The most radical understanding of reality points first to radical wholeness, to the prior unity of all opposites and conditional experiences. It is only something superficial to that—a present activity of contraction within that wholeness—that creates the experience of separation and division and dilemma. Problem or dilemma, then, is the essential structure of human suffering. Subtly, it is presumed by all individual egos, in every ordinary activity, and even by traditional mystical and spiritual paths that strategize ways to reunite with a wholeness that has somehow been “lost.”
But the “problem” cannot be radically solved from the perspective of the separation it presumes in the first place. Seeking relief from separation doesn’t work. We can only awaken from the dream of separation and recognize that it isn’t true, and never has been.
And, in the meantime, entirely apart from our seeking to escape separation—health and wholeness and integrity keep reasserting themselves. Our attraction to wholeness drives our healthiest and noblest choices and aspirations. Even more fundamental than seeking, it is woven through our character. So, when we are most conscious, we live a wholesome life.
However, a contemporary life that embodies wholeness is stubbornly elusive, especially while human civilization is seemingly unraveling — and complexifying and fragmenting so rapidly. How can we account for all the fast-moving changes and conflicts? We can’t. And there is no pause button—our lives keep confronting us with discrete, specific challenges that require timely responses. So we act, react, or fail to act.
Often, we don’t respond from wholeness. As profoundly as we have evolved on all levels, the habits of our neurological hardwiring still retain a deep thread of primitive conditioning that tends to cognize big abstractions like “the whole” as something “out there”—separate from the self, and thus not important to our lives, at least for now. For the vast majority, even among apparently “highly evolved” people, the good of the individual, family, group, tribe, political party, city, or nation trumps the good of the Whole (which, again, is viewed as a separate “thing,” apart from us).
This helps explain the contempt of many politicians as well as ordinary citizens for our climate and environment; the mind of parts doesn’t notice that the economy is a subset of the ecology. This thinking encourages separate selves and separate groups to compete against “the other” for limited resources. It encourages and rewards our cannibalization of the commons and of Earth.
But a system, culture, or civilization built on this model will eventually self-destruct. Because everything is a part of the Whole, the well-being of all parts depends on the health of the Whole. The failure of humans to see and embody this has resulted in a chaos of disconnection, in which most individuals and organizations “game the system” in one way or another, gaining advantage for themselves at the expense of the collective.
Corporations are incentivized to maximize their shareholders’ advantages, and they often do so at the expense of the commons. Citizens game corporations and governments if they can. In this respect, we enable one another to degrade our shared well- being. Each of us then functions something like cancer cells or tumors, sapping the health of the larger body politic. We have recently reached a level of social complexity that has created countless hiding places for such cancerous “memes.” This is what has produced the chaos, fragmentation, conflict, and disintegration now occurring all around us.
Our looming crises, centuries in the making, are a result of this mind of separation—countless generations of humans living, striving, and creating from a consciousness partially defined and compromised by fear, separation, division, conflict, and competition.
Ironically, separative thinking (“subject-object consciousness”) is extremely productive. The symbols and ideas that are creating so much confusion, division, conflict, and fragmentation are the very mental tools that have paradoxically made possible the advance of human knowledge and progress. We separate our “subjective” awareness from the “objects” we perceive, notice differences, identify our preferences, and exert our efforts to achieve effects. By separating wholeness into component parts, we perceive, distinguish, analyze, measure, and increasingly comprehend these parts. This allows us to construct frameworks, categories, and criteria for knowledge; protocols for rigor, observation, and investigation; and techniques to apply knowledge in ways that, over time, have given us the enormous powers of science and technology.
But science has long been confronting the implications of a multidimensional, evolving, integrated reality, grounded in wholeness and expressing it. Wholeness is not really in tension with science; in fact, it is the message of our best scientific understanding of reality. Science is in the process of recontextualizing and ultimately contradicting the story of separation, even though the separative habit remains strong in the minds of many, including many scientists.
But habit-based separative consciousness is now itself tending to become a real danger to our survival. It has already led us to an evolutionary impasse. Acting from this consciousness cannot be ultimately effective. Such actions reinforce their own operating assumptions, habits, and patterns.
“Good works” done from this state of consciousness will not ultimately save us. Whether it’s more educating, innovating, recycling, conserving and legislating; more donating, volunteering, protesting, organizing, and demonstrating; more good intentions and great ideas; trying harder, being smarter; knowing what’s wrong and what’s possible—none of these things can ultimately succeed. If we act from separative consciousness, even all the good things we do will inadvertently reinforce the separation we presume, so our good deeds will inevitably spawn additional problems.
Advances in technology, scientific knowledge, cultural values, spiritual vision, and psychological sophistication are remaking the world so rapidly that there are ample reasons for hope. Yet it is this lower, primitive structure—this consciousness rooted in separation rather than wholeness—that responds unskillfully and even destructively to evolutionary challenges. It must be alchemically transformed if we are to rise to a new evolutionary octave.
The most cutting-edge sciences in every field, the deepest psychological insights and spiritual teachings in human history—these will not save us until we integrate them into ourselves, our institutions, and our cultures. Otherwise they will remain like unread books on library shelves. They only come alive when they live in us and we live them in life.
Something unprecedented is required from us now if we are to survive and thrive. And that something new must be grounded in conscious wholeness. It is who we are and how we see that holds the potential for the necessary radical leap.
How can we remain consciously rooted in a deep, unifying intuition of prior wholeness—and live from there? How can we be the very presence of that wholeness in action? How can we be the agency of wholeness that heals division?
It is perhaps the question of our time.
Activism and awakening are two great projects with the potential to be integrated in a way that can liberate a profound, hidden, and world- changing synergy. They each aspire in some way to heal the fragmentation of human experience. And they each partially achieve it.
Awakening cultivates a wholeness in our personal awareness and life that puts us profoundly in touch with our moment-to-moment experience. It restores our relationship to wonder, to the essence of life and death, and to all sentient beings. Activism strives for a wholeness in our social relations, our political and economic systems, our institutions, and our structures of power.
These expressions of inner work and outer work are complementary, but each is, in its own way, incomplete. The obvious thing to do is to bring them together in a greater wholeness that draws on the strengths of each of these two great purposes, finds common cause, and innovates new synergies and greater efficacy. A “movement of movements,” if you will—an ecosystem of wholeness.
There are and have been great spiritual activists—from Jesus to Mahatma Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King—who have exemplified some integration of these two purposes, of the inner and outer work. And vital public conversations have continually emerged among spiritually inspired activists, from the students of Gandhi and King, to Quaker peace initiatives, to Catholic liberation theology.
Wholeness is also expressed in the contemporary work of those attempting awakened activism—including engaged Buddhists like Joanna Macy, deep ecologists like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, compassionate climate activists like Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Michael Dowd, and Connie Barlow, and sacred activists like Andrew Harvey, Marianne Williamson, and Charles Eisenstein. All of these individuals seek to evolve activism and advance social change in service of wholeness. We also know that there are countless unrecognized “awakening activists” doing good work every day. The more we look, the more we find these everyday heroes and exemplars of wholeness in action.
There is a resurgence of wholeness wherever science and spirituality find ways to be in authentic dialogue, such as at the Science and Nonduality conferences. There is wholeness in Pope Francis’s climate encyclical, arguing for “integral ecology.” There is an opening into wholeness in the attempts to integrate our knowledge about the evolution of matter, life, and mind as chapters in a single story, the “Big History” championed by David Christian and Bill Gates.
Nonetheless, a movement—a broad, self-aware, culturally effective arising of awakening activism—has yet to truly take root. The discourse, practices, institutions, narratives, values, and cultural structures and agreements of a greater integral wholeness are only just beginning to appear.
Despite our present cultures of separation, polarization, and alienation, we are not separate or disconnected. An integral transformation of ourselves and our relationship to this larger web, and the discovery and development of new, holistic ways of being and doing, are becoming evolutionary imperatives.
We are being called to our next stage of evolution, a new level of consciousness, and a new kind of human maturity. This is not seeking, rooted in a sense of problem, or lack. And yet it is urgent. We are being called to evolve beyond the exploitive, cannibalizing behaviors arising from narrow self-interest, and to make our lives and behavior serve the greater good of the whole.
We are being called to develop a new revolutionary premise for global culture, based in a profound realization of our interdependence, our prior and ultimate wholeness and unity. We are being called to whole-system change.
And it begins with us practicing wholeness, now, personally and together, now and forever.
Terry Patten is an activist, teacher, consultant, and author of A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries, a book that addresses our global meta-crisis in all its aspects—environmental, economic, political, and cultural—from a perspective that frames it as a challenge and opportunity for us, now, personally. This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of that book. A free excerpt is available, including both a PDF and an audio mp3 at http://newrepublicoftheheart.com. There you will also find links to buy the book.
Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe
The first episode in our brand new podcast series!
Please enter your email and we’ll send you instructions to reset your password