Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2009
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
How many of us, staring up into the unfathomable reaches of the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night, have felt a shiver run through us? Who could not feel a shiver of awe – perhaps even of terror – in contemplating his or her puny insignificance against a background of stars? Compared to the immensity of even this visible fragment of the mysterious universe, we are mere specks of dust. And yet… perhaps we are less puny and less separate than we think.
For many people, the idea that human beings – along with earthworms and beech trees and anchovies and millions of other life forms – are simply cells in the living body of our planet would probably be difficult to comprehend. How much harder, then, might it be to know ourselves as minuscule fragments of a living, pulsating, aware universe so vast that it has no known limits?
Yet it makes perfect, logical sense. If it is true that the Earth itself is a living organism, as Lovelock’s theory indicates, then why would our planet, in its turn, not be part of a living universe? Those of us who have learned a little about quantum physics are by now familiar with the holarchic nature of the material universe: the giant set of Russian dolls that goes from electrons to atoms to molecules, to organs to organisms to ecosystems to the planet to the solar system to the galaxy. All are simultaneously parts and wholes, from the greatest to the smallest. And we know that electrons are not the end point of smallness and neither is the Milky Way the end point of largeness. Why should we assume that life is confined to just one segment of this seemingly endless holarchy? Maybe everything is alive. Maybe everything has consciousness.
As to our position on the chain, perhaps we are not as puny as we thought. In this excellent and stimulating book, Elgin points out one of the stunning discoveries of modern science. Which is that: “there is more smallness within us than there is bigness beyond us…The universe reaches into unimaginably minute realms within us. We think of the realm of atoms as small but there is a vast distance from the size of atoms to the truly infinitesimal realms at the foundations of our existence.” The universe, it appears, dissolves at both ends into mystery. With us somewhere in the middle, yearning to understand.
There is mystery in the middle as well; all over, in fact, since a staggering 96% of everything is totally invisible to us. In which case, Elgin says, “..how much of ourselves is invisible and not detectable by material technologies? How far do we extend into the deep ecology of the invisible universe? Because we are an integral part of the universe, a large part of ourselves may well be connected with and operating in these invisible realms. The roots of our being reach deep.”
So where are we? What are we? Who are we? For me, Elgin’s thesis – that the universe itself is alive and aware and evolving – rings true at a visceral as well as an intellectual level. It makes sense to me that those currents of energy I feel in my body are the very same energy out of which everything is formed. I find this concept strangely comforting. It reassures me that far from being a tiny speck in an ocean of mystery I am, in fact, an expression of it, just as an eddy in flowing water is an expression of the river.
One chapter of the book explains how the concept of a living universe can be found at the core of the world’s main wisdom traditions and this, I am sure, will give it extra validity for many. But for me, the most exciting part is the author’s description of three stages in the awakening of consciousness: reflective (self-awareness), oceanic (connectedness) and flow (co-creation).
I am always a little worried by claims that human beings have some special role to play in the great scheme of things because our historical assumption of specialness has led to the worst kind of hubris and to the dreadful damage we have inflicted on our planet. But I cling to the hope that books like this one might be instrumental in bringing about the change in consciousness that will enable us to start mending what we have broken. And this time, maybe, if we do indeed have a special role to play, we shall play it with humility. So may it be.