By John Bell


The Montréal Review, May 2024

In 2019, I had a drink with a friend at the Hotel Ukraina in Moscow, one of the Seven Sisters, paragons of monumental Stalinist architecture. She had a whisky sour and I a tasty but unidentifiable cocktail while we gazed upon a panoramic view of Moscow. As the conversation progressed, I had a startling but lucid perception of a different world – of a possible future for us.

As momentary as such insights are, they can also be clear as day with a kind of knowledge that psychologist Robert Ornstein described as that without recourse to inference. It was of a world of small ethnic communities, each festive in its celebration of a distinct and rich local culture. These small population centres were interlinked, but happy in themselves, each in its own way - the focus was on local celebration rather than connecting outwards. I sensed that our tribal ways had been tamed and appropriated for familiar satisfactions, not dominance over others. We had somehow transcended that evolutionary imperative. All of this was in some distant future, but it all seemed real and possible.

A few years later, I was in Moscow again the night before Russia invaded Ukraine. The tension and shock then was a stark juxtaposition to the calm and insightful evening a few years before, and a reminder of how far we are from that more enlightened world.

Later, I read a book called Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Izutsu, a scholar who explained the cosmology of Ibn Arabi, the great Sufi from Murcia, compared it to the tenets of Taoism, and showed how understandings of the universe fifteen centuries, and thousands miles apart were effectively the same. At the end of the book, in a chapter called Homo Politicus, the author describes a Taoist vision of the best possible political community:

“A small country, with a small population. There are (in this country) various tools of war, but the people are not tempted to use them. The people (are so happy and contented) they regard death as no slight matter (i.e. they are reluctant to die because life is so enjoyable). Nor do they want to move to distant places….They find relish in their food, and beauty in their clothes. Happy and contented with their homes, they find delight in their old customs.

The neighbouring country is just there, within sight. The people of this country can even hear the cocks crowing and the dogs barking in that country. And yet, the inhabitants of the two countries grow old and die without ever visiting one another.”

This was strangely similar to the epiphany in Moscow - and gave some confirmation that it was not only the alcohol working at the Hotel Ukraina. Is it realistic to think about such a  transformation of our political and cultural life? The required shift is far beyond the tinkering that we call politics today, or the grand and violent revolutions that some idealize as harbingers of new worlds. In many ways, it is the opposite, a great cull, a clean-up of the unnecessary accretions magnetically attracted to what are now called politics. It is also, above all, an indication that today we are going in the wrong direction.

With great pride, we are building a world of megalopolises, cities the size of half-countries where all is interconnected, technological, virtual and a-cultural. Indeed, traditional culture is treated as a throwaway, a bone of contention for political demands or an addendum to a shopping experience. It is sourced for inauthentic and virtual purposes and becomes tasteless. But, without a unique culture rooted in the past and serving as a platform for an evolving future, we risk becoming consumer products, identical objects disconnected from geography - the mountains, hills, plains and seashores where we live - or the rich history that got us to where we are. In a future healthier world, cultural ritual would be the unstated core of our life where we celebrate, mourn and mark life’s milestones and ordeals with others who have shared meaning.

Today’s world is also marked by the presence of billions of people on the planet. Once we have such scale, we veer towards mass and industrial management because it is easier, cheaper and more profitable. Large scale also breeds more hierarchy and control: enter the more sociopathic drawn to the power proffered in such systems, as well as those who value the predictability and simple categories of bureaucracy needed to manage anonymous numbers.

We are also deeply enamoured with the potential of digital technology. In the past, there has been a wide spectrum of responses to improve our political condition, from the checks and balances of Western democracies, to grander schemes, such as the merge of society and the state in communism, or anarchists’ very annihilation of the state. We are now in the strange position of relying on technology as a new means of control and governance, injecting our dumber, mechanical selves into machines, and hoping for the best. As an abdication of human responsibility and potential, it is possibly the most malign of responses.

The obsession with digital innovation means that the world today is exciting, fast and shallow, with a need for constant innovation and its close cousin, stimulation. This affects our relationship with time. The future world encourages flow in time, rather than its consumption, as well as the quality of actions, from cooking to conversation. Today, however, time is often dedicated to the rat race and the screen, both addictions with Moloch-like appetites. Such a life is not truly satisfying, especially for the innate human needs for meaning and belonging.

Some will fill this void with material goods or distraction – others with opioids to dull that most dreaded pain, a hollow soul. The bolder still will resort to political extremism and ideology as ways to have their needs met, often at the cost of others.

The shift to the world described in the Tao is altogether different than a resort to technology or ideology. It is a place of less, less material consumption and less emotional excess and frenzy. If we are at a hinge point in human evolution, as some sense, then a more substantive and healthier change needs to be pursued. We will need a mastery of our troublesome selves, including the greed, status and attention seeking of leaders, and the vulnerability of citizens to manipulation. Such mastery means never being too fixated on any one policy, opinion, appetite, or vulnerability, thus nurturing a more translucent and flexible self. If we learn to manage our emotional selves better, we can be less tyrannical as leaders and less herd-like as citizens. This would represent a new kind of progress, one based primarily on self-development, or more accurately, self-formation, not technology.

We are creatures of meaning, and politics need to serve something more important than the idea that he who dies with the most toys wins, or he who kills and dies for his country is a hero. There may be something much grander at play. Consciously or not, we are involved in the refinement of the human being in all of us. We each contribute in small ways, as does each of our cultures. None need dominate, each is worthy. Once enough of us have tamed the monster of emotional madness and greed within, we will be less materially hungry and have less time-bereft lives, and large populations will be less deleterious. The bottom line is that human beings have an enormously large potential to which politics must subscribe – not the other way around.

In the denouement of his career, Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest filmmakers, made a film called Dreams. It is a series of vignettes, recurring dreams that the director had. It is slow paced demanding the kind of attention that internet use obliterates. The film includes disturbing visions of a future after nuclear war, of mutated human beings with devilish horns growing agonizingly from their skulls - all the result of science gone wrong and of human overreach. However, the first and last stories are depictions of a world of wonder, and a contrast to the apocalyptic scenes.  

In the first tale, a boy disobeys his mother to spy on a ritual march in a wondrous wood. It is a picturesque wedding procession of foxes cantering through soft rain as rays of sunlight penetrate the wooded shade. The child is at once absorbing nature and ritual. By stepping into the prohibited, he also takes his first step into adulthood, into understanding.

The film ends in the village of water wheels, a place without temples, priests or electricity. The stars can be seen clearly in the night sky, and an old villager explains to an astonished visitor that “it’s supposed to be dark at night”.  He also suggests that do-gooders, politicians and priests of progress think they can improve matters, but only invent things that make people unhappy. And yet, people worship those very sources of their misery. Inventions, scientists, and convenience are to be treated with scepticism, he says, because they make us forget what is truly good. Our current drive to rely on A.I. is a good example of what he means.

Dreams ends with a funeral procession at the village of the waterwheels. Like the wedding scene in the forest, this also is a celebratory and colourful affair performed without sacred knowledge, priests and their coercive power. The old villager rushes to join the funeral, explaining to the confused visitor, “most people think life is hard but it’s good to be alive. It’s exciting!”

The village of the waterwheels, Lao Tzu and a minor epiphany in Moscow all speak of one thing, a glimpse into a future where people are satisfied with less, and yet what is lived is infinitely richer in texture and colour than we often experience today. We will have come full circle from conquering nature, red in tooth and claw, to a return into its heart with more complete knowledge about our purpose here, and the fulness of being a human being. We will be comfortable in our own skin.

“Visions” can be inaccurate, but some may serve as beacons of what is possible. We may never get there, but that’s not the point. As we move towards the village of the waterwheels, it may forever recede below the horizon, but at least we will be moving in the right direction. 


John Bell is Director of The Conciliators Guild, an organization dedicated to highlighting the critical importance of innate needs and motivations in politics.




The Montréal Review, August 2023



The Montréal Review, January 2024




The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911