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Culture Change
# 39

Modern perception's limitations
The curtain of materialist society's illusion

by Jan Lundberg

This essay was inspired by a scary, dream-induced glimpse I had of the “curtain of perception” and the reality on the other side.  Since 2001, the organization I write for has taken on subjects such as trends in modern culture’s dwindling family cohesion, after ten years of publishing and campaigning mainly to end new road construction.  We believe the unraveling social fabric and global-warming lifestyles, for example, are linked.  In this essay we go still deeper to reevaluate the alleged reality of the social, materialist world.  

by Tim Barton, Bluegreenearth

As so many of us have noticed, day-to-day living in modern society has become alienated from nature.  It isn’t just a function of being cooped up in buildings, traveling on roads in motor vehicles, and obtaining our food off of refrigerated shelves.  Increasingly, perceived reality is also made up of society’s constructs.  Our relationships have become more centered around money and individual self-interest.  So, the individual's growing alienation in a material environment is compounded by dominant society’s ever-expanding rules.

In our personal daily dealings, our time and thoughts are taken up by unnatural outside stimuli: mass media, relationships with people in the socioeconomic context, artificial living in modern homes and offices, etc.  These circumstances shape our perception.  However, we may not realize how much our minds and way of viewing the universe have been taken over by the social system.  It is sometimes only possible to grasp it on a visceral- or altered-consciousness level, when we escape to a natural environment and live without society or much technology.

The obscuring curtain
The dominance of our society and the material world in and around our lives is a monolith blocking out the real or original universe.  It's as if a large curtain comprising materialist society is in front of us: so large and so close that even the most conscious of us do not notice its massive presence. The awareness we can muster while in front of the curtain is inadequate to see how pervasive and false the illusion is.  Perhaps the curtain not only envelopes us but is us—our modern-made selves.

It is a chilling concept to think of our perception as incredibly narrow and shallow due to our inability to see around the curtain or to tear it down.  When did the curtain go up?  We put it up ourselves, but increasingly we were also born into it.  Our separation from nature only accelerates for humanity as a whole, so as "progress" marches on, the younger a person is the more invisible and oppressive the curtain.

What we increasingly see and feel normally is the need for more money, modern housing, sex, entertainment, drugs, jewelry, family attachment, escapism, etc.  These valid wants, even if all satisfied in moderation or excess, serve to impede our consciousness all the more. Furthermore, many of us are drawn to building "an identity" of social respect or power, whether as a gangsters, politicians, or super consumers.

The most one can usually grasp about the limitations of today’s alleged "real world" is in acknowledging the spiritual dearth of today’s modern living.  Some will act on that sentiment through meditation perhaps or, say, treesitting to protect an ancient forest.  Others may seek expanded awareness of the universe by creating art or using hallucinogenic drugs to pierce the curtain, as in The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.

But this does not mean the curtain has been torn down by or for any of those seekers.

Science has run into unknowable realms of the universe when physicists have demonstrated that the observer of a given molecular or cosmic process helps determine outcome.  Society still strives to turn us into numbers that follow, like sheep, the practical routes to material security and safety from law enforcement or other unpleasantness.  We are to have no self-determination except for voting - almost always on false choices.  The pervading mass passivity is a domestication that probably began when people moved to cities and lost their connections with their land.  This long process has all but blocked out a universe interactive and awesome.

What happens when we block out the universe or have it crowded out from our daily experience? Our reality is what we create, and our perception or observation of the universe helps shape the latter for us.  We affect other species (kill them off).  But the overall effect of adhering to the grand illusion takes another toll: on our mental health as we weaken the survival of the planet as the source of life.

The Matrix was close
The popular film The Matrix offered the viewer the idea that society has been constructed as fake, manipulative, secretive, and corrupt.  Audience reaction indicated wide agreement among today’s real population.  People enjoyed the film’s exposing the truth of our slave-like existence and scaring us as to what is in store (whether or not machines will take over from humans).  Calling this society "the matrix" has become an underground American-English colloquialism.  Thus, people have a growing sense of the material world as a false construct due to the domination of law enforcement and technology so evident in The Matrix.

I have not been influenced by The Matrix in formulating my idea of today’s perception as being limited to socio-materialist reality.  The film entertained me immensely as an allegorical expose on today’s actual regimentation and spiritually empty living.  "Life" is enforced, in both The Matrix and today’s society and our artificial environment, by the organized powers comprising and maintaining government, business, and most aspects of our lives.

My decades of education on perception and awareness have been influenced by Zen and living close to nature, as well as putting up with living in Los Angeles.  The illusion of making headway or "getting somewhere" materially and forming an "identity" by finding fulfillment in today’s socioeconomic environment has been burst by some of my relationships and observing the deteriorating state of community and of the ecosystem in the U.S. and the world.

Understanding beyond the curtain
Visualizing the concept of the curtain as anti-consciousness came to me as a shocking revelation that caused me to vibrate with uneasiness and concern, yet with gratitude for its clarity.  What may be original or rare is the idea that the normal state of awareness and almost everything we perceive is a false construct of a temporary sort.  The false construct is worse than having blinders on that we don’t know are there, for the view straight ahead would still be clear with blinders.  It is worse than being blindfolded, because we could still hear and think.

It is more like we don’t have much of an idea of what we don’t know.  The amount of reality blocked from our view, I believe, turns out not to be 10%, 20% or 50%, as some of us have suspected, but perhaps over 99%.  That applies to all of us who every day take so seriously the "real world" of the economy, law, the written word, manufactured objects, and conventional social relations propping up the status quo.  With all of this goes the modern tendency to relate to nature as something existing separate from us: for example in parks instead of endless wilderness that we are one with.

People try to get a grip on the actual world around them and their place in the cosmos without distracting thoughts or internal dialogue through meditation.  But their efforts go nowhere to liberate them if they fool themselves into thinking they are seeing beyond the curtain.  One cannot much see beyond it if one isn’t living beyond it.

What it all suggests to me is that only a complete cultural change may offer the hope of improving our perception or occasional enhanced consciousness to include everything beyond the curtain of materialist illusion.

What would life be like without the curtain?  Without billions of people living as materialists?  Without today’s extreme social strife?  Without war, terror, and ecocide?  Can we imagine doing without the boxed-in thinking as practiced by all the alienated individuals coping with survival in noncommunity?

On the other side
What’s on the other side of the curtain?  It would be appealing to be there now or at least speculate on the "landscape" there.  Time and space could be different.  If this sounds like science fiction, consider that time seems considerably slowed down when one is fasting; a meditative state takes over and one’s emotions alter.  As to time, when one eschews technologically inhuman speed in travel, one’s personal environment becomes a larger universe.  Ancient forests once held enchantment for everyone due to their perceived vastness.

Materialist culture put up a curtain between itself and the Garden of Eden.  The original garden of early history (if a place and not an allegory) might have been bombed in the Gulf Wars, despoiled forever by depleted uranium.  Instead of finding paradise on the other side of the curtain if we manage to get past it, we may have our breath taken away by the awesome power of the universe as it may exhibit only cold fury or hot hell.

Or if a form of Eden awaits us when the curtain crashes down, we could look forward to living sustainably as we elevate love to the highest social value.

I’d like to think that besides appreciating the wonder of beauty and clarity provided by unspoiled nature and a recovered sense of cosmic awareness, we will act with the compassion of true wisdom implied in the name Homo sapiens sapiens.


- Next: Plan Puebla Panama, the road/dam/maquiladora monstrosity related to NAFTA, will be explained and trashed in the next Culture Change Letter (#40).
- Our newletter is being printed!  Get your copy mailed to you; it's not online.  Email request to
- Protesters are organizing for a  pro-impeachment/end the Iraq Occupation demonstration in Washington, D.C., Oct. 25.  A joint action will be in San Francisco.


Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated which once published "the bible of the oil industry."  He has run the Sustainable Energy Institute since 1988.  It can use your assistance and generous help.

- Feedback is wanted for our letters page.

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Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

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Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)

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