Crisis and Spiritual Awakening by Peter Russell, MA, DCS, FSP and Cassandra Vieten, PhD

Cassandra Vieten: Peter Russell is not only a visionary but also a Cambridge University—trained mathematician, theoretical physicist, and experimental psychologist. A workshop leader and an author, Peter is here to talk about some of his most recent thinking on the state of the world and the science of awakening.

Peter, what is the most interesting thing you’ve thought about in the last twenty-four hours?

Peter Russell: I’m fascinated by how much denial there is around the distressing state of the world. That’s been occupying my attention a lot. Seeing this parallels what happens when we have to face our own mortality or the mortality of others we know. Often, our first reaction is denial; people don’t want to go there. In the same way, it’s as though people’s reactions to the world are that if we just stop polluting so much, everything will be okay. But all the news is truly depressing. I think it’s very, very hard for us to face this.

As we know in psychology, when we deny something, we allow it to run us. I know in my own life that when I avoid something—pushing it to the edge of my consciousness because I think I’ll be happier that way, whether it’s the state of the world or some anger, resentment, or depression within me—when I force it out to the edge of my consciousness, it controls me. What I’ve also found is that by allowing stuff in and really looking at what’s there, facing it is actually healing and freeing. So, I wonder to what extent we’re actually keeping ourselves possessed and upset by the state of the world when we’re unwilling to really look at it.

Vieten: What you’re pointing to is what Carl Jung would have called a collective shadow. In denying our collective situation, we’re giving it more power over our future than our collective conscious intention could have.

Russell: Yes, by keeping it in the background, it actually holds us more.

Vieten: What specifically are some of the things you find that people aren’t looking at?

Russell: First and foremost would be avoiding runaway climate change.

Vieten: What else?

The horrifying state of the oceans, which is partly related to climate change. There’s the steady decline in fish stocks and how that affects the ocean’s food chain. There’s also the loss of coral reefs. All life depends upon life in the ocean, so the state of our oceans concerns me a lot.

Vieten: What is your response to people who would say you are engaging in catastrophic thinking—you know, “the sky is falling”? And what do you say about those who feel such an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and despair that they find it hard to conceive of anything they can do about such huge problems?

Russell: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is really open up and acknowledge the conditions we don’t want to look at. I was recently talking to someone about this, and he said, “Doesn’t all this make you feel pessimistic?” But it doesn’t, because I’m eternally optimistic about what human beings can become and do in the face of crisis. As many people have pointed out, crises are the drivers that move us to the next level of evolution, and that’s where I see the hope for us to become the truly magnificent beings we can become. We’re going to need to do so to navigate our way through the crises, to find solutions, and to care for each other. It’s clear that things are not going to suddenly and smoothly resolve themselves. Difficult times are ahead, and caring is important.

Vieten: What do you think are some of the keys to unlocking our potential to evolve as individuals, as communities, and as a culture?

One of them is a deep understanding of ourselves, of our mind and consciousness. I know IONS has been exploring this, but for science as a whole, consciousness has been left on the sidelines. It’s absolutely critical that we understand why we get caught in mind-sets, why we believe what we believe, why we hold the attitudes and values we have. I think these are crucial issues. We need to have a much deeper understanding of how our psyche works.

Those who have explored this in the past belong to the spiritual traditions. Some people back away from this, associating spirituality with religion, but I see a clear difference between the two. I think the spiritual traditions are where we find people who have gone deep into the nature of the human psyche to understand the mind and how we get trapped by it. Time and time again, what they find is that when we release the mind from the grip of ego attachments, or a materialist mind-set—there are different terms for identifying this mind-set—then we experience a greater inner freedom that allows us to respond more appropriately to any situation at hand.

Ultimately, I think the issue is how we foster that spiritual awakening, which has been rediscovered many times throughout history in almost every culture. It is the awakening that comes when we let go of our dysfunctional belief systems and touch the truth of who we really are. It has already begun to happen; there are more and more teachers, movements, and techniques around today than there were twenty years ago—and many more than there were forty years ago when I first became interested in all this. However, in many areas, this knowledge is still regarded as slightly fringe. So, how can we make this wisdom mainstream and reach those who would run from anything remotely spiritual? How can we actually bring this wisdom in contemporary terms to the world at large?

Vieten: At IONS, our research and educational programs rest on the premise that consciousness matters. From your perspective, why does consciousness matter?

Russell: In all the crises we’re facing—from global warming to pollution, overpopulation, rainforest destruction, economics, and the rest—the key factors are human thinking and values. They’re either the reason for a crisis or the reason we’re not solving a crisis. What we tend to do with a crisis is look at how we can address its symptoms rather than looking at its core, which is human consciousness.

I think one of the good things about the economic meltdown is that it’s made human greed very clear. However, all that has been done as a result is an attempt to restrain greed a bit by passing some laws to dictate how much people can earn. Of course people can easily find ways around such laws. What we need to address is what’s behind the greed. Is it an innate? I don’t believe it is. I think it’s something we get caught in, but there’s no serious attempt to understand why the human mind gets caught up in wanting power, status, and money.

It’s a bit like going to the doctor with a pain in your stomach, but the doctor only gives you some medicine to alleviate the pain. A good doctor will seek out the cause. Is it something you’ve eaten, a virus, stress? I think the limited and dysfunctional mode of consciousness we operate in at the moment is the root cause of all that is going wrong on the planet. If we don’t look to the root cause, then all we’re doing is patching up the symptoms, and the same problems are going to come back again and again. We may have patched up the symptoms of the economic meltdown, but as many people are aware, something could easily shake the system into another meltdown tomorrow. We’re not dealing with the core issue, and the core issue is the half-awakened state of consciousness that we’re in.

Vieten: What do you suggest people do right now to help move humanity into a more awake state?

Russell: I think there are two basic aspects to this. The first is to engage in the process of awakening within ourselves. Our own lives actually become better when we do so. So many paths of awakening are available, and we all have some sense of what our own path is. It’s also important that we see it not as an indulgence or something we do only for ourselves but because our awakening plays an important part in the world’s awakening. We say the world needs to become more conscious; well, the world is each of us. Each of us is responsible for that process. So, it’s important to value that responsibility and to make it a priority. Also, sometimes we can get caught up in “this is my path” and risk missing other things that may come along that can help us as well. It’s good to be open.

The second piece is to understand our sphere of influence in the world. It’s very easy to say that “they must change”—meaning the politicians, corporate bosses, and the like—and conclude that “I don’t have access to a lot of people.” But we all have a sphere of influence. So, how can we bring the new paradigm to our sphere of influence? It asks for the courage to express our own truth. This is where the work can be tangible and practical—there is something we can do rather than something we just wish would happen in the world at large.

Vieten: That’s a wonderful point. People do tend to think something like “I’ve got to get out of this everyday job I’m in so that I can travel the world and make real change,” when we can make change at our job, or with the PTA, or in the grocery store. In our studies of people who transform their consciousness, we’ve seen that this distinction between the “sacred part of my life” and the “mundane part of my life” disappears; instead, the realms blend. I like your idea of bringing our awakening into whatever realm of influence is ours.

Russell: If we all do that, then collectively we’ll have a huge effect on the world. Sometimes I think of it as deciding we’re on the team that is bringing constructive change into the world. How do we play our part on that team?

What do you say to people who have become aware—are on a spiritual path and are not in denial—but still encounter pitfalls? Despite our best intentions, it can still be a struggle to integrate awakening into our everyday lives. What kinds of pitfalls do you see, and what are some of the ways you see people get through them? How have you gotten through struggles on your own path?

Russell: That’s a good question. I find with myself that I can be full of good intentions about my practice and what I want to do, but then if I’m not careful, I get sort of sucked back into the general social milieu of materialism and doing-doing-doing, with endless to-do lists in my mind. We all lead pretty busy lives these days, much busier than before, and it’s going to get busier because change will continue to accelerate.

Becoming aware of that pattern and breaking it are very important. I have several ways to do this. One is starting the day with time for myself—and I know that for many people this isn’t always possible. I like starting my day with quiet time, whether reading or meditating. Quiet time starts my day in the right mode. I also observe what I call the principle of the Sabbath, which doesn’t mean strictly taking Sundays or Saturdays off but rather having time to do nothing. That might be five minutes, an hour, or two days; it doesn’t really matter. The principle is to stop for a given amount of time.

I live on a boat in Sausalito, so when I stop, I might go outside to sit and watch the water and the birds. I’ve got something on my website that people can tune into: it brings up a random bell at random times to remind us to stop, to pause, and to connect to the body, our being, our sense of presence. I find these little breaks are really valuable; otherwise, I get carried away by the day and before I know it, it’s time to go to bed. Where did the day go? I also add notes to myself in my to-do lists that say “stop.”

Vieten: Little reminders seem simple, but I think they’re powerful.

Also, I find I have to change them because after a while, I become habituated and don’t notice them anymore.

Vieten: Your book, From Science to God, was just released on Kindle. Tell us about it.

Russell: It partly speaks to my own journey as a scientist, a mathematician, a physicist, and then as someone whose interest became spirituality and the whole nature of consciousness. Over the years I also found that science didn’t understand it and couldn’t explain it, even though science requires consciousness for its thinking, theorizing, and modelling. I found that the people who knew the most about consciousness were not sitting in labs studying the brain but the spiritual adepts, mystics, and yogis who studied the mind from the inside. So, From Science to God is partly about my journey, but it’s also about the question of the nature of consciousness.

What is consciousness? My focus isn’t so much on how the universe creates consciousness but on seeing consciousness in terms of the ability to have an experience. Consciousness is there in everything. It’s always been there. It’s highly developed in human beings but not unique to human beings. My book’s examination of consciousness ties into the mystical perception and how what the spiritual adepts have been talking about is what science is on the edge of understanding. Science and religion have been at loggerheads because they think they’re talking about different worldviews, particularly when it comes to the creation of the universe and how it operates.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what spirituality is talking about is not the creation of the physical cosmos but how consciousness manifests in the mind—how our experience is created, what goes on inside us. That’s something science hasn’t looked at. Scientists delve into and explore the ultimate nature of matter, while mystics delve into their own experience to know the ultimate nature of mind. In this sense, science and spirituality are complementary rather than competitive views of the cosmos.

Vieten: From your perspective, is consciousness primary? Does it permeate what we perceive as inanimate as well as what we perceive as living?

: If you draw a line, you immediately come up with problems. Drawing a line is like saying, “Below this line, in evolutionary terms, there is no awareness (objective experience), and above this line, there is.” As soon as you draw a line, you have to explain how something unconscious, insentient matter, at a certain stage suddenly gave rise to inner experience. That is what’s often called “the hard problem” in philosophy.

I think the answer is that everything has an inner aspect you could call awareness, or sentience, or experience. That’s not to say that an amoeba or a bacterium thinks or feels the way we do but that it has a very, very, very faint glimmer of awareness. It may be just a very vague sort of chemical sense (something aligned to what we know as taste) but so vague that we would hardly notice it. It’s not that consciousness itself suddenly appears, but what appears in consciousness can evolve. So, as life developed senses and nervous systems, the richness of the experience kept growing and growing until today with our minds we possess an extraordinarily rich and complex experience.

By the same token, if you can’t draw a line anywhere, you can’t draw a line between a bacterium and DNA or between DNA and a molecule. I think the capacity for experience is there in potential all the way down. But, as I said, it’s not to say that everything is conscious in the way that we know consciousness but that the capacity to experience is in everything. It means that consciousness is a fundamental quality of the whole cosmos.

Dr. Vieten is Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and presenter.

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