Review of The Web of Meaning by Phyllis Creme

Reposted from Share International website

The following book review is included in the July/August issue of Share International. We feature this early because of its relevance to our present world situation and as an early heads-up that Jeremy Lent will be a guest interviewee in a Share International webinar on 24 October.

The Web of Meaning feels like a book our time has been waiting for. Those who protest in Black Lives Matter gatherings, who feel at one with the everyday suffering they witness on TV, who are deeply worried about our planet Earth as well as the pandemic, are all reminded every day that we are connected to each other and part of the natural world, and that ‘we are only safe when all of us are safe’. We cannot live if the Earth dies.

But, Jeremy Lent points out, the prevailing ‘worldview’ contradicts these deeply felt sympathies and most of our lives are underpinned by that worldview. We have been conditioned to feel like separate units up against the rest of the world. We have ‘conquered’ nature, as we will conquer the pandemic. The exigencies of a world dominated by this worldview make us machine-like, tied to our grinding routines of making money – often just to subsist, or else to buy more than we need, in some cases thousands of times more.

Our time is confronting us with a choice. Our planet is wearing out – and we, the people, have caused it. Greed and self-aggrandizement stalk the land as surely as the pandemic we can’t shake off. We see the rich countries hoarding the means to live and to defeat the coronavirus. We have seen the sacrifice countless ordinary people have made in caring for the sick at the cost of their lives. But most of us are afraid, with seemingly little choice but to continue with our lives driven by our need to survive and to avoid discomfort.

The timeliness of this book is in its exploration of how to change the long-held Western worldview that urges us not to notice that we are all interconnected. It traces the history of this mindset, based on scientific reductionism, that we are separate from each other and even within ourselves. It encompasses Christianity and the Enlightenment scientists who separate the soul, or mind, from the body, and the modern, influential idea of the ‘selfish gene’ that entrenches the thoughtform that we are genetically programmed to look out for ourselves. The Web of Meaning speaks to those brought up and caught up by this dominant worldview, but who are beginning to realise how it doesn’t fit with their deepest feelings about themselves and others.

Jeremy Lent gives us a thorough and carefully researched account to counter the idea of the ‘selfish’ and separative gene, drawing on a wide range of sources, including science, philosophy, literature, anthropology, poetry. He integrates ancient philosophies, particularly Taoism, Buddhism and Indigenous beliefs, with contemporary systems theory and neuroscience, that demonstrate ‘connectedness’ on all levels – from the tiniest particle and individual cell to whole natural systems, indeed to cosmos. For instance, in the ways that trees and insects ‘think’ and co-operate to mutually survive, and how neurologically we are intricately connected within ourselves, with no separation between our mind and body. Our thinking identity (that Lent terms for the sake of argument our ‘I’) needs to be at one with our deeper, embodied identity that he terms the ‘self’. He explores how the ancient oriental wisdom posited that everything is energy, and the only way to find a deep and lasting well-being is to be in tune with the whole, both inner and outer. The ancient Chinese philosophies and Indigenous peoples have a wisdom about how to live meaningfully that our modern society denies. Lent also suggests that psychedelic and mystic states may reveal a reality beyond the everyday. He urges us to be true to our deepest sense of ourselves and to cultivate the inner harmony that comes from fully embracing all of life experience.

The Web of Meaning, while dealing in detail with difficult subjects, is an engaging and endearing read. It is often addressed as if to an individual reader – and it is designed with a pedagogic, even a crusading intent. It includes an informative glossary and further reading, and most usefully gives a summary at the end of each section. The book is also a beautifully produced object. The style of the writing is direct, and uses analogy, anecdote and story-making. It begins with ‘Uncle Bob’s speech’ (“which you’ve probably all heard”) expounding on how humans have always looked out for themselves (and Uncle Bob also features in the final chapter, more forgivingly) and it ends with an analogy of the Native America legend of Windigo – a monster that is driven by insatiable greed to devour all it encounters, and worse, transforms them into replicas of itself.

The first five sections of the book are mainly expository/explanatory and didactic. But in the final section, ‘Where are we going?’, in just this one chapter ‘Weaving a New story of Meaning’, it is as if the author takes on a new role – he becomes a visionary activist, the passionate advocate on behalf of nature, for every individual to find their own sense of purpose and act to repair the ravages done to our planet Earth by the forces of greed and commercialization in which we are all implicated. It is as though he assumes that the previous 300 pages have done their work of quiet persuasion and the reader is now ready to respond in a new way (or possibly because some readers, from different vantage points –have hardly needed persuading of our Oneness).

Lent shows powerfully the harm caused by our continuing insatiable greed, to the planet and to a society entrenched within inequality. He singles out for particular blame and excoriating criticism the transnational corporations, which have become more powerful than societies and politicians, for their ‘Windigo’ voracious destructiveness: “strengthened by the overpowering corporate compulsion to convert human needs into profit opportunities” (p.357). He vividly details the terrifying state of our planet caused by the climate emergency.

But Lent also makes the case for a new dispensation; for ‘an ecological civilization’ which could “create the conditions for all humans to flourish as part of a thriving living Earth” (p.365). He writes hopefully of the movements that are countering the emergency and makes the case for ‘an ecological worldview’ and for ‘revolutionary love’: “Instead of responding to our oppression with animosity, which merely exacerbates the divisions in our society we can choose what activist Rabbi Michael Lerner calls revolutionary love” (p.379) – both words are important. Above all, Lent urges us to ‘hope’, quoting Vlacev Havel: “Hope is a state of mind not a state of the world, a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times. An ability to work for something because it is good and not because it stands a chance to succeed.” (p.375) Lent urges us to believe this and take it as the basis for our lives, knowing that every move we make will play its part in the whole.

For, although “we have all grown up in the culture of separateness”, on the basis of our interconnectedness that has now been established, we are asked to find and weave our own thread of the cosmic web: our unique sense of purpose and meaning, which now also – inevitably – has a moral purpose. “As we learn to open eyes that have been sealed by our dominant culture we can discern the rainbow that was always there waiting for us. We can waken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within us that we share with all other beings … realize the deep purpose of our Existence on Earth”. (p.376)

Finally, then, we have the responsibility, to ourselves as well as to all others, to contribute, however little it may seem, whatever each of us is uniquely able to do. The book ends with the question that brings us back to the title, The Web of Meaning: “What is the sacred and precious strand that you will weave?”

Jeremy Lent, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find our Place in the Universe. Profile Books | New Society Publishers 2021.