11/29/2006 01:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How We Got Inside The Box

Today's mantra is 'think outside the box'. This raises an interesting question: how did we get inside the box in the first place? There are no boxes in Nature. Hunter-gatherers didn't live in boxes. There were probably no humans living in boxes for 99% of our existence on this planet. No human had ever encountered one. So shouldn't it be easy, natural, instinctive for humans to 'think outside the box'?

Rectangular objects did not exist until human beings began trying to control and dominate their environment. Rectangles are in a sense an extension of the human ego--that is, the part of the psyche that separates itself from the rest of nature--that thinks of itself as apart from all other carriers of DNA The linear, left-brain part that thinks, in fact, like a machine and is hence, for all practical purposes, obsolete in today's world. The development of linearity was coexistent with the development of agriculture--in other words, with humanity's first attempt to control its food supply--and began to hypertrophy with the emergence of wood and stone dwellings, and standing armies, arranged in rows.

Yet despite--or because of--the fact that nature contains no rectangles, all our efforts to manage the natural environment are devoted to making nature look as box-like as possible. A landscaper is fundamentally a box-maker. Gardeners attack nature with an arsenal of machines: exuberant hedges are carved into boxes; grass is caged in rectangular plots; and edgers make certain that no errant tendril of green violates the linearity of the ego's cold universe. Leaf blowers and herbicides eliminate any stray bits of life that venture rudely into man-made areas. The result is a plastic-looking world, a box-like world. A world that replaces the curving, irregular shapes of Nature with straight lines and right angles and geometric structures. If the ego had its druthers, all this messy growth would be replaced by plastic flowers, plastic hedges, and Astroturf--to fit in with our rectangular buildings and grid-like cities.

Some people believe that 'landscaping' as it is generally practiced in the United States has an aesthetic function, but this is true only if your ideal of beauty never rises above geometry. Landscaping is about controlling nature, not enjoying it. The rectangle is an implement of control. If a man lives his life in a box it's a lot easier to believe that his whole being is coextensive with his box-like ego. The ego dreams of a world without bodies, without emotion. No animals, plants, clouds, oceans, insects--no "blooming, buzzing confusion", no mystery. It wants a controllable world--a homogeneous world, a world of uniforms and monoculture.

The man-made world we live in today.

Our egos love it, but the other parts of our being aren't too happy with it, for it frustrates our needs for wholeness, balance, adventure, play, passion, and connection. Our craving to "get away from it all" and "back to nature" is a recognition of the suffocating and soul-destroying environment created by the unending fears and obsessive control needs of our egos.

The reason 'thinking outside the box' is difficult is that it means loosening up a little, letting go, giving up some control. And how many people want to do that?