Awakening the Story of the Universe in Our Lives

Karen Harwell, friend and member of the Conscious Elders Network sent this in today.

We need a common and compelling vision of the nature of the Universe and the role of the human within it. Such a new cosmology must be grounded in the best empirical, scientific understanding, and must be nourished just as deeply by the vibrant cores of our planet’s wisdom traditions. Only such a vision has a chance of awakening the deep psychic energies necessary to shape a new era of health, well being, true prosperity.     ~ Brian Thomas Swimme

Awakening the Story of the Universe in Our Lives

One only has to look around and see what is happening to our world to know that Brian Thomas Swimme is right: We need a new, more expanded cosmology. What we have been taught about the Universe and our part in it is inadequate for the times we live in.

How do we awaken the deep psychic energy Brian talks about? Personally, my inquiry came from reading two books by Thomas Berry. His book Dream of the Earth held insights far different from the cultural teachings of my education, my religious upbringing, virtually everything the typical cultural coding told about the nature of reality.

A second book by Thomas Berry, coauthored with Brian, The Universe Story offered personal tools to explore the answer from an intellectual standpoint. In it, the authors talked about three key aspects of the Universe.

All activity in the Universe is Universe activity. The fireball energy arranges itself into the antennae of beetles or the subterranean architecture of gophers. For thirteen billion years, creative energy has shaped itself into a story of majesty. The whole sequence of spontaneous shinings becomes a story precisely because the spontaneities are governed by the central contours of the Universe, here identified as subjectivity, differentiation, and communion.


The Universe consists of subjects, each with the capacity for being a source of its own sensibility and perception, as well as initiating freely and naturally without external cause. The Universe manifests only in and through particular subjects. To be a subject, then is to be an autonomous source of Universe activity.

According to Thomas Berry, not only is every being different from every other being in the Universe but each has its own inner articulation, and each carries in its subjective depths “the numinous mystery whence the Universe emerges into being. This we might identify as the sacred depth of the individual being.”

This is astonishing news – the first time humans have had any empirical evidence of the story of the Universe and of their own unique connection to that story. A few mystics, through their own insights, intuited this connection with the Universe and interpreted it for others. Now we can see for ourselves the continued emergence of the Universe through the amazing views coming from the Hubble telescope and have our own mystical experience.

It is easier to think of subjectivity in terms of humans, harder to think of animals and plants as subjects, and even harder with things that are inanimate. Yet we say “a star shines,” so it’s not too much of a stretch to think of a star as a subject which is acting. Its dynamic organization of hydrogen and helium, its ability to produce a vast entity of elements and to produce light, are all its own business.

We can also imagine an atom as a self, for each atom is a blazing blur of self-organizing activity. This same invisible power, assembling energy into a particular pattern, is the atom’s center of organization.

To imagine what is actually taking place in a rock requires an appreciation for the activity required for rock existence. The rock is not simply passive. It burbles with activity at the quantum level so that the rock can be what it is. That which sustains and energizes the rock is its subjectivity, that which sustains and energizes the mountain is its subjectivity, just as that which sustains and energizes a human is its subjectivity. Everything, absolutely everything, is a subject, a unique expression of the whole cosmic community. The origin of every subject traces back to the beginning of time and space.

How different from the cultural coding I was exposed to, which viewed only the human as subject and thus the only one capable of intimate relationship with the source of creation. Everything else was viewed as object, with its value based on its resource potential for human use. In this new view, everything is unique, with its own intelligence and strategy, intriguing and mysterious.

I spent my own childhood journeying back and forth from the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to the plains city of Denver, where our home was located. Most weekends and much of the summer we were in the mountains, where as a child I reveled in magical creeks and streams, played hide and seek with chipmunks, searched for mica and other minerals, felt sheer delight on the back of a galloping horse and in locating a lost calf, felt cooled and humbled by afternoon rains and thunderstorms, went quiet and inner with the awesome experience of the Sun sinking behind the purple mountains, and came together in warmth and community around blazing campfires. There was coherence in this magical community. Somehow it was easy to feel in balance and in right proportion as a human presence in relationship with everything else. In the mountain community, I had a deep knowing of belonging.

Then on Sunday evenings, as we wound our way down the mountain roads to Denver, I often felt a certain dis-ease and sadness and longed for things to work in Denver as coherently as they did in the mountains.

Today, I have the language to describe what I was feeling and experiencing then. The chipmunk, the stream, the mica, and the mountain were all subjects to me. They were real and had value in and of themselves. They comprised my world and were my relations. I felt a deep love for each of them. They were not objects to be used by me. I was not looking at the mountain as mineral deposits to be mined; the chipmunk was not just a creature in the background of my landscape; and the stream not just s source of water for me to drink. In this intimate encounter with each, I was experiencing an awesome revelation of our Earth community.

In Sunday school, we never talked about all the things that made my life so full and wonderful. Instead we talked about an abstract God who did not seem to live within the Earth community, and people who lived long ago and far away and rules that didn’t mention anything about chipmunks, streams or mountains. Later on, I began to wonder, why if we love God, wouldn’t we love his creation. I thought if I were God, I would rather people would love everything that I had brought into being.

Among the more subtle meanings of subjectivity is the dimension of time and its effect on everything. Over time, everything changes, even the Universe. Appreciating this, I have found it uncomfortable how easy it is to “box” people in time, instead of allowing them to reveal themselves at each new encounter. Now instead of thinking I know how so and so is, I catch myself and move into anticipating who they have become since we last met.


From the elementary particles to all the myriad forms of the animate world, to the complexities of galaxy and planetary systems, we live in a Universe of unending variety. We once saw the night skies as filled with twinkling things we called stars. Then we learned more about the stars and that they were all different, and we learned that some were actually planets, and they were all different. We learned about nebulae and galaxies, all of which were different. The more intimately we become acquainted with anything, it seems, the clearer our recognition of its differences with anything else in the world.

We are now fully aware that the Universe is coded to become more and more diverse. The Earth is highly developed, and its aliveness arises out of this principle of differentiation. Why then, as Thomas Berry would ask, do we try to make everything the same?

Whereas the basic direction of the evolutionary process is toward constant differentiation within the order of the Universe, our modern world is directed toward monocultures. This is the inherent direction of the entire industrial age. It requires standardization, an invariant process of multiplication with no enrichment of meaning.

The first 20 years of my life, I sought familiarity, choosing to be with people who were like me. It all changed when I transferred from a small liberal arts women’s college to a large university, where the only residential option was to live in a boarding house. The people who lived in this house, as well as the graduate students who came for meals, were the most diverse group I had ever spent any time with. At first, I was uncomfortable, and often judgmental. But with each meal conversation, it became clearer that these people, whom I never would have selected to be with, were far more interesting than many of the people I had felt comfortable with. By the end of the year, it was obvious how much I had missed by avoiding diversity. And as a result, I learned to not only welcome but also even seek out the opportunity to experience diversity, valuing the richness it brings.

Differentiation also promotes strength. I have had the rich experience to spend time in old growth forests. After cradling the fullness of their diversity, anything less now seems to be sparse and degraded. In agriculture, in our forests, and in our gardens, we are increasingly aware of how vulnerable and weak monoculture is. Where there are a variety of types of plants and variance in canopy levels, there is healthy growth, and the strength to resist pests and changes in weather. So it is a cruel irony that we are so prone to want to eliminate differences, when in fact, differentiation is the key to our well being and to the chance to continue on in the community of life.


To be is to be related. The Sun and the Earth are bound in a relationship we call gravitational interaction. The chlorophyll molecules carry the essence of the Sun in their structure. The human celebrates this relationship with the Sun in all the ten thousand cultures on Earth.

Much of our existence finds fulfillment in relatedness. We can experience this in all of the attention we humans, other animals, insects, and creatures of all kinds put into the mating rituals the natural world has evolved. So much of the coloration and dance and song of the world come from our desire to enter relationships of true intimacy. The energy we and other animals bestow on this work of relatedness reveals something of the ultimate meaning of communal experience.

In Thomas Berry’s words,

The ethical imperative of communion reminds us that the entire Universe is bonded together in such a way that the presence of each individual is felt throughout the entire special and temporal range of the Universe. This capacity for bonding of the components of the Universe with each other enables the vast variety of beings to come into existence in that gorgeous profusion that we observe about us.

One of the most amazing insights of my life came during a course in biology. We were studying honeybees and the intricacies of their community, which enables them to be the amazing pollinators they are bringing the almond groves into their fullness, the flowers to sweeten the Earth, and on and on. I had my own mystical awakening to the reality that the whole thing is interwoven and utterly interdependent. I felt infused with respect and reverence for the intelligence and wisdom that permeates everything, and that insight totally re-framed my perspective on life and enhanced my ability to love.

I feel so fortunate to have found these three principles to reference in my life. Woven into daily life, they can serve as a balance. When things seem to be going off kilter, almost certainly one or more of the principles is out of balance. When this happens to me – such as getting too much into community and not respecting differentiation and/or subjectivity, or some other combination – and as I self-correct, a sense of balance seems to return.

Using these three principles as a barometer/compass to navigate through each day, I find more and more joy in being alive on this blue/green Earth, and this mysterious and numinous Universe.

With immense gratitude and love, Karen Harwell

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