The Globalisation of Consciousness
Given at the 2007 US Ibn 'Arabi Society Symposium in Berkeley: "Unified vision, unified world?" - 26 October 2007. Edited and updated 11 July 2009
Ibn 'Arabi's (1165-1240) contribution to understanding our era.
This paper asks us to consider some of the major global trends in our time and what they could mean when looked at from a 'universal spiritual perspective' - that is, one which allows us to understand globally and in detail the world we live in and our place within it. If we accept such a possibility, there is a comprehensive foundation for it in the work Ibn 'Arabi, whose insights into the nature of reality were so penetrating and inclusive that they can be considered timeless and relevant to our understanding of the world today.
The first part of this paper will be looking at Ibn 'Arabi's unique contribution to our perception of Reality and the place of Mankind, followed in the second part by a series of observations of trends in the world today, and how they could be understood in this light.
Ibn 'Arabi's revolution was not that he was the first to come up with the idea of Oneness – Unity was already known in the great spiritual traditions in the form of the ultimate Oneness of God, or in a hierarchy of Being leading to an Absolute, or of Nature as the Great Mother. Ibn 'Arabi brought into the open the secret which the great mystics had always known privately – ie that once fully realised, Oneness encompasses the whole of existence, and is not limited to a transcendent deity - ie it doesn't end with the oneness of God. As far as we know he is the first to formulate an intellectually rigorous system of thought based on the Unity of Existence, or Oneness of Being.
'Unity' is a simple and compelling proposition and easy to accept as an idea, especially in this age of integration - or so one thought before discovering Ibn 'Arabi's relentless examination of its implications, both logically and ontologically, with profound consequences for our ideas of reality and ourselves. We can look at a few key examples of Ibn 'Arabi's metaphysics of unity to demonstrate this point - if for instance we accept the idea of the unity of existence as the ground of all being, we are also accepting that everything is included in it – all possibilities past present and future, all time, infinity, matter, universes, species, thought, consciousness now - these are all part of it. If so, how can we also carry on with the idea that we might be 'other' or separate from it, or even 'created' , because logically we are not separate, even if we are unaware of the fact ? Indeed, if there is nowhere 'else' outside of circle of oneness, can anything, even our illusion of separate individual existence and consciousness, have a valid claim to any 'reality' ? And if we do accept oneness, how do we avoid the pitfall of thinking that we are God or special in some way ? These, and many other questions, flow from accepting the downstream consequences of oneness as they flow into every aspect of life.
Ibn 'Arabi explains that reality, which includes ourselves, is one and inclusive so that there is nothing 'else' that can know it. Would it not therefore be better to give up the illusion that we are somehow separate, and accept that we are already 'known', even if we don't yet 'know' ? When we do know ourselves, this is what we find out, so there is no point starting from the false position of thinking of ourselves as separate in the first place. Instead, start from what we know must be the truth. It is a system of thought that stands our normal assumptions on their heads, and turns them inside out – and also makes perfect sense when you think about it. There is nowhere to go, no path to travel on, no idea of God to find, no ego to get rid of – just a process of waking up into the one and only consciousness already singularised as ourselves, and seeing things as they really are. Ibn 'Arabi's recommended way back to the truth is the realisation that we never left it.
This reversal of normal thinking leads us on to what is arguably Ibn 'Arabi's most important understanding – the place of Mankind, and the potential each person has for completion, as seen from the standpoint of unity. We find that the very impulse that arises in ourselves to look for the truth originates from before we were born. Ibn 'Arabi explains that although ultimate Reality is complete in Itself and never 'manifests' as such, out of a love to be known, it allows the infinite possibilities of things contained in it their own virtual self-expression, which includes the four dimensional universe we see, as well as the multiple dimensions we can only infer. It also includes our own selves, with a pre-programmed curiosity for knowledge in all its forms, which itself comes from the original love to be known. When we reach back to the origin, we find that there is no distance or separation at all. This understanding can be compared with looking at your face in the mirror – first you see and recognise the complete image, then you become aware of the details – the shape of the nose, colour of the eyes the smile, the texture of the skin, the colour of the hair, then each hair individually, and so on to the limit of the detail. It is the same original face, but consciousness is exploring and appreciating the details of the whole. Ibn 'Arabi explains that the eternal Human prototype is like the complete image in the mirror which accurately reflects the original eternal hidden reality in every detail. All human beings emerge from this prototype in a succession we call time, and consciousness flows through them as their selves, revealing, as it were, all the details of the original 'face'. The billions of unique human faces are thus the detailing of that single original Face which never stops being Itself. Mankind is not therefore a doomed species marooned on a planet on the outer limits of a minor galaxy, but rather an extension of consciousness to the outer limits of the possibilities. It follows that such an all-inclusive consciousness would have internal consistency, so that what appears in the exterior universe would be according to a rational order, imaging that which is interior, so that our lives and destinies are integrated with the life and destiny of the era we live in and all the conditions that apply to it. All these elements combine as a complete and perfect expression of that one reality in the present moment, so that if we are looking to find what is real, we need look no further than in-to ourselves, and out-to the world we live in. Where else will we find it ? In the joining of the individual and global destinies we have exactly what we need - if only we could see things as they really are !
Ibn 'Arabi goes further and outlines a destiny for the human race which has its beginning, development, completion and conclusion. In order to avoid apocalyptic speculation, and everconsistent in seeing things from the perspective of unity, he places an understanding of the global human cycle firmly within the context of self-knowledge – only through knowing ourselves and discovering our essential unity with the one reality can we consciously participate in the destiny of the Humankind.
He describes Adam, not only as the first of the species, but as the summary and container of the essences of all the people to be born in this emergence of Mankind – much like our prototype in the example of the face in the mirror, mentioned above. From Adam we trace the development of Mankind through the many eras and cycles, each bringing the species as a whole closer to completion. This is the view of history taken from the standpoint of unity and reflects the movement from the oneness of the interior to the diversity of the exterior, where the possibilities are known to their fullest extent.
Prior to Jesus, prophets and sages acted as intermediaries for their communities and brought help and guidance from the interior, and God was seen by most as being distinct from humanity, far away and hidden from the creation. Although there were always individuals who knew the true place of Mankind, they were a hidden elite. With the arrival of Jesus as the manifest Spirit, there is a tipping point as he symbolises the possibility of a synthesis between the Divine and Human perspectives. With the arrival of Mohammed, we see the fullest expression of the Divine as Human. While the era of revelation of religious law ends with him, in every end there is also a new beginning - and the door to the era of the direct knowledge of reality for the individual commences, a possibility that is still in the making. This is the era to which Ibn 'Arabi himself belongs and is a foremost exponent, and which he helps to direct. It is important to note that his contribution has two faces – he can be seen historically as one of the greatest Islamic figure of the medieval period, sealing the Muhammedian inheritance, whilst at the same time he also brings out and projects its essential meaning into a universal flow for the future of Mankind. This continues to be added to by those who follow this mode of thought.
While this tide of knowledge continued to develop amongst the spiritual elite of the Sufis in the Islamic world, a parallel movement was forming in the Christian west which would set the stage for a further major shift in consciousness. With the assimilation of much of the wisdom of the Islamic world through Moorish Spain, and the migration of Byzantine scholars to Italy during the rise of the Ottomans, the western medieval mindset began its radical change, first with the Renaissance and then with the Reformation in the 16C which challenged the right of the church of Rome to mediate in each person's direct relationship to God. This was followed by the Industrial revolution and the 18C Enlightenment, and with it the beginning of modernism, which we will return to.
It is possible to join up the dots and trace the development of this movement from Ibn 'Arabi's time to the present day, a progression by degrees from a Theocentric and divinely mandated world view towards one in which the rights of the individual are considered at least as important as those of the community of believers, and in which a life in the body and a life in the spirit are not seen as alternatives, but as aspects of a holistic life.
We can see how one of the effects of this process of consciousness moving from the interior to the outermost limits of possibility has brought with it the empowerment of the individual as a place of manifestation. Mankind has taken centre stage, literally and philosophically, with all the consequences this implies. If we are able to accept the proposition that Mankind as a whole is developing along the lines indicated, it should be possible to identify trends in the world today to support this point of view. We would expect to find ideas and processes that are both widespread and ultimately unifying in their effects.
One of the most significant issues of the modern era is the impact humanity is having on the planet, which coincides with this time of the empowerment of the individual. It is interesting therefore that the term "The Anthropocene" – or "The Age of Mankind" - was coined by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen in 2000 to describe the most recent period in the planet's history, beginning in the 18C with the industrial revolution. It covers a period of huge environmental change comparable to the earlier geological periods which brought with them major climatic changes and mass extinctions. The Anthropocene is different because it is almost entirely manmade. It coincides with the 'coming of age' of Mankind when seen in a spiritual sense, and acceptance of our inheritance here which includes full responsibility for the planet.
The beginning of the Anthropocene coincides with the Age of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason in the 18th Century which challenged the previously held Theocentric views of the universe and the nature of Divinity, and put Mankind firmly at the centre. This is also the beginning of modernism, and defines the way in which most of us still see the world today. As we have seen, this shift corresponds with the principle of the emergence of consciousness from the undifferentiated interior to the expressive exterior in the spiritual history of Mankind. During the infancy of the species, ultimate reality was witnessed by most people as a hidden and interior event, seen in terms of a transcendent Deity accessible only through the mediation of prophets and priests. With the migration of consciousness to its exterior resolution, as this outflowing reaches its fulfilment, it is reasonable to predict that that which was previously understood in terms of a transcendent God, will at some point be understood in terms of Mankind in its completion. Such an understanding is controversial – but only if we overlook the reality of Mankind who is, after all, the complete image of the real in the exterior.
The celebration of the cult of individuality which is so dominant in our time is perhaps a step on this road, but as often happens with a newly-found truth and the freedom which follows it, the limits and conditions of the new state of being are not fully understood at the outset.
In the early years of this 'era of Mankind', the new ideas and discoveries were articulated by people who still respected a Theocentric view of the world. Although they often came into conflict with the religious authorities, many of the great scientists and thinkers up to the early 20C – Newton and Einstein spring to mind - saw their work as exposing the mysteries of God rather than disproving His existence. With time, however, others found it increasingly difficult to sustain a limited view of a Creator in the religious sense, and theology and science began to diverge. As a result, views of ultimate reality have tended to become either faith-based or science-based, and this remains one of defining difficulties of modernism. But, as we have seen, a fuller understanding of the place of Mankind would resolve these differences.
Although the principle of the empowerment of the individual is historically necessary, when taken outside of the context of unity it leads to self-interest at every level of human life. At present, we are living with a narrow definition of Mankind, where the self has become dislocated from its origin and lost its sense of direction and purpose, with destructive results. However, when we look at the larger canvas, we are still only part-way through a process, and are now being forced into facing the consequences of disunity.
It is really only in the past few years that the terrifying consequences of climate change and the scale of the changes necessary to limit its effects have burst into global awareness. Seen in isolation, the task can seem impossible and it is easy to lapse into despair at the lack of consensus and rival interests. But what if we could understand the necessity of the change we are going through, and at the same time find a mode of being that can direct it in way that does not result in the destruction of the environment we depend on ? It would be naive to pretend there are easy answers to any of this, but answers there are, if we ask the right questions – perhaps we need only to look at the world in a different way in order to see them. Al Gore was right to project this as a moral and spiritual challenge, rather than a political one.
If we are prepared to look at what is facing Mankind now from the universal spiritual perspective outlined in this paper, it is possible to see that the very conditions which are bringing us to the threshold of a major breakthrough of consciousness also require a collective and individual willingness to change our ways to accept it.
Not so long ago, the environmental movement was driven as much by ideology as evidence, and by a sincere desire to preserve Nature. This sentiment was dismissed by vested interests as being idealistic and incompatible with development goals which were, after all, intended to improve the lot of humanity. This has now changes and ironically it is now the people with the spreadsheets, risk analyses and graphs who have found unity – sustainable economic development depends on a benign environment in which people can have a degree of security and happiness. It is the people with clipboards who have now seen the complete interdependence of all human activity, and in their way found an understanding of unity and compassion. An increasing number of scientists and economists are arriving at what would once have been seen as spiritual conclusions through a more complete understanding of the world - perhaps they will also one day help develop a new language for a spirituality that more accurately represents a knowledge of the world truly integrated by a globalised consciousness.
In my lifetime, the population of the planet has trebled from 2 billion to 6 billion, and this is expected to increase to around 9 billion by the middle of the century. Even today there are more people alive than have ever lived before. Some argue that the planet cannot possibly support so many people and that we are already mortgaging the future – others say that it can, if we stop waste and use resources effectively. But what if this epic emergence of souls into the world today, with all their potential for an explosion of consciousness, is necessary from a spiritual perspective, and is being made possible by the equally remarkable breakthroughs and integration in economics and science ? In a very short space of time we have acquired the necessary technology for agriculture, housing, infrastructure, communications, and access to resources to allow billions more people to live on this planet with a reasonable prospect of a good life. From a universal spiritual perspective the two aspects go together – the necessity of the human emergence, and the conditions which allow it. So if we are looking for a complete picture, it surely includes understanding the nature of globalisation. The globalised world today could be seen in terms of the interdependence of a triad of aspects which define our era - these are : the emerging human potential, science and economics. Science and economics have already shown their global reach, but the triad cannot be considered complete until the emerging human potential expands into a globalized consciousness and unifies it – and in this respect there is still some way to go in understanding how our world is unfolding and in bringing out meanings from the perspective of unity. The immense forces unleashed in the world need to be directed towards their creative fulfilment - the genii is well and truly out of the bottle, and there is no going back.
The growth and international movement of capital has brought with it an unprecedented movement of people and ideas, and skills are now traded internationally. National, racial, religious and ideological boundaries are irrelevant where capital is concerned, it flows freely to release potential - human potential. It could be seen as a necessary movement towards a more integrated world culture, in the process of which millions, if not billions, of people are being freed from local constraints and given opportunities for self-improvement they would never otherwise have had.
Whatever value judgements one makes – and there are many destructive aspects in the wake of such a tectonic shift - this process is uniting the people of the world into a global awareness. Poverty still exists, but less so than ever before both proportionately and in absolute terms and there are far more people alive today in comfortable material circumstances than there have ever been. With the emergence of the great new economies of the east, hopefully followed one day by Africa, respected economists predict a time by the middle of the century when poverty could effectively be eradicated. And with all this liberation of human potential let us not underestimate the significance of the end of slavery and the emancipation of women. The rise of the feminine is one of the transforming forces of our time.
It is significant that many of the leading compassionate and unifying voices are coming from areas other than those traditionally associated with spirituality and morality. For example, in the field of economics we have Jeffrey Sachs, Sir Nicholas Stern and Mohammed Yunus, all of whom have arrived at a compassionate and unified world view through their work. It is now finally pervading politics with the arrival of a president in the USA who embodies the aspirations of so many people around the world.
We can look to science and technology as some of the other great unifying forces in the world today. Clearly, the economic revolution could not have happened without the technology and science which underpins it, and vice versa. The exponential growth of computing power, communications and the internet have all combined to facilitate the globalisation of consciousness – and the process is far from finished. We already have a virtual version of a globalised consciousness in the internet. As consciousness moves inexorably outwards, encompassing the detail of all phenomena in a unified vision, it is perhaps no coincidence that we find Scientists everywhere looking for underlying laws and patterns to explain the nature of reality. The search for a 'Theory of Everything' has become the holy grail for many and is absorbing the efforts of tens of thousands of researchers worldwide, with huge budgets. There is a sense of excitement within the scientific community that they are on the verge of an understanding which will transform our knowledge of the universe and ourselves. Some of the recent ideas to emerge from loop quantum gravity are very metaphysical indeed, where everything in the universe emerges from a simple network of relationships, with no fundamental building blocks at all. Others like Roger Penrose and John Barrow use the idea of the Anthropic Principle which suggests that the universe requires intelligent life such as human beings to witness it, and that the improbably precise conditions and physical constants that have enabled us to be here at all are evidence of this.
As only reality Itself fully comprehends everything, it seems logical that a Theory of Everything will remain elusive until the consequences of a universal perspective become more widely accepted and known. The good news is that we are seeing the beginnings of a convergence of physics and metaphysics - it would be a logical consequence of the globalisation of consciousness – and in this paper we have not even considered the breakthroughs in biology (eg convergent evolution), the significance of genetics and research into the functioning of the brain.
But for those who come from a conservative spiritual standpoint it may be wishful thinking to expect that the integrated vision of the future will sit comfortably with the Theocentric ideas of the past. Given that the major developments and unifying understandings of our time are being revealed directly to the human senses and intellect and are to do with observable and measurable phenomena, when these become fully integrated with the meaning of oneness in a truly universal spiritual perspective for the era, it may well be in a language we don't recognise from our standpoint in time. Indeed, when the one Reality is undeniably manifest as Nature, witnessed everywhere by everyone as everything, what then is there left to 'believe' in, and can we even give It a name ? If the last two hundred years can be characterised by the rise of the individual at the expense of the collective good, as witnessed by the crisis in our relationship with nature, then the next stage in human development will of necessity lead to a re-evaluation of the meaning of individuality. From the perspective outlined in this paper, what we call history is but a single Consciousness flowing outwards in the guise of our selves, exploring its endless possibilities in all forms of knowledge. The 'universal spiritual perspective' that we started with is the re-integration of these knowledges into a single unified vision, the experience of which is the completion of our human nature, simultaneously at one with, and witnessing, the Divine.
For such a vision to find its unqualified expression at the level of human experience, certain conditions are necessary, and we could say that a globalised consciousness requires all the other types of globalisation we have pointed to for the one Self to manifest without limit. And the symmetry of oneness is such that the very bringing about of these conditions is making us face up to what we are here for. Our generation faces the choice consciously to participate in the preparation for what is to come next, allowing our descendants to be present for a possibility which we can barely imagine - the globalisation of consciousness when both unity and diversity, spirit and body, are celebrated in a single vision by the many as the One, and the One as the many.
Given at the 2007 US Ibn 'Arabi Society Symposium in Berkeley: "Unified vision, unified world?" - 26 October 2007. Edited and updated 11 July 2009
Peter Yiangou is currently the senior partner of an architectural practice based in the Cotswolds in the UK. His interest in Ibn 'Arabi started in 1972 when he met Bulent Rauf, the founder member of the MIAS. His interest in Ibn 'Arabi has continued since then through the activities of the Beshara School, also founded by Bulent Rauf. He spent time as head of the first Beshara Centre at Swyre Farm in the UK in 1975, and a period as Chairman of the Beshara Trust in the early 90's. He has attended 6 month and short courses at the Beshara School where Ibn 'Arabi is part of the core curriculum. In recent years he has been involved in running 10 Beshara School courses in Australia and Indonesia.