Opening the Doors to Gaia Mind

Spring 2010

Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life…its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.~ Gregory Bateson.

My on-going inquiry into “how then shall we live in this time of crises?” has been informed by a number of really good books, articles, and conversations with friends.  In one of my most recent adventures, I read Noel Charlton’s Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth (SUNY, 2008).  Jim and I studied Bateson in some depth in the 1990’s in an informal seminar with eco-philosopher Tyrone Cashman. Charlton’s distillation of Bateson’s thought has renewed and clarified our previous understanding. 

In one of his key insights, Bateson declares that mind is not limited to human consciousness, but is vitally present in all living beings, from protozoa to trees to elephants to the living Earth itself.  He defies the common anthropocentric view that limits mind to human consciousness alone.  Instead, he places great store in the unconscious mind that he sees operating everywhere in nature—what some of us might call Intelligence.  And Bateson goes on to assert, in the opening quotation above, that the conscious human mind (“mere purposive rationality”) is actually destructive of life, because it is so limited in its scope of understanding. 

We can certainly see ample evidence of this in today’s world, where corporations intent on the sole “logical” purpose of profit wreak all kinds of havoc on the global environment that supports our very existence.  The same can be said for technologists intent on making something new—just because they can—or consumers intent on convenience and keeping up with the Joneses.  The same can even be said about well-intentioned missionaries who try to impose their beliefs on indigenous peoples, without any appreciation of the integrity and wisdom of the cultures they want to convert. When all we take into consideration is our immediate purpose, no matter how “rational” or well-meaning, we nearly always bring harm on other peoples, creatures, and ecosystems.

So Bateson wants us to expand our consciousness through “art, religion, dream, and the like,” in order to receive guidance from life’s larger “interlocking circuits of contingency”—another way of saying “larger mind,” which I am proposing we call “Gaia Mind.”  I think this expansion means both expanding our conscious mind, which Assagioli referred to as the “field of awareness,” and opening ourselves to non-rational input from the unconscious, in the form of dreams, visions, hunches, etc.

It occurred to me recently that rather than expanding the tiny arc of the conscious human mind, we Western humans just try to cram as much information as possible into it.  In fact, we try to cram a lot of noise in there, too, noise being trivial information that has no relevance to our survival or even to our health and happiness.  So our poor conscious mind gets unbelievably cluttered and noisy, with no room for receiving guidance from Gaia Mind, or even from our own wisdom traditions.

I am as guilty of this as anyone.  My conscious thinking mind is conditioned to try to figure everything out, even things that are not in my bailiwick.  It’s hard to turn it off, or at least quiet it somewhat, so I can tune into a larger reality than whatever problem (real or imagined) currently has captured my attention.  In my case, walking or sitting in nature helps the most.

By believing that the mind is purely a human phenomenon, pretty much limited to linear left-brain thinking, we doom the human species to eventual extinction, as Bateson points out:

As you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.  The environment will seem to be yours to exploit.  Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.  You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing.  The raw materials of the world are finite. (p. 462)

Doesn’t this sound like the Industrial Growth Society that is devouring our world at every turn?

Intuition and Imagination

Many neuroscientists tell us that we use only a small percentage of our neocortex, the most evolved part of our triune brain. In The Biology of Transcendence, visionary writer Joseph Chilton Pearce suggests that the neo-cortex is designed for extra-sensory perception (ESP) if it can be freed from its enslavement to the reptilian survival brain.  He believes intuition begins to ripen at age four, but is often suppressed by the family and culture.  One of the functions of intuition is to serve as an early-warning system to protect the individual from danger; healthy intuition would free us from fear-based reactivity based in the reptilian brain.  Our neo-cortex could then connect us telepathically, spiritually, and creatively to the world around us, including of course the natural world.

The founder of psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli, also recognized the importance of intuition, so neglected and trivialized in American culture.  In his “star diagram” of psychological functions, he places imagination and intuition each in their own point of the star, of equal importance to the more widely recognized functions of sensation, drives/instinct, feelings, and thinking.  Imagination and intuition stand as discrete functions in their own right, distinct from thinking, which is the more left-brain conscious logical function.

Many indigenous cultures developed these capacities in their people, through rituals, practices, and teachings.  Unfortunately, too often those cultures lost touch with their more right-brained traditions when they came under the domination of Western civilization.  However, the seeds and many of the practices remain to teach us today, and to serve as models for new traditions we can develop for the future.

Cut Off from Feedback

One of Bateson’s strongest concerns, and indeed the primary concern for most systems thinkers, is how Western humans manage to immunize themselves to feedback from the environment—in a kind of across-the-boards “kill the messenger” maneuver.  Our technology helps us do this; in fact, much of our technology is designed specifically to filter out feedback.  However, if we don’t receive feedback on how our actions are affecting the environment, or on how the environment is changing, we doom ourselves to suffering and even extinction down the line.

Our heating and cooling systems, while making life more comfortable, can isolate us from what is happening in the environment, and keep us from adapting internally to changes in temperature.  Television and computers focus our attention and emotions on something other than what is happening around us; even news programs distract us from our immediate natural and human communities.  Technology allows Big Lies to be spread quickly through a hypnotized and unsuspecting populace.  It is easy for someone who watches Fox News all day to believe that climate change is a hoax.

By cutting us off from feedback from the environment, technology supports the insane assumption that human beings are separate and autonomous from one another and from the natural world, so that our “likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.”

Tuning into Gaia Mind

Bateson’s ideas about mind indicate how we can change this deadly ignorance.  Because we are so thoroughly interconnected in the web of life (even if we don’t know it), we can learn to tune into feedback coming to us through the unconscious, in dreams, artistic expression, hunches, intuition, and inspiration—as well as from conscious sources such as films, videos, responsible news media, and direct experience.  We can develop our capacity for accessing inner guidance from the larger unconscious mind: Gaia Mind.

To do so, we must seek beyond our social conditioning and the monsters in our unconscious programmed by old traumas, childhood abuse, and learned assumptions and beliefs.  We need to face and express our fears, grief, anger, and helplessness, as Joanna Macy recommends in her “Work That Reconnects” (  These feelings come not only from our individual life traumas, but from collective wounds as well.

Our unconscious can be so filled with personal fears and traumas that it is almost impossible to access Gaia Mind.  It’s as if our awareness is short-circuited by the reptilian brain’s survival fears.  So we need to work through these short-circuits in therapy, support groups, neurofeedback training, meditation, and other personal awareness practices.  As the programmed patterns of unnecessary defense dissolve, we can open our awareness to inspiration from Gaia Mind.

Life renews itself beyond our conscious mind’s capacity to comprehend and predict.  We can count on this!  It may not happen in recognizable forms, or within our preferred timelines, but life inevitably self-organizes and adapts to change.  We can tune into this renewing dynamic, and find our role within it, through one or more of the myriad methods available to us today: vision quests, meditation (especially in nature), expressive arts (including music, poetry, and dance), journaling, dreamwork, shamanic processes, retreats, workshops, weekly Sabbath practices, and ritual and ceremony, as well as the previously mentioned Work That Reconnects and psychosynthesis.

Probably the most helpful thing we can do is spend as much time as possible in wild nature, just soaking in the Mind so present and evident there.

Based on Bateson’s insight into the nature of unconscious mind, I believe that our attempts to change the world and address some of humanity’s most grievous mistakes need to arise from art and creativity, to go beyond human “purposive rationality” and draw upon the intelligence of Gaia Mind.  We need to appeal to the “higher unconscious” described in psychosynthesis, that part of our unconscious that encompasses love, creativity, spiritual insight, etc.

The radical political right in the USA at this time appeals to the “short-circuited” unconscious of many of our citizens, evoking fear, hatred, bigotry, and anger. To counter that, we on the progressive side need to develop ways to evoke and energize the creative unconscious, and help everyone (including ourselves) tune into Gaia Mind. Some film-makers seem to be moving in this direction, but unfortunately their work is often crippled by the perceived box office demand for violence and overly-simplified themes (as in Avatar, for example). I’d like to see a lot more street theater and more protest songs like we had in the 60’s.  Let’s have some joy and celebration while we change the world!


In keeping with the theme of this essay, I would like to share two poems, one of my own, and one from my life partner Jim.


Forest Prayer


Ancient Ones
who dwell in this forest,
speak to me.


Fill me with your wildness,
your wisdom,
your abiding Now.


Let me see all the projects and tasks
that consume my days
in the vast perspective of your time.


Let me see them as at one
with the forming of a seed cone,
the pushing out of leaf and stem,
the chatter of grey squirrel,
the flight of chickadee,
the flow of water in the creek:


all taking place within the embrace of Life;
all held in love.

Molly Brown



                              Why I Write Poems

Listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs
reminds me of what compels me to this project:
A wild desire
to coax the language of my people out of stasis and make it
as supple as the world itself—
as penetrating as the sounds of wolves and elk and whales,
as true as love dissolving pain.
Jim Brown



Bateson, Gregory. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballentine Books.  (New edition published in 2000 by University of Chicago Press.)

Charlton, Noel. (2008)  Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth. Albany NY: SUNY

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