At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.

Open Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

I am writing this letter to the man for whom I cast my vote three years ago, the man who sailed the ship of change with the power of the winds of hope. I am writing on behalf of those who voted for you, for the future generations whose right to well-being and even existence are in jeopardy, and most importantly, on behalf of the planet earth, which is our only home and the source of all our nourishment and capacity for survival. I hope the man who reads this now can receive these words, not just as a political official in the most powerful position on the planet, but as a human being gifted with the ability to courageously take the steps required to effect the deep, fundamental changes so desperately needed at this critical juncture.

Your time in office has been fraught with a disintegrating economy and fiscal crisis that cannot be mended by any unanimous solution between political parties. The corporate industrial economy which you are trying to revive is based primarily on the assumption of unlimited access to petroleum. As we passed peak oil in 2010, it has become rapidly clearer that an economy which relies on extracting a finite resource is ultimately terminal.[1] The earth processes under which petroleum formed will never exist again, at least within the timescale of human economies.[2] Currently every aspect of life in the United States is dependent on oil, from our electricity, to our transportation, communication, and food systems, to name just a few. Although it is known that the resource on which these systems depend is limited and non-renewable, there is currently little to no support for those few who attempt to create alternative modes of living. Any alternatives to the norm are usually labeled by mainstream media as utopian or unrealistic, yet these alternatives are addressing the far more unrealistic vision of an economy that will continue to thrive on a single resource whose end is in sight.[3] The collapse and lack of recovery of the economy is a clear sign that the industrial system is dissolving, and to attempt to revive it without rewriting the foundations of the system is to assure certain failure.[4]

To assume that only slight modifications to the current system will set it back on course will ultimately lead to such a severe collapse that no attempt at a recognizable recovery will be possible. A time will come when there will be no choice as to how the system will have to change, and any progress in that area will come at much higher cost both monetarily, and also in human life and well-being. Any worries now about the government deficit are incomparable to the deficit we are continually drawing from the earth.[5] The earth is treated as merely the backdrop to human affairs, a supply of free resources which can be extracted from endlessly.[6] Any part of the earth left untapped, from the last old-growth forests, to the freshwater aquifers, to the buried oil fields, is considered economically wasted.[7] Ironically, the utilized resources which are not wasted are quickly turned to irreversible waste within the disposable consumer economy, left to sit in mountainous trash heaps to decompose into toxins, if they can decompose at all. The earth is richly abundant, but only if humans create limits for themselves to allow for its self-renewing processes to take place.[8] If we do not form these limits we will ultimately encounter them by drowning in our own waste, if nothing else.[9]

Over the course of Western history a primary driving ideal has been human progress, a betterment of the human condition through acquisition of knowledge, and wealth and possessions for a more leisurely existence. At the foundation of progress is the idea of unlimited growth, which seemed like a real possibility through colonial expansion and the European discovery of abundant landscapes. Yet, as industrialization has allowed the human population to double three and a half times in the last century, that population has also met the unarguable reality that this planet is finite. As such, the definition of progress has actually come to mean a severe degradation of the earth in exchange for abundant consumer products, and excessive profit in the pockets of transnational corporations.[10] Monetary gain has become the top value in our society, allowing for limitless consumption of landscapes and the destruction of their intellectual, aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual values.[11]

The corporations which reap excessive wealth from the environment share little of the cost that comes from the destructive patterns of their production. The vast amounts of waste, much of it highly toxic, produced by corporate industry is not accounted for in their production costs.[12] Indeed, the weight of that clean-up usually falls to public services, paid for by tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations are not only exempt from taking the responsibility to clean up after themselves, they are not even required to contribute monetarily to that clean-up by paying taxes.[13] What money they do contribute to government is solely for the purposes of securing their own interests to continue unlimited extraction of resources from the earth, no matter the harm it causes to the environment or wider human community. If corporations, which are not human beings, are given personhood and legal rights, then the same rights should be given to the rivers, forests, soils, and all other species of this earth who have an equal right to exist as humans.[14] If humans can represent a corporation in court, humans should be able to represent the land in court as well.

One of the arguments on behalf of corporate business is that corporations provide jobs for millions of workers, allowing the population’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met. Yet those basic needs cannot be met if the earth is mined and destroyed until it can no longer support human life, even at a level much lower than that enjoyed by many in first world countries today.[15] The economic recession and high unemployment have shown that the way our economy has been functioning cannot provide enough employment as it is. A new economic structure is desperately needed, one that is aligned with the economy of the earth and is based on renewal and responsibility.[16]

The dire need for jobs is evident, but providing immediate employment at the cost of the health and functioning of the environment will only cause far more severe unemployment in the future.[17] Destroying the ecosystems on which human life and economy depend will ultimately destroy the economy, as it is already beginning to do. The debates over the Keystone Pipeline project are one such example, for not only is this project extracting a finite resource, it will pose great risks to the workers toiling in a toxic environment. The pipeline will permanently destroy vast amounts of land and water for a temporary gain, and the effects of extracting and using this oil will likely be the tipping point for the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.

Fortunately, there are other ways to employ the U.S. population that can flourish sustainably into the indefinite future, if they are supported and encouraged. We desperately need solutions for aligning the human economy with the earth’s systems, and investing in the creativity of environmental entrepreneurs will provide growing employment into the future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

One key area which needs reformation, and which could provide far greater employment than it currently does, is in the field of agriculture. The industrial agriculture system, which relies heavily on petroleum, has shown itself to be far more expensive and less productive than once hoped.[18] The chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the large machines suited only to monocultures, destroy the life-giving properties of soil and erode the topsoil until it can no longer support any crops.[19]

A major disconnect lies between U.S. citizens and where their food is grown, food that is harvested primarily by immigrant workers who are rapidly being deported while crops rot unpicked in the fields. If the argument for deportation is that illegal immigrants take American jobs, why is it that the high percentage of unemployed U.S. citizens are not taking up the work of growing their food? The industrial system has stripped the dignity of the art of food production, as it has taken the dignity of many other forms of employment as well. One way to fundamentally change the disintegrating economy would be to restore the dignity and artistry of the most essential jobs that sustain human life.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The growing, preserving, packaging, transporting, and marketing of the current agricultural system is expensive and wasteful, as food must travel long distances to reach consumers’ mouths.[20] By localizing the food economy most of these expenses would be cut, and dependence on oil for food production would decrease tremendously. Greater emphasis could be placed on the quality and variety of crops since they do not need to be engineered for transportation, which would ultimately lead to a far healthier population overall. Finally, with more U.S. citizens working with the land, the American people would have the opportunity to reconnect with the North American landscape in a way that would inspire a deeper care and respect for the earth.[21]

The most immediate and disastrous consequence of our civilization’s addiction to oil is the exponentially increasing saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Humans have become a force of nature changing the very chemistry of the planet in a few centuries, on a scale that previously took millions of years.[22] It is this composition of our atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of life on this planet, and we are altering it faster than we can calculate its effects.[23] While the predicted consequences of climate change appear to be taking place far more rapidly than the most pessimistic models once indicated, the U.S. government has disregarded this knowledge and has consistently taken no action in any international climate agreements.[24] Although the U.S. has contributed most of any country to polluting and altering the planet’s climate, the government has chosen to put short-term economic gain, for the benefit of a few corporations, before the welfare of the human population, including its own citizens. Humanity has gained the power of a geologic force, but has not shouldered any of the responsibility that comes with such power.[25]

The amount of money poured into defense spending against potential, and often self-generated, international threats will be as nothing compared to the cost of defending against the real and imminent threat of the retaliation of an abused earth.[26] Ecosystems function in such a way that if any single species becomes too numerous and sets the system out of balance, the environment will no longer support the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. While humanity has managed to avoid such natural population suppression with our innovative technologies, it is those very technologies that are now triggering such a potential die-off on a global scale if immediate action is not taken.

The effects of climate change can already be observed worldwide, and the ultimate damage will be determined by whether the U.S. government can extricate itself from the pockets of greedy corporate lobbyists, and take a true leadership position against the greatest challenge to ever face the human species. Addressing climate change and the environmental crises will soon be beyond the disparities between political parties, and of far greater consequence than the outcome of the 2012 election, or any subsequent election. Whether you have one year or five in the most powerful position in the world, your actions in this moment will determine the course of the future for generations to come. If the U.S. takes the lead to responsibly address climate change, every country in the world will follow suit. If not, many other countries such as India and China, will choose not to either.

The darkest periods in history have proven to be the most creative, and you have been given the opportunity to bring about the fundamental change this planet so desperately needs if we are to survive.[27] The pain of making the necessary changes now will be far less than the pain all of humanity and the earth will suffer if we sit idly by and do nothing.[28] As a planetary community we will either all survive together, or the entire earth will die. The earth is an irreplaceable gift which will not exist in the same way ever again.[29]

The geologian Thomas Berry, who dedicated his life to speaking on behalf of the earth and who was the inspiration for this letter, wrote: “While Earth’s resources are finite, what is not limited is our desire to understand, to appreciate, and to celebrate the Earth.”[30] Your decisions while in office will determine the ability of the next generations, your daughters and all those who will come after, to live in the exquisitely beautiful, awe-inspiring, miraculously habitable earth community that you live in. This is the future that is at stake. Please handle it with wisdom.

With hope,

Becca Tarnas

Bibliography

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty- First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.


[1] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.

[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 156.

[3] Berry, The Great Work, 109.

[4] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 29.

[5] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 72

[6] Berry, The Great Work, 22.

[7] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 155.

[8] Ibid, 154.

[9] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 66.

[10] Berry, The Great Work, 62-63.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 66.

[13] Berry, The Great Work, 130.

[14] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 133.

[15] Berry, The Great Work, xi.

[16] Ibid, 60.

[17] Ibid, 113.

[18] Ibid, 134.

[19] Ibid, 139.

[20] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 64.

[21] Berry, The Great Work, 160.

[22] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 63.

[23] Ibid, 47.

[24] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 201.

[25] Ibid, 42.

[26] Ibid, 76.

[27] Berry, The Great Work, 9.

[28] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 159.

[29] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 175.

[30] Ibid, 132.

Poetize the Planet: Mythopoetic Expression in an Earthly Cosmology

let’s meet
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs
– Drew Dellinger[2]

Humanity needs a new cosmology. The Earth needs a new poetry. As humanity’s discordant relationship with our home planet continues to wreak environmental devastation worldwide, no single solution can be put forward that can fully address the crises escalating on the Earth. The most creative answers will come to no avail if they are still trapped within the current mechanistic, reductionist worldview that initially set us so deeply out of balance. How are we, as a species, to address the issues of ecological destruction? The solutions require a creativity deeper and greater than the human alone. We must ask the Earth. As Thomas Berry puts it “…we need not a human answer to an Earth problem, but an Earth answer to an Earth problem.”[3]

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The chasm of communication between the modern human and the Earth is great, but not unbridgeable. David Abram posits that our human language is a gift originally from the Earth. “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world––as a stuttering reply not to just others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?”[4] This understanding of language as initially born out of the cosmos cannot be relegated to mere projection; the Earth calls forth the human imagination in diverse ways dependent upon the characteristics of the landscape. Language transcends human creativity alone.[5]

The key imaginative language, the Rosetta stone of reconnection, must be poetic. The cosmos speaks directly to us, telling the story of its unfolding since time began, in the language of poetry. Earth poetry calls to us in the sighing death rattle of an autumn breeze among fiery-hued leaves; it radiates as the rich heat of black humus soil under the exposed skin of curious feet; it cries as the sonorous whale’s melody born through the crashing of a salty ocean wave. While many modern adults have long been closed off to this language, it is naturally available to children as they enter the world with fresh, enchanted senses: they can still read nature’s stories.[6] The Earth has an inherent poetic quality to it, as its nature is “…bound into the aesthetic experience, into poetry, art, and dance,”[7] as Berry notes. Our first task is to listen, an offering of the greatest act of love and respect to the Earth.

For humanity to once again hear the poetry of the Earth, the cosmos must be reenchanted.[8] An innovative mythic worldview is needed in which humans understand their roles within the larger Earth and cosmic community. We need a “…vision of a planet integral with itself throughout its spatial extent and its evolutionary sequence… if we are to have the psychic power to undergo the psychic and social transformations that are being demanded of us.”[9] Berry puts forth in his writings a call to the poets and artists of the world to help forge a new, mythically imbued cosmology that could culturally guide humanity’s survival into the future. “There must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.”[10]

In his book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram explores in poetic language these themes of reconnection and identification between the human and our Earth community. Drawing on his own rich sensory experience of the Earth, he is able to perceive the stories the planet is sharing with all of us. In complementary juxtaposition, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s new cosmology, as presented in The Universe Story, also offers a meaningful, enchanted vision retold from the perspective of scientific inquiry. Both Abram’s, and Swimme and Berry’s, cosmologies present a new mythological story based on an understanding of the Earth, not as an object, but rather as an ensouled subject.

Scientific inquiry has been the driving force impelling contemporary Western culture forward. The objective stance of the scientist has unveiled vast expanses of knowledge previously unavailable to humanity. Yet this objectivity has also masked a myriad of other knowledges, deep wisdoms and mysteries that scientific impartiality cannot perceive.[11] Such a detached position has led to a belief that the evolution of the cosmos, from its first moments of flaring into being, is a sequence of random happenstance, somehow arriving at life and the epiphenomenon of consciousness upon our well-situated, but insignificant, planet. While the scientific method has revealed much that could not be disclosed by our physical or intuitive senses alone, the abstractions it produces have also taken the position of primary truth; “… as a result, more and more of us come to assume that those theoretical realms are more true, more fundamental, more real than this palpable world that we experience with our breathing bodies.”[12] Yet, it may actually be such that these scientific results are best understood when interpreted through our senses and emotions, illuminating the greater depths of scientific facts.

Swimme and Berry tell the scientifically grounded story of the evolution of the cosmos from a sensual, mythic perspective, unfolding the same science in a lyrical, poetic form that reveals those very qualities within cosmogenesis itself. From the “primordial flaring forth,”[13] to the birth of stars, the formation of the galaxies, and the supernovas that forged the elements which seeded new stars and the planets, to the emergence of life on Earth, the complexification of life, and the evolution and cultural development of the human, this story is expressed as a celebratory event. The unfolding of the universe is the celebratory event, for “…celebration is omnipresent, not simply in the individual modes of its expression but in the grandeur of the entire cosmic process.”[14] Each phase of the journey expresses the inherent subjectivity of each event, a thrilling sensuality contained within every fiber of the cosmos.

The Earthly cosmology of David Abram is first grounded in the intimacy of the senses, then moves out to encompass the tangible qualities of the land, the Earth, and finally the cosmos. Swimme and Berry begin at the macrocosmic level, while Abram begins at the microcosmic, yet their two cosmologies ultimately meet in the middle, revealing one story of cosmogenesis and the intimate experience of it in the present moment.

The Earth can be communed with in part by understanding our human similarity to the myriad of living and non-living beings surrounding us.

We can feel the trees and the rocks underfoot, because we are not so unlike them, because we have our own forking limbs and our own mineral composition… are tangible bodies of thickness and weight, and so have a great deal in common with the palpable things that we encounter.[15]

An intimacy inherently exists between all beings in the cosmos, as we each have our origin in the first ecstatic moments of the universe’s flaring forth. This relationship has continued through all time, forming the complex webs of interconnection and symbiosis that make life on Earth possible. Our bodies, like the other bodies in the environment, all partake in the gift economy of the Earth: one organism’s waste is transformed into the nourishment of another.[16] Currently, humanity has become an imbalance in this economy, taking much but returning sterile, or even toxic, waste that is of little use, and causes great harm, to the other organisms inhabiting the planet.

A common perception is that humans live on the Earth, but rather we are deeply embedded in ways our bodily senses are able to reveal to us. Take a breath of air. The air swirling around us, connecting the entire planet in its cycles, extends for miles from the surface of the land and the oceans.[17] We live deep within the Earth because we stand below the layer of air which allows Earth to be what it is.[18] Moreover, the composition of that air, so essential to life’s existence, also would not exist without the presence of life.[19] Life and air mutually create each other. “To put it starkly, the biosphere is not simply in a habitable zone but also makes a habitable zone.”[20] Furthermore, not only are we in the Earth, but the Earth is in us. From the air we breath, to the food we eat, and the water we drink, the Earth itself courses through our bodies, just as we make our course through the well-worn pathways of life on this planet.

Physical nourishment is not the only gift the Earth gives its inhabitants. As mentioned previously, language may be a property of the Earth itself, as well as emotion, imagination, and reflection. If the human has psychic capacities then such ability must lie first within the cosmos, and therefore the Earth. Consciousness, rather than an activity occurring solely within the human brain, may be an inherent quality of the Earth in which we each participate.[21]

What if there is, yes, a quality of inwardness to the mind, not because the mind is located inside us (inside our body or brain), but because we are situated, bodily, inside it––because our lives and our thoughts unfold in the depths of a mind that is not really ours, but is rather the Earth’s? What if like the hunkered owl, and the spruce bending above it, and the beetle staggering from needle to needle on that branch, we all partake of the wide intelligence of the world––because we’re materially participant, with our actions and our passions, in the broad psyche of this sphere?[22]

Just as we inhale the air, we intake conscious awareness. Most importantly, from this perspective, humans are not the only beings inhaling the psyche of the planet, but rather every living and non-living entity partakes in this consciousness, each in their own diversified manner.

Like the landscape, the consciousness of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region, affording various insights and ideas to the imagination that differ by location.

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[23]

The human imagination, and its ability for creative insight and innovation, is sustained by this diversity of the landscape and the myriad of beings living within it.[24] Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on the creativity gifted by the Earth. If that gift is diminished, by species extinction and landscape destruction, our capacity to be fully human is also curtailed.

Enclosed in human-made cities and artificial environments, we will lose the capacity to think, dream, and create. The desire to forge a mutually-enhancing relationship with the Earth community is sustained by constant contact with the land, the ocean, forests, deserts, rivers, mountains, and the multitude of species living in these landscapes. If one is insulated from the array of life forces, then one’s desire to intimately know and respect them will dwindle and die. Such isolation leads to destruction for both the human and non-human, since something fundamental to the development of the cosmos is being constrained. As human creativity is stifled, the capacity to imagine solutions to environmental devastation is limited, unleashing a positive feedback loop that furthers ecological ruin and decreases awareness.

If humans treat the Earth and its multitude of abundant life as inert objects, then their inherent subjectivity becomes veiled, and even violated. The opportunity to commune with another ensouled being is lost. As Abram writes,

When I talk of the aspen or the granite outcrop as a determinate object, I push into unconsciousness my direct experience of trees and rock ledges, contradicting my carnal awareness of them as ambiguous beings with their own enigmatic ways of influencing the space around them, and of influencing me.[25]

When we objectify the world in a merely instrumental way we deny ourselves even the possibility to encounter it as a meaningful subject. Once we choose to no longer speak to the Earth, to sing to the sunrise or hum to the cradling arms of an oak, to whisper to a chipmunk or call to a robin, then they will no longer speak to us, either. Even if they do, we will have lost our ability to hear them.[26]

To open up such communication is to take a risk, stepping out of the stability of our everyday human interactions and into what is initially an utterly foreign language. Yet what is most key in all communication, whether between human, animal, plant, river, or soil, is honesty.[27] The words do not have to be directly translated because the intonation and body language, that which all universe beings share, will carry the message, if we can surrender to trust it. Abram writes that he learned to sing when confronting an animal which he had startled, and which might potentially be dangerous if it felt threatened. The song was both relaxing to his own tensed nerves, and communicated that sense of safety to the animal before him.[28] In another situation, when faced with hundreds of curious but angry sea lions, Abram began to dance, offering the sea lions a gift of his humanity portrayed through the animal expression of his body. Mesmerized by his movement, the sea lions were calmed from their initial fury at unexpected intrusion.[29]

Such communication can be opened between humans and plants as well, although on a subtler level due to the greater genetic difference between the two biological kingdoms. Yet the doorway can be opened once again by finding the similarities, rather than focusing on differences, between the plant and the human. If one stands in a forest and listens attentively to the sound of wind through the tree branches, different dialects can be discerned between tree species, and even individual trees. While some might argue that this is not the trees speaking, but merely the wind passing through their branches, then we must be humbled to realize that the same thing is occurring with our own voices when we speak or sing. It is the air vibrating our vocal cords, just as that same air is vibrating the trees’ leaves and branches.[30] Furthermore, it is that same air that is cycling around the planet, uniting the globe as a single being.

The cycling of carbon dioxide around the globe takes approximately a year to complete. In that time each molecule we breathe is circled to distant lands that we may never see with our own eyes. Yet our breath, which has shaped our speech and kept us alive, is distributed worldwide. It has been calculated that every growing leaf on the Earth, within a year, will contain a few dozen of the carbon atoms we exhale in every breath.[31] The words we say, the poetry we speak, are crystallized within every leaf on the planet. We are listened to in a way almost impossible to imagine, indicating the power of our communication. We need to “…take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than merely human meaning and resonance.”[32] There is an “…uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world’s unfolding.”[33]

Children are born into the world with this ability to whole-heartedly commune with the natural world. Indeed, for the very young child there is no separation between her sense of self and her surroundings. It is only with a growing awareness of her body that the child is able to perceive a quality of otherness in her environment.[34] Yet, by emerging slowly from this embedded matrix, she is still able to communicate with the Earth, holding a fascination and sense of awe for all she encounters. Berry believed these encounters are essential for children, “… for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests, and woodland creatures of Earth that some of their most profound inner experiences originate.”[35] A child who is able to interact with, and explore fully, the Earth community of which she is a part will be able to grow into an adult with an understanding of her place in the universe, and a vision of the interconnected web that is the Earth, her home. “Only after such an unimpeded childhood does a grown woman know in her bones that she inhabits a breathing cosmos, that her life is embedded in a wild community of dynamically intertwined and yet weirdly different lives.”[36] It is just such an individual who will be open to the poetic communication of the universe, who will participate in its imagination and creativity to devise a mutually-enhancing relationship between the human and the Earth.

It is easy for the rational mind to dismiss the whispered stories of trees and the radiant breathing of the moon as projections of the human mind. No great truth is truth if it cannot be contradicted in some way. A sense of trust must be built between the isolated human and her environment. As that bridge is formed, what first seemed to be arrogant projection is really a deep perception. We are perceiving the similarities that draw connection between the human and the Earth, only to realize they are one and the same: “…our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself.”[37] The human experience of emotions and consciousness are only qualities of the human because they are first qualities of the Earth, and prior to that the cosmos.

Two hundred million years ago, the first mammals flourished into existence as the next stage of the planet’s unfolding. Mammals developed an emotional sensitivity to the cosmos, impressing upon them the wonder and awe of the universe in a new way.[38] It was out of the mammalian line that humans evolved, perceiving the great mysteries of the deep world as the archetypal, enchanted patterning of myth. In the opening to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[39] These inexhaustible cosmic energies may be the very same energies creating the consciousness of the Earth, in which we all participate.

Myths are the underlying stories that subtly guide the course of a culture’s manifestation. To discover a new myth to guide Western culture, and ultimately the planetary culture, toward a harmonious relationship with the Earth, the dialogue must be opened between humanity and the local landscape in which each human being finds herself. Each landscape inspires different emotions, ideas, and stories, causing the universal, archetypal energies coursing through Earth’s consciousness to take diverse, concrete form in different localities. “For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”[40] Myth, like air or water, is a global, or universal, phenomenon saturated with the qualities of the local, as can be perceived when the local landscape is communed with.

The cultures living in the greatest harmony with the Earth are the indigenous oral cultures spread across the planet. Although each indigenous culture is as radically varied as the landscape in which they live, certain similarities connect their ways of life. Primarily, an oral culture is inherently local, grounded in the region in which they have culturally developed.[41] It seems to be no coincidence that at the same time that the Earth’s ecosystems are unraveling, the planet’s indigenous cultures and their array of languages are also rapidly facing extinction.[42] The diverse languages of the Earth are bound up into the land, and as the land is lost so are its poetic expressions.

The cultures that are causing the greatest environmental destruction carry a noble lineage of writings on religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, poetry, and story that are grounded in a deep reverence, care, and understanding of the Earth. These writings are easily available to nearly everyone in these cultures, yet the demolition of the natural world continues. Abram came to the realization that such a disconnect occurs because these ideas and stories are written down, “effectively divorcing these many teachings from the living land that once held and embodied these teachings.”[43] Without the rich qualities of the landscape engaging every physical sense, these stories lose their sensual depth and cannot impart the full wisdom of the land which inspired them. Only if experienced in the landscape which first spoke the stories can the tales fully convey their meaning.

“Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local Earth? Not without restorying the local Earth.”[44] As the consequences of the ecological crises become dire, the importance of learning to hear the innumerable voices of the Earth becomes critical. Each voice in every region is telling a unique facet of the universe’s unfolding, which must be heard and retold, inspiring the creativity to find a mutually-enhancing, self-renewing, sustainable path into the future. The true myth of the universe’s journey, from the eternal unfolding of the primordial flaring forth, to the ever-fleeting present moment, must be spoken as story, as the great myth of our time. This story must carry the voices of all the local inhabitants so that new relationships can be formed between them and each new generation of the human being. Children should be able to carry their wonder of the natural world into their adulthood in a mature, reverent form.

“We know of no other place in the universe with such gorgeous self-expression as exists on Earth.”[45] Humans participate in that self-expression through our own creative self-expression: through our myths and stories, our music, writings and art, our innovation and traditions, and our conscious participatory way of being. It is through these expressive gifts that humanity will be able to step fully into its niche in the Earth community.

The new myths we will tell each other will express a tale of renewal, rejuvenation, and reconnection. The ancient cosmologies of the world were based in celebration of seasonal renewal, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. The new story of the universe honors the irreversible changes unfurling in the course of the evolution of the cosmos. The sharing of that story brings about a reconnection between humanity and the cosmos, in itself a form of renewal. The mythology of the future is spiralic, a celebratory tale of transformation within the cycles of a living, breathing cosmos. The myth is like the Earth itself, continuously circling the sun while simultaneously hurtling forward on an unknown journey across cosmic time and space.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Crist, Eileen and H. Bruce Rinker, ed. Gaia in Turmoil. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010.

Dellinger, Drew. Love Letter to the Milky Way. Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.


[1] Credit for this title must be given to Matthew David Segall, who created the phrase at Esalen Institute in conversation with poet Drew Dellinger, regarding Dellinger’s poem “Planetize the Movement.”

[2] Drew Dellinger, “Hymn to the Sacred Body of the Universe,” in Love Letter to the Milky Way (Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010), 30.

[3] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 35.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 4.

[5] Abram, Becoming Animal, 32.

[6] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 15.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 21.

[9] Ibid, 42.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] Abram, Becoming Animal, 73.

[12] Ibid, 75.

[13] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 17.

[14] Ibid, 264.

[15] Abram, Becoming Animal, 46.

[16] Ibid, 62.

[17] Tyler Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 30.

[18] Abram, Becoming Animal, 99.

[19] Ibid, 101.

[20] Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker, “One Grand Organic Whole,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 4.

[21] Ibid, 16-17.

[22] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[23] Ibid, 118.

[24] Ibid, 128-129.

[25] Ibid, 63-64.

[26] Ibid, 175.

[27] Ibid, 169.

[28] Ibid, 161-162.

[29] Ibid, 164-165.

[30] Ibid, 171.

[31] Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” 30.

[32] Abram, Becoming Animal, 172-173.

[33] Ibid, 173.

[34] Ibid, 38.

[35] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 133.

[36] Abram, Becoming Animal, 42.

[37] Ibid, 153.

[38] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 10.

[39] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[40] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1-2.

[41] Abram, Becoming Animal, 268.

[42] Ibid, 265.

[43] Ibid, 281.

[44] Ibid, 289.

[45] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 263.

Full of Gods: Divine Participation for an Ecological Era

Understanding the relationship between the natural world, the human, and the Divine has been a driving inquiry of both Western philosophy and religion from the ancient Hellenic and Hebrew eras to the present. Such fundamental questions seem to pervade human thought, as each new generation grows up with a desire to discern their purpose for living, the nature of the world, and how both came to be. At our current crucial moment in history, in which much of humanity’s devastation of Earth has led the planet to the brink of irreversible crisis, such questions of the historical understanding of the relationship of the Divine to the world could be essential to moving forward in a sustainable manner.

In the opening chapter of The Participatory Turn, Jacob Sherman lays out three major shifts in the philosophy of divine participation with humanity and the world. Each of these participatory turns, which occurred during the course of the last two millennia, were informed by the previous understanding of participation and seeded the development of the subsequent concepts. The three turns are the formal participation of Plato, the existential participation of Thomas Aquinas, and the creative participation of Friedrich Schelling. Threads of each philosophy have been carried forward to the present moment, and can provide a basis for understanding the relationship between the Divine and the natural world in light of the ecological crisis.

The concept of participation in philosophy began with Plato, who used the term methexis to describe the relationship between the realm of eternal Forms, or Ideas, and the realm of incarnate things. Neither of these realms exist independently from the other, nor are they identical. Rather, the realm of divine Ideas informs each incarnated thing, and each of those things partakes in the Forms that give them being. According to Plato, the incarnated beings are able to participate in the Forms because they are recalled, by means of anamnesis or recollection, from prenatal experience. For example, an oak tree incarnates as an acorn, and as it matures it recalls the Form of Oak Tree, in which it participates, from its prenatal experience of the realm of Forms.

In Plato’s conception of participation the world is infused with gods, the Divine saturating the world of becoming. The realm that knits the Forms and the manifest world together into reality is the realm of metaxy, in which daemons carry prayers and blessings between mortals and gods. One such daimon is Eros: love, therefore, is one of the beings that weaves divinity into the material world. Plato aims “to secure the value of the world of becoming by exposing it to the contagion of the Good.”[1] As pertains to much of contemporary humanity’s current relationship with nature, such an understanding of the divine presence informing the world provides an ancient argument for reverence towards the Earth.

The existential participatory turn was put forward by Thomas Aquinas from more of a religious stance than a philosophical one. While Plato addressed the question of what a being is, Thomas takes up the inquiry of why that being exists. Thomas recognized creation as a gift bestowed by God, which also holds implications for a historical study of reverence for the Earth. If the natural world is mistreated or destroyed it is a form of irreverence for the generosity of God. For Thomas, “Creation does not describe a transformation as if from one state to another, but rather a radical relationality, a state of dependence upon the divine.”[2] He calls this relationship causal participation, for the Divine is causing a being to exist. This existence does not belong to the created being, but rather is the imparted gift received from the Divine and is ultimately within the keeping of the Divine. “As the principle of all participated beings, God overflows, even exteriorizes Godself in the generous diffusion that makes creation possible.”[3] Existence is the limited potency of an Infinite Act of God.

One can see the shift in perception of the nature of the Divine from the Platonic to the Medieval Christian era. For Plato the idea of infinity indicated chaos. Therefore, to be perfect, the Divine must be bounded and limited. As Hellenic thought was exposed to Hebraic consciousness and the mystery religions in Alexandria, Neoplatonism developed and with it a new conception of the Divine as infinite. This co-mingling of ideas was carried through Christianity to the time of Thomas Aquinas; it informed his understanding of existence as the infinity of God gifted as a limited potential in mortal beings. As regards the current environmental movement, such a vision of divine existence within a limited creation indicates the sacrality of the natural world, as well as a realization that this world is finite. It calls for respect and preservation, to revere the Divine and conserve its material presence.

Neither the account of participation in Plato nor in Thomas accounts for the creative agency of the human being. This conception of creativity did not exist in the ancient world, as the ability to create was considered the property of the Divine alone. However, as this concept of creativity progressed through history, it instigated the third participatory turn. Human creativity is a form of participation in God’s creativity, but while humans are finitely creative, the Divine remains infinitely creative.

As an understanding of human creativity developed with modernity, the clear distinction between the Divine and the created world began to blur. Benedict de Spinoza developed a pantheistic description of the world which obliterates any boundary between the divine and mortal realms. According to Spinoza, God and nature are one and the same. This expressivist philosophy is no longer participatory, as there can be no relationality between realms. It does, however, plant the seeds for the third participatory turn. “Spinoza, therefore, finds creativity everywhere; every creature participates in creativity and has the power of expression because every creature is God expressing Godself.”[4]

Not only does pantheism do away with participation, it also negates any reason for moral responsibility. If every act is a creative expression of God, then acts of harm or evil can no longer be distinguished from acts of goodness. In regards to acts of environmental devastation, there is no difference between clear-cutting an old-growth forest and protecting endangered species. Both are acts of God, and therefore neither one morally outweighs the other.

The third participatory turn, the creative turn of Schelling, emerges from the lineage of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, and is partially in response to Spinoza’s pantheism. Schelling’s panentheistic view is related to Thomas’ vision of existence as a gift from the Divine, which is an externalizing of God from Godself. Panentheism, instead of equating God with nature, sees God both within nature and transcending nature. Schelling also accounts for the creativity of humans, taking humanity from the level of puppets animated by divine existence to that of creative agents expressing God’s infinite creativity. “Schelling sees everything, humans and nature alike, as alive and creative through their relationship to a living, creative divinity.”[5]

According to Schelling, there is a complexity within God that allows God not only to exist as a transcendent power but also to exceed that transcendence and spill over into immanent form. “Schelling transforms the notion of subjectivity into a dynamic concept of the self as excessive, the subject as that which does not simply coincide with itself and therefore goes beyond itself.”[6] God is composed of three powers: one centripetal, one centrifugal, and a third which binds the first two together in a creative tension. It is this creative tension that allows for the emergence of the world and the individual creative agencies within that world. Therefore, Schelling not only accounts for the essence of Plato and the existence of Aquinas, but also the freedom, imagination, and creative will experienced by the modern human as expressed over the course of a lifetime. “We participate in the Absolute’s own creativity and so, through genuine artwork, reveal the infinite within finite forms.”[7]

Schelling’s panentheism provides an argument for cultivating a reverence for the Divine within the natural world, and also a sense of creative responsibility in our actions towards the Earth. Schelling describes the third power in his concept of God as a universal soul linking nature to spirit, yet all ultimately are the Divine. For Schelling, we live in an ensouled cosmos with which humans have a relationship. This provides a moral reason to care for the Earth and to protect it from wanton destruction.

All three participatory turns indicate a continuous thread running throughout history of a suffusion of the natural world, and the human, with the sacredness of the Divine. Yet today, as the industrial capitalist system consumes Earth’s finite bounty, little trace of this perception of the Divine in the world seems to remain within Western consciousness. For many, the dominant world view has departed even from the mechanized pantheism of Spinoza to an anthropotheism, with the human as God, which has completely disenchanted the world outside the human. The divine subjectivity of God lives in the human alone, if even there. In just over two millennia, nature has gone from being wholly informed by the Good, to a store of untapped resources made good only by human creative ingenuity.

To bring a halt to the rampant destruction of our home planet, humanity needs to recover the ability to perceive and commune with the divinity saturating the cosmos. Participation is a mode of reconnection that can allow one to see humanity’s embeddedness in, and partnership to, the world that we are. The participatory philosophies of Plato, Thomas, and Schelling each offer a crucial step in understanding one’s relationship with the Divine. While no one of these philosophies alone will serve to bring humanity forward into a harmonious ecological era, they provide the essential seeds for the future garden of that relationship to grow. Perhaps the Earth community stands on the threshold of a fourth participatory turn. If engaged fully, that vision may mature into a Form beyond what has yet been imagined by the human mind, a Form currently resting in the imagination of the Divine.

Work Cited

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.


[1] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 84.

[2] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 87.

[3] Ibid, 91.

[4] Ibid, 97.

[5] Ibid, 100.

[6] Ibid, 100.

[7] Ibid, 102.

An Archetypal Glimpse into Teilhard’s Evolutionary Vision

This essay has now been published in Issue 4 of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology.

Science and religion have been in an antagonistic battle of refutation since the dawn of modernity. Few have sought to reconcile them, and many would call it futile even to try. However, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought a revolutionary way of thinking to the two world views that provides a vision of their harmonious relationship. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Teilhard, who had a scientific background in paleontology, sought to express the evolution of the cosmos as a divine teleological journey culminating, thus far, in the human being. Teilhard believed the unique self-reflective quality of the human, and the human capacity for Christian love, would ultimately lead to a divine convergence of the human community upon what he called the Omega Point, or the Cosmic Christ.

Throughout his life Teilhard had an immense sense of hope and optimism for the future, in spite of the tremendous suffering he witnessed during his life, especially as a stretcher-bearer in World War I. His ideas on the psychic capacity or interiority of all forms of matter have provided the seeds for subsequent thinkers, such as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Their work addresses the inherent subjectivity of the cosmos, and the implications of Teilhard’s cosmology for creating a confluent relationship between humanity and the Earth community. In his lifetime, Teilhard’s innovative thoughts were resisted by the religious and scientific communities alike, yet, in retrospect, he is truly emerging as a visionary thinker far ahead of his time.

Archetypal astrology provides a unique entry point into Teilhard’s ideas, as one can gain deep insight by looking at the positions of the planets when he was born and comparing their associated archetypal character with the ideas he developed over the course of his career. The birth chart is so rich and multivalent in its symbolism that such an inquiry cannot be exhaustive, nor can it do full justice to the brilliance and complexity of his work. However, key examples from some of Teilhard’s essays in The Activation of Energy and The Heart of Matter, as well as his masterwork The Human Phenomenon, can illustrate how the planetary archetypes permeate his life work.[i]

Teilhard was born May 1, 1881 in Sarcenat, France, with a stellium of seven planets in his natal chart (see Figure 1). In sequence, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, Sun, Neptune, Venus, and Pluto are all within the orb of archetypal influence to each other. It is the nature of a stellium, which is a conjunction of three or more planets, that the planets most distant from each other within the stellium may not be within the regular orb of influence, 10°–12°, of a conjunction with each other. However, the archetypal fields associated with the planets situated between them activate the archetypal energies associated with the further planets and pull them into a mutually stimulating relationship.. In Teilhard’s chart, the planet Uranus is also in a 120° trine alignment to this stellium, in closest aspect to Teilhard’s Sun, Neptune, and Venus. Midpoints, which are the axis points calculated between two planets on the circle of the birth chart, are also archetypally operative in Teilhard’s chart, as can be seen in his Sun-Mercury-Pluto combination.

Figure 1

Teilhard was born with the Sun at the mathematical midpoint between Mercury and Pluto. The archetypal combination of Mercury and Pluto can often be observed in someone who is a deep thinker, who strives to look beneath the surface of reality. This trait is clearly evident in Teilhard, who delved into the core of things with an investigative passion, searching for the psychic interior of matter. Mercury relates to seeing and thinking, while Pluto relates to what lies beneath the surface. Teilhard argues that consciousness was present in matter from the beginning. During the course of evolution, consciousness and matter complexified in concert with one another, leading to the self-reflexive consciousness present in human beings. In the opening of The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard persuades his reader to perceive differently, to see deeper into the nature of the world. He writes that “the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more.”[ii] He also focuses on cultivating new senses to aid in this seeing, including “the sense of spatial immensity,” “the sense of depth,” and “the sense . . . of the organic,” all of which relate to the Plutonic character of mass, depth, and primordial biology. [iii]

To get a deeper understanding of the components of Teilhard’s stellium, it may be helpful to first look at the conjunctions in discrete combinations. The first two planets in the stellium are Mercury conjunct Saturn. While the Mercury-Pluto archetypal complex is expressed in the depth of Teilhard’s writing, the Mercury-Saturn combination can be seen in its careful, disciplined organization. Every chapter is divided and subdivided into numbered or lettered headings, his arguments are laid out with bullet-point precision, and each of his sentences is structured according to a distinct patterning. He takes the immensity and complexity of the universe and distills it into clearly articulated, logical arguments. As an example of the multivalence of the planetary expressions, Teilhard’s Mercury-Saturn complex also correlates to the posthumous publication of his work. Saturn relates to both negation and death; Teilhard’s religious superiors denied him the publication of his work until after he passed away.

The part of Teilhard’s chart that is arguably most central to his philosophy is the triple conjunction in his stellium of Neptune, Venus, and Pluto. Neptune correlates to the transcendent, spirituality, religion, and the divine; the archetype of Venus encompasses love, beauty, and harmony; and Pluto archetypally relates to biological evolutionary drive and transformation. The central purpose of Teilhard’s work was to marry biological evolution and Christian spirituality. Neptune, Venus, and Pluto are also conjunct his Sun, which relates to the impulse to illuminate and radiate; this aspect can be seen in how these ideas shine forth as the primary focus of his writings. The trine of these planets to Uranus, which relates to innovative, rebellious brilliance, among other things, can be seen in his presentation of both a new science and a new spirituality.[iv] He is a rebel against both scientific and Christian orthodoxy.

Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, devoted to a life-long practice of the Christian faith, which is one of the expressions of his Sun-Neptune conjunction. According to his philosophy, the telos of the universe is towards unity, a convergence upon the Omega Point, characterized by Neptune’s quality of oneness. He writes in The Human Phenomenon, “To be more is to be more united––and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow.”[v] The impulse “to be” is represented by the solar principle, as is the desire to be central and integrated; meanwhile Neptune unites that which has been divided and differentiated because it can dissolve the boundaries of distinction.

Teilhard’s central focus on the human in his work is clearly reflective of Uranus trine his Sun. He expresses the Promethean character of Uranus giving the fire of consciousness to humanity, in his emphasis on the exceptional self-reflexive quality of human thought. Sun-Uranus can correlate to the unique, individual human personality that must, in Teilhard’s view, be cultivated for the ultimate spiritual convergence at the Omega Point. This theme is suggested not only by Teilhard’s Sun-trine-Uranus, but also by the presence of Neptune in the aspect, which is in a 2° conjunction with Teilhard’s Sun. Neptune, which symbolizes spirituality and transcendence, as well as unity, correlates to the convergence on Omega.

Through his study of evolution, Teilhard was in the process of discovering and developing a new form of mystical Christian spirituality. He wrote in his essay “The Stuff of the Universe,” that “Far from being shaken in my faith by such a revolution, it is with irrepressible hope that I welcome the inevitable rise of this new mysticism and anticipate its equally inevitable triumph.”[vi] His words express the Uranus-trine-Neptune complex in his natal chart, with the Uranus archetype bringing a new revolution to the Neptunian realm of mysticism.

Many of the qualities of Teilhard’s new mysticism are archetypally conveyed by the rich, dynamic conjunction of the two outermost planets, Neptune and Pluto. He writes of the need for “a Christ who can be and is commensurate with the universe, in other words a God­––the God we look for––of evolution.”[vii] He greatly fleshes out this concept of an evolutionary God in his essay “The Zest for Living,” in which he describes “zest” as “nothing less than the energy of universal evolution, which . . . wells up in what is most primitive . . . in each one of us.”[viii] For Teilhard, it is the human responsibility to cultivate this primordial zest, or energy, through the knowledge of religion. The Plutonic imagery is evident in his descriptions of evolution and primitive energy, as well as the zest for living itself, which manifest in the realm of Neptunian religion or spirituality. “A zest for living, the zest for living . . . would appear to be the fundamental driving force which impels and directs the universe along its main axis of complexity-consciousness.”[ix] The “zest for living” and the “fundamental driving force” relate archetypally to Pluto, while “consciousness,” in this context, is reflective of the Neptune archetype in combination with the Sun.

Faith is a motivating force in the zest for living, but for Teilhard humanity needs what is “no longer simply a religion of individuals and of heaven, but a religion of mankind and of the earth.”[x] In the essay “From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis,” Teilhard redefines and expands his conception of God, describing “the primordial transcendence of this new evolutive God,” “a God of cosmogenesis––that is a creator of the ‘animating’ type.”[xi] Not only is the Neptunian-Plutonic imagery clear in the description of primordial (Pluto) transcendence (Neptune) and a God (Neptune) of evolution (Pluto), but the archetypal nature of the trine to Uranus comes through in the characterization of God as animator, the bringer of the spark of life.

In the conclusion of “The Zest for Living,” Teilhard pulls both Venusian and Uranian themes into his evolutionary mysticism, by writing of “the vital charge of the world . . . in its higher, immediate, and most heightened form––love, as an effect of ‘grace’ and ‘revelation’.”[xii] Uranus relates to the “vital charge” and awakening of “revelation,” and Venus relates to love and grace, with grace particularly reflective of the archetypal combination of Venus with Neptune. The final paragraph bears the themes of Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Venus, Mercury, and even the Sun: “The zest for life: the central and favoured ligament, indeed, in which can be seen, within the economy of a supremely organic universe, a supremely intimate bond between mysticism, research, and biology.”[xiii] The “organic universe,” the “zest for life,” and biology relate to Pluto, mysticism to Neptune, new research to both Uranus and Mercury, the “supremely intimate bond” and even the word “favoured” to Venus, and the “central ligament” reflects the Sun as the archetype associated with the center.

A specific look at Venus in conjunction with each of the two outermost planets illustrates Teilhard’s thinking further. Archetypally, the Venus-Pluto aspect comes through in his descriptions of “an amorized universe,” and also “a cosmogenesis of union in which everything, by structure, became inflexibly lovable and loving.”[xiv] Teilhard sees the ultimate harmony of physical and biological evolution; his view of the cosmos as a teleological cosmogenesis, a universe in an evolutionary process, bears the mark of the Pluto archetype, while the amorization and harmony reflect Venus.

Teilhard’s Venus-Neptune conjunction shines archetypally in his sense of Christian love. The convergence of humanity and the noosphere upon the Omega Point is ultimately achieved through a universal love, a loving of human center to human center, carried out by a love of the Cosmic Christ. “In other words, what we have to do is to love one another––because love is equally by definition the name we give to ‘inter-centric’ actions,”[xv] as Teilhard describes in “The Atomism of Spirit.” He continues: “The fact that the infinite and the intangible can be lovable, that the human heart can beat in true charity for its neighbor seems simply to be impossible,”[xvi] but Teilhard posits that such universal love between all humans is possible through spiritual convergence on the Omega Point through a love of the Cosmic Christ. If all the love of humanity unites through each individual coming into loving relationship with Christ, then that love is also extending through Christ back to each individual. Teilhard describes the need to transcend personal love relationships, represented by Venus, so they can be dissolved, spiritualized, and universalized by Neptune. When this universal love is achieved humanity has reached the Omega Point.

The attainment of Omega, the ultimate convergence of humanity in the noosphere, is the ultimate moment of both transcendent unification but also bears an “external resemblance to a death” or a “terminal paroxysm”[xvii] of the previous human situation. As part of his seven-planet stellium, Teilhard has a 10° conjunction of Saturn and Neptune, which is reflected in the above observations. The Omega Point is a conjoining of Saturnian material reality with spiritual transcendence, reached at the moment of Earth’s termination. Omega is “to unify the real” in “the concentration on itself of what we call ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’,” Teilhard writes in “The Activation of Human Energy.” [xviii]

At a young age Teilhard sought the divine in what was incorruptible, starting with iron, moving on to geology, and finally to the realm of spirit. What he desired was something of “Consistence: that has undoubtedly been for me the fundamental attribute of Being.”[xix] His Saturn-Neptune complex also clearly comes through in his statement: “The truth is that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter.”[xx] Saturn relates to the hard, the consistent, and the material, while Neptune comes through in the realm of spirit, consciousness, and oceanic imagery. Another illustration of his Saturn-Neptune can be seen when he writes “Matter was the matrix of Consciousness; and, wherever we looked, Consciousness, born of Matter, was always advancing towards some Ultra-Human.”[xxi]

Teilhard’s vision of the evolutive drive toward complexity-consciousness also carries the mark of the Saturn-Neptune-Pluto archetypal combination, with Saturn bearing the details of complexity and Neptune the realm of consciousness, while Pluto is related to the evolution and transformation inherent in this process. The ultimate convergence upon Omega, which preserves the individual personality within the transcendent unity, indicates Saturnian differentiation within Neptunian oneness.  Teilhard’s Sun-Neptune complex can also be seen here, as the Sun relates to the individual personality. In his personal life, Teilhard’s dedication to his conservative Roman Catholic faith through every hardship, until his death, can also be associated with the qualities of Saturn-Neptune.

In the essay “A Clarification: Reflections on Two Converse Forms of Spirit,” Teilhard compares two approaches to unity, one of expansive Jupiterian quality, the other of Saturnian concentration. This essay is one example of Teilhard’s Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, which also conjoins his Sun-Neptune. He describes two paths to unity: “The one involves relaxation and expansion, the other tension and centration.”[xxii] Conclusively, Teilhard favors the way of tension and centration (Saturn), describing the other method as belonging to “youthful mankind” who would “try immediately to embrace all”[xxiii] when striving for unification with the divine. Nevertheless, despite his rejection of this path, it is still reflective of his aspect of Jupiter trine Uranus, which correlates to youthfulness and expansion of perspectives. Additionally, the Jupiter-trine-Uranus can be seen in Teilhard’s overall sense of cosmic wonder, in his abundance of new ideas, and the expansive new horizons which are constantly opening up to him.

Although he lived through a deeply transformative and disruptive time, surviving two world wars, and witnessing immense suffering as a stretcher-bearer in World War I, Teilhard had an overwhelming optimism concerning the future of humankind. In “The Moment of Choice,” an essay on World War II, Teilhard still sees such devastation in service of ultimate good: “The height of a peak is a measure of the depths of the abysses it overtops.”[xxiv] He sees the way forward as “the road of comradeship and brotherhood––and that is as true of nations as it is of individuals.”[xxv] The optimism of his Sun-Jupiter conjunction is colored by the Venusian qualities of relationship and love, as the planet  Venus is also part of his stellium. Teilhard’s sense of hope in regards to the future is directly related to his faith in technology, which is reflective of his Sun-Jupiter trine Uranus, describing his progressive age as “not an industrial age but rather an age of research.”[xxvi] Humanity’s innovative, technological genius, associated with Uranus, is key to the ultimate convergence of the noosphere upon the Omega Point.

Although it is primarily connected with his Saturn-Neptune conjunction, Teilhard’s profound understanding of suffering is, in many ways, reflective of his entire birth chart. A single sentence he wrote in “The Spiritual Energy of Suffering” shines with each of the planetary archetypes conjoined in his stellium: “The astounding Christian revelation of suffering . . . can be transformed into an expression of love and a principle of union.”[xxvii] The “astounding Christian revelation” relates to a Jupiter-Uranus awakening of the Neptunian spiritual realm, while suffering relates deeply to the Saturn-Neptune complex. The positive transformation of the suffering reflects Jupiter and Pluto, while the expression of love is both Mercurial and Venusian, and the principle of union is that of Neptune.

Neptune and Pluto, as the slowest moving planets in our solar system for which astrologers have adequate research, correlations, and consensus on their meanings, only conjoin approximately once every 493 years. Their conjunction is therefore the rarest of all two-planet world transits. These conjunctions have marked the beginning of each major epoch for the last three millennia of recorded human history. Teilhard was born in 1881, at the beginning of the most recent Neptune-Pluto conjunction. A consistent pattern has been observed in astrological correlations that when a new, innovative, or transformative idea, invention, or creation is born it is reflected in the current transits but may not yet impact the current paradigm and thus remains relatively hidden. However, it appears that while the idea has been seeded under a certain transit it will often come to full fruition under a subsequent transit of the same planets. In Teilhard’s case, his monumental philosophy, which so clearly reflects his natal chart, may indeed be such a seeding. His dream of humanity’s convergence on the Omega Point may someday blossom fully under a future conjoining of the spiritually transformative planetary archetypes Neptune and Pluto.

Bibliography

Hand, Robert. Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living. Atglen, PA: Whitford Press, 2001.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Activation of Energy: Enlightening Reflections on   Spiritual Energy. Translated by René Hague. London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter: The Important Spiritual Autobiography of One of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. Translated by René Hague. London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tompkins, Sue. Aspects in Astrology: A Guide to Understanding Planetary Relationships in the Horoscope. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2002.


[i] The interpretations of the planetary archetypes put forth in this essay come from a long astrological tradition, but are primarily grounded in the work of Richard Tarnas, Robert Hand, and Sue Tompkins, courses presented at the California Institute of Integral Studies, lectures from the Institute of Archetypal Cosmology, and from my own experience and practice.

[ii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2003), 3.

[iii] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon, 5.

[iv] The trine is called a “soft” aspect and tends to have a more confluent, flowing, harmonious quality in comparison to the “hard” or “dynamic” aspects of the conjunction, opposition, and square. The 60° sextile is also considered a soft aspect.

[v] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon, 3.

[vi] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy: Enlightening Reflections on Spiritual Energy, trans. René Hague (London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978), 383.

[vii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 383.

[viii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 231-232.

[ix] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 235.

[x] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 240.

[xi] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  262.

[xii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  242.

[xiii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  242.

[xiv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  266.

[xv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  47.

[xvi] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon,  212.

[xvii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  262.

[xviii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy,  393.

[xix] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter: The Important Spiritual Autobiography of One of the World’s Greatest Thinkers, trans. René Hague (London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978), 18.

[xx] Teilhard, The Heart of Matter, 20.

[xxi] Teilhard, The Heart of Matter, 45.

[xxii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 219,

[xxiii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 220.

[xxiv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 14.

[xxv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 17.

[xxvi] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 354.

[xxvii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 248.

The Unmanifest Realm: Potentials in Myths, Dreams, and Past Lives

Visions and dreams reside in a realm beyond our waking conscious mind, and pour forth into our lives at key moments through the portals of sleep and non-ordinary states of consciousness. This realm could be referred to as the unconscious, a domain greater than us, in which our egos participate to create our fuller Self.[1] It could also be the Underdream, a current of the cosmos and the earth, in which we swim each night once we fall asleep.[2] This realm might be compared to the unmanifest realm of physics, the realm in and out of which all material particles vibrate constantly as they exist in time and space.[3] It is the archetypal realm that speaks to us through myth and symbol; as Joseph Campbell wrote, “…myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[4]

During our five-day course Nature and Eros, I was given the opportunity to work deeply with my own dreams and visions in a natural setting; it was an atmosphere where we were able to sink into the silence, a silence so pregnant that at last we could hear the full chorus of our dreams sing forth. The pivotal vision with which I worked during this time was a past life memory, which had been surfacing over the last few months leading up to this retreat. The memory was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by one of the dreams I experienced during the course. Working with our facilitator, Kerry Brady, I was able to reconnect with, and fill in more of, this past life experience to help incorporate my understanding of it into my waking life.

I have had a hazy awareness of my past life traumas since a young age, when I experienced severe night terrors that would leave me screaming and unable to recognize anyone around me. Bill Plotkin writes that “The earliest remembered dreams of our lives, the ones from early childhood, say age three to five, represent especially clear and portentous glimpses of the Underdream.”[5] Stanislav Grof describes past life memories as

…sequences that take place in other historical periods and other countries and are usually associated with powerful emotions and physical sensations…. Their most remarkable aspect is a convincing sense of remembering and reliving something that one has already seen (déjá vu) or experienced (déjá vecu) at some time in the past.[6]

Knowing that I carried these memories, I began to explore them recently to reach a better understanding of the experiences that have informed my psyche this lifetime.

In the memory, I am a woman in Mexico several centuries ago. The central moment of the memory is the sensation of my body dropping from a scaffold and hanging by the neck from a rope. For the last few years I have had intense pain in just that area of my neck. Grof points out that, as past life memories surface, “…incomprehensible emotional and psychosomatic symptoms now seem to make sense as karmic carry-overs from a previous lifetime.”[7] It is dark and raining in the memory, and the rain and my tears drench my long hair, which is hanging in my face. I understood that my execution was a martyrdom in relation to Christianity, but whether I was a Christian or was executed at the hands of Christians I do not know. Among the dark figures surrounding me one is especially clear, a man kneeling in the forefront who I could strongly sense was the same soul as my beloved partner this lifetime, with whom I only recently became connected. Such recognition of others is a frequent aspect of past life recollections. Grof writes that

…it might suddenly seem that a certain person in one’s present life played an important role in a previous incarnation, the memory of which is emerging into consciousness. When this happens, one may seek emotional contact with a person who now appears to be a “soul-mate” from one’s karmic past.[8]

During the Nature and Eros course my past life vision was dominating my mind one morning following a series of intense, vivid dreams. Many of the dreams took place in a harem, or whore house, in Mexico or Polynesia that was ruled by a tyrannical white man. The native women were treated horribly, and were abused and mutilated. One woman hung herself, although she took on the form of a pink crab when she did so. I witnessed this hanging from the same visual angle as in my past life experience. The emotional quality of this dream triggered a need to process my past life memory while I had the support and knowledge offered in this retreat.

I recounted my experience with Kerry while she asked me where in my body I felt it. I seem to carry the physical pain of the event in my neck and throat, but the emotional pain I carry in my jaw, which is the hardest to release. I came to recognize that the knowledge of my execution must have come suddenly, with little time to assimilate my approaching death. I felt the panic of those last moments, but the hardest part was after my body had dropped, knowing the action of my death had been completed, but my soul and life force had not yet departed my body. I felt the helplessness and sadness of those moments, and I kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know this would happen.” I could see my partner kneeling before me, possibly my beloved in that lifetime also, and felt such pain at leaving him behind.

With Kerry’s assistance I moved to lying flat on my back, which finally allowed the tension in my neck and jaw to relax. An image came to me of looking at my body lying in a field of wildflowers, my body melting into the Earth. There was deep comfort in that scene. The manner of my death was unnatural, but my body was laid to rest like all others and was able to dissolve back into the Earth.

I honored the suffering of my former self, and also felt gratitude: her sacrifice allowed my soul to incarnate into my present life and body, to enter into such a good, nourishing womb and family. After lying for some time on the ground, I decided to go to the flower garden on the property where our retreat took place. I wanted to feel held in a womblike space, safe once again amongst the flowers of my final vision. Carl Jung’s archetypal interpretation of this image is that “The flower is in fact like a friendly sign, a numinous emanation from the unconscious.”[9] Coming into this blossoming garden gave me a sense of healing and wholeness, a unity with my surrounding earth environment.

My sense of being embedded in a womblike unity transcended that of the physical womb in which I was nourished this lifetime for nine months. It had a feeling of cosmic wholeness without any physical boundaries, perhaps a realm between incarnations. Could this place be the same realm from which dreams come? If so, it is a realm of infinite potential, comparable to the unmanifest realm, or quantum vacuum, of physics. According to Brian Swimme, this vacuum is not a place in the physical world, but rather pure, underlying, generative creativity. The unmanifest realm contains all that exists and all that could potentially exist. Elementary particles manifest from this place, then vanish back into it. The whole of the physical world constantly vibrates in and out of the unmanifest realm.[10]

Our waking conscious, for the most part, takes place in the physical, manifest world; however, in sleep our consciousness transcends our bodies and enters this realm of pure potential. Like physical particles, our consciousness may vibrate between realms as well, pulling narratives from our waking lives into the unfolding stories of our dreams. Our dreams tend to carry a thread of our own personality throughout, but in ways unexpected or contrary to our waking selves. Jung describes the dream realm as the unconscious, which “…remains beyond reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can neither be improvised upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.”[11]

Dreams are one form of communication between this realm and our waking conscious. According to Plotkin, “every dream is an opportunity to develop our relationship to soul, to who we are beneath our surface personalities and routine agendas.”[12] Because we lose the control that we have while awake as we dream, we remain open to the truths that dreams can reveal. By accessing this realm I was able to recover my final memories of a life that ended violently; but this death also allowed my soul to completely enter the timeless place between lifetimes.

Painting by Becca Tarnas

On the final night of Nature and Eros I slept with the plant mugwort under my pillow, which is said to stimulate dreams. When I awoke the next morning I felt positive energy coursing through me in a way I have never felt after a dream. Much of the dream took place in rich, green gardens, echoing my experience the day before in the flower garden. A symbol also emerged from the dream, shaped like the glyph for the planet Venus, but with two long leaves on each side. The symbol represented the “Metaphysics of Mythology.” This was not a term with which I was familiar, and I could find no definition in my research, so I began to create my own definition.

A metaphysics of mythology would be an understanding and knowledge of the fundamental nature of cultural stories and beliefs pouring in from the archetypal realm of potential. Myths and dreams are two different storytellers sharing the same life-forging narratives with our souls. Joseph Campbell, whose work with mythology implies a metaphysics of the subject, compared these two languages of the unconscious: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche.”[13]

Myths are the translators of dreams, and the symbols of dreams are the messengers from our unconscious, from the unmanifest realm, the realm between lifetimes. Dreams are the mediators on behalf of our souls between the personalities of our current and previous lifetimes. They carry our soul narratives between the waking realms, whether it is between day to day in our present life, or between this lifetime and our past lives. As Plotkin writes, “Each dream provides a snapshot of the unfolding story and desires of the soul, and a chance for the ego to be further initiated into that underworld story and those underworld desires.”[14] In this case, Plotkin refers to the underworld as the place of soul, to which we descend to uncover our true purpose in this lifetime.

My integration of my past life memories is the first leg of a journey that I imagine will take me a lifetime. The initial step was learning to bear witness to the suffering of someone who is both myself and an other. Part of my soul journey this lifetime is to connect with the previous journeys of my same soul, and to assimilate those lessons left by past experience. These experiences come to us in the language of dreams and myth, which we can slowly learn to read by understanding the role they play in our development as individuals. Ultimately these languages connect us, during sleep and between lifetimes, to the same place: a realm of infinite creative potential teeming with the possibilities of all that we are, have been, will never be, and someday will eventually become.

Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976.

Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.

Swimme, Brian. Nature and Eros lecture. Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011.


[1] Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976), 329.

[2] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 134-135.

[3] Brian Swimme, Nature and Eros lecture (Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011).

[4] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[5] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 135.

[6] Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 162.

[7] Grof, Psychology of the Future, 162.

[8] Ibid, 162.

[9] Jung, The Portable Jung, 349.

[10] Swimme, lecture.

[11] Jung, The Portable Jung, 329.

[12] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.

[13] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 14.

[14] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.