‘Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.
That’s the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, quoted in a recent report from the California-based Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS).
And what, you may ask, is a quote about storytelling doing in a report about noetic sciences? For that matter, what are noetic sciences?
“Noetic” is derived from the Greek word “nous,” meaning mind, intelligence, or ways of knowing. (There’s no exact English equivalent.) Noetic science is a new, empirically based field that explores the realm of subjective experience and the potentials of human consciousness, using the objective research methods of modern science.
In other words, it explores the inner cosmos of the mind and how it relates to the outer cosmos of the physical world.
It would actually be more accurate to term its findings rediscoveries, since they validate the perennial wisdom that forms the core of the world’s great religions and spiritual paths. But what is new are the tools being used to carry out the research.
The Institute of Noetic Sciences grew out of the life-changing experience of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell during his return to earth on that historic space flight.
Watching his beautiful home planet hanging in space, Mitchell was overcome with the sense we all participate in a living universe, or what he called “a universe of consciousness.”
As a scientist by training, Mitchell was much more at home with the dominant western worldview—that we can only understand our world through rational, objective knowledge.
Nevertheless, by showing him another way of knowing, a kind of inner understanding, his experience in the spacecraft profoundly changed him.
In 1973, convinced that human consciousness was the next frontier, Mitchell founded IONS to “advance the science of consciousness and human experience (in order) to serve individual and collective transformation.”
Today, IONS’ staff scientists and research fellows conduct their own formal investigations and experiments into the interdisciplinary field of human consciousness. The institute also publishes the yearly Shift Reports, described as “an annual series of investigations into the challenges of our civilization and the evolution of our species.”
Last year’s report examined the evidence for a transforming world and looked at how the limitations of our materialist-reductionist model of science stand in the way of such transformation.
This year’s report, whose contributors include quantum physicist Amit Goswani, neuroscientist Diane Powell and green economist Hazel Henderson, looks at how the stories we tell create our world.
Entitled Changing the Story of Our Future, the report documents the evidence for such a claim—that stories literally (and not just metaphorically) affect external reality, in ways we do not yet fully understand.
As the late Willis Harman, a physicist and electrical engineer who later became an early president of IONS, said, “In some sense much more fundamental than is implied in conventional psychology, our belief systems create our reality.”
The report’s introduction notes our dominant western belief system “prioritizes reason and the primacy of the physical universe; favours such characteristics as objectivity, predictability, hierarchy and duality (either-or, right-wrong); and is rooted in the study of parts instead of systems.”
In turn, this belief system has generated a number of assumptions, such as “Economic wealth is the truest sign of progress,”“The market is the most reliable measure of value,”“We live in a world of scarcity” and “Humans are superior to other creatures.”
The tumbling financial markets are now offering us a stark lesson in the falsity of at least two of these assumptions.
But their collapse also offers an opportunity—a chance for each of us to examine those unquestioned inner beliefs that grow out of an increasingly destructive and untenable worldview.
We’re being offered a chance to reshape the narratives of our lives—to start telling ourselves and each other different stories that, in turn, have the power to change how we perceive “reality.”
In his preface to the report, IONS president James O’Dea says it documents “the inspiring tenaciousness and creativity emerging in many sectors of human endeavour that are trying to wrestle our future from the obstinate grip of an unsustainable worldview.”
O’Dea goes on, “We conclude (the report) by examining how the heart of this evolutionary movement and change can emerge within each of us.”
One of the most exciting things about ION’s approach is the establishment of the link between outer and inner, affirming that deep political or environmental change is unachievable without a parallel change in our internal belief systems.
There are those in the “hard” sciences, too, who recognize the limits of their disciplines and accept other ways of knowing and apprehending the world.
One example is Bernard d’Espagnat, the winner of this year’s Templeton Prize, awarded for contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
D’Espagnat, a French physicist who has worked with some of the field’s most prominent figures, believes quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately “veiled” from us.
However accurate the models of quantum physics (and they’ve proven to be among the most accurate in the history of science), they offer us only a glimpse behind that veil.
D’Espagnat is convinced that this hidden reality—which he calls “Being”—is in some sense divine.
And at this point, of course, science and spirituality merge in what I consider an extraordinarily exciting and expanded view of the cosmos—a profoundly world-altering view.
For if, in some sense, our world is suffused with Being—if it is the “universe of consciousness” that Edgar Mitchell described—then it’s a vastly more mysterious and interconnected place than our dominant belief system can accommodate.
So we need to heed Okri’s warning. As the contemporary study of human consciousness shows, the stories we choose to read or tell today will produce our future, in ways we’re only dimly beginning to understand.
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s latest book
is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas.