Humans have historically formed four types of bonds, which are rooted in biological realities:
Parents, children, immediate family
Our parentage was the most important source of identity, i.e., being the “son of” or “daughter of” someone was often sufficient to establish identity. Immediate family also acted as biological insurance, by ensuring that someone (our parents when we’re young, our children when we’re old) is there to help us when needed.
Marriage was meant to meet the emotional need for companionship and sexual intimacy. It was indispensable to facilitate child-rearing. Marriage was also a means to establish alliances between families, clans and later ruling dynasties, thus enlarging the network of bonds that tie communities together.
Friendship (at least same-gender friendship) has been a constant feature of social intercourse throughout the ages and in all cultures. However, it probably had a different meaning in the past, when it was largely circumscribed by kinship groups. So, friendship as we know it today—a relationship between two individuals based on shared interests or experiences—is largely a modern construct.
The larger bond of fellowship and community
This is the more general bond we share with those who are not in our immediate, nuclear family, but who are nevertheless part of our daily lives, such as relatives, neighbours, co-workers, and members of the community we live in. In modern times, this type of bond encompasses professional associations, recreational clubs, membership in educational institutions, neighbourhood committees, and so forth. In pre-modern times, however, this bond was usually defined entirely along lines of kinship (extended family, tribe, or clan), class or caste, ethnicity and religion. The communities with which pre-modern individuals interacted and to which they were bound were usually not a matter of choice but a consequence of belonging to a particular group.
The nature of these bonds has changed rapidly from pre-modern to the modern times. The manner in which these bonds manifest themselves can depend on the setting, but they will always be present. For example, the rules and conventions governing marriage have changed over time, but the practice itself—a monogamous, lifelong bond between a man and a woman for the purpose of raising a family—has persisted almost without exception. It has done so because it was the most efficient arrangement within which to provide safety and resources to a mother raising her children in a world full of risks.
Friendship has always been a part of life, but with the rise of individualism in the modern era, this bond has not only become more common but has also acquired a more prominent role in our lives. Indeed, the most significant change in the modern world has been the emergence of the individual as an abstract entity, divorced from his social and cultural context and able to pursue ends that are distinct from those of family or community, including a direct relationship (friendship) with an individual outside the kinship or religious group.
Moreover, the urbanisation, communications and travel that have come to embody modern life have opened up a new set of opportunities to interact with others and to form bonds in ways that are no longer limited to one’s kin and neighbours.
The Rise of the Individual in the First Dimension
Modernity transformed the nature of our bonds. Whereas in traditional settings, humans were deeply enmeshed in the contexts of their family and tribe, modernity created the idea of an individual divorced from his or her context. This individual now owed allegiance to “artificial” associations (such as corporations and geographical entities like the nation state), but was increasingly isolated from the traditional ties of family, kinship, ethnicity and tribe.
The key difference between tradition and modernity is that in traditional societies people’s allegiances are involuntary, fixed even before they are born. In India, for example, caste was one’s most important identifier. It dictated the trajectory of one’s life and almost all of one’s choices. You simply could not overcome the world you were born into. In a modern context, you may be born into a family, a social class and an ethnicity, but you can choose your friends, your profession and sometimes even the country where you live. Allegiances in modern life—whether to a friend, a company, a university, or even a professional association of, say, accountants—are voluntary. Modernity offers choices, and mobility.
At the heart of this upheaval was individuation—the process by which the individual became a distinct entity with specific desires, needs and rights. This seems like an obvious idea today, but it was not the case in much of the world as recently as half a century ago. It is the single most disruptive concept introduced by modernity—an individual distinct from the sources of his traditional identity. This individual, imbued with certain unalienable rights and whose goal is to maximise his wellbeing, became the idea that underpinned all of society’s institutions and rules.
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau are all famous for their theories on the state of nature (i.e., what the existence of people might have been like before societies came into being) but one thing they all took for granted was that the individual was the fundamental building block of society. The economists Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith formulated their theories of maximising utility with limited resources based on the rational individual as the primary actor. Even in the writings of Hegel and Marx, who envisioned universal societies, manifested as the end of history and the global communist state, respectively, traditional class had been dismantled to the extent that individuals were the only true actors within a macro-civilisation.
What we see repeated in the great theories of the modern era is a tendency, a necessity even, to consider the individual as the primary subject of inquiry. This is not to say that people were not studying family or community, but with the emergence of the individual as an abstract entity, the bonds that had defined us for so long became secondary.
Marriage is a good example of this trend. For most of human history, marriage was something decided by family and community, not individuals (and this is still the norm in some parts of the world). Love between two independent, rational, utility-maximising individuals, who marry of their free will, was an alien concept in such situations. Instead, marriages were alliances sanctioned by larger social groups, and in which the two spouses were relatively peripheral. This logic held sway as long as people were not seen as individuals with independent and all-important emotional needs. As the individual became the centre of social organisation, the influence of family, of ancestral ties and of community groups weakened.
Marriage is not the only social practice to have been altered by the rise of the individual. Ever since the Reformation, human inquiry has moved steadily away from knowledge monopolised and dispensed by religious institutions, and toward independent, critical thinking, empirical observation, and conclusions based on experimentation, reasoning and the free exchange of ideas. Such advances relied heavily on individuals’ ability to think for themselves, and form opinions and beliefs based on their own interpretation of what they saw around them. Individualism, therefore, gradually spelled the end of religion’s control on knowledge. Once the frontiers of learning began to be controlled by independent thinkers and researchers, these new actors offered people something that churches and temples could not, and the clergy lost its monopoly on knowledge and intellectual authority.
Art and our very understanding of beauty have also been affected by the increasing emphasis on individual achievement. Art is no longer understood as an expression of a communal devotion to a deity or a belief system, but rather as the work of creative and independent individuals. French Impressionism, for example, is synonymous with the paintings of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro and Cézanne. But no-one knows who carved the great sculptures of the Ellora caves in Maharashtra or the Mahabalipuram temples in Tamil Nadu. Even if the names of a few artists and artisans do survive, they do not dominate the discourse. Those artistic structures are an expression of a larger community, not the work of individuals.
The shift from group identity to individual identity as the defining social force of the modern age engendered two far-reaching ideas: free will and the belief in individual rights. Indeed, from the revolutionary idea of individualism arose the inward-facing person who possessed free will—the ability to act independently of the needs and priorities of society at large, at least within the space granted by law. The individual now wielded his free will to take advantage of the rights and freedoms to which he was entitled as a distinct legal entity, and to pursue all his needs and desires to achieve the highest possible level of comfort and happiness.
The natural outcome of a society bent on satisfying the needs of individuals was a polity—democracy—that derived its legitimacy from individuals, and whose objective, at least in theory, was the preservation of individual rights and the pursuit of individual priorities. The individual exercising his or her free will became the source of constitutional legitimacy, and democratic political systems became the vehicles by which individuals conferred that legitimacy. The power of the idea of the individual owed its attractiveness to the “limitless freedom” it promised, and it spread rapidly thanks to modern media and communications technologies (starting with the printing press).
Elevating the individual to such prominent levels is fraught with pitfalls. It tells each member of society that her individual desires and needs are paramount.The problem with a society focused on individual happiness as the primary goal is that it creates a thoroughly transactional way of looking at everything and everyone. An individuated society inevitably becomes a utility-driven society and a consumption-based society, a society in which every interaction is appraised for its value toward furthering someone’s personal needs and wishes.
Love has perhaps been the greatest victim of the individuated society. When two individuals are married, they constantly ask themselves if they are happy with each other. If they are not, modern society urges them to end the marriage and seek happiness elsewhere. Not only do we want to be happy all the time, we want to be happy as soon as possible. Love is reduced to an impulse to be satisfied; to a predominantly self-serving activity.
Today’s children are taught from a young age that the principal reason for their existence is to fulfil their personal destiny, to become whoever they want to be, to pursue whatever career they like best or will bring the most wealth and enjoyment. They are told to be independent individuals, not to conform too much, to be themselves, as though it were a crime to model oneself on someone else. We continually tell them to set themselves apart in order to leave a mark on the world, and that their freedom to choose will guide them.
Bonds and Love in the Second Dimension
The rise of the individual has been a defining idea of the First Dimension, and a major revolution in the way we relate to each other. To transcend the difficulties that have emerged from this way of relating to each other, we need a profound personal transformation. This entails a shift from an outwardly-seeking, self-absorbed, narcissistic individual to one who is committed to knowing himself by undertaking an inner journey. This shift, in turn, can lead to a lasting change in the nature of human interactions and sets the foundations for Second Dimension society.
In the previous Idea page, we described one way in which each of us can approach such a journey: meditation. As we deepen our meditation practice, and connect with ourselves more deeply, the process will bring three “liberations”.
The first liberation consists of breaking free from the illusion that we exist in an isolated, entirely self-referential space.
The second liberation is the recognition of the complex web of interdependent relationships that make up our world—social as well as natural—and to see what the philosopher Nagarjuna describes as the artificial boundaries imposed by the constructions of our minds.
The first two liberations are prerequisites for the third liberation: from understanding ourselves and from the awareness of interdependence we are able to cultivate the capacity for genuine kindness. The more we connect with these qualities within us, the richer our relationships become. Our understanding of ourselves and our dependence on others connects are, in essence, signs of a higher level of consciousness As our consciousness progresses, certain qualities develop naturally in us:
Devotion is the way consciousness teaches us to free ourselves from the prison of First Dimension selfishness, ego and narcissism.
Forgiveness is the way our consciousness teaches us to let go of the baggage of the past—perceived failures, broken marriages, dysfunctional family life, pain from different sources, even one’s addictions and cravings—and to recognise and accept such afflictions in others.
Compassion is the way our consciousness teaches us to love.
Bonds and Love in the Third Dimension
Western thought often distinguishes between conditional and unconditional love. This dichotomy is created to explain the love between a parent and a child (unconditional) and that between two unrelated individuals (conditional). This neat characterisation, creating boxes in which we label our behaviour, is part of the problem of a First Dimension world. It is an approach to love that is deeply reductionist and fails to recognise its most essential attribute: the desire, and the ability, to develop one’s own capacity to love.
It is easy to love someone who loves you in return, or someone who shows generosity and consideration toward you. But can you also love someone who expresses none of these characteristics? Someone who may be miserly, narrow-minded and inconsiderate? When living in a more expanded state of consciousness, such a capacity comes more naturally. It is the difference between transactional love, which carries with it an expectation (such as help, loyalty, attention, adulation, commitment, or attachment), and unconditional love.
In The Art of Loving, psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm says, “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character.” Once this attitude has been developed through the three liberations, we are ready to understand the nature of human bonds from a Third Dimension perspective.
Expressing unconditional love suggests that you have tapped into the ability to transcend your own self-interest. In developing the capacity to be devoted, forgiving and compassionate, you also generate feelings of love towards you from other people. Love in the Third Dimension means having a deep and unconditional commitment to, and involvement in, the wellbeing of another, where that other can be a person, or an animal, a social organisation, or even a plant.