‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of our life?” It is immediately clear: when you talk to Charles Eisenstein, it is not about small things. The American mathematician and philosopher already tackles the big questions of life in the first minutes of the conversation. The question was how he experienced the pandemic.
“It has mainly shown that living as safely as possible is not the goal of life,” says Eisenstein, sitting behind the webcam, in front of an old tapestry with a nature scene in the background, a landscape with trees and flowers. It is the permanent backdrop for his YouTube videos with essays about the pandemic, the climate and nature, which regularly went viral during the corona crisis.
“It has become clear that we have sacrificed life itself. At least the kind of life that is worth living: social life. Humanity thrives on coming together, dancing, singing, cuddling. Just live together. That is completely sacrificed on the altar of safety. The result: spiritual misery.”
But isn’t that a bit too simplistic: wasn’t a focus on security partly inevitable in such an emergency as the pandemic? Eisenstein points to the many statistics about extremely poor mental health in many countries during the pandemic – CBS also recently reported that a quarter of young people have psychological complaints, a record.
“I am not against all measures per se, but the damage from the blind desire for safety at any cost is enormous.” According to him, safety has become so important that everything else has become subordinate, something that other philosophers have argued recently, from René ten Bos to Marli Huijer to Giorgio Agamben.
Charles Eisenstein (54) studied mathematics and philosophy at the American University Yale, and in recent years made a name for himself as a fairly radical thinker on ecology, nature and climate. His books, including Sacred Economics (2011) on Climate, a New Story (2018) experienced a resurgence in popularity during the pandemic. He is sometimes placed in the esoteric corner by critics, because of the major role of spirituality in his work and because he looks very skeptically at regular medicine, large pharmaceuticals and therefore also at the corona measures that he believes are too strict.
But don’t call him a conspiracy theorist. “Conspiracy theories simplify complex reality into a simple conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists jump into a vacuum associated with the lack of direction and meaning in our society. They fill that gap with a new ‘theory of everything’, a new myth to explain to the whole world, in which there is one convenient box to put all the social failures in. That is impossible.”
Not firm in our core
Above all, the pandemic has shown that many people have been shown to be very susceptible to manipulation, according to Eisenstein. Many people were either remarkably docile during very drastic measures or went completely the other way, he thinks. “We have not proved solid at our core.”
And what is that ‘core’? According to Eisenstein, this is related to those big life questions that he immediately started talking about. What a good life is, what a healthy relationship with nature, how we should relate to each other. These questions too often remain unanswered by large groups of people, he believes.
We just do what, have no direction, sit in a ‘crisis of belonging‘ (a crisis of belonging) and are therefore more susceptible to influence and fear. Partly because of the disappearance of religion and other sources of meaning, partly because of the derailment of the economic system, which revolves around more and more consumption, growth and exploitation of nature. As a result, people feel unsafe, which explains what he sees as an exaggerated urge for safety and control. “If people know who they are deep down, they are not so easily manipulated.”
How would he answer those big questions about how to live himself? With a ‘change of the story’. By this he means the social story that people tell themselves about what constitutes a life worth pursuing and a just society.
The myth now dominant in the West, Eisenstein calls “the story of separation.” In short, the story is that people are selfish, as individuals are separated from other people and from nature, and that man has the right to exploit it.
According to Eisenstein, we need to move towards a ‘story of’ interbeing‘, a narrative about interdependence, symbiosis with other people and nature. He bases this, among other things, on Taoist and Buddhist ideas and ecological science. This new – but actually also ancient – story revolves around healing, connection, and an acceptance of the uncontrollability of nature instead of an ‘illusion of control’. According to him, this leads to that exaggerated emphasis on safety and manageability, which all have harmful side effects. “Only if you live in the misconception that you are outside and above nature, can you believe that you can control that nature to the extreme.”
But how do you change such a dominant story according to him? “I don’t have an easy formula.” But he thinks that in order to get into that alternate story, people not only have to do different things, but also want different things.
He is concerned not so much with an external adjustment but with an internal change. “You have to look deep inside, listen to what is calling you from within. Is that your ambition, or your love?” You have to follow that love, he says. In order to be able to listen better, meditation, staying in nature, practicing generosity towards other people help, according to him. Eisenstein reasons with science in hand, there are several studies that indeed show that these kinds of things lead to more feelings of connection and love. But for some, this sort of argument crosses the line from rationality to spirituality, earning him both criticism and popularity.
He shrugs about that. „I think any vocation based on love brings us closer to that story of interbeing can bring.” According to him, love revolves around ‘an expansion of your self-image’, because you also involve the other in that love. “That’s what love is: when you feel love for someone, you are no longer a separate individual. That is you together lovers, a family, a community. When you extend your love to nature, you naturally become more part of it.”
According to him, it would also help if we learn to look at the concept of health differently. That’s what his next project is about, The Sanity Project, an attempt, together with its thousands of readers, listeners and viewers, to better define what they mean by health, a healthy life, healthy relationships: physical, mental and communal. Is that always the total shielding from disease?
Answering that question also starts with ‘inner sovereignty’, according to Eisenstein. “Getting rid of little people. Trust in who you are, and in what you know about what is healthy, what is good. Therein lies your inner sanctuary, your core. From there we can build a new joint story.”
Because that old story is not only under pressure because of corona, he thinks. “Covid is just the beginning. Humanity is gaining momentum, mainly due to the climate crisis and the collapse of ecosystems. We are only a few centimeters away from a wild ride that will cover many kilometers.”
That sounds apocalyptic. “I don’t think most people foresee what’s coming our way in the coming years,” he says. “We will have to show a willingness to let go of fundamental assumptions about our place in the world. We will have to unlearn a lot.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 24 September 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 24, 2021