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Something Bigger than Life is Trying to Work Through Us

by Tom Atlee (August 2009)

More and more, I feel called to talk about crises, as creatively and usefully as I can.

Clearly crises are coming, some are very much here. Once reserved for the fringes, crisis talk has gone mainstream. We aren't talking "apocalyptic extremists" anymore. We're talking the respected chief economist of the International Energy Agency saying we'll be feeling serious economic impact from peak oil in the immediate future <>. We just had four exhausting days of over 100 degree temperatures in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon -- and new reports say that the humongous Greenland ice sheet is going to melt, regardless, more than doubling estimates of sea level rise <>. A scientist friend faulted me for having a few ounces of fish each day for breakfast -- which I do for a cardiovascular condition -- because the oceans are dying <>...

We can no longer act as if such information is merely the hope-curdling pessimism of doom-and-gloomers. It is now our daily news. But listening to it presents a quandry: On the one hand, it feels increasingly odd to proceed with life as usual in the face of it. On the other hand, what exactly are we supposed to do about it?

The more I delve into the situations we face, the less I see clear or easy answers. However, in this challenging process I am coming to realize a few things.

One of the big ones: To the extent our anguish over the coming crises is a cry for no disruption in our lives -- and that is certainly part of my own anguish -- I suspect we will not find any answers, because our business-as-usual patterns are so closely tied to the destructive systems at work on our planet. Nothing we do to change our small lives within the business-as-usual systems will change that disturbing fact. Only changing those systems will.

But changing a system is a gigantic, long-term undertaking. More immediate issues confront us. For example: once we face the fact that business-as-usual is not an answer, a logical next step is to prepare. But...


I consider the options most often talked about in crisis-conscious preparation circles.

There is the option of personal material preparation -- of stocking up, gardening, investing in gold, figuring out where to move, and so on. These are all useful as far as they go, but when we think them through, they just don't go far enough. Other people fleeing adjacent areas of hardship would likely seek security of their own in whatever island of security we've managed to create. If they are welcomed, they would likely overwhelm our supplies. If they are turned away, some will try to take what we have.

We can prepare our communities, but the same holds true there. I do believe that resilient sustainable communities are part of the future, and are a top priority for our creative energy (see Transition Towns). But what about the community next door? What about the migrants from afar, whose lives have been shattered?

Nowadays it seems to me like there is nothing to prepare except the world. For most of us, that seems too big. (As bright spots on the horizon, however, Transition Towns and related initiatives are making a valiant attempt to do exactly that, from the ground up.)

Of course, since we co-create our own suffering in our minds, we can develop psycho-spiritual practices that enable us personally to fully experience disruption and pain without actually experiencing much suffering. There are ample tools for that, from meditation to belief-changing practices.

Although such practices help us productively engage with whatever happens, reliance on them can also beg the question of what is happening in the larger world, and what it means for who we humans are together in the Great Story of Life.


The above paragraphs explore the sort of thoughts that come to me when I think of saving me and mine. Oddly enough, they don't excite my life energy. What does energize me -- and it is a calling filled with struggles, aliveness, and the most remarkable people I've ever met -- is to center my life on serving that transformation of the world that is crying to happen THROUGH the crises that are emerging around us.

When I look at the big picture, I get the sense that we are part of something larger that is "trying to happen." What I do with my life is a symptom, a sign of particular energies that are blowing in the wind. When I seek my own salvation -- and extend it to everyone seeking their own salvation -- it seems to me a symptom of The Whole coming apart, breaking into fragments that think they can survive alone. When I seek the transformation of The Whole -- the whole society, the whole culture, the whole world -- it feels like a symptom of the whole of humanity seeking to heal into something new, feeling its way into a future that is more wholesome.

It feels like none of it is really about me. It is about the whole, the whole of life, the thrust and intelligence of evolution working its way through time, through me, through you, through us all and our world.


In these times of daunting emerging crises, some truths that most potently shape my life are these:

The Big Bang is our awesome primal ancestor. We are its children, its legacy. Its energy is ours, whether we know it or not.

We are the hydrogen dew of the Universal Beginning that was then forged in red giant stars and exploding supernovae to become every atom of our bodies and our world.

For billions of years, we've been flowing with every other particle in the universal river of stardust on an exquisite, unlikely, painful, magical, and infinitely creative Journey into the lives and worlds that we live in and are, today.

Over and over, I forget this awesome truth in my seemingly ordinary everyday life. Then over and over I remember it: Truly a miracle is unfolding within and around me, moment to moment, hidden by the camouflage of business-as-usual.

But for better and worse, you and I are on the verge of business-as-usual tearing itself apart before our very eyes, revealing the raw truth of evolution here and now in our time, in our place, in our hearts and minds. Evolution always speeds up in the verges, the edges, the crises, the between-worlds spaces where anything can happen....

And we, on that edge, are speeding toward a whole new identity, a whole new Story of who we are and what we are about.

Today we are the 13.7 billion year evolutionary adventure dreaming of becoming conscious of itself -- of becoming knowingly choiceful -- able to evolve by aware understanding, will, and caring. If we awaken, evolution will awaken.

If we do this thing, everything will be different, and we will be saved. All together. As a new world.


Hidden by our institutionalized not-see-ism, the crises that are coming are being co-created moment-to-moment by our collective consciousness, our technologies, our social systems, simply by doing what they were designed to do. These co-created crises are magnificent in their complexity, their challenge, and their perfect fit for our evolutionary awakening, which is underway even as you read this. They call us to look in the mirror of evolution and see ourselves clearly, to look at how we have set up our world. They call us to step out of the box -- for the box is burning! -- and to transform ourselves and our world by wise choice, creating the path as we walk it.

There is no waiting. There are no spectators. We are It. Our collective systems are what It is about, and we are All Doing It.

Our emerging crises are a call to become wiser, collectively -- to become the deep collective wisdom and monumental creativity of evolution, itself, becoming conscious through us.

To become evolution is to see the vastness of the Story we are living, a Story of deep time stretching back through chains of shape-shifting ancestors -- back through families, through tribes, through animals and plants... back, back through bacteria, molten earth, stars, galaxies, elemental particles -- back to the infinitely potent Great Radiance that birthed the universe as an Adventure, as a Family, as All Our Relations, as Us.

To become evolution is to realize that within the depths of the emergent Now reside the potent traces of Everything That Ever Was, shaping our next steps. Everything That Ever Was is within and around us, calling us urgently to awaken to what is trying to be born through us. It's Voice -- the Voice of Tomorrow -- the Voice of the Whole -- is in every one of us.

To become evolution is to wake and know in every cell that our still-adolescent human awareness, which arose out of evolution, is creating problems it cannot solve without transforming itself. It is to know that we, collectively, are both that adolescent awareness and its transformation.

To become evolution is to wake up to deeper and deeper awareness that our still-adolescent social systems -- especially our political, governmental, economic, energy, technological, and information systems -- all of which arose out of evolution -- are creating problems they cannot solve without transforming themselves and each other -- and to know in every cell that they can't do that without our active, conscious participation. And that that is our calling at this evolutionary moment.

To become evolution is to wake up to the reality that we are participants in everything alive and in control of nothing alive. To become evolution is thus to strive to learn how to be engaged, wise, creative awake partners with each other, with the world in which we live, and with the conditions of our time. Crisis is opportunity on the winds of dangers that can stupify or awaken us. Crisis is the dangerous breaking of glass that opens locked windows of opportunity that require perceptiveness and courage to move through, with care.

To become evolution is to say "We are Life, I am Life, itself, finding ways to live, ways that work for and nurture Life. This task is what Life is all about, now and forever. We are All. In This. Together."

Such big declarations, so much easier said than done. But such is the Story that makes meaning in my own life right now, in the midst of emerging crises. My efforts, your efforts, are part of the human story waking up to find its new proper place in the Universe Story. Our efforts are not about us. They are not even about winning or losing, succeeding or failing. They are about the great Unfolding, which we are.


For some years I have been passionate about exploring evolutionary dynamics that can be used to change social systems. In that exploration, Peggy Holman and I stumbled on the idea that evolution is about diverse entities interacting in nurturing and challenging contexts to create and sustain new forms of elegantly simple complexity. Each aspect of this definition now informs my life.

As evolution waking up, I feel called....

* I feel called to learn more about how to use our differences and our challenges creatively, not simply as problems to avoid or solve, but as signs of new life pushing to emerge -- and as invitations into a new, more whole tomorrow.

* I feel called to learn and practice potent forms of interaction -- especially conversational and economic interactions -- that nurture deep aliveness and lead to breakthrough. I feel called to notice -- in my life and the world -- and to respond creatively to those interactions that generate frustration, violence, and breakdown.

* I feel called to notice the role of contexts, and not take them for granted. They so easily become invisible background, but they are so extremely important. For example: spaces, histories, intentions, worldviews, social systems, timing, the quality of conversation -- all these are potent contexts. They shape who and how we are and what is possible. They offer "nonlinear leverage" for evolutionary work. I feel called to attend to these and to work with other evolutionaries to shape and weave new contexts into a wisdom culture, mindful of their power. The contexts we shape will shape what happens to our children, to the Seventh Generation after them, and to the children of all species.

* I feel called to seek the deepest, most elegant and inclusive simplicity on the other side of complexity. I see that the shallow simplicities on this side of complexity -- the oversimplifications that don't acknowledge, welcome, and "digest" the full diversity and nuances of who we are and what we face -- are killing us and our world. I dream of weaving ourselves into new forms of alive organic complexity that are a simple, straightforward joy to be dancing in...

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of
complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity
on the other side of complexity.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes


I have seen all this over the last few years. We are thoroughly dependent on systems that are destroying us and our world. The very designs and beliefs that make them powerful and toxic are the designs and beliefs that, once transformed, will make us new. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," said Thomas Paine in another crisis era. "The birth of a new world is at hand."

I see clearly that the longer we delay needed changes, the more demanding they will be. The more we delay them, the less resources we will have to do them. The demands on our lives from these truths will be increasingly profound and revolutionary. Because evolution, like water behind a dam, knows where all the cracks are, and is working on them right now with increasing intensity.

Not changing is not an option any more. How soon we consciously change -- and how open we are to the Call of the Whole in and around us as we do it -- will make the difference.

I have seen so clearly that all this is not
about us as individuals. It is not about
issues and candidates. It is not about
good guys and bad guys. It IS about the
larger motions we make together, and
the cultures and systems that shape
those motions.

Our individual suffering, our fear, our successes are meaningless transient eddies in the current of Life -- unless they are part of shifting those larger motions, those cultures and systems, the Direction of the River.

The meaning of life -- at least of my life -- is increasingly tied to all this -- to this waking into conscious evolution with others so that the Profound Possibility that is Larger than Life can happen through us with sacred beauty.

What is your role in this awakening
from our dream of business-as-usual
in Time,
so that the remarkable experiment
called human consciousness and civilization
will not vanish,
but thrive to greater heights,
and be a blessing for the world?


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