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who are we and why are we here?

by Anne Baring

Early in the twentieth century, French artist Odilon Redon painted a picture of the Cyclops. Its single eye gazes down on the flower-strewn expanse where a naked woman lies in a brilliantly luminous landscape. To me, the image of the Cyclops reflects the constriction as well as the inflation of the modern human mind: ignorant of the vast dimensions of planetary and cosmic life on which it rests and out of which it has evolved, it believes itself to be in control of nature, including its own. The painting evokes the much-quoted words of William Blake, “May God us keep from the single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

Yet the painting also communicates a tremendous sadness, the sadness of a one-eyed consciousness that is cut off from its ground, that has no relationship with soul or with nature – personified in Redon’s painting by the woman lying on a flower-strewn ground. The rational or literal secular eye stands lonely and supreme, alienated from the landscape of the soul.

Over the last few centuries but more pervasively during the last fifty years, a secular worldview or belief system has infiltrated every aspect of the modern world, dominating the media, the arts, science, and philosophy as well as economic, political, and educational agendas. It views life through an increasingly utilitarian and materialistic mind-set, seeing no goal for humanity beyond the survival of our ever-increasing numbers. By excluding, rejecting, and deriding so much, particularly in relation to the great spiritual and cultural achievements of the past and the unanswered questions of the human condition, it drastically restricts our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

Yet science itself has opened up an immense and thrilling panorama of the universe in whose life our lives are embedded: geologists and biologists have pieced together the story of the earth’s evolution; cosmologists have defined the incredible story of the birth, expansion, and extent of the visible universe, although this is continually being revised in the light of new discoveries; particle physicists are penetrating the mysteries of the subatomic world; geneticists are making new discoveries related to the genetic code and applying them to healing the terrible diseases that still afflict us; neuroscientists are making phenomenal discoveries about the human brain. All this can be described as a stupendous revelation, but there is no unifying vision of our purpose on this planet that could engage the whole of humanity and take us beyond the single vision of Newton’s sleep.

Modern secular culture has exalted man as the supreme agent of his own triumphant scientific and technological progress, but it has also reduced him to a biological mechanism, subject to the programming of his genetic inheritance. It has created a society that believes in nothing beyond the myth of technological progress and the omnipotent power of science and the human mind. It has done away with any ethical foundation for values. It does not question the premises that direct its conclusions, nor does it look at the effects of its impoverished beliefs on children growing up in an addicted and superficial culture. We live in an unconscious civilization, as Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul describes in his book of that title.

The dominant belief of secular culture is the Neo-Darwinian one, that life on this planet has evolved by natural selection and that we are simply the product of our biological genes and our interaction with our environment. Life has come into being by chance; its biological evolution is controlled by chance. It has neither meaning nor purpose. Matter is primary and gives rise to mind as a secondary phenomenon. Consciousness is therefore a by-product of the brain. This belief system tells us that we are the products of mindless forces operating on inanimate matter: atoms are lifeless particles, floating in a dead universe. There is no such thing as free will nor any meaning to our lives because we are nothing more than a random assembly of nerve cells. We exist to improve the material conditions of our lives, to work, consume, and enjoy what we can accumulate in the way of wealth or material things. When we die, that is the end of us. A paranoid need for technological surveillance and ever-extended control are part and parcel of this soulless scenario.

a clouded vision

So are we the random creation of a mechanical, mindless universe, as scientific materialism proclaims, or do we participate in the life of a living universe that animates and orchestrates its evolution from within its own cosmic, planetary, and biological processes? How can we answer this question until we understand what consciousness is and the whole evolutionary development of the kind of consciousness we now have? We can only truly comprehend our history and ourselves through the lens of human consciousness, but this lens may not yet be capable of giving us the full picture – however much empirical, scientific knowledge we may have.

It may be that our vision is clouded by something comparable to a giant cataract or restricted to single vision in the manner of Redon’s Cyclops. This hypothesis is supported by a remarkable book titled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Its author, Iain McGilchrist, suggests that a balanced relationship between the right and left hemispheres of our brain does not exist because of the rigid control and censorship the left hemisphere exercises over the right hemisphere’s more holistic and relational consciousness.

All the knowledge we have gained about the evolution of our species, including the consciousness aspect, does not admit that our present concept of reality might be limited to the view created by our literal-minded left hemisphere alone, disregarding the more subtle and comprehensive vision of the right. Nor does it acknowledge the presence and influence of what Jung called the “root and rhizome of the soul” – all the multilayered memories of our entire evolutionary experience that we carry within our cellular memory. This complex patterning of species memory, incrementally expanding and increasing over thousands of millennia, has contributed to the evolution of planetary life, the evolution of our species, and, finally, the evolution of human consciousness itself. We are the only species on this planet that can speak, write, reflect, discover, create, and communicate with one another in words and gestures and that can give expression to our imagination and our skills in beautiful artefacts, exquisite musical forms, and brilliant technological inventions such as the Hubble telescope. How have we come to believe that this entire creative panorama has no meaning?

alienation from nature and its aftermath

Our current worldview rests on the premise of our separation from and mastery of nature, where nature is treated as controlled object and we as controlling subject. I think this belief has its distant roots in a concept of God imagined and defined as something above and beyond nature, a creator separate and distinct from the created order, including us. Western civilization, despite its phenomenal achievements, has been developed on the foundation of a fundamental split between spirit and nature, creator and creation. This split effectively removed the presence of spirit from the phenomenal world and opened the way to its ultimate exploitation. It directed our gaze upward to the sky, away from the earth. Patriarchal societies grew up in the shadow of an image of a deity that was utterly different from that which prevailed in an earlier phase, when the image of the Great Mother embraced both the life of the cosmos and the life of the earth. Only now are we brought face to face with the effects of this split in the devastation we have wrought upon the earth. In his last book, Man and His Symbols, Jung comments on the effects of our alienation from nature:

As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature, and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.

Next to the Potala Palace in Lasa there is a temple called the Lukhang, or Temple of the Serpent Spirits, that the present Dalai Lama describes as one of the hidden jewels of Tibetan civilization. This temple was the private chamber of the Dalai Lamas – the place where they retired for deep meditation. Miraculously, it has not been destroyed by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The walls of the upper floor are decorated with extraordinary paintings depicting the Tantric practices of the Dzogchen path to a direct experience of reality – the path practiced by the Dalai Lamas for centuries. Only these murals document the practices that were otherwise transmitted orally, poetically referred to as “The Whispered Lineage.”

Prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Lukhang was open one day each year to pilgrims who crossed the lake to the temple to make offerings and invoke the blessing of the water spirits, believed to reside beneath the lake. This ritual went back to a time when the Potala Palace was being built and a deep pit had been excavated to provide mortar for the palace walls. Legend says that a female water spirit, or naga, came to the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) during his meditations and warned him that the work on the palace was destroying the nagas’ ancestral home. The Dalai Lama promised that he would build and dedicate a temple to the spirits of the lake, which had formed over the desecrated land, so that their presence would be recognized and honored.

This story illustrates how people in shamanic cultures respected the hidden entities believed to be the guardians of the earth’s life. They saw the visible world embedded in an invisible one: nature immersed in the matrix of spirit. People once knew that the spirit entities they saw in dreams and visions manifest and express the deepest wisdom of nature. Serpent-spirits were respected as the guardians of spiritual knowledge, and no man or woman could gain access to the highest wisdom without receiving their help.

I believe that the roots of our alienation from nature also lie in the disastrous influence on western civilization of the literal interpretation of the Myth of the Fall. In the Book of Genesis, we find the story of our expulsion from a divine world and our exile to a world of sin, suffering, and death that was brought into being by a woman, Eve, who listened to a serpent and disobeyed the command of God. A virulent misogyny developed out of this myth as well as the belief – imprinted through the influence of St. Augustine in the late fourth century  – that the whole human race was mired in original sin (transmitted through the sexual act) and that only some were predestined to be saved.

Possibly because of the many negative beliefs arising from this myth, the patriarchal religions placed the emphasis of their teachings on transcending the world, transcending the body, controlling and subjugating the instincts. The body and its ways of knowing were superseded by the emphasis on mind and spirit. We were told that we live in a fallen world, saturated with sin, not impregnated with the radiance of spirit. Gradually, through a complex interweaving of religious teachings and scientific beliefs, the mind assumed a position of dominance over the body, and man a position of dominance over nature and woman. Once science began to dissociate itself from religion, matter lost any of the residual numinosity it had retained. Since it was now viewed as “dead” and devoid of spirit, it could be rendered the servant of man with impunity. Yet the very fascination of science with matter can be seen as a necessary compensation for the former unbalanced emphasis of religion on spirit.

Now, it seems as if science is being led to rethink its basic premises. In Why Us? James Le Fanu writes:

We are left to stare into the abyss of our radical ignorance about virtually every aspect of the history of life: the mysterious creative evolutionary force which from the beginning has elaborated ever more complex forms of organization from the simplest elements of matter; the inscrutable origins of the primordial cell with its capacity to bring into being every form of life that has ever existed; the sudden dramatic emergence of new forms of life from the Cambrian explosion onwards; the mechanism of those transitions from fish to reptile, to mammals, to birds, each stage initiating a further ‘explosion’ of millions of new and unique species...The substantial point remains that science has quite inadvertently broken the stranglehold of the materialist view on western thought.

a time to choose

We are living in a tremendously significant time: a time of choice, a time of stupendous scientific discoveries, which are enlarging our view of the universe, shattering the vessel of our concepts about the nature of reality. Yet the delicate organism of life on our planet and the survival of our species are threatened as never before by an ethos that still seeks to maintain dominance and control of nature. This ethos reflects a ruthless desire to conquer and master nature for our own purposes, shows no respect for the earth, and disregards the perils of our present interference with the intricate web of relationships upon which life on this planet depends. We are an integral part of this great web of life and are dependent upon it for our survival, yet we are blindly extinguishing species at an alarming rate.

Thomas Berry, in his book The Dream of the Earth, writes that this supremely important time is asking us for perhaps the most complete reversal of our values that has taken place since the Neolithic era. Our commerce, industry, and economics are, he says, grounded in the devastation of the earth.Yet in the rising tide of ecological awareness, we can recognize that the universe is calling to us, awakening us through the influence of the deepest elements in our nature, through our genetic coding.

But our values and behavior won’t change unless we change our beliefs. Acting together under the inspiration of a new vision of our role on this planet, we may, through the transformation of our understanding, be able to extricate ourselves from an outworn worldview and begin to replace the deficient values that have long controlled our culture with new values based on respect for the earth. This, as Berry rightly says, is the alchemical “Great Work” that is now in progress as increasing numbers of people awaken to the values that express our responsibility toward life, each other, and the planet as a whole.

The pressing need for the soul’s recognition has brought us to this time of choice. It is as if mortal danger is forcing us to take a great leap in our evolution, which we might never have made were we not driven by the extremity of circumstance. Once again, as in the early centuries of the Christian era, it seems as if new bottles are needed to hold the wine of a new understanding of reality, a new worldview. What is the emerging vision of our time that could offer a template for a conscious humanity? I believe it is a vision that takes us beyond an outworn image of deity and offers us a new concept of spirit as a unifying energy field, a limitless sea of being, as well as the organizing intelligence within that sea or field, and a new concept of ourselves as belonging to and participating in that incandescent ground of consciousness.

The answers we seek cannot come from the limited left-hemispheric consciousness, which currently rules the world, but could grow from a deeper understanding born of the union of mind and soul, helping us to see that all life is one, that each one of us participates in the life of a cosmic entity of immeasurable dimensions. The urgent need for this psychic balance, this deeper intelligence and insight, this wholeness, could help us to recover a perspective on life that has been increasingly lost until we have come to live without it – and without even noticing it has gone.

It is a dangerous time because it involves transforming entrenched belief systems and archaic survival habits of behavior that are rooted in fear and ignorance, as well as the greed and desire for power that are born of these. But it is also an immense opportunity for evolutionary advance, if only we can understand what is happening and why.

After so many billion years of evolution, it is surely unacceptable that the beauty and marvel of the earth should be ravaged by us through the destructive power of our weapons, our insatiable greed, and the misapplication of our science and technology. It is inconceivable that our extraordinary species, which has taken so many billion years to evolve, should destroy itself and lay waste the earth through ignorance of the divinity in which we dwell and which dwells in us. For a rapidly increasing number of us, there is the possibility of choosing whether to continue in the patterns of the past or to create new patterns, living and acting from a different relationship with life, committing ourselves to the immense effort of consciousness we need to make to understand and serve its mystery.

about the author:

Anne Baring is a retired Jungian analyst and the author and coauthor of seven books. Her children’s book, The Birds Who Flew Beyond Time, has been honored with a Nautilus Gold Award for 2011. Anne’s new book, The Dream of the Cosmos, will be published in 2012. 

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image "red canyon" by Mark Adamus
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