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Avant-God, non-duality, Pantheism

The Dual Overview Effect of Pantheism

In April 2017, a collective of space enthusiasts and provocateurs calling themselves the Autonomous Space Agency Network (ASAN) launched a weather balloon with a camera and a message for the current president of the United States of America. Billed as the “first protest in space,” it was intended to speak against the administration’s proposed budget cuts for NASA’s Earth science program, which according to ASAN “is invaluable to understanding climate change and making informed, data-driven policy decisions.”

(I highly recommend checking out at least a portion of their operatic 2:26:21 video of the balloon rising to 90,000 feet above the Arizona desert. Trigger warning: Flat Earthers, there is curvature present.)

The quote in ASAN’s protest tweet is a portion of a famous statement by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who in 1971 became the sixth person to walk on the moon. Speaking of the dramatic change in his perspective as a direct result of his space travel, Mitchell said:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

Mitchell’s mental and emotional changes summed up by this statement have been cited as perhaps the most dramatic example of a phenomenon called the “overview effect.”

According to Wikipedia, “The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”

“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half,” said astronaut Rusty Schweickart after a 1969 spacewalk during the Apollo 9 mission, “you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. It comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.”

Mitchell shared his own experience of the overview effect as a “profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness.” Mitchell said he felt intensely aware that each and every atom in the Universe is connected in some way. He was struck with what he explained as an “understanding that all the humans, animals, and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole.” He described it as an “interconnected euphoria.”

Frank White coined the term “overview effect” in 1987, and explored the concept in his book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution (Houghton-Mifflin, 1987), (AIAA, 1998). White also co-founded the Overview Institute “with the purpose of both researching and informing the world of the reality, nature, and potential of the overview effect.”  

“We will also promote and support widespread experience of it,” according to the institute’s website, “through direct space travel, and newer, more powerful and more publicly available space art, multi-media and education.”

As part of this outreach effort, the feature-length film “Planetary” explores the topic with many first-hand accounts of the effect, and there is also an exquisitely beautiful 19 minute short version, “Overview,” available on Vimeo.

My immediate thought upon first reading about the overview effect: If this isn’t exactly the non-dual perception that is the progenitor of pantheism, there is at least an enormous overlap between them. My research enhanced and confirmed the idea in two fully connected and complementary ways which, being inseparable aspects of the same thing, I will call the “dual overview effect” of pantheism rather than pluralize them.

The term “pantheism” covers a broad range of thought, but it was coined to describe the ontological philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the “God-intoxicated” heretic shunned by his Dutch Jewish community and feared by subsequent generations of conventional Judeo-Christian believers for his heterodox views of the Divine. Of his seminal work, Ethics, Hegel said, “Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely. You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.” High praise indeed.

To Spinoza, existence itself was a unified whole that was synonymous with the theistic concept of the Godhead [1]. His neutral monism is often cited for its strong resemblance to the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, in which Tao is neither a personal deity nor an impersonal force, but the singular essence and source of all seemingly separate things.

The idea of God or some conception of Absolute Being as the basic fabric of existence itself would have been familiar to any ancient culture east of Palestine or to mystics anytime and anywhere, and not unfamiliar to classical Western theists either. Pre-Enlightenment Roman Catholic luminaries like St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas would have shared a hearty laugh with Gautama Buddha or Lao-Tzu over the thought that God is a bearded man in the sky. Where Spinozan pantheism radically differs from orthodox Catholicism is that the distinction between Existence itself and what exists –between Creator and creation– is only conceptual; only a matter of where subjective attention is framed and focused, such as the difference between a canvas and a painting, or a dancer and the dance, and not an essential distinction, such as in the Christian model of Potter and pot.

Consider the relationship between a tree and its leaves. There is the obvious conceptual difference that any dictionary can validate, but is there an essential difference? Any quality of the leaf is also a quality of the tree. It is equally important to note that the tree is not “made of” leaves, branches, roots etc, in the way that a car is assembled from various parts –the parts of the tree are always aspects of the whole as it grows from seed to maturity. It would be inaccurate, therefore, to say there is a functional distinction as well, because everything the leaf does is also what the tree is doing.

It is a common misconception of pantheism that (to continue with the current analogy) it equates the leaf with the tree. The part and the whole are not identical, as the conceptual distinction correctly observes. Rather, to recognize the non-dual relationship of part and whole is to observe their conceptual distinction but keep it in its proper context of essential co-identity. In fact, the otherwise arbitrary definition of a part, relative to other parts, is the particular activity of the whole in that unique location, performing particular functions of the whole itself. The leaf, in other words, doesn’t do anything for the tree or in service of the tree. It is a specific activity of the tree; it is the tree in a unique time and place when-where the tree is “leafing.” It was never anything separate from the tree while it was this nexus of arboreal activity.

The non-dual relationship between the pantheist concept of God and creation is (literally) infinitely more profound and pervasive than the simple tree-leaf analogy. For one, the tree is also a temporary part of a greater whole –a forest, a landmass, the planet Earth, the Milky Way galaxy, the physical Universe: choose any of these and more, they are all correct. Furthermore, the leaf will one day fall from the tree and land on the ground; its elements will decompose and become part of the topsoil, which will help the tree continue to grow, as well as other trees from its seeds. To see the cyclical connection between ephemeral leaf and the more durable yet still finite tree, one must step back from the conceptual framework in which “tree” is the whole and see it as a part of “forest,” another system with its own vast set of complexities connected by non-dual relationships and lack of separation.

The pantheist concept of God is nothing less than the absolute Whole in which all possible partial relationships exist, the infinite unconditional ground in which all temporary, conditional, extant entities live and move and have their being –exclusive of nothing, conceptually distinct but not separate from anything that is, was, or will be. Keep this in mind, as it the key to seeing why the dual aspects of the overview effect are complementary and based in a single observation from just above our conditioned sense of self.

In short, pantheism expresses an holistic worldview. The universe, to a pantheist, is not just a system of interconnected parts, but an all-encompassing Whole –inclusive of all physical dimensions and the timeless, spaceless ground necessary for those dimensions to exist– manifesting in myriad ways and forms.

Holism takes little more than the intellectual dexterity to “pan back” from our typical scale of perception to see greater wholes as readily as we zoom in to examine the interaction of parts.  The holons it reveals (a term for that which is both a whole and a part of a greater whole) do not bend reality or natural order in any way, they just reveal a broader perspective of reality than we are used to seeing. From our own visual scale, for instance, it is common sense knowledge that a human body is one unified “thing,” and not merely a temporary confluence of trillions of cells, interacting with each other and in constant material exchange with the surrounding environment to sustain the pattern of activity we call animate life. There is no reason to think that perception changes when we pan back and increase our scope to any scale we can imagine.

This becomes especially poignant when the scale expands to take in the oneness of our home planet, the only place that any animate life we know of so far has lived and died. Countless people have undoubtedly imagined this expansion of scope throughout human history, but only a handful in the extreme recent past have seen it with their own optical equipment and felt that effect imprinted on their nervous system. We should listen closely to what they say about it.

This physical moving of the self from a narrower to a wider scope of perception to see the oneness of a greater holon is the more obvious phenomenon, what I’ll call the “outward overlook effect.”

A precursor to the outward effect can be found in words attributed to Socrates in the Platonic dialogues:

“Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives”

Even if the statement in the original Greek isn’t as sexy as that translation, the idea of rising above our earthbound perspective to see humanity in our true ecological context is not new, just the means to physically accomplish it. This opportunity for self-reflective contemplation seemed to surprise some of our early space explorers and the Mission Control crew receiving the first images beamed back from above:

“It was quite a shock,” said philosopher David Loy, speaking in the Overview film. “I don’t think any of us had any expectations about how it would give us such a different perspective. I think the focus had been, ‘We’re going to the stars, we’re going to the other planets.’ Suddenly we look back at ourselves, and it seems to imply a new kind of self-awareness.”

“One of the astronauts said, ‘When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon. We weren’t thinking on looking back at the earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.” –David Beaver, co-founder of the Overview Institute

Perhaps the two most iconic images of the Space Age –“Earthrise” and the “Blue Marble,” both below to the right– do not focus on new cosmic discoveries, but on our old familiar home from this radically new perspective. These images are said to produce in us a diffused, vicarious kind of outward overview effect by stimulating us to imagine the real experience. Indeed, the timing of the birth of the environmental conservation movement in America –the first official Earth Day was in 1970; there is also a likely causal connection with the Gaia Hypothesis, developed by chemist James Lovelock in the early 1970s — suggests a direct relationship with the first moon landing and subsequent Apollo missions, and the cognitive shift of seeing Spaceship Earth in its true celestial context.

By extension, it should be easy to see this shift as a significant impetus behind a modern iteration of pantheism called spiritual naturalism, typified and popularized by groups like the World Pantheist Movement. Founded in 1999, the group focuses on a scientific approach to pantheism, meaning the aspects of an interconnected reality for which verifiable evidence can be obtained through the scientific method. The first three items in the group’s Belief Statement reveal a great deal of consistency with the ecological and holistic principles engendered by the overview effect:

  1. “We revere and celebrate the Universe as the totality of being, past, present and future. It is self-organizing, ever-evolving and inexhaustibly diverse. Its overwhelming power, beauty and fundamental mystery compel the deepest human reverence and wonder.
  2. All matter, energy, and life are an interconnected unity of which we are an inseparable part. We rejoice in our existence and seek to participate ever more deeply in this unity through knowledge, celebration, meditation, empathy, love, ethical action and art.
  3. We are an integral part of Nature, which we should cherish, revere and preserve in all its magnificent beauty and diversity. We should strive to live in harmony with Nature locally and globally. We acknowledge the inherent value of all life, human and non-human, and strive to treat all living beings with compassion and respect.”

By their own admission, I’ve found, spiritual naturalists tend to focus more fully or exclusively on the outward overview effect and an external expression of pantheism. This focus can be a tremendous source of strength, as it makes the philosophy accessible for those who would otherwise pay no mind to a holistic perspective. The manmade world desperately needs this perspective, and sensory-oriented personality types [2], who form a substantial majority of the global population, are not likely to receive it without the visceral feeling of oneness with life itself on a planetary scale, promoted by tangible icons like Spaceship Earth.

To me, the outward overview effect is only half of the picture. While the outward effect may be where the rubber meets the road of ecological action, the complementary “inward overview effect” –an interior perception of the oneness of consciousness– creates the space and stillness for contemplation, without which action will likely just create more problems.

The overlap point of the outward-inward effect is hinted at by author and Zen Buddhist teacher David Loy in the Overview film. Speaking of the sense of awe reported by the astronauts, he said:

“To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself, to transcend that sense of separation. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them, but that they were at some very deep level integrating, realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”

According to Frank White, “Many of the great wisdom traditions of the earth have pointed to what we’re calling the overview effect. They have realized this unity, this oneness of all life on earth and of consciousness and awareness.”

“As you go into your mind in a contemplative way, the sense of the living reality of the planet becomes obvious,” said David Beaver. “You become more in tune with the natural world. This is very akin to the direct perception the astronauts have. So it’s no wonder that so many people have likened the overview effect to a spiritual or meditative experience, though it’s not exactly that. It’s a cognitive shift that very often can induce a meditative experience.”

This is crucial distinction made here by Beaver. As said before of its counterpart, the inward effect does not alter the natural order of reality, but it reveals a deeper perspective of reality than we are used to seeing. The human mind, to borrow a phrase from Rusty Schweickart, is seen as the “sensing element” of universal Mind.

Suspicion of supernaturalism is strong in the modern world, and it is an accusation of which some will understandably find anything smacking of pantheism guilty until proven innocent. The contemplative traditions have a well-earned reputation in the West of delving into specious supernatural explanations for the perceptions that result from this kind of experience. But those explanations come from the cognitive processing, not the experience itself. A cognitive shift, such as from dualistic theism to non-dualistic pantheism, can cause the same experience to be processed in a different way.

Such a cognitive shift essentially says: “Yes, the ancient perception of God or the Divine realm was real, that perception has never changed since we became both lost enough to need it and sensitive enough to receive it. And here is an explanation for it that is more attuned to the physical facts of the universe that we have learned since then.”

Edgar Mitchell seemed to be the one who went the furthest in exploring the inward overview effect gained from space travel.

“After I came back, and tried to understand what this experience was all about, I could find nothing in the science literature about it, and nothing in the religious literature that I looked at. So I turned to the local university, and asked them to help me with what I saw. And they came back a few weeks later and said, ‘Well, in the ancient literature, we found a description called Savikalpa samadhi. They said that means that you see things as you see them with your eyes, but you experience them emotionally and viscerally with ecstasy and a sense of total unity and oneness. And I said, ‘Well that’s exactly what the experience was.’ And so it’s rather clear to me as I’ve studied this that it wasn’t anything new but it was something that was very important to the way we humans were put together.”

According to Paramahansa Yogananda (of Autobiography of a Yogi fame) via Wikipedia,

“Savikalpa samadhi is a state in which one lets go of the ego and becomes aware of Spirit beyond creation. The soul is then able to absorb the fire of Spirit-Wisdom that ‘roasts’ or destroys the seeds of body-bound inclinations. The soul as the meditator, its state of meditation, and the Spirit as the object of meditation all become one. The separate wave of the soul meditating in the ocean of Spirit becomes merged with the Spirit.”

The spiritual naturalist (always, it seems, more comfortable with his noun than its adjective) may balk at the religious terminology of this explanation –two theological concepts, soul and spirit, for which there is no more physical evidence than for the bearded man in the sky.

But consider how these terms could translate in the cognitive shift from theism to pantheism. “Soul” begins as the individual mind experiencing itself as an isolated pocket of consciousness in an unconscious world, living with the belief that this pocket will be extinguished when the body dies like the leaf falling from a tree, and hoping to find some kind of more durable ground in which it continues to exist. This is the self loaded down with dualistic assumptions which it cannot see past, just as someone standing alone on Earth’s surface is not inclined to see his home as a “blue marble” in space. So the soul enters a state of meditation that involves panning back from this limited concept of self –not physically as if in a spacecraft, but mentally, through inward contemplation of greater and greater holons of self, like a leaf realizing it is an activity of the tree/forest/landmass/Earth and so on. (One could logically call this contemplative exercize the soul itself, a verb rather than a noun, an idea I explored in this article.)

When the mind exhausts itself and can pan back no further, when there is no greater holon to be found, the “souling process” may then step beyond that and see itself as an activity of the “Spirit beyond creation” –infinite Universe. The soul is nothing other than the infinite, eternal ground of all Being which it sought.

The once lonely soul then realizes that, along with everything else that is, was, and will be, he is an activity of the Spirit, or God itself. Personal boundaries don’t vanish per se, but the conflicts that divide people become less important. The tense, panicky, sometimes terrorstruck stance of the individual ego, clinging with all its might to a single temporary life and out for all it can get to fill that life with riches and experiences, can relax, and let its egoism subside like a drowning man realizing he is water. Because of the inward overview effect, the contemplative has found himself affixed to the one all-encompassing timeless Tree from which no leaf will ever fall.

(This is just one among innumerable examples of a methodical approach to the savikulpa samadhi experience, a mystic showing his work instead of just giving the answer. Far more often, as happened with Mitchell and yours truly, the Spirit finds and overwhelms the soul first, without warning. In such a case, all the middlemen are skipped, the ego is simply submerged in Spirit, then typically, having survived, crawls upon a dry shore and comes back to its sense of separate selfhood, and is left to wonder what in the blazes just happened to it.)

This is why the outward overview effect needs to be balanced by the inward. Space travel and spiritual naturalism are enough to show us viscerally that Earth is one and we are all stardust. But the web of earthbound life is very fragile and even stardust is temporary; the creative potential from which it comes, by extrapolated definition, is not. We need to explore inwardly as well to realize creation is all part of some cyclical process without beginning or end, both an impenetrable mystery and the most familiar, essential aspect of birth-death-rebirth that we all know with utmost intimacy.

The inevitable conclusion of the wholly integrated overview effect is almost unfathomably astonishing: Just as all of physical existence can be shown to be a manifestation of a single entity, so can all consciousness be shown to be a manifestation of a single mind (or mental field, if you are too attached to the idea that mind equals brain). I tackled that concept in much greater depth in these articles. A key bullet point idea: If matter is the universal noun, mind is the universal verb –two ways of seeing the same thing-activity.

Again, all this would be no surprise to anyone whose core philosophy is non-dual, and there is nothing of it that violates any scientific sensibilities, (at least, among those who have not drawn hasty conclusions from incomplete data.)

One scientist who knew this as well as anyone was Erwin Schrödinger, one of the pioneers of quantum physics. Though most famous for simultaneously having and not having a cat, Schrödinger also wrote extensively in the later years of his life about the correlations between what he observed in the laboratory and the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual school of thought within the broader umbrella of Hinduism. Like Edgar Mitchell, it seemed that Schrödinger had to look East for answers that his classically trained Western mind could not produce with clarity regarding his scientific findings. His Wikiquote page is a treasure trove of these interdisciplinary gems, two of which, a long and a short one, I’ll add here as a sampler:

“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling, and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense — that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it… For we should then have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? what, objectively, differentiates it from the others? [3] No, but, inconceiveable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. Hence, this life of yours… is, in a certain sense, the whole… This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula… ‘Tat tvam asi’ — this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world.’ Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you … For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

“The total number of minds in the universe is one.”

Not what we thought we were getting into, perhaps, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to break the barrier of that ultrathin and ill-defined membrane holding all the oxygen that animate Terran life has ever breathed close to us. That was 56 years to the day before ASAN told the president of the United States to LOOK AT THAT, YOU SON OF A BITCH. Space may indeed be our final frontier, but given that president’s notorious lack of interest in or capacity for contemplation, and the horrid state of religion in the country that allegedly elected him, it is fair to wonder which will be the more vital for us to explore: outer space or inner space…or both at once.

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available … A new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” –Fred Hoyle, renowned British astronomer

Dude, you have no idea…


[1] From Wikipedia: Godhead (or godhood), is the divinity or substance (ousia) of the Christian God, the substantial impersonal being of God, as opposed to the individual persons or hypostases of the Trinity; in other words, the Godhead refers to the “what” of God, and God refers to the “who” of God.

[2] Referring to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, which according to the Myers and Briggs Foundation finds that around 3 out 4 people are “sensing” types as opposed to “intuitive.” Long story that I won’t get into here, but I’ll mention that informal surveys I’ve observed in pantheism discussion groups have all suggested, with no or virtually no exceptions, that those who identify as pantheist are uniformly intuitive personality types. 

[3] In true Advaita Vedantic philosophy, conceptual distinctions are considered illusory and, ultimately, meaningless; only the unity of Brahman is real. This may seem to contrast with the position of this article, which more closely resembles Spinoza’s neutral/attributive monism, Taoism, and the branch of Vedanta called Vishishtadvaita, which means “qualified non-duality.” In this school of thought, Brahman (or Godhead) alone exists, but is characterized by or manifests as multiplicity. In other words, conceptual diversity is real, but all conceptual distinctions subsume to an underlying unity that is Brahman.

I mention this neither to confirm neutral monism nor quibble with Advaita, but to suggest that we not get ourselves derailed by the negligible difference between a universal reality and an all-inclusive illusion. Ultimately, Advaita and pantheism both perceive the unity that duality misses, and that is what really matters.


The Tremendous Healing Potential of the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance

Do Pantheists Have Souls? 

All Is Mind: A Fresh Look at Spinozan Panpsychism



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One thought on “The Dual Overview Effect of Pantheism

  1. Excellent presentation of the overview effect and non-dualism. Pantheists, Panentheists have more in common than they like to admit.

    Sent from Tom


    Posted by Tom | August 19, 2017, 10:37 am

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