In order to assess where we might evolve next, we need to know where we are now, and how we got here. This involves a look at the evolution of human consciousness. The starting place is, of course, lost in the mists of time, in the origins of awareness itself. The ape in the tree had simple animal consciousness, bare awareness, but it had no power to differentiate itself from the environment. It was zoomorphic, embedded totally in nature. Perhaps the closest we can come to it is the dream state. Things just arose and dropped away. Cause and effect were missing. Everything happened in the present moment. There was little or no future and little or no past. There was, most probably, an enduring experience of vulnerability. Instinctual responses eclipsed thought, and responses were driven by immediate basic needs. There was a bare minimum of consciousness operating. Nature simply presented itself, in a series of challenges requiring responses. We are dealing here, of course, with an evolving organism over millennia, so every statement can only be partial, since the species was a changing organism. The best that we can do is to imagine the animal awareness as truly as we can. It was a state before calculation became possible, a simple state of automatic, emotional responses to life with the nervous system rather than with evolved thought. The predominant experience must have been one of undifferentiated oneness, a seamless merging of self with environment. In effect, the self as an entity distinct from the surroundings did not yet exist. This is our starting point.

The best thinking about the evolution of human consciousness was done by Jean Gebser. Gebser was born in Poland, wrote in German, and lived for most of his life in Switzerland, where he fled at the outbreak of World War II. He identified four distinct phases of human consciousness in the evolution leading up to today. The first he called “Archaic Consciousness.” This was basically the animal stage of humanity, before consciousness developed into something that we would recognize as human. In this stage, consciousness was something like sleep, very dim and unevolved. In Gebser’s framework, each phase reaches its limits of possibility, which creates pressures on the organism and produces crisis. Out of the dead-end floundering of that crisis, a whole new mode of consciousness emerges. New capabilities and sensitivities appear, and awareness and perceptions of reality are radically altered. The initial leap into the new mode is fairly rapid, but the elaboration of the possibilities of the new consciousness unfold over millennia.

The second phase Gebser called “Magical Consciousness.” Humanity began to develop greater awareness of itself and its natural surroundings, and launched efforts to control nature and influence events through spells, rites and rituals. Consciousness was still somewhat like sleep, though less deep. Human consciousness began the process of pulling out of its fusion with nature. It began to separate itself from the context.

The third phase he labeled “Mythical Consciousness.” In this phase, humanity became much more awake and aware, and lived primarily in the imagination. Great cultural myths were written, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahabarata and the Ramayan, to help people understand their lives and their culture. By this time, agriculture and cities were developing, and people were aware of the arc of their lives and their cultures through time. The retreat from fusion with the environment continued.

The fourth phase, “Mental Consciousness,” is the phase in which we are currently living. Gebser dates its origin at 500 B.C.. He considers that we have now reached the ultimate, decadent stage of this consciousness. On schedule, the crisis has arrived, and he perceives that evolution is swinging into high gear once again. That evolution, in his view, is currently unfolding and conveying us towards the next phase, “Integral Consciousness,” which will expand our capacities to include an awareness of the wholeness and unity of life in the Universe. As with previous shifts in consciousness, in its initial stages it will involve a rapid expansion of awareness and a transformation in the essential nature of consciousness. We are approaching or experiencing a leap in evolution, and our experiences of life and ourselves will be very different in this new mental world. It comes not a moment too soon.

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