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Awakening to the Universe Story

Part I: Comprehensive Compassion

An interview with Brian Swimme


« Read Jessica Roemischer's introduction to the piece

» Read Part II: The Divinization of the Cosmos

This article first appeared in Issue 19, “Can Enlightenment Save The World?” Click for more information.


What Is Enlightenment: What do you feel is the most pressing crisis facing humanity today? What are the planetary issues we most need to wake up to and address?

Brian Swimme: I think the fastest way to wake up to what is happening on the planet is to think in terms of mass extinction. Every now and then, the earth goes through a die-off of the diversity of life. Over the last half-billion years, there have been five moments like this. We didn’t know about this two hundred years ago; we didn’t have the slightest idea that the earth did this. Now we’ve discovered that around every hundred million years, the earth went through these amazing cataclysms. And just within the last thirty to forty years, we’ve discovered that the last one, which eliminated all the dinosaurs and ammanoids and so many other species, was caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. This happened sixty-five million years ago. There was no awareness of this any previous time in human history. You look through the Vedas, you look in the Bible—it’s nowhere. But at the same time as we’re discovering this, we’re discovering that we’re causing one right now. Two years ago, the American Museum of Natural History took a poll among biologists. They asked a simple question: Are we in the middle of a mass extinction? Seventy percent said yes. A mass extinction. You can’t open your eyes and see that. It’s a discovery that involves the whole. Our senses have evolved to deal with the near-at-hand, and this is a conclusion that involves the whole planet.

So now we’re just discovering that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction. We happen to be in that moment when the worst thing that’s happened to the earth in sixty-five million years is happening now. That’s number one. Number two, we are causing it. Number three, we’re not aware of it. There’s only a little splinter of humanity that’s aware of it. The numbers are this: At the minimum, twenty-five thousand species are going extinct every year. And if humans’ activity were otherwise, or if humans weren’t here, there would be one species going extinct every five years. We’ve pushed up the natural extinction rate by the order of something like a hundred thousand times.

The point is that we haven’t been prepared to understand what an extinction event is. We’ve had all these great teachers. We’ve had tremendously intelligent people, going back through time, but you can look, for example, through all the sutras or Plato’s dialogues, and they never talk about an extinction. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that Plato or the Buddha were even capable of imagining an extinction. First of all, at that time we weren’t aware of evolution. We weren’t aware of the whole process, so the idea of extinction didn’t make sense. When every now and then scientists or other humans would find these bones, they would assume that these creatures were actually still in existence elsewhere, you know, on another part of the continent. So there wasn’t the conception of extinction. We’re only now having to deal with what it means to actually eliminate a form of life.

I have a new idea for a way to help people understand this. Christians have been reflecting upon Jesus’ crucifixion for two thousand years. If you had happened to be around back then, for example, in Alexandria, it was a cosmopolitan world and they had news of what was going on, and you heard about some Jewish rabbi being killed—big deal. It wouldn’t really have had an impact on you. But then, for two thousand years afterwards, Christian theologians are thinking about it. So my latest thought is, maybe for the next million years, humans will be reflecting on what it actually means for the earth to go through this extinction process. It may take us that long to fully take it in, with all of its ramifications. I don’t understand it. It’s vastly beyond my mind. I think that we’re not prepared to really understand what it means. Right now, just to get a glimpse of it is tremendous. That’s all I’m hoping for. If we just get a glimpse of it, we can begin to think at the level that’s required to deal with it effectively.

WIE: What do you believe is the solution to this crisis?

Swimme: It would be to reinvent ourselves, at the species level, in a way that enables us to live with mutually enhancing relationships. Mutually enhancing relationships—not just with humans but with all beings—so that our activities actually enhance the world. At the present time, our interactions degrade everything.

You see, the cartoon version of our civilization is that we’re all materialists, so we don’t have a sense of a larger significance beyond us. In our materialistic Western culture, our fundamental concern is the individual. The individual, and accumulation—of whatever it might be. Is it fame? Is it money? We put that as the cornerstone of our civilization. That’s how we’ve organized things. Now there are mitigating factors, but I’m giving a cartoon version. What’s necessary is for us to understand that, really, at the root of things is community. At the deepest level, that’s the center of things. We come out of community. So how then can we organize our economics so that it’s based on community, not accumulation? And how can we organize our religion to teach us about community? And when I say “community,” I mean the whole earth community. That’s the ultimate sacred domain—the earth community.

These are the ways in which I think we will be moving. How do you organize your technology so that as you use the technology, the actual use of it enhances the community? That’s a tough one. So long as we have this worldview in which the earth itself is just stuff, empty material, and the individual is most important, then we’re set up to just use it in any way we like. So the idea is to move from thinking of the earth as a storehouse to seeing the earth as our matrix, our fundamental community. That’s one of the great things about Darwin. Darwin shows us that everything is kin. Talk about spiritual insight! Everything is kin at the level of genetic relatedness. Another simple way of saying this is: Let’s build a civilization that is based upon the reality of our relationships. If we think of the human as being the top of this huge pyramid, then everything beneath us is of no value, and we can use it however we want. In the past, it wasn’t noticed so much because our influence was smaller. But now, we’ve become a planetary power. And suddenly the defects of that attitude are made present to us through the consequences of our actions.

It’s amazing to realize that every species on the planet right now is going to be shaped primarily by its interaction with humans. It was never that way before. For three billion years, life evolved in a certain way; all of this evolution took place in the wilds. But now, it is the decisions of humans that are going to determine the way this planet functions and looks for hundreds of millions of years in the future. Look at an oak tree, look at a wasp, look at a rhinoceros. The beauty of those forms came out through this whole system of natural selection in the past. But the way they’ll look in the future is going to be determined primarily by how they interact with us. Because we’re everywhere. We’ve become powerful. We are the planetary dynamic at this large-scale level. So can we wake up to this fact and then reinvent ourselves at the level of knowledge and wisdom that’s required? That’s the nature of our moment. Our power has gotten ahead of us, has gotten ahead of our consciousness. This is a challenge we’ve never faced before: to relearn to be human in a way that is actually enhancing to these other creatures. If you want to be terrified, just think of being in charge of how giraffes will look a million years from now. Or the Asian elephant. Biologists are convinced the Asian elephant will no longer exist in the wild. Even right now, the cheetah can’t exist in the wild. That means that the Asian elephants that will exist in the future will exist primarily in our zoos, likewise cheetahs. So the kinds of environments we make for them are going to shape their muscles and their skeletons and all the rest of it. I’m talking over millions of years. This is the challenge that is particular to this moment, because this is the moment the earth goes through this major phase change—the dynamics of the planet are beginning to unfurl through human consciousness.

That’s why I’m thrilled by your asking these questions. You see, I do think that waking up, enlightenment, can save our world, can save the planet. Because we’re doing things that none of us wants to see happen. And we’re doing it because we’re unaware. So if we can wake up and train all of our energies around this, then I have deep confidence that tremendously beautiful, healing things will happen.

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This article is from
Our 15th Anniversary Issue


September–December 2006