Self-knowledge and empathy. The global foundations of our life

By Ha Vinh Tho, January 2016

The national declarations of independence were a major step for humanity. Today a further step is required: humanity needs a declaration of interdependence based on respect and love.

Photo: © Tomraiders/

The declaration of independence was a consequence of an evolution of consciousness leading both nations and individuals to more and more independence, greater freedom, more possibilities of choice. It was an emancipation from the spiritual world, from nature, and even emancipation from social context. This development was very necessary. But my belief and conviction is that today we need to rethink that, we have gone too far in this direction.

Now we need something like a declaration of interdependence, which means becoming aware of the fact that all life forms, all human beings on earth are completely interdependent, all our systems – economic systems, information systems, political systems – are completely interlinked and what happens anywhere in the world will have effects everywhere else in the world.

Thinking about what connects us is very important, but in order to understand that we need to think about what separates us from one another. This process of becoming free individuals, of becoming isolated from nature and from others has been a necessary step to develop what Rudolf Steiner calls our “consciousness soul”.

The consciousness soul is characterised by two aspects: the emergence of an increasingly individual consciousness and by a deeper and deeper understanding of the material world, the progress of science. Young people are standing at a threshold at which decisions have to be made and directions have to be taken that will have an impact on all the future evolution of the earth and of humankind.

Anything that happens anywhere in the world, on this planet, is our story, has something to do with us, something to do with the way we live, with the decisions we make, with the goals we have for our life. Let me make this a little bit more explicit. Let us look at the main disconnect.

Alienation between people and nature

The first one is the disconnection that has gradually occurred between humankind and nature. In the end all the ecological challenges and crises we are facing are the consequence of this disconnection – that we have forgotten that we are part of nature, that the earth is a living being, a spiritual being and that all of nature is full of life and full of consciousness. We often behave as if human beings were the only ones. But that is not true at all.

Obviously animals are sentient beings but if you look at the way we treat animals, it is horrible. Animal factories – they are a crime. But not only animals, look at mountains and rivers and the air, they are all alive, they have a spirit, and if we do not reconnect with the spirit of the earth, with the spirit of nature, with the spirit of all beings beyond humans with whom we share this planet, then I believe the destruction of the environment will continue. And destroying the environment in which we live probably is the most stupid thing we can do because we only have one planet.

But at present we are using 1.5 planets every year: it means that humankind consumes in one year what the planet needs 18 months to produce. So we live as if we had 1.5 planets but we only have one planet. It is obvious that there has to be a change. And I believe it is not too late, but the window of opportunity is limited.

This is why I am saying that the up-and-coming generation is the generation at the crossroads. With my generation we are a bit late, we did not really do what we should have done. But if the young generation does not take up the challenge in a positive way, then the very future of the planet and of humankind could be compromised.

On the one hand that is a responsibility, on the other hand it is a tremendous opportunity. Because there is a new world to be invented and young people are the ones to invent it – and young people can do it. It is possible, it is feasible. Ecology is important but it has to be a deep ecology. So an egoistic ecology is not good enough, it is better than nothing but it is not good enough.

What is necessary is reconnecting with the spiritual dimension of the earth, of nature, the oceans, the rivers, the mountains, of air and fire. We need to recreate this living  relationship so that we will not only preserve it for our own sake but out of respect for this amazingly beautiful, wise and generous planet that has been given to us – out of respect and love.

Alienation between people themselves

The next disconnect is the one between human beings and human beings. So again the evolution of consciousness that was no doubt necessary to enable us to have a stronger consciousness of ourselves, to become freer human beings, has gone over the top. And now we live in a world in which there is such a disconnection between human beings that we have created an economic system that allows a small minority to live far beyond their needs and a vast majority not to have enough to cover the same basic needs.

Today 20 percent of the world’s population is consuming 80 percent of the world’s resources. This iniquity of the economic system is of course on the one hand the iniquity between the North and the South, between the so-called developed countries and the so-called under-developed or developing countries. But even within rich, developed societies we see iniquity, inequality and injustice growing.

We know from a lot of research that there is a direct connection between inequality in a society and social problems. Or to put it another way, the more a society is equal, the more the society is healthy and happy. And yet we have seen in the last decades inequality and iniquity growing in a way that is really frightening. And this is because we have lost touch with our fellow human beings.

The whole of the economic system that is based on competition, maximising profit, is a system that teaches us to be egoistic, to be greedy, to consume more and more although these attitudes are at the very root of the destruction also of the environment. Because the destruction of the environment and over-consumption are directly correlated.

And yet we live in an economic system that tells us consume more, produce more, throw more away, create more waste, that is the way to grow the economy – not telling us at the same time that when we do this we are, on the one hand, destroying the planet and, on the other hand, grabbing so much more than our fair share; so that naturally on a finite planet some other human beings do not have enough. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “The planet has enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everybody’s greed.”

Reconnecting with nature is the first step. And reconnecting with our fellow human beings is the second one. So what connects us? What connects us is our common planet, what connects us is our common humanity.

The more we can really develop this deep connection with our environment, with nature, with animals, plants, rivers, mountains, clouds, the sky, the more we will become true citizens of this world. The more we can connect with our brothers and sisters all over the world, our fellow human beings that are together with us on this journey, the more we will become true human beings. We cannot be a human alone: declaration of interdependence. We will make it all together as humankind or we will not make it at all.

Alienation from ourselves

The third disconnect is the disconnect from ourselves. In the end, this is the fundamental disconnect. Western culture has developed by and large – of course there are exceptions, anthroposophy being one of them – based on science and on understanding and mastering the outer, material world. With fantastic results – I am not at all condemning science in any way – but at a very high cost. And most of our education systems are completely focused on understanding the outer world, forgetting to help us understand our inner world, thus disconnecting ourselves from ourselves, our true being and highest potential.

Self-knowledge has been sacrificed on the altar of scientific, material knowledge. So the time has come to look inwards. The way out is in; the way out of the challenges we are facing is looking inwards. We must really be aware of what is going on in us and around us.

So let us look at the disconnect with ourselves from a more individual perspective. The disconnect with ourselves not knowing who we truly are, not taking time to look inwards, not practising introspection, being driven by outer circumstance, by the media, by advertising and marketing, and so on, leads the human being to feel quite dissatisfied. There is a fundamental lack, a fundamental dissatisfaction that arises from not being in touch with our true self, with our deeper or higher self.

You can see a lot of unease, even among the youth, even among the youth in the very wealthy countries where they have everything that the rest of the world dreams of having. They have everything and yet there is a lot of unease, dissatisfaction, a feeling of meaninglessness, of a lack of purpose. And not only amongst the youth. We know that in the general population in the western world depression and stress-related illnesses are the number one cause of illness and morbidity.

So although most of these people have everything on a material level, everything they need – still they are not really happy. Why is that? For a very simple reason. It is that we are looking to fulfil a very inner need, an inner striving, in the wrong place. So all of us are looking for happiness. All of us try to avoid suffering. All of us would like to have a good and fulfilled life. But as long as we believe that this happiness, this fulfilment can come from outer things, from material things, then we are bound to be frustrated.

The three illnesses of the spirit and their healing

So the first poison of the mind is ignorance. What is ignorance? Ignorance is not knowing ourselves, the lack of self-knowledge. That is ignorance. Not having studied this or that, not having read this or that book – that is not really ignorance. But not knowing ourselves, who we are, what our deepest aspiration, our purpose is in this life, that is ignorance. And ignorance leads to greed because you try to fill this dissatisfaction with things, objects or even relationships.

When I look back on my long life and ask myself, what really made a difference in my life, it is quite obvious: friendship and love. And everything I tried to build in my life was actually built on friendship, on people that wanted to work together. So if we create meaningful relationships then we can overcome this divide between human being and human being. We can overcome greed that comes from not being fulfilled and which leads to the destruction of nature because we over-consume. So ignorance can become self-knowledge, wisdom; greed can become presence.

If I am truly present, truly myself, I do not need so much stuff to be happy or to be fulfilled. I do need some things, but by far I do not need all the things that marketing and advertising wants me to believe that I need in order to be a happy human being. If I am truly present, greed, the second poison of the mind, is gradually transformed. And when greed is transformed, the third poison of the mind, which is violence, hatred, can be transformed.

Because violence, violence against others, violence against nature, violence arises from this greed, from this sense of competition that makes me feel that my fellow human beings are not my brothers and sisters but my competitors against whom I have to fight to get more and more and more. So violence and hatred can gradually be transformed into compassion and loving kindness.

About the author: Ha Vinh Tho is programme director at the Gross Happiness Centre in Bhutan; from 1970-74 he studied eurythmy and eurythmy therapy at the School of Spiritual Science in Dornach. The former Waldorf teacher gave a lecture via Skype at the youth conference “What connects us?” which took place in April 2015 at the Goetheanum. This is an edited and shortened version of his lecture.