Evolution of Consciousness

My wife sometimes accuses me of selective engagement. She says I am much more open to conversation with people whom I find physically attractive, intellectually stimulating, emotionally responsive, or spiritually evolved. Guilty as charged.

Title: Cnidaria, MultiView Light Sheet Microscopy (3 of 4) | Author: Helena Parra | Source: ZEISS Microscopy | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Cnidaria, MultiView Light Sheet Microscopy (3 of 4) | Author: Helena Parra | Source: ZEISS Microscopy | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As it turns out, the idea of selective engagement goes back 500 million years.

According to research by neuroscientist Michael Graziano, published in the June 6, 2016, issue of The Atlantic, consciousness arises as a solution to fundamental problems facing any nervous system[1]. Simply stated, in response to information overload, the brain has developed sophisticated processing systems to select signals at the expense of others. Graziano suggests that

“neurons act like candidates in an election, each one shouting and trying to suppress its fellows. At any moment only a few neurons win that intense competition, their signals rising up above the noise and impacting the animal’s behavior.”

This process first appeared in primitive multi-cellular life and has evolved since then. So, it appears that my sins of selective engagement can all be traced to the jelly fish. At least I have an excuse.

The questions are:

1) How has our consciousness evolved over the past half billion years?; and
2) How have we evolved beyond the biological dimension of our lives?

Title: Gonionemus vertens | Author: Hans Hillewaert | Source: Flickr | LIcense: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Gonionemus vertens | Author: Hans Hillewaert | Source: Flickr | LIcense: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Zhoukoudian cave system, Beijing, China | Title: 66014-Peking-Man-Site | Author: Xiquinho Silva | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0
Zhoukoudian cave system, Beijing, China | Title: Peking Man Site | Author: Xiquinho Silva | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

From a spiritual perspective, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin posited an evolution of consciousness paradigm that projects a triumphant vision for the future of humankind.[2] He suggests that the universe is crossing a profound threshold in evolution which originated in reflective thought and is now emerging as a transcendent unfolding within us.

According to Rudolf Steiner, who wrote the book The Evolution of Consciousness,

“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives.”

Steiner believes we are on an existential quest for meaning and indicates how it is possible for us to rediscover our connection to the cosmos. He culminates his lectures in a call for humankind to take our destiny in our own hands through conscious development of spiritual capabilities.[3]

Two books inspired me to do some research on the evolution of consciousness and write a post on my findings. My wife also thought I might benefit from a more evolved consciousness about my selective engagement tendencies (SET), but I may be too SET in my ways.

The Beatles

George Harrison Chanting Hare Krishna
George Harrison Chanting Hare Krishna

The first book was the American Veda by Philip Goldberg[4]. In this book, Goldberg traces the profound influence Indian spirituality has had on the West. Highly evolved spiritual leaders impacted a wide range of people from Emerson to the Beatles. Hundreds of people from the West made trips to India to learn from these gurus in ashrams throughout India. He discusses how the British Empire occupied India for two hundred years, and received the unintentional bonus of the Hindu Vedas, which include the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads.

Translations of these Vedic texts migrated to America and profoundly influenced Jefferson, Adams, Emerson, and Thoreau.

There are now Vedantic organizations in most major cities of the world. Goldberg discusses how the esoteric components of most religious traditions are “strikingly familiar across cultures and regardless of era.” Vedanta has quietly surfaced in the daily lives of Americans through Yoga, karma, meditation, and enlightenment. In the August, 2009, issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller wrote an article entitled, “We are All Hindus Now.” She suggested that American society has moved closer and closer to a spiritual worldview that resembles the core principles of ancient Indian philosophy.

As with many great ideas, however, most people have selectively engaged with only the superficial aspects of this philosophy.

Title: Yoga dog | Author: istolethetv | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0
Title: Yoga dog | Author: istolethetv | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

I was surprised to learn from American Veda that Emerson and Thoreau had assembled in Concord, MA, the largest library of Indian literature in America. I discovered that much of their work was based on Vedic core principles. What struck me was how the ideas have evolved since the Bhagavad Gita was written around the 5th century BCE, but how the core principles have remained fairly constant. This phenomenon is also true with the Tao Te Ching, which was written in the same era in China. Hopefully, the wisdom of the East will continue to influence the energy of the West as our universal consciousness evolves.

The second book that inspired this post was What is the Bible by Rob Bell, an American author, motivational speaker, and former pastor[4]. Bell founded the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan and was a pastor there until 2012. Under his leadership, the church became one of the fastest growing churches in America. In 2011, TIME magazine included Bell on its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

In What is the Bible, Bell challenges people who see the Bible as an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that are no longer relevant.

And so, he suggests, they miss all of the progressive and enlightened ideas that influenced human history—ideas that are still way ahead of our present consciousness and practice. Bell also takes a very provocative position toward people who talk about the centrality of the Bible in their lives, but then “butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretations.” He argues eloquently that the Bible deals with loss, anger, transcendence, fear, stress, joy, doubt, grace and healing in very inspiring ways. He points out strongly that the Bible was written over a period of one hundred years by many human beings living in an entirely different context than the one in which we live today. To me, his main point is to listen carefully to the metaphors, patterns, and possibilities instead of taking every word as literal truth so that we can develop a more psychologically sound philosophy of life.

Bell and Goldberg both point to an evolving consciousness in the world.

In a post I wrote on January 11, 2016, “Consciousness and Culture,” I proposed a seven-point scale for observing how consciousness might evolve. Here’s the scale and my unsubstantiated estimates of how the nearly 8 billion people on earth are distributed on the scale.

  • 7.0: Enlightened Service, 5%
  • 6.0: Harmonious Inclusion, 5%
  • 5.0: Empathic Love, 10%
  • 4.0: Logical Analysis, 20%
  • 3.0: Tribal Compliance, 20%
  • 2.0: Physical Security, 20%
  • 1.0: Survival Instinct, 20%

As I ponder that scale, in light of what I have summarized above, it seems to me that we need to draw on multiple sources of ancient wisdom to shift the frequency distribution so that larger percentages of people are engaged and focused on empathic love, harmonious inclusion, and enlightened service. On the other hand, if we continue to engage with the world for purposes of survival, security, and tribalism, it is likely that we will end up once again at the beginning—as jelly fish responding selectively to signals that enable us to compete for scarce resources. It may have taken us 500 million years to evolve to this point, but I’m not sure we have another 500 million years to elevate our perspective.

A hydromedusa | Title: Cosmic Jelly | Author: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-SA 2.0
Hydromedusa | Title: Cosmic Jelly | Author: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-SA 2.0

After exchanging e-mails with my Vedic-versed, consciousness-consultant friend, Due Quach, I discovered some new insights.

First, for many of us, the noise and distractions of the world drown out the yearning for discovering our higher selves and for feeling drawn toward the gravitational force of Cosmic Source.

Second, as humans, we live under the delusion of separation and fail to appreciate the extent to which we are all interconnected in Oneness.

Cosmic consciousness arises when we are able to see through those delusions.

Third, collective consciousness has evolved over time. For example, in the not too distant past, slavery was a “normal” part of life. Thankfully, today, the Collective Consciousness condemns slavery and embraces the ideals of universal human rights.

I believe we can continue evolve our consciousness by selectively engaging with abundant sources and forces in the universe. I also believe that a cosmic consciousness is evolving that will enable everyone to participate more fully and fairly in the abundance of the world. I just hope we evolve fast enough for all persons on the planet to be able to benefit from an evolved and evolving consciousness. Here are some facts:

  • Humans have evolved over a half billion years from multi-celled organisms with a level 1 consciousness: survival.
  • Humans started using language about 70,000 years ago which enabled us to articulate ideas like consciousness.
  • 2,500 years ago, those discussions culminated in texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Veda that encouraged us to elevate our consciousness.
  • 2,000 years ago, we were given the gift of the Bible to help us guide our lives. The questions are: How do we take this accumulated wisdom to the next level? How do we welcome the transcendence unfolding within us? How do we engage with the world in enlightened ways to avoid becoming endangered or extinct species?

I’m hoping that deChardin, Steiner, and Due Quach are right: collective consciousness is evolving in the right direction. My wife just hopes I will broaden the range of people with whom I engage. Since she is a highly trusted and beloved source of feedback in my life, I need to listen to her and work on my own evolution. The last thing I would want would be to be seen as SET in my ways.

Further Reading:

[1] “A New Theory Explains How Concsciousness Evolved,” Michael Graziano, The Altantic
[2] The American Teilhard Association’s website
[3] Rudolf Steiner quotations
[4] American Veda by Philip Goldberg
[5] What is the Bible by Rob Bell

Also published on Medium.

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Another thought provoking and eloquent missive Ricky! Thanks for being you! I love you my brother! RonnyDonny

Sheila Callaham

Excellent article!

No disrespect to your wife, but must we really poo-poo selective engagement? I rather like choosing with whom I share my energy…. :-)

Artie Egendorf, PhD
Yo Rick! As an “invitation to meaningful conversation” this one is WAAAY up there. I’ll just linger on your beginning for now. Then see if I’m juiced enough to come back for more. “How did the cake get made? Well, you see the batter decided it wanted to go into the bowl, then get the eggs beaten in, along with some milk, sugar and melted butter . . . then . . .” So goes bottom up descriptions for any creative emergence of new unfoldings in life, world, cosmos. The guy who wrote that piece in the Atlantic you quote… Read more »

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