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Conscious Collective Action

By Alfredo Sfeir-Younis

The affairs of the social are the affairs of the collective. The collective can be defined as our family or neighborhood, our country or the region where we live, or Earth itself. In between is a large array of other social units and networks. In any collective, we should act both as individuals and in relation to each other.

We should go all the way from the “I” to the “we” and from “me” to “together.” Like an architect who sees not only the entire house but also each of its individual rooms, we must be conscious of the whole as well as its parts. Going from one to the other must be a fluid movement.

But in a social sense, we must ask ourselves if this is actually happening in our human and natural environments. In today’s world, many of our problems result from our attempts to resolve the issues and concerns of the collective by using decision-making processes based on an individualistic framework, or the values of the “I” without much regard for the “we.” For example, we say “my company,” “my country,” “my ethnic group,” or “my goals.”

Economics is also dominated by values based on the individual. These values are deeply rooted in the basic notions of self-interested competition, economic efficiency, and corporate profit. Individualistic values dominate private and public decisions in relation to our collective human destiny, including all material and nonmaterial expressions of this collective.

The collective, however, views fraternity, sharing, caring, love, security, and peace as its core values. And even though these are collective values, all of them have a definite root within the self. As Eastern philosophers would say, the outer world is the mirror image of our souls.

Today in public decision making there are also many expressions of the same understanding, particularly when it comes to focusing on the realities of globalization. We know that we are increasingly becoming a global village. In this village, we share our views and feelings about how to address collective concerns. We say, “think globally, act locally,” which expresses that what is happening in one country will affect all the others. What we do here affects everyone. This idea crosses the lines of economies, material needs, and many nonmaterial dimensions of our existence, such as security, justice, peace, and equality.

We can’t ignore this idea of the global village whether we think it affects us or only others. Earth is already home to six billion people and may well increase to ten billion in a few decades. The notions and foundations of the collective now represent a complex web of human, social, institutional, environmental, cultural, and spiritual interdependence.

In these times, we must fully embrace the principle that everything and everyone is interdependent. Interdependence must be met with collective action, such as eradicating poverty; upholding human rights; eliminating discrimination in all its forms; protecting our environment; and preventing war, conflict, crime, drug abuse, and disempowerment.

But there cannot be collective action without individual action. A famous scientist once stated that he was not concerned with the rapid advances of nuclear physics but with the level of consciousness of those who use them.

Without focusing on the development and expansion of our individual consciousness the collective would collapse. Individual consciousness is the essential foundation and the principal determinant of the outcome and impacts of social policies and programs. Even if the intentions of those policies are good, if those involved do not have a highly developed level of awareness, their implementation will invariably result in limited or negative outcomes. The higher the level of individual human consciousness, the more effective collective action will be.

An example is the quest for world peace. Attaining collective peace must come from the self-realization of inner peace. Therefore, this collective action must initially come from within, and our societies should provide the environment and the means for the self-realization of peace. The same applies to human security, social justice, and human betterment in general.

Several important actions may be considered for self-realization (individually and collective self-realization) to materialize. First, reforming the existing systems of education to move beyond teaching and ‘knowing’ to the experience of the ‘being’. This is a different type of education. Second, allowing expressions of individual consciousness in public policy through meaningful participation and human empowerment.

Third, promoting activities that enhance interdependence and human interaction at all levels of decision making, from the family household to the neighborhood, town, country and planet. Fourth, developing a strong and comprehensive ‘spiritual culture’ focusing specifically on the sacred aspects of our lives through media and communications, music and artistic expressions, games and toys, and so much more.

Our spiritual values, wisdom, and culture are essential to addressing the social and collective. Economic, financial, and other value systems do not add these important contributions to social policies and programs. The reasons lie in the fundamental laws of spirituality, which are rooted in inclusion rather than exclusion, manifested in the context of the absolute, established in the transcendent and nonjudgmental, and founded on the laws of nature. Our social policies are failing because we have been disconnected from the subtle levels of our spirituality.

All collectives have rules of engagement and one or more governance structures. At the country level, this may be a representative democracy, universal voting power, and access to justice systems. The choice of rules and governance structures is essential to the survival and success of any collective. For example, parents and children must agree on how the family, a collective in its own right, needs to operate and, thus, become sustainable generation after generation. Whenever such agreement on the rules or governance of the collective does not exist, the risks of failure are very high. A group of Girl Scouts must agree on the rules before they go on a new expedition.

Not long ago, I had an interesting experience in the southern part of Chile where my children and their friends invited me to a water rafting expedition. Each member had a different view of the collective. Some were thinking about their own personal enjoyment as higher and higher risks were taken. Others, including me, were paying a lot of attention to the collective rules of safety.

Unfortunately, we (not me!) decided not to apply a critical rule of the collective safety during a water-rafting expedition as we lost control of the raft and approached a huge rock at a fast speed. We all knew the rule to avoid the tumbling of the raft; but, it necessitated collective action. Unfortunately, many decided not to follow the instructions of our leader and we all almost drowned!

In sub-Saharan Africa, where there is great risk due to weather conditions and poor soil quality, the collective has to agree on how much of the harvested grain is to be used for domestic consumption, for feeding animals, and for seeding future growth.

There are collectives, though, in which no agreements exist regarding the rules of engagement and governance. One is our global collective. This is why many people see only negative social consequences of globalization. In other cases, we simply ignore the collective. Since we are grouped according to country, there are no adequate rules or forms of governance to lead the global collective for the benefit of all. This vacuum induces some individuals to adopt very selfish forms of behavior.

One country may make a unilateral decision based on its own individual vision, concepts, and rules and leave the whole (global) collective in jeopardy. For example, one country may not sign a global treaty. Or a multinational company may decide to do something for its own benefits, whether or not these are shared by other members of the collective. Technology transfer, pollution, and decrease in biodiversity can result.

Since we are mostly aware of the social policies of our own countries, we seldom address those of other collectives, like those of the planet as a whole. If societies are to embrace humanistic values and spirituality in public policy, though, we have to go beyond the principle defined as “people first” and include equality, freedom, participation, social justice, and fraternity. These ideas are essential, but their effectiveness will not rest on our advocacy of them alone. We have already declared them thousands of times.

In my view, social policies and programs will succeed only if they create the conditions for the self-realization of those values, both individually and collectively. Spiritual and material self-realization hold the key to setting the direction of human destiny. And we cannot expect to resolve the matters of the individual without addressing those of the collective. We must also be able to recognize the interdependence between material and spiritual poverty or wealth, as these are interdependent as well.

Today, societies are experiencing a major breakdown between the advocacy of these principles and values and their full implementation. In this case, the process of self-realization determines the desired outcome.

Another key to success lies in understanding that it is not possible to have individual self-realization without collective self-realization and vice versa. This is a cardinal rule in spirituality, and it must also become the fundamental rule of social policy. Experience shows that some collective values can be realized only if individual values are realized, as in the quest for world peace. In this case, individual self-realization is the only source of human empowerment for those values. Thus, those who have never realized peace within themselves should not be allowed to negotiate for it.

Because economics and social principles are practiced within a spiritual, ethical, and moral vacuum, it has been impossible to eliminate poverty, environmental degradation, and other problems we face today. It is a solo flight without the necessary instruments. And if there is no self-realization at the individual level, the framework for progress at the collective level is not going to be based on wisdom. This is why economic development and progress should first and foremost create the conditions for self-realization.

Alfredo Sfeir-Younis PhD is a Chilean economist, spiritual leader and healer, Founder and President of the Zambuling Institute for Human Transformation. He retired after 29 years of service from the World Bank where he was the focal point for human rights. His last position was Senior Advisor to the managing directors, and the Institutional Focal Point on human rights.