Time, Thought and the Human Condition

I have recently been reading the dialogues between David Bohm and Krishnamurti and have been particularly intrigued by their interactions around time and thought. A key part of volution theory (www.volutiontheory.net) is that linear time as an experience and construct is an inadequate expression of how life works. The concept of evolution itself is part of that linear mindset, hence my proposal that volution – that integrates linear and cyclical in the spin-based toroidal image – is a more encompassing way to describe our individual and collective development.

Krishnamurti and Bohm suggest that Time and Thought are intertwined. Thought only exists in relationship to the past or future – as compared to experience and what Krishamurti called “Insight” that happens in the present moment. It is through insight that one catches glimpses of the interconnected whole.

In the early hours of this morning I was contemplating how it was that Thought came to be so dominant in our Western civilisation. I came back to one of the core proposals in volution, which is that humanity in the West underwent a major trauma as our sense of separate self started to emerge and collectively we moved out of more tribal structures to feudal empires. This is the period in which we pushed away from our experience of embeddedness as the Earth to create space for our own individual identity and yet instead of expanding and embracing that past, we expanded and expelled it. This was driven by fear of the wild that needed to be tamed, and expressed itself further in cutting ourselves off from the Earth, the body and the feminine in general. One of the externally visible events that it led directly to was the burning of the witches.

 As Ken Wilber says so powerfully in Up from Eden:

“It is one thing to gain freedom from nature, emotions, instincts, and environment – it is quite another to alienate them. The Western ego did not just gain its freedom from the Great Mother; it severed its deep interconnectedness with her. … When the Great Mother is repressed, the Great Goddess is concealed. And one may – it is a terrible realization – look in vain through Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religion for any authentic trace of the higher touch of the subtle Goddess herself. And that would become a perfect and terrifying comment on an entire civilization.”

So what happens when we repress so radically something from our past that is an essential part of who we are? Psychologists would say that we are likely to get a pathology. “Pathology” has its roots in the Greek word “páthos”, related to “páskhein” meaning to suffer and “pénthos” meaning to grieve. We suffer and we grieve inside – but the pain is so great that we bury it deep so we can “get on with our lives”. We become disconnected from that piece of our past, unrooted from who we are.

How does this relate to Thought and Time? Remember that Thought is always related to the past and future. When we have experienced a trauma and that hasn’t been integrated, it keeps us connected to that past event. It not only holds our energy there but it fuels fear of the future. It literally takes us away from just being with everything in the present moment as the trauma continually feeds an underlying regret of the past and fear of consequences in the future. The trauma actually creates the experience of thought and linear time. One could postulate that without active traumas from the past, our whole experience would be one of presence and sensing, intuition leading thought, as opposed to being driven by our thoughts of the past and future and the related emotions.

If we now apply that thesis to our collective human development and relate it to the moment in our story where we separated ourselves from our experience of relationship with body and Gaia, then we can see how that trauma is itself at the root of the dominance of disembodied abstract thought and linear time in our Western civilisation. Subconsciously desperate to get away from that pain, we have plunged ourselves into an ungrounded drive for unlimited linear progress and the creation of material artefacts in the world around us that keep us away from our inner experience, as we know somewhere that the moment we go inside, we are going to meet the pain and trauma of our separation. That fear and unrootedness is what lies at the core of our current ecological, social and psycho-spiritual crisis.

We can take one model of our individual and collective human development and see how this thesis would play out. Spiral Dynamics describes eight value systems that emerge in us in interaction with the life conditions around us. In volution theory I describe the underlying dynamics within the Spiral as a whole.

Spiral Dynamics 8 Levels

This map shows from the bottom up our journey from survival bands (Beige) to holistic community (Turquoise). You will notice the word “Internal” over Beige and Purple as well as Yellow and Turquoise. The word “External” is related to Red, Blue, Orange and Green. During the two early phases, Beige and Purple, we experienced life instinctively as interconnected, one mysterious process that we were intrinsically a part of. One could say it had its foundation in yin, or an internal orientation. With the emergence of our sense of separate self in Red, we became aware of Me and The Other. The orientation shifted to one of separation and the external world around us – more of a yang foundation. Rational cognitive thought emerged to analyse and describe the distinctions. Linear time emerged with agriculture as we started to invest in planting things to harvest at a later date. This yang foundation dominates until we get to Yellow and Turquoise, known as Integral and Holistic respectively, when we focus once more on the whole, this time from a post-cognitive, more intuition driven sensing.

This journey would be a beautiful volutionary process of greater conscious individuation and interrelatedness in its healthy expression. But what happens when you insert a deep trauma of separation between the early yin phases and the emergence of the yang phases? In a healthy development, one would expand with each new phase and embrace the healthy essence of the previous phases. That would mean the emergence of the sense of unique self at Red and then a re-membering (putting back together) of the interconnectedness with the rest of life around us. That awareness of distinction would bring with it a curiosity for everything else, grounded in the sense of belonging to the Earth and the rest of the community of life. Alertness and the drive to survive would of course remain but would not express itself in a pathological fear and subsequent repression and destruction of that life that we are a part of. Destruction can only take place when we objectify something, in other words when we deny any inter-subjective relationship to it. We are of course inter-related with everything, which means if we had embraced that experience of belonging rather than expelled it, we could never have been able to destroy so much of the planet and cause so much pain to each other as we have done over the last period. Simply due to the direct experience of us being that.

Here is an experiment to see what the Spiral story might look like without the trauma of the split (or with the trauma having been integrated), compared to the traumatised pathological version.

Traumatised vs Healthy Value Systems

In the original Spiral Dynamics model, there are two types of value system – what Clare Graves called Express-Self and Sacrifice-Self systems. The former have an emphasis on the individual expression (yang) and the latter on fitting in with the collective (yin). See the image below.

The Spiral Dynamics I-We dance

My sense is that in the healthy development of the Spiral the Express-Self and Sacrifice-Self systems would develop closely with each other, in a yin-yang dance. So the self-expressive power of Red would co-emerge with the sense of responsibility to the collective that would come with Blue. The reason that does not happen in the traumatised version is that the expulsion of Purple creates a pathology around the other yin-based Sacrifice-Self systems, meaning that collectively we are fearful of going back to the collective side and tend to prefer to hang out in the individual-driven Express-Self system. This could account for the dominance of the Orange system that coincided with the emergence of the industrial age and free market economy. In a healthy development it would have emerged in the context of a strong sense of collective responsibility (Blue) and together with the sensitivity of the wellbeing of people and the rest of life of the planet (Green). Our fear of the Green system can be seen in the way emotions are often seen as something vastly inferior to rational thought, along with our reluctance to share our inner worlds with others transparently and acknowledge what an important role they play in all of our lives.

This separation that we underwent has had a defining influence on initially the development of the Western world and then the rest of the world as we exported our worldview, economic systems and materialist technologies in an unbridled expansion that ultimately maybe only some of our indigenous peoples have been able to see through and resist – because their stories and traditions kept the earlier experiences of interconnectedness integrated into their individual and collective development. The split we experienced brought with it an integration into our culture of linear time and progress to the exclusion of a sense of cyclical and historical impact, of rational thought and language to the exclusion of intuitive sensing and expression, and of obsession with things and stuff outside of us to the exclusion of a rich inner life.

Some might argue that this was simply humanity’s destiny, the lesson we had to learn. Maybe. Either way, as an incredibly creative and beautiful expression of Gaia we still have a window of opportunity to heal our pain of the past and unlock our promise of a joyful thriving future with the rest of life on Earth.

Peter Merry is the author of Volution, Evolutionary Leadership, Why Work. Upcoming works include The Pain and the Promise and Leading from the Field. He is a co-founder of Ubiquity University and the UbiVerse. His personal website is at http://www.petermerry.org/.

3 thoughts on “Time, Thought and the Human Condition

  1. This critique of the process that has unfolded I intuit misses several important issues. The first is that the energy that drives the development of the spiral is that a current level is always a partial or incomplete answer to a problem created at the previous level. This polarity is what generates the energy to push to the next level. The second thing I sense is that there is an underlying wish or goal to avoid the intense pain and suffering of the trauma that allows for self to even emerge. Regression back into the great mother or our own mother is a huge issue in ego development. Just look how falling in love can create this in young people. The problem with our world is that we do not have the magical ability to just manifest all our self centered desires and so we push to get them and the world’s reality rules limit this. So the yang must push to get what it wants because it must compete for the best piece of the Bison and the yin encourages us to let others eat and not hoard the entire bison. But everyone does not get the best piece because there are not enough.nor does everyone get their own entire Bison. Not enough of the best is the essential flaw/ingredient in the biological world. In an imaginal inner universe there is no limit on resources, no cold weather, no deadly asp in the grass, no lack of beautiful men or women, no disease etc. The separation trauma you describe is, I sense, a reasonable reaction to the conditions in many parts of the earth…where life is hard. I sense in your post that you are trying to see where it went wrong. My sense is that same pathology is where it went right and became the driver for our evolution out of the first two levels. How we come back to awareness of awareness, connection to the inner universe and the support it can give us here is the next step to correct the problems of red, blue, orange green. But if we had not and do not continue mastery of the material world we will have not solved the fundamental issue of the best of the Bison scarcity. Saying humanity can live without anyone having the best was Marx’s idea and implies destroying the individualized instinct to create great art or anything beautiful or entrepreneurial. Not to mention it just does not work anyway, there are always those with access. Even spiritual development up the spiral is in essence a position of earned power and privilege. From the perspective of pure awareness the way all this works is not a problem, it is just the way it does. As Wilber said the river of evolution meanders forwards and backwards at the same time and the world tree in the Norse view is called Yggdrasil which means terrible steed. I love your idea of how yellow and above reintegrate the yin and create a working balance. However I intuit that the letting go the the yin and the goddess in the middle stage is not in fact pathological but rather the secret deep driver underneath the water in the middle stages. That her submersion into the underworld is actually where she was been working from all this time. Like a mother who pushes her children out of the nest or house to let them develop as they must, on their own while she watches from the window. But she cannot helicopter in or we will never learn on our own. She is after all the Goddess of Wisdom and I suspect if she wanted to not be forgotten she could have managed it. We come up from Eden by the rough road I suspect because there was no other road. Saying that indigenous cultures did it is not accurate anthropology. No indigenous culture managed to solve the Bison issue or death by small pox etc. except the western indigenous peoples, which is us. To say otherwise is to dismiss the level of insight and scientific mastery the West developed via warfare that then passed into all our other endeavors. Why the West, mostly I suspect it was do to the mountains and cold in Europe that protected them from invasion and also from imperial unification like you could do in coastal Mediterranean and everywhere else a huge empire developed. Huge empires win and then stop warring for hundreds of years inside and so tech war innovation is slowed.

    The reconciliation with the part split off has only just begun. Let us hope that the rush to balance out happens in time and also does not destroy the pathway we built to get people here to begin with. Let us build a curricular approach that allows it to happen rather than having to let it emerge as it has through the messy unconscious process we have been in for 10,000 years. I believe you are in fact doing just this. May you thrive in that endeavor. May we heal the trauma and in so doing embrace that trauma as the sand in the shell of humanity that ultimately delivered the perfected pearl beyond price. The pearl that unites inner and outer would, compassion and peace, wisdom and mastery, self, soul and spirit. May it be so.

    • Hi Matt – thanks for taking the time to post your well thought-out response to this piece.

      This critique of the process that has unfolded I intuit misses several important issues. The first is that the energy that drives the development of the spiral is that a current level is always a partial or incomplete answer to a problem created at the previous level. This polarity is what generates the energy to push to the next level.

      That is correct Matt and remains so in this perspective. But there is the difference between differentiation due to the incompleteness and dissociation. I am describing dissociation.

      The second thing I sense is that there is an underlying wish or goal to avoid the intense pain and suffering of the trauma that allows for self to even emerge.

      No – but again, it’s the difference between transcend and include vs transcend and repress.

      Regression back into the great mother or our own mother is a huge issue in ego development.

      Yes. That is why it needs to be conscious integration. The reason for unhealthy regression is because it was repressed in the first place. People are searching.

      The separation trauma you describe is, I sense, a reasonable reaction to the conditions in many parts of the earth…where life is hard. I sense in your post that you are trying to see where it went wrong. My sense is that same pathology is where it went right and became the driver for our evolution out of the first two levels.

      I agree that lots of energy is needed to break out of Purple, however it doesn’t have to be repressed as we have seen in other cultures.

      Saying humanity can live without anyone having the best was Marx’s idea and implies destroying the individualized instinct to create great art or anything beautiful or entrepreneurial. Not to mention it just does not work anyway, there are always those with access.

      Yes. I’m not saying Red isn’t needed. Otherwise no individuation and no conscious reconnections….

      No indigenous culture managed to solve the Bison issue or death by small pox etc. except the western indigenous peoples, which is us. To say otherwise is to dismiss the level of insight and scientific mastery the West developed via warfare that then passed into all our other endeavors.

      I’m not convinced that Western pathway was necessary but we will never know…. What I do feel pretty certainly is that the disconnect with the Earth and other Purple-Beige elements runs pretty deep and when you help people find it, it’s powerful pain and recognition.

      The reconciliation with the part split off has only just begun. Let us hope that the rush to balance out happens in time and also does not destroy the pathway we built to get people here to begin with. Let us build a curricular approach that allows it to happen rather than having to let it emerge as it has through the messy unconscious process we have been in for 10,000 years. I believe you are in fact doing just this. May you thrive in that endeavor. May we heal the trauma and in so doing embrace that trauma as the sand in the shell of humanity that ultimately delivered the perfected pearl beyond price. The pearl that unites inner and outer would, compassion and peace, wisdom and mastery, self, soul and spirit. May it be so.

      Indeed. Thank you.

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