(Written in 2005)
Is it possible to consistently have the experience of close communion without its actual occurrence? This is a very serious question in the present world, a world that has fragmented human life and experience to such an extent that the communion which was a species-defining characteristic is, for most purposes, gone.
There are essentially three ways to have the experience of communion: The first might seem obvious, that of actually being in a relationship of close communion with other human beings, but in our present world this is the most dangerous because its basis is almost always compromised. Of the remaining ways, attachment to reliable, nurturing aspects of the world is best, and very difficult. The last is madness, that is, taking on the illusions of communion from the many sources bubbling up out of a needy society.
There are many sources of madness. What we today call religion began at a time when the communion that we seek now was the norm of life, and then served the primary purpose of culturally adapting the powerful behaviors of the human group to their environment. Animistic religions are about how to correctly live in a particular place, defining when and how things might be done and the various “prices” that must be paid for the doing. These religions prescribed behaviors that sharpened the focus and the courage for actions in the environment also; a balance of inhibiting and activating functions very like physiological homeostasis.
In our formative prehistory human communion was like the air, it was there to infuse the body and life through the simple act of being live. A natural and non-malignant from of what we call today co-dependence suffused the group. People knew where they ‘began and ended’, but also felt continuous with others, shared the experience of life absolutely: existential ‘isolation’ had not yet grown from the fragmentation of life. (This is not to say that was no loneliness or that individuals couldn’t experience isolation, but it was done from a base of communion, rather than as is the case today, from a base of separation.)
As human population increased, as ways of life began to change around new technologies – invincible hunting and killing tools, agriculture, secure shelter, etc. – both the group closeness of shared experience and the role of religion began to very slowly change. As group closeness diminished , religion gradually became the artifice to fill that place in human need and design. Rather than functioning as a system of adaptations to the environment that worked on top of the primary communion of the group, it began to prescribe specific behaviors and fixed forms of relationship which compensated for the loss of communion. Religion is then the prototype madness of the human species; patriotism and all other abstract loyalties are its children.
This is essential to understand since to try and solve the title problem of this essay, given religion is the most common approach, and is also the most dangerous to private goals and public goods. Today religions offer neither a satisfactory communion or an adaptive relationship to the environment; quite the opposite, they have become destructive of the full biological person and pursue environmental relationships that are ruinous .
Religion, when it attempts its originating functions, does so in complete madness. A couple of examples out of the thousands possible should suffice: It is the belief of many religions that other religions are wickedly false, often it is believed that the practitioners are subhuman and unworthy of human consideration (the political value of such madness is obvious). It appears that a number of people from the Bush (43) administration believed that by their actions they might hasten Armageddon and the second coming of Christ by making war in the Middle East (again political and commercial interests use such beliefs cynically). If such ideas were presented free from the cover of religion, the proponents of such views would be considered delusional and probably a danger to self and others – the formal condition to be hospitalized.
So religion is ‘sold’ as providing integration of the person into life and providing communion of spirit (and place in the universal), functions which it did not have in its origin, but were provided in the structure and communion of the group. However, its most consistent function is to organize people into groups, partly meeting their needs, that serve a political purpose.
The loss of group is the underlying human loss. It has been long and widely recognized that one of the great paradoxes of human existence is that human closeness decreases with increasing population: in a land with a population at the biological carrying capacity, i.e., almost uninhabited by industrial standards, all the humans are gathered together into family and superfamily groups. In the industrial world millions of people are isolated and alone in little (and not so little) rooms all across the land, and more are isolated within their private experiences among hundreds of strangers in public places.
I realize that this sounds like a value argument, but is intended to be descriptive only, at least at this point. And it goes on, the young are herded together in large numbers, the old are segregated into their proper places. The active adult ages are put into their places of work, recreation and entertainment. There is no place of communion in this listing – no place where people go to be in communal groups, where everything is open for discussion, where life is exposed and explained.
I saw something of the spirit of this idea (in the sense of a ghost of the idea) when I was 4 and 5 years old: the Grange meetings at my grandfather’s house in farm county, Ohio. The men, unsophisticated in a sense, just talking about their worries, troubles, hopes and successes. The women, in the diningroom, kitchen and back yard, were talking the same range of things with different details. The children, like little forest creatures, creeping from room to room listening, then bounding into the twilight for lightening bugs and back again listening as much to the play of emotion as the substance of concerns. And then just when the differences had been expressed and hung heavy, out would come my grandfather’s banjo and always a guitar and often a fiddle. Songs would be sung and set piece stories told. And women and certain of the men would blush and hide their faces.
As I look back at those Grange meetings, I see that it was a combination of sameness and difference that energized them. There was a “we” and we were all in the same boat as clear as day. The same rain fell and the same pests attacked, machines harvested, cattle gave or did not give milk. A day’s work was an intimate connection all round. But there were teetotalers and drunks, people of different faiths and no faith at all, hard workers and slackers, and if it were tested in detail, communists and capitalists, honest folk and crooks – all singing, “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes.”
Yet, compared to the family groups of our human youth, the Grange meetings were among strangers. And I have experienced no group since that comes close to the intimacy of those meetings, not in my birth family, not in physical relationships, not in therapy; I think that many others would agree with this cruel judgment.
So, I return to my statement: the loss of the human group is the underlying human loss. I would add that it is also an unrecoverable loss in the present world; it is to some extent like losing a language or a culture. There are too many people too alike in the wrong ways and too dissimilar in the right ways for groups of communion to exist today. In an almost Zen paradox, people who most desperately need to be in groups can’t form them and disintegrate those that their need draws them into. An effective group of communion cannot be formed by effort, but must form by the movement of the people in the environment. These are not the conditions in today’s world.
One could argue that groups form all the time and that the foregoing is the silliest tommyrot. That’s OK with me – as an argument, that’s OK. It is just not so! Ad hoc groups form and disintegrate at an astonishing pace. People are always coming together for this or that and equally often they hope to somehow make the group more – well, more human – and as soon as they try the groups begin to fall apart. So a new project is required, a new trouble is to be addressed. This not to say that projects are not needed and troubles are not real, but that forming of groups is also a motivation and a strong one.
What then are we to do? I have argued that the essential forms and functions of human groups of communion are extremely fragile in the present world (like a salt crystal grows large and perfect in the undisturbed solution of the right concentration and temperature, but poorly and deformed in a contaminated solution being tossed about). And yet, the human group is an essential part of human design; like our thumbs, posture and brain, i.e., an essential part of what we are as a species that is denied us. However, with knowledge, effort and practice, we can recover in our individual lives bits and pieces of this experience in ways that are not too destructive.
It is very important to avoid the major pitfalls that society and our biology have dug in our various and unsatisfactory attempts to meet this need. There are two major pitfalls: an ad hoc collection of people is not a group of communion (even if they look like one) and the subordination of the self will not automatically generate a group (nor will the superordination of the self). All the components of effective group formation simply do not exist in the right proportions or occur in the right order in the present world. And so the first practical step is to paradoxically avoid being drawn too closely into groups.
It is a bit like the difference between heroin and broccoli; one gives a powerful sense of well being as it kills, the other is an excellent sustaining nutrient that you must work at to benefit from. Present day ad hoc groups are like heroin.
The second step is to look for bits and pieces of the primal group of communion experience. This is difficult since there is no guide and will to some extent differ for everyone. The basic model is this: identify those occasions and circumstances that produce a sense of well being especially the so-called oceanic feeling. Try to recall the sensations and look for reliable devices that generate these sensations.
A personal example: Many years ago I came into a relationship that created feelings with which I was not familiar; it was a great love. Many of my basic behaviors and feelings changed. It was a most potent new reality. I began to realize that these were the feelings of love and communion that might be similar to the kind of feelings that I saw demonstrated among materially simple people I had read about and seen in film. The relationship suffered from the disconnections and fragmentations of our time and ended in the way familiar to most readers; I was left with a gift of feeling and model for feeling of unprecedented importance. I can never reproduce the communion by finding that person again (or one like her) or changing the world or myself to make a match of her qualities; I can find daily activities that create or allow some of those feelings and practice them, and recognize the activities that diminish those feelings and avoid them. (This is related to the perceptual diet idea discussed in other essays).
This is, quite simply, a life’s work. There are many experiences that come from momentary immersion in the primal group space. That is so because we are attuned to those experiences. It is just that the group or groups don’t either exist at all or for very long in reality. The sensations from the occasions are, however, real and come from within us. There are ways of doing life that will sustain them if only weakly – certainly better than not having them at all.
In our original state humans were born into and grew into a group of communion and grew as a part of the communion. The strength and sustenance of that group immersion can’t begin to be imagined in today’s circumstances, but the need for it still exists and all the capacities to benefit from it and to respond to it comes new and complete with each new infant.
I can’t say that we would even “do communion” in the primal way if given a real opportunity; there are trade offs. One of the great patterns of change in human expression as a species has been increasing individualization: complete communion has minimal individualization, complete individualization has minimal communion. Part of the capacity of our consciousness system of order is to create consistent generational changes in our behaviors that could never happen in a biological system.
But though we may, if we had full access to all possibilities, change how we form and function in communion, I am confident the we would still value it and be drawn to it at a deep species level. The loss, in our time, is that this kind of communion with our fellows is not a natural and pervasive part of our lives. It is something generally recognized as an undefined sense of longing too often taken advantage of in our fragmented world, but still recoverable in certain small measure.
 Forces diminishing closeness: disturbance of time and space relations, changing patterns of movement, invention of ‘work’, fragmentation of experience and corresponding fragmentation of relationships, all happening too quickly for even cultural adaptive response.
 Politics was originally contained in the communion of the group. As communion deteriorated, religion began to assume political functions. It became conflated with politics as agriculture became important and is today more a tool of politics than an adaptive guide or a source of spirit – another word for communion.