“We exist within a sea of aliveness; the entire universe is one vast orchestration.”
~Duane Elgin, The Living Universe
“Steep yourself in the sea of matter, bathe in its fiery waters, for it is the source of your life and your youthfulness.”
– Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Times of War, p. 28.
Course and Unit Overview
This semester in my junior/senior elective course called “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” I have been attempting to teach towards the goal of wisdom. Specifically, I have framed our study around the practical question, “What should I do with my life?” as students wrestle with the primary quest of adolescence: what future professional pursuits are worthy of their time and energy? In the search for insight, I have drawn upon the Wisdom Tradition to teach about the intelligence of the body, the mind, and the heart.
This series of lessons on a living universe came at the end of the unit on the intelligence of the mind. Following reading excerpts of Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’ book, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, we debated the future of our society in light of technological development. What we found is that every disagreement came down to one fundamental divide: the pro-technology advocates believed that the answer to every concern about technology – resource depletion, inequality of access, energy consumption and pollution – was future development in the field. Only the rich have access? All technologies become democratized over time. Run out of resources? Synthetic production. Destroy the earth? We’ll find a new planet. Meanwhile, those with cautious attitudes about technology could only raise concerns about human values, but sounded dour compared to the technophiles’ bright visions of the future. We had come across an unbridgeable chasm in belief systems.
As the debate foundered, I chanced upon Charles Eisenstein’s article, “Latent Healing,” which reframed our impasse in essential terms:
“One simple explanation for why we fail to use technology in the spirit of service to all life is that we have lost touch with our unity, or as Thich Nhat Hanh terms it, our interbeingness, with the rest of life. Seeing Nature as separate from ourselves, we see it as inconsequential to our wellbeing . . . . We might therefore imagine that someday we may become independent of Nature, if only we perfect technological substitutes for Nature’s gifts” (36-37).
This was the insight I needed: the real issue of the debate about technology is the human relationship with the natural world. Prompted by Eisenstein and fellow thinker Duane Elgin, a larger ‘big picture’ question came into focus: is the universe fundamentally like us, a living organism, as indigenous people have always believed; or is it simply dead matter, a general assumption of our scientific age? To investigate this question, I developed the following assignment.
Living Universe Class Project
Following the last speech on technology, I shared my observations about the debate, and then handed out Eisenstein’s article. I explained that I would like them to consider the implications of these two perspectives of the universe upon current social issues. The worksheet introducing the project explained:
“For the last 500 years in the Western world,the mind has been emphasized far beyond the body and the heart. Descartes’ famous statement, ‘I think, therefore I am’ suggests that our primary identity comes from our intellectual faculties. Yet 500 years of mind development, progress, and technological growth has led us to the point that we as a human race now need to consider the possibility of causing our own extinction along with so many other life forms on the planet.
Putting together the analyses of Charles Eisenstein (see first two minutes of this video) and Duane Elgin (see this Huffington Post summary), the problem facing the modern world is that we are living out a story of separation from nature and from each other in a dead universe. Both counter this conventional belief system with the claim of a newly emergent story combining indigenous religious beliefs with new discoveries in science, suggesting that we are living beings in a living universe. The choice before us is this: as we consider our place in the universe, do we see the story we are enacting as one in which we live in fundamental separation from a dead universe in which we are so very lucky to have this accidental gift of consciousness, or are we the most conscious, animate expression of a universe that is brimming with life?
In this activity I want you to understand how various different issues or aspects of modern life can be seen from these two perspectives.
Questions to consider:
- How does each worldview consider and deal with the issue differently?
- How does each worldview perceive the purpose of humankind vis-à-vis the natural world differently?
- Newtonian physics vs. quantum physics (see Richard Rohr quote below). Duane Elgin video clip on recent scientific discoveries.
- Modern medicine vs. alternative medicine (or think of Waveworks)
- Antibiotics vs. Probiotics
- Chemotherapy vs. Alternative therapies
- Medicine for high cholesterol (in Leslie Thiele’s Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch, p. 108)
- Terrorism: See Andrew Bacevich’s op-ed.
- Ray Anderson of Interface carpets, which wants to be 100% sustainable by 2020. (See interviews on youtube from the documentary “The Corporation”
- Regenerative agriculture and permaculture (Eisenstein, 38)
- Fungi to detoxify PCBs and petrochemical waste (Eisenstein, 38)
- Restoration of deserts (Eisenstein, 38)
- Holistic or alternative medicine concepts (Eisenstein, 38)
- Retributive vs. restorative justice
- Cellular communication vs. Morphogenetic fields research (Sheldrake)
- Psi phenomena (Dean Radin at IONS)
- Buddhism: Eight Worldly Concerns
- Meditation: Overcoming subject-object separation (Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer book, pp. 10-13), moving from dualism to non-dualism.
- Philosophy: Martin Buber’s I-It vs. I-Thou relationship
- Factory-farming vs. Polyface Farms (Leslie Thiele’s Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch, p. 109ff)
- Wikipedia (an appropriate use of technology at the end of chapter 3 in Thiele)
- Conquering space vs. Edgar Mitchell’s experience of space (founder of Institute of Noetic Sciences); could use excerpts from the movie “Contact.”
- Economics (Thiele, chapter 4)
- Klimt’s “The Kiss” as an expression of love in a living universe.
Example of a Living Universe Worldview
As they prepped their projects, I wanted to give them a sense of what it might mean for someone to live within a living universe. I know of no better resource than the first 11 minutes of the documentary “Kanyini,” in which Bob Randall, a victim of Australia’s “Stolen Generation,” explains growing up as an Aborigine boy before entry of the white man.
We contrasted Randall’s beliefs and experiences with Elgin’s description of the conventional scientific paradigm today in his book The Living Universe (pp. 7-9). It was obvious to students that the living universe offers belonging, purpose, connectedness, and hope that is lacking in the present scientific story.
I also used this Duane Elgin video to help students understand the concept of a living universe.
The big question, of course, is which picture of reality is more accurate.This is a decision of epic proportions for one’s personal worldview. Rather than addressing this question head on, the project considered both options in terms of their practical implications.
Student Projects and Responses
Pairs of students chose the following projects from the list above:
- Antibiotics vs. Probiotics (conventional vs. natural medicine)
- Chemotherapy vs. natural methods of healing cancer
- Retributive vs. restorative justice
- Psy phenomenon
I gave the class a fairly limited amount of time to prepare the projects on what was undoubtedly heady material, but I was quite pleased that their presentations demonstrated an ability to grasp the underlying question about the nature of the universe as they contrasted differing approaches to various social issues.
Here are two student responses summarizing their presentation:
(1) Antibiotics vs. Probiotics (Yash and Celine):
“Ultimately, the primary function of both antibiotics and probiotics is to improve our health. However, it is in the method through which these two forms of treatment seek to cure us that we see a fundamental difference. Whilst antibiotics—literally, “against life”—are antimicrobial and inhibit or kill bacteria, probiotics are comprised of microorganisms, or “good bacteria,” that replace harmful microbes in the body and support bodily health. Antibiotics belong to a system of allopathic medicine largely based upon “separation” from the universe, a system which regards the body as separate from the soul and humans as separate from each other. Thus, this form of medicine responds to disease, which is seen as separate from the body, by attempting to destroy it. The inevitable drawback is that antibiotic resistance is becoming widespread, diminishing the efficacy of this form of treatment. Conversely, many alternative health practitioners find probiotics more advantageous. They hold the belief that nature is a blessing and everything is unified. This worldview sees positive bacteria in the system as crucial to curing various ailments (e.g. stomach-related issues). The merits of probiotics have also been widely recognized by Western medicine. Probiotics don’t come with the risks seen in antibiotics, and they strengthen, not weaken, our system. Of course, it would be inappropriate to portray antibiotics and probiotics as exact opposites, insofar as that their roles in maintaining bodily health are distinct from each other. At the same time, it is worth noting the philosophical contrast between these two forms of treatment.”
(2) Redistributive vs. Restorative Justice (Helena and Yamini): “Our current justice system is primarily retributive, that it focuses on punishment on the basis that a crime is an act against the state, a violation of law, or the breaking of a moral code. The system is based on three principles:
- someone who commits a crime should receive a punishment that is proportional to the degree of the crime
- the offenders are morally obligated to suffer such punishment and it is intrinsically good
- punishments need to be justifiable, and should not be used to punish the innocent or disproportionately inflict suffering on the offenders.
On the other hand, restorative justice distinguishes that wrongdoers harm victims, communities and even themselves. The focus of this justice system is not to judge one another, but to focus on what is good for the whole community. A few methods of restorative justice is talking with the family, circle sentencing, and meditation. Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries have adopted restorative justice programs. Many countries do use restorative justice but ore for juvenile court cases.”
The first summary made the link to the question of the universe explicit, while the second summarized the issue without the link. However, the two girls were able to explain how the two justice systems reflected two different understandings of the universe in their presentation.
It is commonly accepted that in order to stop destroying the planet and ourselves, we need a different kind of relationship with the natural world. However, rather than attempting to coax students into being better human beings for the sake of others – a character education approach – this assignment offers the opportunity to consider a shift in conscious perception that might alter our relationship with the universe.
Of course, it would be manipulative of me to assert that a living universe is indeed a metaphysical truth. Rather, as a humanities teacher, I want to offer contrasting belief systems and their real world implications upon human society in hope that students will see that indigenous views of nature, along with modern-day quantum physics, offer a cosmology that is odds with conventional scientific beliefs, especially as they are taught in schools. Through contemplation of the essential issue of our relationship with the natural world we may possibly reframe practical questions about technology on a societal level. And by addressing deep perennial questions of human existence in their modern incarnation it is hoped that students might gain wisdom about navigating their personal lives as well.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: JosseyBass.
Eisenstein, C. (2013). “Latent Healing.” Resurgence & Ecologist, July/August, 36-39.
Elgin, D. (2009). The living universe. Where are we? Who are we? Where are we going? San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Thiele, L. P. (2011). Indra’s net and the Midas touch : living sustainably in a connected world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Final end-of-semester Heroic Cycle sharing time during the final exam period with the first semester of SSS class.
 In using the term “Wisdom Tradition,” I draw upon the work of Cynthia Bourgeault, who describes Wisdom as “a precise and comprehensive science of spiritual transformation that has existed since the headwaters of the great world religions and is in fact their common ground” (italics in original, Wisdom Way of Knowing, p. xvi.)
 As children of the Enlightenment, we generally perceive matter in our vast universe to be inanimate; the only life may be on our planet, and the only conscious life may be within humans and other large mammals. Many authors explain that modern people have come to believe in a “two-tiered” cosmos in which heaven (e.g., the spiritual world) and earth (e.g., the material world) are separated. We mostly material humans may have a soul which goes to a spiritual place when we die, but any suggestion that the physical and spiritual worlds co-exist is suspect. However, before our modern era, most traditional peoples had a cosmology in which the whole universe is alive with a vast array of spiritual energies and beings, including some Source or Ultimate Power that people usually referred to as God.
 Franciscan Richard Rohr comments on cosmic interconnectedness and relationship-at-a-distance: “Perhaps the term ‘quantum entanglement’ names something that we have long intuited, but science has only recently observed. Here is the principle in layperson’s terms: in the world of quantum physics, it appears that one particle of any entangled pair “knows” what is happening to another paired particle–even though there is no known means for such information to be communicated between the particles, which are separated by sometimes very large distances.”
Based on Elgin’s work, here are contrasts between a living universe and dead matter:
- A living universe in which I am in a deep relationship with nature is one that we are much more likely to respect. It could help us take care of nature if we believed it was as sacred as human life.
- A universe that is alive gives us a sense that we not alone in the universe.
- A living universe offers hope, while non-living universe has no lasting impression.
- A living universe has a happy ending (e.g., enlightenment, live with God, one with the Tao, etc), while a non-living universe ends in death.
- A living universe suggests that we live on after death, while a non-living universe says that death is the end.
- A living universe is satisfies our human desires for connection, feeling at home in the world, and meaning.
- A person who uses the energies of a living universe can serve people more effectively.
- The energy of a living universe can subtly heal us holistically, whereas so much of our medical system today is dealing only with the symptom, the problem.
- “The Ecosexual Revolution,” by Charles Eisenstein.
- “Interbeing,” chapter 3 of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein
- “The Two Great Stories” (6 minute video) by Charles Eisenstein.
- “Reality and the Extended Mind” (34 minutes) by Adrian Nelson.
- “Technology and Youth Disconnect: Perspectives from International School Students” on this blog: student responses to The App Generation.
- “Disconnect: Technology and the Web of Relations at an International School” on this blog.
Feature image accessed from this site.
Retributive and restorative justice slide was accessed from this site.
Final image accessed from this site.
- Leslie Thiele, p. 17: “The common tendency to perceive the world in terms of independent entities was identified as the cause of suffering” (dukkha).
- Mirabai Starr: “Once you have realized, with every fiber of your being, that everything is interconnected and there is only one of us, how do you turn away from the face of suffering in any of its many guises?”
- Cynthia Bourgeault argues that Jesus’ oft-quoted statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is even more radical when we see it as asking us to include our neighbor as part of oneself rather than the less radical loving of your neighbor as much as you love yourself. The text read, “Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.”
- From Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, by Frederique Apffel-Marglin: “We modern cosmopolitans, heirs to the scientific revolution and to the enlightenment, are like abandoned children. We have lost the safety net of a web of extended relations and human community and find ourselves increasingly on our own, competing with others like us for the social space and the rewards that make us feel like we really belong, really exist, really matter. These feelings are no longer our birth right; increasingly they must be won through tough, solitary elbowing” (p. 3)
- From Jill Bollte-Taylor’s TED talk: “Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.”
- Teilhard de Chardin: [The cosmos] is fundamentally and primarily living.  Christ, through his Incarnation, is interior to the world, rooted in the world even in the very heart of the tiniest atom.  Nothing seems to me more vital, from the point of view of human energy, than the appearance and, eventually, the systematic cultivation of such a “cosmic sense.” 
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, tr. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 23.
 Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ, tr. René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 36.
 Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, 130-131.