Roots of Human Cruelty and How Connection Can Heal the World, by Steve Taylor
The world’s spiritual traditions developed as a reaction against disconnection.
2500 years ago, most of the Eurasian landmass – Europe, the Middle East and Asia – was in a state of extreme social disconnection and discord. For all but a tiny minority of aristocrats or nobles, life was extremely hard and brutal. The ease and leisure of the hunter-gatherer way of life had been replaced by a constant struggle to survive in the face of poverty, illness and oppression. It’s likely that most people lived in a state of chronic anxiety and insecurity. Violence was a constant feature of their lives – the indirect violence of oppression and poverty, and the direct violence of warfare, assault, murder and rape. In such societies, empathy and altruism were probably very rare, at least outside people’s own families or clans.
However, a small number of exceptional people responded to the suffering and brutality around them in a radical way: by rejecting violence and advocating compassion and altruism. Somehow, amid extreme disconnection, they oriented themselves at the opposite end of the continuum of connection, and taught values of peace, equality and love. They turned away from the discord outside them and began to cultivate inner harmony. This led to traditions such as Taoism, Hindu Vedanta and Buddhism, which arose at roughly the same time.
Almost nothing is known about the Buddha as a historical person, but there is no doubt that he was a highly connected person, who felt intense compassion for the suffering of his fellow human beings. He was also undoubtedly a highly intelligent person, with an acute analytical mind. His compassion and intellect combined to create an intricate and methodical path of self-development, designed to help free human beings from suffering.
It is difficult to imagine how radical the Buddha’s teachings must have seemed to his contemporaries. 2500 years before Gandhi, the Buddha taught compassion and altruism in the face of violence. As he advised in the Kutadanta Sutta, “In times of war, give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion, helping living beings. Abandon the will to fight.” The Buddha established five precepts for his followers to abide by, the first of which is to abstain from “killing or causing harm to other living beings”. This precept includes animals too, which led early Buddhists to oppose animal sacrifice and establish a tradition of vegetarianism.
Around 500 years later, Jesus taught a similar message of radical compassion and benevolence. As with the Buddha, Jesus’s contemporaries must have been puzzled – perhaps even offended – by some of his teachings. At a time when his people were living under brutal Roman occupation, Jesus advocated peaceful non-resistance. He proclaimed, “blessed are the peacemakers,” and advised would-be aggressors to “put your sword back into its place; for those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”
The Buddha and Jesus mean many things to their followers, but I see them as heroic revolutionary figures who resisted and transcended the insane brutality of their cultures and created a new vision of a harmonious, connected world. Although they wouldn’t have used the term themselves, they were essentially spiritual teachers, who knew from their own experience that the suffering and discord of disconnection could be transcended.
Experiences of Connection
As a term, spirituality is difficult to define exactly, but to me, it essentially means connection. Spiritual development is a process of increasing connection. Spiritual awakening is a shift into a state of intense connection. If a person is spiritually awakened, it means that they experience an unusually high level of connection. Spiritual connection manifests itself in different ways. In perceptual terms, it means becoming more connected to our surroundings, including the natural world. As a result, our surroundings become more vivid and beautiful, as if a new dimension of reality has been added to them. In subjective terms, it means becoming more connected to our own being, so that we sense greater inner depth and potential. We also become more connected to the human race and other living beings, which leads to increased empathy, compassion and altruism.
Inversely, we can see spiritual development as a process of transcending disconnection. The fundamental obstacle to spiritual development is our sense of separateness, when we experience ourselves as an ego that lives inside our minds and bodies, in separation from a world that seems to be “out there”, on the other side. As we undergo spiritual awakening, we become aware that this sense of separateness is an illusion. Our solid, rigid sense of identity begins to soften. Our identity begins to merge with the world, and with other living beings. We become aware of a sense of kinship – or even oneness – between ourselves and the rest of the world, sensing that we share the same essence as all other things.
Sometimes spirituality occurs in a temporary form – as spiritual or mystical experiences, in which our awareness briefly expands and intensifies, giving us access to an intensely real and beautiful world, filled with harmony and meaning.
Spiritual experiences are by no means uncommon and are by no means restricted to spiritual seekers or monks and mystics. In fact, most spiritual experiences happen to ordinary people in the midst of everyday life, rather than in the meditation room or the temple. They happen when we’re walking in the countryside, watching a sunset or staring up at the stars on a clear night. They happen when we’re swimming in the ocean or running in the park, while we’re making love, helping other people, or even while giving birth.
In such experiences, it’s as if our consciousness temporarily opens up, as if limitations or filters fall away, allowing us to perceive reality more fully. There is a sense of revelation, as if we’re seeing things as they really are. In comparison, our normal awareness seems limited, like looking at a blurred black and white photograph compared to a bright colour image. Awakening experiences may only last for a few seconds or minutes, but they usually have powerful long-term effects. They bring a new sense of optimism, trust and humility, with an awareness that life is more meaningful than we previously assumed. Essentially, though, these are experiences of connection. They are moments in which our normal sense of separateness fades away, in which we are no longer isolated egos living inside our mental space.
However, awakening isn’t just a temporary experience. Less frequently, it occurs in a permanent or ongoing form. This is sometimes referred to as “enlightenment”, although I prefer the term “wakefulness”. Wakefulness can be cultivated in a gradual way, through following spiritual paths or practices, or living a spiritual lifestyle of service, simplicity and detachment. Certainly, many spiritual adepts and monks who follow the paths of Buddhism, Yoga, Taoism, Sufism and the Kabbalah (and many other paths) experience a gradual awakening that becomes an ongoing state. Many people undergo the same process through the regular practice of meditation, or through following an eclectic mix of spiritual practices from different traditions.
However, spiritual awakenings also often happen suddenly and spontaneously, to people who don’t know anything about spirituality and aren’t connected to any traditions. As I showed in my book Extraordinary Awakenings, the most common way this occurs is through intense psychological turmoil – for example, in the midst of intense depression, stress or addiction, or following bereavement or a diagnosis of serious illness. In these situations, what I refer to as “transformation through turmoil” may occur. The ego breaks down in the face of intense suffering. A new, spiritually awakened self emerges in its place, almost as if it was always latent, waiting for the opportunity to be born.
Awakening changes people’s lifestyles radically. Without a sense of separateness, the need to accumulate disappears. People often shift to a mode of contribution rather than accumulation. One person described it to me as “a shift in focus from what can I get from life to what I can give to life.” Or as another person told me, “The purpose of my life is to be here for others, to help them grow and see their own importance.”
An intense feeling of connection is the main reason why wakefulness is so exhilarating. You could compare it to release from prison. After being trapped inside a narrow world of thoughts and desires, we’re suddenly free of our egos, able to connect with nature, other living beings, and the universe as a whole. Furthermore, we’re like prisoners who return home straight after release. After years of being alienated, we’re attuned to the fundamental oneness of all things, the source from which we emerged.
Paths of Connection
All spiritual paths are paths of connection, leading from separateness to union. Different traditions conceive of union in slightly different ways. What the Yoga tradition refers to as sahaja samadhi (usually translated as “everyday ecstasy”) is slightly different to what Taoists refer to as ming (when we live in harmony with the Tao) or what Christian mystics refer to as theosis or deification (literally, oneness with God). Nevertheless, all traditions agree that union means the end of suffering. As The Upanishads put it, “when a man knows the infinite, he is free; his sorrows have an end.” To transcend separation is to attain bliss.
Or as I would put it in psychological terms, union means becoming free of the discord and pathology generated by disconnection. It means feeling a sense of wholeness rather than lack. It means becoming free of the desire to accumulate wealth and status which is produced by a sense of lack. It means becoming free of the need for constant activity and distraction, to escape from our discontent. It means becoming free of the need to identify with groups, and the desire to create conflict with other groups. It means experiencing a natural sense of harmony and living in a state of ease.
Union isn’t a state that we cultivate so much as one that we uncover. As my book DisConnected shows, goodness is innate to human beings, because connection is innate. Despite the appalling brutality that some human beings are capable of, evil is not innate, but an aberration that arises from an unnatural state of disconnection. Since all our beings arise from the same fundamental source, we are always interconnected. Love, empathy and altruism are simply pure, unadulterated expressions of our fundamental oneness, like fresh water that flows from a spring.
Even at our most isolated and divided, we are always one. We only need to remember what we have always known. We only need to become what we have always been.