Our Shared Awareness Of Atomization
I’m guessing we all know the sensation of being detached, somehow, from the whole: when we catch ourselves in the act of reaching impulsively for our mobile phone and feel an idle guilt about our addiction to consuming content that somehow feels closer to junk food than vegetables; when we give meditation a try, find it helpful for some inexplicable reason…and then struggle to find the time to meditate again; when we get out of the city for a holiday, widen our vistas, and then feel oddly unfocussed for the first few days back at the office.
(I’ve just experienced the latter. This past week, I went cross-country skiing with an old friend in the Austrian Alps. At the top of a long uphill climb, we paused to catch our breath and take in the view. The air was perfectly still. The sky was a cloudless blue. The mountain peaks were a brilliant white. I closed my eyes and felt the sun warming my closed eyelids. I could hear a few birds singing in the surrounding forest; off to my right, i could hear pine needles crackling as they melted free of their snowy cocoons. I heard my breath. I felt it. For no particular reason, I was profoundly happy.
…and since returning to London, it’s taken me a solid two or three days of circling around my laptop to recover the focus I need to write.)
Enterprising minds have spotted our discontent with disintegration and turned reintegration into an industry. Grocery delivery services here in London emphasize, variously, ‘fresh’, ‘simple’, ‘organic’ or ‘mindful’. Meditation apps are booming. Yoga makes you balanced. Electric cars make you clean. To restore lost relationships — with our food, ourselves, our community, our environment, with the truth — has become one of the most compelling stories reshaping consumer behavior.
We shouldn’t be surprised that it has become one of the most compelling stories reshaping politics, business and society, too. Economists, sociologists, scientists, tech titans and politicians today all ply us with the need for, or the promise of, restoration. (Start to listen for it, and you start to hear it everywhere…)
An Autopsy Of Our Mind
A couple letters ago, I shared a brief scan of how different researchers across the social sciences today explain why society is disintegrating, and what to do about it. Every branch of social science offers part of the diagnosis, and part of the cure.
Their diagnoses all relate to the fragmentation that is happening ‘out there’, in the external world. But, as we’ve all experienced, the fragmentation is also happening ‘in here’. A deeper disintegration is underway, at the level of our “consciousness”.
This deeper disintegration is hard to research. It doesn’t yield data the same way that, say, economic inequality does. Yes, we can point to plenty of evidence. The extreme cases show up in our public health statistics — rising rates of youth suicide (here in the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 20–34), the opioid epidemic and other substance abuse and soaring numbers of mental health cases, for example. But we cannot cut open our minds to perform an autopsy; we cannot compare the brain of a youth twenty-five years ago with the brain of a youth suicide victim today and observe how that person possessed a greater sense of belonging-to-something than this person did.
Because this internal reality of disintegration is hard to show empirically, it’s hard for us to accept it as ‘real’. (Wherever we live, we’ve all witnessed the slow struggle for society to take mental illness seriously and to overcome the stigma that’s been attached to it.) And yet, it clearly is real. We’ve all felt it. We all know the behaviors, the hungers, that it can drive. We all know the fleeting bliss that a sense of reintegration can generate.
To better understand the disintegration that right now seems to be taking place between our own ears, I’ve been reading a book by Jean Gebser called The Ever-Present Origin. It’s basically a history of consciousness — a history of how different cultures throughout history have had different awarenesses (if that’s a word). It’s a thick book. It’s a dense book. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it, frankly, except that it’s one of the most important books in post-modern philosophy. I hesitate even to write about it, because it will take me several more years to digest. But it is mind-blowing. Like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, but less accessible and more insightful.
Gebser (1905–1973) was a German philosopher and linguist, and he first published the book in 1949. It’s obvious that he was heavily motivated by the fresh scars of World War II and by the looming threat of all-out nuclear war, from quotes such as:
The present is defined by an increase in technological power, inversely proportional to our sense of responsibility…if we do not overcome this crisis, it will overcome us…Either we will be disintegrated and dispersed, or we must find a new way to come together.
The restructuring of our entire reality has begun; it is up to us whether it happens with our help, or despite our lack of insight. If it occurs with our help, then we shall avoid a universal catastrophe; if it occurs without our aid, then its completion will cost greater pain and torment than we suffered during two world wars.
But, as anyone who invests years to write a book must, Gebser did possess some hope that a brighter future lay ahead:
Epochs of great confusion and general uncertainty…contain the slumbering, not-yet-manifest seeds of clarity and certainty.
Make Me Whole Again
Gebser’s hunch was that we can’t solve the disintegration that’s underway ‘out there’ without also solving the disintegration that’s underway ‘in here’. We won’t solve the external crises of fake news, or inequality, or political extremism, or ecological crises, without also solving our internal crises of anxiety, emptiness, self-absorption and confusion.
That’s because, for Gebser, today’s external and internal crises are two sides of the same mistake, namely that ‘we have conceded the status of ‘reality’ to only an extremely limited world, one which is barely one-third of what constitutes us and the world as a whole.’
In other words, the root of our disintegration today is that we’ve denied the reality of everything that could restore our sense of belonging, of integration, of harmony, with our selves, each other and the world.
A Brief History Of Consciousness
The one-third of reality which we do accept as real is the mental. This is the reality of measurable space-time; of measurable cause-and-effect; of time broken into past, present and future; of calendars, goals and project plans; of Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.
And the two-thirds that have gone missing? They are older, earlier aspects of our consciousness that we dismissed in order to give primacy to our modern, mental awareness.
The first, Gebser calls ‘the magical’. The magical is the spaceless, timeless oneness that I sensed last week in the Austrian Alps, or whenever we still gaze up at a starry night, or pray in a crisis moment, or whenever we lose ourselves in the beat of the music that’s playing. Nowadays, we are deeply suspicious of anything labelled ‘magic’. But there was a time in human pre-history when everything in our awareness was magical. We had no notion of using measurable space and time to separate cause and effect, and so everything that happened seemed connected to everything else. Rain dances made rain; curses punished wrong-doers; an arrow drawn on a cave painting ‘killed’ the buffalo before the hunt even began. In the magical phase of human consciousness, reality was one big unified thing within which we must listenin order to survive. (I hear, therefore I am.)
The second aspect of reality that we’re missing today, Gebser calls ‘the mythical’. Mythical consciousness first began when we discovered that the oneness of nature was, in a lot of ways, more like a circle. Natural events recur, rhythmically. Once this awareness of ‘recurrence’ became part of our reality, reality became, not just a oneness, but a polarity: day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, yin and yang. We became aware that the polarity of nature extended into us: the body and the soul. We began to weave events, objects and people together into stories that gave reality greater coherence — that made all the recurrences and balances fit together. We imagined ourselves as heroes in these stories; we imagined life as a hero’s journey; we shared collective dreams as a community. In the mythical phase of human consciousness, the world became a story in which we must speak in order to survive. (I speak, therefore I am.)
For Gebser, our third aspect of consciousness, the mental, emerged when we began to go off-script (around 2,500 years ago). Instead of finding our roles within the stories inspired by nature’s patterns, we began to ad lib our own intentions and journeys, by drawing instead upon something inside ourselves. Our mythical awareness of nature’s polarity was replaced by our mental awareness of a duality: us, outside of nature.
Once we stepped outside of nature, we could begin to direct our own lives. Time, which in the magical world had been one single big moment and in the mythical world had been a circle we traced over and over again, became the line (past, present, future) along which we played out our individual intentions. Time was now finite for us, and measuring time — conquering time! — began to matter. Space, which in the magical and mythical worlds had been irrelevant to the fulfillment of our lives, now imposed itself as a limit on how far we could go. Space became finite for us, and measuring space — conquering space! — began to matter.
If you grasp that last paragraph, then you’ve grasped the past 2,500 years of how our sense of ‘reality’ has been changing. In short: we’ve been getting better and better at measuring space and time, which (a) gives us more and more power to exert our own intentions over nature but also (b) draws us further and further away from the oneness of space and time that we used to know intuitively.
(To drive this point home, Gebser offers two seminal examples: the discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance, and the discovery of space-time in the late 19th and 20th century — which is what got me re-reading Stephen Hawking. They’re fascinating examples, and I’ll digress into them at the bottom of the page, if you’re interested.)
Finding The Real In A Post-Truth World
Fast-forward to today, and Gebser’s history of human consciousness gives us a fresh lens for understanding the biggest changes underway today.
Take the mega-problem of post-truth politics. Why do once-powerful arguments based on facts and evidence suddenly seem powerless? For Gebser, this is a familiar pattern of exhaustion. As myth replaced magic, the power of magic spells weakened into mere bewitchment, and finally into empty rituals and superstition. As mind replaced myth, the epic explanations for everything became mere stories and entertainment.
And now ‘facts’ are becoming mere ‘alternatives’.
Our instinctive reaction (mine, anyway) is to leap to the defense of Reason. We must re-educate ourselves on how to think critically, how to recognize bias, how to apply logic and to be ruled by the knowledge that emerges from scientific methods. We must put wishful thinking and tribal tendencies back in their bottles — through heavy regulation, if necessary.
Except we can’t, Gebser would say. That is precisely the conceit that led to the shock of a President Trump and a Brexit vote (or, he argued in his own lifetime, to two World Wars).
Among American voters in 2016, Donald Trump won hearts, not minds. He didn’t give any reasoned arguments. He spoke instead in mythic terms about an imaginary America under siege. He held up tribal totems — the flag, guns, male aggression. In a recent New York Times piece, the columnist David Brooks bemoaned this neo-tribalism. Gebser would say: it has always been part of us.
The magical and the mythical are real, Gebser would explain, and that is the lesson that we need to take away from the shock events of recent years. Not real in the same way that we measure space and time, but real in our consciousness nonetheless. Modern, mental humanity gets very uncomfortable at the insinuation that reality has magical and mythical aspects. We deny the possibility. But, Gebser argues, that only makes us fools. ‘Those who are unaware of these aspects, fall victim to them.’
The resurgent power of magic and myth in society is a sign that our Age of Reason — the age of mind over everything — is reaching exhaustion. The project was flawed from the beginning, Gebser would say, because we can no more purge the magic and mythical from our reality than we can purge them from our language. Every time that we feel ‘disconnected’, or ‘unbalanced’, or feel anxious that we’ve ‘run out of time’, we betray our yearning to get back to the original oneness of space and time that’s now been completely carved up by rational thought.
In this moment of mental crisis, Gebser predicted, ‘soon we will witness the rise of some potentate or dictator who will pass himself off as a ‘savior’ or prophet and allow himself to be worshipped as such.’ (I’d say we’ve reached that point.)
But that prophet is false. He is, in Gebser’s words, ‘less than an adversary: he is the ruinous expression of man’s ultimate alienation from himself and the world.’ (Sounds about right.) He demonstrates that the latent, neglected power of magic and myth can still move us powerfully, but he does so by lashing out at our mental reality. In the end we’re left more fragmented.
The healthy response in this post-truth age can’t be to deny what reason has revealed to us. And it isn’t to purge magic and myth, either. (We can’t, and more to the point we shouldn’t, since doing so would also purge all emotion and inspiration.) Instead, Gebser thought, we need to ‘renounce the exclusiveclaim of the mental structure’ over what’s real, and reintegrate the magic and the mythic into our consciousness.
‘Like all ages, our generation, too, has its task.‘ It is to learn to see ourselves ‘as the interplay of magic unity and mythical polarity and mental conceptuality and purposefulness. Only as a whole person is a person in a position to perceive the whole.’
So…Where To Begin?
I’m going to be chewing on all this for a long, long time. But my immediate take-aways are these:
- Trust our magic and mythic impulses more. These impulses are everywhere today in our consumer society, in art, in science. Even corporate executives have started talking about making their companies more ‘soulful’. At the same time, we hesitate to follow them, because we don’t understand the rational basis for these impulses. Well, all the above gives us that rational basis, in a meta-sort-of-way. So we should ‘go with them’, and feel more sure about doing so. So long as we bring our mental awareness along with us, we won’t slip into New Age pseudo-spiritualism. We’ll end up somewhere more real.
- It’s time to get past gawking at the inconsistencies and ignorance of the Donald Trumps of the world. Their ignorance is irrelevant to their power, and it’s precisely that power that we need to understand and integrate — in a healthier way — into our politics.
- In history, periods of general confusion and anxiety ultimately arrived at new clarity and certainty. The more ‘awake’ we can be to the conflicts inside us, the sooner we’ll all get there. I like this quote a lot: ‘Our sole concern must be with making manifest the future which is immanent in ourselves.’ That’s deep.
Gebser offers two seminal examples. The first was the discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance — pioneered by the Italian artist Felipe Brunelleschi, and perfected by Leonardo da Vinci. Linear perspective creates the illusion of depth — of a third dimension — on a two-dimensional surface.
How could a new style of drawing be of historical importance? It makes no sense, until you try to imagine what it was like to try to conquer space without it. Space is three-dimensional. If you don’t have any way of communicating ideas in three dimensions, then space is difficult to master. No two-dimensional picture of the human anatomy can prepare a medieval doctor for what he finds when he cuts open a patient; he can only learn from cadavers — and his own experience. No two-dimensional drawing of a long-standing tower can explain to an architect how to build it; she can only mock-up a model, and hope that her real-life version stands the test of time, too. No two-dimensional drawing of a water wheel, or a clock, or even a knot, can reliably show a novice how to make one; he can only apprentice himself to a master and watch how it’s done.
But da Vinci’s drawings — for complex machines, for giant statues, for soaring bridges — can be followed, even centuries later, to bring his ideas into three dimensional reality.
Until we had a technology to reliably represent space, the reality of space was a sort-of prison that trapped our ideas. But with the advent, and perfection, of linear perspective, suddenly space became our prisoner.
The second example Gebser offers was discovery of space-time in the late 19th and early 20th century. Basically, we figured out how to think about time as a fourth dimension of space. Mathematicians call these conceptions of 4-and higher dimensions ‘non-Euclidian geometries.’ Just as linear perspective helped us to measure and conquer space, our ability to represent time as ‘just another dimension’ improved our powers to measure and conquer time.
(When Stephen Hawking passed away recently, every newspaper in the world ran an obituary. None helped us to understand the significance of his most famous book, A Brief History Of Time. That book was all about trying to help the rest us understand how physicists think about time as a fourth dimension — and why being able to do so makes a whole new era of scientific progress possible: from nuclear power to mobile phones to quantum computers.