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"Quest for Meaning" with James O'Dea

"Quest for Meaning" with James O'Dea

Visionary: James O'Dea

In this recorded message to members, Former IONS President James O'Dea talks with us about "A Quest for Meaning." In his poetic style, James explores the history of humankind, language and worldview, offering a powerful testament to how consciousness can reshape our lives and our world.

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Hello, this is James O’Dea, and I have the privilege of being the President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and I’m going to talk to you today about our quest for meaning. And I want to begin at the beginning. Science says that beginning was 13.7 billion years ago, when presumably there was something quiet in the Universe. And then, in the language of science we say there was a “big bang.” In the language of spirituality, it is often referred to as “the beginning.” In the beginning was the word, the logos: the logos being that form of movement into language of creation itself, that the power of sound and resonance created the world. And so whatever we can think and reason and express into language becomes a reality, if we are in that perspective of power and divinity to create a universe.

So we have there a powerful contrast, don’t we, between the “big bang” and some other sense of consciousness enacting, unfolding, a story of becoming and being. Things bang: the door bangs in the night. And here we are talking about this incredible universe as somehow beginning with a kind of a bang. And so, right at the beginning of our quest for meaning, there is language itself becomes an issue, becomes a form of determining how we view reality and how we speak about reality.

You know, I think of a painting my Mindy Weisel, who is a close relative of Elie Weisel, who wrote that very powerful book about the Holocaust, called Night. And Mindy has created a painting called Genesis. And when you look at the paining, it looks like night completely, it’s just filled with darkness, the whole canvas is filled with darkness, until your eye goes to extreme right hand corner of the canvas. Right there in the thinnest little line you see some light, the beginning of light itself. And light, as the first resonance into an ocean of darkness and we know that still the universe has more dark energy and dark matter than the little cherry on the top, which we call the visible cosmos itself. It is really small compared to the mysterious dark field.

So right in the beginning, we have a mystery which has not been fully realized, thank goodness. We have science saying, 13.7 billion years ago this story begins and what we know about it is rather extreme and intense in its own way because the universe seems to be so finely calibrated. So that if it is off by that initial explosion, if it was off by milliseconds, it is unlikely we’d have life here on planet earth. So scientists talk about the fine calibration of the Universe. And as we stare into the Hubble, and its images these days, we see millions upon millions of galaxies unfolding. We know that the story of our own becoming has moved from the story where we once we thought we were the center of the Universe: what a cute idea that we thought we were the center of everything. And now as we look through Hubble, we see these millions of galaxies unfolding. And scientists compute that the possibility that there isn’t life in these millions and billions of galaxies is in fact mathematically so incomputable, as to be remote. So the notion that, yes, from a statistical and mathematical point of view, there has to be life in this universe of intense depth and beauty.

So that’s part of our science story that is beginning to transform our own meaning with relationship to the cosmos story. And in terms of our own journey with logos, with what sound and resonance creates the fields of meaning that in the 21st century brings us onto the stage itself. And, I want to go back because there are times and language systems where the language and experience of people is very close together, we see this in native language systems. We see, for example in the native language systems we see so much more flow, so much less in terms of nouns and objects and more in terms of verbs and beingness. We see in the Syriac language and the Aramaic languages, these are experiential languages. The Greek itself is more of a conceptual language, and so the Greek translation of the prayer, “Our Father, which art in heaven” we have come to know, but if you were to look at translation by Neil Douglas-Klotz of the Syriac, you would see something very interesting. The Prayer begins, “Abwun d’bwaschmaja” - Abwun is the parent, is the mother/father God, it is not gender specific. Abwun, it’s the creator of the bwaschmaja, which translates, in a conceptual language as heaven, if you take it in the Syriac experiential sense, the core of the word is ‘schm’ which is resonance. Now you’re beginning to see this is a creation story itself, the Abwun, the mother/father creator, of the schm, of the resonance in the field of the world, of the Universe. And that we look at how that field of resonance begins to translate as language, as meaning for us at this time, is really the whole story of our cultural evolution.

But we can’t escape the reality that this cultural revolution is encoded in language system which is neurologically tracked in our bodies and so, you have the question, which I want to really embed into this conversation with you today. It’s contained in philosopher Korzybski’s notion that language itself creates the map, but it’s not the territory. So Korzybski is the one who said, “The map is not the territory.” And so there is some sense in the being itself, without language, that there is a wholeness and a fullness in the being. And if we abstract that, if we reduce that, then what we do is we participate in a mechanistic view of the human being. That we’re as good as the words we produce, we’re as clever as the language we create. And that, I think, is to deny something that is deeper in us. That is our core being. So when you wake up in the morning and you know that you are you, you know that you are you. So if I say to you, well, you are Angela, or you are Carlos or you are Kelly and you are a person of this particular gender or orientation or professional background. So many ways I could use language to map you. You would say in your inner core, “That’s not the territory of me. That’s not my soul, that’s not my being. There are no words that could catch my essence of who I am. I don’t get up in the morning and find myself by looking at the words and say, ‘Oh yes, that must be me.’” Right?

There is some primary essence that pre-exists language and so language, in many ways, in our quest for meaning, is a process of giving us maps. And those maps are very, very important, as we’ll talk about. They create the bias of our worldview of our whole relationship to our meaning in the world. But I wanted to mark the place where we always are looking to remind ourselves of the depth of the territory itself. And to know that the origin in consciousness, in our being, of all that potentiates, all that comes into existence, comes from a place that, for the mystic, is a place of emptiness, is a place of stillness, is a place where the great mystics say the Universe began, in the unitary state, in a state of oneness. And you might say that that is the belief, that there is a state of oneness. There are many practitioners of meditative techniques and spiritual development over the history of human civilization, who experience that state of oneness. So I would like to suggest there’s a good likely hood that exists, and in the creation myths of many civilizations it’s, out of the oneness comes the two, comes the bifurcation, comes the duality, comes the either/or, the up/down, the way that our world can work. And it gives us the rational platform of the human developing through culture and evolution and leads us to higher forms of reason.

The world Noetic, from our, institute’s name, encodes this notion that there’s something beyond the platform of the rational mind. That there is, in fact, some way of knowing without, as William James says, “transiting through the discursive mind,” but going directly into the essential truth. And we say that this is, you know, intuitive or direct knowing. That you can get a gestalt of meaning, a wholeness of meaning, coming to you, without being able to trace each and every reasoned step of how you arrived at that place. And so, as we look at the 21st century and our quest for meaning, we as an institute are marking something very deep and profound about the quest for meaning. That there are many ways of knowing, there are clearly ways of learning to understand the universe, through sequential, logical, rational process, but there are also primary ways of contacting and experiencing reality, that remain for us still mysterious and unknown but yet deeply reliable.

And so, what I’d like to do for a moment is look at how those two areas of the rational and the intuitive, the head and the heart, reflect in the interests of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. And we talk about this as the integral path itself. That there is a way to know reliably the outer cosmos as in fact in the era we call the period of the enlightenment when human knowledge went out as far as it could, in many ways. To look at how universe structured, where reason can take us, how we can know what’s outside us, how it operates, the depth of scientific methodology and where it leads us. And at the same time people are talking about this integral consciousness that we are beginning to experience in the 21st Century as a second enlightenment. As the second period of the great enlightenment, where we apply the technologies of inner knowing to create a meaning that is integral, that is whole. And so we know the inner worlds and we know the outer worlds. Not that we know them completely, but we have the tools and the capacities to develop our knowledge as it goes deep into the substrate of matter itself. And so we can look at the quantum universe and have reliable tools to go outward and reliable tools also to explore, what is within, what are those capacities to go beyond the duality, to experience inner states of being that require a rigorous methodology to achieve? And what do we see, are the potentials for the human society as we evolve at this time?

So, we can say that at the beginning of the 21st century, as the integral consciousness begins to develop, there are huge fields of testing in relation to the evolution of consciousness. We are clearly, as human beings, evolving toward something. And there are many theories about that evolutionary process in meaning. But that it is fundamentally a process about more and more inclusion. That would be the code to examine cultural evolution itself, as it goes from protecting of the little clan to the nation to the larger relationships and federal groupings, into the globe itself. And at the end of the Second World War, we created a universal declaration of human rights. A way of including all people as valuable within principles of law and we’re looking now at the evolution of the global story as we look at things like climate imbalance, the threats that face us, as a collective humanity, and how do we solve them?

We’re coming - it’s almost as if it feels - to a great barrier, that we must leap across in terms of meaning. And what comes back at us, in some ways, is almost like a caricature of what we are. The sound bite reality of TV, the reductionism of the human being into a consumer oriented personality that economists are even looking at the neuro connection between how you buy, how your appetites works, to dissect everything you know and translate them into consumer behavior and ways that reduce us to these particles of meaning rather than participants in some greater story. At the same time we see the rising of culture wars and the return of religious rivalries. It’s almost as if evolution is summarizing for us some of the profound problems in meaning that can no longer hold. It’s holding up mirror to us that’s saying, “This will not work, if you live in this reality you will face extinction, you will face the greatest collapse in human civilization that we have known.”

And so we have a little bit of a paradox here. That as consciousness itself rising to create these greater global inclusions, it meets something that is lesser, something the mystics would say is a form of ego. It’s appetite driven, it’s greed driven, it’s about me, it’s not about the world. And so, this is a particularly dangerous moment for us. It’s even the moment that French philosopher Baudrillard, in his work on the notion of simulation, that we live in a world of simulation. Baudrillard’s work was the root or the basis for the film The Matrix<?I>. So we create a matrix of simulation where that initial word, logos, sound, sound relating to experience itself, giving vitality through language to express your meaning into the world, becomes a sound-bite spin. And in Baudrillard’s concept, what he’s saying is, when a symbol no longer has behind it the thing that it symbolizes, when the symbol is no longer referring directly to something real, when that real thing behind it is gone, what you have left is only the simulation of reality. So we’ve taken the greatest of realities, the fecundity of the creation story itself, the honor and the glory, if you like, of being a being in the manifests realm and reduced it to a simulation. In a sense, that’s the end of the story, isn’t it? If you wanted the end of the story, you’d say, “The mightily, glorious unfolding of the human story resulted in a sound bite, in political spin, in spin-doctoring.” And yet, not one of us really believes that is the end of the story. So, why this caricature, why so much at this time that is about fragmentation?

I think it is, in some fundamental ways, the mirroring itself of what must be transcended. Of the great reminder that we are wholeness itself, that we are holographic beings who contain the reflection of the whole cosmos story within us, the wholeness of the universe, our capacity to be diverse. Our capacity to be whole stories and so I think our work at this time is to really examine the integral story in a way that says: How do I break down that notion of the stereotype, of the stereotype of the other? Even our great icons, let’s take for example, Einstein. The great icon of scientific thought, E=mc2. You know, that’s Einstein, the theory of relativity. Well, that is one dimension of Einstein, did you know, Einstein didn’t give us that depth of scientific perception without being fully and completely and originally Einstein? Maybe it would help you to know that Einstein’s central premise was not around scientific methodology, but the power of imagination. Einstein said, it is imagination that encircles our planet. He had this notion of imagination as a substance, as the next level of consciousness itself. Imagination, he believed, was what fed our knowledge. He said, imagination is greater than knowledge. Because the capacity to draw out of the latent field of reality, its possibilities and squeeze them into data, knowledge, information, that is the real story. His own imagination was not restricted to world of science. J. Edgar Hoover kept files on Albert Einstein because of his civil rights activities. Because of leading people like Paul Robeson hid out in his house and stayed with him. He was deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights. Now, is that story known?

That, I think, is a way to begin reshaping the conversation, is to remember that concept that I referred to as, ‘when you wake up in the morning and you feel that you are you.’ You know that you are more than the parts that are recognizing by the world, that you are a being in your own right, and that when you are confronted with the reductionist model, when ‘the other’ becomes “otherized” before you, into classifications and reduced by those classification, where language, where ideas are used to minimize, so that you can say, ‘they’re this category of person.’ And by using words and slapping a label on them you are minimizing them and reducing to a particular form. That you resonate in consciousness, with that notion of: What is the whole? Who is the wholeness of this being? Whatever form it takes. And we have to remember that even when we look at notions of terrorism and people striking out in rage and violence, we need to be able to look at the wholeness, because it’s only in the wholeness that the story of the recovery of the whole will be found. It’s only in the understanding of what drives a person to insane and criminal rage that we will understand how to best respond to it. Because if we simply respond to it as the other in a reductionist manner, we will never see the roots of what cause it.

And so there is much healing, and the root of the word ‘heal’ means to make whole. There is much healing that needs to happen in the configuration of global meaning system, that allows plurality, that allows diversity to flower its own contexts not be otherized. To not always be reliant on enemy consciousness or inferiority consciousness, because there is no lesser being on the face of the earth. And if we understand the nature own consciousness, we understand that is a primary directive. That is a primary insight. That we are not only interconnected, but we are some expression of the whole. That is why, I believe, that those who meditate and pursue the mystic states of oneness experience oneness. Who talk about a vivid and real experience of oneness, because they have entered that reality of our Oneness. When we look at worldview development and the time of the great shifting in transformation of consciousness, we will see the capacity of human beings to move beyond the identification of their own philosophies, religions, nationalities, in ways that are barriers to globalism, and see them as places that are more transparent to our wholeness, that in the essence of the great spiritual traditions there are the teachings that lead us to understand our wholeness, our Oneness.

So we have these fundamental challenges to an integral world view. Let’s say that, what we’re trying to move towards is some greater consensus. Consensus does not mean uniformity. As the Institute of Noetic Sciences explores frontiers of consciousness, what it’s really concerned and interested in is: What is the new consensus about what it means to be human, what is the nature of reality? It might be a useful example to look at this notion of consensus. I would say, for example, and I think many would agree, that we have reached some emerging consensus about global climate change, a little bit late in the day. Now, what were the blockages in our own thought systems and worldviews that prevented us from getting to this point more quickly?

That’s a topic of interest to the Institute of Noetic Sciences. What in our worldviews, or what in our level of attention or distraction led us not to pay attention to the state of our own habitat, I mean, nothing would seem to be more important. And yet our consciousness itself became so distracted by, you could say, materialism and other ways of social development that were more important. It’s clearly, very important to have a car or a house or swimming pool or whatever, all those things that then collectively we say, you know if we all, if every human being on the planet has these things, the planet will go down. And so we’re now beginning to revise our notions of what is reasonable for us to expend in terms of energy per person, on the planet.

To go into this a little bit more, I’d like to use an analogy. The analogy is this, you are a parent and you have a child and you’re about to drop your child off into a school building. And somebody outside the school building says “I just want to tell you, that there’s a 90% chance that your kid will be burned to death inside that building.” And you’ll go “Oh, my goodness!” Grab your child and you’ll run away. So what if, you know, the person said, “There’s only a 50% chance that little Johnny is going to....” You’d say, “50% chance? Absolutely, not possible!” What if you said there was only a 25% chance? You’d say, “No!” 10% chance? No parent would allow their child into a building, where you say, “Your child has a 10% chance.” The risk would be too high. And everyone would – when we talk about consensus here - we’re all in agreement. Even people who are extreme in certain views, will be nodding their heads in agreement about this. And so you would have to reduce the percentage to below 1%, right? You’d have to get remote statistical possibilities where it would be the same as being hit by lightening or other remote possibilities. That you’d say, “Okay, Johnny can go to school today.”

So my question is to you, what would you do to a person, what would you say to a person knowing there was a 60% chance, sent their child into the school building anyway? You’d say, this person has some problems, right? Some difficulties, some challenges. What if you had a lot of information and you were a person in charge and you didn’t tell little Johnny’s parents going into school that there’s a significant chance of the fire starting or of the child being burned? You would be held criminally responsible, wouldn’t you?

So now, just take us out of this analogy and into the future. Will future generations regard this as a barbaric time? When people were criminally negligent in relationship to the entire devastation of species, oceans, air. And how will we examine ourselves? What criteria will they use to judge us as so immature at this point of human development? All of those questions can be answered in some ways by looking at the concepts of worldview of attention and intention and perception. Because we haven’t, as a species, perceived the danger until it’s speaking so loudly to us. And you might say, why is that? Why haven’t we perceived it?

Well, one of the questions that arises for us is the whole notion of the spiral of human evolution itself and what we attend to and what we gain at certain levels of development and what we lose. And so integral theorists and spiral dynamics theorists say to us that as humans develop up the spiral of evolution, they have to remember that each level of the spiral contains, it’s promise, it’s evolutionary promise, but it also contains its own shadow side. And what we need to do as we look back down into the spirals of evolution, into the period of our clan and tribal knowing, that we go back and we synthesize from those the best knowing, the greatest wisdom, that was contained living within those conditions. Because living within those conditions, for indigenous and native peoples, is to live in relationship to nature, is to live with sensitivity to your environment in a way that later forms of development began. The shadow side of modernity was to enclose us in concrete and divorce us from our own sensory capacities to relate, to be in nature. And that is a profound loss in itself.

So one meaning system looking down on another meaning system and saying “That was the past, that was inferior, that was tribal, that was the warriors way.” The looking down on meaning systems is an error of consciousness itself, because that was the ladder, the structure, the spiral of our own development and contained both its shadow and its truth. This capacity to synthesize the truths of the past is what is needed at this rather epical moment now. So that as we begin to remember that the habitat, the state of other species, the condition of the planet, of the air, the well-being of other life forms, is essential to our own survival and is part of the entire design. To attune ourselves fully to that and to behave in response to that, is to is to recapitulate what was known by indigenous people, what is known in the great way. And so the emerging worldview, the world view that is an integral perspective that includes global awareness, global consciousness, is one that recapitulates many of the ways before it.

One of the other aspects of world view that we really need to attend to at this time, and it’s a particularly thorny issue, is the question of punishment itself. Because evolution is really asking us, I believe, to move beyond punishment. And that if we look at how we organize our societies, how we educate our children, there are many indicators from positive psychology to neurology to the whole process of healing, that suggest that punishment is dysfunctional. How do we move into a consciousness that moves not only away from these distractions that attends to what is important, that moves away from stereotyping and “otherizing” but that finally moves away from the need to punish others?

To me, having seen so much of human suffering and war and torture in my own life I know that this is one of the most profound mimetic structures human beings need to overcome. If we look at the dysfunctional nature of the punishment system in the United States, and we say to ourselves, “The United States, which has evolved in many ways, its democracy, is less than 5% of the world’s population but it contains one-third of world’s prisoners.” We can hold up a mirror to ourselves and say, “Why is this so?” Why would one third of the entire global prison population be housed in on of the world’s leading democracies? It relates to this concept of punishment, that somehow punishing others will relieve us and correct our situation.

Where I would invite us to explore the emergence of a worldview without punishment is to begin to look at concepts of justice that do something other than incarcerate people. Because we know that the recidivism rates in the prison system indicate that we’re actually creating criminal and we’re increasing the number of people who have criminal pathologies and reintroducing them into the general population. So, our health work, our consciousness work, our more enlightened work is to see, how do you take someone who has acted inappropriately, who has transgressed in some ways, who has created maybe some large errors, how do you help restore the balance? I believe that, for the Native Americans and some of their traditions, they had a restorative tribal justice model, that said, if one of the community is acting inappropriately, it is the whole community’s responsibility. Something has gone out of balance, this person wasn’t loved enough, they weren’t treated well enough. There is some sense of mutual responsibility, as human beings to another. There is some sense of interconnection that’s so deep that says, this isn’t another, this isn’t just a thing, this is a human being and I have some deep relational responsibility to help bring this human being back to a level of quality and relationship that can make the community functional.

And so, this is big work for our educational system, for our home system, for our prison system. I stress it so often in so many different talks because I believe we can overcome war. War is the ultimate in punishing others. In bombing them and taking away their lives. That we will, at some point in the future become the peaceful species. We will remember our wholeness, we will remember our interconnectedness. That science and spirituality will configure that narrative so eloquently. It’s already beginning as we look at our neurology, as we look at our psychology, as we look at how we heal. We see that human beings live longer if they’re more altruistic. They are healthier if they are loving, they thrive if they meditate and go into deep peaceful states. This is the paradigm, this is the paradigm of human becoming. The emergence, through all of the struggle in human evolution of a species that thrives on love and creativity, that pulls and draws from the imaginal realm, its highest possibilities. And that we can look back, not with anger and condescension at the human journey through its terrible, terrible, terrible suffering, but that we can say that, that suffering, that trauma, somehow was a learning field, a progressive field that took us to a state of recovery and wholeness to some primary experience of the territory of being human.

And that all of the maps that we created along the way, some good, some not so good, we discovered were maps. And that the only authentic reality is in the experience of the territory itself, the territory of peace, the territory of interconnected consciousness. That, yes, can be mapped, must be mapped as part of our evolving story, the story of the integral marriage of science and spirituality, of subjective knowing and objective verification, the building of consensus in most people, the creation of global systems that really reflect the nature of an interconnected cosmos. All of these things are part of our worldview transformation that begins in the depths of our hearts and is transmitted for us from generation to generation.

And that is the core of the Institute of Noetic Science’s work, it is to get right inside human consciousness itself and ask the questions: What is real here? What can be transformed? What will we become? What is our capacity? What is the true nature of our wholeness? And I think that is a very noble, noble work for us to be doing and I invite you all to support us as much as you can as we envision the human possibility for creating the deepest, greatest meaning that human beings can create. Thank you.

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humankind, meaning, wisdom
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