(This is a chapter from my future book, The Butterfly Communities – the Heroes of a New Metaphysics)
First, some necessary clarifications
The first thing we need is clarity. If we talk about the evolution of consciousness, we must be clear about what we mean by consciousness and what we mean by evolution. I am looking for an understanding that can give us a clear sense of what we have to develop.
I will resume previous ideas regarding cognition and consciousness. Human consciousness began as animal cognition (of our ancestors, 7 million years ago). The scientific perspective presents cognition as the ability of a living being to know its environment and communicate with it. Cognition emerges as a consequence of continuous interaction between the living being and its environment.
Initiated by Humberto Maturana in 1978 with the publication of Biology of Cognition, his subsequent work in partnership with Francisco Varela in Santiago, Chile, came to be called the Santiago Theory of Cognition. The theory can be encapsulated in two sentences: 1) Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. 2) This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.
Living is a process of cognition. In the end, cognition isn’t about knowing your environment (as an object), but to communicate with it as a subject too, for the simple reason that our world is a relational reality, made up of subjects that constantly interrelate, influence each other, adjust to each other and co-evolve together. What we know and interact with are not static objects, but living processes. We know only to the extent that we communicate with what we know. As we communicate, we interfere with what we know, learning to relate and commune with.
The cognitive ability itself is evolving. The continuous “upgrading” of cognition has led to human consciousness – the ability to know-communicate-love-identify with the greater reality of which we are part of. As we “know”, we begin to commune with what we know, to identify with. The upgrading of cognition is a process that doesn’t stop at the level of self-centered consciousness, but goes further to the extent that our cognitive abilities can know-love-commune-identify with the entire planet.
To evolve our consciousness means to evolve our ability of loving understanding/ the ability to integrate the divergent tendencies of our environment.
The development of consciousness starts as an expansion of our horizon of theoretical knowledge about the Universe/Planet/Life/Human history etc. and – if our metaphysical choice is for love and communion – the theoretical knowledge opens up to loving understanding. Loving understanding turns over time in communion with what is known. The “object” that we know, turns out to be a subject to communicate, love and commune with.
Also, I would like to be as clear as possible about 1) what symbiotic behavior means and 2) why we would choose it.
1) The aim of symbiotic behavior is to create a social space where our needs and aspirations are correlated and fulfilled symbiotically.
We begin to be aware that the behavior we employ are driven by emotions and have, as their primary purpose, the fulfillment of our social needs (to ensure an adequate social future for us). We are increasingly aware that these behaviors tend to be aggressive, because in our recent biological past we have met these needs by fighting with others. The slightest evidence of aggression triggers an emotional response of defense and aggression in our turn. It is also becoming increasingly clear that this relational pattern has become obsolete: it is unconscious rather than conscious, dysfunctional rather than functional, and cannot provide the level of cooperation necessary for a fair, secure and equitable social life.
What if, instead of fighting each other to ensure our needs for social security/ integration/ validation, we would consciously collaborate in fulfilling our needs?
What happens if we consciously orient our emotions and behaviors to meet not only our social needs, but the social needs of others too? (holarchic perspective)
2) Why would we want to evolve a relational self capable of symbiotic behavior? We cannot overcome the crisis we are facing with the same behavior that created this crisis in the first place: we simply have to evolve, following the direction of evolution of Life on this planet, which is toward cooperation and symbiosis.
Second, we have to overcome some fears
Even though we choose symbiotic behavior (for the sake of human species future success), how could this help us in the short term, for our present success? In a world of competition, could symbiotic behavior help us in any way? Why should we let the “shield” down (our self-centeredness) when we are not supported by a group of people who together decided to relate to each other symbiotically? Is there any chance for us to overcome our preconditions and our self-centeredness living in the midst of our current civilization?
According to my worldview, Life goes forward, Life always finds a way, Life manages to overcome the barriers that stand against its evolution. Also, according to my metaphysical choice, I choose symbiotic behavior whatever the cost. Sounds strange or stupid, doesn’t it? But it is not so stupid to me, because – according to my worldview and belief – this practical and metaphysical choice is the best one.
That’s why I crafted a story “that I tell myself” about others that is able to strengthen my belief that symbiotic behavior is the winning behavior in the long term, that cooperation is the best life strategy, especially in our times of great inequity.
That’s why I think that we can find ways to evolve, regardless of the outer conditions. The individualism of our current world has led us to the deep social and ecological crisis we are facing. But at the same time, it creates the conditions that trigger further evolution. I am not afraid that the individualism and inequity of our current world will drown our kindness, nor will it outsmart our intelligence to find ways to move forward.
Just as Odysseus did everything he could not to be seduced by the sirens, all I have to do is not to be seduced by the logic of my old metaphysical preconditioning and the compulsive demands of my biological preconditioning. Their power is tenfold multiplied by my social preconditions that pressure me not to lose my rank in society (because in this way I lose its credibility and respect; I lose its support and openness toward me). Many times it seems to me that I am tied hand and foot: how should I act to make a significant impact while remaining symbiotic and authentic? It seems to me that if I act like this, I am not seen or heard. It seems to me that society forces me to dance as it sings (individualistic). If I don’t comply with its demands or its logic, it seems to me that it will cast me aside, in misunderstanding and contempt. These are the strong fears (and survival imperatives) through which my old preconditions still keep me tied to their logic.
But on the other hand, I know that it is possible to overcome these obstacles. If these obstacles had not been possible to overcome, how would Life have evolved so far? I know that this is what all those who chose evolution had to face. If I believed that the world is only material, that everything is predetermined and that we are all puppets manipulated by forces above us, I would have long ago given up trying to act as a spiritual being. But because I firmly believe that beside the material aspect, the Universe is spiritual too, that there is a Cosmic Dynamics that guides and inspires us to fulfill our potential, I am going forward with confidence and tenacity.
Third, be clear about who you want to become and what you want to build around you
We cannot take a single step further on any path, if it is not clear to us where we are heading.
I want to become a servant leader! I have been unconsciously held prisoner by my preconditions (which inevitably keep me self-centered) all my life until now. I want to break free from them! I want to be “the example I want to see in the world”!
I want to become less biased and less selfish. What do I want to see in the world? More kindness and altruism and less selfishness, more loving understanding and less selfishness, more generosity and less selfishness. I want to stand for all these values, regardless of the cost! But this is not a sacrifice in any way because I believe that people are good and, as I act in the spirit of trust and love, they will open themselves to me and respond accordingly, with love and trust.
Symbiotic behavior – to give benevolently to others what they need (some time value and appreciation, other time trust, kindness or forgiveness, always speaking with them nonviolently and always trying to bring out the best in them etc.) – is what I want. When we get the ego out of the game, we change the rules/logic of the game.
The question if this behavior is advantageous in our current world makes no sense to me, because I want to act so, regardless if it is advantageous or not. It is my decision of who I want to become, for what values I want to stand for, and what world I want to build around me through my example. This is the only significant impact I want to bring in the world. If this will not bring me too much public recognition or financial success, so be it! I am sure that it will bring me a meaningful and beautiful life.
People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for our life. Joseph Campbell thought that what we are really seeking is an experience of being alive. I totally agree with him. We can not “find a meaning” or “find our authenticity” without experiencing it. All our insights and revelations come from a state of being alive. The first revelation is that the world is a communion of subjects; that the reality is relational. We always crave for a deep connection with the Universe. From being alive, we are able to perceive others properly and communicate with them properly.
I try to connect Joseph Campbell’s words with those of Marshall Rosenberg regarding “being alive“. One talks about the experience of being alive – as the ultimate spiritual experience – and the other about the courage to express what is alive in us (to honestly and nakedly express our needs, aspirations, hopes and feelings) – as the ultimate gift we can offer to the other. In our attempt to connect with what is alive in others, we have to offer ourselves first. Marshall Rosenberg calls this courageous self-revelation to the other as the ultimate self-giving. It is really the ultimate spiritual act in our relational reality, which opens the door to what is alive in the other. Connected at this level, something happens in us, indeed: a natural desire to communicate and bond, to empathize and synergize, to give and receive.
People have the notion of “saving the world”. But only an alive human being could vitalize the world. The heroic quest is not to “conquer” the world, to slay the dragon or “fight the evil”, but to become alive and to act from this inner state. The heroic quest is not to “change” the world, but to bring life to it; to nourish what is alive in it. In doing that, you save the world. The way to bring it to life is to be alive yourself. Being alive is being symbiotic. This is the main point of this book and of this chapter.
Fourth, a spiritual practice for increasing our awareness
For me, it is the “never-ending preyer”: saying 2 words correlated with my breathing. “With kindness and generosity”, for example.
Fifth, nonviolent communication
It is imperative for me to manage to communicate in a nonviolent way. With the help of my wife, I observe myself daily and, I have to admit, my way of communication is aggressive. Even though I don’t want this and I try to speak nonviolently, my wife is right when she says that some of my words are still aggressive. It is so deeply ingrained in our way of being and communicating that we can’t sense when we downsize or reject someone. It is our ingrained way of reacting. It’s a kind of selfishness that still manages to work under cover, hidden from our awareness. I need to use the communication “formats”. My spiritual practice of attunement (“with kindness and generosity”) seems to be not enough. What else is needed?
Sixth, a new understanding of myself within the social fabric
It is not easy to maintain your generosity and kindness while communicating with someone who reduces you or rejects you or is unfair to you etc. It’s not easy to let your “guard” down and not “fight back”, when someone undermines your rank in society, makes others doubt you or simply puts you in situations you don’t want. So, what is to be done in such situations?
I noticed that I can remain a “kind observer” only for a while, without retaliating aggressively, while someone else undermines me or puts me in unpleasant situations. But suddenly I find myself the “blind actor” “fighting in the arena”, fighting back aggressively… My preconditions hijacked me again, defending myself in the old way. Indeed, they succeed in hijacking me when it seems to “me” that my survival is at stake, when my boundaries are violated and my identity is called into question.
I am perfectly aware that my preconditions are not my enemies: they have been shaped by what has meant success in the past. But I don’t want to live in this logic anymore (even if it could bring me some apparent success at present). I am at a threshold between a world built on the logic of competition and self-centeredness and another built on the logic of symbiosis and interbeing. I am trying to cross this evolutionary threshold and build around me a world based on the logic of interbeing.
For doing this, I need to root myself better in the new relational reality that I want to bring to life around me. I need more grounding to stand the logic of my old mentality (my metaphysical preconditioning) and especially the logic of my old emotions (my biological preconditioning). I need a different understanding of myself within the social fabric; another understanding of my values/ my social security/ my connection within my society – to be able to stand the old logic of my social preconditioning.
This different understanding of myself within the social fabric is the very definition of a different consciousness.
Our old preconditions reduce us to the level of “actor” – short-sighted, narrow-minded – fighting blindly in the arena for a small success, to the detriment of others, far from the success that loving understanding, correlation, cooperation and symbiosis can bring. This is (in general) our world: drastically limited by the short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness characteristic of self-centeredness.
What can I do to get out of these preconditions? I think Margaret Mead said something like this (quoting from memory): “Evolution is conscious emancipation from a certain preconditioning”. It is a true miracle that a living being is able to emancipate itself from its preconditions. I am aware that relational self and symbiotic behavior are truly steps forward in the evolution of life on this planet.
Now I’m looking for ways to imagine a world beyond these preconditions and in which I can “take root” myself – to be able to bring it into our midst.
Sometimes I try to “see from above”, as an “observer” and I like to consider that we are all playing a “game”. Usually, we forget that our competition is just a game and that it is not necessary to go to war with each other, even if in the “game” we are apparently enemies: we can understand that it is only a game, and we are not enemies in reality. We can be a little more detached, we can see a little in perspective in time and space and understand that we are not each other’s enemies.
A broader picture in time and space makes the stakes of our everyday struggles no longer seem so important and certainly not the ultimate reality of our life.
A larger picture in time and space makes cooperation seem like the best strategy. We are not just individuals fighting each other, but symbionts of a superorganism. We are together as a species; as a great embryogenesis in space and time of this species. There is no need for us to be enemies and one’s gain to be at the expense of another. Cooperation and symbiosis can fulfill everyone’s needs.
That’s how it is for the “observer in the bifurcation point“. But for the “actor in the arena”, its entire reality is that of “the game”. There is nothing above or outside “the game”: it all boils down to the battle in the arena. “The Game” is the ultimate reality.
An Actor could say: “If everyday life is a “game”, what or where is the “real world” of the “observer”? If the “real world” is something different, why were we playing this game anyway? What is beyond this game? If I lose in this game and end up being marginalized in society – which is real after all (it is the place where we live, where we raise our children and where we fulfill our destinies), what is left for me outside of this “game”? “It is absolutely normal and healthy to identify myself with the player who loses or wins in this game. I am ready to fight for my well-being, because no one will do it for me.” “Symbiotic behavior” is nonsense, a utopia, a losing strategy. The rule and logic of the game is that of competition.”
But what would the “observer in the bifurcation point” say? “I don’t deny that the society in which we live is the ultimate reality – it is, indeed, where we live, where we raise our children, where we fulfill our destinies. But the way we relate can be considered a game. I say that the way we relate is a “game” and not the only reality of our world, because nothing stops us from changing the rules of the game (and making them more conducive to cooperation and everyone’s well-being).“
What the “actor” does not understand is that the competition is only a modality in which we can play the “game”, in which we can live. But we can also choose to play in another modality, called “cooperation”. Calling the way we relate a “game”, I want to emphasize that it is not the only reality, therefore it isn’t the ultimate reality. We can engage it differently, creating another “game”, another reality.
Through the lens of competition and self-centeredness, we are enemies. But we are not enemies in the ultimate reality, but only in the game called “Competition”. We can change the game in “Symbiosis” and suddenly, we – the same players – are no longer enemies, but symbionts.
So, here I am: an “Observer in the bifurcation point” – between “Actor” and “Cultural Creator”. As long as I, as an “observer”, am still playing the game of competition (I am still under the laws/logic of the “competition” game), I am not a true observer. Or, at least, I am not at a “bifurcation point” where I can really choose. Being under the logic of the “competition game”, the moment I notice that I “lose” in this game (according to my old preconditions), the moment I feel that something from my identity, from my safety is threatened, I feel compelled to act to regain my position. When the “observer” (being still caught in the logic of competition) considers that his survival is at stake, he entrusts the management to the “actor” (or better, to “gladiator”), who acts energetically to defend my borders, to regain my rank and my position, etc. This is the moment when I “switch” from “kind observer” to “blind actor”. Actually, if I am not in that “bifurcation point” – where I can really choose, I am not a true “observer”. That is why, even being “aware” (with the help of my attunement practice -“with kindness and generosity”) is not enough because I am still under the rule/ spell of competition.
But if I (as an observer) could really emancipate myself from the logic of competition, I could continue to play the game of cooperation (as the “Cultural Creator” in me really wants). I could continue to “stand” for the values I chose. I could finally remove the ego from the game and really transform the game around me from competition to cooperation.
So, what is the “real world” in which I can retreat to resist the logic of competition and find meaning in this decision and in its inevitable outcome in the social fabric I am embedded in? It is that “sweet spot” where I can be a real observer – emancipated from any logic or spell – and truly choose between “competition” and “cooperation”. Everything comes down to the way we perceive. This true “bifurcation point” can be the real world for the “observer” I want to be. If I can detach myself from the consequences of the game of competition, I can be in that place of true choice and become a true observer. It is all about perception. A different perception will bring forth a different logic and a different emotional response in us.
If I manage to detach myself from the logic of the competition game, it means that, even if in the eyes of others (in the eyes of society) I will “lose” (according to its logic), in my eyes I will not feel any loss, because I consider myself that I don’t play this game anymore. (How can I lose in a game I don’t play?). If I no longer feel that I am “losing”, the “Wise Observer” will not be forced to hand over the leadership to the “Competitive Actor” but will entrust it to the “Symbiotic Cultural Creator”.
At that moment, the “switch” will not be to the old preconditions but to the new edifying lines that I consciously chose. From “observer” I become “creator”. Now, if I continue to act from this inner state, freed from the tyranny of the logic of competition, of the fears generated by it, I could speak nonviolently; I could give the others the chance to respond according to the logic of cooperation and symbiosis.
Only now will I be able to bring out the best in others – because only now will I be able to act with love, generosity and trust – far beyond the logic of competition.
The others will feel this generosity and will feel freed from the pressure of the competition. They will feel free to act in their turn more generously. They will feel encouraged to reciprocate, to respond with the same”kindness and generosity”.
So, how can I change the rules of the game around me? “By removing the ego from the logic of the game, I change the rules of the game”. (Stephen Denning) Everyone is then freed to answer as they wish: with those who continue in the logic of competition, I stop playing, and with those who open up to play under the new rule of symbiosis and cooperation, I continue to play.
Seventh, small daily rituals and celebration conducive to symbiotic behavior in which we have the chance to perceive in other the numinous presence of Life
In a Butterfly fellowship – as in any intentional community – we can craft different daily rituals to help us reconnect ourselves with the new relational reality that we want to bring forth between us. As in Christianity or Islam, we can have several times a day (preferably 3 times) small prayers – held together or separately, in the middle of daily activities – through which we could remember our values and intentions, strengthen in our decision to live and communicate symbiotically or celebrate the gift of Life and the numinous reality of each of us.
The “communication formats” (see Appendix 7) can be considered communication rituals. Employing them, at least we won’t take communication for granted. Taking communication and the presence of the other for granted, we have high chances of going on “automatic pilot”, acting according to our old preconditions and violent communication habits.
As an antidote, we can choose to perceive communication as a celebration, where each of us is a numinous presence. Before saying something important, I can invoke the Great Goddess to help me perceive in the other the numinous presence of Life. The simple gesture of “invoking the Great Goddess” reconnects me with the spiritual reality I want to bring forth around me.
However, if I feel that the discussion is degenerating, I can stop it (obviously, if the interlocutor agrees) to continue with a short ritual that can get us back on a more constructive path: we hold our hands for a few moments (as much as is needed) turning to ourselves in meditation and prayer. This spiritual practice is very effective, as long as the two parties of the communication agree on it and have effective ways of prayer/meditation, able to reconnect them with the spiritual world that they want to express in the world.
Eighth, bringing out the best in others
How can we bring out the best in others? I can guess the answer by observing what brings out the best in me. Someone – speaking respectfully and politely to me – naturally triggers a similar respect and politeness on my part. Someone – giving me unconditional trust (as my wonderful parents did) – triggers in me the responsibility to not betray that trust. Someone who listens to me with real attention, triggers mutual receptivity on my part. Someone who treats me with loving understanding, triggers kindness and loving understanding in me. Someone who believes in me challenges me to become the person she already sees.
To bring out the best in others, all I need is to see them with the eyes of love and treat them with the heart of love. If I freed myself from the logic of competition, I could bring more generosity, empathy and love around me.
It’s true, it seems like a cliché (especially from a former priest), but it isn’t… How would I define love in scientific terms? Love is the “pattern that unites”.
What could be the next steps? Only the practice will lead us further. By monitoring ourselves daily, being more and more aware of the moments when we “switch” from “kind observer” to “blind actor”, becoming less violent and biased in our communication and perception, etc., we will succeed in becoming servant leaders.