Witnessing the End of an Era, Part 2
Published online at www.ecobuddhism.org
My previous article, Witnessing the End of an Era, received
so many comments and questions, there was a need to write
a second article responding to some of these questions.
What does it mean that the light of an era has gone out? First it is necessary to understand what is meant by “the light of an era.” From a spiritual perspective each era of humanity has a spiritual light that gives rise to the evolution of consciousness that belongs to that era. The evolution of humanity is an evolution of consciousness(1), and it is the light of the era in the inner world that both guides and facilitates this evolution. Humanity has a unique quality of consciousness, mythologically imaged as fire stolen from the gods, that is quite distinct to the instinctual consciousness that belongs to the animal kingdom. Throughout human history our consciousness has evolved and changed. In each era this inner light has particular qualities that enable human consciousness to change and evolve in a specific way. In our present era which is coming to an end, this light has enabled us to develop an understanding of the physical world that has fundamentally changed our human experience.
One way this inner spiritual light directly manifests itself is through human discoveries. For example the Gothic Age was made possible through an understanding of how stone can create cathedrals of stained-glass and light that were almost unimaginable before. The Gothic Age was an outpouring of this inner energy that resulted both in a spiritual resurgence and what is arguably the most beautiful architecture ever created in Europe. Similarly the Renaissance was a development of consciousness expressed through the medium of art and architecture that celebrated the human spirit.
Since the eighteenth century “Age of Enlightenment” we have been given many discoveries, particularly in the fields of science, that have helped to create our present civilization. We may think that these discoveries were human achievements, but from a spiritual perspective they happened through a moment of “illumination” when a light from the inner world resulted in an inspiration or understanding, as in the instant when the apple fell on Newton’s head and the law of gravity was uncovered. Behind any great human discovery is the light that gives birth to such an inspiration. In the last era this light had a quality, or knowledge, of an understanding of the physical world and the properties of matter. Through this light human consciousness has been given an understanding of matter that it did not have in earlier eras. In previous eras human consciousness evolved through an understanding of other realities, for example through a knowledge of the interior world of symbols and their magical properties, much of which knowledge we have now lost.
Sadly, while the earlier discoveries combined spirit and matter—for example the Gothic cathedrals were a celebration of the divine—more recent knowledge appears to have been at the cost of the sacred. Newton may have been fascinated by magic and alchemy, but his “laws” gave birth to a vision of the world as a machine without a soul. It is this soulless world, cut off from an understanding of the sacredness of creation, that our civilization now inhabits. And as humanity developed a consciousness that no longer related to the sacred, so a cloud of forgetfulness developed between the inner and outer worlds, between the world of matter and the inner world of light. More recently this cloud has become denser and darker, attracting to it darker energies (for example those embodied in corporate global exploitation) that make the inner light that should be guiding humanity more inaccessible. Because our attitude of consciousness affects the inner world, the greed that dominates our present culture, the focus on “me” as opposed to “we,” has fuelled this gathering darkness. Our collective exploitation of our environment that has resulted in irreversible climate change, mass extinction of species, and pollution, is also an expression of this attitude.
Tragically our Western civilization with its values of materialism and forgetfulness of the sacred in creation has in the last few decades become a “global civilization.” Its values are now global, and so are the affects of these values. Outwardly there is increased pollution and ecological devastation as more and more people want the “stuff” of materialism. Inwardly there is an increased alienation from the sacred that is at the core of life. As a result a darkness and forgetfulness now cover almost the whole of our planet.
However, this does not mean that the light of the Divine, the spiritual light within creation, has gone out. This divine light is present in every cell of creation. Without this light there could be no life, no existence. The whole of creation is like a single light from the Source that goes through a prism and becomes the many colors of existence. But the light of any era is a light that is given to humanity to help it to evolve, and part of our evolution has traditionally been looking after the physical and spiritual well-being of the planet, which we have failed to do. Without this light there can be no collective transformation or evolution, no collective shift in consciousness.
The light of one era can attract the light of the coming era. This is part of mystery of “light upon light”—how light attracts light. There have been indications of this in a gradual reawakening to the interconnectedness of all of creation, a dawning of the consciousness of oneness which is one of the central qualities of the next era. Together with this awareness we have already been given some of the tools and technologies of the new era, such as global connectivity through cell phones and the Internet. And yet, despite some implementation of “fair trade” and other sustainable practices, the development of “globalization” has just led to more exploitation and corporate greed, rather than values that are in service to the whole. Collectively we have created a greater divide between rich and poor, more ecological destruction, more collective forgetfulness of the sacred. We have placed short-term economic progress above real concern for the planet. And so the light of this past era, rather than transforming into the light of the next era, has gone out.
As a result, at present we cannot welcome in a new era—a shift in our collective consciousness towards oneness and a return to the sacred—because we lack the light, the energy that is needed to make this happen. Although many individuals have embraced this new dimension of consciousness and its awareness of the sacred, this shift has not yet happened to our collective consciousness, to our corporate or political world. It is this collective shift that is needed if we are to restore and rebalance our inner and outer environment.
THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL
So how does this loss of light of an era affect the individual soul? Just as the light of the era guides the evolution of humanity during that era, each soul comes into this world with a light to guide them during their lifetime. This light contains the inner potential and purpose of the individual life. The more one has access to this light, the more easily one is guided or led to fulfill the destiny of the one’s life, the potential of one’s soul. For most people this light is the light of their conscience that directs them in the best way to live. Those drawn to spiritual practice are able, through their practice and way of life, to increase their access to this light, to be guided more directly from within. That is why it is said that the goal of spiritual life is to be guided from within, guided by the light of one’s eternal nature.
While individual souls are all a part of the collective soul of humanity there is a difference between the light of an era and the light of the soul. The light of the individual belongs to our divine nature and contains the light of the Divine. It can continue even if the light of an era goes out, just as the divine light remains in all of creation.(2) But the light of an era sustains and supports the evolution of the individual soul, helps it to transform and evolve. Similarly, without this greater light the individual soul cannot evolve or transform: there is no evolution of the individual soul. Although this world remains as a stage on which the soul can have experiences, it cannot transform to a higher level of evolution. It is difficult to understand what this might mean as we do not have a language or conceptual framework for the evolution of the soul. But it has direct spiritual consequences for each of us. It means that until a new light is given there is no spiritual evolution possible for the individual soul, just as there can be no spiritual transformation for the world.
Another effect of the loss of the light of the era is that the individual soul is more susceptible to the darkness that is present in the world. This darkness is not just a passive force, not just the darkness of ignorance, but a darkness that can absorb our individual light. It has access through our small failings, our selfishness and other negative characteristics. Darkness always draws us away from the light, and spiritual practices and unselfish, ethical behavior help to protect us from the darkness. But at this time there is an increased importance of following one’s conscience, or correct ethical behavior and attitude (in Sufism this is called adab) to make sure that one’s individual light is not influenced by the darkness or diminished by it. It is also why there is an increased significance of the sangha or spiritual community that can help to protect the spiritual light of the individual. We all need to work consciously to protect our own light through our spiritual practice and attitude, and to share this light with acts of loving kindness. In this simple way we can nourish and help each other.
The step we now need to take is to become aware of our present predicament in the inner and outer worlds. We cannot take responsibility for our present ecological imbalance, or know how to act, without recognizing the global devastation we have created. Nor can we take responsibility for what we have done to the inner worlds without becoming aware of the darkness and forgetfulness of the sacred that is covering us. Maybe this first step towards responsibility and accountability will help to redeem what we have desecrated. It is a step towards maturity and real awareness.
For myself it is a great a shock to see that this light of the last era has gone out and to realize the consequences—a shock and sorrow similar to witnessing the ecological devastation caused by the Tar Sands in Northern Canada, an area as large as England and Wales made a wasteland, its rivers poisoned, by our greed for oil. But real witnessing, like prayer, is always an act of redemption. It is an act of turning away from the comfort of our illusions, whether material or spiritual. Instead we bring the light of our consciousness towards truth—whatever the cost or pain that truth may bring. Holding this present global truth in our minds and hearts we can be a place of awareness and prayer for our sacred, suffering world. Maybe this is a step towards attracting the light of the next era.
(1) For further information on the evolution of human consciousness, see the Joseph Campbell series The Power of Myth, which explores how the development of humanity is embodied in its mythology. In particular, in this era when the image of the earth from the lunar landings was published, it led to the universal realization that humanity must identify with the entire planet, and the emergence of a new mythology based on global aspects of life.
(2) If the individual soul loses its light, that soul becomes a “lost soul,” living without purpose or meaning.