The Hidden Gifts of Helping by Stephen Post, PhD

About The Hidden Gifts of Helping

“Everyone stumbles on hard times. After all, no one gets out of life alive. Today, even those who had considered themselves protected from hardship are being touched and their lives changed by volatile economic markets, job uncertainty, and the increasing isolation and loneliness of modern life.”

—From the Introduction

Research has revealed that when we show concern for others—empathizing with a friend who has lost a loved one, mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor, or volunteering to mentor a school-aged child—we improve our own health and well-being and embrace and give voice to our deeper identity and dignity as human beings.

In this moving book, Stephen G. Post helps us discover how we can make “helping” a lifetime activity. The Hidden Gifts of Helping explores the very personal story of Post and his family’s difficult move and their experience with the healing power of helping others, as well as his passion about how this simple activity—expressed in an infinite number of small or large ways—can help you survive and thrive despite the expected and unexpected challenges life presents.

Post’s story is intertwined with supporting scientific research and spiritual understanding. This book can become your companion and guide to the power of giving, forgiving, and compassion in hard times.

The Hidden Gifts of Helping will leave you with the unshakable feeling that the world can be a good place if we act to make it so.

“We can be anywhere, so long as we are helping others and caring for them. This is probably the one source of stability in our lives that we can truly depend on, and so in the end we are never really out of place.”

—Stephen G. Post

Stephen G. Post is Professor of Preventive Medicine, Head of the Division of Medicine in Society, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He was previously (1988-2008) Professor of Bioethics, Religion and Philosophy, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, and Senior Research Scholar at the Becket Institute of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. Post is a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

Since the late 1980s Post has focused on issues surrounding the care of persons with developmental cognitive disabilities and dementia. He is an elected member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Panel of Alzheimer’s Disease International, and was recognized for “distinguished service” by the Association’s National Board for educational efforts for Association Chapters and families throughout the United States (1998). In 2003 Post was elected a Member of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for “distinguished contributions to medicine.” His book entitled The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease: Ethical Issues from Diagnosis to Dying (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 2nd edition) was designated a “medical classic of the century” by the British Medical Journal in 2009.

He is equally recognized as a leader in the study of altruism, love, and compassion in the integrative context of scientific research, philosophy, and spirituality. He is President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, an Ohio-based 501 (c)(3) established in July 2001 with support from philanthropist John Templeton and the Templeton Foundation. The Institute has supported high level empirical research at more than fifty universities on topics related to unselfish love and its origins. Post became interested in these topics while a youth at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, where he studied the theology of agape love with the distinguished African-American Rev. John T. Walker, who later became Dean of the National Cathedral.

Post worked in biological research before completing his Ph.D. on the relationship between other-regarding love and happiness at the University of Chicago under James M. Gustafson, where he was an elected University Fellow, a preceptor in the Pritzker School of Medicine, and a Fellow in the Martin E. Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. He received the Hope in Healthcare Award in 2008 for his “pioneering research and education in the field of unconditional love, altruism, compassion, and service.” He was included in Best American Spiritual Writing (2005), and in 2008 he was the recipient of the Kama Book Award in Medical Humanities from World Literacy Canada. Post is an elected member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled “The Joy of Giving.”

Post has published over 150 articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Science, The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, The Journal of Religion, The American Journal of Psychiatry, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet. He has written seven scholarly books on altruism and love, and is also the editor of eight other books, including Altruism & Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research, and Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue, both published by Oxford University Press. His most recent book, published with Jossey-Bass (2011), is The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times. In 2007 Post was lead author of the blockbuster book, published with Broadway Books/Random House, Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, with a Foreword by Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. His research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A public intellectual committed to conveying important ideas in the wider culture, Post has appeared on a diverse range of radio and television programs including Nightline, 20/20, and National Public Radio. Post is sought after as a public speaker by community and professional groups, and is the recipient of the “Top Notch Public Speaker Award” from the Ohio Endowment for the Humanities.

Post is a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church. His grandfather, Edwin Main Post, was the husband of Emily Post by his first marriage. He is currently a Trustee of the John Templeton Foundation (2008-2011).

Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation by Rick Hanson, PhD

Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Exploring the Noetic Sciences.” IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with neuropsychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson, author with neurologist Richard Mendius, MD, of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Rick will be speaking at the upcoming IONS International Conference taking place this July in San Francisco.

Vieten: What exactly is contemplative neuroscience?

Hanson: Broadly defined, it’s the study of what happens in the brain when people are doing contemplative practices, how the brain changes with such practices.

Although the word contemplative sounds fancy, everyone has been contemplative – you know, looking up at the stars, going to the ocean and getting a sense of the enormity of it all, or looking into your baby’s eyes and thinking, Holy Moly, how did I get you and how did you get me? All of that is contemplative. In addition to that, all the major religions have formal contemplative practices. But people can engage in contemplative activity without framing it in terms of a relationship with God or something like that.

The contemplative tradition I know best is Buddhism. It’s also the contemplative tradition that has had the greatest crossover with Western science; much of the research on meditators has been on Buddhist meditators. Arguably, though, the majority of research has been on those who practice TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which is nested in the Hindu tradition.

The field of contemplative neuroscience is just exploding, in tandem with the explosion of knowledge about brain science in general. People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and I’d have to say science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that the brain becomes thicker. In other words, those who routinely meditate build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries (the tiny blood vessels that bring metabolic supplies such as glucose or oxygen to busy regions), which an MRI shows is measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind the forehead. It’s involved in the executive control of attention – of deliberately paying attention to something.

This change makes sense because that’s what you’re doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy. So, people who routinely tune into their own bodies – through some kind of mindfulness practice – make their insula thicker, which helps them become more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together.

I think of thought as immaterial information that flows through the nervous system. Buddhism teaches that the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon – or more exactly, the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon. So, if you regularly rest your mind on regrets, resentments, quarrels with others, self-reproach – you know, the voice in the back of the head yammering away about what a nobody you really are and if others only knew better, et cetera – if you rest your mind there, it will change your brain in that direction, because neurons that fire together wire together, for better or worse. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on wholesome themes, those things that are going well, what you’re grateful for, good connections you have with others, your good qualities, what you accomplish in a day, the conditions in the world that are okay, you’re going to build up neural substrates and circuits of positivity.

I find this knowledge incredibly exciting at a time when the world obviously is on the edge of the sword. The fundamental skillfulness of self-directed neuroplasticity – of deliberately lighting up neural networks of happiness, love, and wisdom, let’s say – is a great resource as we face the challenges of a world that is overheated. People are way too driven by greed, hatred, and delusions, which are the three poisons Buddhism identifies. Our caveman brains are armed with nuclear weapons.

Vieten: Even though the field of contemplative neuroscience is burgeoning – making newspaper headlines, PBS programs, and even the cover of Time magazine ­­­­­­­­– it’s still groundbreaking to understand that the relationship between our mind and our subjective experience actually has physical effects on our body and brain, effects that are dramatic and can even be enduring.

How do you define mind?

Hanson: We’re talking about things that philosophers have written and argued about for thousands of years. There is a major movement in the West these days that’s a little bit like a giant salad blender mixing together all kinds of spiritual stuff. It does help when dealing with such important topics to be clear about the words; then we know what we’re talking about.

Basically, I think of the nervous system, headquartered in the brain, as matter – and by matter, I mean energy as well. E = MC2. That is materiality broadly defined. Mind is the flow of information through that material nervous system. Immaterial information is carried – or more exactly represented – by a physical substrate of some kind or another, whether it’s the vibration of air molecules as sound waves move through them or signals traveling across the Internet or cell phone towers transmitting this teleseminar. This is not only my view but also the common way of thinking about it in neuropsychology.

In this definition of mind, with information flowing through the nervous system, it becomes clear that most of mind is outside our awareness at any given time – and actually, most of mind is forever outside our awareness. When someone does something fairly routine, like picking up a coffee cup or scratching their ear, the motor scripts buried in the brain in different places aren’t accessible to consciousness. We don’t look at our hand and say, “Okay, hand, rise.” You know what I mean? We just intend it somehow, and it works, right? That’s outside our field of awareness. So, I find one of the takeaways here is that even though we tend to privilege what we find in our field of awareness, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of all of mind.

One of the useful things we can do is use our attention. Mindful attention is something like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner that illuminates what it rests upon and sucks it into the brain. Neuroplasticity is turbocharged for whatever is in the field of focused attention. And while neurons that fire together do wire together in terms of unconscious movements of information through the nervous system, the neurons that fire in the focal field of attention, particularly sustained attention – wow! – those neurons really, really wire together. It’s how Mother Nature wants us to learn from our conscious experiences. So, the point here is to use mindful attention to rest our awareness on what is useful to us and then work skillfully to get those neurons firing together so that they wire together wholesome tendencies inside ourselves.

Vieten: You use the metaphor of a vacuum cleaner, and it occurs to me that in their everyday lives many people experience a “reverse” vacuum cleaner – rather than people directing the focus of their attention, things in their environment compel their attention. Sometimes those things are wholesome, but other times they’re not so good for us. How do you propose we work with that involuntary “sucking up” of things that are not wholesome?

Hanson: What you’re describing is our nature as animals at the top of the food chain, and it’s the product of three-and-a-half billion years of evolution – in particular, six hundred million years of the evolution of the nervous system. In that long run, those ancestors who were good at resting their attention on something benign for long periods of time – chomp! – got eaten, because they weren’t nervously scanning for shadows, slithers, snarls, and things like that. We are the great, great, great, great grandchildren of very nervous and very cranky ancestors. So, the nature of the brain is to have a monkey mind – literally.

On top of that, we live in an ADD culture. We are bombarded. I’ve seen studies that look at the number of titillating media messages a person gets a day, and the number is in the zone of thousands, if not tens of thousands. We may not consciously be aware of them, but these messages do enter our field of awareness. Now think about how many messages a day people get that play on the theme of fear. I mean, just go to the airport; every ninety seconds you get a recorded message telling you that the threat level is orange, which is scary because orange is, as we know, the color before red.

So, the combination of our biological tendency, personal history, and culture has habituated us to an incredibly dense incoming stream of media. In that larger context, it’s totally understandable that the untrained mind is continually scanning for either something to want or something to fear – in other words, for a problem to solve. That’s why, as William James said, an education of attention would be an education par excellence. If we don’t have control over that spotlight and vacuum cleaner, if it’s “stimulus bound,” to use the phrase from cognitive psychology, then we pretty much have no control over how our brain is changing over time. And that is not a good thing.

Vieten: You talk about practical neuroscience and training so that we can begin to shift that habit of mind. What are some of the ways we can begin to do that?

Hanson: First, to contextualize it, there are thousands of years of methods of attention training that work if people really do them. People sometimes describe contemplative practitioners who have a lifelong practice of hours a day as the Olympic athletes of mental training. What neuroscience has added is scientific evidence of the value in these methods, and by studying what happens in the brain when it is stably mindful, we learn targeted ways to nourish the neural substrates of attention in people who do not live in a monastery but are dodging cars in Manhattan or something like that.

For example, here’s a basic practice made of five steps, or suggestions. Anyone can do any one of these to whatever extent he or she wants. But don’t do this while driving, and if you start to feel uncomfortable, feel free to stop. You can practice these suggestions with your eyes open or closed, though it might be simpler to do with your eyes closed.

To begin, bring your awareness to the sensations of breathing. If there’s anything about paying attention to your breathing that makes you uncomfortable, which is the case for some people with a history of trauma, rest your attention instead on something you find mildly pleasant or simply neutral, such as the sensations in your feet or a phrase such as “May I be happy” or “May my family be well.”

Now, set an intention to stay with the object of your attention for the next few minutes while doing this practice. Whether it’s your breath or a phrase or anything else, set the intention in your mind to stay present with that object of attention. You could either set this intention top down by using words such as “I’m going to stay attentive here” or set your intention from the bottom up by getting a felt sense inside yourself of mindfulness.

The second step or suggestion is to relax. Take some long exhalations, longer than your inhalations, and take care to relax your tongue.

The third suggestion is to feel as safe as you reasonably can. Sometimes this can be a challenge because it can make us nervous to lower our guard, and if so, take a moment to recognize that wherever you are is probably a protected and comfortable place. Get a sense of the good people who support you in your life, as well as a sense of your own strengths that enable you to deal with whatever life brings. With this basis, explore lowering your guard and being less braced against life.

Moving on to the fourth suggestion, open to feelings of simple well-being. Without straining or forcing anything, encourage gentle feelings of happiness and gratitude. For example, forests make me happy, and I am grateful for the smell of oranges. Whatever works for you, allow a sense of positive emotion to fill you. There may well be other feelings, even negative feelings; don’t resist them. Let them come and let them go, as you keep bringing your attention back to feeling as good as you can in the moment.

The fifth suggestion is to get a sense of your awareness being like boundless space. Notice that awareness has no edges, no bounds. In a sense, it is infinite, like the sky or space. In that vast space, different experiences come and go, and you now have a panoramic sense of experiences arising and passing in the vast space of your awareness. You have a kind of bird’s-eye view of thoughts, sensations, sounds, feelings, desires, memories, whatever, coming and going in boundless, open space. Feel free to enjoy whatever is worthwhile in whatever you’re feeling.

Vieten: Thank you for that exercise.

Hanson: I have found again and again that those five simple suggestions are a great preliminary practice. It takes about five minutes, and with practice, you can actually do it in even less time because you know how to go there, how to light up those circuits and steady the mind.

I’d like to explain what happens in the brain during each of those five stages. We begin with our intention to pay attention to our breathing or whatever we’ve chosen. When we set an intention top down, we light up the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain behind the forehead where there are a lot of executive systems. I find the bottom-up form of setting an intention really interesting; that’s when we get an embodied sense, an emotionally rich sense or inclination. Setting an intention from the bottom up is very powerful because it engages the limbic system, the subcortical regions underneath the cortex, which involve emotions. It’s where we begin to have emotionally positive rewards associated with our intention.

The second suggestion is to relax. In modern life, we chronically activate our stress response, our fight-or-flight system, which is related to the sympathetic nervous system. We did evolve to handle bursts of stress, but not chronic stress, and it’s hard to be mindful when we’re stressed out because stress activates the skittery, monkey-mind tendencies in the brain. To calm that monkey-brain as it scans for tigers in the environment, so to speak, it’s important to calm down sympathetic arousal, and the way to do that is to activate the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of the autonomic nervous system, the part that keeps us on an even keel. A great way to activate the parasympathetic system is through our exhalations, because the parasympathetic system handles exhaling. As few as three to ten long exhalations will light up the parasympathetic circuits and calm down sympathetic arousal. Similarly, because the parasympathetic system handles digestion, relaxing the tongue or the lips also helps to light up this system.

The third suggestion focuses on feeling safe. This is a very important one, although it’s often hard for people because we have what I call “paper-tiger paranoia.” Essentially, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with threats. Although that may have been a great way to pass on gene copies in Africa two million years ago, it’s a lousy way to experience quality of life in the twenty-first century. Most of us can feel safer than we normally do. I prompt people to feel as safe as they reasonably can because there is no perfect safety in life. None of us is safe from old age, disease, or death, for example, but most of us can afford to feel less guarded, less braced, and more confident in our capacities to meet life.

A sense of safety helps us with mindfulness because when we don’t feel safe, we continually scan for threats, which increases external vigilance and interferes with internal self-awareness. It’s probably no accident that in the traditional stories about the Buddha’s awakening, he has his back to the Bodhi tree. The tree “had his back.” It protected Buddha from the direction in which most lethal threats in the wild occur – from behind us – and it forced Mara and the other forces of delusion to come at the Buddha from the front, where he could deal with them.

The fourth suggestion invites a sense of well-being. To be mindful, to overcome the constant hijacking of the monkey mind, we rest our attention on one thing, such as the sensations of breathing, a loving-kindness phrase, or a prayer. To hold that focus in the field of attention requires holding it in what’s called working memory. The neural substrate of working memory has a kind of gate that is either open or closed. When it’s closed, the contents of it stay there, and what that translates to in our experience is that we maintain steadiness of mind.

We are able to stay with whatever we want to pay attention to. The way the gate works is through dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tracks rewards. A steady flow of dopamine keeps the gate closed. What pops the gate open is either a drop in dopamine, when a feeling of reward falls away, or a spike in dopamine, when new and sweeter rewards are introduced, distracting us from what we were paying attention to.

So, in this practice, when you encourage feelings of well-being, you’re doing two things. You’re creating a steady flow of dopamine, which keeps the gate closed, and because you’re directing a highly rewarding flow of dopamine, you cannot get a spike of it. Those two things keep the gate of working memory closed and thereby steady the mind.

The last suggestion to regard the field of awareness as boundless space is connected to some new research that shows it activates lateral networks – circuits on the side of the head that are associated with mindful, open, spacious awareness. It moves people out of the conventional state of mind in which the circuits in the middle of the brain are busy planning, thinking about the past, using language, and engaging in abstraction, all with a strong sense of self, of me-myself-and-I.

Although there’s a place for that, modern life overemphasizes the activation of these midline networks, and because neurons that fire together wire together, we get a strong buildup in those regions. So it takes training to stably activate the lateral networks. One of the ways to activate the lateral networks is through a panoramic view. There are a couple of others, such as not knowing and not needing things to make sense, but one of the easiest is cultivating a sense of boundless awareness – a bird’s-eye, panoramic view.

These five simple suggestions make up a basic practice that is based on good science. It’s a good illustration of self-directed neuroplasticity. This practice reliably stimulates the neural substrates of mindful attention, and over time, stimulating the neural substrates of mindful attention will naturally strengthen them, because neurons that fire together wire together. We can use this knowledge to build up the neural substrates of compassion, self-esteem, resilience, spiritual insight, and deep concentration. Pretty great, isn’t it?

Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher. He is cofounder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and edits the monthly Wise Brain Bulletin. His newsletter, Just One Thing, provides a weekly practice. Readers can sign on via his website,

Toward a Consciousness of Oneness by Robert Atkinson, PhD

At a press conference immediately following the earthquake in Japan, President Obama noted that “for all our differences in culture or language or religion, ultimately, humanity is one.” A century ago, earthquakes in California, India, and Italy similarly evoked shared grief and mutual assistance, although oneness was not yet part of our mainstream vocabulary – nor our consciousness. This significant shift in awareness during the last century illustrates the power and promise of evolution. A century and a half ago, evolution wasn’t discussed, but once Darwin’s work brought it into popular discussion, we grew to understand that everything evolves – life, societies, cultures, civilizations, science and technology, and consciousness itself.

Humanity’s Wake-Up Call

We stand at a critical juncture in our collective evolution. As our twenty-first century society undergoes rapid change, people seek more solid ground in ethical and moral values to serve as guideposts for navigating these uncertain times. We want answers to the deep questions, which continue to perplex us: Is there an underlying purpose that drives evolution, or do change and transformation happen randomly? And if there is a purpose, what is evolution moving us toward?

Humanity faces the crisis of a divided consciousness. As we struggle through a time that begs for a momentous breakthrough, will we let this crisis get the best of us, or will we midwife our current transformation-in-progress toward collective harmony and planetary sustainability?

Our collective story is lagging behind, resisting the flow of evolutionary change. The pre-twentieth-century story we have carried with us into the twenty-first century – built on the assumptions of duality, separation, and boundaries – has lost much of its meaning, power, and, most alarmingly, hope for the future. It faces crisis after crisis without offering any lasting resolution. The once well-understood principle of continual progress toward a collectively desired and beneficial goal is missing.

We need a new chapter in our evolving story that will restore hope, infuse new meaning into the wondrous process of creation, and unify our consciousness with a vision we intuitively trust. We need a story that keeps renewing itself. The one we have will not abruptly stop on December 21, 2012, with the end of the Mayan calendar, though some think it will. The Mayans believed in cycles: at the end of one calendar cycle, another begins with year zero. Our story is meant to continue and evolve, from one chapter to the next, just as natural cycles continue from one to the next.

Principles of an Evolving Story

We are living in a time of convergence. Some aspects of society are breaking down, while others are coming together more meaningfully. Dramas that have been considered fragments of chaotic circumstances, such as war and ecological breakdown, are increasingly being seen as elements of a greater transformational process – however difficult – which has played out over and over in our collective history and ultimately led to the advancement of civilization.

It may just be that a growing awareness of our oneness is at the heart of an evolutionary process designed to lead to personal and global transformation on ever-escalating levels. I have identified seven underlying principles shared by the world’s wisdom traditions that are governing this process of change and growth, which has been unfolding since the beginning of time and will continue to direct the course of our evolution for millennia to come. This process includes the progression of multiple communities with a duality consciousness (pitting one against another) toward a global community with a oneness consciousness (where equality, justice, and compassion prevail).

Using “principle” as an essential tenet that explains a natural action or order in the makeup of reality, here are the principles I believe are guiding our evolving story:

1. Consciousness is a potentiality set in motion by a dynamic process. We are born with an inherent urge to understand reality, unfolding through our desire to make sense of life’s mysteries. Our fullest potential for consciousness is realized as we independently investigate the twin knowledge systems of science and religion while integrating our own life’s lessons.

2. Change is inevitable and necessary for evolution. On both the micro and macro levels, from algae to weather systems, the nature of everything is constant change. There can be no evolution without change. To navigate this time of unusually rapid change, of universal reformation, we need a transformation of consciousness, which will become the change agent for the evolution of civilization.

3. Growth by degrees is inherent to life. The pace of growth enables all life forms to evolve toward their potential. Historians, mystics, and developmental theorists understand that growth on the individual and collective levels is regulated by a creative, dynamic, universal force and designed to occur in a gradual and ordered progression.

4. Transformation occurs through the conscious confrontation of opposing forces. Individually and collectively, we participate in the inherent dialectic of life not only by being tested to our limits but also by being pushed beyond them to confront unknown realms. Just as change is necessary for evolution, so is transformation. The trials and tribulations of life have purpose; they are the cause of great advancement. Opposition is a catalyst for transformation and is essential for maintaining the law of balance in the universe.

5. Consciousness expands along an eternal continuum. Consciousness pervades all of creation; it’s at the heart of an interconnectedness that links all beings. Our consciousness of ourselves, each other, and the universe – our spiritual development – has been ever-evolving and increasing in complexity over time. Evidence for this includes an increasing capacity among many to think globally and identify themselves as world citizens.

6. Consciousness progresses toward unity. As we journey through our lives, we discover many viewpoints, experience many identities, and confront endless pairs of opposites. At some point we may even glimpse an inherent unity to it all, a hidden wholeness. This is not a fluke. Evolution has been leading us toward a more complex understanding of this mystery and toward a greater appreciation of our essential oneness.

7. Reality is a unified whole, and revelation is continuous. On the horizon of eternity, out from behind the illusion of the many, all veils pass away, and all that remains is the One. Only through the eyes of unity does reality appear as changeless yet evolving. Unseen but ever-present spiritual forces, revealed progressively and cyclically, have always been and still are being released, pushing evolution to higher levels of convergence, signaling humanity’s coming of age.

The motifs and archetypes for a story of renewal and regeneration are embedded in these seven principles. They tell us a great deal about who we are at our core and where we are headed. They operate on an evolutionary basis, both linearly and cyclically as well as individually and collectively.

A World Giving Birth

The fourth principle, on the nature of transformation, is key because it is the bridge leading from the world of opposites and duality consciousness (the first three principles) to the realm of unity and oneness consciousness (the last three principles). Transformation is essential in the evolutionary process of birth-death-rebirth – we cannot get from birth to rebirth without it.

The end of the Mayan calendar represents the symbolic death of one cycle and its rebirth into another. As Jung noted some eighty years ago, “It seems to me that we are only at the threshold of a new spiritual epoch . . . What is significant in psychic life is always below the horizon of consciousness, and when we speak of the spiritual problem of modern man, we are dealing with things that are barely visible,” things that have their beginnings in the dark night. The birthing process of authentic transformation is usually long and difficult, and the emergence of a new global consciousness is now well into its natural cycle. According to Ervin Laszlo, the eventual result of the process we are witnessing and experiencing will be “a consciousness that recognizes our connections to each other and to the cosmos . . . a consciousness of connectedness and memory . . . [that] conveys a sense of belonging and ultimately of oneness . . . a wellspring of empathy with nature and solidarity among people.”

“We are already living in two worlds,” Deepak Chopra writes in the foreword to Laszlo’s Worldshift 2012. “One world moves ahead by inertia from the past, like a massive luxury liner drifting at sea, while the other steps into the unknown, like a child entering the woods for the first time.” The critical shift occurs in consciousness and nowhere else.

Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard also uses the birthing metaphor to describe this particular moment in our conscious evolution. We are in the midst of a great shift, she says, that is bringing about planetary birth. The crises we are facing are essential to the process. They are the evolutionary drivers, accelerating our spiritual development.

Moving Across the Consciousness Continuum

Jung’s notion of archetypes, in which the aptitudes, instincts, and preformed patterns we most need are provided to us by our heredity, puts consciousness on a continuum, which we move across as we grow and develop. These “inherited possibilities of ideas,” as Jung called them, not only represent “the authentic element of spirit” or “a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives” but also the first step in the evolution of consciousness that can be seen as our original state of inherited oneness. The archetype is that which potentially connects us to our divine nature.

We meet each challenge along the continuum as we live within the world of opposites and take on a divided consciousness – our acquired consciousness of duality. The final step brings us back to a consciousness of oneness when we recognize that reality is a unified whole. This would be our reacquired state of intended oneness.

The individual’s evolutionary journey has its parallel on the collective level as well. As part of our genetic makeup, these inherited possibilities help explain why tribal and indigenous cultures are based on the principle of unity in homogeneity, or unity in sameness. Unity is built upon the very qualities and values that define and sustain them – mutuality, cooperation, stability, and interconnectedness. Oneness, or unity, is then the first stage in the collective evolution of consciousness, in our movement across the consciousness continuum.

As cultures and societies migrated, became more complex, and experienced conflict with each other in the natural course of evolution, this consciousness of oneness was severely tested and an eventual shift occurred. Unity within and loyalty to one’s known group was replaced with a need to reconcile with a new and larger group which happened to carry different and often foreign views and values. The disruptive forces of colonization are an obvious example of this.

From this forced transition period of chaos and conflict came the second stage of our collective consciousness, duality, or unwanted, nonreciprocal pluralism, in which distinct cultures interact, find differences, and nevertheless need to get along. This second stage is characterized by separateness and disagreement, which has led to a long history of oppression, prejudice, and conflict between various cultural and ethnic groups, tensions that are still playing out on every continent.

At the same time, greater and greater levels of unity were slowly being established on social levels. This can be explained as a progression of cooperation, from simple levels of interpersonal interaction to more complex social or communal levels. The writings of the Baha’i Faith describe this as, “Unity of family, of tribe, of city-state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal toward which a harassed humanity is striving.”

This most basic pattern of the collective evolution of humanity is completed with the third stage, which returns us to where we began: a consciousness of oneness, or unity, but on the grandest scale. The pattern as a whole can be described as oneness followed by duality followed by oneness, or inherent unity followed by intentional separateness followed by intended unity.

Reclaiming Oneness

After a period of unity in sameness followed by phases of duality and forced pluralism, we are now entering the third stage, characterized by unity in difference, or unity in diversity. This entails nothing less than the unity of all humankind, in which, “all nations, races, creeds, and classes are closely and permanently united,” as the prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith, Baha’u’llah, envisaged in the mid-nineteenth century.

“Unity in diversity” is not just a slogan or buzz phrase. It is a way of explaining the principle of humanity’s oneness with itself and the entire creation. It honors and cherishes all the natural and unique forms of diversity that exist both within the human family, from every ethnic group to each individual temperament, and in the natural world. Diversity in the cultural, personal, and natural realms is just as vital and essential to the well-being of humanity as it is in the realm of the human gene pool.

As more and more individuals come to understand the essential unity of humankind and begin to live accordingly, our collective cultural and spiritual development will move ahead toward its next stage of maturity. As greater numbers embrace a global consciousness and identify themselves as world citizens, and as this is reflected in various spheres of action, from interpersonal to social, cultural, economic, and ecological, the principle of humanity’s oneness has the potential of becoming accepted in our time, as that of nationhood was in its time.

The awakening of a global consciousness, along with the acceptance of a global ethic, can only succeed when it is simultaneously linked to and understood as interdependent with the core principle of our time – the oneness of humanity. When this principle is affirmed as a common understanding, all will be in place for the practical organization of humanity into working relationships of oneness, harmony, and unity, which are the building blocks of world peace and prosperity. As Ervin Laszlo puts it, this would be when “all things are subtly but effectively tuned to all other things, and in some respects act as one. This has been known for thousands of years in the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. For religions and spirituality the key words have been love and oneness, and for scientists they are now connection and coherence. In the final count, they mean the same thing.”


Abdu’l-Baha. 1982. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Atkinson, Robert. 2002. Culture and the evolution of consciousness. The Baha’i World 2000-2001.Haifa: Baha’i World Centre.

Baha’i International Community. 2005. “The Search for Values in an Age of Transition.” Haifa. Accessible online at

Effendi, Shoghi. 1974. The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Jung, C. G. 1973. Psychological Reflections. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

—— 1933. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Laszlo,Ervin. 2009. Worldshift 2012: Making Green Business, New Politics, and Higher Consciousness Work Together. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Marx Hubbard, Barbara. 1998. Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Robert Atkinson, PhD, is professor of human development and director of the Life Story Center at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of seven books, as well as the forthcoming Humanity’s Evolving Story: Seven Principles Guiding Us Toward a Consciousness of Oneness.

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