June 5, 2011
By Duane Elgin
The phrase "axial age" has been used to describe the relatively brief period of time -- roughly 700 years -- when the great religions of the world arose: Hinduism and Buddhism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China; and monotheism in the Middle East. The period from roughly 900 BC to 200 BC is referred to as an "axial age" because it set the orientation or direction for spirituality for more than two thousand years into the future.
Around the world, the axial age was marked by the growth of trading networks, the rise of large cities, and massive armies equipped with iron-age weapons. This was also a time of extreme violence and widespread warfare. All of the world's great religions understood that a core challenge was to moderate the violence that emerged from our perceived sense of separation from one another. Despite their great diversity of culture and geography, a common understanding of the need to put compassion at the forefront can be found in all of the world's wisdom traditions. Here are a few examples:
As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.
No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.
Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.
Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss.
All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves.
-- Native American
As these quotes reveal, the first axial age began with a view of separation and the "other." In a world of growing individualism and differentiation, the religious emphasis on compassion served as a vital bridge between people. Now, a second major axis with a very different orientation is opening in the world. Religions of separation are becoming religions of communion as we realize there is no place to go where we are separate from the ever-generative womb of the living universe. The second axial age begins with a recognition emerging from the combined wisdom of both science and spirituality; namely, that we are already home -- that the living universe already exists within us as much as we live within it. In the words theologian, Thomas Berry, "The universe is a communion and a community. We ourselves are that communion become conscious of itself." Compassion remains a vital element of spirituality, but it is now being held increasingly within a context of communion rather than separation.
As people around the world move into spiritual communion and empathic connection with the living universe, we see the role of religion differently: Less often do people look for a bridge to the divine. Increasingly, people seek guidance and community in the journey of awakening within the living universe. People want to know there are others on the journey of soul-making and seek guideposts along the way to support the awakening of their experience of unity and intimacy within the universe. Less and less are people seeking only religions of belief. Carried along in this great cultural project of awakening, we are increasingly seeking religions of direct experience -- religions of communion with a living universe.
When our aliveness consciously connects with the aliveness of the universe, a current of aliveness flows through us. At that moment -- when life meets life -- a direct connection between the living universe and ourselves is realized and we have an awakening experience. We no longer see ourselves in the universe, we experience that we are the universe. We do not need to manufacture or imagine awakening experiences. Instead, we only need to experience directly what is already true about the fundamental nature of ourselves as beings who live within a living universe. When the conscious knowing of ourselves becomes transparent to the reality of our participation in an ever-emerging universe, we recognize there was no separation to begin with -- we all emerge in communion at every moment within the unity of a continuously regenerating universe.
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