"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Cosmos and Consciousness: A Spiritual Awakening

In discussing Emerson's views on 'religion' in his classic work, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," the great psychologist, William James observed: "The universe has a divine soul of order, which soul is moral, being also the soul within the soul of man. But whether this soul of the universe be a mere quality like the eye's brilliancy or the skin's softness, or whether it be a self-conscious life like the eye's seeing or the skin's feeling, is a decision that never unmistakably appears in Emerson's pages. It quivers on the boundary of these things, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other, to suit the literary rather than the philosophic need. Whatever it is, though, it is active. As much as if it were a God, we can trust it to protect all ideal interests and keep the world's balance straight."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," p. 33.]

James' famous work can undoubtedly be traced to the influence which the American Transcendentalists had on his view of man, the world, the universe and God. Further on in his introduction into the subject, he observes: "At bottom, the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?"

"If we accept the whole," he asks, "shall we do so as if stunned into submission?"

James goes on to examine at great length the "religious experience" of a wide variety of individuals who had been "stunned into submission" by their realization of a greater spiritual reality than they had previously known to exist. For my part, however, I can find no such experience greater - although there are many others that vary solely in the details and circumstances - than that described by Edgar Mitchell, founder of The Institute of Noetic Sciences ("IONS"), and more famously, an astronaut on Apollo 14 who had the rarely privileged experience of walking on the moon.

In a recent article in the IONS newsletter, Mitchell describes the nature and import of the profound spiritual awakening he underwent on viewing the Earth as a distant orb in the vastness of space.
"The first thing that came to mind as I looked at Earth," Mitchell recalls, "was its incredible beauty. Even the spectacular photographs do not do it justice. It was a majestic sight, a splendid blue and white jewel suspended against a velvet black sky. How peacefully, how harmoniously, how marvelously it seemed to fit into the evolutionary pattern by which the universe is maintained. In a peak experience, the presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. This knowledge came to me directly – noetically. It was not a matter of discursive reasoning or logical abstraction. It was an experiential cognition. It was knowledge gained through private subjective awareness, but it was – and still is – every bit as real as the objective data upon which, say, the navigational program or the communications system was based. Clearly, the universe had meaning and direction. It was not perceptible by the sensory organs, but it was there nevertheless – an unseen dimension behind the visible creation that gives it an intelligent design and that gives life purpose."

"Next," he recalls, "I thought of our planet’s life-supporting character. That little globe of water, clouds, and land no bigger than my thumb was home, the haven our spacecraft would seek at the end of our voyage. Buckminster Fuller’s description of the planet as “Spaceship Earth” seemed eminently fitting."

"Then my thoughts turned to daily life on the planet," he remembers. "With that, my sense of wonderment gradually turned into something close to anguish because I realized that at the very moment when I was so privileged to view the planet from 240,000 miles in space, people of Earth were fighting wars; committing murder and other crimes; lying, cheating, and struggling for power and status; abusing the environment by polluting the water and air; wasting natural resources and ravaging the land; acting out of lust and greed; and hurting others through intolerance, bigotry, prejudice, and all the things that add up to man’s inhumanity to man. It seemed as though man were totally unconscious of his individual role in – and individual responsibility for – the future of life on the planet."

"It was also painfully apparent," he recalls, "that the millions of people suffering in conditions of poverty, ill health, misery, fear, and near slavery were in that condition from economic exploitation, political domination, religious and ethnic persecution, and a hundred other demons that spring from the human ego. Science, for all its technological feats, had not – more likely could not – deal with these problems stemming from man’s self-centeredness."
"The magnitude of the overall problem seemed staggering," he recalls. "Our condition seemed to be one of deepening crises on an unprecedented scale, crises that were mounting faster than we could solve them. There appeared to be the immediate possibility that warfare might destroy vast segments of civilization with one searing burst of atomic fury. Only a little further off appeared the possibility of intolerable levels of polluted air and of undrinkable water. A more remote but no less real likelihood was the death of large portions of the population from starvation, abetted by improper resources management by an exploding population."

"How had the world," he wondered, "come to such a critical situation – and why? Even more important, what could be done to correct it? How could we restore the necessary harmonious relationship between the environment and ourselves? How could a nuclear Armageddon be avoided? How could life be made livable? How could our potential for a peaceful, creative, fulfilling society be realized? How could the highest development of our objective rationality, epitomized by science, be wedded to the highest development of our subjective intuition, epitomized by religion?"

"These thoughts and questions stayed with me through the mission, splashdown, and parades," he recounts. "They stayed long afterward to the point of haunting me with an overwhelming awareness of how limited a view man has of his own life and the planet’s. Sometimes at night I would lie awake for hours struggling with this enigma, trying to understand it and see it in a sensible perspective. How could human beings, the most intelligent creature on earth, be so utterly stupid and shortsighted as to put themselves in a position of possible global extinction? How had insight become divorced from instinct? Was it possible to find a workable solution?"
"Only when man sees his fundamental unity with the processes of nature and the functioning of the universe," Mitchell observes, "will the old ways of thinking and behaving disappear. Only when man moves from his ego-centered self-image to a new image of universal human will the perennial problems that plague us be susceptible of resolution."

"Humanity must rise from man to mankind," he notes,"from the personal to the transpersonal, from self-consciousness to cosmic consciousness."

"Humanity’s multiple problems," he concludes, "resolve themselves into one fundamental problem: how to change consciousness. How," he asks, "can we raise our awareness to a higher level – a level that will restore the unity of human, the planet, and the universe?"

This, to me, is the existential question of our time. Mitchell's experience, and the view of our place in the cosmos which it stamped upon him, suggests the answer.

"Now," he unequivocally notes, "is the time for us to begin building a single whole of humanity. Now is the time to develop our nonrational abilities into a “subjective technology,” which will begin the wedding of science and religion, reason and intuition, the physical and the spiritual. This union of head and heart, insight and instinct, will ensure that as science comes to comprehend the nonmaterial aspect of reality as well as it knows the material – that is, as science approaches omniscience – our knowledge will become wisdom, our love of power will become the power of love, and the universal human of cosmic consciousness can then emerge."

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