Finding Our Heart In ‘Primitive’ Culture

Anthropologists have long known that the only thing undeveloped in “primitive” peoples is their technology. Their human interactions are as sophisticated as those of “civilized” societies. They make the same value distinctions that have been important to human communi­ties of all places and times; distinctions be­tween bravery and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, loyalty and betrayal, and so forth.

Further, they have a depth of religion that makes our own look like hollow lip service. The eminent psychologist, Carl Jung, was pro­foundly moved by the religious sensitivity he found in tribes as far apart as tropical Afri­cans and the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico.

Months of close contact with such “primi­tives” were critical, he testified, to the final stages of his own religious maturation. He was humbled by their awareness of daily life as sa­cred: the sky and the Earth, the waters, the plants and animals and other people, and their intuitive sense of what was wrong with their civilized interlopers.

“How cruel the whites look,” Mountain Lake, the chief of the Taos Pueblos confided to Jung. ‘Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted. They are always seeking something. The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. They think with their heads.”

“What do you think here?” he said, indicat­ing his heart.

In truth, the so-called archaic peoples have a heart connection to the Earth that “pro­gressed” societies must rediscover, or civiliza­tion may be damned. That is why the United Nations proclaimed 1993 the “Year of Indigen­ous Peoples”—not for sentimental reasons, as we might first condescendingly think, but rath­er for a new importance that is being given to “primitive” knowledge of how life prospers on this planet.

Consider an analogy from Al Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance. Gore points out that a huge problem has developed out of continuous and long-term use of hybrid grains. The hybrid—selectively bred for uniformity, size and yield—is now absolutely necessary to feed the world’s exploded population.

But a hybrid grain is weakened in each suc­ceeding generation. At a certain point of vul­nerability, it needs to be spliced anew with a wild grain in the direct line of its ancestry, in order to be reinvigorgated.

To do so is simple enough, by modern scien­tific technique. The problem is that in the ov­erdeveloped world, such original wild grasses are getting exceeding hard to find. In the past few years, the search by genetic scientists has been sometimes frantic, if not desperate, the consequences of failure being blight and fam­ine. Ironically, one of the most fruitful places for these wild grains is in cemeteries, because little else of the planet’s soil is left to grow wild.

I suppose the analogy is obvious. As civiliza­tion becomes more overcrowded, accelerated and technologically sophisticated, it loses touch with the basics of nature, the heart of nature. To be attuned to nature (including one’s inner nature) requires a lot of slow and undistracted time, i.e. a spacious life with broad margins. Maybe more than anything this is what the primitives, or what we used to call “wild” people, have retained in their lives that the mod­em person has lost—a spaciousness, a relaxed slow time.

Henry Thoreau saw this imbalance building as far back as a century and a half ago, when he said we live meanly, like ants, forever busy, rarely thoughtful or creatively passive. His contemporary, Walt Whitman, said the hardest thing in the world to do was to do nothing, to have free time. Yet he felt “leaning and loaf­ing at his ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” was fundamental to the heart’s devel­opment.

In a way similar to the few surviving wild grains, surviving primitive peoples have, be­come precious, too. The intelligent among the civilized communities have come to see that the primitive knows, in special ways, some truths about nature that may now be very rele­vant to basic survival. A proud civilization may have to finally humble itself before these few remaining primitive cultures for a critical missing ingredient in the modem lifestyle of do, do, do.

But should this surprise us? Christ said that in the final analysis the last shall be first, the lowest the highest. Similarly, many Native American shamans prophesized, as the Indian ways were being overtaken and destroyed by the advancing white civilization: “You will come back to us one day. You will have to re­dress the wrong you have done to us. For with­in that wrong to us, you have wronged yourself.”

As it always happens.

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