A Long Affair with Three Big Ideas about Collective Consciousness

In thinking recently about what I like to do and think and talk about – for example, using and creating tools that enhance collective intelligence – I realized that my main interests have been pretty much the same for most of my adult life (about forty-five years) – and most of them were originally inspired by three Big Ideas that I came upon almost immediately after graduating from high school.

Of course my very earliest influences, from floating in the womb to end of high school also immensely affected me.  And my wife, and closest friends and family, and innumerable conversations and journeys have shaped me hugely, as well.  But the three Big Ideas gripped me and still grip me in their own special way.

The three big ideas were inspired and conveyed to me by two people and one group.  One of the people, Teilhard de Chardin, died when I was 7 years old and before I ever heard of him; the other, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a living saint whom I read about and then studied under; and the group was the Ecumenical Institute (EI), and it’s secular arm, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA).

Rob, my older brother and only sibling, introduced Teilhard to me in the summer of 1966 after I graduated from high school.  We had a summer job together in Winfield, Kansas shoveling grain during the wheat harvest.  When not working we would often go to the local library, where he showed me Teilhard’s book, The Phenonmenon of Man.  I have no idea how the little Winfield library happened to have that book (which was first published in English just a few years earlier).  But it did.   The book was densely written for paleontologists, biologists and other scientists, and was not easy to read.  But the ideas had a huge effect on me so I kept reading it here and there for quite a while.

Rob also introduced me to the EI / ICA a couple of years later, during my visits to see him in Chicago where he was interning with them.   And in 1970, after returning from six memorable months in Europe, my closest friends, John and Bev, introduced me to Transcendental Meditation and to Maharishi’s teaching.

So here is a summary of these three great and widely influential ideas that together combine in me to guide what I want most to do and be. 

Teilhard de Chardin:   The Universe Evolves to Create Collective Consciousness

From exposure to Teilhard’s work I learned that the nature of the Universe is to evolve to higher and higher levels of complexity and intelligence leading to higher and higher levels of collective consciousness.

All consciousness is in fact collective consciousness which emerges in the process of continually creating greater wholes that are each more than the sum of their parts.

This is a vision of sub-atomic particles coming together to form atoms, atoms to form molecules, molecules to form super-molecules, super-molecules to form proto-cellular life, cellular beings coming together to form the first simple multi-cellular organisms, then increasingly more complex organisms, and then, with humans, the first generations of self-aware beings with complex thought sharable through language, leading to the evolution of cultures and complex social systems within those cultures. (It has been a fast and long journey.)  It is also a deeply spiritual vision of the spiritualization of energy and matter in the development of consciousness.

Teilhard’s vision of wholes coming together to form greater wholes was also my first introduction to the power and intelligence of networks:  Small personal networks come together to form larger multi-centered networks, which come together to form still larger, and more intelligent networks.  Networks are adaptive, and are used by nature to turn complexity into increasingly higher levels of intelligence.  Highly complex and adaptive networks create and enhance both individual and collective consciousness.

Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and a paleontologist who participated in early discoveries related to biological evolution, focusing especially on the evolution of early humans.  He was born in 1881 and died in 1955.  He was faithful to his Church and to his order for all of his life, even though his superiors did not allow his most important work to be published until after his death.  Many early Internet pioneers have been inspired by his ideas and called him “the Patron Saint of the Internet.”

The ICA:  Nourishing Collective Purpose and Intelligence

The ICA was created as the secular consulting arm of The Ecumenical Institute, which in turn was an ecumenical religious organization created in the early 1960s as an intentional community and a religious order of families.  It began from purely Christian roots, but as it spread across the world it expanded to include members of many different faiths.

The commitment of both the ICA and the EI was to enhance human development, in all its urgencies, from bringing individuals and families out of poverty, to creating more effective and humane communities, organizations, and governments.  Their special focus and gift was early creation of methods of group thinking, planning, and organizing.

Because they lived together in community, they developed and perfected their methods in their own planning and collaborations; which they then applied in their surrounding neighborhoods, which were often high-poverty, low-education neighborhoods.  They thus taught their methods to local people so that formerly “disempowered” people could take charge of fulfilling the needs of their own communities.  The ICA then took these same methods and applied them to the planning and collaboration needs of corporations, non-profits, and governments, of all sizes and levels of affluence and sophistication, and in many, wildly different parts of the world.  The ICA and its members also played a major founding role in establishing the International Association of Facilitators.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi:   Transcendental Consciousness is the Source of our Intelligence and Creativity.   

From Maharishi I received the idea — and direct experience in meditation — that the source of my own consciousness is unbounded Pure Consciousness, and is also the source of all energy, intelligence, and love in the universe.

Maharishi did not invent this idea.  It can be found in great traditions, religions, and philosophies dating back to humanity’s earliest history, and up to the present.

Transcendental Consciousness is what we discover when the mind is completely settled and quiet, and yet wide awake and alert.   It is also called Pure Consciousness or Pure Awareness because it is only Awareness.  In contrast, our ordinary experience of our own mind is to be aware of something – such as a thought, perception, or feeling.  Unlike ordinary thinking, Pure Awareness is Awareness by itself, without something to be aware of.

Pure Consciousness has been described as Brahman in the Upanishadic and Yogic traditions of India, as the Tao in Chinese philosophy, as the field of perfect Enlightenment or Nirvana, or Samadhi, or the mere luminosity of the mind by Buddhism, and as the Universal Love of God by both traditional and mystical branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

However, this important idea is not simply a philosophical idea, nor just a pleasant, blissful experience.  There is now a considerable and growing body of scientific evidence that verifies that regular experience of transcending – Transcendental Consciousness –  represents a fourth major state of consciousness which has significant long-lasting effects related to increasing individual intelligence, good health, and personal and social fulfillment.

Maharishi’s great contribution was to show that anyone with a human nervous system – anyone capable of thinking – can learn to transcend regularly.   And equally important, that Transcending is actually the easiest and most effortless thing that anyone can do.  (During transcending, the mind is awake but silent, thus to achieve a state of no exertion, no effort is required.)

In contrast, hundreds of years of misinterpretations within many spiritual traditions have taught the opposite:  That learning to transcend requires rigorous concentration and long effort before results begin to occur.

Maharishi taught that transcending is effortless by clear explanation, references to ancient texts, and, most importantly, by systematizing the teaching and training tens of thousands of teachers, and through them, training many millions of people how to meditate and transcend, effortlessly, simply.   He also emphasized, very early, the importance of scientific verification of the effects of TM on the human body and mind, and the benefits of regular practice.

(There are many valuable types of meditation and other spiritual practices.   Different practices have different purposes and effects, so no single practice is “best.”  TM is especially easy for anyone to learn, and especially effective for regular transcending and the striking benefits that come from that.)

Combining Influences

So how do these three early influences fit together?

Teilhard’s ideas, which have inspired so many, remind me that Collective Consciousness is possible, and is in fact humanity’s destiny.   Teilhard took great joy from the simple understanding that the Earth is round, which means that humanity is destined to keep bumping into itself, and interacting with itself, more and more as we have kept filling the globe; and as we do, we continue to create new media, including communications technology and social media for thinking together.

Teilhard’s ideas remind me that the Whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and, that the Whole is contained in the parts.   As both individuals and as communities, groups, organizations, and networks, our greatest inspiration comes from sharing and expressing Care for the Whole.

The ICA, and the many methods of group facilitation that they and many others have created, give me hope plus practical and effective tools that can be used to bring about collective intelligence, and higher levels of collective consciousness.   When we’re unhappy or threatened, there are other and better ways to interact than striking at each other with weapons or insults.   We can learn to communicate more effectively together; and we can learn how to use diversity of perspectives as a means for creating common solutions, rather than as reasons for hostility and deeper fragmentation.

Maharishi, and my experience in practicing and teaching TM show me that simply sitting quietly and transcending a few minutes at a time can bring us sorely needed peace, relief from stress and fatigue, and greater levels of health, creativity and personal fulfillment.  What do we now need more than greater access to our own creativity and intelligence?  Transcending is also a remedy for the social fragmentation caused by having small, combative egos.   To learn to engage in true dialogue and collaboration, ultimately we have to learn to transcend the limits of our individual and collective egos.

These three big ideas are to me the “trim tabs” (a la Bucky Fuller) that can replace brute force with greater intelligence to solve our personal, local, and global problems.

Human society is increasingly in danger due to the fact that our ‘hard’ technologies are now powerful enough to not only destroy the basis of life on our planet, but also powerful enough to give greater and greater control of human affairs to a smaller and smaller portion of the world’s population.   This is why ‘soft’ technologies – such as group facilitation methods, social media, and technologies of expanding consciousness – are now so important.

These three influences and their ideas continue to be central to my thinking, work, and ideas for the future.  They are very different from each other, but extremely complementary; and in fact I believe that their basic messages and tools are all needed for accelerating the development of human consciousness and the fulfillment of our potential as individuals and societies.


4 Responses to “A Long Affair with Three Big Ideas about Collective Consciousness”

  1. 1 Art Anderson January 17, 2013 at 4:26 pm


    Thank you. This is powerful, insightful, and so well written. I’ve posted it to my Facebook wall.


  2. 2 Craig B January 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Well said! The world is my family.

  3. 3 Cindy Johnson-Boka February 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm


    Your ideas, as well as the ways you expressed them, are fascinating and compelling.I loved the autobio aspects, and would encourage you to do more of this kind of thing — integrating stories and anecdotes into your expositions. You did a most impressive job of explaining things in a way that is both pithy (ie condensed) and making abstract ideas very understandable. Keep writing and sharing, please! I could see a whole book of your ideas, interwoven with your life. This piece is significant and should be shared around, through whatever networks you — we! –have.

    Thank you,

  1. 1 wild goose research | Annotary Trackback on August 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm

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