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Dr. Jean Houston Headshot

Moving Beyond the Pathology of History: Why We Need a Shift in Human Consciousness

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I begin with some words from Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to John Adams: "Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction."

You may rightly say that with so many shadows and challenges and with the avalanche of avarice accosting us, how can we ever deal with them in such a way that our higher humanity, our required human, is not compromised? We can either undergo a progressive deactivation of the conditioned and pathogenic personality wrought by present civilization, the way of the excellent therapist, or we can find the ways and means to the emergence of a more profound awareness in which the experience of being and the felt meaning of life have their foundation, and which, in spite of constituting our true nature, lies ordinarily, in our so-called civilized condition, in a darkened, or veiled condition -- as if asleep. With regard to methods, probably both are appropriate here: the release of old conditions and the discovery of ways into the light.

When Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, I doubt that he had the idea of the dazzling darkness that lay beneath the darkness of civilization. We can learn to wake up, and, in so doing, find ourselves re-patterned to what I have been calling the required human.

Not only has my experience working with individuals, groups and cultures over the last four decades and in over 100 countries nurtured my trust in the intrinsic goodness of humans and in the individual's possibility of leaving behind destructiveness, but it has also nurtured my hope in collective transformation; and now that we are undergoing a planetary crisis, I must admit to being apocalyptic -- if by this one means a person who believes that, in spite of our life-or-death crisis, it is within us to ensure that it may not be a fatal one.

As Arnold Toynbee has well argued, many civilizations have risen and faded away, and others (like our own) have been transformed through something akin to a hybridization. But there is yet to be a civilization that undergoes that death-and-rebirth process that we have come to know to be the essence of individual transformation, as manifest through the experience of those who have completed it: the prophets, enlightened individuals and mythic heroes. In light of such a conception, it is appropriate that we hope that the decaying structure of Western Christian Civilization learns to die well, so that the regeneration of our social body may take place in the best of possible conditions.

How can we not hope for such a collective death-and-rebirth when the commercial interests of the powerful devastate our environment, our values, our quality of life, our education, our culture, and even life itself? And can we not hope that the destruction of life and the mind may at least serve to stimulate awareness and thus accelerate a regenerative process, in the same way that diseases, by stimulating the organism's defenses, can become the indirect cause of their own cure? Funny as it may sound, it was not at all absurd for the Sufi E. J. Gold to write during the 1980s in a humor magazine, "As Brother Rabbit said, maybe civilization is nature's way of telling us to slow down."

We are swept by an impetuous current. Indeed, a cultural death is evident not only in our loss of values and in the degradation of wisdom into mere information, but also in the generalized devaluation of our earlier points of reference. Thus, a great part of the Western world's population is now disenchanted with governments, authorities, experts, ideologies, and even with science and philosophy, not to mention religions. "It is unforgivable that so many problems from the past are still with us, absorbing vast energies and resources desperately needed for nobler purposes," said U Thant -- then Secretary-General of the United Nations -- as early as 1970, on the occasion of the organization's anniversary. After proceeding to review some of these problems from the past, such as the armaments race, racism, violations of human rights, and "dreams of power and domination instead of fraternal coexistence," Secretary-General U Thant observed:

While these antiquated concepts and attitudes persist, the rapid pace of change around us breeds new problems which cry for the world's collective attention and care: the increasing discrepancy between rich and poor nations, the scientific and technological gap, the population explosion, the deterioration of the environment, the urban proliferation, the drug problem, the alienation of youth, the excessive consumption of resources by insatiable societies and institutions. The very survival of a civilized and humane society seems to be at stake.

It has been recognized that the situation requires an interdisciplinary approach that has come into vogue worldwide. Yet beyond the interdisciplinary approach, I believe it is important to attend to the heart of the macro-problem, that is, the fundamental ill from which the diverse aspects of our problematique derive, in much the same way that different bodily symptoms are, at base, manifestations of the same disease. My friend Claudio Naranjo believes that is found in the dominance of he patriarchy in all forms. I agree with him in part, but I also think that it comes from the fact that we are not yet collectively aware of what is occurring on this planet and in our souls that lie beneath the distractions of so many challenges. This is the cosmic agenda that is now ours, and the need for the required human to respond to that agenda. Let me pose several arguments here.

First, the issues of the patriarchy. It began in the Bronze Age, a rending of the roots of consciousness from the sense of spiritual partnership and divine engagement. As the remarkable work of Marija Gimbutsas and others has shown, the culture of Europe from about 8500 to 3500 B.C. was essentially a neolithic agrarian economy accruing around the rites and worship of the Mother Goddess. The findings of archaeologists James Mellaart in Catal Huyuk in Turkey and of Gimbutsas in south eastern Europe reveal civilizations of extremely complex and sophisticated arts, crafts technology and social organization. Further, as an immense amount of evidence indicates, these were basically non-patriarchal, egalitarian societies, with descent and inheritance passed through the mother, and with women playing key roles in all aspects of life and work. The art of this period is non-heroic; indeed, there are no signs of heroics, conquests or captives. That came later, much later. Instead, the art abounds with scenes and symbols from nature, with sun and water, serpents, birds and butterflies, and everywhere, images, figurines and votive offerings of the goddess. All in all, one gains the impression of a gentle, high culture that was nurturing, playful, and pacific. This culture was exported to Crete, where it flourished in populous, well-organized cities, multistoried palaces, networks of fine roads, productive farms, an almost-modern system of drainage and irrigation works, a rich economy with high living standards, and the lively and joyous artistic style so characteristic of Cretan life and sensibility. Again, this was a culture of male-female equality and partnership, and again, the spiritual authority and guiding principles were those of the Mother Goddess. It was in this civilization that Athena arose, primarily as an aspect of the triple goddess in her role as patroness of arts, crafts and sciences.

The gentle civilizations perished under the marauding bands of Indo-Aryan invaders. (Indo-Arayan is a generic term for the waves of invaders that conquered many peoples during this period. Specifically, these invaders were the Aryans in India, the Hittites and Mittani in the Fertile Crescent, the Luwians in Anatolia, the Kurgans in Eastern Europe, and the Achaeans and, later, the Dorians in Greece and Crete.) Warrior nomads, they not only imposed their own rigid authoritarian rule, replacing matricentric values with patriarchal ones, but also inflicted an ideology and the style of divided consciousness (such as we've just discussed) that shattered the finely wrought symbiosis between humans, nature, culture and spiritual realities. Their consciousness divided, their loyalties uncertain, the invaders felt both drawn and terrified by the gentle complexity of the high civilizations in which they found themselves. They were both fascinated and frightened by the pervasiveness of its eroticisms. Thus they muscled and armored themselves against the enticement of its sensualities. They feared, dreaded, and violated the places and persons who bore witness to the ongoing communication between seen and unseen orders that they themselves had long since lost. (We see a late version of this in The Iliad when the holy communicant and prophetess Cassandra is ravaged and the altar of Athena is defiled.) Thus, to keep up his separateness, the patriarchal hero invader, whether he be in Greece, India, or the Fertile Crescent, dreads the caress. When he gets close, it is to subdue by duel or rape.

Not that these invaders didn't adopt many of the ways and skills of the more ancient cultures, as the Achaeans, for example, adopted much of the Minoan culture. But they did so in such a way as to tear out the feminine threads in the cultural tapestry, leaving ragged social fabrics, missing many pieces, lacking many parts. The patriarchal systems that began then were found to have invaded everything, and what we have now is the vast, planet-wide sunset of this period.

And thus the devastation of today.

As Chris Hedges has written:

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed. How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won't have to wait long to find out.

There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader, rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most, intellectually and morally useless. Sheldon Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. This phrase "inverted totalitarianism" describes our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics.

"Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true," Wolin writes. "Economics dominates politics -- and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness." As balance to this kind of hopeless thinking, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, writes to Obama:

But political possibilities are shaped in part by the public discourse of the president and the administration, and it is here that you can have a huge impact.

Your presidency will have lasting significance if you dedicate your energy to legitimizing a new set of values for our society, or what the Network of Spiritual Progressives calls a New Bottom Line for American society. Instead of judging institutions, social policies, corporations, legislation, a presidency, an economic plan, or even personal behavior as "rational," "productive," or "efficient" primarily in terms of how much money or power has been accumulated, we need to also focus our attention on how much love and kindness, generosity and caring for others, and ethical and ecological sensitivity have been generated. We should measure our progress by how much we've increased our capacities to recognize others as embodiments of the sacred, by how much we've increased our capacities to respond to the grandeur and mystery of the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement. If you can help Americans recognize that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and the well-being of the planet itself, and that well-being has to be judged in terms of a New Bottom Line that includes material well-being but goes far beyond that, you will earn a significant place in the history of the human race.

The Work of Our Time

After President Obama and his administration took office there was, for a while, a spirit of renewal in the air, framed by feelings of optimism and hope. Many of us sensed that long-neglected problems could now be honestly grappled with, and that we would find the courage needed to envision and build a future worthy of our humanity. Given the challenges of the last 18 months, some of those hopes have dimmed. Nevertheless, new social research in Europe, Japan and the U.S. confirms a willingness to deal with the big issues and think globally. Many people worldwide are making a fundamental shift to values of ecological sustainability, personal development, and hope for change. Many say they see themselves as citizens of the planet as well as of their own country. What is extraordinary is that it is not just a single country or region that is shifting its values; our whole planet is developing a capability to take up a larger view of what we can do. This shift in deep priorities and goals is a wave of change that can carry all of us into a wiser future and come together to build a global civilization.

At the same time, all of us -- from ordinary people to international institutions -- are hurting. This is because we have put off dealing with critical challenges that now are undermining the world we grew up with. The most serious challenge to our civilization is that generated from the entanglement of energy, environment and the economy. The most urgent of our challenges are the current financial meltdown and the escalating effects of climate change. We are no longer experiencing occasional crises in an otherwise healthy system. We are now in the midst of a series of cascading crises of the system itself. Communism collapsed because it was not economically realistic. Now unregulated free market capitalism is collapsing because it is not being ecologically realistic. Business as usual, founded on a mantra of unrestricted growth and development, is no longer sustainable. As we look ahead, we can expect an accelerating stream of crises, emanating seemingly out of nowhere, like last year's financial meltdown, and reverberating around the world with unpredictable, destabilizing and cascading effects. Crises will only hit harder and be tougher to overcome until human civilization either declines into ruin or human ingenuity creates a higher-level vision of the future that will usher in a new era in human affairs. It is this challenge, this complexity, that frames the sense of the need for PanGaia, a planetary civilization that cares for the well-being of all peoples and the planet.

What Needs to Be Done?

We urgently need to come together to make sense of our time in history. We need to inquire as deeply as we can, not only to see what the facts are, but what principles and design criteria we need to apply to understand our challenges and frame our decisions. We need to build whole-system solutions that take all aspects of our humanity into account. What is at stake is nothing less than the shape of human existence on planet earth. What is required is nothing more than a shift in human consciousness. As Einstein observed, only with a different consciousness can old problems be solved. All of us must work together to create the future we seek, combining facts and values in a new way for a new time. This is the time to envision a new story, perhaps even a planetary civilization with high individuation of cultures.

I am dedicated to bringing together people in many fields and cultures to envision what PanGaia, a "world that works," would actually look like. I am inspired to do this because of an elderly man whom I met as a teenager and with whom I would take walks in New York's Central Park. He told me that the people of my time would be "taking the tiller of the world." But, he warned, they cannot go directly but must go in spirals, touching upon every people, every culture, every kind of consciousness. It is then, he said, that the noosphere, the field of mind, will awaken, and we will rebuild the Earth. He took my hands and looked at me intently. "Jeanne, remain always true to yourself, but move ever upwards towards greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourself united with all those who, from every direction, every culture, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge. Ah, so much I wish I could live to see it."

"See what, Mr. Tayer?" (I called him Mr. Tayer because his long French name was too hard to pronounce.)

It seemed that he didn't hear my question. Instead, he seemed to already be seeing something else. He seemed to be in ecstasy. He began to talk, in faltering but eloquent spasms of speech. "All around us, to the right and left, in front and behind, above and below, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and showing through. See, over there, in that cherry tree, in that rock, in that child. By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers."

Mr. Tayer continued to speak about everything -- war, pain, beauty, death, rebirth. He told me the present chaos was not the end of the world but the labor pains of a new Earth and a new humanity coming into finished form. At the end his voice dropped, and he whispered almost in prayer, "" Finally, he looked up and said to me quietly, "Au revoir, Jeanne."

"Au revoir, Mr. Tayer," I replied, "I'll meet you at the same time next Tuesday." For some reason, Champ, my fox terrier who always went on our walks together, didn't want to budge, and when I pulled him along, he whimpered, tail down between his legs, looking back at Mr. Tayer.

The following Tuesday I was waiting where we always met, at the corner of Park Avenue and 84th Street, but he didn't come. The following Thursday I waited again. Still he didn't come. The dog looked up at me sadly. For the next eight weeks I continued to wait, but he never came again. It turned out that he had died suddenly that Easter Sunday, but I didn't find that out for a long time.

But his visionary words stayed etched in my memory. Years later I read his ideas about the noosphere in his book The Phenomenon of Man -- for Mr. Tayer was the great priest-scientist-visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had lived across the street from me at the Jesuit Rectory of St. Ignatius. In it, he wrote:

A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fires spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered in incandescence. Only one interpretation, only one name can be found worthy of this grand phenomenon. Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the "thinking layer," which since its germination ... has spread over and above the world of plants and animals. In other words, outside and above the biosphere is the noosphere. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959, p. 182)

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