Seeing with the Heart: From the Little Prince to Teilhard de Chardin
PART 1 Teilhard’s Evolutionary Theory and Deep Hope (Transcript)
Vera de Chalambert: Welcome Cynthia. Let us begin with the topic of our Series- The Emergence. What do you see as emerging in our global spiritual culture today? What is the role of the mystic in times of crisis? Teilhard de Chardin seems to have had a lot to say about this. What would you say?
Cynthia Bourgeault: Well, I would say the first thing that Teilhard gives us is the good news is that there’s hope. He was very, very controversial in his own time, but I think there’s a swing, probably he’s got about half the scientists with him and a lot of the people, I’d say the majority of people doing integral evolutionary theory in that the evolutionary journey does have a direction, a purpose, a teleology and as Teilhard saw it, he could say it in five words, it’s the evolutionary pattern seen over billions of years is a rising tide of consciousness.
In other words, the deep hope is in the fact that from the time things first sort of exploded into form, the Big Bang, wherever you put it, into the atomicity of billions and trillions and gazillions of little bits and pieces, there has been a steady movement over history of coming together to form deeper, more coherent, more highly organized and therefore more powerful magnitude of conscious units.
There’s no reason that that should be going backwards because it never has. That’s the good news. The bad news is that deep hope is measured over deep time. Maybe that’s the good news too, but maybe not for our species. That what gives him this profound evolutionary view is that he’s looking at the whole thing for 14 billion years. Because of that, he’s able to incorporate into things as simply as the play of chance. He calls ittâtonnements,or trial and error. There are huge swings.
There are things like comets hitting the earth and all of a sudden there’s a Dark Age, there’s the continents push up, planets are absorbed. He didn’t speak about Atlantis, but he certainly knew about the shifting of tectonic plates. The whole thing can go dark. There was a period in particular where according to his view as a paleontologist, and he was really looking at the long view of things, he was one of the ones right in there with the discovery of Peking man that pushed back the dating of when we first had not pre-hominid, but actually hominid forms on the earth back to at least 125,000 years conservatively.
After that period things sort of disappear again. You’ve got another Ice Age, you’ve got another … Then pop, all of a sudden it’s back again and there’s consciousness and there’s evidence of using fire or using tools. It’s like the evolutionary memory is embedded in the earth even though things wipe us out for a good long time. When it picks up again, as it will, consciousness picks right back up again and keeps on going.
That’s a long sort of prelude to the fact that I think we are living in a very, very volatile and cuspy time. What I would see from my other hat because Teilhard didn’t think in exactly these categories, but we certainly are seeing more people who are attaining what Ken Wilber and company call the integral level of consciousness which is really the capacity to think from the whole to the part. Teilhard has some very good ways of sketching in what that actually looks like.
We have more people doing that and yet at the same time we have this stranglehold of what seems to be volatile retroactivity. All of a sudden consciousness itself seems to be under attack, certainly the environment is under attack. The strides we’ve been making to really begin to manifest the global face of humanity is under attack. There’s no telling that it’s going to come out well. To be perfectly honest at this day and age it’s dark. With idiots with hands on buttons, we could very well unleash a nuclear inferno on our planet.
This is not to minimize the danger of the time we’re in, but when we measure what looked like downturns in periods of 30 years or 100 years or 500 years or even 2,000 years, we’re really holding it too close to see and to draw the hope from the long, long picture which is where Teilhard insists deep hope lies. That’s the good news and the bad news.
From my other great spiritual informant, George Gurdjieff, I have a deep trust in what he articulated as the conscious circle of humanity. What he means by this is that there’s a, you might call it a bandwidth of conscious compassionate intelligence that surrounds the world and it’s a kind of intertidal zone consisting in about equal parts of human beings on the earth who have reached very, very high levels of consciousness and commitment. What you might call Bodhisatva consciousness, a real deep feeling for the collectivity of the earth and have developed the spiritual practices that allow them to think and see beyond linear causality.
They join up with the folks that are, that still maintain their individual personhood, but beyond the grave in disincarnate form. The two of them form a bandwidth of cosmic goodwill, which not only Gurdjieff but a lot of the other traditions, I think Hasidism for one thing has spoken about the 36 Tsadikim, holy people.
They’re all speaking about the same thing. There’s a group of people that can intersect with some source of hope, some source of intelligence to help buffer these downturns and maybe see us through. It might otherwise have been far worse. I sense if nothing else that every time I try to do something else I get called back to saying the place I’m going to be the most helpful to the cosmos is to try to take up my shovel at the baby end of the human incarnate end of that one. That’s where I can help on the planet.
I do think that if anything is going to soften the shocks and divert the course of what looks like a really bad downturn, it will come from the active intervention of the collective bodhisattva consciousness forming a bridge of tenderness across this volatile time. It’s happened before.
The divine really is invested in this planet, this planetary form. There’s something here for the divine. We do receive intelligence and compassionate aid. That I think would be the hope. Certainly Teilhard saw that. Certainly Teilhard saw that we were irreversibly moving, taking on the whole and over long enough periods towards a higher collectivity, a higher unity that at the same time respected and cherished diversity.
To a oneness that just didn’t mean either the obliteration of form or everything being the same, but for the capacity for things to be much more deeply rooted in their own suchness, in their own particularity, but still part of an overarching whole that would in a way have emergent properties that were not contained in the parts, you know? That this higher collective humanity does have some things that individual enlightenment can’t attain.
Vera de Chalambert: The way you’re speaking about it, can sometimes be lost in the nondual conversation where we might think of awakening or enlightenment as this kind of like impersonal thing, as a movement towards some kind of a blob-like transcendence where the ego disappears and everything merges. Like a spiritual merger of some kind. It seems like what you’re saying has a very different quality to it. Specificity and personhood. What does he say? He says that union differentiates, right? It’s such a different perspective.
CynthiaBourgeault: Right. That was one of his theories. I think that’s a theory that most biologists would not disagree with because when we see in the very principle of symbiotic unity that what happens, whether or not you’re amazed at the cell as the kind of dividing line between life and non-life, that the cell is what makes it so remarkable is that it exhibits that principle of unity and diversity, that the various parts of it take on different functions.
You’ve got an exoskeleton, you’ve got RNA, you’ve got DNA, you’ve got protoplasm, cytoplasm. You’ve got all these different functions within a wholeness which allow for a much stronger unity because of the diversity. As an evolutionist Teilhard saw that and in spiritual paths, in spiritual practice we do tend to have these models that when we look at union and the highest states and all of that state, we see them as a return to the oneness. We see them as non-divided, non-differentiated.
That’s exactly what our metaphysics has asked us to ponder as the highest model of what conscious attainment would be. Teilhard says you know, I don’t see it. He says when you actually look at the history of how consciousness manifests on the planet, how it has come to develop higher and higher candle power, how creatures that manifest in the universe have become more and more intelligent, more and more diversified, more and more capable of amazing things, it’s all through this principle of differentiation. Unity differentiates, differentiation unifies.
Teilhard calls that the complexification consciousness principle. It’s the cornerstone of his theory of evolution. We’re really using different road maps. The metaphysical roadmap and the evolutionary road map don’t necessarily, you know, they sort of point you different truths. Teilhard really pondered that. He says, “Okay, okay, if you see evolution as a rising tide of consciousness,” if you look like he does as a trained paleontologist and evolutionist, he says what you’ll see is things coming together to find more and more complexly differentiated units.
On the basis of that, he began to develop a whole new theory of the personal and the personhood and his thinking is really cornerstone to what I think the whole Christian quadrant has to bring to the discussion of nonduality. It requires some redefining of terms. Teilhard was the first one to get into this, but it’s been picked up by a lot of people. Thomas Burton was working on it. Nowadays Ilia Delio is probably the most famous, most famous of our contemporary American Teilhard scholars has really taken this one and fine tuned it.
His basic starting point was he differentiated between and individual and a person. An individual is an autonomous unit bounded by his or her own skin who thinks of himself or herself as an autonomous unit. A person for Teilhard is one who knows that he or she belongs indisputably, irreducibly to a relational field. That if you say one thing about consciousness even implicit in the word consciousness, with knowing, consciousness implies a field of relationality.
A person is one who understands that he or she is not an individual unit, but is embedded from the very start in a great web of relationality. It’s from that relationality that the greater whole is founded. The person for Teilhard also is more highly differentiated. The person as opposed to the individual, you know, the individual gets up, goes to work, makes the donuts, comes home, turn on TV. The person has reflected deeply on his or her life and begins to develop depth and character.
Rilke was onto this too incidentally in one of his wonderful little letters to a young poet on love. He says, “Love is a task for the ripe, for the mature human being. It’s not for the young because what would be the point of a premature union where you just run together like a blob?” He says, “The whole point is to individuate, to articulate, to become something in one’s self, to become world in one’s self for the sake of the beloved.”
Teilhard was saying exactly the same thing although I don’t think he read Rilke, but the idea that as we live consciously in our own skins, as we develop life experience, as we mature, as we reflect on life, as we develop what all the great traditions say is our highest human gift to the cosmos, which is the gift of our character, the essence of our aliveness, the names of God we bear as the Sufis would say. The fruits of the Spirit that we’ve manifested through our conscious work in the planet and conscious reflection.
This adds a depth dimension. It’s in that depth dimension that Teilhard finds person. It’s a more evolved stage. It’s an inter-penetrating deeper, more reflective, more kind of like a fine wine it’s got some bouquet to it. It’s this kind of thing that is really able to do the coming together to form that higher collective unit. Kabir Helminsky likes to say, “Two stones cannot occupy the same place, but two fragrances can.”
Personhood is the fragrance, the fragrance that comes. If our individual is the stone, the fragrance that arises from the reflected inter-penetrating, inter-being life is the building block of this higher collective body which Teilhard dreamed of, which I think the integral evolutionary models look at that is a whole system with properties, emergent properties that are stronger than simply my little petty individualism. That make sense?
The other thing that Teilhard draws from that is that the universe doesn’t grow more and more impersonal, that along with the gain, the growth, the steady sort of increase in articulation of consciousness, the universe becomes more and more personal. Again, describing these same sort of characteristics that he’s used as his litinous for what personhood means, flexible inter-being relationality and a depth dimension.
He actually talks about in one of the marvelous little riffs in his The Human Phenomenon where he talks about the ways of life, he’s noticed that all along up to this point one of the characteristics of life seems to be its indifference to the individual. Billions of seeds sprung out on the world and maybe only five or six will grow. People crushed in wars and famines, evolutionary experiments hitting brick walls, this sort of profligate loss of life in the service of evolution. He points out yes, that evolution to this point tends to favor life more than lives. Thus it seems impersonal and even random.
He says that that will change and he says that eventually the field, this kind of matrix that we live in of life will find an intense solicitude for its components in the realm of the personal. It’s a beautiful, beautiful quote that the indifference that life seems to find, that stops so many of us dead in our tracks because we feel that life is random, we feel like it’s pitiless, we feel like we’re living out here on this meaningless edge of a haphazard planet, all that kind of indifference. He says that will be changed as consciousness evolves to a point where it can really manifest the personal.
It’s in that realm that we’ll move from the sort of random, pitiless, postmodern anomie into an ability to comprehend the compassionate coherence of the field we’re in and to express it and to manifest it and to give it a vehicle, a vessel to manifest this secret of its own heart.