This morning I was sitting on my front porch, enjoying the cool (if smokey) morning air and watching one of our local hummingbirds zoom up to the feeder. Almost immediately another hummer chased it away. Hummingbirds may look cute but they are extraordinarily territorial. I've watched two birds do loops around our property as one keeps another away from the flowers Kayla cultivates with passion -- and lots of compost.
My mind drifted to the politics of the present and our self-gorging political system with its profound economic inequities. We humans are of course just animals in one sense, and so not much different than the hummers. It often seems that rampant individualism with its "I'll get mine and to hell with you" is what rules our society, with alpha individuals on top and the leftovers for everyone else.
Yet there are also abundant examples of animals who cooperate and care for each other. Perhaps humans combine both traits, and something more as well. Certainly that is also a voice in the current political discourse.
The sense of ego, of "I" as we currently know it, does not seem to have been a longstanding human trait. Some scholars believe that it emerged about the same time as philosophers like Confucius and Shakyamuni Buddha recognized the problems it creates, the suffering for all concerned. Manicheans and some early Christians seem to have drawn the conclusion that a version of that ego, which they called a soul, was actually just a transitory dweller in the animal body with its territoriality, inclinations for forms of communal dominance, and passions (sexual and otherwise). And they were not alone. It is not hard to find resonances of this dualistic portrait of humans in Buddhism and other presumably non-dualistic philosophies and religions.
So sometimes it seems like altruistic teachings about loving others as oneself (Christian) or compassion toward all (bodhicitta in Buddhism) actually push against the apparently dominant human inclination toward self-aggrandizement. But where could these teachings come from if they are really alien to our natural natures? I have often felt that they seem unnatural, contrary to our basic nature. I've felt that as a Buddhist I was sort of being asked to be unnatural, to swim upstream, while all the folks around me were just going with the natural flow of me-first and self indulgence in their pursuit of happiness.
Buddhists like the Dalai Lama assert that if you investigate closely, though, you will find that actual happiness depends on cultivating a concern for others as well as oneself and that total self absorption only leads to misery. And it seems that there is fairly obvious evidence of that. Every day I am confronted with a magnified example of extreme selfish self concern in Donald Trump. Here is a person who cares not a whit for the country he has mendaciously sworn to protect. And he appears to be about as miserable a person I have ever seen, seeming to prove the Dalai Lama's point.
There is more than enough nectar in the feeder for the hummingbirds to share. In fact, there is enough for a whole flock, though hummers do not flock. This reminds me of the migrating geese which overfly our house each year. They switch off the lead position in their V formation, which breaks the air and creates a slip stream for those that follow, making their flight easier. Cooperation and concern for the flock is as much in their nature as territoriality is for the hummingbirds.
Maybe that is what we Buddhists are doing: breaking a path in the mental/emotional air to create a slip stream for others. Maybe, contrary to the view of the toxic individualists, our so-called "higher" nature is simply our nature when we find a way back to our full, complete self and swim upstream against the current of hypnotic individualism. Maybe we are as much goose as hummingbird.