Rewriting The Story Of Who We Are: A Shift To Conscious Choice
America celebrated its first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. That year also marked the publication of my favorite children’s book, The Wump World, by the beloved writer and illustrator Bill Peet. I discovered The Wump World in a mountain of books my mother helped my little brother and me haul home from our local library—our revered and preferred source of entertainment in the very early ’70s! After my first read, I searched anxiously for The Wump World every time we visited the library, looking forward to sitting for the umpteenth time with the story of the “Pollutians,” who invaded the pristine, green world of the furry, doe-eyed “Wumps,” with their ideas of industrial progress. In the simple, colored-pencil illustrations, the hapless Wumps retreated into underground caves until the Pollutians finally declared to their leader that they could not live on such a polluted planet anymore; they were sick from their lifestyles and had to find another planet.
After the Pollutians took off in their spaceships, the Wumps emerged from their caves to a “dead” landscape of concrete buildings, smoke-filled skies and paved-over earth. The book’s message about pollution did not escape me or my first grade classmates, as most of us displayed “Turn Off Your Lights” stickers on our light switches and watched Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American in the Keep America Beautiful commercial, cry as he overlooked a littered cityscape. It wasn’t the book’s obvious message, that pollution was bad and we needed to do our part to stop it, that I found fascinating. It was the last page that held my rapt attention: A solitary Wump, staring at a sidewalk, where a single, green-leafed plant had pushed its way through a small crack in the landscape of gray rubble. Perched on a crumbling wall, the Wump’s unmistakably happy smile seemed to impart a secret…or a promise.It was this last page that I would race to each time I read The Wump World, as if each time I was looking for reassurance that the Wump, the leaf and I shared—the secret knowledge that something else was true, something greater and more real than the passing story of the Pollutians and their irrational dedication to industrial progress at all costs, even their own health. What was that something else, whose power would eventually heal the Wump’s world?
At this moment in time, four decades later and on the heels of the largest environmental disaster in human history, it feels like much of humanity is staring at the last page of The Wump World and wondering, with no way off the planet (though some are working on it), how do we begin to enter into a relationship with the consciousness, the vitalism and the healing force of Life represented by this humble green leaf? How are we going to heal our world and our on-loan, animated Earth suits—our bodies—that depend upon the health of the Earth? Can we find the will to discard the limiting, old story of “we’re Pollutians and this is just what we do,” and instead write a new story, one that features human beings tapping into their innate potential, pursuing conscious relationships with all of Life and working together to co-create a healthy world?
Why is it imperative that humanity create a new story? Because “our story”—a story created and told by humans, mostly out of habit—represents our view of the world. And worldviews create worlds.
What is needed to root out the old, unsustainable view? Perhaps identifying some of the assumptions embedded within the old story would help us better recognize its influence in our individual and collective lives:
Growth is good; more is better.
Economic wealth is the truest sign of progress.
The “market” is the most reliable measure of value.
Individual selfishness serves the common good.
We live in a world of scarcity.
Humans are superior to other creatures.
The Earth is ours to exploit.
The world can be divided into “us” and “them.”
People are intrinsically bad.
Technology—or God—will save us.
What if current science had already blown past this tired, old tale? What if you didn’t need a corporate-sponsored study to tell you what to believe because you could go straight to the source? Can this be a part of our new story: direct knowledge?
Taking on the task of answering the many questions that emerge when considering a new version of reality to guide us to our full human potential is the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). “Noetic” sciences are explorations into the nature and potentials of consciousness using multiple ways of knowing— including intuition, feeling, reason and the senses. Noetic sciences explore the “inner cosmos” of the mind (consciousness, soul and spirit) and how it relates to the “outer cosmos” of the physical world. For three decades, IONS has studied the evidence of humanity’s awakening as our consciousness shifts away from the industrial worldview of our old story to our emerging new story, with its integrated, holistic worldview.
This transition, from our old story to a new story, was experienced firsthand and spectacularly by IONS’s founder, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, in 1971, on his way back from the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. Sitting in the cramped cabin of the space capsule, Mitchell saw planet Earth floating freely in the vastness of space. He was engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness— an epiphany. In Mitchell’s own words: “The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes…. The knowledge came to me directly.”
When his feet hit the ground (literally and figuratively), Mitchell faced a critical challenge. As an engineer and physical scientist, he had grown accustomed to directing his attention to the objective world “out there.” But the experience that came to him in space led him to a startling hypothesis: Perhaps reality is more complex, subtle and inexorably mysterious than conventional science had led him to believe. Perhaps a deeper understanding of consciousness (inner space) could lead to a new and expanded view of reality, in which objective and subjective, outer and inner, are understood as equal aspects of the miracle and mystery of being.
Mitchell sought out others who likewise felt the need for an expanded, more inclusive view of reality. Together, they resolved to explore the inner world of human experience with the same rigor and critical thinking that made it possible for Apollo 14 to journey to the moon and back. (Dr. Mitchell’s story is told in the book, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds.)
According to the IONS website, the mission of the noetic scientists is to expand our understanding of human possibility by investigating aspects of reality—mind, consciousness, and spirit—that include, but go beyond, physical phenomena. They seek to understand the inner world as thoroughly as we have the outer world, based on the premise that what finds expression in the world at large is a reflection of our interior landscape. Today, the institute carries out its mission as a worldwide research, education and membership-based organization in Petaluma, California. (Visit them at noetic.org)
The IONS annual publication, the Shift Report, has this to say about our old story: Its purpose has been fulfilled, and, therefore, it is no longer needed. The 2007 report, titled Evidence of a World Transforming, concludes: “Materialist science represented an evolutionary leap from a mind-set that relied on religious authority for verifying truths to one that valued an objective search for knowledge. In this global age of rapid change and transformation, it is time for another such leap… [to] include the rigorous study of subjective, inner experience, a renewed appreciation for meaning and purpose, and a recognition that the world of consciousness is far more mysterious and influential than we have ever imagined.”
What are our greatest obstacles to creating a new story, a new worldview—and therefore a new world? There are obstacles on every level of human organization, from communities to nations to planetary forces. However, the one “obstacle” that we all individually possess and control—somewhat—is our brain. But as Andrew Newberg states in Born to Believe, “The brain is a stubborn organ. Once its primary set of beliefs has been established, the brain finds it difficult to integrate opposing ideas and beliefs. This has profound consequences for individuals and society and helps to explain why some people cannot abandon destructive beliefs, be they religious, political or psychological.”
A 2004 study at Emory University illustrates how our brains entrench in preconceptions defying all reason. Researchers studied the brain activity of participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI. Participants, a sampling of partisan Republicans and Democrats, were asked to rate a series of contradictory statements made by both John Kerry and George W. Bush. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up…. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and the activation of positive ones.” In short, “Partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data.”