Humanity's Journey Home
Learning to Live in a Living Universe
by Duane Elgin
“We are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.”
– Father Giovanni (1513)
Humanity’s Most Urgent Challenge
For at least 12,000 years, since the end of the ice ages, humanity has been on a journey of separation – pulling back from nature and becoming ever more differentiated, individuated, and empowered. In recent decades, we have become so dominant as a species that we are producing Earth-changing trends – global warming, species extinction, unsustainable population, massive famines, waves of migration, and more – that threaten humanity’s future. Now, with stunning abruptness, humanity is being challenged to turn from the familiar path of separation to an unfamiliar path of global caring and cooperation.
Because we are confronting the limits of the Earth’s ecosystem to carry the burden of humanity, we are also confronting our assumptions about the nature of the Universe and our evolutionary journey. Do we continue our rapid march into materialism, grounded in the modern assumption that we live in a Universe that is indifferent to humanity and comprised mostly of dead matter and empty space? Or do we open to a transforming insight emerging from the combined wisdom of science and the world’s spiritual traditions: The Universe is not dead at its foundations but is profoundly alive and we humans are an integral part of that larger aliveness. In the words of Plato, “The Universe is a single living creature that contains all living creatures within it.” Life within life within life.
Our view of the Universe profoundly impacts how we live in the world. If we think we live in a Universe that is dead at its foundations and without meaning and purpose, then it makes sense to exploit that which is dead on behalf of ourselves, the most visibly alive. Alternatively, if we have direct experiences of connecting with aliveness in nature and the world around us, then it is natural to respect and care for countless expressions of aliveness. These are two radically different approaches for perceiving and experiencing the Universe and, in turn, produce dramatically different views of our identity and evolutionary journey. This leads to a startling conclusion: The most urgent challenge facing humanity is not climate change, or species extinction, or unsustainable population growth; rather, it is how we understand the Universe and our intimate relationship within it. Our deepest choices for the future emerge from this core understanding.
Being unflinchingly realistic, it does not seem likely we will turn away from our current path of separation – with its growing inequities, overconsumption of resources, and deep injury to the Earth – unless we discover a pathway into the future that is so truly remarkable, transformative, and welcoming that we are drawn together by the magnitude and promise of its invitation. That pathway is being revealed by insights converging from science and the world’s wisdom traditions. We are discovering that, instead of struggling for meaning and a miracle of survival in a dead Universe, we are being invited to learn and grow forever in the deep ecologies of a living Universe. To step into the invitation of learning to live in a living Universe represents a journey so extraordinary that it invites us to transcend the wounds of history and begin a process of healing and reconciliation to realize a remarkable future we can only attain together.
The Nature of Our Cosmic Home
In contemplating a great turn toward this new pathway of evolution, it is important to ask: Is the Universe truly as Plato described – ‘a single living creature’ that contains all living creatures within it? The ancient intuition of a living Universe is now being reconsidered freshly as science cuts away superstition to reveal the cosmos as a place of unexpected wonder, depth, and sophistication. Summarizing, here are six, key insights emerging from science that point toward a living Universe. The universe is regarded as 1) a unified whole at the quantum level, 2) filled with titanic energies, even in seemingly empty space, 3) a co-arising whole or a dynamic, cosmic hologram, 4) permeated with an ecology of consciousness that enables self-organizing systems to emerge at every scale of existence, 5) having profound freedom built into the quantum foundations of existence, and 6) able to reproduce itself through the vehicle of black holes.
When we bring these attributes together, a new picture of our remarkable Universe comes into focus. Our Universe seems to be a living, cosmic hologram – a unified super-organism that is continuously regenerated at each moment and whose essential nature includes consciousness, or a knowing capacity, that enables systems at every scale of existence to center themselves and exercise some measure of freedom of choice. In addition, the Universe appears able to reproduce itself via black holes within a vastly larger cosmic garden or multi-verse where our Universe is but one among countless others. Overall, the vision of our Universe emerging from science is that of a magnificent super-organism evolving in complexity and consciousness.
How the Wisdom Traditions Regard the Universe
How does the emerging, scientific view of a living Universe fit with the originating insights of the world’s major wisdom traditions? Despite their many differences, when we penetrate the depths of the world’s major spiritual traditions, a common understanding about the Universe emerges that is in accord with insights from the frontiers of science: We live within a living Universe that arises, moment by moment, as an undivided whole in an unutterably vast process of awesome precision and power. The following quotes illustrate how this remarkable understanding is expressed across the world’s major religions (excerpted from my book, The Living Universe):
- Christian: “God is creating the entire Universe, fully and totally, in this present now. Everything God created… God creates now all at once.”[i] – Meister Eckhart, Christian mystic
- Islam: “You have a death and a return in every moment… Every moment the world is renewed but we, in seeing its continuity of appearance, are unaware of its being renewed.”[ii] – Rumi, 13th century Sufi teacher and poet
- Buddhist: “My solemn proclamation is that a new Universe is created every moment.”[iii] – D.T. Suzuki, Zen teacher and scholar
- Hindu: “The entire Universe contributes incessantly to your existence. Hence the entire Universe is your body.”[iv] – Sri Nisargadatta, Hindu teacher
- Taoist: “The Tao is the sustaining Life-force and the mother of all things; from it, all things rise and fall without cease.”[v] – Tao Te Ching
- Indigenous: “… there was no such thing as emptiness in the world. Even in the sky there were no vacant places. Everywhere there was life, visible and invisible…”[vi] – Luther Standing Bear, Lakota elder
Beneath the differences in language, a common vision is being described. The Universe is continuously emerging as a fresh creation at every moment. Each moment is a fresh formation of the Universe, emerging seamlessly and flawlessly. When we are in the present moment, we are literally riding the wave of creation of the cosmos – reality surfing.
Humanity’s Remarkable Invitation
As we understand the nature of the universe more fully, it enriches and transforms our sense of identity and evolutionary journey. We once thought that we were no bigger than our physical bodies, but now we are discovering that we are also deeply connected participants in a living, cosmic ecology. Awakening to our larger identity as both unique and intimately interconnected within a co-arising Universe transforms feelings of existential separation into experiences of subtle communion. We are far richer, bigger, more complex, and more alive than we ever thought. To choose the journey of learning how to live more fully and skillfully in our living universe is to enter a new era of exploration and discovery.
Our situation is unprecedented: We are being pushed by Earth-sized ecological necessity and pulled by Universe-sized evolutionary opportunity. If we lose sight of where we are (living within a living Universe), we profoundly diminish our understanding of who we are (beings of both biological and cosmic dimensions), and the journey we are on (learning to live within the depths of cosmic aliveness). Ultimately, in learning to live in a living Universe, we are learning to live in the deep ecology of existence – in eternity. This is such an astonishing call to our soulful nature from the deep compassion of a living Universe that we would be spiritual fools to ignore this invitation beyond price or measure.
As the push of outer necessity meets the pull of untapped inner capacity, humanity is beginning to awaken. And yet, adversity trends such as radical climate change are accelerating so rapidly there is a real danger that humanity’s responses could prove to be too little and too late – and we may veer off into a new dark age. If we are distracted and in denial, and overlook the urgency and importance of the great transition now underway, we will miss a unique, never-to-be-repeated, evolutionary opportunity. Each generation is asked to make sacrifices for the next, to be a caretaker for the future. This generation is being pushed by an injured Earth and pulled by a welcoming Universe to make a monumental gift to humanity’s future: working together with equanimity and maturity to consciously realize our bio-cosmic potential and purpose of learning to live in a living Universe.
This essay was adapted from Duane Elgin’s forthcoming book, Humanity’s Journey Home: We are bio-cosmic beings learning to live in a living universe. An overview chapter was published in Kosmos journal, Fall/Winter, 2017 and can be downloaded from his website: www.DuaneElgin.com. A version of this essay was developed for the “Global Purpose Movement.”
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[i] Fox, M. (1983). Meditations with Meister Eckhart (p. 24). Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co.
[ii] See, for example, Barks, C. (1995). The Essential Rumi, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
[iii] Suzuki, D.T. (1970). Zen and Japanese Culture (p. 364). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[iv] Maharaj, S.N. (1973). I Am That. Part I (trans., Maurice Frydman; p. 289). Bombay, India: Chetana.
[v] Lao Tsu, (1972). Tao Te Ching (trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English). New York: Vintage Books.
[vi] Luther Standing Bear, quoted in Brown, J.E., (1973) in “Modes of contemplation through actions: North American Indians.” In Main Currents in Modern Thought (p. 194). New York, November-December, 1973, p. 194.
Header Photo: Part of the Andromeda Galaxy – Photo: Stuart Rankin, C.c. 2.0 nc