Culture Change e-Letter # 39
The curtain of materialist society's illusion
This essay was inspired by a scary, dream-induced
glimpse I had of the “curtain of perception” and the reality on the other
side. Since 2001, the organization
I write for has taken on subjects such as trends in
modern culture’s dwindling family cohesion, after ten years of publishing and
campaigning mainly to end new road construction. We believe the unraveling social fabric and global-warming lifestyles, for
example, are linked. In this essay
we go still deeper to reevaluate the alleged reality
of the social, materialist world.
by Tim Barton, Bluegreenearth
As so many of us have
noticed, day-to-day living in modern society has become alienated from
nature. It isn’t just a function of
being cooped up in buildings, traveling on roads in
motor vehicles, and obtaining our food off of refrigerated shelves. Increasingly, perceived reality
is also made up of society’s constructs. Our relationships have become more centered around money and
individual self-interest. So, the
individual's growing alienation in a material environment is
compounded by dominant society’s ever-expanding rules.
In our personal daily dealings, our time and thoughts are
taken up by unnatural outside stimuli: mass media, relationships with
people in the socioeconomic context, artificial living in modern homes and
offices, etc. These circumstances
shape our perception. However, we
may not realize how much our minds and way of viewing the universe have been taken over by the social system. It is sometimes only possible to grasp
it on a visceral- or altered-consciousness level, when we escape to a natural
environment and live without society or much technology.
The dominance of our society and the material world in and around our lives is a monolith blocking out the real or original universe. It's as if a large curtain comprising materialist society is in front of us: so large and so close that even the most conscious of us do not notice its massive presence. The awareness we can muster while in front of the curtain is inadequate to see how pervasive and false the illusion is. Perhaps the curtain not only envelopes us but is us—our modern-made selves.
It is a chilling concept to think of our perception as incredibly narrow and
shallow due to our inability to see around the curtain or to tear it down. When did the curtain go up? We put it up ourselves, but increasingly
we were also born into it. Our
separation from nature only accelerates for humanity as a whole, so as
"progress" marches on, the younger a person is the more invisible and oppressive
What we increasingly see and feel normally is the need for more money, modern housing, sex, entertainment, drugs, jewelry, family attachment, escapism, etc. These valid wants, even if all satisfied in moderation or excess, serve to impede our consciousness all the more. Furthermore, many of us are drawn to building "an identity" of social respect or power, whether as a gangsters, politicians, or super consumers.
The most one can usually grasp about the limitations of today’s alleged "real world" is in acknowledging the spiritual dearth of today’s modern living. Some will act on that sentiment through meditation perhaps or, say, treesitting to protect an ancient forest. Others may seek expanded awareness of the universe by creating art or using hallucinogenic drugs to pierce the curtain, as in The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.
But this does not mean the curtain has been torn down by or for any of those seekers.
Science has run into unknowable realms of the universe when physicists have
demonstrated that the observer of a given molecular or cosmic process helps
determine outcome. Society still
strives to turn us into numbers that follow, like sheep, the practical routes to
material security and safety from law enforcement or other unpleasantness.
We are to have no self-determination except for voting - almost always on false choices. The pervading mass
passivity is a domestication that probably began when people moved to cities and
lost their connections with their land. This long process has all but
blocked out a universe interactive and awesome.
What happens when we block out the universe or have it crowded out from our
daily experience? Our reality is what we create, and our perception or
observation of the universe helps shape the latter for us. We affect other species (kill them
off). But the overall effect of adhering to the
grand illusion takes another toll: on our mental health as we weaken the
survival of the planet as the source of life.
The popular film The Matrix offered the viewer the idea that society has been constructed as fake, manipulative, secretive, and corrupt. Audience reaction indicated wide agreement among today’s real population. People enjoyed the film’s exposing the truth of our slave-like existence and scaring us as to what is in store (whether or not machines will take over from humans). Calling this society "the matrix" has become an underground American-English colloquialism. Thus, people have a growing sense of the material world as a false construct due to the domination of law enforcement and technology so evident in The Matrix.
I have not been influenced by The Matrix
in formulating my idea of today’s perception as being limited to
socio-materialist reality. The film entertained me immensely as an
allegorical expose on today’s actual regimentation and spiritually empty
living. "Life" is
enforced, in both The Matrix and today’s society and our
artificial environment, by the organized powers comprising and maintaining
government, business, and most aspects of our lives.
My decades of education on perception and awareness have
been influenced by Zen and living close to nature, as well as putting up
with living in
Understanding beyond the
Visualizing the concept of the curtain as anti-consciousness came to me as a shocking revelation that caused me to vibrate with uneasiness and concern, yet with gratitude for its clarity. What may be original or rare is the idea that the normal state of awareness and almost everything we perceive is a false construct of a temporary sort. The false construct is worse than having blinders on that we don’t know are there, for the view straight ahead would still be clear with blinders. It is worse than being blindfolded, because we could still hear and think.
It is more like we don’t have much of an idea of
what we don’t know. The amount of
reality blocked from our view, I believe, turns out not to be 10%, 20% or 50%,
as some of us have suspected, but perhaps over 99%. That applies to all of
us who every day take so seriously the "real world" of the economy, law, the
written word, manufactured objects, and conventional social relations propping
up the status quo. With all of this
goes the modern tendency to relate to nature as something existing separate from
us: for example in parks instead of endless wilderness that we are one with.
People try to get a grip on the actual world around them and their place in
the cosmos without distracting thoughts or internal dialogue through
meditation. But their efforts go nowhere to liberate them if they fool
themselves into thinking they are seeing beyond the curtain. One cannot much see beyond it if
one isn’t living beyond it.
What it all suggests to me is that only a complete cultural change may offer the hope of improving our perception or occasional enhanced consciousness to include everything beyond the curtain of materialist illusion.
What would life be like without the curtain? Without billions of people living as materialists? Without today’s extreme social strife? Without war, terror, and ecocide? Can we imagine doing without the boxed-in thinking as practiced by all the alienated individuals coping with survival in noncommunity?
On the other side
What’s on the other side of the curtain? It would be appealing to be there now or at least speculate on the "landscape" there. Time and space could be different. If this sounds like science fiction, consider that time seems considerably slowed down when one is fasting; a meditative state takes over and one’s emotions alter. As to time, when one eschews technologically inhuman speed in travel, one’s personal environment becomes a larger universe. Ancient forests once held enchantment for everyone due to their perceived vastness.
Materialist culture put up a curtain between itself and the Garden of
Eden. The original garden of early
history (if a place and not an allegory) might have been bombed in the Gulf
Wars, despoiled forever by depleted uranium. Instead of finding paradise on the other
side of the curtain if we manage to get past it, we may have our breath taken
away by the awesome power of the universe as it may exhibit only cold fury or
Or if a form of
I’d like to think that besides appreciating the wonder of beauty and clarity provided by unspoiled nature and a recovered sense of cosmic awareness, we will act with the compassion of true wisdom implied in the name Homo sapiens sapiens.
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