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Exploring the Living Universe

An Interview with Duane Elgin

by Janice  & Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Copublishers

A social visionary looks beneath the surface turbulence of our times to explore
the deeper trends that are transforming our world.

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Duane Elgin is an internationally recognized speaker, teacher, and social visionary. Over the past 25 years, Duane has co-founded three non-profit organizations concerned with media accountability and citizen empowerment. He advocates the importance of simplicity, sustainability, and community for building a green future. A local Marin County resident, Duane is the author of several best-selling books including Awakening Earth, Promise Ahead, Voluntary Simplicity, and his latest, The Living Universe. Duane has an MBA from the Wharton Business School and an honorary Doctor of Philosophy for work in "ecological and spiritual transformation" from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

The Share Guide: Duane, in your latest book The Living Universe, you say that our future pivots on whether we regard the universe as dead or alive. Why?

Duane Elgin:
I say this because our future depends upon our story as a human family. If we see the universe as not simply a bunch of dead matter and empty space but actually a living system, then our story may well be one of learning how to live together in a living universe. If we don't have a story to guide us into the future, we're going to pull back into our smaller life stories of the past--stories of nationalism, of ethnic groups, of tribal groups, of geographic groups--and instead of pulling together in cooperation we're going to pull apart in conflict. What I am suggesting is to step back and see the universe as our original, larger home. If we are going to pull together as a human family for a promising future, this is an inclusive project; no one is left out.

The Share Guide: Would you agree that one of the keys to saving our environment and stopping the pillaging of the planet would be educating the children to see the universe as alive?

Duane Elgin: Yes, the attitudes of parents and teachers really amplifiy and reinforce that pivotal point of view. We've lost the sacred dimension of life, and what we're left with is a kind of existential materialism that's not serving our evolution now as a species.

The Share Guide: Some people talk about the universe being inherently friendly or unfriendly. Einstein had a comment related to that.

Duane Elgin: Yes, Einstein's famous quote was if he could ask God one question, it would be: "Is the universe friendly or not?" But I'm suggesting there may be a more fundamental question: Is the universe alive or not? In my mind, that question is really a scientific one; it's not theology and dogma. We can use the tools of science to inquire into this question, and what's revealed is stunning. The universe is not the dead mechanistic system that we used to think it was. The more that we inquire, the more amazing the nature of reality appears.

The Share Guide: So the materialism that's rampant in our society is related to the way we see the universe? In other words, if we think of the universe as alive, we'll revere it, and if we think it's dead we'll exploit it.

Duane Elgin: Yes. If we're intimately connected with the entirety of creation, then we feel a sense of stewardship, a sense of communion and caring. Now, sometimes it's hard to see that connection. We look around and it seems like there are a bunch of fragments. However, quantum theorists are saying there's no such thing as solid matter; there are only strings of energy. More importantly, the fabric of space is not a static emptiness. It is now understood to be a very dynamic, living presence. Einstein clarified that there's no such thing as space; there's only space-time.

We have an enormous amount still yet to discover and understand. For instance, science now knows that 96% of the known universe is invisible. It's called dark matter and dark energy, and it's called "dark" because you can't see it. But here we are, in the 4% that's visible, and I say to people: if we're going to make materialism our life path, we're essentially giving our lives over to the 4% solution. Because the 96%, the invisible part, we're just completely ignoring. In a way, the living universe paradigm is shifting our perspective and saying let's give due regard to that 96% that we've been missing.

The Share Guide: In your book, you mention that we humans are the optimum size for a conscious life form.

Duane Elgin: If we were significantly smaller, as creatures we would not have enough atoms in our body to create an organism of sufficient complexity to sustain the kind of intelligence and dexterity that we have. We would just be too small to have that size of brain, the reach of arms, and so forth, to be really functional in this world. On the other hand, if we were a lot larger, that wouldn't work either. Think of the dinosaurs that had huge bodies--they moved extremely slowly because it took so long for the electrical impulses to travel the length of that enormous body. If we were huge we could end up being just lumbering giants, very slow to respond and create. So we're of a size that really is optimal for engaging the world as we have. I think if we saw alien conscious beings from other solar systems, they might look different than us but may be of similar size, as opposed to being huge or tiny.

The Share Guide: Do you believe there's intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?

Duane Elgin: Absolutely. I would find it extraordinarily unlikely that there is no other intelligent life out there given the immensity of the universe. The conditions for life seem to be widespread, so I would think there is, indeed.

The Share Guide: In your book you've stated that you don't believe that consciousness is confined within the brain, and that you were involved in some psychic experiments in the past, such as remote viewing.

Duane Elgin: Well, for more than 20 years I didn't say anything about it because it's so controversial. I was involved in these experiments for a period of almost three years, and they were funded by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). The basic core question was that if you had an astronaut on the far side of the moon, and you thought they were in trouble in their space capsule, was there a way to get remote, intuitive knowledge about how they were doing? That's what we were researching. So over a period of three years, I was involved in all manner of experiments to explore this. It was an extraordinary learning opportunity, and one of the things that I learned was that we all have these intuitive capacities; there's nothing special about this. If you would imagine a few hundred years ago, someone had the ability to read, and a village of illiterate folks said, "Oh, this is amazing. This person knows how to read and he must be so incredible." That's how we are now with our literacy of consciousness. We're projecting miracles onto people when it's really a very normal capacity that we all share. What's required is study, just like going to school. That study requires meditation, and taking the time to actually do the interior inquiry to develop the understanding that we do participate in a living universe.

The Share Guide: So you think that those who meditate and do other spiritual practices can enhance and develop their innate intuitive skills?

Duane Elgin: Yes. We're living in this ecology of consciousness. We all participate in it and it's easy to miss. That's one thing I learned: it's easy to overlook those little small twinges and insights and intuitions that come up, but if we slow down and pay attention, what we find is that we're swimming in a universe of insight and information all the time.

The Share Guide: Do you think that the work you did with these experiments and meditation helped exercise or enhance your skills by getting you to pay attention more?

Duane Elgin: Yes, it was very reinforcing. At the time I was simultaneously studying Tibetan Buddhist meditation, and doing the experimentation in the laboratory. The lab experiments gave me a chance to actually test the validity of my experience, to see if there actually was something of significance happening.

The Share Guide: The Share Guide has interviewed a number of authors whose work seems to dovetail with your books. For instance, when we interviewed Deepak Chopra, he said that the purpose of meditation is to "Get in touch with your soul, and then go beyond that and get in touch with the consciousness that your soul is a ripple of."

Duane Elgin: There is a field of energy that permeates the universe. This is understood by science, and now what we're beginning to discover is that field of energy is alive. One of its qualities is sentience or consciousness, and we can interact with that field. We're not just closed off in our physical bodies. We have the capacity to interact with the larger field of consciousness; it permeates our lives and touches us day-in and day-out. If there is needless suffering happening in the world, it tinges and colors the ocean of consciousness that we swim in, and we imbibe this daily. So, if we can create a world without undue suffering--one where we're not killing off all of these species and harming one another--it will change the atmosphere of our lives.

The Share Guide: Many people have written that we don't just have an individual unconscious but we're also part of something larger, which Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. What do you think about that?

Duane Elgin: I think the collective unconscious is actually becoming the Collective Consciousness. With the mass media, every time we watch some event, whether it's a mass sporting event or it's the president speaking about one thing or another, we are tuning in with our collective consciousness to a happening in the world. In the past, we didn't have that ability. And so in a way, we have been awakening a capacity for reflective consciousness at a social level unbeknownst to humanity. It's an almost invisible process of bio-osmosis; we are developing a new capacity for witnessing, for being an observing species, and this is transformative.

The Share Guide: Is it true that lesser-evolved creatures, even monkeys and apes that are closely related to us, don't have the capacity to reflect like we do?

Duane Elgin: Researchers are now seeing that there are a number of animals that do have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. They have consciousness to some degree. Dolphins have it, elephants have it, some birds have it, and I think chimps and some others too. So there's probably a spectrum of consciousness where the ability to be reflective is not unique to humans, but the capacity to be truly introspective probably is.

The Share Guide: Deepak Chopra said that when you experience enlightenment, "You see the whole world as an expression of yourself, and you see that the ground of your being is also the ground of all existence." This seems to go along with what you've written about the living universe and experiencing ourselves as a connected part of it.

Duane Elgin: Yes. Not only do we live in a living universe, but the living universe lives within us. In other words, we're not just sitting here and looking out at a universe that's alive--we ourselves are that aliveness.

The Share Guide: When we interviewed John Hagelin for The Share Guide, he talked about a universal field of nature's intelligence that governs the vast universe with perfect order. What are your thoughts on that?

Duane Elgin: I think it's a self-governing universe. All of the pieces of the universe have some degree of choice and consciousness, whether it's an atom, a single-cell entity, or a human being. We all have some degree of freedom and choice, and we're all choosing and co-creating the sum total of reality as it presents itself at every moment.

The Share Guide: Don't cosmologists now say that there may be multiple universes?

Duane Elgin: Yes, in the last 20 years, cosmology has shifted from talking about a single universe to saying there must be multiple universes co-existing simultaneously. We're just one among an infinite number of other universes.

The Share Guide: You've written that our universe is a place of miracles but it is not a place of magic. Does that mean you still believe in the scientific method, and we can't just believe everything we read?

Duane Elgin: Yes, I do believe in the scientific method. The wonderful thing is that we can use the tools of science to explore these seemingly invisible realms of ecology of consciousness. So it's not impenetrable; we can explore.

The Share Guide: Your book discussed three major stages in awakening to the living universe: Reflective consciousness, oceanic consciousness, and flow consciousness. Can you explain?

Duane Elgin: I think people would recognize each of these stages of progression towards union with the living universe. Reflective consciousness says, "I will pay attention to myself as I move through daily life." Whether it's with psychotherapy or a spiritual tradition, watching yourself as you move through life is powerfully transformative, because it requires that we come to a place of reconciliation and friendship and a place of connection with ourselves. In doing so, we end up in a place of connection and communion with the larger universe.

This reflection then moves us to an oceanic sense of communion with the living universe. Studies have shown that approximately 40% of the American public has had the experience of communion with a living universe. People speak about a sense of feeling great safety, of great peace, of a great sense of connection, which is what I call the oceanic experience. Then, as people rest in that kind of oceanic experience, we begin to see this as a living, dynamic presence.

This offers us the potential for flow consciousness, where we dance with the flow of the universe. This is something that's widely recognized. People on high-performance sports teams talk about flow consciousness. Jazz ensembles that are playing together speak about flow consciousness. People that have a high level of challenge and productivity together will sometimes speak about flow consciousness. All sorts of areas of our lives bring out those moments, those little periods of, "We're just moving at one with the flow of it all." So, that's the sequence of progressively engaging and coming into a more intimate relationship with the living universe.

The Share Guide: You've compared all the major world religions, and point to a common thread through them all showing that we are all part of a connected, living universe. So how do we overcome all the strife and hate and racism, and learn to live in peace with each other?

Duane Elgin: We're still in discovery. Unfortunately, most people don't look at their religion and think that other religions around the world share the same foundation. This is good news that has yet to spread around the world. People have yet to see that we all share the same foundational insight; we're in the same universe together. However, science is now sharing that same awareness, so science and religion do not have to be at odds with one another. That gives us the foundation for actually creating a resilient and strong understanding for moving into the future--where the reconciliation and the work towards cooperation and collaboration can come from.

To find out when Duane Elgin will be teaching online learning courses, giving local talks, or to receive his Newsletter, please visit his website at www.awakeningearth.org

Related Info:
Helen Caldicott, M.D. on healing the planet
John Hagelin, Ph.D. on meditation and bringing peace to the planet
Deepak Chopra, M.D. on meditation
Barbara Marx Hubbard on holistic education and healing the planet
The Dalai Lama on Learning Universal Responsibility
The Ecological Footprint
The Bells of Mindfulness

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