This Side of Paradise and the Unexamined Self
Last night I watched an old Star Trek original series episode that had come to mind: “This Side of Paradise“. The story in it always intrigued me: artificial happiness and the cult-like dramatic conflict when the agricultural lifestyle colonists encounter the Star Trek crew, as well as the entertainment value of what happens with the characters (such as Spock falling in love, getting all happy and relaxed, rebellious and touchy-feely).
The crew arrives at a distant planet and finds a small community of colonists previously assumed to be dead from the “Berthold rays” bombarding the planet. Puzzled that they are still alive and very healthy, despite all animal life being gone, it is soon discovered they under the influence of alien spores (spit out by giant alien flowers), and the crew themselves become infected. The spores induce a permanent state of happiness, peace and love, as well as physical health and immunity from Berthold rays, but seem to completely stifle the will to achieve and innovate. The colonists are farming their land but never farmed the whole planet, like they were supposed to. Conflict arises when the leader of the colony, Elias Sandoval, refuses Kirk’s order to evacuate the colony, since Sandoval sees is as a “perfect world” and they “have everything we need here” (script is here):
ELIAS: Captain, why don’t you join us?
KIRK: In your own private paradise.
ELIAS: The spores have made it that.
KIRK: Where did they originate?
SPOCK: It’s impossible to say. They drifted through space until they finally landed here. You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.
ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That’s paradise?
ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It’s a true Eden, Jim. There’s belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren’t meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
ELIAS: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.
SPOCK: You don’t understand, Jim, but you’ll come around sooner or later. Join us. Please.
KIRK: I’m going back to the ship.
This morning I did a little research before writing my analysis and response to the episode’s themes. What is puzzling is how the “rewatch” review that came up in my online search completely failed to address the theme of this episode: the happiness and peace vs. achievement and ambition polarity that it sets up. The episode was written in the mid-60’s, by a 1950’s-era science fiction writer (Jerry Sohl, and re-written by frequent Star Trek TOS writer D.C. Fontana), and like all of the Star Trek original series stories, is in the wake of the cold war anti-communism ideologies and in the midst of the counterculture era and the upheavals of social changes, imbued with a forward-looking optimism and philosophy, the humanist spirituality of Gene Roddenberry. The story is very interesting in the questions it raises (the online review referenced is very lightweight, and focuses on trivial personal matters of characters – perhaps the writer was under the influence of some spores!).
What’s fascinating is that the writing of this episode (Jerry Sohl used the pseudonym “Nathan Butler” because he didn’t like the re-write) reveals a fear and underlying belief that we still see today in our Apollonian, science and technology believing, religious-soaked culture (historically Puritan): if you aren’t constantly working, pushing and striving, achieving and struggling, driven by desire, there’s something wrong: you’re “stagnating”, not progressing. Another episode from the era – dated but very amusing (viewers these days either love it or hate it: The Way To Eden) – features obvious hippie characters and a sinister cult-like leader. In that episode, Eden (a planet he was seeking with his followers) is seen to be a poison garden in reality, and the hippies and their leader, pursuing this Eden, are deluded and insane, respectively.
And, let’s face it: we hate people who are happy. Those bastards! (as John Cleese once commented about happy, loving people). They make us look bad…and highlight a fact we don’t want to look at (ourselves).
The assumption, or presumption, is the belief that there is an objective happiness. That this is just a belief is belied by the abundant evidence to the contrary: look at all the rich and famous, the celebrities committing suicide or in and out of rehab in the world, and the general craziness and strife in Western culture, the very high levels of mental illness (most people are depressed, whether it’s admitted or not). In one’s own inner life, happiness from achievement, possessions and relationships, pleasures of the body and mind, are fleeting at best. Thus the constant pursuit and never quite getting there (if one is truly honest with oneself and others, which is rare).
This is a question I used to ask myself: what if one were to take a drug, or have an electronic implant, that made one blissed-out all the time? Would you just sit and do nothing? Or, as in this Star Trek story, withdraw into a small world or a backwards community or cult where people didn’t achieve anything except a basic rural-like existence? It might, if your happiness came from that drug or device – you never know. If you’re “happy” and experiencing “love” and “peace” what difference does it make what you achieve?
There are real-world examples of this sort of phenomenon: communities that have separated themselves from what is seen as the corrupting influence of modern society. The religious group of the Twelve Tribes, a rare commune type community that has survived since the 60’s, claims the members experience love and happiness in their bubble of religious society, living together with pooled resources, farming crops and running a series of healthy food restaurants (which are actually quite good at making hearty food – I frequent one in my neighborhood). However, my research has uncovered that their “happiness” is conditional on group approval, and that the “love” in the community comes at a price of freedom (rules and restrictions on child rearing and independent income – not to mention thinking – for example). The truth is, freedom and love cannot be separated.
You see this question, the assumption and fear come up all the time in the spiritual world (meditation, satsangs, nonduality, Eastern philosophies – that whole world): if I become self-realized (or whatever term they use: enlightened: liberated, awakened, etc.) will I just go sit in a cave, abandon my family and job, not want to go shopping at the mall or enjoy pleasures of life? Will I just sit in my room and vegetate? If I become too happy will I stop attending to my business? If I stop thinking, how will I function!? Aaaagh!
This is a completely erroneous assumption, and a wrong image.
You also see the reverse mistake: people see that since achievement and money and objects and “success” and these shallow cultural values don’t lead to happiness, they decide they will do nothing (or as little as possible), be lazy and passive, leave their work and family, or reject those values of money and work (or more often feel conflicted) and see money and ordinary success as anti-spiritual somehow. Or, they will pursue finding the right drug or technique in order to get a happy mental state, for as long as possible, and at the same time reducing the down side or negative mental state and side effects. Lifestyle, meditation, drugs, food, sex, holotropic breathwork, running … whatever it takes. But this is making the same mistake.
So neither outward achievement, ambition or any kind of doing, nor the reverse – any kind of passivity, nor reactionary lifestyle (back to the land, back to nature, going agricultural, etc.) – will bring about true peace, love and happiness. Both stances are reactions, and stances. What we want is total non-reaction, and no stance.
The mistake in either approach is that it’s an approach: seeking of happiness either “out there” through action and achievement, person place and thing, or inside, through states of mind and body, drugs, or practices and techniques. Neither are lasting or real.
Of course this begs the question, what is lasting or real? This has been the question I’ve been pursuing for the last 35 years or so…
At the end of the episode Kirk says:
“MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.”
While that is a funny and amusing quote, there is a serious or at least interesting phenomenon and issue here. The counterculture and it’s introduction of psychedelics, Eastern philosophy, new religions (including cults), and anti-war attitude (peace and love), and alternative lifestyles and values, helped to put a spotlight on fascinating issues, individual and cultural: questions about how to live one’s life, what’s really important, and about happiness, peace and love.
The assumptions of the culture (and the episode) are that happiness comes about a by-product of achievement, striving and struggle, and that the universe is not your friend. We are seen as intelligent animals (or meat robots in more recent times, with the rise of robotics, AI, cognitive science and so forth) that must constantly fight (except for occasional R & R breaks) and use discipline (self and others). Our very economy is based on constant expansion and a more, more, more attitude: a rich man never has enough, and restlessness is the order of the day. You must never relax (except for medicinal purpose, so that you can achieve and produce and be more “effective”). The implicit message is, always be pushing and effort-ing, given that the fear and the fighting and struggle and egotism are operating.
No one ever questions that maybe we have things backwards: that happiness doesn’t come from outer improvement – stuff out there (people, places or things) or constant (mental) activity, or striving and seeking, working and pursuing – or in some inner self-improvement. Very few understand that happiness by nature
We are in fact looking through the wrong end of the telescope. That’s why there is this tension in the basic outlook, that surfaces in these conflicts such as the drug war and religious wars and ideological wars over economic means and values (e.g. capitalism vs. communism), or in confusion over spiritual teachings of non-action.
But the episode makes the same mistake philosophically while raising good question potentially, (for those using their brains and reflecting on it): the outside-derived happiness in this case is from what is essentially a permanently-acting drug (ultra Prozac, or permanent LSD in effect): the “spores”. The space spores, which are distributed in “hippy-dippy” flowers (of course) are, like any drug, essentially an objective form of happiness (as in “objects in consciousness”, and also material objects that affect the material nervous system, mind and body): an externally-derived source of apparent happiness. This kind of happiness short circuits the supposedly natural human desire to struggle and fight and achieve according to American Christian capitalist values (of the era when the episode was written, and which remain today). Then we become communist hippy cultists zoned out in a artificial bliss and not contributing to the economy and converting a planet from a natural state into a farm zone and futuristic shopping mall, building ever more technology, obeying Starfleet commands, agendas and prerogatives.
Nothing wrong with shopping malls, scientific research, and technology (heck I’m using high tech right now to write and publish this essay). But civilizations come and go, and so does happiness that’s dependent on, well, anything, including Star Fleet or anything in the worlds of Star Trek.
What if there were a happiness that doesn’t come from any drug, thing, person, place, lifestyle at all, but was natural, complete, whole and our true nature, waiting to be uncovered? Now, that would be radical. And what if that happiness were an independent axis from achievement and money-making and personal love and brain chemistry and anything that is within experience, derived from “the world”, but comes as true nature? What if such a happiness enhanced rather than diminished what you did: adding greater quality to what one did and achieved, such as for example one’s career, and unleashing creativity, enhancing relationships immeasurably, promoting well-being and health? That’s a difficult concept to grasp: that our innate health and happiness are like a balloon waiting to be released from the effort of being pushed under water. We are trained to get in the way of ourselves and identify with a separate self (“ego”) that is the doer and achiever.
The assumption in our culture is that a personal thinker and the personal maker are responsible. Somehow a consciousness arises from a brain and we use a body and mind to make us happy, manipulate the surroundings (and other body-minds, persons) to achieve happiness, peace, love, eventually, in some great future (a Star-Trek-like future, where they are still trying to get there apparently!), where I get happy, gain it for me me me.
You see this tension played out, or the assumptions playing out, in many episodes and throughout the Star Trek universe, which is a reflection of the culture in which it was written and the audience to which it is trying to appeal.
All we need is more planets, more galaxies, more high technology and an “advanced” civilization (begging the question of what is “advanced”: having lots of technology and science? A social order that comes from a military-like structure of Star Trek? Satisfying career egos via Starfleet or science careers? )… Is this really true? If it’s true, why doesn’t it work? What’s wrong with this picture?
Of course there always has to be enemies, a threat, in order to have good drama, a good story, baddies and goodies. A war, a fight, a struggle, obstacles to overcome, goals to meet, aliens to kill. That’s what makes this world a dynamic, interesting one: the dualistic nature of it. And it makes for good TV and good movies.
But who is the character in real life, and what’s real? That’s the true “Where no man has gone before!“