Gaia and “The Overview Effect”

I was sent a link to an important video clip that I would like to share with you because it contains many of the elements under discussion in The Chrysalis.

The video clip is entitled “Some Strange Things Are Happening to Astronauts Returning to Earth”. The video is about 20 minutes in length and you can link to it at

It’s one of the best presentations I’ve seen on the “cognitive shift” underway towards an integrative consciousness, but which is here called “overview effect”. Essentially, however, “integral consciousness” and “overview effect” mean the same thing — the integral worldview as Jean Gebser anticipated it in his book The Ever-Present Origin.

The video is very rich in meaning, not all of it completely transparent, however. The astronauts interviewed here did not experience that particular “awe” they mention for themselves alone, and not merely as representatives of particular nations or as agents of humankind more generally. Rather, it is the Earth itself, Gaia, that, in broader terms, first perceived itself in this way — as an integral whole — which is the essence of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis.

It is for this reason, too, that you see one of my favourite philosophers, David Loy, interviewed in the context of the presentation. I’ve had occasion to mention Loy in the past and his “Buddhist” approach to sociology and history. The reasons for including Loy in this presentation are evident, for Loy takes a critical view of the false “separative” nature of human consciousness (ego or wego identity). And the “overview effect“, which effect is here the transfiguring and transformative experience of awe, is that profound feeling of connectedness to the Earth as a whole that overwhelms these astronauts. “Be true to the Earth!”, as Nietzsche once put it — Bleib der Erde treu! — becomes a self-evident imperative.

Nonetheless, their journey is also our journey. And the profound “cognitive shift” that is mentioned in a couple of places in the video to describe the “strange thing happening” is precisely what Gebser called the “mutation” in consciousness presently underway, and which is not mankind’s alone. The Earth also experienced itself as a whole through that consciousness and perception.

There are many interesting and significant parables in the video which, when properly viewed not just with the eyes alone, but with the “mind’s eye” or inner eye, is really a presentation about the psycho-dynamics informing this cognitive shift or mutation which is leading to the construction of a new “Weltanschauung” — world outlook or world image — as the German word expressively puts it. For the first time, in fact, it is a true “Weltanschauung“, and not a piecemeal, fragmentary, perspectivising view that mistakes its own mere perspective for “the world”. The experience and response of awe is precisely the overcoming of that perspectivising perception. The whole and the holistic (which is the holy) overwhelms and subordinates the partial and partisan view, which is the ego’s eye-view, and compels it to submit. This submission of the partial, the partisan, and the perspectivist is the meaning of “humility”.

One of the most interesting of these “parables” occurs at the beginning, with the fortuitous “backwards glance” which revealed the Earth as a whole. It was almost accidental, because the men involved had their faces turned outwards towards the planets and stars “beyond”, rather than towards the Earth. Yet it was the discovery of the Earth as “home” that turned out to be the most important consequence, as these astronauts make clear. It was simultaneously the discovery of themselves, the discovery of a new psychic resource and mode of perception, that is the key to understanding this video clip.

This, as a map of the psycho-dynamics of self-discovery or mutation, is the proper approach to viewing the video. Viewed in this way, you may participate intimately in that same process of self-discovery and mutation. You may experience this as a subtle mixture of awe and anguish. But that anguish serves a purpose, too. It is typically associated with birth. Awe and anguish, and humility, are often found together like this.


8 responses to “Gaia and “The Overview Effect””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    After watching this video for the fourth or fifth time, and drawing new, rich meaning from it with each viewing, it occurred to me that the concomitant to the “overview” must be the “underview” — and that is, in this context, Gebser’s “deficient rationality” or what I’ve been calling “POVLOT” consciousness — “point-of-view-line-of-thought” perspectivism, which fractures the perception of the whole or the global view. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell put it somewhat this way in the film, when he mentioned that viewing the planet from this “overview” was quite different than being down in the midst of it — that is, the underview, as it were. Another parable within the narrative — the global or cosmic view and the “worldly” view.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    The documentary Overview has led me into some wonderful new paths to explore as I was doing some digging into the source of the film. The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) has an interesting video on “Consciousness Matters”

    The astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who figures prominently in Overview is a founder of IONS and his biography ( ) gives more information about his transformative experience of seeing the Earth as a whole, which isn’t in Overview — particularly his insight that came to him that “we all participate… in a universe of consciousness”.

    The Overview Institute itself has a website, and there are here posted (at least for students of Jean Gebser) some very interesting articles.

    Eventually, such organisations (including the Gebser Society), presently following their own trajectories it seems, must converge and intersect in order to gain the momentum necessary to realise their common aims, the most pressing of which is to outrun the impending possibility of global catastrophe.

  3. alex jay says :

    ” Rather, it is the Earth itself, Gaia, that, in broader terms, first perceived itself in this way — as an integral whole — which is the essence of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis.”

    And long before Lovelock’s epiphany the Gnostics recognised Gaia-Sophia in the “broad[est] of terms” with a poetic flare that, quite frankly, makes the biblical “Genesis” story metaphorically amateurish in comparison.

    Here’s a respectable account/interpretation of the Gnostic version that would reinforce any astronaut’s wonderment of the “overview” and our (some) intuitive recognition of the same.

    • Scott Preston says :

      There are elements of the Gnostic myth that are reminiscent of Blake’s vision. And some elements of the Gnostic genesis narrative are plausible and are corroborated in other, independent sources. The astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s experience would seem to parallel some themes of the Gnostic depiction of the Earth as an aspect or emanation of “Sophia”, as does Castaneda’s don Juan who also addresses the Earth as a “being”, while don Juan’s “Dark Sea of Awareness” might correspond to the Gnostic’s “Demiurgos”, as Blake’s Urizen is the Gnostic Demiurgos. The Gnostic “archons” seem to correspond to what Seth called “consciousness units”.

      Still, I think we have to be careful not to confuse mythological narratives (symbolic thinking) with scientific descriptions (logical discourse), as sometimes Gnostic thinkers tend to do — leading to thinks-things like Scientology or Christian Science where, “the facts of the matter” still tend to overrule “the truth that sets free”. The “facts” become binding, but “truth” is liberating. And this must always be born in mind when assessing the value of anything that claims to be authentic knowledge. In don Juan’s teaching, for example, a “man of knowledge” and the experience of “total freedom” were identical states. So, when he challenged an “objectively inclined” Castaneda with the rhetorical question “what is the point of knowing things that are useless?”, that question must be placed in context. It could be said that his is “pragmatism”, but that has been misconstrued without reference to what is the goal of a “man of knowledge”, which is “total freedom”. In that case, there isn’t much difference between what don Juan taught and what Jesus taught — “the truth that sets free”. And in that case, the teachings of Jesus are as “pragmatic” as those of don Juan.

      So, that appears to be the measure of all valid truth — does it set free? Or does this “truth that sets free” — often masquerading merely as “the facts of the matter” — lead instead to the “binding power” which is the meaning of the word “fascism”, for example, and therefore just another devious trick of “the foreign installation” (otherwise called “superego” in other contexts). This alone is the authentic test of Gnosticism — knowledge and freedom must be realised simultaneously. This is actually even the somewhat distorted implications of Bacon’s “scientia potens est” — knowledge is power. But it is only power, even in don Juan’s terms, if it results in the realisation of true freedom, even as the Christ taught or as the Buddha taught.

      But even that comes with its own paradoxes and ambiguities, which requires a subtle distinction be drawn between “liberty” and “freedom”. They aren’t synonymous.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Actually, come to think of it, the way to understand the difference between what is today called “liberty” and “freedom” is to consider it in terms of the spatial and temporal experience. You’ve probably heard the saying “In my soul I am free”, which has been given by those imprisoned and therefore deprived of liberty. The great Sri Aurobindo, for example, was imprisoned by the British for his anti-imperialism and yet came to self-realisation while in prison. This pertains also to Gebser’s notion of “time-freedom” and Augustine’s notion of time as a quality of the soul, rather than space. “Liberty” is denied the prisoner — the uninhibited movement through space. “Freedom”, however, has to do with time. One escapes the clutches of “passing time”, “doing time”, “killing time” by the realisation of timelessness. So even though a man may be imprisoned and deprived of his liberty, it is no contradiction for him to come to realise that “in my soul I am free”. The body is constrained, which is “the facts of the matter,” but this is no impediment to realising “the truth that sets free”. Captivity or imprisonment are not, by themselves, inhibitions on the realisation of freedom, however much this may seem counter to “common sense”.

        But, the common sense is wrong.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    In my opinion, in these three quotes from your comments, you highlight the real importance and value of the video from space (the emphasis in all caps is mine):


    ““the facts of the matter” — lead instead to the “binding power”

    “knowledge and freedom must be realised simultaneously.”

    Exactly! The astronaut and the scientist are so immersed in the facts of science and the facts of “think-things” that in order to break that habit, a view of the earth from space is needed for him to resalize the unity of things in the context of an earth that is consciouss and, in my experience, very very communicative. It is important for the scientist to view these extraordinary sights of her true mother in order to realize that s/he needs to come back to earth and begin to speak truth to power and stop the mass rape and exploitation of this beautiful conscious being that wakes us up every morning and puts us to bed at night. This view and this revelation from space are necessary for the empirical man, who has closed himself/herself to insight, to awaken (e.g. IONS).

    But then for the vast majority of ordinary men, who have limited to no knowledge of science, the interaction with nature alone, right here in the bossom of Mother Earth, is enough to spark the “Overview Effect.”

    In both videos, the one from space and the one entitled “Consciousness Matters”, the word “sustainable” was mentioned. It’s with that word in mind that we should begin listening to our loving Mother Earth. I have to admit, though, whenever I have thought about sustainable living, my mind only thinks of how the aborigines of North America lived once upon a time. No other lifestyle seems truly sustainable to me. Cities have become a place of fraud, lies, and deception dished out in exchange for a modicum of polluted convenience. Add to that the non-stop bombardment by the harmful waves from cell towers.

    I tell myself that ‘that’ll never happen, and that this runaway train of the globalized civilzation would rather continue on its path of war, greed, and self-destruction than see itself go back to the lifestyle of his forefathers, living in tents and around campfire and such’.

    But then again I remember that Seth recounted the fate of the Lumanians, a far more advanced civilization than we will ever be, who in the end did exactly that. They destroyed all of their technologies and cities underground and merged with the indigenous African populations they once used to avoid and hide away from.

  5. amothman33 says :

    Be true to God is the imperative,not the piecemeal, fragmentary perspectivising views prevalent in our dominant outlooks, mistaking the part for the whole, the integrative for deficient.It is the divine light that lighten the road ,not the human mental light which the materalistic philosphy emphasises.The cognative shift is a must, this what all divine messages herald, the messages that the deficient mentality denies, herald the dawning of the truth, not only through the horizon of the universe ,but through the horizon of the self. The dawning that requires the humble attentiveness as to the awe that reflect the understanding of the revelations of both the micro and the macro. it is a process of honest strifing in the knowing Light that activates everthing. Rephrasing is an important tool in self understanding, looking to the incompehending absolute, inorder to march toward understanding the absolute.Other human words donot captivate me, i am floating in liberty in the prison of God the light, trying to participate in the defogging process of the mental fog that is veiling our spiritual. clarity

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