Planet Earth, turning and turning, transmutes the rays of the Sun into a dazzling multiplicity of form and expression, an alchemy of tassel and leaf, fin and feather, eye and bone; all are progeny of a planet in reverie. And the dream becomes life in its full tapestry.
The human, born from millennia of Earth’s invention, trial, creativity, struggle, and increasing complexity, is the ultimate dream animal. Of all Earth’s species, we are the lucid dreamer, the dreamer who watches the dream. Through the profound mystery of conscious self-awareness, the human reaches a depth of seeing never before achieved in the history of life; and depth of seeing is depth of being. Our gaze is Earth’s gaze. It is a gaze into the mirror at the planet’s beauty and diversity of life, but also to destruction and loss at human hands. The gaze is also an outward gaze, one that penetrates to the stars from which we’ve been created, and to the beginnings of time itself.
When I was an undergraduate, I took up birdwatching. Birds were on my radar as I grew up. I knew the common species. However, I had never actively and systematically sought them out. Every break from the books found me out in the fields and forests for hours in search of new species to add to what birders refer to as the “life list.” I quantified, categorized, and made notes as any dutiful student of the natural world would.
One summer afternoon I headed for one of my favorite spots, a pristine stretch of creek that ran aboveground for several miles. The creek was shrouded by mixed deciduous woodlands for the entire stretch. I made my way for some time through this green arcade until I reached a small sandy area underneath an embankment along the creek. A weathered and sun-drenched log was the perfect spot for a rest.
The log warmed my back. Although it was a nearly windless day, the leaves began to move in a fantastic, sunlit dance. I felt the embrace of birch, elm, and willow as their sway and flutter came alive within me. The landscape seemed to radiate from within. The creek, following its natural course, was as alive in its relationship to its stony bed as the juncos were to the elm branch on the bank opposite me.
In my total absorption, the arrival of a night heron seemed natural, a perfect enhancement of the vivid dance. Her graceful glide and landing created a quiet joy within me. The heron fished, stalked the bank, and groomed herself in the shade of creek-side willows. I slipped beyond an awareness of time.
Heading home toward dusk I realized that the yellow-crowned night heron was a new bird on my list. But somehow that felt secondary. I had internalized a more primary knowledge, a seeing beyond intellect, a total immersion in the vitality of another being. That afternoon ruined me for birding in the way I had been accustomed. On subsequent birding trips, I was less absorbed in my “life list,” and more in the unique presence of individual birds, whatever the species.
To feel internally the heron foraging, or the fronds of birch swaying, or the hawk soaring, or the salmon driving upstream, is to be freed momentarily from the blindness of a more conditioned self. In this freedom, there is a deepened capacity to see, to discern. Something that stirs in the breast of a hawk soaring has its equivalent in human joy. Something in the body of a salmon knifing upstream has its equivalent as human intent. And the heron foraging? Perhaps something as yet unnamed.
“The whole of life lies in seeing,” wrote paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “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.” Discerning more, for the human, is seeing outside the confinements of the conditioned self. Doing so brings us into a relationship with a reality that is beyond the limitations of symbols and abstraction. It opens the door to beauty and thus, wonder. It brings us into the richness and fullness of the present. And, because we are not in a state of lack or deficiency, it helps us build an immunity to the predations of mass culture and ideology, to the beguiling tyranny of demagogues. We see for ourselves.
The unconditioned self is a more primal part of us, a pure and embodied presence to everything around us. It is beyond social conditioning, beyond thought, beyond ideas, beyond words, and most importantly, beyond fear. Fear overrules our more virtuous actions when we are out of touch with this embodied aspect of ourselves. And the more immersed we are in the distractions of our age (for example, the constant connection of our digital world), the more impeded we are in reaching that unconditioned part of ourselves. It is difficult to be fearless if cut off from our grounding in the living world. We struggle to discern wisely what our true loyalties—and, by extension, our most valid actions—should be.
I was once tutored on the importance of discernment by a trout. I was hiking the contours of an eastern Sierra stream not far from Tuolumne Meadows near Yosemite National Park and had stopped to lunch streamside on a large flat boulder. In the stream was a trout, nosing into the current, and yet at the same time suspended, as if on a string. I watched for some time as the trout rose periodically to feed on hatching flies. Although there was a good amount of leaves, twigs, and other debris carried on the stream’s surface, not once did the trout rise to a false meal. There was within the trout a practiced discernment of when and when not to expend energy. When up against a human predator, the fly fisherman, this discernment can mean life or death. In a sense, the challenge of the fly fisherman is to break through the discernment of the trout with the irresistible offering. The fisherman must attempt to see as the trout sees.
I also once experienced discernment in a flock of goldeneyes and pintail ducks. The birds were gathered in large numbers, feeding in Drake’s Bay, an estuary of Point Reyes National Seashore. From a cliff high above, I watched as the entire body of birds suddenly shot into the sky in response to the silhouette of an eagle slipping silently over the lip of the cliff. Moments before I had mistaken the eagle for a turkey vulture, but the water birds had an instant and ancient recognition of the eagle’s dark shape against the sky. Vultures passing overhead, although a similar shape and size to the eagle, hadn’t triggered the same response. It takes energy to flee. Do it too often, when there is no danger, and you may well perish from exhaustion or hunger.
“See or perish,” wrote Teilhard. He saw an increase of consciousness, of vision, as an imperative, not “just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury.” The levels of discernment found in the trout and the duck, in all of life, have their equivalent in the human. In the trajectory of evolution, depth of seeing has complexified in the human being into conscious self-awareness. In the human, sight has become insight. We have become the way in which the planet perceives and reflects on its own being. In this conscious self-awareness, we come into possession of the awesome responsibility of human choice, and the choices we make have an impact on the whole of the planet. Much of natural selection has now been usurped by human decision. If we cannot adequately discern the dangers of our current over-exploitation of the planet, we cannot choose wisely. If we cannot make the ground of our existence—the natural world—our primary loyalty, we will not survive in the long term.
Unconscious Allegiances and Cultural Reveries
Increased depth of seeing in the human serves to bring to light our unconscious allegiances. Those allegiances—whether they be to ideology, power, money, success, fame, or some ideal of physical beauty or immortality—shackle us to constant desire, to a sense of lack. They form a kind of central dream of our life which is often not apparent to us. One of the most powerful unconscious allegiances of our time is anthropocentrism. Its mystique has such a powerful hold on us precisely because—in the Western mind at least—it remains largely unconscious and automatic. Even for the well-meaning and aware citizen, this mystique is difficult to overcome.
These allegiances are very powerful because they come out of our landscape of formation. They have their source in our earliest experiences and create what Argentinian philosopher Silo (Mario Luis Rodríguez Cobos) identified as the “primary reveries” of our lives. Our primary reveries are largely subconscious catalysts for our actions and decisions. They rarely operate on the level of everyday awareness. They may slip through to our awareness in moments of dropping off to sleep or waking, but they remain hidden to us most of the time. And yet they determine to a very great extent how we view the world, and often they blind us not only to valid action, but to the truth, even when we are confronted with it. Once we become aware of our primary reveries and the “reverie nucleus” (central daydream) guiding our decisions and our emotional orientation to the world, we can find more freedom in our actions. The term nucleus is apt because the nucleus of the cell is not only central and internal to a cell, it regulates the cell’s activities. Silo posits that the reverie nucleus normally changes as a human being matures, but it can get lodged in an earlier life stage and cause a person to repeat beliefs and patterns of behavior that haven’t evolved with a constantly changing world.
In the Western world, we have difficulty seeing the mutuality of our relationship to the rest of the world because of the way we are brought up, our landscape of formation. The establishment of our primary reveries and the reverie nucleus makes it difficult for us to see things differently. To be in mutually beneficial relations with the non-human is an alien feeling for us. So, for example, in terms of climate change, even when faced with stark facts, if they don’t resonate with a primary cultural reverie of a prosperous wonderworld, unlimited growth, and unfettered capitalism, they may not feel particularly real. Anthropogenic causes of climate change won’t register as important, or register at all. Climate denial may not be so much willful as being stuck in maladaptive repetitions of belief and behavior.
A reverie nucleus won’t change simply through intellectual discernment. It has to change through efforts that transform the basic psychological and emotional climate of an individual. There are two points in time when a reverie nucleus might change. The first is during the time of a major developmental transition in life, for example, from childhood to adolescence. This underscores the importance of rites of initiation for boys and girls as they approach adolescence. If a child is brought up to form an inner life that has resonance with the natural forms and primary relationships around him or her, an initiation will ripen a sense of interconnection throughout adolescence and into adulthood. The second impetus for change is through a significant shock, an event or life change where the reverie nucleus destabilizes and reforms in response to a powerful experience that changes one’s worldview.
Writing about the importance of the natural world in the transition from childhood to adolescence, the professor of natural philosophy and human ecology, Paul Shepard, observed: “In the West, it is the failure of the adolescent’s religious mentors . . . to translate his [/her] confidence in people and the Earth into a more conscious, more cosmic view, in which he [/she] broadens his [/her] buoyant faith to include the universe.” If we don’t have an eco-cosmological basis within our landscape of formation, and if our unconscious allegiances—the things that we “worship”—are self-oriented, then we will fail to recognize that our actions are connected in any tangible sense to the wider world. We become alienated when we begin to believe the fiction provided by the dominant cultural reverie: that maturity means to “grow up” and acknowledge that the natural world is essentially without value unless for human use or as constituted by human consciousness. Everything outside human value feels like an abstraction, and our behavior follows suit. When something feels like an abstraction, no matter how soundly reasoned, it has much less persuasive energy around it. The Latin origin of the word abstraction is “to draw away from.” When we abstract the natural world, the next step is to objectification. It is much easier to give one’s assent to the destruction of something abstracted to the point of being an object.
A primary reverie, whether personal or cultural, is essentially an unconscious attempt to make up for a deficiency in the fulfillment of a particular need. It could be something more basic like the need for food, health, safety, or shelter, but it could also be the need for acceptance or approval by a social, familial, or religious group. One way to break through a dominant cultural reverie is to develop the capacity for really seeing our unconscious allegiances for what they are and realizing how they constrict our larger freedom as human beings. Shedding light on the hidden parts of ourselves that keep us captive within a realm of secondary concerns is the first step toward deeper seeing—which is a more refined discernment, and which becomes wisdom when internalized. This can be a lifelong process of maturation. The best starting point for greater discernment is with children. Their context—a maternal bond where they feel held and thus safe to explore, direct contact with natural forms, and the power of story grounded in evolutionary cosmology— allows them to build their interiority upon a landscape of formation that will connect them to something transcending the self.
The most powerful way to break through abstraction and denial is through direct contact with the tangible, ordinary reality of the natural world. This contact gives children a felt sense that they are not only on Earth, but that they are Earth, and that the planet is self-aware through their own senses and consciousness. If a relationship isn’t felt, it atrophies. Without that felt sense, an assumption begins to take root that the only way to know the planet, a tree, an animal, another human being, is through the mind. Conscious self-awareness, as the deepest level of seeing yet to emerge in the evolution of the Earth community, cuts through that kind of objectification. You are not simply a subject perceiving the beauty and grandeur of the planet, you are the planet feeling its own beauty and grandeur. Through this kind of felt relationship, children can grow into an ever-expanding communion over the course of a lifetime, becoming adults who are more deeply initiated over time into the mysteries of ecological citizenship. This is the basis for the cosmic citizen, the truly mature human. It is also the basis for trust, which is key to a child’s feeling secure in their existence. A child initiated into the mysteries of the universe and the powers and graces of the natural world can build confidence in the future and her role in it.
Ecological grounding gives children a sense of where they are, of place, of how they are related to the other-than-human. Cosmological grounding gives the child a sense of when they are, and how they are related to the creative arc of the universe through time. In the Western world, we went from a sense of time as cyclical—connected to the seasons and the movement of heavenly bodies—to a sense of time in the Industrial Age that is linear and tied to the hands of the clock. Evolutionary science and cosmology is presenting us with a sense of time as developmental, unfolding, and creative. A whole constellation of discoveries coming in from physics and astronomy will need to be transitioned from scientific cosmology into a cultural cosmology—a story that meaningfully portrays us as creative participants in an expanding universe and evolving cosmos.
Both ecological and cosmological grounding are necessary, and they are deeply interrelated. Divorcing them has given us such false dichotomies as that between ecological and social justice. Both groundings are part of a continuum of the human maturing beyond a limited parochial perspective; they are not separate concerns. The ecological/social justice dichotomy is especially crippling for a society that aspires to democracy in any meaningful sense, and it is one of the key reasons democracy is failing in America in the year 2020. The very faltering of the Western democratic tradition is due to its failure from the start to draw on the foundations of ecology and cosmology. A false discontinuity between human rights and rights for all nature is the result. You can have one but not the other, we grow up to believe; but when you feel yourself within an eco-cosmological reality, you can’t have one without the other.
The failure of our educational and religious institutions to initiate children into the mysteries of the planet and the universe is a key driver of this false dichotomy. Children who grow up not only with a sense of place, but of story (participating in a creative, time-developmental universe) will understand the connection innately. They will realize that to be informed citizens is to be part of a biocracy where rights extend to non-human species, landscapes, and watersheds. To afford these rights expands the overall potential of the whole to thrive. While there is no guarantee that any individual child will grow into a more mature, ecological citizen with a broader, expanded circle of concern, it is nevertheless necessary in order to provide a background reverie and formative landscape from which extra-human empathy has the potential to evolve. The acquisition of new, ever-deepening sensitivities in the human person is a refinement of seeing, an impulse that helps drive evolution forward. Chief among these new sensitivities is reverence for life.
This is why contact with nature is so crucial for children during their formative years. If a child hasn’t been brought into proper relationship to the Earth, or even his or her own mother’s embrace, how will he/she ever feel the larger maternal embrace of the universe? The diversity of the planet enriches the interiority and the potential of the human, and it is through deepening communion as we age that we are brought into an ever-widening circle of freedom. That’s what creates meaning as we grow. The formative connections of our childhood season and deepen. The ultimate source of meaning for the mature human is liberty from limiting identifications that fall short of our potential as individuals and as a species. Ecological citizenship finds its most mature expression in the cosmic citizen.
Habitat and the Ecological Citizen
Some years ago, I interviewed environmental author and climate change activist Bill McKibben on themes from a less-well-known book of his, The Age of Missing Information. In that book, McKibben relates a kind of experiment in which he subjected himself to the constant programming of over ninety cable television channels over a period of about a week. Then he spent an equivalent amount of time on a mountaintop in the wild of the Adirondacks. He compared the experiences and their impact on his emotional and psychological state. When I asked him what he hoped to find, here’s what he said in the interview:
I wanted to understand the ideology of the time, which didn’t seem to be political ideology really, but a consumer one. TV somehow seemed key to all that. So I watched all that endless TV and spent all that time outdoors. If you had to boil the whole thing down to one idea—an idea that TV spreads with incredible efficiency— it’s that we are the most important things in the world, we’re the center, each one of us as individuals is incredibly important. All our wants should be gratified. We should be amused at all times. That’s what life is about. It’s sort of the ideology of the suburb, the ideology of Disneyland. I came to understand this ideology as being very much against both an ecological worldview, and a religious worldview. These are world views where we’re not the center of everything.
McKibben went on to share something he noticed about the children in his area. Whereas he remembered running around the trails of the Adirondacks as a boy, almost constantly out in the natural world, he noticed that the kids now were inside most of the time, in front of their video games and TVs. He came to see that “TV was a place where children live.”
Not only does a predominance of television as the primary way to mediate reality make us more self-centered, it becomes a kind of habitat in which we live. Natural habitat provides sustenance, shelter, the matrix of natural forms within which we reproduce and thrive. It is, therefore, a key element in our landscape of formation. Today’s virtual world, the internet, social media, and devices only added to the canon of distraction. My interview with McKibben predated the time of smartphones and the prevalence of computers. Today, the vast proliferation of devices has been characterized by author Cory Doctorow as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” The internet, whatever its benefits for global connection, has ushered in an eerie kind of disembodied placelessness, where we begin to feel that we physically and psychically exist somewhere out in cyberspace. The implication of this on the consciousness of our young is enormous. The virtual world should only be one part of the habitat (and of the landscape of formation) of a child, not the primary context for forming relationships—and, by extension, empathy—beyond the human.
A New Cultural Reverie
Former 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson stated that her administration’s highest priority would be the creation of a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Children and Youth to “address the trauma of millions of American children” with the end of “helping them become productive citizens in the 21st century.” At the foundation of that trauma is neglect, says Williamson, a failure to provide children with the resources they need to thrive.
Children need to have their primary needs fulfilled as part of the process of nurturing the whole of their person. They need to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment with enough nutritional food, shelter, and health care, free from the insecurity of gun violence and bullying in their schools and homes. Unarticulated (but not necessarily absent) in Williamson’s vision for children is a grounding in ecology and evolutionary cosmology. To expand on her vision, there should be a special emphasis on providing not just an ecological perspective as the foundation for all learning, but an eco-cosmological education in which the child learns that she is the planet aware of herself, and that she is an integral part of a much grander story that is still unfolding and complexifying in time. For such a cabinet-level department to be effective, it should have ecology and cosmology as foundational components. A child with an understanding of a unifying evolutionary cosmology and the dynamics of an unfolding universe will carry an awareness of the possibilities of the human as a positive agent through deep time. Ecology will ground children in a sense of place and an understanding of the interrelationships of all life on the planet. Given this context, they will have the strength to combat despair and the internal resources to cope with the severity of climate change, the irreversible loss of species, and an ecologically compromised planet.
For adults, a matrix of nationwide teach-ins and citizens’ circles are needed to deepen understanding of the nature of citizenship, ecology, cosmology, economics, and politics and to counter the dominant narrative of alienation from the natural world. If adults can understand the connections between making a living and larger economic forces more clearly, they can begin to see beyond their general sense of betrayal by politicians and policymakers. They can begin to discern the dominant cultural reveries of anthropocentrism, monotheism, male domination, and distrust of the body as a way of knowing. Western society’s enthronement of reason over other ways of knowing and a related central belief that the human is the measure of all ultimate value has created a cultural reverie that defaults to domination of nature in situations where social and ecological justice come into conflict. The fact that this is a false contradiction is lost because of the powers of a largely tacit belief inculcated in children from their earliest formative stages of life and on into adulthood.
Until we have the will to revamp the cultural reveries of unchecked consumerism, anthropocentrism, and a denial of the sacred within and around us, we will be forced to deal with another contradiction—the one between human viability and the vibrancy of an Earth community that supports us materially, psychologically, and spiritually. In the end, even an informed citizenry will only make better choices (in day-to-day life, in the adoption and use of technologies, and at the ballot box) when their primary reveries come not out of a sense of deficiency, lack, and disconnection, but out of a sense of their birthright of a vibrant planet and a creative universe. By seeing more deeply, by increasing the scope of our sensitivities, we will all come to live more deeply.