Summer Solstice, 2021
The generous nature of this world teaches all beings.
―Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
Do we need a new mythology, psychology, or religion? What I needed was a new wisdom path. Not an abstract philosophy of supposedly everything, but a way to live joyfully and consciously on Earth. A way to be fully human.
Down the decades, I assembled this path out of various psychologies and philosophies, only to discover that other seekers had walked it long before; and that instead of reinventing, I was updating. I call my version of this path Terragnosis.
Seeking and Making Beyond Religion and Psychology
I used to feel like an outsider. Mainstream religion and its authoritarianism—believe only this, thou shalt not, be guilty, don’t ask questions—would not work for me as a wisdom path. (The belief that our group has the Truth and you don’t is cult psychology, whether named as such or not.) Neither did I feel allured by an arrogant scientism that stripped down everything to a mute heap without meaning. (The psychology there is nihilism, even when wearing a white coat.)
Nor could I digest the New Age’s goopy salesmanship and ignorance of the movement’s origins . Western philosophy? Too often an intellectual competition over who could be the most cleverly abstract and incoherent. The druids sounded interesting, but they were stamped out long ago, and I could not pretend otherwise.
I desired a path of awe, nature discovery, enchantment, and wisdom for living on a declining planet ruled by self-destructive powers. A path that could tell me whether hope was even possible now. What about psychology?
As a college student I nearly changed my major from psychology to literature. What we studied was mainly behavioral and a lot of constructs pretending to be parts of people’s minds. What mainly impressed me was how so many of these schema, drives, traits, and so on were treated as real entities separable from the rest of what we were. A lot of research funding depends on that kind of splitting, even today, where it sells “evidence-based” agendas. Years later, I learned that Alfred North Whitehead referred to something like this as the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: namely, taking our own abstractions for objects we can study.
I returned to school as a graduate to study Family Systems psychotherapy. Although the training did not go as deep as I had hoped, I acquired skills and ideas for use with my clients and, later, my students. I learned how social systems work like self-adjusting organisms, sometimes resisting change and, less often, embracing it. I also took Mara Selvini-Palazzoli’s point that getting people who disagree to work on a project together often settles more conflict than talking everything to death.
I ventured into depth psychology, Jung’s in particular, to seek answers to deep questions: not speculative, but in earnest: Who am I? Where do I belong? Who are my real kin? How should I respond to these times? From this field, which studies how conscious and unconscious interact, I gained self-reflective tools for probing the many-sidedness of the mind. But that so much of Jung overlapped with philosophy struck me. Here is Aesara of Lucania, who wrote the first book in the world on human nature:
For the [examined] mind combines the sweet with the painful, mixing up the intense and the excessive with the light and relaxed part of the soul… The mind is able to attach these things to itself, becoming lovely through education and virtue.
She was a very early psychodynamic thinker, but you will not see her name in books of Jungian or Freudian psychology. She was also a Pythagorean philosopher, which means she took wisdom, science, justice, ritual, music, cosmology, and soul seriously.
Looking for the psychological roots of our relationship with the natural world, I then studied and contributed to the development of ecopsychology and its applied arm, ecotherapy. Both study the health and pathology of our relations with nature, recognizing that we cannot be fully human in failing ecosystems. Our wellbeing is not just about us, but about everybody else’s too, humans and nonhumans alike. For Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind I wrote a chapter on the extensive research demonstrating how enhanced contact with plants, animals, and even nature scenes boosted health and wellness.
From all these and other studies evolved terrapsychology, the growing field of practices, writings, and researches for reimagining and restorying how deeply and intimately our psychological life is involved with our surroundings. How startled I was when San Diego, where I lived during part of my doctoral studies, appeared to me as a feminine dream figure showing and telling me real things I could verify about the place.
The past few decades have shown all of us who study the presence of place how deeply we are influenced by it: ascending peaks for a higher view, succumbing to dark moods as nearby rivers clog, enjoying cosmopolitan mixtures of people near estuaries… Even the elements and everyday objects get into us, and some of what we take for personal conflicts, mood swings, or other “inner” events accurately reflect in symbolic form what is happening all around us. From this in turn evolved the research methodology of Terrapsychological Inquiry.
Although I was learning and growing, understanding and applying, I felt all along, if dimly, as though I were trying to paint with a pencil. I gradually realized that I was using all these fields to make a wisdom path for myself and, to some extent, for my students, colleagues, workshop participants, and public audiences. What Jung called “antique philosophy,” and what seekers in other cultures practice as self-reflective disciplines with long traditions behind them, offer a frame of orientation (who am I, where am I, why am I here), useful exploration skills rooted in wonder and love, deep inquiry into the sources of one’s worldview, musings on good societies, explorations of values, a livable ethic of care, and creative stories for imagining past and future.
Western philosophy would add a theory of knowledge, a metaphysics of being (why things are), and a hierarchy of reasoning: in other words, epistemology, ontology, and logic. Those did not interest me as much. I wanted something to live by, not to intellectualize with. As Nietzsche had said, “The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Instead, I sought a coherent story of my relations with myself, other people, nonhuman beings, the world, and the cosmos.
Terragnosis: Living as Though the World Converses
As I began drawing more consciously upon what I had learned in order to craft a life path embodied, creative, and receptive to influences of nature and place, I needed a name for the wisdom way of reenchantment I follow through a time of global destruction and renewal. I coined the word Terragnosis to mean an Earth-honoring, practical philosophy of reverence, wonder, and respect for living things in all their magnificent diversity.
As a path aspiring to integral discernment, terragnosis as I practice it heeds scientific discovery but rejects materialistic scientism; accepts religion but rejects dogmatic intolerance; holds gratitude for esotericism but avoids the habit of splitting this world from any other. Gnosis means deep experiential knowing, and terra means “here.”
Terragnosis takes from terrapsychology the observation that we continually interact intimately with the things of the world. The terragnostic theory of knowledge is participatory and animistic. Its primary ethic is Fivefold Caring: for self, for others, for Earth, for psyche, for story. Its devotions spring from awe, love, and homecoming. Its cosmology spans spacetime as we know it.
Terragnosis includes but goes well beyond psychology, trading the habit of psychologism—reducing everything in the world and in human life to mind, attitude, language, upbringing, or archetype—for appreciating the world’s multileveled complexity. Nature’s voices are not human projections; fighting oppression cannot be reduced to old rage at Mom or Dad; and San Diego is not the Great Mother archetype. The symbols around and within us transcend human thought and language.
For me, the entire world is a sensing organism. Where others see tornadoes touching down on World Environment Day as coincidence, I see a terrestrial gesture or hint. The archetypal forms Jung describes as psychological begin, for me, in nature: the Spiral of individuation in whirlpools and galaxies, the Net of interdependency in veins and roots, transitions and thresholds in cell walls and bioregions, circles and curves channeling energy and motion. Alice Walker writes that when she appreciates wildflowers blooming in her yard, more show up the following season. Nature turns toward us the face that we turn toward it. We are it! It is us.
Over the years, my students and colleagues and I have created and taught a variety of practices for tracing, and in some cases healing, our relations from the inside out and vice versa. They include:
- Working with dreams as co-creations of our deep mind with the presence of nature, place, world, and universe;
- Retelling ancient tales (myths/traditional big stories, folktales, legends, etc.) to fit contemporary situations (i.e., applied folklore);
- Investigating personal myth, following Jung’s sense that we come in with a particular tale to fill out and elaborate;
- Diving into deep ancestral work, including tracing intergenerational legacies of trauma, trust, and justice;
- Interpreting weather events symbolically, imaginatively, and creatively as messages of a sort;
- Participating more consciously through various activities in aspects of the natural world found in cities (including our own bodies);
- Engaging in ecological exercises incorporating movement, ceremony, and improv;
- Reimaging our objects and possessions as aspects of ourselves with interesting stories to convey;
- Adapting our busy schedules to align better with earthly rhythms and seasons;
- Setting up heartsteads as cultural experimentation circles for dealing with urgent concerns;
- Exploring how the landforms, soils, plants, creatures, and contours of a place show up inside us in symbolic form;
- Conducting medicine work with plants as emissaries of Earth;
- Surveying philosophies from many cultures to find the ideas and practices of wisdom and earthly reconnection;
- Appreciating and being inwardly transformed by the beauty all around us.
The main mode of terragnostic reverence as I try to practice it is continual conversation: with oneself, with the unconscious through amplifiers like dream work and active imagination, with one another (speaking and listening from the heart), with other beings that share our world, with the world itself, even with matter, including the everyday objects with which we surround ourselves. I practice speaking Earth, a language of sensation, emotion, image, intuition, and dream.
While fiddling forth an emblem for Terragnosis, I realized I had duplicated an image last seen in a childhood dream, an image combining an ankh with the Greek letter Phi:
Why those two figures?
The Way of Hermes Trismegistus
An ancient, multicultural, nature-revering wisdom path originated in Egypt and gradually circled the globe. It came to include Gnosticism, alchemy, divination, dream studies, astrology, herbs and plant medicine, storytelling and writing down of sacred lore, various kinds of natural magic, and ritual work.
The surprise was that I had been walking this path all along without knowing it. Dreams in early childhood reflected it. Even the name of my business, Worldrede, pointed back to it. (“Rede” is an archaic word for “read,” with the same pronunciation, but also means “interpret.”)
Hermeticism is not a belief system or religion; rather, it is a lived philosophy. Its focus is gnosis: direct and profound perception of the blessed aspects of life. Its goal is the beneficial transmutation of inner and outer relationships. Practitioners in Egypt knew it as the Way of Hermes Trismegistus: not Hermes the Greek trickster despite what many believe, but a magus figure, an archetypal wizard based on Thoth, god of enchantment, magic, wisdom, writing, memory, justice, reconciliation, and healing.
In her book The New Hermopolis, Mervat Nasser defines it thus:
Hermeticism is a philosophical system based on the study of the Hermetica [the wisdom literature] as a way of helping the soul (psyche) to develop a reasonable mind (nous), reasonable speech (logos), and self-knowledge (gnosis), so we may begin to undertand the world and our place in it.
Some scholars differentiate between “Hermetism,” practiced prior to the Renaissance, and “Hermeticism,” practiced after. We won’t bother with this. It’s all Hermeticism, its worldview steeped in a visionary view of nature, place, and Earth as animate presences. Think of it as the Way of the Mage.
For a body of knowledge, reflection, and action that so many of us never heard of, Hermeticism has wielded an enormous impact on world culture: not only on monastic Christianity and the Renaissance but on Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas Aquinas, Paracelsus, Roger Bacon, William Blake, John Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Schelling, Hegel, Jakob Böhme, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Thomas More’s Utopia, Leibniz, Goethe, Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, Johann Herder, centuries of scientific achievement in the Islamic world, Sufism, Romanticism, the Royal Society’s foundation, Jungian psychology, influential scholarship like that of Frances Yates, films like The Matrix and The Truman Show, episodes of Star Trek (e.g., the Enterprise episode “Kir’shara”), and Egyptology and comparative religion’s ultimate sources in Africa.
Because Hermeticism calls for investigation of the world in order to appreciate it, a host of scientists have come under Hermetic influence. Copernicus got the idea of a central Sun from reading the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of dialogical treatises written down in the first to third centuries CE. Kepler, who considered science a path to self-perfection, wrote about the Anima Terrae (Soul of the Earth), and Sir Isaac Newton practiced technical Hermeticism in the form of alchemy, once dismissed as an attempt to make gold out of lead, now recognized as a path of arcane knowledge. Robert Boyle also practiced alchemy. Giordano Bruno speculated about the existence of other worlds circling other stars before being torched by the Inquisition in 1600. Some of the writings of quantum theorists read like Hermetic tracts.
I have put together Nine Key Agreements of Hermeticism to clarify its foundational understandings:
- The “Big Mind” of the universe is ceaselessly creative. Everything evolves, including us.
- Everything is animate, symbolic, and interconnected. “As above, so below.”
- The law of the Cosmos is unity in diversity, One and Many. Beyond tolerance of difference awaits the common ground of delight in difference.
- Gnosis (consciousness aware of its own sources) disidentifies us with lower principles and powers to link us to transconceptual Big Mind. Deep experiential reflection reveals to us the primal intelligence of everything, an intelligence beyond gender, sex, or image.
- Creative imagination (Nous) opens a path of reverence for Earth, cosmos, and embodied being. This includes an integral approach to scientific discovery, conducted not only with the head but with body, heart, and intuition.
- To explore their relevance to the time, sacred stories and lore must be playfully retold. No authority can prevent this needed evolution of the tales we live by.
- Each of us is a “grand miracle” (magnum miraculum) to care for. We care for others as we would care for ourselves.
- Through rituals and practices we can align ourselves with daily and seasonal cycles of nature. These include dreams, synchronistic events, and other signs that bridge outer and inner.
- A wisdom path must be walked, not just thought about, to aid our transmutation into full humanness. We can participate directly and experientially in the presence of the Mystery at the heart of all by becoming fully human via our powers of creativity, contemplation, conversation, and ethical action in the world.
Today, Hermeticism carries possibilities for a post-belief, Earth-respecting wisdom path that embraces both science and spirit.
A Transrevolutionary Path of Vision, Heart, and Action
Like Gnosticism, alchemy, Romantic philosophy and poetry, Islamic gnosis and Sufism, depth psychology, and terrapsychology, Terragnosticism seeks to update Hermeticism by contributing to its story of itself. I like to imagine it as H, an entity moving down through the centuries enriching itself with experiments in human culture. H is archetypal because some version of it appears in whatever ground is fertile: Taoist alchemy, Ile Ife vision dances, Enheduanna of Akkad interpreting dreams, Pythagoras (who called Earth “Mother”) and the Orphics, the countercultural rishis who spoke and wrote the Upanishads of India, the Great Sheik Ibn ‘Arabi, poets like Rumi, South American entheogenic shamanism, the founders of the Jinxia Academy, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the Alexandrian Library…
Although it is not a path for everyone, it reaches like a long silver chain through the ages and around the world, always reinventing itself: as Gnosticism, as alchemy, as spiritual ecology… Some of its practitioners have been Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, pagans, pantheists, monotheists; some answer to no known religion. Its beliefs are not codified because belief is unimportant to it. What counts is gnosis, direct spiritual encounter with the more-than-human intelligence of all interacting entities, singly and in one vast system.
What does this mean for action in a world filled with injustice? Beyond its call to ethical and compassionate care, Hermeticism puts forth an evolutionary perspective we can lean on to discuss transrevolution: lasting changes carried out when a complex system reorganizes itself. Not surface change, but structural change. Transrevolution occurs at any scale: a life-altering insight, a family healing from tragic loss, a city rejuvenated, the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements still in progress…
The core truth of transrevolution is that serious problems at one level of organization disappear at a more mature level. Below and beyond the level of political parties or religious divisions, systemic structures change not because of violence, but because the interactions feeding them, the values and beliefs ordering them, and the worldview underlying them also change as a new attractor of motivation and imagination appears, a new inspiring archetypal image rises, a new vision shines forth from below.
The greatest transrevolution in history would be a shift in world culture toward just, inclusive, Earth-supporting self-governance grown from the ground up. This shift will depend on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, how we relate to each other, and how we can live in peace and delight on our homeworld.
Enchantivism encourages lasting change by telling reenchanting stories about our relations with ourselves, each other, or our sick and struggling planet; sharing our reflections and inviting others’ on the relevance of these stories; and then letting the stories impel creative and thoughtful responses to how things are. The stories can be narratives, displays of imagery, humor, theater, film, improv, architecture, art, dance, ritual, games, or a blend of any of these.
The enchantivist approach appeals to non-activists, to burned-out activists, and to quiet people seeking ways to do something uplifting but put off by shouting, blaming, and moralizing. It works not by direct political action (necessary though that is), but by awakening hearts through inspiration and hope. Facts and complaints are not enough to motivate. Enchantivism occupies the space of effective imagination between real and ideal.
Its exemplars include Jacqueline Suskin stopping a logging operation with poetry, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty improving the lives of both horses and carriage drivers, actor Nichelle Nichols showing Black people of the future on the bridge of a starship, Ramzi Aburedwan’s Violinist concert groups in the West Bank and Gaza, the Wakanda Dream Lab, Persian citizens chanting Rumi during the Iran-Iraq War, and indigenous people around the world telling their own ancestral tales while preserving their languages. Martin Luther King Jr. showed us the enchantivist way by describing the possibility of a Beloved Community of justice, inclusion, and peace.
To see the madness and yet walk a perfect silver line. … That’s what the true storyteller should be: a great guide, a clear mind, who can walk a silver line in hell or madness.
― Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven
Joseph Campbell referred to the image of Earthrise as a mythic image for our time: no borders, no nation states, and Earth not dismally far below heaven, but floating grandly within it. He was anticipated, as was the image itself, by passages in the Corpus Hermeticum inviting us to rise above the world in imagination and see its breathtaking beauty. “And all beings are full of soul.”
As I consider the long path of this Silver Chain, it seems to bind its ancestry to a future in which human beings live in peace and abundance in just, post-patriarchal communities of belonging mentored by emotionally mature elders. Perhaps fabled images of lush, scenic utopias in fantasy and folklore foreshadow the realizable possibility for this future world civilization, aspects of which live today. In my own fantasies it goes by the name of Terrania, the mythos of a borderless and lovingly inhabited Earth aware of its place in the Cosmos. (Those who feel at home do not conquer. They dwell.) Perhaps one day documents like the Vindication of the Rights of Women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Principles of Environmental Justice, and the Earth Charter will be seen as early founding documents of Terrania.
The terragnostic love of place and culture is nested rather than separatist. I am simultaneously a native San Diegan, a Californian, an American, a man of the cosmos and, I like to hope, an honorary Terranian. My devotion to Earth penetrates the hardened paranoia of international restrictions. Stories and relationships require no passports.
All Hermetism is by its very nature tolerant. Hermes Trismegistus is a god of harmony, of reconciliation and transformation, and he preaches no rigid dogma. He is thus an antidote to the fundamentalism that must be overcome if we desire to live in peace.
―Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Ancient Egypt
Likewise with psychology and the other fields I’ve studied and been involved in: I keep them even as I go beyond them, a move akin to what Hegel called sublation (aufhebung). As Hermetic and alchemist Maria Prophetissa put it, Solve et Coagula: Dissolve and Coagulate. It’s how we roll.
Incidentally, I’ve also written a series of fictional tales to fill in a cosmos along Terragnostic lines. “The Assembling Terrania Cycle” asks: How over time do human beings differentiate ourselves from various celestial and terrestrial influences and reach our full stature? I began the Cycle before learning that Hermeticism posed the same question. I hope others will contribute their own answers in a variety of media and tellings.
I grew up feeling like an outsider. Now I walk an insider’s mythic path stretching back to antiquity and forward to who knows where. Dwelling somewhere between fact and fancy, deep story, the connective tissue of worldviews and spiritual paths, is not about belief, but about wonder.
And I wonder what would come of terragnostics assembling to protect the planet we love while taking reflective and practical steps toward the world community of our desire. We could be informed by what Nasser calls “Hermetic hope,” the trust in our ability to always find our way, eventually, toward a better future. Not every philosophy calls for a cause, but given widespread political and religious corruption, systemic intolerance, destructive greed, and heavily financed industries breaking open the lands, seas, and skies of our planet, perhaps Repairing the World will serve.
Humans tell stories. Paranoid stories knock us into the abyss. A shining bridge of courageous stories invite us forward together.