For a brief span of time during the 20th century, we collectively opened our eyes and looked into the face of eternity.
The search for meaning has always been a part of our nature, but only in the late 19th century did it begin to reach beyond the confines of traditional religion. As society pushed back the limitations of its accomplishments through new technology, it also pushed back the limitations of its beliefs through new forms of speculative fiction, the growth of spiritual groups and practices, and the exploration of psychic phenomena by respectable (and non-respectable) investigators. A glimmering of illimitable light shimmered at the edge of our collective perception.
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, however, this inner urge took on a new force and abruptly exploded into our everyday lives. Perhaps it was spawned by the discovery of nuclear energy, which could destroy cities or supply them with endless power; cause cancer or help to cure it. It may well have been influenced by our recent mastery of flight which served to break down barriers between cultures. New discoveries in electronics allowed instantaneous communication over vast distances, and — once engineering breakthroughs put satellites into orbit — over the entire globe. We put people on the moon, sent probes into the depths of space, and listened for signs of life on other planets.
With the prospect of apocalyptic annihilation, exposure to the transcendent philosophy of the East, and a growing global consciousness, it was prehaps inevitable that we found ourselves enquiring into the very nature of our existence and the scope of the cosmos. We sought out gurus, teachers, mentors, and mystics. With over 4.5 billion people in the world, and a history spanning thousands and thousands of years, it seemed inevitable that at least a few souls had reached enlightenment.
The youth of this period, not yet exposed to the all-pervasive demands of adult life, were the most enthusiastic explorers of this endless horizon, but virtually every age group and social class was also involved. Average people became viscerally aware that life was a lot bigger than their daily existence; middle class men and women discussed philosophical and religious books over cocktails.
As a race, we began thinking in cosmic terms.
We saw the first manned landing on the Moon as merely a prelude to our inevitable voyages to other planets and, perhaps, other civilizations. We studied religions and philosophies outside those of or our own culture’s. Social gatherings frequently involved long discourses about the nature of the universe and what, exactly, “nothingness” was.
Many experimented with drugs in hopes of opening new pathways of thought that might prove less destructive and more comprehensive than those to which we had become accustomed.
The dawning “New Age” perspective could even be seen in our movies, as films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar became mass hits. But perhaps its most obvious and ubiquitous incarnation appeared through our music. For the first time since the Middle Ages, a significant number of popular songs dealt not with personal or social issues, but with philosophy and spirituality. Tightly woven into the musical fabric — which still included songs about love and social injustice — were songs inspired by Buddhism, space exploration, aliens, Jesus Christ, Zen, Nietzsche, and the possibility of Cosmic Consciousness.
When all the stars are falling down
Into the sea and on the ground
And angry voices carry on the wind,
A beam of light will fill your head
And you’ll remember what’s been said
By all the good men this world’s ever known
Melancholy Man — The Moody Blues
That’s what we were searching for: the beam of light that would fill our heads.
But as time went by, this movement towards ultimate answers became sidetracked by more prosaic goals. The quest for a brotherhood of man was co-opted by self-serving organisations. The exploration of space was brought to an ignoble end; plans to visit other planets, or even to return to our nearest neighbour, were shelved. Mysticism became commodified, and the accessories to mysticism, such as Yoga mats and pretty crystals, assumed more importance than its philosophy or practice.
“We’re going to out-sixties the sixties!” was a frequent cry among college protest leaders of the ’90s, whose sole interest in that earlier time focused almost exclusively upon its mass demonstrations. But while universal social justice is important, it is meaningless without a universal social philosophy — and the universality of our quest had been quietly, but firmly, shoved to the side by single-issue groups. Our search for the “cosmic” was replaced by the more personal search for career advancement and the right to self-respect — regardless of whether we’d done anything to deserve them. The fledgling concept of a unified spiritual philosophy had turned into a multitude of divisive battles for the right of each particular religion to maintain its outmoded and discriminatory practices.
Collectively we pulled the covers over our heads, shut our eyes against the sunlight breaking through the windows, and returned to our nightmares.
[NB: For a rebuttal to some of the comments here regarding the pitiful state of today’s youth, please see “Youth = Ignorance” at Ziva’s Inferno.]