A Revolution of Values or Values for the Revolution

It has been said that God (good old divinity) is always whispering in our ears. If we do not hear the voice, it becomes a shout. And if we ignore the shout, we get hit over the head. There is so much din in our ever-accelerating culture that the quiet voice has been all but drowned out. For Job, it required the “voice of the whirlwind” (not the commonly mistranslated “voice in the whirlwind”) to wake him. For many of us, it has required the thundering collapse of the World Trade towers, the angry shout of Katrina, the jack-boot stomp of expanding empire and diminishing liberties or the perfect storm of peak oil, climate change, species extinction and ecological devastation to awaken us from our hypnotic trance, our sleep-walking to the edge of the cliff.

But what we seem to agree upon – those of us seeking a way out of the madness – is that the “old story” no longer supports our deepest needs nor any hope for a sustainable world, that we are in a state of Koyaanisquatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance”. “Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic,” said Thomas Jefferson. “But will they keep it, or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

Gandhi went further in spelling out the “deadly sins” of what we call modern civilization: Politics without Principle, Wealth without Work, Commerce without Morality, Pleasure without Conscience, Education without Character, Science without Humanity, Worship without Sacrifice. When asked by a reporter what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Yet we don’t need to reject, in toto, the long-standing and powerful myths which brought us to this juncture, as many tried to do in the 1960s. Like the First Man, First Woman, and coyote in the creation chants of the Dine (Navajo), we continually recreate a world of dreams and experiences, forging new traditions and history. This new world builds upon but never totally replaces the older worlds and stories.

As Rod McKuen so poignantly put it: “There is no single day or time within the life I’ve so far lived that I’d have changed or altered. Possibly there are some days I could have missed and never missed. But I suspect that I could not have come down to this place a different way, as I suspect that being here I don’t as yet know where I am.”

We don’t know where we are, perhaps, because we’ve built for ourselves a house of mirrors, crafted over centuries from the self-justifying “truths” that we’ve come to believe. Those “truths” may have sustained us for a time, but – as the indigenous people say – if they “no longer grow corn” for us it is time to let them go. It is time to walk through the looking glass.

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, Harold Pinter intoned, “As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false? …But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”

We, as the purveyors of the dominant culture – the old story – both individually and collectively, are in the midst of a great Passage, a transformative moment, a smashing of the mirror. The therapeutic professions have recognized the psychological state of “spiritual emergency” as a unique and valuable transitional process that mimics schizophrenia, but which – if recognized and respected – can become an integrative rather than a disintegrative process.

Yet integration, the restructuring of self or society, requires a period of dis-integration. We certainly find ourselves in a time of great socio-political division and breakdown, with conflict and cultural polarities intensifying and the ground seemingly shifting under our feet. It becomes difficult to keep our balance.

But if we recognize and honor this moment of “emergency” (which Swami Beyondanama would call “emerge-n-see”), then we can understand it as a Rite of Passage, a necessary and healing ritual of metamorphosis. There is a new creature struggling to be born. But the caterpillar must undergo dissolution before it can emerge as a butterfly.

There is no more profound political document than our Declaration of Independence. But dependence on cultural myths is far more difficult to either perceive or relieve than political or economic dependence. Joseph Campbell, the renowned professor of world mythology, said that myths are shared “public dreams” that shape and guide our lives by giving us meaning and purpose.

“The world is as you dream it,” say the Shuar of the Ecuadorian jungle. “In the North, you had dreamed of huge industries, lots of cars, and gigantic skyscrapers. Then you discovered that your vision had in fact been a nightmare that would ultimately destroy you. Change that dream.” Ben Okri, Nigerian novelist, tells us that “Stories are the reservoirs of our values. Change the stories and you ultimately change the people and the nation.”

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the mythological roadmaps that guided them to the present moment, they must co-create a new moral compass to guide them onward, derived from a healthy respect for the Laws of Nature and Life. Such healthy respect for our proper place in the community of life requires that, when we take up that moral compass, we set the declination so that we can know true North. We must set ourselves to decline excess, to decline manufactured wants in place of authentic needs, to decline to lay waste to the Earth, to decline the “myths” of division, dissention, and dis-ease.

Vermont, where I live, is in a unique place to take the lead in redefining our story, for we are not far removed from the culture, the values, the qualities that once sustained us in better balance with the community of life, and we have often led the nation toward wholeness (being the first republic in the world, for example, to outlaw slavery). But we are not the only place that retains memories of essential values. The old Yankee adage, “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without,” can once again become a guidepost along our journey.

“The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty,” quoth Walt Whitman, “but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds – where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough – a modest living – and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.”

Martin Luther King’s words are as relevant today: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-conformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the actions of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a dedicated minority.” Vermonters have long been known as a “dedicated minority”, creatively maladjusted to the dominant paradigm, and we and others like us can once again lead the nation toward a more true-to-life deep pragmatism.

In his perceptive analysis of the American personality, Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, 1831) wrote: “Choose any American at random, and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all an innovator.”  We must once again become that “innovator” to produce the feedstock for a self-reliant economy, but not one led by the false god of technological and material progress.

We must rediscover our earth-based spiritual roots to help us re-member our dismembered consciousness so that we may alchemically transmute the dross of our dysfunction into a new spiritual ecology. We must, together, write a how-to manual for departing the failed paradigm, disentangling ourselves from the addictions which are destroying us, and entering a new/old story based upon Earth-skills and tribal connectedness. And we must – like so many now in the world – engage in non-violent political action to instigate a velvet revolution which reasserts our sovereignty and natural rights.

Wendell Berry’s Manifesto, that appeared years ago on the back page of the Utne Reader, proffered: “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.” There are ancient cross-cultural trails that we must re-awaken like the labyrinth which, as an archetype of the journey to wholeness, has only one path so that the mind can be checked at the gate to allow Spirit and Heart to guide one’s feet.

We are in the midst of an epochal Rite of Passage from a failed paradigm – the old story – to a true-to-life paradigm, built upon the rubble of the distant and recent past. Vermonters and other co-creators are in the process of writing a new story which will inspire and guide a heartful transition from the Age of Separation to the Age of Reconnection. We are called now to build bridges between the past and the future – for that is the purpose of the present moment. We must share our prophesies, visions and living examples with one another. Take a deep breath, relax, release and join this journey. We are all needed on board this ark.


by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes


5 Responses to “Collective Rite of Passage”

  1. lin cleveland said

    ~integration, the restructuring of self or society, requires a period of dis-integration~

    One day, Robert, I decided to organize an entryway catch-all closet. Step one pull everything out and sort into piles on my living room floor: a pile to bag for salvation army, piles for stuff that belong another place, a trash pile, an “undecided” pile and one of items to put back on the just cleaned shelves. Yikes! My little project had turned the family room into instant chaos! Then came an epiphany of sorts. Chaos is just a step toward order.


  2. Riversong said

    Not only is chaos a step toward order, it is what makes possible a spontaneous re-ordering. Rarely does any system make a paradigm shift as long as it remains in a fairly stable (or habitual) order. But, shaken or stirred (to borrow from James Bond), a dynamic system then has both the energy and the spectrum of possibilities (like quantum states) to allow it to find a new – and often more evolved – order or integrity.

    Chaos is not, as we typically think, disorder – but rather an infinite possibility of ordered states from which one may emerge. Water, perhaps the most magical substance in the universe, freezes (forms a new crystalline order) most quickly when it’s hot, because it has the energy (the chaos) to seek out a new way to dance, while sluggish, cold water resists reordering.

    If we wish to allow a new social order to emerge, we must shake up the existing one and, rather than trying to plan the shape or structure of a new order, be open to the emergent possibilities that spontaneously present themselves.

  3. Lucy said

    Robert, the only real thing that I disagree with you on is science. Science is the humblest way of observing the world: there is no authority in science other than the real world. Observation is opening your mind to notice everything that is there, every aspect of the moment. Hypothesizing is intuiting a pattern and then experimenting is making a fair test to see if that really is what the universe pattern is. And then you must share it and you must allow each and every person who cares to, check you to see if your intuition fits the observations. Someone dedicates their whole life to a pattern they think is there and then better observations come in otherwise, the true scientist is delighted, not angry or ashamed. It is ideally an entirely collective, democratic endeavor.

    I have lived around people who did not understand much science and it is occasionally scary. (“OMG. There’s no evidence this neighbor will accept that I am not a witch.” or “There is nothing I can say that will convince my neighbors that they should not kill snakes.”) Often my neighbors, my students, my fellow teachers were amazingly subservient to the written word of others. I have stories! Yes science has been used, is now used for evil and even to make people feel above nature–but so are religion and community superstitions!

    Science does not HAVE to be used against nature at all. It is wonder.It is a way of belonging to nature.

    The habit of paying attention to all the evidence is a discipline of the mind. Humility before nature. The oneness of nature–meaning that it is bigger than me, than you, others can see it just like you can–you are not a special creation of nature, higher than me, to tell me about things only you can see. Looks to me like you are part of my same species. All this, the skepticism, the recognition of the primacy of the natural world, is a necessary part of the life we have to create.

    Also I wonder if we are fundamentally collective and respectful of each other, and the natural world, then how did we invent anything different–how did we stray from the garden? How did we get to be the fish out of water? I think that the answer that we are not evil and greedy and we are really selfless and empathetic, that our species is regressive right now, while true to a great extent, still leaves unanswered these questions.

    Look at our species just as a species. We don’t say “oh there would be no enslavement of other ants if this species of ants only had a less regressive social order.” We accept this behavior as a natural outgrowth of their evolution. We study it. So for humans, we are inside our society. We want better. if we are to design well with all the different currents and tendencies we have inside us, then we have to accept that both our democracies and what the Nazis did were both creations of the human species and interrogate how the latter behavior happened and what patterns led up to it and what patterns do we need to create to move those human energies into proper channels–to be sure of “Never again.” (We are still trying to achieve that–there are many genocides.) Now we have to interrogate the energies that led us to societies that destroy nature–that thought it was a great thing to mandate “dominion over the Earth.” Why would wise men even include a thought like that in their origin story? Why did people accept it?

  4. Riversong said


    Your comment seems to be directed at some other essay here rather than this one, since it mentions science only as one of Gandhi’s deadly sins: “science without humanity”.

    Though it’s long, I would recommend reading “Gaia and the Dying of Anima Mundi”, which describes clearly the origins and fundamental values of science. Just as it’s possible to find many Christians who live their faith humbly, it is also possible to find scientists with a similar humility in the face of Mystery (Einstein was one). But both the Church and Science (based on similar axioms), however, are fundamentally arrogant assertions of the “correct” way to perceive and understand the world, and each have their vested authorities – in the case of science, it is the Academy, or the willingness of the body of “peers” to accept a hypothesis or findings which may challenge orthodoxy. For this reason, Chiropractic, for instance, was considered quackery and magic for a long time before scientific medicine could no longer ignore its efficacy. And the Gaia hypothesis was powerfully resisted for decades (and still is by many scientists) because it looked too much like animism and mysticism (even though it explains climate change better than any other theory).

    To fully understand the scientific paradigm, one must look to its founding ideas and principles, and to the unquestioned axioms (articles of faith) that form its foundations. Here are some excerpts from the “Gaia” essay:

    Plato considered the material world to be but derivatives of eternal abstract ideas, which were the core of reality while our perceptions were but shadows.

    Aristotle, Plato’s student, articulated a non-dualistic animism, and this most ancient of beliefs held sway for 1600 more years until the birth of modern science. The old Church tolerated and incorporated many animistic traditions, but the Protestant reformation tried to exorcise it from the world. The scientific revolution, which blossomed in the 16th and 17th centuries advanced the thesis that certainty must be based on reason rather than faith.

    Galileo taught that one must ignore subjective sensory experiences if one wished to learn anything useful about the world.

    John Lock gave the name “secondary qualities” to such felt experiences, in order to emphasize their inferior, derivative nature compared to the primary qualities of size, shape and weight.

    Galileo believed that reliable knowledge resided in quantities, so nature had to be reduced to numbers if she was to reveal her secrets and submit to the control of the human mind. For scientists, mathematics became the language for understanding and controlling nature.

    Francis Bacon, considered the father of the scientific method, called for scientific thinkers to “bind” and constrain nature using mechanical inventions so that she “could be forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded” and thereby “tortured” into revealing her secrets.

    René Descartes declared that the material world we see and sense around us was devoid of soul, and that it was nothing more than a dead, unfeeling machine which we could master and control through the exercise of our rational intellect. He taught that any entity could be completely understood by studying how its component parts worked in isolation – his infamous reductionist methodology.

    Isaac Newton invented differential calculus – the mathematics of change – and seemed to provide final confirmation that the world was no more than a vast machine whose behavior could be precisely predicted and explained by quantification. These thinkers and this revolutionary movement signaled the shift into scientific materialism. As mechanistic science grew in influence, the anima mundi (soul of the world) faded from consciousness.

    The anima mundi, so long suppressed into the nether regions of consciousness, has now come back in the guise of a global crisis that threatens civilization itself. This crisis is, at root, one of perception.
    The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung spoke of four main psychological functions or ways of knowing, common to all humanity. Sensation, or sensory experience, yields a direct apprehension of the things around us through the medium of our physical bodies. Thinking interprets what is there in a somewhat logical, rational manner. Feeling grants a negative or positive valence to each encounter, and so helps to ascribe value to the phenomena. And intuition yields a sense of its deeper meaning.

    In our culture, mainstream science is based principally on the deliberate cultivation of the thinking function, which is overly dominant not only in science but in the culture as a whole. Feeling – the evaluative ethical function – is left out of science. In conventional science, sensation and intuition serve thinking as auxiliary functions. This mode of sensing marginalizes the phenomena and inhibits the possibility of the perception of depth and intrinsic value in the thing being studied.

    The predominant style of thinking in conventional science is reductionism. Reductionism is built upon a broader set of assumptions, such as that objects matter more than the relationships between them, that the world is ordered hierarchically, and that knowledge can be objective.

    Though intuition is vitally important to both conventional and holistic science, there is no effort within conventional science to incorporate it as a methodology. Largely attributed to Goethe, but traceable back to the Hermetic tradition, the intuitive methodology involves “active looking” without reduction or objectification. One has the intuitive perception of the thing as a presence within oneself and not as an object outside one’s own being. This methodology develops what can be called “non-informational perception”. Goethe asks us to suspend the urge to theorize, and to enter as fully as we can into the experience of sensing the phenomenon before our gaze, so that we commune with the unbroken wholeness of the phenomenon (it is similar to meditation).

    Goethe’s method of experiencing the world is the same that had been used for millennia of human evolution, kept alive by indigenous peoples around the globe, and being rediscovered today by deep ecologists and plant spirit healers among others. It appears to be your approach to knowledge, but it contradicts the scientific method and delves well beyond its self-imposed limitations.

    In spite of almost a century of new science which undermines much of the old objective, reductionist paradigm, most of the scientific community and the technology-worshipping world it’s created continues to operate within Francis Bacon’s mandate to torture the earth to extract its secrets. If that were not so, we would not be facing the many global crises before us, nor continuing our blind faith in technological “solutions” to the problems created by previous technological “solutions”.

    Just as Marshall McLuhan opened our eyes to the fact that “the medium is the message” and that television operates on an inherent paradigm that’s independent of the programming it carries, the scientific method operates on a paradigm of objectification, reductionism and quantification which colors every application and theory and necessarily squeezes the soul out of the world it studies.

    Once you understand this, then answers to questions such as “How did we stray from the garden?” become obvious. “How did we get to be the fish out of water?” – if our primary method of gleaning knowledge requires us to stand “objectively” outside of nature and study it as a “thing”, then of course we’re going to think of ourselves as outside of and above the mundane natural world. Both our ecclesiastical and our secular religion insist that’s true.

    When you ask “Why would wise men even include a thought like [dominion over the earth] in their origin story?” – you have to look to the origin story of science as well, which is much the same. When both religion and science stipulate that the material world is devoid of soul and amenable to our exploitation, the primary difference between the two is that one puts God in the transcendent position and the other elevates Reason to the same place. Both diminish the experiential world in which we are truly embedded and enmeshed and, in so doing, reduce the truth to a narrow spectrum. When one is blinded by belief from seeing the whole, one cannot help but stumble through life doing grave damage to what lies outside of the perceptual box.

    For a cultural evolutionary perspective on how humanity abandoned the Garden, I would suggest reading “New Green History of the World” here, which is a summation of Clive Ponting’s insightful story of the human journey.

  5. Lin Cleveland said

    Hi, just attempted to “be the first” to say I like, no Love your blog essay, Robert. Why did I wait so long. Simply I came on a mission the other day to find you and did not read the essay. So far, I’d say you bat 100!

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