Who are we and what are we doing here?

The Tree of Life and the Cosmos are One

This morning I prayed….. in fact, I pray every morning.  I pray for the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out.  I pray to a God that is beyond my understanding. I pray because doing so has resulted in long periods of serenity, moments of clarity, and the chance to practice using spiritual tools that allow me to get through the difficult times and dark periods.  I pray for peace – and I work for a more sustainable world that will be free from want and fear – for all.

I was born into a religious tradition that taught me to fear that I would be punished (for all eternity) if I “broke the rules” of a church hierarchy.  Part of my spiritual growth was a rejection of and the subsequent rediscovery of the power of the traditions and rituals of that church.  Today, I can take from those traditions that which feeds my soul and simply let go of the rest (with as much acceptance and forgiveness I can muster on a day to day basis).  I continue to find inspiration in the stories of the Passover, the Prodigal Son and the Loaves and Fishes among others. However, my understanding of the stories and rituals which I was taught have changed.

Today those stories are interpreted through the lens of an earth-based spirituality that huxleymight be familiar to many indigenous cultures and may also be found in most religious traditions of the modern world.  Aldous Huxley introduced us to the Perennial Philosophy in which he found common strands of spiritual truths throughout all human constructed religions.  For me however, these traditions were discovered through the science of living systems.  As a student and teacher of systems thinking, this inclusive approach to the big questions about who we are and what we are doing here makes the most sense to me.  So here is an attempt to paint a portrait of my current answer to those big questions….

First, I think it is important to recognize and reject the voice in our heads that tell us “we are not good enough.”  This voice is exploited by commerce to sell us things we don’t need.  It is reinforced by everyone from our teachers to political leaders to make us believe that they know what is best for us.  It results in the worship of “celebrities” who we think are our friends because we follow them on Twitter.  It is a lie that goes back to “the fall of Adam” and is deeply embedded in our psychic bones.

In western cultures, our dominant religious creation story tells us that we are being punished for the sin of Adam and that we were “kicked out of the Garden” for his mistake.  Whether or not we subscribe to any particular religious faith, this creation story reinforces the message that we are not good enough and subconsciously frames how we think about the big questions “who are we and what are we doing here?”   This is a story of perpetual scarcity, pain and toil imposed on Adam when God said (Genesis 2:17-18 NIV):

Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.

Perhaps by rejecting this story and replacing it with a new understanding of creation, we can find a sense of hope and a source of power that will allow us to continue to work for sustainability.  For me, this new understanding is built upon an earth-based spirituality, informed by an understanding of living systems and my own interpretations of many religious traditions.  In spite of all evidence to the contrary –  I have faith in the inevitable emergence of a more sustainable world – one that is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially equitable.

This belief is based on three assumptions:

  1. The earth is a living system that has the ability to heal itself
  2. Humans are a part of…. not apart from the earth
  3. Healing of the earth and the human spirit are part of the same process

Joanna Macy calls this healing process The Great Turning, that is, the inevitable shift from our current destructive industrial growth society to a life sustaining society. Systems thinker Ervin Lazlo has put this current transition in the context of human history in which we have moved through previous “macroshifts” in human understanding of our place in the world.  These are:

The time of the Mythos

This is the period in which the ancients believed all things were alive – that is there were gods and goddesses in all things – the trees, lakes, mountains.  This idea is called panenthism (God or the divine is in all things).  It is different than pantheism (which states that all things are divine – and is considered idolatry by the Church).  The Roman and Greek Gods for example, were thought to live among humankind.

This former time of the Mythos, ended some 5,000 years ago with the emergence of the One God.  The Hebrew Bible describes the One God, Yahweh, as a distant God, up in the heavens, separate from us and from earth.   Ken Wilber states that humans perceived themselves separate from the rest of the universe when Adam was given the power of naming “things” in the Garden of Eden.  Naming then results in separation (or more accurately, the illusion of separation).  The shift from the Mythos to the Theos was the first great fragmentation of the human spirit.

The time of the Theos

With the emergence of the One God, the gods and goddesses of nature were all sent packing.  Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden.  This is a story of separation and loss.  It is the dominant creation story of western civilization.  The One God was now up in the sky in heaven, far away and less accessible.  The era of the Theos represented a split of mind/body/spirit, with spirit off in the heavens.  Since humans desired to maintain a relationship with the One God, a priesthood had to be created to mediate the conversation between the mind/body of the human and the spirit which now was “in the clouds.”

The Hebrew Temple and to an even greater extent the Christian Church organized human society into a hierarchy of increasing power to perform this essential function of communicating with a distant God. The Church held hegemonic control over the human story in the “western world” until the scientific revolution.

The time of the Logos

The next major transition was to happen in the 16-17th centuries (although its roots go back to Aristotle).  As humans emerged from the dark ages, survived the black plague, and began an expansionist period from Europe to the new world, a new mental model was needed to weaken hegemony of the church and allow creativity to flourish.

Copernicus, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon, Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton, the founding fathers of modern science provided the inspiration for the next shift from the Theos to the Logos, or the scientific revolution and the dominance of the rational mind.  Today, science not only claims to be a useful tool for learning, it claims to be the only legitimate means of discovering truth.  Ken Wilber explains this split of the mind/body/spirit, this time by humans developing the tool of mathematics to predict the movements of bodies in the heavens.  The mind seemed to have the power over the heavens.  Another illusion.

The time of the Holos

The Great Turning will not only result in the healing of the earth through the creation of more sustainable ways of doing business, it will also help heal the human spirit with the emergence of holistic ways of thinking.  The Holos is not a return to the Mythos but rather a time of reconnecting the body, mind and spirit using all that we have learned about the science of living systems.  It is a new creation story and it is the greatest story ever told.

The human story did not begin with God kicking Adam and Eve from the Garden.  While this may have been the best way that nomadic, patriarchal tribes could explain the reason for their own suffering, it also gives us a creation story that begins with loss.

The human story is part of a much grander story of creation….


Who are we and what are we doing here?

In the time of the Holos, we might begin to answer these questions from the context of the greatest story ever told.  We are part of the continued evolution of the universe, ever moving toward higher levels of complexity and inclusion.  We are the universe becoming self-aware.  We are literally stardust come to life. We are organisms embedded in a natural systems hierarchy of systems within systems.


Humans (organism in the hierarchy of nature) are part of larger systems (family, community, ecosystem) and contain smaller systems (organs, cells etc.).  These levels of a natural hierarchy are not based on power-over relationships, such as with a human-constructed hierarchy, but rather power-with relationships.  That is, the power at each level is found by participation with other components of the whole at that level.  Further, the purpose of each level is found in service to the next “higher” level.

Here is an example…


The heart (organ) works with other organs of the human body (participation) and finds purpose in serving the next higher level (organism) which in turn may find purpose in serving a system larger than itself (family, community, the earth or the divine). This understanding provides us with the beginning of an answer to the question “who are we are what are we doing here?” This picture helps us understand the “self.”

Environmentalists often quite John Muir who said….

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

This is an important recognition that we are indeed related to everything else in the universe (and each other for that matter).  But it is also important to begin to understand HOW we are related to each other.  We are all constructed from the same matter and inspired by the same spirit of creation.  We are all stardust.  Plants and animals are stardust come to life.  And humans are stardust in which over the course of 14 billion years of evolution, the universe has finally become self-aware.  How can we possibly believe that “we are not good enough?”   

Perhaps it is not possible to break us of our inborn selfishness?  Perhaps what we need is an expanded sense of self?  Our new creation story might lead us to understand the small “myself” as part of a larger family-self and community-self in a natural hierarchy.  Each level of complexity represents part of “the true self.”


With this expanded sense of “the true self”, we have the beginnings of an answer to the questions  “who are we and what are we doing here?”

We are the universe becoming self-aware.  We are literally stardust come to life.  We humans are all related to each other and in fact to everything else in the universe.  And our purpose is service to something greater than our small self…..

With this understanding…..  the Great Turning to a life sustaining society is inevitable.

But we have much work to do….

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