Today a serious problem in the world is a false sense of self-reliance, independence and the individual handling of one’s problems: the glamorous attitude that all you need is fame and money to buy security, love, companionship, friendship, care and happiness. Or there may even be the feeling that if you have fame and money you don’t need anything else. This is connected with the dangerous illusion that the world is a jungle and one has to survive in terms of struggling in the wild.
But the miracle of civilization is directly the opposite of living in the wilderness. Where people are behaving like animals in need and hunger, it is quite obvious that civilization is failing. It signifies that those characteristics that are needed in a social structure are damaged. We would not be far from the truth if we would say that what is really lacking on such occasions is not readily apparent, but is that specific ingredient that makes a relationship strong and therefore builds a healthy group – namely, goodwill.
In general terms, participation in some relationship, whether within a family, a community, a nation, a church or faith, a political party, a club, a corporation or even a sports team, is forming a kind of conscious group. And it is interesting to note that such an entity does experience a life of its own. Groups are coherent as long as the members participate in the activities which characterize any particular group. And herein lies the crucial factor. Participation.
We know that food is crucial for the existence of the physical body. But if we are speaking in terms of groups, what might be the equivalent of food? A clue to the answer may be found in the Sunday service of some Christian churches. The mystery which is said to take place in these rituals is known as Holy Communion. ‘Holy’ and ‘whole’ are derived from the same root; and ‘communion’ and ‘community’ both derive from ‘common’ – that which is shared equally. So Holy Communion is in effect a ritual in which the equal participation of all creates a whole. Those who participate are reasserting their common bonds and their social awareness of making up a coherent group of people, and have a sense of active participation in seeking to achieve the same ends in life.
Traditionally the place and time where families do the same on their smaller group scale is in the gathering of the family round the dinner table. In these family meetings what is being nourished is not only the physical bodies of the members of the family, but the family itself as a group.
From the earliest times, societies have tried to resolve this problem of nourishing their own self as a group, in order to increase their resilience in the face of physical disasters, attacks from other groups, etc., and so to achieve better life conditions. One means of creating social cohesion is participation in one major task that will benefit the whole group, like the building of the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China. Traditionally, in times of peace, the work of nurturing social cohesion in societies is undertaken mainly by religion. In fact, religion can be seen as a kind of science of relationships – for it focuses on both the vertical relationship with Divinity, and the previously mentioned horizontal relationships among the community of believers. So the rituals of religion are powerful techniques that create the needed focus of people upon common ends.
But rituals are not confined to religion – every sort of group organizes its life in ways that include repeating patterns of group participation. Business has its meetings, politics its debates, culture its performances, and so on. Even the humble discussion of ‘what was on TV last night’ helps to act as a social glue that gives the members of a group some sense of sharing in certain values and attitudes. Part of the difficulty that all societies now face is that the sense of a shared culture, a shared understanding of how politics should operate, a shared understanding of religion and its role, is increasingly under pressure from the accelerating flows of information and peoples across the borders that previously defined nations, shared cultures, and areas where one religion predominated. As a result, these traditional ways of forming groups are losing their nourishing, unifying power, leaving people adrift and rootless, or taking refuge in smaller, more exclusive groupings based on shared habits and tastes.
So it is crucial that humanity learns to establish new ways of nourishing group consciousness, based on a right sense of relationships to the whole planet. We are beginning to see signs of this new, more global form of group consciousness in the vast array of civil society organisations that are seeking to solve humanity’s problems. But there is also the need to extend this new type of group consciousness further, to the masses of humanity. Politics, religion and business all need to re-examine their assumptions, techniques, and goals, in order to orient themselves to a more global perspective. Creating new and enduring rituals of nourishment for group consciousness is a task as arduous in its way as the building of the cathedrals. Then, a shared understanding of the relation between Divinity and humanity was given concrete form through a communal ritual of building. Now, we must devise rituals that work in the subtler weave of consciousness, which aim to create positive outcomes for all humanity.