By Lawrence I. Messerman
Featured photo by Rick Harrow
Recently, traditional wisdom received some high-level acknowledgement in an area where it rarely gets much credibility. That’s because the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to three people including China’s Youyou Tu. Dr. Tu was honored for her work in isolating Artemisinin—which is used to prevent malaria. Her research began with the systematic study of malaria treatments as prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine. Eventually Dr. Tu zeroed in on Artemisia (wormwood or mugwort), and it was from this plant that she derived an effective medication for an illness that has afflicted millions of people living around the world.
However valuable such remedies maybe, they represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the value of traditional wisdom. The life-ways of traditional peoples are perhaps our greatest cultural treasure. They are not just some quaint anachronism whose artifacts are to be catalogued and displayed in a museum while we go about our merry way and continue to rely upon science and technology to propel us into a heady future of limitless innovation. Rather, they are literally our best hope for survival.
It is hard to make general statements about traditional cultures. Traditional Chinese medicine looks quite different from the healing modalities practiced by the indigenous traditions that also vary greatly from place to place. But there is some common ground shared by traditional cultures when contrasted with the modern, western outlook that now dominates the world.
For one thing, traditional cultures are decidedly low-tech. Or maybe it would be better to call them masters of “inner tech” or “spiritual tech.” However different, traditional cultures share the notion that the natural world has a balance and wisdom that is both healing and instructive for humans. Nature is not merely inert matter to be manipulated as in the modern view. Both Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine recognize a life-force energy (chi and prana respectively) behind the kaleidoscope of physical forms. Taking herbs or making adjustments to one’s diet can be helpful interventions in these traditions, but primary attention is given to maintaining the free flow of life energy. This is the reason for practices such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, meditation, and yoga.
Indigenous cultures have a similar perspective to the more recent Chinese and Hindu traditions. Again, there are many obvious differences between for example Aboriginal people in Australia and Native Americans or First Nations people in North America. But looking behind the appearances, you find a common experience of nature as being a weave of consciousness of which humans are just one small part. When you see the world as alive and aware, you work out how to be a respectful part of the family. This is the function of ritual: Helping people to be in ‘right relationship’ with the divine forces that animate all life. Humility and gratitude are often seen as important pre-requisites.
Even in the more recent western tradition, we have stories that warn of the consequences when humans get too full of themselves: The exile from the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (actually common in many cultures) and the Tower of Babel stories from the Old Testament; and also the numerous Greek tragedies wherein the arrogance (hubris) of humans leads to their downfall. These ancient warnings seem to hold little sway in an era when we idolize innovation and limitless growth.
Our modern way of life is the culmination of centuries of a growing external focus. We congratulate ourselves for having cities that harbor tens of millions of souls, we can fly from one part of the globe to another in a few hours, and we have the temerity to reach into the building blocks of life itself (the genes) and mix bits from here and there to suit our whims. And yet we are beginning to bump up against the unintended consequences of all of this meddling: climate change, species decline, toxic wastes accumulating in our air, water, and of course in our own bodies. As we have come to treat the world as dead, inert matter to be exploited, we have found that indeed the world seems to be dying around us. In a related way, we discover more deadness inside—which shows up as increasing alienation, isolation, and a gnawing hunger that no amount of distraction or addictive behavior can cure.
The bad news is the good news. Our modern way of life is not sustainable, and we have indeed overstepped our bounds. But there were a myriad of cultures that existed before the monolithic, materialistic, science-driven, technology-embellished juggernaut that passes for modern life. Some of those cultures have been pushed to extinction, but others endure. Those that remain need to be supported and nurtured. Collectively, they offer wisdom for living in harmony and balance that modern people have lost. Traditional cultures also include a diversity of approaches, many deeply rooted in the particulars of place, that offer resilience in a time of great upheaval and change.
We will not be able to engineer ourselves out of the perfect storm of environmental, social, and economic challenges that are looming. We can however look to wisdom that has met the test of time. And like those who came before us, we will find a great joy and strength in coming together, giving gratitude, living closer to the land, and remembering that we are just one humble part in a great, mysterious world that offers us everything we need–at least once we remember how to ask. This is what traditional cultures have to offer: Not just a cure for malaria, but for the general dis-ease of a way of life grounded in the illusion that we are separate from, and somehow superior to, the natural world around us. It is time to find our place again in the web of life. Traditional cultures can point the way.