"At the edge of consciousness, there are no explanations; there are only invocations of myth."
William Irwin Thompson is one of the early pioneers of the global consciousness movement. Over the past 40 years, he has written over 20 books (including poetry and fiction) and collaborated with scientists, mystics and scholars from around the world through his Lindisfarne Association (1).
Originally founded as an intentional community like Esalen or Findhorn, Lindisfarne (2) became an integral fellowship of scientists, artists and scholars articulating an emerging planetary human society (more on that later). Among the fellowship were well-known scientists such as James Lovelock, Gregory Bateson, Francisco Varela, Zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi, and the esteemed American poet, Wendell Berry.
When putting together this article, I wasn't sure how to sum up Thompson's work. What is he all about, really? Surely not the "grand summarizer" as the philosopher Ken Wilber is described. The first word I thought of is: imagination. Everything starts from there. From his poetry to his "mind jazz" on ancient texts, Thompson's great strength is his ability to utilize the imagination not to summarize, but to weave a holistic vision in just a few lines. His work jump from past, to present, to future, not to mention a number of different world mythologies, then somehow brings it all together in an evolutionary vision. He is a poet-scholar, not afraid to bring his imagination into the work.
I first stumbled into his work by recommendation from a friend. After a long and philosophical conversation with a friend on Skype, he asked:
“So, have you read Bill Thompson?”
“No, what’s he all about?”
He sends me the wiki page, “Just take a look. You’re gonna love his work.”
The first book I picked up was Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. It turns out that I did end up loving his work. The style was rich, but easy and flowing. Sometimes, I had to re-read a sentence in order to soak up the different things it was saying all at once. But the most interesting thing about it was how Thompson drew connections between human evolution and ancient mythology, which existed long before Darwin but seemed to be telling a similar tale. This is something I am vying for in my own work: bridging the worlds of myth and science. You can make a lifetime’s study out of each, alone. Trying to weave them together like the caduceus is an even more challenging endeavor, especially when each dismisses the other. I, for one, believe they are more like two hemispheres of the brain that need to learn to talk to one another.
So here’s how Thompson weaves toward the cosmic caduceus.
The Ramayana tells the story of how Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, defeats Ravana, the lord of the demons and kicks him back to the underworld. Ravana is a powerful deity, so powerful in fact that he manages to gain dominion over both Heaven and Hell.
Vishnu (God) is not happy with this at all and comes up with a plan to solve this dilemma. He descends into the material world and is born as Rama. His female counterpart is born as Sita. When the demon lord Ravana discovers Sita, he captures her and takes her to his magical island, Lanka, where she becomes his prisoner. What is interesting about this is that Sita, the woman, represents the feminine side of humanity that can be caught by the astral plane. Sensitive or psychic men and women can sometimes get entangled in all sorts of spiritual forces and entities; both good and bad. A quick glance through the New Age section of a book store will give you a good overview of what that looks like.
Like Osiris trapped in the underworld, Rama is going to need some help. While Isis was the means for Osiris to be resurrected (at least partially), Jambavan, the lord of the bears, and Hanuman, the clever monkey, will come to Rama’s aid. Now what’s interesting about this pair is that they are two mammals. Mammals breast feed their young and have a powerful olfactory sense. Scent, taste and touch (of the breasts in children, and love-making in adults) make up the most important characteristics of what it means to be human. That is, to love. If we aren’t raised with love and affection we are in danger of becoming more like the demonic armies of Ravana, and some of us do end up like that in gangs and impoverished areas of the world where violence is a plague.
Jambavan and Hanuman construct a bridge of monkeys for Rama to cross the sea and reach the magical island. He defeats Ravana and chases him and his demons back to the realms from whence they came. Rama is able to stabilize the physical world from the grip of demonic forces. In other words, a Middle Earth is established to mediate between heaven and hell. This is done with the help of mammals, monkeys, and humans. If we are to interpret this text esoterically, we might say it is telling us about the process of physical incarnation. It is about building a body and stabilizing it, pulling it from the grip of the strange astral world of demons and other entities and waking up to a physical world. Incarnation is made possible by the evolutionary bridge of mammals and monkeys (to be accurate, primates), and Rama crossed that bridge to stabilize the realm of Middle Earth.
This text may be as old as the 5th or 4th century BC, yet there are clearly some allegories for the evolutionary process. Admittedly, it is a play of both mysticism and biology, as many myths tend to be. What is it about myth, or the imagination, that can do this? Marshall McLuhan believed that the artist of any culture is able to compress vast epochs and historical processes into singular stories. Perhaps it is even more true of myth, which compresses not only our biological story, but our spiritual story. As Thompson also says, “myth is the history of the soul.”
So how might a story like this apply today? Pause for a moment and look around you. If you’re like me, you might be surrounded by a cornucopia of gadgets, including your own computer screen. There are radio waves in the air and 3G networks abound; all of this technology serving to both enhance and weaken the body’s boundaries. The astral planes have returned, this time in the digital form of the world-wide-web. It’s no coincidence that there are online “trolls.” So in this day in age, Ravana has returned with his army of demons.
The collective unconscious has re-opened to us at this stage of human evolution. But for what reason? We might want to turn to modern forms of myth to understand that: our comic books, video games, television shows and movies. In all of our stories we are trying to reconcile the age of the machine. Think of the Borg from Star Trek, the Matrix, or Blade Runner. The most interesting story, to me, was told by the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The show wrestled with themes of love, reproduction, and mystical evolution between machines and humans. These stories are trying to answer the questions: who are we, where are we going, where did we come from, and more poignantly--what’s happening to us?
More on that later. First, a quick detour to the past.
An Ecology of Consciousness
Lindisfarne Chapel in Crestone Colorado
A professor of the humanities at MIT, Thompson felt the call of the visionary zeitgeist of the 70's, so he left the technocratic atmosphere of MIT and headed for Toronto. It was during this time that he published a NY Times best-seller, At the Edge of History, and spent some time meeting Alan Watts and Michael Murphy at Esalen (3).
After traveling the world and visiting places like Findhorn and Auroville (4), he published a second book: Passages About Earth. He was taken with the idea of founding his own intentional community, and so in the 70's he left traditional academia for good and founded the Lindisfarne Association. Thompson was trying to articulate the emerging post-industrial society.
During the 1960's and 70's, there was a felt sense that the world was changing and that Western civilization was coming to an end. Like a wave that had reached its trough, the West was now receding as a new world-wave was about to emerge. Even Jean Gebser, who passed away in 73, believed that the world was at the cusp of a new consciousness. So it was in this exciting time that many counter-culture and New Age organizations were founded, trying to describe this emerging planetary culture that was beyond the industrial and materialistic society exemplified so well by MIT. The majority of Thompson's books in the 70's look critically at Western civilization, but go beyond the postmodern critique by trying to envision a future where mysticism and contemplative science returns to the center of human culture:
"History is not a line but a dial. If you stand at the center of the dial and face toward six o'clock, you have to turn your back on midnight. At midnight is the music, mathematics, and spirituality of the science of Pythagoras, a science we no longer understand; at six o'clock is the industrial technology in which we live. But now as the hand sweeps around, it is growing later and later, and once again we are having to face our opposite to look toward dark midnight. Each technology activates certain human possibilities and pays the price for ignoring their opposites, which is another way of saying that the unique excellent and tragic flaw are inseparable."
For Thompson, history moves more like a spiral than a line. Inspired by Giambattista Vico's The New Science, he posited that we are currently at the tail-end of a cycle, with ancient mysticism about to return in novel ways. Science and mysticism are complimentary polarities of history, and two opposite but necessary modes of knowing the world. It is precisely this mythopoeic imagination that Thompson attempts to recover through his work, and through Lindisfarne where poets and scientists enter a dialogue together.
In the 1980's, Lindisfarne shifted away from the humanities and began to hang out with scientists. Enter James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis and Francisco Varela. Thompson culminated his work in the 70's by a new book in 81. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light is a fascinating synthesis of science, mythology, mysticism, evolution and sexuality. I'd recommend this book to be read alongside Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.(5)
Hanging around the scientists significantly shifted Thompson's imagination to pay more attention to biology, so it was during this time that he began to be influenced by Varela's work on autopoiesis and James Lovelock's Gaia theory. His vision shifted from archetypes to ecology, and just as Gaia theory sees Earth has a series of inter-related systems which form a whole, his theory on the evolution of consciousness follows a series of cultural ecologies. These ecologies are inter-related: both cultural and geographic, mystical and economic:
Each of these cultural ecologies is related to a state of consciousness and a mathematical system. Here, Thompson is influenced by Jean Gebser and his friend and colleague, mathematician Ralph Abraham.
Thompson asserts that after each era there comes a dark age. Like punctuated equilibrium in biology, there is first a death before life bounces back. In history, there have been many dark ages: the Mesolithic, Kurgan, Aegean, and the well known European. Time moves like breath in expansion and contraction, not necessarily like clocks in our offices and time-line arrows in our textbooks. Before we enter a planetary, or integral age, do we have to fall into another era of darkness? More on that later.
Just what makes up a "culture?" Especially a "planetary culture" as Thompson often uses. Civilization is too narrow a term, because it describes a specific kind of human society based upon agriculture and industry, with a center (city) and a periphery (agricultural, rural lands where resources are collected). Whatever human societies are transitioning into, it is not civilization. To invoke Daniel Quinn into this discussion, we are going beyond civilization.
Thompson defines a culture similar to an ecology: a multitude of interdependent languages, beliefs, religions which together create the whole culture. Culture is not homogenous or uniform. It's an ecosystem of people. So a planetary culture is synonymous with a world ecology. In his vision of the future, human societies will learn to function much like Gaia (part of Gaia, even). Although there are deserts and rain forests, oceans and tundras, lizards and lions, on the whole Earth functions as a self-regulating system.
Cultural isolation is becoming more difficult in our age of interconnection. More important now than ever is understanding how to co-exist in an ecology of different cultures, values and forms of consciousness. This view of the world extends not only to different ethnicities and nations but also for the biosphere as a whole. The implications of this ecology of consciousness has been picked up and utilized by different people. For example, see this video.
Both Thompson and the mathematician Ralph Abraham have worked in the past decade with the Ross School, serving as curriculum advisors for the private and charter schools. History is learned as an emergent spiral, and students learn about world history rather than just local. They learn cuneiform and understand the inter-relatedness of all cultures. For instance, the exchange of mathematics and philosophy which Islamic civilization had with Medieval Europe made Western civilization possible. Students learn about the interdependent relationship of culture as an evolutionary and ecological process.
On the left: the Great Mother from CatalHuyuk. To the right, a seated Maitreya, whose legs are crossed and form the shape of a vulva.
In 1994, Thompson published the culmination of his work with Lindisfarne in the 80's: Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. Throughout his work, he has never ceased to utilize the "power of myth" to open new understandings in science. By this point, Thompson had been working with Abraham, so his work now includes chaos theory terms like bifurcation, and begins with a riff on consciousness beginning with the cell.
If you ever crack open Ever-Present Origin, you'll notice Jean Gebser pays special attention to the symbols and cultural "artifacts" and "texts," be they paintings, statues, poems or the myths themselves. You'll find the same careful attention to art and culture in Thompson's books. Expect a fascinating journey through the evolution of consciousness through an interplay of science, myth, art and imagination. This is a much needed and balancing alternative to other theorists who focus on consciousness from a strictly psychological (transpersonal or otherwise) and developmental perspective.
Thompson coined a special term for his approach to writing: wissenkunst, or knowledge-art. The converging of both sharp analytic scholarship and a playful, creative, and often stream-of-consciousness writing style.
While not always in the public light, Thompson has inspired authors like Leonard Shlain (The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), John David Ebert (Celluloid Heroes and Mechanical Dragons), and even Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: the Return of Quetzalcoatl) (6). His latest book is Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture (see more at Integral-Options).
The crisis of our age is not simply external. It’s a shift of orientation, and a sudden shift can be disorienting. Back to the question of a dark age. Do we have to go through one? I’ve dabbled in some of the interesting theories that state that time is speeding up, and evolution is accelerating. I’m not sure about the science behind such theories, but our world is certainly becoming more complex. It wouldn’t surprise me if the rate of change and transformation is becoming more and more simultaneous. Empires rise and fall in a generation. Technology changes the landscape of the world in a decade. Things happen fast. A dark age and a cultural transformation could happen simultaneously, and in my opinion, it does.
The dark age of our time is one of digital and T.V. serfs, as Thompson notes. We don’t read or think for ourselves in a consumer, capitalist culture. We receive our feed and march off to work or escapist entertainment. But this is changing, and drastically.
We aren’t going back to the age of literacy. In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, he bemoans the fact that we are losing the introspective, subtle and carefully reasoned consciousness that book culture created for us. We think quickly, dynamically, and most of all, shallowly. We read, sure, but scan images and symbols quickly. Our attention is no longer sustained on a single object. For someone from a print culture, this is a terrible thing. A veritable cultural extinction. In its place, the world wide web is engulfing the globe. Digital technologies are consuming the world like an electronic Ouroboros. But does this mean that we are entering an age of stupidity and shallow thinking? This, I think, is highly unlikely.
We are also, simultaneously, witnessing the rise of a post-literary culture that is far more participatory and decentralized than anything that has come before in civilization. A few days ago, I spent an intense period of time online. Then it was time to read. I noticed something about that moment. It was hard to put down the laptop and open the book. Why? Because the book didn’t interact with me. As Clay Shirky asks in his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: where’s the mouse? My mind is being trained to interact with my mediums. I want them alive, moving, tweeting, and shifting along with me. A book, by comparison, is a totally different experience. It’s participatory in a very solitary, introspective way. A kind of trance, even. Our digital gadgets and computers are interacting with us like a musical piece that requires text, icons, sounds and a continuum of online-offline environments (Google Maps, Meetup, Yelp, etc). Who knows what is in store for the future as we design our world to become more participatory, simultaneous, and interconnected. Jean Gebser’s integral consciousness was described as “diaphanous” and “transparent.” The internet age does not guarantee such a consciousness, but it certainly holds the potential for it to become a reality. Let’s hope.
Another important characteristic of Thompson’s work is that he pushes us to consider that reality is more than what our waking, conscious ego can perceive. The worlds unseen (but not unimagined) may exist right behind the veil. These worlds, painted and poeticized by Blake and other romantics, emphasized by the psychedelic communities and even strongly articulated by Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” urge us to consider that we are more than we think. It’s no mistake that as our materialistic culture expands, counter-cultures erupt into the collective and remind us that reality is always and ever more than we believe we have control over. It is this mystery that Thompson reminds us of. Another integral synonym is “wholeness.” Can our emerging paradigms be whole without considering the unconscious, the imagination, and the mystical? The often forgotten and always fringe dimensions of reality.
When we approach the edges of our known universe, and look over the vast stretches of time that is our evolutionary history and our science-fiction future, we participate in myth. In this strange world between the infinite and the finite, the known and unknown, imagination steps down as a halfway house for the ego to participate with the angel, and myth is then a metaphor for the larger reality we are a part of, but cannot see. It's for this reason that the imagination, that strange and unruly dimension of mind, is essential for any scholarship in an age of synthesis and planetary evolution. It is the imagination alone, sometimes in brilliant flashes of light, that can bind together disparate faculties of knowing, and it is the imagination that both science and mysticism share in their own ways. Thompson is a wonderful example of what a play of both dimensions of mind can do when they come together.
"That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth." - Bill Thompson
Thompson currently writes on Thinking Otherwise, a column for Wild River Review.
"Although I used the word as a symbol of a small group of people effecting a transformation from one system to another, the word also brought with it the archetypical associations of a small group of monks holding onto ancient knowledge in a fallen world, a world that would soon overrun them during the Viking terror."
a) The Planetization of the Esoteric
b) The realization of the inner harmony of all the great universal religions and the spiritual traditions of the tribal peoples of the world.
c) The fostering of a new and healthier balance between nature and culture through the research and development of appropriate technologies, architectural settlements and compassionate economies for meta-industrial villages and convivial cities.
d) The illumination of the spiritual foundations of political governance through scholarship and artistic communications that foster a global ecology of consciousness beyond the present ideological systems of warring industrial nation-states, outraged traditional societies, and ravaged lands and seas.
3. Thompson recently admitted to smoking a joint with the esteemed Alan Watts one night at the Esalen bath houses.
4. During the first and only meeting between Thompson and the Mother, he recalls that she exchanged a kind of telepathic “message” with him. On the day of Mirra’s death, Thompson would have an interesting dream in which the Mother asked him to serve Auroville. When he was about to protest (needing to run Lindisfarne and all), she spun him around like a whirling dervish while his third eye sputtered open. Article here.
5. Wilber’s style is highly structured and abstract, sometimes too much so. Thompson, on the other hand, can be less structured and free to improvise around a theme. For a student of consciousness studies like myself, it’s really important to dabble into both. Including both in your reading will hopefully create a more integral and holistic balanced approach.
6. Daniel Pinchbeck has described Thompson in 2012: “one of a small number of original thinkers who not only understands our present impasse but realizes it is not the whole story. Something else is taking place as well— a sidereal movement of consciousness returning us to levels of awareness denied and repressed by the materialist thrust of our current civilization. Essential in this process, according to Thompson, is a change in our understanding of myth. We can change "from a postmodern sensibility in which myth is regarded as an absolute and authoritarian system of discourse to a planetary culture in which myth is regarded as isomorphic, but not identical to scientific narratives."pg. 8 - It’s this isomorphic relationship between myth and science that may be necessary in our age. Before we shut the door on myth, it’s important to consider the role of the imagination in perceiving and understanding reality. Perhaps it is the whole other wing of the Caduceus, of which science is only one necessary half of the spiritual Whole.
A Lecture series by Thompson at the California Institute of Integral Studies:
John David Ebert’s interview with William Irwin Thompson.