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Guest Essay:

Fuller Being, Closer Union:
Relationship and Imagination as the Key to Health

by K. Lauren de Boer

From EarthLight Issue #37
Spring, 2000

A deeper communion with the other-than-human is not some idle wish or intellectual abstraction; it's at the very core of the healing we seek. The human imagination has its biological roots in, and is empowered through, relationship with the web of life.

Gratitude to Dr. Brian Swimme for the inspiration for this article.

There are those who argue that perhaps we are no longer just another species on Earth, but that the human is poised for some kind of ontological and evolutionary leap to another kind of being.  "Extinction is inevitable," is the idea that accompanies this worldview, "we must mourn the loss of species and move on to our greater destiny."

     I find this concept of the "supra-human" not only disturbing, but sad.  There is in it a presumption that we can somehow be more even while impoverished of the communion with other species.  It reveals a denial of our origins and a lack of gratitude for the legacy of gifts bestowed on us by our evolutionary past.  But mostly, in addition to the grief we feel for lost companions on planet Earth, it's a rather sterile and uninteresting way of viewing the future.

     To believe we are a species predestined to become something greater and that this is independent of our relationship to, say, Elephant, aids and abets the extinction of elephants.  It does so because we won't develop the will, the compassion, nor will we dedicate our psychic energies toward creating, or allowing, the conditions for them to survive.

     I believe this attitude is an application of two primary Humanist and Enlightenment ideals to our current situation: the enthronement of reason resulting in an over-secularization of our culture, and the drive toward attainment of a universal human-centered civilization.  Given that our "situation" is the 6th Great Extinction on planet Earth, brought about by human hands, the continuation of these ideals is not only disastrous, but an ineffective strategy for defining ourselves as human beings.  If we truly are destined to make some kind of leap to a supra-human state, it is more likely to come through our interaction with other species, not from our independence from them.

     One source for creating a more effective strategy in the healing century might be found in Teilhard de Chardin's idea that "fuller being is closer union." This essay explores that idea.

Relationship and the Here and Now. Our usual experience of relationship is that it is always of the present.  It is more difficult to imagine our connections to the past or to future generations.  And yet, while imagination may conceive of a future, it is empowered by relationship.  The two are powerfully intertwined.  Imagination allows us to develop intention about where we're headed; relationship reminds us that we are not headed there alone.

     Speculation about where the human may end up, without acknowledging where we have been, betrays what is valuable in the present. The Quaker admonition "what canst thou say?" contains the wisdom that we speak truth most powerfully when we speak from experience. We can speak about our experience of being in deep relationship. We can't testify to the foundation in reality of leaps into other states of being, even if we are able to imagine them.

Imagination and Shifting Worldviews.  A meaningful illustration of the creative interaction of the imagination and relationship comes to us from writer Deena Metzger. Metzger wrote an essay, "Speaking with Elephants," in EarthLight (issue #34) in which she related the story of a remarkable interspecies communication from elephants in Zimbabwe in December of 1998.

     Not long after the article was published, Metzger read this news bulletin in the December 16, 1999 Los Angeles Times: "Herds of wild elephants in the northeastern Indian state of Assam are disrupting military maneuvers by taking shelter in the Tezpur military airfield, where they forage at the edge of the runway.  The United News of India reported that more than 150 pachyderms have crippled the strategic night sorties of  the Indian Air Force."

        In an effort to bring the issue to the attention of authorities, she wrote the following in a letter to a concerned party in Assam, India: "Can we imagine that the elephants are exercising intent...and it has become the fate and responsibility of the animals to interfere with, to stop human violence? I am concerned, deeply, about the fate of the elephants. Governments who wage war against people are as likely to wage war against animals. Yet, there is something profound here that calls us to re-imagine the world we live in, the ways we are devastating human and animal populations, the entire Earth, actually. I write to you on behalf of the elephants, that we not see them as nuisances but rather as messengers at this critical time in human history."

     Metzger has struck at the core of the meaning of relationship and imagination.  Embracing the depth of relationship she is describing requires us to engage an act of the human imagination that could well require a transformation as significant as the shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican worldview.  Perceiving this level of relationship, this more intimate depth of bonding, could not have happened if the human had not first grown in the capacity to perceive the Universe as an unfolding story, a narrative sequence of transformation.[1]  This insight allows us to see our connectedness to the other-than-human in both space and time.  Thus, we can develop an appreciation for the evolutionary past and a concern for the unborn.

     If we believe that the extinction of Elephant is inevitable and thus something we must simply accept, we close ourselves off to rich possibilities, in this case the idea that elephants are sending us an interspecies message about militarism and violence.

     As I was at work on this issue of EarthLight, I received daily visitations from honeybees, who flew through an open window near my desk.  One day, as I was editing the essay by beekeeper Ron Breland, a bee lit on my hand.  I could have perceived this as a nuisance.  However, thinking of it as a message from the pollinators that perhaps they are pleased to have their story told puts me in closer union with their spirit and plight.  It opens me up to fuller being.

Zest for Being: the Drive Toward Health.  In February of this year, I attended a weekend retreat with mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme. The subject was "The Cosmology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin."  The experience allowed me to see, in an entirely different way, just how crucial relationship is to the ongoing creativity of the cosmos.

     "The act of relationship is also the act of self-actualization," Swimme stated, "They happen simultaneously.  That's Teilhard's deep insight... A summary of Teilhard's thought," Swimme continued, "can be found in his phrase, 'fuller being is closer union.'"  Since that weekend, this phrase has been going through my mind as I considered what might be required for healing in this century.  What is it, I asked, that will not only mend our illusion of separateness, but also keep the human from becoming a "burnt out strand" (Swimme) in the evolutionary story?

     "Fuller being is closer union" refers to the affinity of being for being.  "This affinity for greater intimacy," points out Swimme, "results in greater complexification in evolution."  He gives the very basic example of atoms which are initially repelled but ultimately cannot resist being joined together "by what is deepest in themselves."  Swimme quotes Teilhard: "Is not the moment when two lovers say they are lost in each other the moment when they come into the most complete possession of themselves?" [2]  We have all these dormant affinities, Swimme adds, "We're profoundly drawn toward communion.  And yet there are also all these tensions."

     I believe that the drive toward health today finds its energy in our most deeply felt spiritual urges, and that the longing for authentic and sacred relationship with each other, animals, and Nature is the primary source of  that energy.  Relationship energizes what Swimme points out as Teilhard's understanding of the primary spiritual challenge of our times: "the evocation of zest."  Quoting Teilhard again, he defines zest as "the spiritual disposition, at once intellectual and affective, by virtue of which the Earth and action seem to us luminous, interesting, fascinating."   The zest for living, adds Swimme, is the energy which impels evolution along its axis of complexity.

     Teilhard believed the human to be at the center of the Universe, states Swimme. What appears to be anthropocentrism in Teilhard's thinking is actually a way of claiming our creative role in evolution: "We're the center of the construction taking place in the known Universe. If you don't see that, you don't have a chance of really contacting reality. So much of  Teilhard's work is trying to convince us that we are actually at the center of creativity."

     "My own position," continues Swimme, "is that every place in the Universe is a center, but also that every species that's here is evolving and is central in some way.  Given all of that, there is a way in which the human is central in a way that other species are not.  "As humans, now, we have a different challenge from the bacteria, or the antelope, or the whales," Swimme says, "Our challenge is the feeding and development of zest.  To some degree, this is our responsibility.  Teilhard's insight is that the primary orientation of the religious enterprise is this work... The fundamental task of the Ecozoic age is to cherish, protect, and amplify one's zest for life.  This could be called the newest science. But more traditionally, this is the evolutionary role of religions."

     Swimme ends with an arresting statement from Teilhard: "The religions of our time will be sifted out according to their failure or success at meeting this challenge." [3]

A Subject is a Subject through Other Subjects. There is a word rooted in South African culture which could just as well have come straight out of the notebooks of Teilhard. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes that ubuntu* means: "A person is a person through other persons... It is the opposite of 'I think, therefore I am.' Ubuntu means that my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours," he explains.[4] Alan Clements of WorldDharma,** reflecting on the potential in the word ubuntu, writes, "There are over six billion of us now on Earth.  Understanding ubuntu (conscientious relationship to ourselves and others) is the essence of a spiritual life.  The world is the setting of our spiritual dance; the planet, our monastery; events and people, our guides and teachers.  The varied faces of life and our daily encounters become our vehicle for liberation.  Every situation and every person we relate with can become the seed for ubuntu -- the goodness within becoming more alive, ever expanding into a greater depth of being.  In a singular and solitary sense, individual meditation practice is an avenue into the heart, and into ubuntu. In a more expansive sense, ubuntu, or "true meditation" embraces everything, every moment of our existence.  Our awareness delivers us to the moment.  Relationships are the medium for transformation.  It's all inextricably interrelated.  We are not separate from life."[5]

     This passage seems reasonably inclusive at first glance.  However, here is a further challenge: Can we move from the idea of personhood as exclusively human?  "Events and people" are our "guides and teachers," but what of animals and Nature as spiritual guides?  Can we make the shift into the thinking Thomas Berry exhorts us to, that the Universe is not a "collection of objects," but a "communion of subjects?"[6]   In other words, going beyond notions of human personhood, can we reshape the meaning of ubuntu into "a subject is a subject through other subjects?" 

     With each species that goes extinct, we are further impoverished in our ability to imagine the future.  Thus, to say we are evolving beyond being a species is to ignore the very origin and nature of the imagination and to deny the primacy of relationship to our self-determination as humans.  The growing of a deepened sensitivity to the inner life of other species enhances our own creative capabilities-we reinvent ourselves through the Other.  This is our biological heritage as evolutionary beings, and an antidote to Enlightenment ideals which have become destructive and obsolete on a planet with six billion human souls.

     Our zest for relationship and our willingness to imagine things anew can be among our most powerful allies in healing for this century.  The creative synergy of the two is the future.  May we honor both.  May we be zestful with all our relations!

* Thanks to EarthLight reader Roger Davies for forwarding this information.
** WorldDharma is a non-denominational, non-sectarian dedicated to the inner and outer worlds through art service and activism.

K. Lauren de Boer is a writer, poet, and EarthLight's editor. He has been a
student of the new cosmology for twelve years.

1.  The Universe Story, Thomas Berry & Brian Swimme, Harper, 1992.

2.  The Human Phenomenon, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, translated by Sarah
Appleton-Weber, Sussex Academic Press, 1999.

3. "The Cosmology of Teilhard de Chardin," lecture by Brian Swimme, Santa
Sabina Center, San Rafael, Calif., February, 2000.

4.  No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Doubleday, 1999.

5. "Manifesting 'Ubuntu' as Spirit in Action," Alan Clements,
inter-religious email conference, WorldDharma, 1999.

6.  The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Thomas Berry, Bell Tower, 1999.

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