At Next Step Integral we believe that it is now possible, even imperative, for human beings who have reached a certain level of individuation to consciously decide to come together with others in order to form a new level of unity.
What does this mean? What does it look like? We hope to begin to address these questions with the following reflections, believing them to be the most compelling and important issues facing our human family. Indeed, answers to these questions may constitute the Next Step in the evolution of consciousness.
Reflection #1: Evolution
14 billion years ago, as far as we can reason, something spontaneously came from nothing, and the universe was birthed. Since this event, a continual intelligent development has unfolded, constantly differentiating, integrating and re-organizing at higher levels of complexity. The past 150 000 years have seen the emergence of the human being, and with our evolution we are now participating in a universe that is becoming present to itself. Is there something that we can learn from this journey that will help us to understand where we might be heading? Has there been a recognizable pattern to evolution that can be isolated? Is there something unique about this period in time that allows us to even frame such questions? The deeper we delve into this inquiry it becomes apparent and essential that we understand our search for meaning within this creative evolutionary process.
Reflection #2: The human predicament
In the 21 st century the western world is defined to a large degree by our individuality. One shadow of this has been a culture of increasing aloneness and isolation, deprived of meaningful intimate relationship. Individuation and self-discovery, vital processes both, have also encouraged contracted, self-centred approaches to life. The celebration of the autonomous self has brought with it dissociation from the whole, out of which erratic demands from emotionally unstable and unsupported individual egos have complicated society perhaps irreparably. Recent social trends embracing pre-modern fundamental religious values can be seen as a response to the fear, isolation and meaninglessness that arise when the individuating self does not integrate at a higher octave of community. However, consider also the many examples of people seeking out and joining communities of all sorts. People are searching for real relationship, yearning for intimate connection to awaken a sacred relationship to life.
One of two problems tends to arise when we seek relationship and community. Either people come together placing a strong emphasis on maintaining and encouraging their individuality (and thereby lacking in authentic intimacy); or they come together around a central dogma, set of beliefs, or charismatic leader, experience a strong sense of community, but in the process give up an essential part of who they are as individuals. While we are desperate to find out who we truly are, we also yearn for connection, for real relationship. These drives compete, often causing neurosis, confusion and fragmentation. Either the self is shut down in order to conform to a group and satisfy our need to belong, or true connection remains forever elusive in our protecting an idea of who we are in contrast to everyone else. This is the usual human dilemma. A predicament indeed. How can we reconcile these intrinsic human drives? What powers of invention and choice exist in us to discover a space where unique essence and essential oneness can co-habit, thrive and lift us to new understandings of human potential?
Reflection #3: A trajectory
Let’s look over our shoulder and recognize how we have come to be here, now. Evolution has unfolded in many definable ways. Biologically, matter has organized at increasing levels of complexity. Atoms have organized to form molecules, molecules have organized to form cells, cells to form organisms, culminating in the blueprints of what we call life. From this unfolding, the human family has emerged with the conscious awareness and ability to recognize the very pattern that has miraculously birthed us. Notice that every step in this process is marked by increased complexity. Notice also that as atoms, molecules or cells organize into more complex wholes, they remain distinct, vital components, fundamental to the greater gestalt. They do not dissolve to the point of becoming one amorphous whole. Rather they maintain their ‘integrity’ while partaking in and contributing to a further evolutionary step. But if the organizing parts are more fundamental, it is fair to say that the levels to which they contribute are more significant. Atoms alone cannot create cells. Molecules can. Thus, molecules are more significant to the process of evolution; atoms are more fundamental. A higher level cannot develop without its constituent parts. Individual entities must therefore remain utterly unique and individuated, while contributing completely and perfectly to the greater whole. Call it dynamic tension; the razor’s edge. It’s a promise that creation makes at every level of existence.
There is a tendency in human analysis to disregard the implications of this trajectory. Somehow, there is an implicate assumption that evolution has hit a ceiling, that no greater organization is possible beyond our functioning level of consciousness. We are experiencing dissociation; individuation is breaking its promise to dynamic tension. The symptoms of this dis-ease are apparent in myriad ways the planet over. We are generating problems our current level of consciousness cannot solve. From global warming, to potential economic collapse, to overpopulation, the burden of concern is overwhelming our increasingly inadequate coping faculties. The call of the future is to recognize the journey we are a part of, and align to the organizing evolutionary impulse. This means having the wisdom to first notice the pattern, combined with the courage to respond to the demand to reorganize at a higher level of complexity.
More boldly, we assert that the pattern of evolution is pointing us in the direction of our next step. Evolution has moved from being primarily a physical, biological and then rational affair to a movement at the noetic level, the level of consciousness itself. The impulse to evolve is coming aware of itself through the fully individuated human being. At this level our most essential characteristic, the authentic within each of us, is called to the fore. Coming together authentically provides the gateway to true community, to finding a healthy balance and interweaving between autonomy and communion. Or in evolutionary terms it offers the key to co-creating the next “whole”. How we transcend and include what has come previous, while directing our attention to what has not yet emerged, will determine the success of the human project.
Reflection #4: The Division
Pioneers in human consciousness have always opened new insights through which the human family can enter and adapt new ways to reorganize and solve existential problems. From Buddha to Christ, Plotinus to Hegel, discovery is not merely a technological affair, but an uncovering of potentials within consciousness; a recognition of the actual conditions of reality. Our assertion is that these conditions have always been and continue to be a matter of relationship, the most simple and obvious gesture of life in alignment with itself.
If one looks closely, curiously, within oneself, we find there is a division at the most fundamental level of our being. Part of us is fearless, passionate and interested in waking to the essence of existence, and creating anew a response to life consistent with this truth. Another part of us is wary, contracted and resistant about surrendering the safety of our assumptions about life. In this domain, fear is the original response to any change that threatens our attachment to a predictable, static life. We call the first part of ourselves Authentic Self, the second part Ego. And while this division is utterly distinct, it is also infinitely nuanced, profoundly delicate, and increasingly subtle. As enlightened awareness enters the stream of time, the potentials for deception increase algorithmically. Interpreting subtle recognition through gross form brings untold confusion. It is a messy, non-linear affair ridden with all of the complexities and pathologies that have ever haunted us, including new sets of unpredictable dilemmas that we must negotiate. And still, the alternative may well be an implosion and eradication of evolution’s current trajectory. It is the challenge of such stakes that have ever compelled the human species to adapt and struggle for survival. That this movement is now conscious is unique to our times, requiring faculties that we have not refined, skills still immature, openings so elusive our minds cannot hold them long enough to enter.
At the root of Authentic Self is the recognition of unity, pure relationship, the ever-present incomprehensible simple feeling of being. By turns God, Brahman, Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Prior to dilemma, prior to form, the big bang, the universe itself. This ground of being is the foundation, the origin point for all sacred participation. From this ‘position’, every next step can be taken lovingly, passionately, selflessly, for its own sake, for the sake of all.
What we are calling Ego needs further differentiation. Ego is the organizing principle of conscious awareness. At one point in human development, however, through over-identification with itself and at the expense of any other more authentic experience of self, it becomes False Self… and evolution’s most daunting hurdle. As Father Thomas Keating points out, there is ultimately no future for that False Self that we cling to as if our lives depended on it. Without Ego, however, we would be incapable of holding our circumstances in the first place. The wariness and suspicion of the egoic condition then is not unfounded. The residue of instinct and survival that still in large part defines us, has also contributed to our continued proliferation. In this way, there is an essential characteristic of the self-organizing and strategizing Ego that is itself alert and drawn to evolution and the principle of transcendence. It is the latter definition, the False Self, that inhibits the emergence and re-cognition of the Authentic Self. At its root, the movement of False Self is the avoidance of relationship, the assertion of dilemma and a refusal to align with the principle of change that is the defining pattern of the living universe. False Self is the shadow of the long process of individuation that has enabled our current circumstances. Its tendencies lean toward dissociation. It is a contraction, a self-obsessed dilemma meditating on itself and its own inevitable annihilation, much like Narcissus dazzled by his own image in the pond. This has been the defining cultural characteristic of the western post-modern society. Narcissism and inertia, selfishness and trauma are the increasing results of a culture obsessed with maintaining its exclusive individuality. And while regression to a romanticized variation of pre-modern traditional structures is equally unhelpful, it is a particular form of False Self that the post-modern western world has produced. How we discern this difference and navigate its contours will determine the success and future of this fragile orb on which we inhabit, and the mysterious wonder of consciousness it enables.
Reflection #5: What will it take?
We all essentially yearn to ride the razor’s edge between autonomy and communion: here, our two primary purposes are met. Only on this edge will our true essence be encouraged to flourish fully.
This requires that an individual live a fully engaged and conscious life. Which means becoming increasingly aware of the division within, discerning what in us is authentic and wholesome, and what in us is self-centered and contracted. This is an effort that is humble and modest, simple and honest. And yet there is an intensity involved with living a truly human life. There is a demand to live according to the principles of action, to be ever alert to the consideration of authenticity. Spiritual life is not the pacification of False Self. Spiritual life is a constant process of inquiry, action and adaptation, openness, vulnerability and service.
Division lies at the root of all conflict and human suffering. We typically project the cause of division outside of ourselves, but it is the division inside that is the causative factor. The collective interior decisions we make manifest in the exterior world like a mirror up against our soul. To solve the predicament we must find the courage and determination to address this fundamental division in ourselves. This is a prerequisite if we are interested in contributing to and participating in the next step in the evolution of consciousness on this planet.
The first step is to recognize and become aware of this division. Discerning between the false and the authentic requires acute awareness, humility in the face of truth, and a thorough re-cognition of the accumulated identifications, ideas, and conditioned beliefs that our persona has constructed. It also involves living a functional, sane life, learning to conduct the various activities and challenges confronting human existence with integrity. We are only truly alert to the nuances of spiritual life and the deception of false identification when we are in a competent, trustworthy space. To be available to recognize and receive real relationship as the principle of existence, a fully integrated and transparent life is required.
We may be tempted to feel that Authentic Self is inaccessible, impossible to touch. But it is not far away; it is the immediate condition of everything that is; it lies within each of us, whispering wildly, softly the secret of who we truly are.
“This inner ‘I’, who is always alone, is always universal: for in this innermost ‘I’ my own solitude meets the solitude of every human being and the solitude of God. Hence it is beyond division, beyond limitation, beyond selfish affirmation.” — Thomas Merton
The slightest shift in perspective awakens a world of purpose and infinite significance. In our experience it is only when we act from the most sincere place inside ourselves that we truly begin to contribute to the evolution of consciousness. From this approach, a new paradigm is born: we literally become capable of coming together in a new way, one that allows for the emergence of true unity in diversity. It is in the Authentic Self that we are fully available to Life, to the mystery and presence of the One and the Many. Present beyond our personal desires and fears. The degree to which any individual is able to live, act, and breath authentically is proportionate to their ability to consciously participate and contribute to the transformation of this world, joining together with others to birth a more wholesome and complex level of existence.
There will always be variations and interpretations when attempting to live in this way. The accumulated momentum of living habitually through our egoic persona is daunting to overcome. We will bump into one another, step on each other’s feet, and often fall as we learn this new dance. Self-contraction and subtle deception can arise at any step. But gradually, persistently we begin to shift and reverse the tide of momentum that has been built through habitual identification with our false self. Layer by layer, the crust of deception is dissolved – through activity, through sincerity, through uncompromising energy. We disidentify with our false conditions, with the static, fearful blindness of ignorance and we begin to awaken to a current of openness, bliss and purpose, the birthright of a precious human life.
Reflection #6: Emergence
Duane Elgin asks “What does awakening look like as it moves into the world?”
It is not enough to simply wake up. While the roots of the problems we face as a human family lie within, the solutions must be translated into all levels of existence, from the physical to the spiritual. In this way, we believe that it is essential that we be touched, informed and moved by an integral perspective on life. This means assimilating both intellectual and existential relationships to ecological, social, political, psychological and spiritual dimensions of reality. Intrisically, this requires an understanding of interior, exterior, individual and collective domains of existence. Cultivating a healthy physical being enables appropriate transmission of subtle acquisitions. Stabilizing growth and development in our personal psychology opens emotional, interpersonal and moral considerations to sophisticate and flourish. We are complex adaptive beings that require attention at all levels and dimensions in which we occupy.
Reflection #7: We are not alone
Also and importantly: in this effort we are not alone – the Creative Energy that lies at the heart of life works with us and through us. There is a critical point where the efforts of individual will are met by the wonders of universal grace. When we are aligned and intrinsically motivated, we contact and are lifted by the force of life itself. God alone completes the promise of a life lived according to real relationship.
“The passion for individualism, which is instinctually in our nature as an ontological necessity of self-preservation, self-promotion, self-fulfillment, has to be superseded by the passion of ecstasy, the movement of exodus that pours us out into the space between us and other people, accomplishing in us the movement that makes us capable of real love…”— Mark Patrick Hederman
Evolution – the continuous movement of life, now interwoven with our own free will – depends on us responding to its call. This is not a call from the outside. The evolutionary call lies within, in the whisperings and yearnings of our souls, at the core of our beings. It is not about our personal evolution or salvation, but about evolution of life on earth as a whole. Unique about the next step in consciousness evolution is that it takes us working together to build it: It is in the “space between us and other people” that a new level of integration will emerge. What we each have to offer to this next step is ourselves, and that is everything. And for this to happen we must choose what Beatrice Bruteau calls the characteristic human energies: qualities such as love, commitment, compassion, discernment, creativity, stamina, humility, and care.
Where do we each stand with this? From where do we source inspiration? What is our motivation? What is the context within which we place our lives? What can each of us do to leap beyond the abyss of the False Self and rewrite the script of the future, coming together in service to something much greater than our own agenda? What can we do in our lives? Here a few concrete actions that have helped us:
- Make it a daily practice to touch base with and to immerse yourself in the Ground of Being (in God, in the Unmanifest Creative Principle) – in whichever way works best for you.
- Find the commitment and clarity in yourself to live from the authentic self, the place in you that is free of accumulated concepts and ideas about who you are or should be and that allows you to be fully present in each moment. This is difficult (although not complicated!), but slowly a new momentum is born. Becoming aware of our particular expression of the egoic false self is the first step to not being controlled by it.
- Come together with others who share similar aspirations.
- Keep the inquiry alive, don’t settle, but remain open and keenly interested in life.
- Commit to and engage in Integral Life Practice.