A Mythic Time of Choice
Will mankind murder Mother Earth or will he redeem
Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth
Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization will be unavoidable.
— Vávlav Havel, address to US Congress
On this day, which could be any day, I sit in my room, listening to Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra (K.200). Outside the window, the garden is awakening to the song of the birds; the woods are greening in response to the warmth of the sun. I look around me at the much-loved objects in my room, made by craftsman who revered the matter they held in their hands, objects many centuries old that I have gathered over many years from many countries and that are redolent of soul. On my walls are my husband’s paintings — paintings of great beauty and supremely skilled craftsmanship which can rarely be found in what, today, goes by the name of art. I am surrounded by books, from the East, from the West, which offer a harvest of the human quest for understanding the mystery and marvel of life.
The exquisite music flowing through the room opens my heart to the poignancy of our existence: the infinitely precious relationships with others; the very short time available to us in which we could learn so much, understand so much, love so much; the compassion for those who have no choice, whose lives are sacrificed to the issues that we, as a species, recognize but find so hard to address: hunger, deprivation, oppression, the addiction to war. The music speaks to me as from another dimension, saying that this has always been so; it will always be so until we awaken to awareness of the oneness and sacredness of life. There is a boundless love in its measured, flowing notes which embraces all people and creatures that have been, are and will be, a love so intense, so comprehensive that to listen to its voice is to touch the very quintessence of being.
The story of the human species streams like the tail of a comet through the darkness of past ages. The story of our evolution has taken so long in human terms, yet the life of our species is embedded in the four billion year old life of this planet and, beyond that, in the unimaginably old life of the hundred billion galaxies of the universe. We are a very recent manifestation of life on this planet yet our origin is in the starry cosmos. We are so much more than has ever been imagined. Over these aeons of time as we understand it, life on this planet has evolved from undifferentiated awareness to the self-awareness of our species. There has been a rising tide of consciousness expressed through matrices of ever greater complexity, and an evolution of species with ever more sensitive and elaborate nervous systems, culminating in our own.
But there is further to go in the sense that an acorn has further to go before it becomes an oak. I am sure that our consciousness is evolving towards the illumined state attained by mystics and enlightened human beings in past ages. This illumined state is a potential within us — a potential that only a few individuals have experienced. As we evolve, so we become intelligible to ourselves; as we grow into the full potential of consciousness, so we become capable of recognizing the true nature of reality. All truths must be relative until we reach that state.
Not many years ago in Italy, a burial mound was discovered with a tomb in it. The tomb held the skeleton of a man. A thin sheet of beaten gold had been folded over and placed near his head. On the sheet of gold were these words—words known to have been spoken by those taking part in the Orphic Mysteries of Greece some 2500 years ago: “I am a child of earth and starry heaven but my race is of heaven alone.” I find these words from such a distant past intensely moving. I think they are as relevant to us today as they were then. They suggest that we belong to two dimensions of reality — one visible, the other invisible, and this is something we need urgently to know.
The Quest for a Priceless Treasure
The supreme spiritual task of a civilization has been symbolized in myth by the quest for a priceless treasure. From Gilgamesh’s quest for the Herb of Immortality to the Buddha’s quest for Enlightenment, from Christ’s parable of the Pearl of Great Price to the medieval quest for the Holy Grail, this has been a constant theme through some five thousand years. A civilization is inspired and sustained for a certain length of time by its great myths, but eventually the original impetus created by them fades. The treasure is no longer understood as the creation of a living relationship with a transcendent ground of being but is projected onto lesser aims. As Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), the great historian of civilizations, pointed out decades ago, unless there is renewal based on a new vision of life, a new articulation of a spiritual quest which gives deeper meaning and value to our lives, decline sets in, leading ultimately to atrophy and death. (1)
What we call civilization is the hard-won expression of humanity’s response to the inspiration of myth which gives us courage, hope and meaning through the creation of a relationship between ourselves, the earth and the cosmos. A great sustaining myth emerges from the inner dimension of the soul through the life and example of an extraordinary individual; it then becomes crystallized into belief, religion, dogma. The living relationship with the soul may be lost through the insistence on collective adherence to a specific belief system. Eventually, a state of psychic atrophy sets in where we are out of touch with the soul, where the creative energy of life turns against itself, where there is no renewal or regeneration. In the great myth of the Grail Quest this state is symbolized by the Wasteland—a country or kingdom that lies barren and desolate, its king old and ailing and powerless to regenerate a kingdom that has fallen prey to the warring elements within it.
Once, not so many centuries ago, the feeling for the sacredness of life and relationship with the earth and the cosmos was a deep instinct, shared by the whole of humanity. Then, almost imperceptibly and for many reasons which I will explore in this book, it was lost.
What happens to us if we exist without relationship to anything beyond our own consciousness? We are left bereft of relationship with the cosmos. Psychic energy that has nowhere to go implodes on itself, undermining the social order. When the consensus as to what is of supreme value weakens, all the institutions and social structures of society are weakened. Morality becomes a matter of everyone’s convenience. Recognizing nothing beyond ourselves, we become both inflated and diminished: inflated because we behave with god-like omnipotence; diminished because we are imprisoned in an image of reality which, like Plato’s famous cave, limits and constricts our growth.
When, collectively, we sink into a dull uniformity, the imagination is not nourished. Creative power dissipates itself in malignant fantasies of death, torture and destruction which are acted out in situations of crime, conflict, war and unbridled licentiousness, as well as in similar scenes on our television screens. Aggression and self-destructive tendencies are activated in the soul that is separated from its ground and deeply distressed, without knowing the cause of its distress. In Ash Wednesday V, T.S. Eliot captured the essence of this state:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise
and deny the voice.
Our Present Situation
Earth is our home in the cosmos. We are faced with two immense problems: the problem of our increasing numbers and the problem of diminishing resources to sustain those numbers. Beneath the technological achievements of our culture and its Promethean addiction to economic growth, there is the accelerating rape of the earth’s resources to serve our ever-expanding industrial and economic needs. Nations vie with each other for power and supremacy: developing and storing weapons of mass destruction; sending guided missiles to eliminate their enemies; torturing, raping, murdering their political opponents. As this process accelerates there remains, unresolved, the inarticulate suffering of billions of people who live desperate lives focused on bare survival. In the conflict areas of Africa, there is starvation and the endemic rape of women and children. Even in societies with a relatively high standard of living, there is depression, addiction, violence, crime, a wasteland of dying hopes and the unrealized potential of millions of children. There is the anguish of parents and grandparents who see their loved ones sacrificed to the fearful defilement of war. In the gigantic sprawling cities of the world, there is the helplessness of hungry, abandoned and abused children who scavenge like rats, children who may be corrupted by drug-dealers, kidnapped into slavery or simply raped and murdered. Thousands of young women are trafficked into sexual slavery. All this might be described as a malignancy.
What has given rise to this pathology? Could there be something absolutely fundamental missing in our religious traditions that might explain how all this has come into being, how we have come to treat people with such abysmal cruelty and contempt? Can
the heroic effort and suffering of so many previous generations have brought us to this dead-end? Surely we are meant to evolve further, to bring into being not only a technology which can facilitate space travel, but a consciousness which can grow beyond tribal enmities and can open itself to the awareness that we belong to a greater life — the life of this planet and beyond that, the life of the cosmos.
Suppose the universe is trying to penetrate the thick fog of our consciousness. Suppose behind the five per cent of it that is visible to us there are many undiscovered dimensions and multitudes of beings inhabiting those dimensions. Suppose we do not die with the death of our body but continue to live and grow in these transcendent dimensions so that there is continuity between what happens here and what happens there. Like so many others, I long to break through the loneliness of the human state; to know there is no death, that those separated from us are not lost forever; that there is meaning to our ephemeral existence. I long to grow into a more complete state of being that I feel exists. As Keats so eloquently put it: “I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.”(2) As with the final contractions of a mother giving birth, I feel the urgent need to push beyond the constriction of an intolerable state of ignorance.
The longing arising today from millions of human souls is for freedom: freedom from oppression by autocratic and persecutory regimes; freedom from hunger and fear, torture and imprisonment; freedom from the beliefs and habits that block our further evolution, our unfolding as enlightened human beings. But the freedom we need most is release from a worldview that is confining us to a prison of our own making. Can we embrace the truly immense transformation of consciousness we need to make if we are to free ourselves from this defective worldview and forge a different understanding of life and a viable future on this planet for coming generations?
Discovering a New Story
We are living at a time of momentous evolutionary change. The scientific discoveries of the last 100 years – the thrilling expansion of our knowledge about the universe, the sub-atomic world, the geological formation of the earth and the biological history of evolution on this planet – have shattered the foundation upon which our culture was built just as the discoveries of Kepler and Copernicus shattered the medieval view of reality.
Our consciousness is the infinitesimal spark of cosmic light that is now sufficiently developed for the universe to reveal itself to us through the incredible instruments science has devised. As if in response to an innate directing impulse, the consciousness latent or present within nature and matter, is becoming conscious of itself. This matrix of expanding, complexifying life embraces not only the whole evolutionary experience of the life of the universe but the total experience of life as it has evolved on this planet; not only the experience of our physical organism but the experience of our instincts, thoughts, feelings, imagination — all that we call consciousness. We are discovering our cosmic origins and the fact that in our essence we are literally star-life, star-energy, star-matter in every cell of our being.
As the psychiatrist, Carl Jung recognized, without that spark of consciousness, without the capacity to observe, imagine, explore, discover and reflect, countless ages might have passed with no-one and nothing on this planet to witness its life. Thanks to that spark of consciousness, we can begin to comprehend the stupendous creativity of the life process in which all our lives are embedded. Equally awesome is the discovery that everything we observe, everything we are, arises from an invisible sea of being which is the deep cosmic ground of the phenomenal world and our own consciousness. From this perspective, all the divisions and polarities of our world fade into insignificance
It seems that we are immersed in a sea or field or web of energy that is co-extensive with the immensity of the visible universe and the most minute particles of matter. The world we experience is like a minute excitation on the surface of that infinite cosmic sea. The astounding discoveries of quantum physics tell us that we are literally bathed in a sea of light, invisible to us, yet permeating and sustaining every cell of our being, every atom of matter. At the quantum level, all apparently separate aspects of life are interconnected in one invisible and indivisible whole. We, as observers, are inseparable from what we are observing. All life at the deepest level is essentially One. As William James noted over a century ago, “We are like islands on the surface but connected in the deep.”
The dawning realization that we participate in a cosmic reality that is the source and ground of our own lives challenges the belief advanced by science that we exist on a tiny planet in a lifeless universe and that there is no life beyond death. It may be that the universe has waited aeons for us to reach the point where more than a handful of individuals could awaken to awareness of the invisible ground that animates and supports the whole of our existence. Like the giant UFO in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an immense, invisible field of consciousness is making itself known to us, asking to be recognized by us, embraced by us. We might call it the Soul of the Cosmos.
If the cosmos is alive, intelligent and the ground of our own consciousness, what might be its Dream? Surely it is for us to become guardians rather than exploiters of life on this planet and to awaken to the intelligence of the mysterious energy that animates and sustains every element of the phenomenal world. And what might be our greatest longing, our greatest wish? Surely it is to know that our lives have meaning and value in relation to a dimension of reality that is slowly revealing itself to us as we make new discoveries.
1. Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History in 12 volumes, OUP 1934-1961. One-volume edition OUP & Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1972
2. Keats, John, Letter, 18th October, 1818