Friday, December 7, 2012

#144. A New Way of Being Human

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This post #144 is personal notes from a 2002 reading of Brian Swimme’s The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, Humanity and the New Story (Orbis, 1996). They are reflections sent to a friend especially interested in the New Cosmology.


Brian Swimme places the New Science Story in the world’s wisdom traditions. He sees it not as science as such (which is conceptual) but as a science-compatible and science-inspired “cosmology.” I.e., it is a mythology of meaning dealing with the origins of the world and our place in it.

Supporting his understanding of the New Universe Story as wisdom, he even speaks of the need for “tasting” (i.e. experiencing) it, which is essentially, I think, what ‘sapientiae’ (the Latin form of "wisdom") originally means.

Science is the development of ideas and sensitivities for becoming aware of what is happening in the world around us, and modern science-- of the last 400 years-- has disrupted all previous world-views.

But that destructive phase is ending and the integrative period has begun. Personally, I can say that I seem to have been born into an early phase of that integrative period.


Our task today is to integrate modern scientific perspectives with the more ancient wisdom intuitions.

The promise is, for the first time in history, a common meaning and program of action for all humanity. Rupert Sheldrake (of morphogenetic fields) says that with the present time-lag between scientific discoveries and their appropriation by people at large, the New Story should begin to kick in around 2030. (I hope he's wrong! We need it much sooner!)

Mentioning Rupert Sheldrake reminds me that my shamanic vocation continues in the form of forest-hut dweller-- someone who helps the world by influencing the morphic fields.


Here at the beginnings of science’s wisdom phase, the basic question is, "What is humanity’s place in the evolving universe?" That has been one of two or three most fundamental questions the I have asked since my earliest years. My very early wording was, “What is our place in the vast scheme of things?”

I am coming to see that to respond properly to that question, an even more basic one needs to be asked: What IS the vast scheme of things? That’s where modern science comes in.

We live in a dynamic, evolutionary, unfolding universe. And that view is what makes modern science the basis for a new wisdom tradition. We really can’t say what our place is in the scheme of things if we don’t have a pretty good idea what that scheme of things is. I’m aware that from an early age I simply presumed it to be an evolutionary cosmos.


Swimme notes that immense truths (visions, perspectives) are by their very nature difficult to transmit. And that to understand profound truths requires imagination.

This new form of consciousness is emerging, however, in a small slice of contemporary humanity, and we lack any easy, established or efficient way of transmitting it. And that is the story of my life!

I feel called by the universe to help change people’s minds about the universe! To help ‘channel’ a new perspective, a new vision-- something which is VERY difficult to do!

And yet the new consciousness IS emerging; indeed, I am evidence of that.

And I am NOT able to point to any roots of that consciousness in my genetic or cultural background. The best I can do is to mention my father who loved nature and my mother who loved her Polish Catholic religion, and both of them who always let me be myself.

For whatever reasons, which can only be called “grace,” I seem to have been born into that New Story perspective. From my earliest years, both science and religion were my main interests and, as I've said, I took the evolutionary perspective for granted.

I eventually received master’s degrees in both areas. Today I would call them simply nature and spirituality, or the natural world and our place in it; in more abstract language, cosmos and anthropos at the heart of cosmos.


Swimme makes the point that spirituality has a three-hundred-thousand-year lineage, that "cosmology as a myth of meaning "has been with us from the start.”

He mentions the cave paintings of 20,000 years ago, and the caves themselves with evidence going back 300,000 years. I have personally been highly attracted to the cave paintings all my life, and was honored by one of my earliest students who brought back for me from a trip to Europe a large poster from Lascaux. It is still one of the main framed objects in my home.

I was delighted when I read Merton’s view that the cave paintings, along with Russian icons, are the most profound of all humanity’s religious art. In 1991 I took part in a research project in a canyon on the edge of the Black Hills in Wyoming, devoted to locating, recording and safe-guarding Paleolithic rock art.

Some of that work has been dated to around 11,000 BP. It was like working in America’s own Lascaux. When I first learned of Paleolithic peoples, I immediately identified myself with them. I think I was around eight or so. “I’m one of them,” I said.

It was not, “I want to be like them” but “I am what they are.” I have always felt part of that “three-hundred-thousand-year lineage.”


Swimme does an excellent job at making clear how no living things other than humans require, as part of their genetic makeup, a cultural orientation to enter into the mysteries of the universe. Every culture, always and everywhere-- except for our own-- has provided such initiation.

Over the years I came to see that this “initiation” is one of the tasks the universe has called me to do. It has been my vocation, in the most literal and cosmic sense, to help provide the cultural orientation to the mysteries of the universe which we need in order to be human.

It is a shamanic calling, and learning to see myself in that role has been no easy process.

But this calling to shamanic initiation was not my primary calling. That was to be a hermit. Not in a literal sense but in terms of meaning: to the individuation process. I am to be who/what I am to be “on behalf of all and for all.”


In Lakota society, the ceremonial initiation of youths is called “making a bear.” Being a bear and making bears has been one of my strongest archetypal images for many years.

The question of course is how to go about “making a bear” in a society which has no understanding of such things. One way I did it was by being a science teacher.

But, as Swimme notes, nowhere in science education is the meaning of things treated significantly. In fact, in our society, as Swimme says, our institutions keep us from engaging in such processes. He makes a good case for the fact that the initiation role has been abdicated and turned over to advertisers.


The whole situation with regard to advertising is a true horror story of the worst type. It is literally terrifying, and very difficult to see how the culture allows itself to be so drugged/bewitched, and at the same time be so frightened by external terror of the Islamics.

Advertising provides a background to our lives which is so pervasive we don’t even think about it. Swimme notes that children by age five are exposed to many tens of thousands of TV commercials. And the main point of those commercials is to make us dissatisfied with our lives. Advertisers are not concerned with the well-being of our children. Their focus is to make us unhappy with what we have.

And this, says Swimme, is the dominant faith in our world today: we exist “to work, to earn money, to buy stuff.”

He also notes that unhappiness with what we have is what leads to aggressive violence to obtain what we want or need. The faith image of the ideal human in this world-wide religion of consumerism is a relaxed and carefree person, sitting around a swimming pool drinking diet-Pepsi-- unencumbered with any sense of the meaning of our existence.

As Swimme notes, none of this is news to teachers. He says that the New Universe Story is a first step out of the religion of consumerism.


I started teaching in 1959 and during the more than forty years I worked at it, I found that students became not more but less and less open to the story of the origins of the universe and our place in it.

Swimme helps me understand why. He notes that Copernicus in 1543 breaks with a 2-million-year-old tradition of human knowing. Against all the visible evidence, the sun, not the earth, is the center of our world.

As I said above, Swimme does an excellent job at making clear how no living things other than humans require, as part of their genetic makeup, cultural orientation to enter into the mysteries of the universe; and that every culture, always and everywhere-- except for our own-- has provided such initiation.

Swimme notes that there is no science department in American higher education which has “change of perception” as a primary aim of the curriculum. Probably not any kind of department. (Maybe art departments?)


I said above that learning to see myself in a shamanic role has been no easy process. To help initiate youths into a change of perception, given the all-pervasive power of commercial advertising faith, is to be marginalized nearly out of existence.

But it is precisely the shamanic role, as I eventually learned, to help change consciousness. And changed awareness, as Swimme notes clearly, comes not primarily via instruction or information but by experience.

He makes a very important point: that just as primates were a new way of being mammals, so when we appropriate the New Universe Story we enter into a new way of being human.


Words are pathetically inadequate. We simply do not have the terms or the concepts. We have to learn to experience the universe-- to taste our place in it-- via art, ritual, education.

And this is in fact a VERY IMPORTANT POINT, that appropriating the New Universe Story is itself a significant and major cultural step and thus a stage of cosmic evolution.


That emphasis on tasting and delighting in our participation in the cosmos is what makes the New Story not science but part of the wisdom tradition. It draws on science, but also on religion, art, philosophy, psychology. It needs creative artists, educators, thinkers.

Swimme notes that people within the consumer culture are likely to associate the Universe Story with drug use: drugs cut the pain of dissatisfaction and unhappiness of the consumer life-style.

He says he was often accused of being “on something.” (I had that experience only once that I’m aware of, although of course I’ll never know what was said when I wasn't around.)

In any case, the point is that we need new forms of initiation. We need shamanic bear-makers!


Another major part of my forty years of active work dealt more explicitly with religion by way of teaching theology at the college level.

I also worked at promoting the experience of authentic religious ritual at every level from church liturgy to home life, small group rites and personal ceremonies. I seemed to have some kind of inborn knack for promoting ritual. That’s a story in itself, one I don’t want to go into here.

In both my science and religious work the main effort was the same: to insert into whatever was under discussion the changed perception which results from awareness of the cosmic context of our lives.

Talk about marginality! Sigh.


An aspect of the wisdom tradition within Christianity, highly consonant with the dynamic evolutionary worldview, is that of the divine kenosis, the ultimate abyss of mystery emptying itself out to bring us and the world into existence and fullness of life.

Without mentioning the term kenosis, Swimme offers a wonderful example of it in his chapter on the sun as the center of our world.

Each second, he says, the sun transforms four million tons of itself into light. A fraction of this energy is transmitted to us, and we become it. (Or it becomes us; we and that light energy from the sun are one and the same thing.) The sun dies as sun and is reborn as life on the Earth.

Swimme calls this is “a new image for understanding the cosmological meaning of sacrifice,” and emphasizes that this same ("kenotic") activity is transmitted to us.


As he says, those among us who give of ourselves for others tend to be recognized as being true to our human nature. To live our lives in communion with all, “on behalf of all and for all,” is what we are all about.

Louise de Montfort, in his unique writings on holy wisdom in the 18th century, the Russian Sophiologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and contemporary astrophysics all tell us the same thing: generosity is the way of the universe.


Swimme makes the point well that the necessary re-education takes courage, imagination and energy. He observes that it is depressing to realize how efficient we have been in sealing ourselves away from the universe.

But primal peoples and native cultures knew how to be at home, at peace, with the cosmos. We’ve forgotten how, and forgotten even that we’ve forgotten!

So, it is important that we go out at night and look at the Milky Way and see ourselves IN it. The 70-million-year-old primate orientation is to look up at the sky; we need to try seeing ourselves hanging from the bottom of the earth and looking down into space.

He notes that many of us can talk endlessly about matters of no significance, that we are immersed in soul-shriveling trivialities, and that we allow the CEOs of Nintendo and other videogames to dump their relentlessly repulsive violence into our children’s lives.

But we need for our children, instead, an Ecozoic education, so they will know themselves not just as political or economic entities but as cosmic events.

We can show our children how to look toward the center of the galaxy (in Sagittarius) and know that it was 30,000 years ago that the light from there left to enter our eyes today.

We need to remember the Paleo-Indians and wooly mammoths who lived then.

We can teach the kids to look at the Andromeda galaxy (ordinary binoculars will show its spiral shape) and to remember what was going on on earth when its light left to come to us 2.5 million years ago-- when humans were just beginning to discover tools.

Humanity’s journey in time is as immense as the galaxies are distant in space!

Then there is the Local Group of galaxies revolving around the center of the Virgo Cluster, and the Virgo Supercluster is only one of 10 million superclusters. In the vast universe the Virgo Supercluster is like a white dot, one petal from millions of apple blossoms stirred up by the wind.

What an experience for our children to be part of!


Swimme also notes that it is in night-time that the news of the universe can more deeply be felt-- as the ancient shamans and story tellers knew.

One bit of news whispered by the universe to Albert Einstein is that the old idea, that the universe was simply a box, is wrong. Instead, the universe is expanding in all directions. And the farther apart galaxies are, the faster they are moving apart from each other.

This means that the universe had a starting point: that space and time, matter and energy, all erupted together. And this has been empirically verified when the predicted background radiation (21 cm band) was observed for the first time in the 1960s.


Not only does the universe have a starting point. Every thing, every place, is the universe's center. We live in an omni-centric evolutionary cosmos.

Perhaps most startling is the new science concept of the quantum vacuum. Out of the absolute emptiness of the universe’s ground state comes particles (such as electrons and positrons) which erupt in pairs and quickly annihilate one another in what scientists call the “space-time foam.”

The main idea is that what’s most really real is not atoms or matter or energy but something else, an abyss of creative generosity.

Swimme calls it the All-Nourishing Abyss. Maybe “overflowing source” would also be a helpful term.


In a good comparison, Swimme notes that because of our need to be in touch with the real, the most basically real, ancient people originally honored their king as God, or as a son of God or a divine representative. That was how they linked themselves with what was really real.

I note that this is similar to the way RCs and others have tended to link themselves to God, by treating priests with that same kind of divine reverence, and which in our day has led to so much trouble for children.

The point is that from the wisdom perspectives of modern science it is the universe itself which links us to the non-visible and non-visualize-able power which Swimme calls the All-Nourishing Abyss.


Cosmology is the story of the origin, development and destiny of the universe, told to help us find our place in it. As humans at the heart of the cosmos we are all embedded in a living, developing universe, and so we are cousins to everything.

It is the task of education (of cultural orientation, of "bear-making"-- i.e., of initiation) to teach us how to enter into and inhabit the universe as a communion event.

Initiation is needed to help us by direct experience-- through our knowledge of time-space (from scientific cosmology) and of matter-energy (from the vacuum quantum)-- to experience that we are situated in the very place and rooted in the very power that is source of all.


Swimme ends with some abstract words, to the effect that being part of the omni-centric evolutionary universe “is to experience the joy of radical relational mutuality.”

It’s that word ‘joy’ that I want to end with. Ultimately, that’s what this is all about: to enjoy, to delight in, to “taste” to the full the depths of our own reality.


I’ve been having a great time with this material. Seeing myself as called to help tell the New Story, to change conscious awareness of our place in the vast scheme of things, to be a shamanic bear-maker, to put science/religion/ritual in a cosmic evolutionary context, to see that it is indeed a (new) wisdom tradition, that my place was early phase of it, that I really seem to have been born into it, and with a certain shamanic knack for ritual observance of it.... Great fun.

Thanks, K. -Sam


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