Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > The End of the Age of Religion and the Birth of Symbiotic Consciousness

The End of the Age of Religion and the Birth of Symbiotic Consciousness

William Irwin Thompson

Through my collaboration with the chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham in designing an evolution of consciousness curriculum for the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, I began to understand that the shift from the linear causation of Galilean dynamics in the early modern era to the complex dynamical systems of our era also expressed a shift from linear modernist ideologies and religions to planetary ecologies of consciousness in which diversity was affirmed. In the evolution of the catastrophe theory of the 1960s—with their images of saddles and butterfly folds—to the images of fractals and Lorenz attractors in the chaos dynamics of the 1980s, our cultural Imaginary was given a gift of a new alphabet of symbols. Dynamical systems were given geometrical portraits of their behavior1, and these were therefore called phase portraits. The linearity of left-brain thinking was now to be balanced with a right-brain activation. This emergence of a new visual mathematics expressed, in effect, a return on a higher turn of the spiral to hieroglyphic thinking.

A hypertorus shape made of wire, photographed on a grey background.
The hypersphere (photo: Ralph Abraham, from his "The Geometry of Angels,, MS #93)

It all started with Poincaré in Paris in 1889 when he showed that the clean and consistent system of Kepler in which the planets rotated around the sun in neat ellipses was not correct, that the solar system was actually a chaotic system. You can date the birth of complex dynamical systems with Poincaré and say that the new era begins with his mathematical revisioning of the geometry of behavior of the solar system. At about this time the premodernist esoteric cosmologies began to experience what Marshall McLuhan called “cultural retrieval,” and thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, Hazrat Inayat Khan and William Butler Yeats began their visionary careers. The linear reductionism of modernism was going to be challenged by a cultural retrieval of animism on one side and higher mathematics on the other. The composer Satie was a Rosicrucian, and the painters Kandinsky and Mondrian were Theosophists. Clearly, complex dynamical systems began to impact on the cultural evolution of human spirituality.

What could this new planetary culture possibly look like? First, egocentric monumentality and the extensive clutter of industrial civilization could be eliminated. We could shift from industrial object to ecological process—as foreshadowed in the “Living Machines” of John Todd2. Some buildings through the effectiveness of nanotechnologies could become ephemeral and evanescent; enduring structures could be more ecologically embedded in their setting—like the Shire of the Hobbits in the writings of Tolkien. We could become electronic nomads who pitch their tent, and then pack up and move on. Buildings could become appliances that we turn on with a switch, and then turn off to make them disappear in the forest or meadow, and this would enable the human and animal domains to coexist more peaceably. Think of this as an electronic version of the Arthurian Lady of the Lake who used enchantment to keep her settlement hidden to mortals so that it appeared to the local inhabitants only as a lake.

The cover of an issue of Fantastic Four.A Fantastic Four (Cover for Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1)

Our machines could become intimate and ensouled by the elemental beings whose presence we might rediscover in the coming period of intense volcanic and tectonic activity. We will all have a chance to become animists again—like the present population of Iceland or the kahunas of Polynesia—those people who have been living with volcanoes for some time. The kind of being that once was envisioned as ensouling a sacred mountain could now be seen to ensoul the noetic lattice of crystals in electronic and quantum computers in a new cultural Imaginary. As these computers are worn on and in our bodies and our body-politic, our sense of “in here” and “out there” would be transformed as a cube became a tesseract or a sphere became a spiraling hypertorus in which the inside and outside surface are continuous through the spiraling axis.

Our consciousness could become symbiotic, as elementals become to us what mitochondria are to nucleated cells. But this symbiotic consciousness need not simply be restricted to human and elemental or animal realms, it could also be extended to involve the celestial intelligences. To imagine these “software” beings that are made out of music and mathematics, we need once again to go back to the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I discussed with Arthur C. Clarke over breakfast in New York long ago in 1971). When the astronaut approaches the monolith in orbit over Jupiter, he sees coming toward him rotating crystals of light and complex pulsing topologies. These are Stanley Kubrick’s technological envisioning of what esoteric initiates would recognize to be the Neoplatonic ”celestial intelligences”—the Jinn of the Moon and the Angels and Archangels of the planets and stars. For Kubrick’s and Clarke’s vision, however, it is these high tech cosmic beings who serve as midwives to the astronaut's rebirth as he moves out of history into myth.

To draw a circle one moves from the point to the line; to draw a sphere, one pulls the circle up into the third dimension; to create a hypersphere, one rotates the sphere into the fourth dimension. Our physical body, or what the yogis call our food sheath, has three dimensions, but our other bodies or sheaths have more dimensions, and it is in the facets of the topology of these dimensions that the celestial intelligences can interface with us and participate in the field of our consciousness. The brain may be a three-dimensional volume, but neurons in separate parts of the brain can fire together in the neuronal synchrony of the range of 40 Hertz. The geometry of the synchronies engage as facets of the higher-dimensional geometries of the subtle bodies—where both the Dalai Lama and Rudolf Steiner say memory is stored—so the play of consciousness should not simply be reduced to a section of the brain3. Cultures have in the past called this process of consciousness, imagination or intuition, but whatever one calls it, it is basic to the creative process in art, science and spiritual contemplative practice.

Mediating between the elemental and human on one polarity and the celestial intelligences on the other is the realm of the soul, which for men is often figured as a feminine being—a Tara or Beatrice. (Jung maintained that for women this contrasexual “animus” was male—the Christ of Saint Teresa of Avila or the Krishna of Mirabai.) This being appears regularly in the intermediate life of our dreams—and here one needs to understand that dreams, as Sri Aurobindo pointed out for his generation, are very muddled memories of higher spiritual experiences blended with the proprioperceptions of the physical body and the brain's return to waking consciousness. As the spirit returns to the confinements of incarnation, it can start to dream it is in a conference, or a crowded airport, and as it becomes aware of the body's full bladder, it will begin to dream that it is looking for the restroom in the airport. To interpret these dreams with Freudian or Jungian symbolic systems is, at this level, a category mistake. The imagery is taken from personal memory and is being used as metaphors for the reactivation of specific brain modules that are operative in the cognitive functions of the waking mind.

Shamanism was the form of spirituality that evolved in the oral culture of preliterate societies. Religion was the form of spirituality that emerged with literate societies and their new temple-based readings of the stars and sacred texts. Though traditionalists may wish time to stop, it does go on, and now in our global electronic society, a new transreligious form of spirituality is emerging, one that will not replace religions, anymore than the nucleus of the cell replaced the mitochondria, but will envelop them in a much vaster form of consciousness. In this futuristic ontology, we are already beginning to glimpse an evolutionary Entelechy—a symbiotic consciousness of human, elemental, psychic and celestial intelligences. In the smuggled esoterism of children’s literature, comic books and science fiction, an archetypal group of four becoming one is being foreshadowed. For example, we see this grouping expressed in Fantastic Four and The Wizard of Oz.

An image of Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.A Fantastic Four (Still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

In preindustrial animist cultures, the human would establish a place for the elementals to cohabit or participate in its human life through the intermediary use of a magical object—a magical ring or stone, an Aladdin’s lamp or an ensouled sword such as Roland’s Durendal or Charlemagne’s Montjoie. Like the needles used in acupuncture, this numinous object can interact with its possessor at the subtle-physical or etheric level—the level of qi or prana. In shamanistic cultures, the individual would project out of his or her body and travel in a spiritual or astral world. If one is able through meditation to remain watchfully awake in the state of deep dreamless sleep, then one experiences a vast magenta sea of cognitive bliss in which one hears the music of everything—every existent being in the universe sounding its presence. This is the world of the Holy Spirit that is “above” or “below”—remember these terms express a merely Euclidean geometry—the psychic realm of dreams or astral out-of-the-body travel. In the astral, one travels, but in the realm of celestial music, the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere, so there is no need to move. One simply joins in this Hallelujah Chorus to the nth power by listening and sounding one’s ontic note. In this sense, music is not a representational art of mimesis, but an ontological performance.

The human is the ordinary ego in time, but in the completion of our emergent evolutionary spiritual process the ego becomes transhuman, “anointed” or Christic. For esoteric Christians, the prophet Jesus became the Christ at the time of the baptism by John, and this narrative of the Son of Man describes the process of enlightened individuation. For Buddhists, this process is seen more like a wave than a particle, one in which egohood is transformed in dependent co-origination (pratityasamutpadha) of enlightened Buddha Mind.

Now you may have noticed that one thing that results from this ontology of symbiotic consciousness is a non-locality in which “out there” is “in here” so that it is no longer necessary to put three-dimensional bodies in expensive tin cans and space suits and try to propel them to the stars. We may be able to go to the Moon, and my Lindisfarne colleague James Lovelock's proposed atmospheric and bacterial “greening of Mars” would certainly be a worthy project for sublimating the nations' defense industries into a transnational technological project with Europe, Russia, Japan and China, but I think it is highly unlikely humans could travel in physical bodies to the stars. Indeed, that is precisely what the astronaut of 2001 discovers in his transformation from technological man to star child. So the Christian fundamentalist notion that we can trash the Earth and move on, and that whatever mess we make here is permitted because Jesus will play the role of a suburban mom coming in at the end of the day to clean up our room for us and then take us away in a vacation rapture to some theme park heaven is an expression of folk superstition and the limited three-dimensional thinking of religion.

Jean Gebser taught us that when a new evolutionary form becomes efficient, the old becomes deficient4. When religion emerged, shamanism decayed into sorcery and black magic. Now that a new planetary spirituality is emerging, religion has become a toxic dump, as witnessed in the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

But the religionists are right in one way; it is the end of their world, but that also means the end of the age of religion and the beginning of a unique/universal self-similar architecture of consciousness that is based upon individual experience and not upon priestcraft, rigid dogma and collective forceful indoctrination. If we can avoid the dark age of religion that now stares us in the face, we may discover a more surprising and delightful politics of Being behind the mask.


William Irwin Thompson’s Website has further information on activities, books, poems, Lindisfarne Association, and some essays and poems.

 “Still Travels: A Cycle of Contemplative Poems” is a poetic work by William Irwin Thompson.

“The Gaian Politics of Lindisfarne’s William Irwin Thompson” by Ralph Peters discusses Thompson's lifetime of achievement in conjunction with Lindisfarne.

William Irwin Thompson is a poet and cultural philosopher who has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. Early in his career he left academia to found Lindisfarne, an association of creative individuals in the arts, sciences, and contemplative practices devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary consciousness, or noosphere. Thompson lived in Switzerland for 17 years and describes his most recent work, Canticum Turicum, as “a long poem on Western Civilization, that begins with folktales and traces of Charlemagne in Zurich and ends with the completion of Western Civilization as expressed in Finnegans Wake and the traces of James Joyce in Zurich.” With mathematician Ralph Abraham he has designed a new type of cultural history curriculum based on their theories about the evolution of consciousness. Thompson now lives in Portland, Maine.

Read more about William Irwin Thompson

  1. Ralph Abraham and Christopher D. Shaw, Dynamics, the Geometry of Behavior (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1992).
  2. Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1994).
  3. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama, ed. Francisco Varela (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997), 174.
  4. Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984), 93ff.
Comments (7)
  • This is one of those articles that makes my jaw drop. There is much to glean here. I am kicking this out to my friends.

    — Nathan on December 21, 2008

  • Thank you so much, Seven Pillars Review, for publishing such leading-edge thinkers as Mr. Thompson.  In reading this article I was struck several times at the synchronous and/or similar thinking expressed with other ideas that inspire me.  For instance, last night while reading the Sangitha papers of Hazrat Inayat Khan, we read, paused, re-read and talked about this: “The heart is a window between mind and soul, for the soul to send its light to the mind, and for the knowledge of the mind to be reflected on the soul.  Therefore, when the heart is closed, the communication between soul and mind is closed also.”  One does not assume that one understands the depth of realization that is covered by this simply-worded statement at first-glance for it has deep implications.  And, when Wm. Irwin Thompson speaks of an “ontology of symbiotic consciousness” I get a feeling that resonates with what I feel when contemplating the heart as a window that is not an object with some location, but is instead a non-locality in which “out there” and “in here” represents the old paradigm of thought construction.
    Well…there’s much more but I’ve already gone on a bit longer than I had intended.
    Again, thank you for thought-provoking stimulation. I will definitely suggest this as recommended reading to my friends and mureeds.

    Tasnim Hermila Fernandez

    — Tasnim Hermila Fernandez (Burbank, CA) on January 10, 2009

  • chaos=organic Islamic fedual reign

    — Hal on July 12, 2009

  • what the heck you talkin bout willis?

    — imnotathug on November 12, 2009

  • I think the jinns and the archangles of the planets
    there symbolism is displayed
    in the comic books and movies
    and could be used for good and bad

    — julius evans on July 24, 2010

  • “Read the sacred manuscript of nature, the only book that will enlighten the reader,” says the Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan that Wm Irwin Thompson mentions in his article. 

    In my view the proposed birth of a symbiotic consciousness is just such a reading.  In so doing we can begin to co-create a new planetary consciousness with its own ecology of culture, illuminated by the lights of prophets, known and unknown, we can re-tell the story of humanity in a new way.

    This opens the possibility of a world shift, that visionary scientists like Ervin Laszlo speaks of and that groups like the cultural creatives, that Paul Ray identifies are pioneering.  Along with Paul Hawken’s research into the existence of 1 to 2 million NGOs in the world in his book ‘Blessed Unrest’, and other projects of groups like the Pachamama Alliance - these all give a sense hope in these challenging times.

    — Ben-Zion Weiss on November 7, 2010

  • Thank you for tying so many threads of ideas that have been on my mind in one well-written article

    — Sarah on December 23, 2010

Add your comment
  • Please enter the word you see in the image below:

17 December 2008

Tagged Under
cosmology, religion, dreams, spirituality, Lovelock, shamanism, Gebser, symbiotic consciousness, Space Odyssey, John Todd, elementals, celestial intelligences, living machines, Poincaré,
  • print
  • respond
In the bookstore

© Copyright 2011 Seven Pillars. All rights reserved.