The Tyranny of Imagined Futures

That an ancient Mayan, an accomplished athlete in the prime of his life, might strip naked and paint himself blue, then willingly submit to public decapitation, is a ghastly image that we modern humans can’t accept. Nor can we begin to explain it in rational terms. Yet, it is true that elite Mayan athletes, the best and brightest of their time, occasionally surrendered themselves in exactly this way.

As advanced as they were, the Mayans lived in fear that Nature would cease providing their needs. In the belief system that sprang from those concerns, only blood sacrifice could transcend the gap between the Mayans and the gods who held absolute sway over their lives. In Mayan belief, even the sun would cease to rise into the sky, if blood was not spilled to please their sacred, but capricious masters.

So the top athlete who embraced death did so to save his people from certain death. That is a reason we could stretch our minds to understand, if we did not know, for a fact, that a thousand, or even a million beautiful men could live or die without changing the trajectory of the sun. Barbarous acts such as bloodletting and ritual decapitation that the Mayans perpetrated on innocent victims for the safety of the whole exhibit the tyranny of imagined futures that have afflicted every civilization that has existed up to, and including, ours.

Ritual sacrificing cannot be explained in rational terms because the practice, wherever it occurred, was based on fear, not reason. And the fact that young men willingly gave up their lives, while the crowds looked on in celebration, reveals how the tyranny of imagined futures can disconnect us from life’s real issues. The Mayan’s concern about the future led them to see life as a struggle between good and evil. They believed that the only way to keep the sun rising, crops growing, and people healthy was, on occasion, to sacrifice a valuable human being. The sacrificed individual was offered a direct entry to heaven, bypassing the many levels normally required to get there.

The Mayans had no evidence that to keep the sun rising and the grass growing required human sacrifices. Yet, ceremonial sacrificing became essential to their sense of wellbeing and order.

Instead of gaining favor with imagined gods, what the sacrificing turned out to be was a power grab by which certain individuals gained positions of privilege and authority over the larger populace. But no one knew it was a power play, not the priests conducting the ceremonies, not the state leaders who authorized the sacrifices, nor the people on behalf of whom the sacrifices were being made. They all thought the sacrifices were essential to their future wellbeing. More significantly, once the practice got under way, it could not have been stopped, even if some people began recognizing it as a sham. Success at revealing the truth in such situations gets the messenger crucified, as was the case with Jesus. Or the individual might be banned, which is what happened to Galileo.

The sacrifices couldn’t be stopped because everyone’s sense of wellbeing, order, and purpose had became dependent on the way of life that resulted from the sacrificing. Indeed, everyone saw themselves as winners—the priests, who held a special place of honor in the eyes of the gods, the leaders who gained a position of power to serve the people, and the people who enjoyed the sense of order, identity, and safety the state provided. The biggest winners, I would guess, were often the ones being sacrificed. Why? By their sacrifice, they believed they were ensuring the future of mankind. Be it a top athlete or a beautiful young maiden, pleasing the gods requires our very best. What greater sense of honor and perpetuity can be gained than by being the chosen one to insure, by surrendering one’s life, the future wellbeing of mankind?

Furthermore, consider the magnificent temples, works of art, and grand sporting events that grew out of the sacrificing. These allowed people to gather, marvel, and celebrate in ways that would not otherwise be possible. Their way of life, however, was not based on reality, but on the illusion that the sacrifices were necessary. Notwithstanding the glory of it all, they were not the winners they thought they were. Relative to their natural state, they were losers in three ways: 1) Instead of living in relational intimacy, they were spiritually estranged. 2) Instead of finding fulfillment in the moment, they sought it in wealth and privilege. 3) Their way of life was not sustainable.

As modern humans, we know what makes the sun rise. Yet the future remains, for us, as frightening and unknown as it was for the Mayans. We have tyrannized ourselves with our own imagined future. We’ve based that tyranny on a quixotic fear of ourselves—of human nature. Accordingly, we believe only laws can protect us from our baser nature. We think humans would become wanton killers, without laws against killing. Without the institution of marriage, human families would cease to exist. Without monetary and legal systems, humans would be incapable of securing homes and the material resources needed for survival and wellbeing.

We continue to believe these things despite the fact that we now know that humanity had flourished for upwards of two hundred thousand years, before the first monetary and legal system ever existed. Such a history reveals our beliefs to be every bit as misguided as the Mayan’s notion that human sacrifices could keep the sun in the sky. How, indeed, has our culture failed to move even one step beyond the Mayan one, as we commit the same mistake, in designing our entire society around solving problems that exist only in our imaginations? Could this error explain why we, too, are spiritually estranged, and why we seek happiness in wealth and privilege, while resting our hopes on a way of life which is not sustainable?

Consider how other species live. Some live solitary lives, such as tigers, some pair bond like eagles, some run in herds like buffalo, and there are the social bonders who live in extended families, like elephants, orcas, and most primates. All of these ways of life are sustainable, as evidenced by the fact that they have remained stable over evolutionary time.

As the most intelligent species, why are the other species’ ways of life sustainable and ours isn’t? The irony is, humans are capable of managing a sustainable way of life. We did so for most of the time our kind has existed. Unsustainable ways of life are recent phenomena. They occur when a populace becomes so fearful of an imagined future that, like the Mayans, they decide to impose rules and laws to allay their fears. The problem is, when subject to instituted law, a populace becomes so focused on realizing the specific future each person has in mind, that their need for intimacy is repressed to the point of virtual nonexistence, while they fail to notice that, collectively, their way of life is not sustainable.

Consider what differentiates us from the animals. Each animal species is self-governed by feelings that evolved along with the species. This explains why their ways of life are sustainable. Feelings govern our behavior, too, but our feelings, like those of the Mayans, are dominated by something unnatural—our fear of an imagined future. Animals can imagine only what they have experienced. Elephants and orcas do not live in fear that the sun will cease rising or that their families will cease to exist because they have never experienced either event. Without the ability to think in the abstract, how can they worry about things they have never experienced? Our problem is, we can!

Therein lies the difference. Animals attend only to experienced reality, while we are so focused on the future, we are blind to experienced reality, or if not, we behave as though we are. As the Mayan empire began its descent, evidence of failure was at hand. So too is the evidence of our failure. Just like theirs, our own “emperor” has no clothes! But like them, we are so dependent on the state to realize our imagined future, that we, too, are blind to the mounting evidence that our way of life is not sustainable. This is an unsustainability to which we each contribute. For instance, I personally released over four thousand pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during each of the many years that I drove twenty miles to work. I did this in spite of believing that I was placing my personal needs above those of life. It isn’t just me. Through similar activities, we all ignore life’s needs. We do it, not because we are evil, or don’t care, but because we are trapped into such behavior by our need to secure our personal futures.

If it’s just a trap, how do we get out?

Well, it isn’t just any trap. It’s one that threatens our very existence as a species. It is also special in that it requires a number of steps to get out. The first step is recognition—a gut-level acknowledgement that our emotions are the basis for reality, and our designs on the future are not. Every feeling we experience, be it hunger, anger, romance, joy, grief, or shock, changes our reality, sometimes dramatically. Furthermore, the reality that feelings project applies only to the present, never to the distant future. In other words, when hungry, angry, romantically involved, or grief stricken, it doesn’t mean we will forever feel that way. Each feeling has its time, place, and duration. When we either resolve hunger by eating, or romance by copulating a sufficient number of times, or when our situation changes so the feeling no longer applies, we proceed to experience other realities brought about by other feelings along life’s way. The orchestration of emotions that produce this kaleidoscope of realities does not materialize out of thin air. Like our physical features, each feeling we experience is something that has evolved as an expression of life, and the reality it produces exists to serve life. In ways we can never explain, each new reality inspires us to behave in a way that insures our species’ wellbeing. When we are true to our feelings of the moment, thus to experienced reality, we are not only serving our personal needs but also the needs of life. There is no disconnect between our concerns for self and our concerns for life! That is the magic of it all.

The realities engendered by our feelings do not serve life perfectly, as perfection is not part of life. Without variations, for instance, there would be no space for evolution. Evolution does not require that every act be in perfect concert with the needs of life. It does require that the totality of all acts ensures that the species flourishes. If we value our own existence, then we, too, must value the existence of our species above perfection, for our species’ existence and our own existence are one and the same.

The second step in getting out of our trap is to recognize how profoundly our ability to think abstractly has affected us. Abstraction enables us to conjure up fearful events that reside only in our imaginations. Indeed, it is our fear of imagined future events that makes us more concerned for self than for life. Every religious creed, moral value, and instituted law is an abstraction we created for the singular purpose of imposing the behavior required to resolve our fear of imagined futures. Forced to honor these creeds for the sake of respectability and survival, we spend our lives ignoring experienced reality. We thereby overlook the only place where life can possibly happen.

The third step required to get out of our trap is to realize how personal claims on the future transform our existence. To make such claims is to assume personal responsibility for our own futures, while simultaneously subjugating ourselves to the legal system that authorizes them. At the moment we make such claims, our wellbeing is no longer dependent on the grace of those around us. It instead becomes dependent on the only entity that can authorize future claims—the state. Little wonder that all states are seen as sovereign in the eyes of their subjects.

The fourth step in getting out of our trap is to recognize that, although we see the state as sovereign, it is not. The issue is: What created us, the forces of Nature or the state? If we believe we are expressions of Nature, then clearly, Nature is sovereign. Some argue, instead, that God created us. But—given the many notions of God—to suggest that our existence is God’s doing is akin to saying we were created by entities who reside only in our imaginations. In other words, it is to say that we are self-realized, not expressions of Nature.

Furthermore, the existence of many states renders the idea of the sovereignty of the state a contradiction in terms. With more than one sovereign, we also have a serious problem that ultimately results in international conflicts in which the justification to kill has no limit, as every combatant presumes God is on his side. And finally, states come and go. Nature doesn’t. This, too, reveals the sovereignty of Nature and makes clear that, as subjects of states, we are defying the laws of Nature, in order to survive. Since states, like the Mayan empire, exist to solve problems that don’t exist, how can they possibly succeed?

We can’t get out of our trap by design, because the problems causing our slide towards eventual collapse are not intended. They are symptoms of our beliefs. Indeed, our lives are not governed by facts, but by core beliefs that resist revision because of the comfort they provide. We are emotionally invested in our beliefs–particularly our belief in future control. Political conservatives and liberals, for instance, have access to the same facts. But, their different core beliefs cause them to interpret their circumstances in radically different ways. Regarding the question of what is sovereign, we, too, have the same facts. However, if, in our hearts, we believe the state is sovereign, then the only avenue to happiness we will see is in the pursuit of wealth and privilege. On the other hand, should we recognize Nature’s sovereignty and sufficiently consider its implications, we will be reawakened to our desire for Nature’s greatest spiritual reward, the intimacy of interdependent relationships.

The human species is a social species, not a solitary one. We are therefore not emotionally configured for assuming personal responsibility for our own future. Yet, that is precisely what the state asks of us—exist in a state of conflict with our emotional intelligence.

For humans to feel whole, our emotional nature has four basic needs that must be met: We need to feel secure, significant, cared for, and caring. These needs are so fundamental to our sense of wellbeing that, combined with adequate food and shelter, we don’t require much else. Of those four needs, the state tenuously provides just one, security, which we pay for by forfeiting the other three.

When we lived in our natural state, before legal and monetary systems, our emotional nature found resolution for all four needs in our relationships, which defined every moment of our existence. Indeed, the only reality our emotional nature even understands is the one that forms around by a body of people who are depending on one another for their material and emotional needs, a place to which I refer as a spiritual home.

Without spiritual homes, we are unable to emotionally understand the world in which we live. This explains our need for emotional crutches, such as kings, religions, institutions, ideologies, dreams, drugs, and, should all else fail, our greatest crutch of all, the belief that mankind’s possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. With an emotional crutch in hand that assures us we can’t possibly fail, how can we recognize failure, present or looming?!

Emotionally disoriented, we go about as if in emotional strait jackets, except when defending our religions, ideologies, and states. Other than when defending our crutches, and taking what respites of pleasure we can, our lives are mostly reduced to following orders for the sake of our material survival.

As subjects of states, we are told never, above all else, to take the law into our own hands. But who is going to take care of life if we don’t?! Every aspect of life was in our hands during the millions of years of evolution until the advent of money and law only a few thousand years ago. The state presumes that life is a given, that it will always be there, and the only issue is maintaining order. This is why no constitution in existence even recognizes that emotions express life’s needs, let alone that our species cannot survive indefinitely without those needs being honored.

In our blindness to life’s needs we fail to recognize Nature’s sovereignty when the truth is, we need Nature. Nature does not need us. Should our way of life remain unsustainable, the heavens will not weep when we are gone.

But we are unable to acknowledge Nature’s sovereignty in our daily activities, because to do so would obliterate everything our way of life is based on, including even our sense of what it means to be human, which, in our error, we see as being a controller of Nature, not its subject. The fact that we see ourselves as controllers of Nature and believe wholeheartedly in money and law as the guarantors of our futures, puts a heavy burden on our attempt to accept our natural impulse to recognize the hegemony of Nature—so heavy that it could well seal the fate of mankind.

So how are we going to save mankind? The first thing we can do is to pledge never to pose that question again! It presumes that we—those rational entities who decide what to have for dinner or what two plus two equals—are capable of doing something meaningful about the future. The idea that we can do anything at all about the distant future that benefits life is what got us into trouble in the first place! The only way we can attend the future is to serve life in the present, and that is an issue for emotional intelligence, not realizing personal designs on the future. In other words, serving our kind is not a matter of good intentions, but of attending to experienced reality.

As beings capable of imagining the distant future, we feel compelled to make plans to secure our safety and access to resources into the future that extends beyond our experienced reality (plans among the members of an extended family to manage the immediate future, such as storing sufficient supplies for the coming season, are viable, but they are based on spiritual trust, not on bank accounts or the legal system that authorizes them). Inevitably, monetary and legal systems are involved in distant future plans. Though packed with good intentions, these systems ultimately fail, despite initial successes, because, to make any plan for the distant future ignores the unpredictability of all futures. When we ignore experienced reality in our attempt, through plans, to control the distant future, we overlook the massive body of accumulated emotional intelligence that our species requires to flourish. As a consequence, the probability for eventual failure is virtually infinite.

While they last, our plans bring countless material benefits, such as the Mayans enjoyed in their vaunted city states, or the material comforts we enjoy in our modern world. The problem is, no one could have imagined or predicted, at the time when monetary and legal systems, on which these benefits depend, were first established, they would lead to our separation from the land, from community, and eventually to our dependency on the technological-industrial explosion that now threatens to denature the habitat. Though these consequences were each the result of future plans made possible by the existence of monetary and legal systems, not one of them was intended. The ultimate consequences of an act based on experienced reality is also unintended and unpredictable Life can always be harmed. But there is a key difference: The sum total of all acts based on innate awareness have proven life-sustaining over evolutionary time, while the unintended consequences of acts based on good intentions pave ever more roads to the emotional distress of spiritual alienation, and to eventualcultural collapse.

But our way of life, today, requires us to survive without spiritual homes. The experienced reality that would enable our species to flourish is all-but-utterly repressed. Individuals who are emotionally stranded, are incapable of serving life, or of serving, or even knowing ourselves. Imagine yourself physically alone, and without recourse, in the natural world. Would you be able to secure sufficient material needs to survive? In the same way, human beings, today, are emotionally stranded, separated by monetary and legal barriers from the true warmth and safety of authentic human contact and collaboration. Now, imagine yourself emotionally connected to an extended family surviving together by depending on, and caring for, one another and for the land that sustains them. Such is the nature of living according to our deepest sensibilities. Such are the only means of attending to the real needs of life.

Regarding our emotional nature’s ability to serve life, be assured that nothing has changed from when we lived in the natural world. Consider the following passage from the book, The Gospel of the Redman—Compiled by Ernest and Julia Seton—Chapter II, “His Spirituality”:


“The culture and civilization of the Whiteman are essentially material; his measure of success is, How much property have I acquired for myself? The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, How much service have I rendered to my people? His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world.”


The difference between the Whiteman and the Redman is that the Whiteman’s life is secured in property, and the Redman’s life is secured in relationships. As a consequence, the Whiteman believes the state is sovereign, while the Redman sees Nature as sovereign. The questions are, whose life is the more spiritually satisfying? And which culture is taking care of life? I propose the following statement as a law of Nature to be applicable wherever life has taken hold in the universe:

Taking care of life cannot be separated from spiritual fulfillment, and vice versa.

Our modern lives are emotionally insufficient, not because our emotional nature is different from the Redman’s, but because, without our lives secured in relationships, we do not have the spiritual authority to serve life.

All primitive cultures did not serve life, of course, as among them there were, on occasion, examples of mindless savagery, such as head hunting, for instance. But, in all instances of such practices, we can rest assured that men were making culturally imposed lifetime claims on something, usually women—the origin of patriarchy. By such claims, they demonstrate they too were tyrannized by imagined futures. Once a culture attempts to control the distant future in any dimension, particularly by enslaving women, its members are no longer free to honor experienced reality. Without our emotional/spiritual freedom, regardless of when in history or prehistory we lost it, we cannot answer to life’s call. When emotionally disconnected from life by our fear of an imagined future, mindlessness eventually settles in to rule in one way or another, as evidenced by unsustainable ways of life, head hunting, war lords, weapons of mass destruction, and finally, constitutions—as if the instructions for life can be inscribed in stone.

The fifth and most difficult step in getting out of our trap takes us from thought to practice—securing our lives in relationships. How do we do that? To secure our lives in relationships means to depend on the other members of an extended family for our material and emotional support. If there were no monetary or legal systems, or memory of such, we would be spiritually free. We would form natural social bonds without even thinking about it. Living in extended families, after all, is our natural state of being—it’s in our genes. So, the issue isn’t how to socially bond. We instinctively know everything there is to know about it—far more than can ever be put into words. The issue is: If we are hardwired for it, why do we not presently want to socially bond?

When humans created the state to allay their fear of imagined futures, we faced an unspoken ultimatum that confronts us even to this day: Unless we accepted the state as sovereign and participated by securing our lives in money and law, we would have no means to survive. There would be no place on earth for us. The choice of whether to continue taking care of one another, or to do what was necessary to survive, was so lopsided that our emotional nature failed to recognize there was a choice. We began worshiping the state as sovereign without even realizing a decision was being made. At the time, we had no way to know, but the price we paid for our personal survival was the spiritual alienation of an unsustainable way of life.

To secure our lives in relationships is nothing less than to reclaim our spiritual freedom, despite the clear risk still presented by the state. To do this would require that we trust our lives to others with no personal bank accounts—the only bank account would be the family’s—and without rules on file, or on the wall, to specify our responsibilities to one another, or to the family. To regain our natural state of being requires that we place our wellbeing in the hands of a body of people bonded, not by designs on the future, but by mutual needs. Our own wellbeing, that of our brothers and sisters, and of life itself, will again be as one, only when we are trusting our lives to the living human spirit.

People considering the possibility of trusting their lives to others, might think: “Let’s see, that means I would have to give up my legal claims on property and on other people, my bank account, and control of my future—in effect, everything that’s important to me.” But judging what’s important is a matter of perspective. Keep in mind, when the native people began doing what we are doing—securing their lives in money and law—they gave up everything that was important to them. To appreciate what they saw as important, read Chief Seattle’s letter to President Fillmore protesting the US government’s taking of their homelands. Unlike us, its authors emotionally understood the world in which they lived. The letter was not written on behalf of the living, so much as on behalf of their descendants and the land that sustained them. Though they knew nothing about the tyranny of imagined futures and how they affect human behavior, their greatest concern was a clear premonition that the land they so loved would not be taken care of.

The things that are most important to us modern humans, on the other hand, are each based on personal future concerns. They are the very things that prevent us from serving life by forcing us to ignore experienced reality on behalf of an imagined future.

Giving up things that are import to us is indeed difficult. But keep in mind, we never have to do anything. When we humans first turned our backs on one another, and on life, it wasn’t because we had to. We did so because, given the new reality we faced, we wanted to. And, if we ever turn our backs on money and law, so we can again serve life, we will not do it because we have to. It will be because we want the intimacy of interdependent relationships. Only interdependent relationships can free us of personal claims on the future, and thus to again live in concert with—that is, base our reason on—our emotional intelligence, instead of our designs on the future. But to want intimacy, we must first understand how thinking abstractly resulted in our becoming tyrannized by imagined futures, how that tyranny emotionally disconnected us from one another, and how the resulting state of isolation led to mankind’s greatest self-deception—the notion that the state is sovereign. Once we regain intimacy, it will fulfill our basic need to feel secure, significant, cared for, and caring. And should enough people who want to be spiritually free find one another, securing their lives in relationships just might happen, despite the risks involved. Don’t count on it, but don’t count against it.

Observe the mannerism of someone during and after a bungee jump. That must be a wonderful experience! But it’s one we can’t have without putting ourselves at risk. Likewise, unless we are willing to risk giving up independent control of our future, we cannot know the intimacy of interdependent relationships. We want both, of course, but independence, and interdependence are, quite obviously, mutually exclusive. We must make a choice. Our problem is, having never experienced the intimacy of interdependence, other than possibly on the battlefield, we have never realized there is a choice. Buy revealing the tyranny of imagined futures, I am trying to remedy that.

After countless generations of being true to monetary and legal systems in our relationships with one another, the idea of being true to ourselves in our relationships with one another may seem strange. But, because it is our genetic heritage, should we ever spiritually bond, the strangeness will soon pass. Being free to be true to experienced reality, after all, is the only freedom that really counts. As a result of not having that freedom, people, all too often, live out their lives in various states of quiet desperation.

Throughout recorded history, people have looked to institutions to solve the big problems. But institutions cannot mitigate the consequences of being tyrannized by imagined futures because: Institutions are among the earliest symptoms of such tyranny. Looking to their symptoms as the solution to our problems can result in only one thing, a death spiral. It is time that we, unlike all people previously tyrannized by imagined futures, realize we do not have the luxury of waiting around in the hope that someone in high office, or on a heavenly throne, will take care of life. Taking care of life always has been, and always will be, up to us—every man, woman, and child on this planet.

But we cannot take care of life without recognizing Nature’s sovereignty. This doesn’t mean to worship Nature, but more significantly to trust Nature, particularly one another’s emotional natures. When possessed by our designs on the future, life is largely about self, because, being disconnected from life, self is all there is. But when we trust our lives to Nature, we are not trusting just our own emotional nature, but the emotional natures of a body of people with whom we are bonded in spiritual trust. When living in trust of Nature, we will discover that life is not about self. It is about something indescribably larger than self. And only when abiding in that space beyond self are we free to die, and thus also to live.




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