What is Conscious Evolution all About ?
"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, ... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” Edward O. Wilson
The late, Barbara Marx Hubbard, American futurist and visionary, was the first to coin the phrase Conscious Evolution. The word evolution is defined as a process of movement and continuous change, a period of growth or development in a certain direction, usually from a simpler state to one that is more complex and functional. Behind the complexities of Darwinian evolution is a simple process consisting of growth, change and development. We observe this process all around us in the natural world and also within ourselves as individual people.
By employing the word conscious we enter into more controversial territory. For much of our history on the planet we felt like creatures at the mercy of alien forces which we strove to conquer and eliminate, but rarely succeeded. Religion very much endorsed this view. In Darwinian terms, the struggle was described as the survival of the fittest, encouraging a strategy of fierce competition always favoring the strong and dominant. In religious terms, the problem belonged to a fundamental flaw (called Original Sin in Christianity) about which humans could do nothing in this world unless they submitted to faith in Jesus and the salvation for humanity which he wrought upon the Cross. Even if humans adopt the Christian faith they still have to live with a lot of alienation.
Increasingly humans inhabit a planet saturated with information, generating a new quality of awareness, which in scientific and spiritual terms is described as consciousness. Evolution today (material and human) is driven by a hyper sense of awareness – hence the phrase, conscious evolution. It feels like we are in the process of outgrowing – or desiring to outgrow – the mechanistic power of what the Darwinians call natural selection. Where once we were at the mercy of our environment, now our environment is at our disposal to re-configure as we wish. Conscious evolution suggests that humanity can choose advancement through co-operation and co-creation rather than self-destruction through separateness and competition.
A New Evolutionary Threshold
Mankind is on the verge of an evolutionary leap in consciousness, to a whole new way of thinking and being that – for weal or for woe – is changing our self-understanding and posing whole new questions on our inter-relationship with the web of life. Up to this point, the forces of evolution were understood to be external to mankind, with humans as passive recipients rather than conscious participants.
In terms of self-perception, for long we have viewed ourselves as isolated individuals battling for survival, competing with alien forces from within and without, eking out identity through a specific family, ethnicity, religion, nation-state, over-against all others who also took their identity from the same foundational configuration. Individuality (ego-identity) defined the person, the tribe, the religion, the nation State. And the dominant paradigm was neatly encapsulated in the scientific dogma: “The whole equals the sum of the parts.”
Along came Quantum Physics, and the evolutionary consciousness of the 20th century, and seismic shifts not merely disturbed, but actually shattered, our ego-identity. Now we are being moved along by a new consciousness – subconsciously for the greater part – in an universe where: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” It evokes a radically different set of perceptions and substantially new understandings of everything in our world. The “parts” are awakening to the power of the whole. Simply put, we are now living through the birth pains of the planetary mind!
Choosing the Way Ahead
Then comes the painful contradiction: many of our major institutions – political, economic, social, educational, religious – operate out of the old ego-focused identity. Business as usual! It is almost thirty years ago since two American theorists coined the phrase: permanently failing organizations, explaining the growing irrelevance and eventual collapse of the institutions on which we all rely for our daily existence. Of course, millions have walked away and continue to do so, leaving the institutions more and more petrified and reactionary. And for those who do walk away, the way ahead if far from clear.
At this juncture the advocates of conscious evolution offer a sense of utopian hope: “You can – must – choose your own way forward.” And the advice may not be as authentic as it initially sounds. In evolutionary terms, it is not so much about we humans making choices for ourselves, choices that will enhance control over our destiny, prolong our longevity, or improve the quality of our happiness and fulfillment. This could easily lead humans into re-inventing the all-powerful deity we desire to dislodge. Instead of all the emphasis on choosing to control, the wisdom of this moment requires us to make choices of submission. We need to learn to flow with evolution’s unfolding. We need to abandon our ego-superiority to the evolutionary lure of the future. That is how the great mystics did it – and they are our more reliable guides for this precarious and promising time.
Evolution is advancing in strides unknown to any previous generations. Assuredly we humans are evolution becoming conscious of itself. It is in and through us humans, that the awareness – the consciousness – is most cognitive and transparent. And enormous responsibilities ensue. With all the wisdom we can mobilize, we need to discern what is actually transpiring at this time (the sciences are probably our primary sources of enlightenment), its impact on our lives at every level, and the receptivity we need to attend and discern responsibly. In the past, religion claimed to be our primary resource for such discernment, but not anymore; religion itself has become too ensnared in dysfunctional disintegration.
Yes, we are conscious with a degree of awareness that is very new for our species. On a global scale we are launched into a new web of interconnection and creative possibility. And we carry within us a deep hunger and passionate urgency to dislodge our oppressive past and embrace the new horizon with a kind of reckless freedom. Our subconscious sense of urgency could be our undoing, leading us to a new dangerous anthropocentric self-inflation that will only alienate us further from the creative freedom we desire. The responsibility to respond in a discerning way rests heavily upon us. It requires a quality of spiritual focus, largely unknown to mainline religions, and therefore, a resource we must also co-create at this time. The writings of the Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio, formerly a theologian at Villanova University, are particularly helpful, offering an inspiring vision for our way ahead.
"Evolution is less a mechanism than a process – a constellation of law, chance, spontaneity, and deep time. . . . Evolution is not simply a biological mechanism of gene swapping or environmental pressure. It is the unfolding and development of consciousness in which consciousness plays a significant role in the process of convergence and complexification." (Delio 2013, xvi, 98).
The evolutionary imperative I describe is not a cultural phenomenon that we can take or leave. Nor is it a movement over which we have human control, To the contrary, it is no longer a case of us evolving within a process over which we have a measure of human control. Rather the truth is that we are being evolved, in a momentous thrust within which we allow ourselves to become an integral part of cosmic and planetary well- being, or otherwise we become increasingly alienated from life at large. I am not in any way suggesting that all is determined, and that we have no choice other than get involved. Our coming of age is a wake-up call to realize that we are a derived species, creatures of a cosmic-planetary co-evolutionary process in which the growth and progress of each entity – ourselves included – is only possible when we opt to integrate our becoming with that of the larger reality.
Evolution Lures us forth
I also want to highlight the significant contribution of the former Georgetown professor of theology, John F. Haught, who almost single-handedly asserts that it is the lure of the future more than anything else that informs the evolutionary imperative of our time. This insight was initially proposed by the philosopher Karl Popper, and is now articulated anew by Haught (2010; 2015), namely, that the direction of evolution takes shape primarily in response to the lure of the future, and not merely solidifying what has served us well in the past. In the words of John Haught (2015, 52): “Evolution, viewed theologically, means that creation is still happening and that God is creating and saving the world not a retro, that is, by pushing it forward out of the past, but ab ante, by calling it from up ahead.” Theologically, I understand that the central attraction of the lure of the future to be the fruit and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Humankind is now in the process of shifting our normal state of awareness from an individual/ego point of view to a global/spiritual point of view, and our basic choice is to cooperate with that process and help it along. We must let go of all the patriarchal domination, still so endemic to our politics and religions. Empowered by the wisdom of the great mystics, we must learn to submit to where the Great Spirit leads, and make the many adjustments evolution is asking of us at this time. From here on we are called to be a participatory and discerning species, not a dominating and controlling one.
As we shift away from the old, self-destructive patterns of competing for energy and towards a higher spiritual potential, we evolve collectively towards a culture that is oriented to co-creative growth and less focused on outer technologies, as a means for survival. By being in harmony with the universal flow, we begin to “vibrate” at a frequency that brings us into unifying alignment with the Source and also with one another. In that way we move towards the new freedom, the deepest aspiration of all the great religions, and central truth of the great mystical traditions known to humankind.
Some recommended reading:
Delio, Ilia. 2013. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.
Haught, John. F. 2010. Making Sense of Evolution.
2015. Resting on the Future.
Hubbard, Barbara Marx. 1998. Conscious Evolution.