Toward a Humanities of Global Consciousness

by Andrew Neuendorf

During his interview series with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell predicts that humanity will eventually form a “society of the planet” once we realize that the divisions between people are arbitrary and illusory:

“When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.”

Campbell’s vision seems incompatible with the content of international news: terrorism, xenophobia, fundamentalism, repressive regimes, corporate greed, and environmental degradation. Such problems suggest that Campbell’s dream of a united world is not remotely imminent. However, from another perspective, the horrors of the daily headlines might be leading indicators of the early stages of an emerging global consciousness, a period of conflict and stress that will stimulate cultural evolution.

If, to select one horrific example, the ice caps melt and coastal waters displace millions of people, all of humanity would be forced into the same boat. With this would come the creation of new narratives.

But why wait? Scholars and educators should begin working toward a Humanities of Global or Planetary Consciousness.

Before creating a meaningful course description or scheduling one iota of content, we should stop and contemplate a strange question: “What is the mythology of Earth?” Notice, this question does not ask, “What are the mythologies of people on Earth?” or “What are some mythologies that discuss the earth?” Here, I actually mean to ask, “If you suddenly woke up as the planet Earth, aware of your own planetary consciousness, which stories might you tell to express your condition?”

This question is actually the opposite of anthropomorphism. Instead of projecting human characteristics onto an inanimate glob of water, rock, and gas, we should imagine the earth using human consciousness as a conduit. We possess the capacity for language not simply to express human-centric concerns, but to serve as the voice for the planet. The earth has a story to tell through us. Our language is the skin of the drum.

To paraphrase a legendary (and perhaps non-historical) speech by Chief Seattle, we belong to the earth, not the other way around. And when we truly speak from a place of depth and wholeness, our voices are not ultimately our own.

In order to begin this discussion, I will suggest three core concepts around which Humanities courses and programs could be structured. This is not, of course, an exhaustive list, but the beginning of a conversation:

1) Studies of multiple cultures should emphasize the search for archetypal patterns.

Humanities departments have generally done a good job of expanding study beyond the traditional patriarchal Western canon and including multiple cultures and ethnicities. World Literature and African-American Literature courses, to take two examples, seem to be as widespread as British Literature, the previous standard bearer. However, we should push beyond merely surveying a range of perspectives and begin exploring something akin to Aldous Huxley’s noble (but flawed) perennial philosophy. The goal is certainly not to implement some generic global religion, nor to erase cultural differences, but to strive toward an understanding of a planetary mythos, a unitive and inclusive connective tissue comprised of literature, spiritual writing, and mythology.

Campbell’s models of the Monomyth and Hero’s Journey would be valuable course material, as would such comprehensive theorists as Aurobindo, Ken Wilber, Huston Smith, Carol Gilligan, and others. This is also where an understanding of astrobiology and evolution could be incorporated. Though we’re discussing Humanities, much science writing (Paul Davies, Lynn Margulis, and Carl Sagan, for example) tilts toward the mythopoetic and strives to create stories concerning ultimate human meaning.

Finally, instead of presenting the “museum model” of literature where writers are confined within their exhibits, they should be grouped together thematically with an emphasis on depth of vision, regardless of geography or time period, allowing Emily Dickinson to chat with Chuang Tzu. Naturally, poets and writers with mystical orientations can be helpful in painting holistic pictures, and, in particular, poets in the sacred feminine tradition should be promoted, both as a corrective to male-dominated anthologies, and as a recognition of the essential feminine perspective needed to reclaim care of the planet.  Jane Hirshfield’s anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred would be a good starting point here.

2) Mythopoetic language must be read, written, and performed in order for mythology to be truly understood.

First, let’s discourage textbooks filled with prose translations of such works as Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Ramayana. These works need to be presented in their original poetic forms. Our everyday lives are prosaic; let’s make room for more poetry. Furthermore, mythology was never intended to be read silently in a library or on the train. Classes must recite, perform, sing, and dance their way through assigned readings. If rites and rituals no longer exist on record, they must be created and enacted. Myth provides the opportunity for communities to get together for celebration, healing, mystery, and revery. Lecture halls should be turned into temples for the performing of ancient, modern,and post-modern myths.

The best model I can recommend is the Navajo Night Chant, a nine-day ceremony for song, dance, and the healing of the soul. It was recorded and translated by Washington Matthews, but until then existed in oral tradition. I’m not sure if such a performance by outsiders would be deemed offensive, but a similar ritual text could be created and performed by a class, and perhaps opened up to the community, in order to begin creating the new myths of our planet. Burning Man is probably some kind of attempt at this.

3) Mindfulness training should be as much of a requirement as math class.

It might be impossible to understand what the planet is thinking without engaging deeply and routinely in mindfulness. The beginning approach is the cultivation of what Shunryu Suzuki called “the meadow mind,” a wide open space that provides a container of awareness for whatever arises. Mindfulness allows multiple and contradictory worldviews to emerge in a mental field of vision without judgment or attempts to reconcile them. This is particularly helpful when the tendency might be to dismiss cultures or choose favorites. If the goal is to recognize a global fugue (to borrow a word William Irwin Thompson uses to describe myth) of mythology, literature, and religion, students must practice seeing and holding attention on whatever might present itself during study. (Certainly, with time, discernment, labeling, and the construction of hierarchies/holarchies is necessary. I’m not certain about this, but I suspect all human ideas are not created equally.)

Earth, no doubt, is constantly practicing mindfulness itself. It lets everything arise exactly as it is. As Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginners’s Mind, “If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind.  Let them come, and let them go.  Then they will be under control.” Mindfulness has uncountable benefits, but one side effect is the wide-open acceptance required to glimpse the big picture.

I invite any and all with interest in expanding the field of Humanities to begin working on this project. I have offered a few suggestions. Perhaps these practices are already taking place in mainstream and “alternative” institutions. It seems likely, if nothing else, that the inclination to move in this direction is alive and present.