Profile Books, 2021-07-27
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
By the author’s own description, this book presents: a new story of meaning, pointing to a central core of wisdom that people have known throughout history but was obliterated by the mainstream European tradition — the understanding that, at the deepest levels, we are all interconnected. It lays out the framework for a new integrated global consciousness, based on an underlying and all-infusing recognition of connectedness: within ourselves, with other humans, and with the entire natural world. Living with this deep realization, we are truly “at home in the universe” — and are naturally driven to engage in the transformation our civilization desperately needs.
I found it a hard book to review, simply because the information it presents is so vast and so comprehensive. But at the same time I found it the most efficiently structured book I have ever encountered. Lent has the rare ability to combine rigorous scholarship with high readability and inspirational writing. He also masterfully marries modern scientific knowledge with ancient spiritual wisdom.
Thanks to the long, slow, process of evolution, in which our brains developed by gradually laying new structures on top of existing ones, human beings are complex creatures. And the biggest challenge of our highly evolved, modern consciousness is to integrate our being with our knowing, our basic, instinctual, animal selves with our conditioned, educated, thinking selves or, in the author’s words, our ‘animate’ and ‘conceptual’ consciousness. Lent spends the first three chapters painstakingly describing this challenge and how we can deal with it, drawing not only on science and psychology but on a number of humanity’s old wisdom traditions, particularly Taoism, Zen, and Buddhist meditation.
Another key point he makes is that through our historical misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution many people in our Western world have also come to believe that competition and greed are the primary movers of the evolutionary process, whereas in fact it is cooperation that has powered that process ever since the first one-celled organisms combined to form more complex life forms. Through studying the cooperative, complementary and symbiotic relationships that are typical of every ecosystem on this planet, we come to realize that everything and everybody is somehow related to everything and everybody else.
There is a challenge that arises from this realization. For what is true in the physical realm is also true in the realms of social interaction, awareness and human consciousness. Only through cooperation and collaboration can we solve the practical, political and relational problems currently facing us in this 21st century. And not every member of the human race is equally willing to co-operate and collaborate with his or her fellow beings.
This is an ambitious book. Its aim is to present a rigorous and intellectually solid foundation for an alternative worldview based on connectedness, showing how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures. Does it succeed in this aim? I think it definitely does – and does it superbly. Along with Lent’s previous book The Patterning Instinct it forms a body of work that I believe is destined to become a classic.
As the author says in his conclusion, as a result of understanding these underlying patterns and how we got to where we are now, the challenge to all of us, from here on, is to turn our energies towards …active engagement in society, joining with others to weave the web of meaning into all aspects of our lives, our communities, and the earth.
Given the increasing urgency of this challenge, brought about by the effects now facing us of anthropogenic climate change and the accelerating destruction of the ecosystems that support human life, the question of whether or not we shall succeed in this transformational endeavour is the central question of our time. But there are many brilliant minds engaging with that question. Jeremy Lent’s is one of them. His central metaphor – of the many threads that weave together to create our interconnected world – comes to even more vibrant life as he describes, towards the end of the book, how each of us can become a consciously meaningful thread in the weaving of a new, ecological civilization. This is why I would love to see The Web of Meaning on absolutely everyone’s reading list.