Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth

Hiraeth Press


Danvers, Massachusetts

Copyright © 2011 Theodore Richards

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First Edition 2011 Cover and text design by Jason Kirkey Cover photograph: © / Rick Whitacre ISBN: 978-0-9799246-8-2

Published by Hiraeth Press P.O. Box 416 Danvers, Massachusetts

To My Daughter, Cosima Sing Teifi Richards A cosmos of possibility for the future and of joy in the present.


Preface: Le Stelle


I. This Moment 9 1. The Great Work 11 2. The Crisis 15 3. Toward a New Worldview 29 II. Cosmology 41 4. Why Cosmology? 43 5. Cosmology in the Western World 6. Cosmology in the Wisdom Traditions III. Mysticism 135 7. Indigenous Wisdom 137 8. The Union of Opposites 147 9. Mysticism in the Wisdom Traditions

59 97



IV. Cosmosophia 215 10. Cosmosophy 217 11. Anthropos Cosmosophos 227 12. A New Myth 241 V. Ricorso 275 13. The Future 277 Epilogue: She Is On Her Way Glossary 291 Appendix 295 Notes 299 Bibliography 319 Acknowledgements 337 About the Author 339 287



Le Stelle
All truths wait in all things… …I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars —Walt Whitman1


t this moment, light is reaching me from not long after the birth of the Universe. If I look far enough into the past, I can see that this moment, this Self, is the culmination of a 13.7 billion year gestation process. And in the time it took me to write this, something new has already been born. The first intellectual interest in my life was space. Even before I entered school, I begged my parents for a telescope, took classes at the planetarium. I dreamt of the stars. In this way, I cultivated awe as only a child can, as only an encounter with such immensity can. And at the same time, my most terrifying nightmares came not in the form of bogeymen waiting in my closet (although they occasionally did) but from this encounter with the immensity of the cosmos. Without any spiritual, cosmological framework in which to place my study of the Universe, I was terrified of the vastness of space like Blaise Pascal, who once wrote of this seemingly meaningless void, “I feel engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing and which know nothing of


me. I am terrified.”2 The science I learned in school was equally bereft of meaning, and lacked even the awe-inspiring quality of my early childhood. I turned away from science, from the cosmos, to find more meaningful fields of study, such as religion and literature. My journey, however, was not so simple. While the notion that meaning was found in the humanities—the exclusive realm of the human mind—kept me occupied, I never quite let go of the stars. There was always, somewhere, an intuition that meaning could not merely be found in the human mind, that there was something not-quite-right about the idea that the human world of meaning and the cosmos were entirely separate realms. The idea that the human created wisdom separately from the cosmos seemed suspiciously hierarchical, dualistic. If we, like the dolphin and the mountain and the insect and the stars, emerged from the same process, did our wisdom not come from the same source? The wisdom I have found, forming the foundation for this study, both in the great wisdom traditions of our religions and the creative insights of our artists and writers, was not ultimately rooted in some vague, intellectual realm of pure thought. Rather, it can be traced back to the earliest moments in the human story, moments that link the human story to the story of the Universe. In those days, our ancestors sat by the fire under the stars and told stories, stories that connected us to the world in which we lived, and enabled us to be compassionate to one another. The earliest humans had few defenses against the harsh world in which they found themselves. As they wandered out into the dry plains of Africa, there would have been less plentiful food than in the lush jungle; the prey they encountered would have often been bigger, faster and stronger. Many predators would have found the human an easy target. While it is undoubtedly true that humanity’s greatest tool for survival was our intelligence, intelligence


Preface: Le Stelle
alone would not have sufficed. Humans required cooperation and compassion for survival. They connected to one another in loving relationship and worked together to ensure the survival of the group. They sang songs and performed rituals to give creative expression to these relationships. The clan and the ecosystem was the womb in which the first humans lived. This is wisdom. This is how we learned to be human. At each moment in human history, we have had to ask ourselves how we can be fully human in our current situation. At each moment, we have had to figure out how to connect to our world. Today is no different. But for the first time, humans have failed to come up with meaningful new stories to replace those that no longer give us meaning. The great emptiness of the cosmos is not because the world is meaningless, but because we are failing to fulfill the central role of the human being in the world—to find meaning in the world in human terms. Like the earliest people, we were at the edge of our world, bringing forth the connections of the past and called upon to create a meaningful future. We are poised between these depths, at the chaotic matrix of the birth canal of the cosmos. Perhaps they saw this when they painted their hand prints on the caves— among the earliest great works of art. Surely, they had seen their children’s hand prints on the womb and recognized that they too were in a womb—the womb of the cosmos. As I stared out at the sky in my youth, I had no context, no story, to connect me to the cosmos. The emptiness I believed I had found in the stars was an emptiness in my own heart, projected out onto the cosmos. At the same time, the meaning that so many have found in the wisdom of the human endeavor is a cosmic wisdom, expressed through the human. These two realms seem so oppositional according to our current worldview. Can they be reconciled?



About twenty years after my initial experience of terror, of meaningless, which came with my study of space, I had a completely different experience of emptiness. On Christmas morning, exactly 2,000 years after the birth of Christ according to our calendars, I found myself in a small village in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, waiting for the border to Iran to open so I could pass through. I was terribly sick—some bad dates I’d eaten, perhaps—and lonely. I had not expected to miss the Christmas season, but the loneliness I was feeling from months alone on the road was exacerbated by my knowledge that it was Christmas. Christmas is rather low-key in the tribal areas of Western Pakistan. It was dark and bitterly cold, as the desert usually is at night. The darkness, along with my sickness, contributed to my loneliness. I wandered blindly through the town to find a place to rest, and settled on a pile of burlap sacks. I lay down and looked up. Immediately I was transformed by the immensity of the stars; unlike the terror of my youth, I felt intimate with them. In a few moments, some local men, rifles slung over their shoulders, invited me to come into their home to drink tea around a fire. The isolation I had felt as an American only made this interaction feel more powerful. They saw me simply as a human being, smiling and laughing kindly when they realized that I was from America. Moments of communion are all the more powerful and transformative when creative compassion is asked of us in this way. I write as the winter solstice and Christmas approach. The days have become short and cold. In northern California, the rains have started. Sunlight, abundant only a few months ago, is scarce. But


Preface: Le Stelle
soon, just after the solstice, the days will begin again to grow long. Many of the religious cosmologies of the West have celebrated the solstice as a return of the Sun, the birth of the divine at the darkest hour. It is, for each of us, at the darkest hour that we must be able to find our inner light. Christmas is celebrated on December 25, the mythic date of Horus’ birth, not because there is any evidence that Jesus was born on that date, but because it makes sense that the divine should come to be present among humanity at the time of our greatest feelings of fear and disconnection. In the context of Cosmosophia—the new, mythic framework I am seeking to create—the winter solstice or Christmas is the perfect time to celebrate rebirth because it serves as a moment to unify the paradox of individual and the Universal. It represents both the birth of the Universe itself and the rebirth—a recognition, really—of our own divinity, our divine spark, the fullness of the cosmic wisdom we each possess and express in our own way. The modern West, particularly America, is in a state of dismemberment. We lack a cosmological framework that provides for us an ethical foundation to guide our relationships. Increasingly, we seem to see ourselves as isolated individuals. The end product of such isolation is fear—fear of the ‘other’ from whom we consider ourselves separate. And out of fear, we resist authentic relationships even harder. The worldview of the West simply does not allow most of us to see our interrelatedness. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin points out, “coercion” results only in a “superficial unity.”3 We cannot fake it. To pretend that we are in loving, compassionate relationship to the Universe without re-imagining our fundamental worldview cannot result in true transformation or connection. We are, however, presented with an opportunity from the latest discoveries of science and from the void our dismemberment has created. The Universe creates most profoundly, most unexpectedly, at such times. As


the ancients observed, the Sun is reborn at the darkest hour. Their fear was overcome through this wisdom; our fear must be overcome through the wisdom of both our interiority and our deepening relationship to the whole. The story of the Universe is the story that ends as it began: the spark of the Big Bang is in each of us; we have, at this moment, through our creativity, the capacity to create anew the Universe, to become compassionate to the whole of creation. Chaos— and surely we live in chaotic times—is the mother of creative transformation. Even as our individual interiority emerges, our imaginative capacities allow us to return to embeddedness in the cosmic womb. This return requires more than new knowledge, but a new myth, a way of connecting us to one another, to the rest of Earth and to the cosmos. The new myth will not be created by science or philosophy, but by the collective creativity of humanity. We will need more than mere ideas; to be remade and renewed from our very roots, to become “pure and ready to climb to the stars,” we need poets like Dante.4 We are, at this moment, like my unborn daughter, putting hand prints on the edge of our world, our womb—not unlike the earliest humans did on the interior of the cave—unsure what lies beyond.


This Moment
What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished. Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars at night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human.


—Thomas Berry1


he world we create for tomorrow has a great deal to do with the way we interpret the world we observe today. There are countless ways to interpret this world—no less than there are stories the imagination can create. I begin this book with a study of the current crisis not to advocate a pessimistic view of the world—on the contrary, I hope that this work can contribute to a more positive and compassionate assessment of creation than the one we currently have—but to convey an understanding that the world is birthing something new, unexpected and beautiful at this moment. And this birthing may be a painful process. Neither an unquestioning allegiance to the status quo nor a blind belief in improvement and progress is particularly helpful. The only certainty is that change remains a constant, and the Universe is fundamentally a process—yes, a process, not a place—of birthing. This work seeks the middle path between believing the cosmos is alien to us and beyond our control and the belief that we can simply create our own reality. What we can do is participate fully and meaningfully in the process.

Chapter One

The Great Work

his study attempts to get to the root of our current crisis—the disconnection, individualism, and alienation of the current Western worldview. It seeks to create a new worldview based upon wisdom that can foster meaningful and compassionate Earth communities. This, in the words of Thomas Berry, is our “Great Work.”1 What might a worldview based on wisdom look like? No one can precisely say. For although humans have surely embodied wisdom at various eras and in various cultures, such a worldview would look different in the context of today’s world. We are, as never before, a global species, more numerous and interconnected— economically and technologically, if not spiritually—than ever before. While I cannot claim to know what such a civilization would look like, I can, based on our history, suggest how we might begin to enter into the process of re-imagining our worldview. The shape that a wisdom-based civilization would take depends on how we define wisdom. While many would say that



wisdom is a trait unique to the human, or given to the human and only the human by God, I would suggest that wisdom is an attribute of the cosmos. That is, wisdom is the inherent capacity of the Universe to create meaningful relationships. It is the wisdom of the cosmos that enables the star to form through the coming together of particles; it is through wisdom that an ecosystem functions; and it is through wisdom that humanity can create meaning out of our world through culture, language and the arts. While human wisdom is expressed differently from the wisdom of the salmon dancing its way through the stream or the dynamics of the forest, all wisdom is derived from participation in the cosmos. For the human, like the maple tree and the salmon, this wisdom is an Earth wisdom, because it is the Earth that provides context for everything one experiences. Human wisdom is expressed most comprehensively in a cosmology. A cosmology consists of the basic assumptions a culture makes about the Universe and how it operates. A cosmology provides the context for relationships and meaning in a culture. Our values and ethics are derived from our cosmology, because a cosmology tells its adherents what is most fundamentally real, and what is of value. Often, however, the term cosmology is used to cover a wide spectrum. At times, cosmology is used to refer only to the physical Universe, with little or no overt mention of the meaning that is derived from the way it is conceptualized. Such descriptions can be referred to as “astronomical cosmologies”. There is generally, however, some implicit meaning to be found in such conceptions. In the modern era, the term “scientific cosmology” has been used to describe a sub-discipline of modern astrophysics concerned with the birth and early development of the Universe. In this study, I will use the term cosmology to refer to the comprehensive understanding that provides context for mean-


The Great Work
ing in a culture. This definition is synonymous with worldview. There are, however, times when the term will be used to refer to conceptions of the cosmos that do not represent a worldview per se, but an astronomical cosmology that is only a part of a larger cosmology. A good example would be Ptolemaic Cosmology (see chapter 5) which provided a description of the physical Universe upon which the medieval worldview was based. The medieval cosmology, however, was a complete worldview, integrating Ptolemy, Greek philosophy, and Christian mythology. Mythology plays an extremely important role in any cosmology. For it is through the myth that an individual in a culture integrates and interiorizes a cosmology. A cosmology requires a myth in order to come alive because mythology is expressed in creative or story form, connecting to the individual’s imagination. A myth is a particular kind of creative expression, because it reveals what is most fundamentally real and of value. Just as the myth engages the listener’s imagination in its telling, a myth requires the teller to engage the imagination in its creation. This study is my attempt to imagine how we might go about creating a new cosmology. It is important to remember that this is only a beginning. What has been referred to as the “New Cosmology” has not happened yet. Modern science—the insights of Einstein, Heisenberg, Darwin and many others—has not been fully integrated and reflected in the values of our communities. Before we can begin this process of creation, however, it would be useful to look at where we are now.


A ck n ow l e d g e m e n t s w


hank you to my wife, Arianne Richards, for reasons too lengthy to relay here; to my parents, for their support, financial and otherwise, throughout this process; to my grandfather, the late Reverend Thomas Richards, who brought both compassion and humor to the religion of my youth; to my editor, Leslie Browning, and everyone at Hiraeth Press, particularly Jason Kirkey, for believing in this project; to Wisdom University and to the PCC department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where both my teachers and colleagues, particularly Larry Edwards and Linda Gibler, gave me immeasurable intellectual inspiration; to Matthew Fox and YELLAWE, where my students have taught me far more wisdom than I could ever teach them; to the late Sifu Tony Roberts, my Bagua Zhang teacher, for teaching me the mysteries of the Tao; to E.J. Bailey, for his help with the charts and illustrations; to the Tibetan monks who cared for me when I had altitude sickness, the kind strangers who shared fruit with me in Mozambique and Iran, and the people on the margins, everywhere, who have a wisdom toward which I only aspire. Thank you to the trees, the mountains and the sea; to the stream behind my house in east Oakland; thank you to the stars; and thank you to the Universe, for the 13.7 billion year gestation process which allowed for the birth of this project.


About the A thor Au


heodore Richards is a poet, writer, and religious philosopher. He is a long time student of the Taoist martial art of Bagua and hatha yoga and has traveled, worked and studied in 25 different countries, including the South Pacific, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Theodore has received degrees from the University of Chicago, The California Institute of Integral Studies, Wisdom University, and the New Seminary where he was ordained. He has worked with inner city youth on the South Side of Chicago, Harlem, the South Bronx, and Oakland, where he was the director of YELLAWE, an innovative program for teens. He is the author of Handprints on the Womb, a collection of poetry. Theodore Richards is the founder and executive director of The Chicago Wisdom Project ( He currently resides in Chicago with his wife and daughter.


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