“A healthy consciousness is like a spider’s web, and you are the spider in the centre. The centre of the web is the present moment. But the meaning of your life depends on those fine threads which stretch away to other times, other places, and the vibrations that come to you along the web… Normally your consciousness is like a very small spider’s web; its threads don’t stretch very far. Other times, other places, are not very real to you… And our lives are turbulent, like living in a strong wind, so the web gets broken pretty frequently. But sometimes the wind drops, and you manage to create an enormous web. And suddenly distant times and distant places become realities, as real as the present moment, sending their vibrations down into your mind.”
~ Colin Wilson[ii]
A person’s state of awareness at any moment has a tremendous influence on how they think, feel, and act. Consider the difference between your narrow frame of mind when someone just cut you off in traffic at the end of a hectic day, and the expansive feeling of connection while lying peacefully under a star-filled sky on a summer night. How would you react if asked to make an important decision under each of these circumstances? Which frame of mind would you prefer your leaders to be in when they make decisions that may impact the future of our civilization and our planet?
Recognizing that perspective matters in making decisions, it’s worth considering ways to cultivate a frame of mind from which wise decisions naturally arise. Two key ideas will be central to our exploration of this issue:
1) The frame of mind we’re after is a direct, internal, felt experience. Intellectual knowledge will help us get into this frame of mind, but knowledge alone is not enough. It’s similar to the way that knowing a great deal about how your brain functions while sleeping will not automatically allow you to fall asleep.
2) We seek methods for cultivating this perspective that are as agenda-free as possible, inclusive of a wide variety of cultural and spiritual traditions.
First we need to consider what it means to make wise decisions in a society with a wide variety of aspirations and points of view.
Wisdom in a Pluralistic Society
As Grassie[iii] and others have pointed out, a defining feature of the modern world is our access to multiple perspectives on any issue. This reality forces us to confront the simple fact that people disagree. Fundamentally, really, disagree. About many things. Trivial things such as which football teams deserve to play in the national championship game. Serious things directly connected to life and death and our ultimate purpose in the cosmos. What are we to do with this fact about the world; that we disagree? Does it divide us or unify us? Perhaps we can find guidance in Max Born’s words, “The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world.” But even the statement that attachment to one truth is the root of all evil is itself an attachment to a belief. How do we resolve this paradox? How are we to handle the variety of views on truth without becoming overwhelmed or paralyzed by indecision, and without killing each other? In particular, how can one lead effectively in a world with so many conflicting perspectives causing disagreement about the direction we should be heading? I think we can make progress by stating the fundamental issue as a question:
What does it mean to fully acknowledge the deep plurality of viewpoints?
By fully acknowledge, I don’t mean just tolerating the existence of views we know in our hearts are wrong. I mean really accepting that perhaps, at a deep level, no one’s view (even our own) fully captures reality. As Stephan Martin expresses it,
“What if the universe is so rich and multivalent that no single tradition, discipline, or individual has the capacity to circumscribe or encompass it fully? Because these diverse perspectives coexist in and arise out of the same universe, then from the universe’s perspective they must each contain some truth to them.” [iv]
The recognition that “truth” is beyond any of the stories we tell to describe our understanding of reality may be the key to reaching a frame of mind from which wise decisions arise. Jeremy Sherman defines wisdom as “the ability to actively embody alternative perspectives on a controversial or ambiguous situation, to conscientiously select the perspective to operate from, and to maintain the capacity to actively embody the alternative perspectives even after having selected.” [v]
To lead well from this perspective means being informed by the variety of stories that humans tell to better understand reality. Yet what ultimately matters is not the particular story we tell but the frame of mind it puts us in—a perspective that transcends stories entirely. It may seem paradoxical to lead from a perspective that transcends stories, since the description of that perspective is itself a story. But the idea is simply to embrace a full awareness of the limits of your own understanding. Aware that, while some stories work better than others in certain contexts, no story fully captures absolute truth. When we fight for a cause we tend to get stuck in the idea that this is the right way to see things in the very deepest sense. If we acknowledge that the stories matter and are part of the unfolding universe, while still also acknowledging that no story we can tell in words is complete and absolute, we can relax a little. We can enjoy working to save the Earth while recognizing that in a deep sense even the need to save it is a story. However it turns out will be okay in a sense that transcends any story we can tell about what that means.
My suggestion is that one way to reach this frame of mind in which we are fully aware of the limits of our own awareness[vi] (a “cosmic perspective”) is through nuggets of insight from science that shock us out of our complacency. I call these insights “glimpses of wonder” to emphasize that they are distinct moments of transformed awareness, windows into this frame of mind. Insights from science have the advantage that they can be brief, self-contained observations that shock you into a cosmic perspective without being heavily story-laden, and in a way that largely transcends cultural variations. And they offer an immediate transformation suitable for the ceremonial opening of a meeting or other important conversation.
Reaching a Cosmic Perspective through Glimpses of Wonder
Next I want to elaborate on what I mean by a cosmic perspective and how glimpses of wonder from science can get us into this perspective. Science is widely valued for enhancing our ability to control the external world through technology. But scientific insights also have the power to trigger a distinct shift in our internal frame of mind in the way we’ve been discussing. For example, consider how it feels to be you at this moment. What thoughts and sensations, worries and hopes, are floating through your awareness?
Now look at the image below, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. It shows Saturn backlit by sunlight that sparkles through the ice particles making up the rings. Look closely near the tip of the arrow I’ve added. What is that tiny dot just inside one of the rings? It’s not a moon of Saturn. It’s Earth. You and I, along with more than seven billion other people and all our thoughts and feelings, not to mention the many other life forms with whom we share our planet.
The transformation of awareness I’m talking about is the transition that happens inside you at the moment you recognize you’re part of that tiny dot. Your thoughts and feelings change. At first you may feel small as you become aware of the tiny physical size of Earth compared to even the solar system, much less our galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars and our universe of at least this many galaxies. Yet the core insight is not about feeling small, but about feeling connected to immensity. Your point of view expands and you see things from a more open and connected state of awareness. This perspective reveals that you are a moment of awareness within one strand of a vast cosmic tapestry.
Many of our difficulties, whether individual, social, or planetary, arise from narrowness of perspective, which disconnects us from a broader context. We forget that no matter what situation we’re in, there is always another way to see things. Expanding our awareness is important because it helps us avoid getting stuck or trapped in one point of view and reconnects us to a broader context that gives meaning to our actions.
Many different windows can serve as glimpses of wonder, portals to this cosmic perspective. They happen when something shocks us into recognizing concretely that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies,” to paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous line. The stories we live within are always incomplete, and there is a deep reality extending far beyond any particular story we can tell.
Astronomical insights do this well—they have high shock value because they transport us to distances far beyond our familiar experience and thus remind us that all we see is not all that is. Big history plays a similar role with time. It reminds us, for example, that if the entire 13.7 billion year history of the universe is represented along our outstretched arms as a timeline, all of human history occupies only a tiny sliver at the tip of one fingernail. But ordinary, everyday observations can be glimpses of wonder as well. A raindrop landing on the tip of your nose—what puddle of water or plant did it evaporate from, and what distant star forged its oxygen atoms in its core? Religious or spiritual practice can play a similar role of transporting us into a cosmic perspective. Science does not hold a monopoly on glimpses of wonder, although it may offer a unifying and cross-cultural perspective well suited to our time.
In each case the window itself doesn’t matter as much as the deep reality it enables us to experience. The cosmic perspective is an embodied awareness that transcends the path by which we get there. Going far away from the familiar may help us reach this state of mind. But it matters because it brings us back to a fuller awareness of our immediate surroundings. We are reminded that among all the wonders in the universe, nothing is more mysterious and amazing than the simple fact that anything at all exists, in this moment. When we can glimpse in our mind’s eye the thread connecting even the most mundane or frustrating everyday experience (such as an illness, broken heart, being stuck in traffic, or a seemingly insolvable conflict between cultures or countries) to the mystery at the heart of reality, our world is transformed. We reach a more centered space from which we seem to be better able to make wise decisions. Imagine if every meeting among world leaders began with a ceremonial exercise to transport participants into a cosmic perspective—an exercise that transcended religious beliefs and cultural practices, like looking at the Cassini photo of Earth as a dot.
Implementing This Perspective for Leadership
What might it look like to lead from a cosmic perspective? We can find some guidance in Benjamin Jowett’s observation that “the way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit.”[vii] Modern political dialog often suffers from the negative version of Jowett’s observation: It’s amazing how difficult it is to accomplish anything when we are focused on who gets the credit or blame for everything.
A cosmic perspective invites us to take ourselves out of the picture and just be observers for a while. We can notice what all is happening without immediately needing to intervene or control it. The astronomical scale helps take our individual selves out of the picture, because we are physically so small and powerless in relation to what we are seeing (e.g. events unfolding at the level of stars, solar systems, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies). Then when we do act we have less tendency to try and control events completely and from a very limited perspective. It’s useful to draw an analogy between the flow of events in the world and the flow of water in a stream. Instead of focusing on a few molecules of water and trying to individually move them around, which is very difficult and ineffective, we can give ourselves the chance to see the overall flow of the eddies and vortices and currents in the stream. Then we can give a small nudge at just the right point to put ourselves (and those whose lives we influence through our leadership roles) into the flow of current that will more naturally get us to where we want to go. It’s easier from this broader perspective to see where the leverage points are to make changes that really help the situation.
It’s challenging to lead in a pluralist society where we disagree on the direction we are going. We have to act knowing that our awareness is always limited and we never see the whole story. But maybe if we accept that, we can go ahead and take action, with enough humility to be able to adjust our course as more of the picture comes into view.
Perhaps it’s naive to think that such a simple change of perspective could make a difference for the complex problems we find ourselves entangled within. But try it for yourself. Notice when your awareness is closed and narrowly focused, and when it is open and expanded like a web whose threads stretch out to distant times and places in the universe. Notice what triggers the shift for you, from small web to large network of consciousness. And notice what happens when you embrace the realization that whatever you create with this moment is a strand within a vast cosmic tapestry that transcends any particular attempt to describe it completely.
[i] Expanded from an essay originally published as a Metanexus blog – http://www.metanexus.net/blog/value-cosmic-perspective, March 26, 2012.
[ii] Colin Wilson, The Philosopher’s Stone (New York: Crown, 1971), p. 87.
[iii] William Grassie, “Conflicting Ideologies and Entangled Narratives,” Huffington Post blog, April 2, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-grassie/conflicting-ideologies-entangled-narratives-and-big-history_b_1381904.html).
[iv] Stephan Martin, Cosmic Conversations (New Jersey: New Page Books, 2009), p. 272.
[v] Jeremy Sherman, “Wisdom: Toward an Objective Definition,” Psychology Today blog, May 23, 2010 (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ambigamy/201005/wisdom-toward-objective-definition).
[vi] Thanks to Anita Harris for a conversation from which this phrase arose.
[vii] Benjamin Jowett, quoted in John Gross, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms.
About the Author
Todd Duncan, PhD, directs the Science Integration Institute and teaches astronomy at Portland Community College. He’s the author of Glimpses of Wonder (2011) and co-author of the college text Your Cosmic Context (2009). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org