9. The Great Awakening
The more I have studied the nature of consciousness, the more I have come to appreciate the critical role that inner awakening plays in the modern worlda world which, despite all its technological prowess, seems to be getting deeper and deeper into trouble.
Most of todays problemsfrom personal worries to social, economic, and environmental issuesstem from human actions and decisions. These arise from human thinking, human feelings, and human values, which in turn are influenced by our belief that happiness comes from what we have and do, and by our need to bolster an ever-vulnerable sense of self. Psychological issues such as these lie at the root of our problems. The growing crises we observe around us are symptoms of a deeper inner crisisa crisis of consciousness.
This crisis has been a long time coming. Its seeds were sown thousands of years ago when human evolution made the leap to self-awareness, and consciousness became conscious of itself.
The first appearance of self-awareness probably involved a sense of identity with ones tribe and kin, but not a strong personal self. Gradually this inner awareness evolved, becoming more focused, until today it has reached the point at which we have a clear sense of being a unique self, distinct from others and the natural environment.
Awareness of this individual self is not, however, the final stage of our inner evolution. Dotted through history have been those who have discovered there is much more to consciousness than most of us usually realize. This self, they tell us, is not our true identity. Moreover, it has serious shortcomings. If our awareness of self is limited to this separate, dependent, ever-vulnerable self, our thinking is distorted, and our actions are misguided, bringing much unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. To free ourselves from this handicap, we must take a further step in our inner journey and discover the true nature of consciousness.
Our Final Exam
In the past, greater awareness of the true self was deemed important for personal well-being. Today the game has changed; it is now imperative for our collective survival.
Our knowledge of the external world has been growing at an accelerating pace, bringing with it an unprecedented ability to modify and manipulate our surroundings. The technologies we now have at our disposal have amplified this potential so much that we can now create almost anything we dream of. Our knowledge of the inner realms, however, has developed much more slowly. We are probably as prone to the failings of a limited sense of self as were people two thousand years ago. This is the source of our problems. Advanced technology may have amplified our capacity to control our environment, but it has also amplified the shortcomings of our partially developed consciousness. Driven by the dictates of a derived identity, and by our belief that inner well-being depends upon external circumstances, we have misused our newfound powers, plundering and poisoning the planet.
We have reached what Buckminster Fuller called our "final evolutionary exam." The questions before us are simple: Can we move beyond this limited mode of consciousness? Can we let go of our illusions, discover who we really are, and find the wisdom we so desperately need?
These questions face us everywhere we look. Degradation of the environment is forcing us to examine our priorities and values. Political and economic crises reveal the shortcomings of our self-centered thinking. Disillusionment with materialism implores us to ask what it is we really want. The ever-accelerating pace of change demands that we become less attached to how we think things should be. Many social problems reflect the meaninglessness inherent in the contemporary worldview. And our personal relationships are continually challenging us to move beyond fear and judgment, to love without conditions. From all directions, the message is "Wake up!"
A Spiritual Renaissance
Never before has the pressure for a spiritual renaissance been so strong; and never before have the possibilities for such a renaissance been so great.
Our choice of spiritual path is no longer limited to the tradition into which we were born. We can draw from the entire spectrum of the worlds wisdom. We can learn from cultures as far apart as Tibet and Peru; from traditions as different as Buddhism, Christianity, and Shamanism; from teachings given thousands of years ago, and from contemporary adepts.
Moreover, the quality of the knowledge can be preserved in ways not possible before. In the past, as spiritual teachings were passed on from person to person, translated into different languages, and absorbed by foreign cultures, some of the teaching was inevitably misunderstood or lost, while embellishments were added. What remained was a poor rendering of the original inspiration.
Today, teachings are disseminated much more accurately and easily. We can watch videos, and listen to audiotapes as we travel. We can tune in to a satellite broadcast of a seminar taking place on the other side of the planetand record it for later viewing. We can speak directly to almost anyone, anywhere in the world. We can search the Internet and draw on the insights and realizations of countless people whom we may never meet or know. For the first time, the essence of spiritual wisdom is being made globally available.
Whereas people in past centuries learned largely from their own experience and from those in their immediate vicinity, we can benefit from the learning of countless others around the globe. We are cross-catalyzing each others awakening.
A Collective Awakening
When I began exploring consciousness in the sixties, there were few books on the subject. Although Cambridge had one of the largest bookstores in Britain, books on "esoteric studies" were only to be found on one small shelf in the corner of the theology section. Three decades later, the situation is very different. There is hardly a city or large town in the West that does not have a bookstore devoted to personal development and human consciousness.
The thousands of books in this field published over the past thirty years reflect the myriad insights and discoveries people are making in their personal journeys. Reading these books guides or inspires some in their own awakening, who in turn pass their discoveries on to othersperhaps in books of their own, in talks and tapes, through websites, or simply in conversations with friends and family. The more each of us matures spiritually, the more we have to offer others; and the more they mature, the more they contribute to the collective awakening.
This mutual feedback not only results in an ever greater accessibility to information and guidance on inner development; it also leads to a honing of our understanding of the essential wisdom. When I discover a teaching that resonates with my inner knowing, clarifies my understanding of the mind, or adds helpful elements to my inner practice, I quite naturally integrate it into my own thinking. This is reflected in the ideas and insights I later share with others, which may resonate with their own thinking and clarify their own understanding. We are fine-tuning each others comprehension of the essential spiritual wisdom, drawing each other closer to a common appreciation of our inner worlds.
As we share our realizations, our various expressions of this knowledge come to sound more and more alike. At a talk I gave recently, a person asked if I was saying anything that different from what many other people were saying. My answer was "I hope not." If I am saying something markedly different, I am probably off track.
Today we easily fall into the assumption that what is new is best. We become excited by the latest breakthroughs in physics, biology, and astronomy, and are quick to embrace medical advances and new information technologies. But when it comes to spiritual technologies, what is best is that which has been tested and validated over the eons.
Our external circumstances have changed tremendously during the course of human history, and we may have very different opinions from people in the past, but the way the mind functions has not changed. The way we become caught in our interpretations of reality, the way we identity with limited aspects of ourselves, the way our attachments and fears condition our actions, the way we create suffering for ourselvesthese have not changed. Nor have the basic practices that can liberate us from these impediments. In this arena it is not new knowledge that is required, but a re-formulation of the timeless wisdom in a contemporary context.
Buddha phrased his insights in terms appropriate to ancient India, Jesus in those of Judaism two millennia ago, and Mohammed in those of his own time and culture. Today we are rediscovering that same essential wisdom and expressing it in the language of the twenty-first century.
We live in an era dominated by science and reason. For new ideas to be accepted, they need to satisfy our rational mind and be testable. It is not enough that they should resonate with our intuition; they must also make sense within the contemporary worldview.
For several hundred years our dominant worldview has been based on the assumption that the real world is the world of space, time and matter. This materialistic model has successfully accounted for most worldly phenomena and explained many mysteriesso well that it often appears to ruled out the existence of God.
Astronomers have looked out into deep space, to the edges of the universe. Cosmologists have looked back in deep time to the beginning of creation. And physicists have looked down into the deep structure of matter, to the fundamental constituents of the cosmos. In each case they have found no evidence of a God, nor any need for God. The Universe seems to work perfectly well without divine assistance.
Thirty years ago I had sympathy for such arguments. Today, I realize that the notion of God that scienceand Irejected was naïve and old-fashioned. When we consider the writings of great saints and sages, we do not find many claims for God being in the realm of space, time, and matter. When they talk of Godthe Holy Spirit, the Divine Light, the Beloved, Yahweh, Elohim, Brahman, Buddha nature, the Being behind all Creationthey are usually referring to a profound personal experience. If we want to find God we have to look within, into deep minda realm that Western science has yet to explore.
I believe that when we delve as fully into the nature of mind as we have into the nature of space, time, and matter, we will find consciousness to be the long-awaited bridge between science and spirit.
This may be the greatest value of the new metaparadigm. In expanding our worldview to include consciousness as fundamental to the cosmos, this new model of reality not only accounts for the anomaly of consciousness; it also revalidates the spiritual wisdom of the ages in contemporary terms, inspiring us to dedicate ourselves anew to the journey of self-discovery.
If this new worldview becomes a personal experiencea shift in the way we perceive reality rather than just a new understanding of realityour world would change in ways that we can hardly imagine. Five hundred years ago, Copernicus could not have foreseen the full impact of his new model of the universe. Today, we can have little appreciation of how the world might be when generations have been brought up knowing that consciousness is primary, and that each and every one of us is holy.
One thing we can say: It will be a much kinder and wiser world; a world in which it will be natural to have the compassion of St. Francis, the insights of Ramana Maharshi, and the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Freed from many of our delusions, and from much of our fear and judgment, we will no longer cause each other unnecessary pain and suffering. Inner well-being and happiness will become the true measure of social progress.
By todays standards this might sound like heaven on Earth, but isnt this what spiritual teachings have always prophesied? When we realize the errors in our thinking, let go of our attachments, transcend our limited sense of self, and discover the true nature of our being, then darkness will give way to light. We will find the salvation weve been seeking, and our hearts will be at peace.