Reconnecting with the Deep, Impulsive Human Need for Danger
The human impulse towards danger and unpredictability, often expressed as the need for liberation and adventure
In our 21st Century post-modern world, following at least 5 millennia of socio-political and cultural evolution, we find ourselves deeply enmeshed in a technological existence, in a profound state of alienation from nature. With the incessant march of technological progress, it is a condition that only threatens to drive one further and further away from nature and into technological alienation — unless one takes definitive, conscious, active measures to reverse the trend.
One has to wonder, though — how did we get this way? How did human civilization arrive at this point? It did not happen overnight, to be sure — it was the cumulative result of countless decisions and developments over an extended period stretching back into the mists of time. There was once a prehistoric era when human beings lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We can infer this from records and observations of nomadic peoples in remote parts of the world — such as the Native American tribes of the Americas and the tribes of Africa. This tribal lifestyle is heavily characterized by a profound connection with the Now — the present moment. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribespeople lived in the moment, for the most part. This is evident from the simple observation that there is not a lot in the way of record-keeping activity in such tribes, aside from occasional rock carvings and cave paintings.
The nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is characterized by a profound connection with the Now
One may surmise, therefore, that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was characterized by deep immersion in the present moment, in the state of being — what some modern psychologists refer to as the state of flow. Such a state is characterized by the absence of any concept of time — there is no sense of past or future, only a complete immersion in the present moment. It may also be characterized by a profound connection with nature and with the flow of life in nature. The hunter-gatherers of the prehistoric past lived lives in deep connection with nature and flow.
At some point in human history — what we might refer to as the start of human history, in fact — the point where pre-history became recorded history, perhaps — human beings somehow became disconnected from this innate, inherent, natural state of flow, this complete immersion in the present moment. We became aware of the passage of time — of time as a continuum — of past, present and future as distinct temporal states. This loss of our primeval innocence caused us to distinguish the past from the future and to come to believe or understand that the present moment is not all-encompassing. We associated our knowledge, memories and experiences with the past — at least to the extent that we were able to correctly remember and record them. And we associated the experience and process of becoming aware, of learning and growing, with the present. But the future was, and remains, the source of our deepest fascination and fears. The future represents for us the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable — the possibility, and inevitability, of change.
The most basic human fear is our fear of the unknown. And the future is the domain of the unknown. It follows, therefore, that the future represents the most basic source of human fear and triggers in us the most basic human impulses — the reactive desire and need for predictability, safety and control. Presumably, this fear of the unknown, of the future, initially drove human beings to band together in communities and to seek refuge in caves, as demonstrated by prehistoric archaeological records and evidence. This led, subsequently, to the development of communes and villages, to agriculture and the domestication of animals, to tribal conflict and warfare and, thereby, to fortifications, then to cities and urbanization. Through this entire process — the process of human civilization and urbanization — runs the core thread that is the development of the technology that has made it all possible.
Technological progress — the story of Man attempting to exercise control over his environment
Thus, the entirety of human history and civilization may be summarized as being a process of technological development designed by human beings to exert a measure of control over their environment — to ensure safety, security and continued existence. In essence, it all stems from the deep-seated human fear of the unknown, of the unpredictability of the future, which, in turn, only arises from the human awareness of the passage of time, of time as a continuum. If one has no concept of the past or future, as experienced by ancient, prelapsarian hunter-gatherer tribals, one has no fear of the future and no need or desire to urbanize or “civilize” oneself. This is how Native American tribes thrived in the American continent until the arrival of European colonialists.
The whole of human history, therefore, may be thought of as the story of Man seeking to allay this basic human fear — the fear of the unknown and of the future — by attempting to exercise control over his environment. Man builds technological artifacts in order to make life easier. Food is processed and manufactured so that it is always in abundant supply and there is never a fear of shortage — even though, in the process, it suffers drastically in terms of quality. In fact, with the advent of modern junk food, it is severely lacking in any discernible nutritional value at all and may even be hazardous to one’s health. Still, it fulfills the need to predictably alleviate basic hunger — to fill one’s stomach on a regular basis. Similarly, housing, over time, has become progressively insular, cellular and disconnected from nature. Modern urban life has become predictable, cyclical, monotonous — limited, controlled and deterministic — so as to ensure one’s survival and protection in the face of an unpredictable, uncontrollable future — a future of infinite possibilities.
However, even in our urbanized modern state, wherein we are driven by fear to seek out the predictability of an insular urban existence and the security of a mundane professional life, there remains, deep within, a spiritual hunger for something more — a deep-seated need for the unpredictable and uncontrollable — for danger, essentially — baked into the human soul. Even in an environment in which everything is abundantly provided for and security is ensured, the soul longs to break free from the humdrum, controlled existence of urban life — from the 9 to 5 wage slavery that defines modern existence for the vast majority of humanity. The soul longs for something more, something beyond — for freedom, for liberation, for adventure.
A deep-seated need for the unpredictable and uncontrollable — for danger, essentially — baked into the human soul
In this way, the unknown and unpredictable is simultaneously the source of one’s deepest fears and one’s greatest longing. It would appear that the soul yearns to return to the state of flow that it once experienced in the remote past of collective human memory — a state of complete immersion in the present moment without any concept of past or future — of being completely in the moment, at one with nature — the Zen state — Unity Consciousness. This is the source of one’s highest bliss — the state of being reunited with the flow of nature and of being wholly reconnected with its movement, without fear of the future. It is a state of being that one experiences rarely, incompletely and momentarily in our present state — in those rare moments in life when everything just clicks, when we get just beyond our comfort zone and become wholly immersed in the experience of life in the present moment — wholly immersed in the dance of being. It is a state of being that our remote hunter-gatherer ancestors once took for granted and probably experienced every day of their lives. It is that same prelapsarian state that we, ourselves, experienced as children — the state that we nostalgically remember as our “innocence” — and, as it remains, in our adulthood, no more than a distant memory, we deem our current condition to be a “fallen state” following a “loss of innocence” or a “fall from grace.” Nevertheless, this “state of flow” is a mode of conscious being that one can reacquire and experience again, through various practices and means — such as meditation, yogic exercises, qigong, etc. — albeit imperfectly and incompletely.
In essence, there are conflicting, contradictory impulses in the human soul. On the one hand, there is the impulse towards safety, predictability and self-preservation — our need for refuge and protection — defined by our fear of the unknown. And, on the other hand, there is the impulse towards danger and unpredictability, often expressed as the human need for liberation and adventure, defined by the experience of the stifling of the human spirit in a controlled, constrained environment. The balancing point of these warring impulses is, what one might term, the “flow state” or the Zen state — essentially, the prelapsarian condition of innocence, defined by complete immersion in the Now, the present moment.
Proustian Memory: Ritual as a Key to the Forgotten Past
The esteemed French novelist Marcel Proust, in his early 20th century magnum opus entitled À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (variously translated as In Search of Lost Time and A Remembrance of Things Past), described a remarkable phenomenon, which has since come to be known as Proustian memory. It is an involuntary memory that comes to be triggered by some sort of sensory stimuli. In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s saga, the author describes an event wherein the fragrance of tea cakes is suddenly evocative of a vivid childhood memory. Thus, Proust describes a process whereby hidden memories, submerged deep within the human subconscious, come to be associated with and, potentially, triggered by an experience or physical interaction of some sort — a triggering sensory stimulus. In some respects, this process is akin to muscle memory — to remembering how to ride a bike, play the guitar or do karate — the sort of skills that stay with you for life.
It must be noted, incidentally, that this process also has a dark side. Such associative, triggering stimuli have been used as a part of covert mind control operations employed by intelligence agencies around the world, including, notably, the CIA. However, the point of this essay is to dwell on the positive applications of the process, not its abuse in the hands of covert operatives.
The vast, unknown landscape of the human collective unconscious — the repository of tribal, collective memories that dwells deep within the human subconscious — is largely inaccessible to most of us. This is the domain of the Akashic Records — the expansive collective memory of the human species. When one takes into consideration various ritualistic practices undertaken by archaic societies — and even many modern ones — around the world, one has to wonder: could it be that rituals are designed to be, in some measure, triggers for forgotten subconscious memories? For memories and ideas submerged deep within the collective human unconscious, as described by psychologist Carl Jung? Could rituals be practices designed to evoke hidden, submerged sensory memories? A Proustian “Remembrance of Things Past” — of universal truths and traits concealed in the shared human experience, requiring the key of a trigger stimulus to unlock them and bring them to conscious awareness?
Could ritualistic practices be the keys to unlocking repressed memories of “things past”?
Throughout human history, artists and artisans have been creative in a variety of ways — verbally or orally, initially, then with brushes and chisels, and, much later, with the quill pen, the fountain pen, the typewriter and, only very recently, with the word processor and computer. Is it possible that our current engagement with modern technology locks away our access to the species memories that define human existence? To the universal tropes, themes, archetypes and modes of understanding that give life its meaning? And could it be that certain simple rituals are the keys that we need to unlock these suppressed memories and bring them to our conscious awareness once again? Rituals like verbal storytelling around a campfire, or like carving on wood or stone, or even the relatively simple practice of writing on parchment with a quill pen? Could such practices be the keys to unlocking repressed memories of “things past” — species memories suppressed in the collective unconscious — the collective memories of the entirety of humanity, stretching back for eons?
Are modern technological artifacts like computers and word processors, for example, alienating us from these organic sources of inspiration, these heightened levels of awareness and understanding? Are they waiting to be unlocked deep within the human consciousness with the right key — the right sensory trigger? Could it be that performing the right ritual — even one as simple as filling a fountain pen with ink, writing with a quill pen on parchment or, to access deeper tribal memories, the practices of woodwork and stone carving, of stargazing under a night sky, or even of doing a Native American tribal dance to the rhythms of shamanistic rawhide drums — is the necessary trigger to unlocking ancient memories from deep within the human collective unconscious — thereby enriching and developing our lives in unforeseeable ways? Could such practices be the keys to preserving our health and humanity in the face of relentless mechanization and industrialization that threaten, ultimately, to submerge us under mounds of e-waste and technological refuse, thoroughly alienating us from nature? I believe that these ideas are worth considering, in the face of the prospective future that may be characterized by the utter technological dehumanization of the human species and its complete alienation from the things that make life worth living, ultimately.