“Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.”
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
The term “higher consciousness” is one which I think few have any true sense of its meaning. The term itself is pointing to experiencing life, and ourselves within life, in a manner which is so different from the everyday consciousness of most people as to be unfathomable until it is experienced, and only with this experiencing can there be a true knowing of what is meant. It is pointing to an evolutionary advancement for a person out of what can be called egocentric consciousness – the self-absorbed consciousness that is centered on the sense of “me” inside this body and mind struggling to make my way through the world “out there, often small-minded, basically selfish, and to some degree neurotic, and I think it fair to say that this is the typical norm in our culture. It is not that many people are not intelligent, kind, caring, and generous – there are many such people, but it is an intelligence, kindness, caring, and generosity that is generally limited, as Einstein noted, restricted by “our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.” And then, sadly, there are so many who are ignorant and often cruel, even to those they say they love.
Higher consciousness is an intelligence and sensitivity of an entirely different order. In psychological jargon it can be called trans-egoic or trans-personal consciousness and is the consciousness that Einstein points to as a sense of self beyond ego, rooted in identification with all of life, with the cosmos, with the Universe happening through us as a person simultaneously with all that exists. The sense of “I” is not “IN here,” rather, to quote consciousness teacher, Eckhart Tole, “I am the space of this moment arising in awareness” that HAS a human body and mind to experience and share in existence along with all that is likewise alive and manifesting the Universe through and about them. In the Buddhist tradition, we are talking about an awakened consciousness, the coming forth of open-minded consciousness that experiences life compassionately as an unfolding miracle with every element of life precious in its own expression. This might also be called ecocentric consciousness, or ecocentrism, for it is the experienced consciousness of our existing within the web of Life, interconnected and interdependent with all else that is simultaneously manifesting within the Universal cosmic web, excellently descriptive and scientific, describing a view of existence that sees the unity of all life within a perfectly balanced ecological system. It is a more biological view than the prevailing Newtonian physics/object-based view of life held by traditional science where every “thing” is separate and unrelated to all other things other than in their immediate usefulness or threat. Ecocentrism is experiencing life in the biological connection where everything has its place and purpose interdependently with everything else, systems of life comprised of interdependent individual life-forms. It is a forest, not a city.
By our failure to live within this higher ecological view, over the last hundred years an ever-increasing number of our most insightful philosophers, theologians, and scientists, Einstein included, have seen that humanity is facing a growing crisis which will lead, quite possibly, to the destruction of our current human civilization along with much of the life on the planet in the distressingly not too distant future. Yet, this message and its urgency has not penetrated the thinking or experience of typical people, or of the high officials and stakeholders who make decisions for how our society prioritizes and conducts itself. There are too few who even intellectually realize this truth and even for those who do, so long as this remains at the level of an idea it will not translate to urgency. Ideas are just points of view among many, struggling for acceptance, working their way into possible integration into the population’s consciousness.
Consumer capitalism is another idea, and it represents the economics of the egocentric view. Few debate (and those who do are considered contrarians and subversives) the idea of consumer capitalism as the natural and right way to organize a society’s economy. It holds the collective mind of our society because it is an idea which grows from our society’s dominant state and level of consciousness that places the human ego as the centerpiece of existence. We believe and live this way as individuals and therefore, we likewise live in this belief system as societies, building our great, competing and psychologically alienating cities and nations, and as Einstein so astutely observed, this is a kind of delusion which leads to creating problems, big and small, even catastrophic. Einstein was likewise exactly correct in noting that these problems will never be able to be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them. And there’s our problem.
Consumer capitalism as an economic system grows from the level of consciousness which prioritizes “me and my interests” as of paramount importance in our affairs. “Look out for number one,” we are told. We must do what is in our interest; we must take care of ourselves. We must make as much of and for ourselves as we can. We must be the best, and if I can’t be the best, I can at least believe that my identity group is the best and place my interest and allegiance there. More is better. These are among the ideas that spring forth from the egocentric consciousness of individuals which then create societies and economies based in this egocentric perspective and it is these sorts of ideas that are tearing the world apart.
So, we live on, vulnerable to being torn apart as individuals, as families, as neighbors, as groups, as religions, as political parties, as a nation, as an international community, and we are tearing apart the natural world looking out for number one. For the last several thousand years, though often at terrible cost, this consciousness has worked to some degree. It has worked marvelously in its principal intent, which is to create wealth and power, while this accumulation of wealth and power has simultaneously led to unending conflict between those who have more and those who have less. This consciousness has led to amazing developments in science, much of it aimed at advances in military power, while for civilians, at making life easier, safer, more entertaining, and comfortable. The goal is always to generate wealth while developing awesome capacities to manipulate Nature and to confront and to compete with each other. And this consciousness continues to grow, and is insatiable, always needing more.
War is the uber-expression of egocentricity, stimulating industry while feeding into our personal egocentricity, and so we find endless rationalizations for its necessity, while economic war stands as the norm for our society and is called peace and prosperity. Our science is amazing in its scope and its power, rivaling that of Nature, causing scientists to proclaim we are entering a new geologic age, the first of its kind, when human activity is the principal driver of geologic and environmental changes on a global scale. This age is being called the Anthropocene by such ecological thinkers as Thomas Berry and cosmologist, Brian Swimme – a geologic age centered on and being driven by humanity, bringing global warming, unstable weather patterns, and massive levels of species extinction. While we sit comfortably in our temperature-controlled homes and buildings, the weather outside is increasingly alarming, and ultimately our furnaces, heat-pumps and air conditioning cannot protect us from draught, flood, hurricane, tornado, and extreme periods of heat or cold. Massive population displacements are predicted, leading to more war and conflict, and probably more incredible advances in science aimed at creating entirely artificial environments for those wealthy enough to access them, causing more strife between haves and have-nots.
Whether or not individuals have the wealth to protect and insulate themselves, even the wealthy are not faring well within this egocentric cultural matrix. Mental illness is rampant, with anxiety, depression, addictions, sociopathy, and narcissism commonplace. An unease about the very meaning of life percolates just below the surface for many, and our psychologies, based in the same egocentric models seem unable to find any answers, focused on managing the symptoms of the malady without having any cure. We manage our mental illnesses without much of any idea of what it is to be truly mentally healthy. And there is no way we can build a mentally healthy society which addresses the problems we are creating without mentally healthy people as the architects. This is what Einstein was warning us of.
And ego hears all this, and says, “yes, but….” And then gives a litany of rationalizations as to why such transformation is not possible, that it is against human nature. Can we even hear ourselves? We are saying it is not possible to create an advanced technological human society based in the principles of balance, of interdependence, of interconnectedness, the very principals upon which Nature is built and is therefore endlessly sustainable with no trace of psychological imbalance. Can humanity, individually and collectively, actually behave in a sane manner? Can we build cities that reflect the balance and interconnectedness of a forest? All our behavior and the direction of our societies says “no.” But that is just our ego talking.
There is nothing new about the perspective that says there is something within human nature that causes us to be endlessly unhappy and destructive. Religions have taught this for millennia. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have called it “sin,” all three drawing from the same Old Testament sources with unique added chapters and books and interpretation that have created their separateness and arguments with each other and even arguments within themselves. Buddhists called it “dukkha” or the tendency towards unnatural suffering and dissatisfaction. While the Western religions are murky about its source and what needs to be done about it, drawing from their historic cultural tendency towards divine-right authoritarianism, the problem is generally identified as disobedience, and the answer to be found in obedience to authority and God’s will, which means the church authorities’ will, which over time has become translated as obedience to and belief in the economic/political system.
Buddhism is much more subtle and psychological. Buddhism is very clear about the cause of humanity’s imbalance and disharmony, knowing it to be egocentrism and the tendency to live in ego’s delusions rather than the reality of the way life on this planet is actually divinely/cosmically designed. Isn’t it interesting that the great 20th century scientist, Einstein, likewise identifies the problem as delusion, psychological fictions, believing them to be real. It is also important to note that among the Western religions there is ample interpretation arising from the mystical traditions and in a growing number of modern “New Age” interpretations, that “sin,” a word drawn from the ancient Greek meaning “to miss the mark” actually ought as well be understood as egoic delusion, and as humanity’s core problem. “The Fall” is not about disobedience so much as it is humanity choosing to separate from Nature, from Eden, from the natural Cosmos to go its own egocentric way, forgetting that we ARE nature. How could we not be? – But few have actually listened because their egocentric level of consciousness could not comprehend that we serve ourselves best by serving others, by cultivating widening circles of compassion, by seeking harmony. Is it not time we pick ourselves up from this “fall” to strive for that which is higher? Is it not time we stop “sinning” to find and live from the higher consciousness that Einstein called us to? We will most certainly not be able to solve our problems, personally or collectively, unless we find a way to be a forest, a planet, living in ecological harmony with each other and all of life. This is what it will be when humanity evolves into higher consciousness. And we WILL so evolve. The only issue is how much suffering will it take for us to awaken?