Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.
— Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation In Our Time
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know, you better free your mind instead — John Lennon, Revolution
The article in the Winter 2014 Trends Journal on the growing role of creativity and purpose in aging Baby Boomers reminded me of an influential book published in 1980. Written by a relatively unknown author at that time, the book generated great interest and steadily climbed the best-seller list. It had the provocative title, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time.
The author, Marilyn Ferguson, a humanistic psychologist, detailed how the dramatic and visible counterculture of the 1960s, which brought about the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements, had never ended. It shifted, she wrote, from a primarily political movement based on demonstrations and confrontation to a quieter, primarily psychological search for personal and social meaning.
And she predicted that it would eventually lead to a dramatic cultural transformation.
When conspiracy is good
The title had a particularly powerful effect: Usually, we think of a conspiracy as negative and ominous. Ferguson pointed out that the etymology of the word means to breathe together. It connotes harmony, not conflict. And the root word, spirare, means to inspire.
She used the word Aquarian (referencing the peace and understanding quality of the Age of Aquarius) to emphasize what she saw during the 1970s and into the 1980s — a loose network of enthusiastic innovators from different disciplines unaware of each other’s actions, yet united by a desire to create real and lasting change in society and institutions.
This loosely connected Aquarian Conspiracy is vibrant and effective today. In the Trends Journal article referenced above, Derek Osenenko cited the case of Market Basket, a chain of grocery stores where a high-risk job action led by “boomer” employees forced the owners to rehire a CEO fired for putting workers’ pay and benefits ahead of corporate profits. This event was indicative of a growing trend of boomers eager to stand up for their progressive values.
Just recently, I was reading about the success of Sweetgreen, a chain of cafes tapping into the growing market of consumers who want healthier food in a casual, quick-service setting. Sweetgreen supports local farmers and prepares all food fresh every day. And, it’s affordable. The idea started in a Georgetown University dorm when three students got frustrated trying to find healthy yet inexpensive restaurant options. They borrowed money from family and friends, rented a cheap building near campus, did taste tests with dorm mates, and started the first cafe on a shoestring. It is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Order from chaos
I had the opportunity to interview Aquarian author Ferguson on my radio talk program at that time. One significant insight I remember was the connection between the workings of the human brain/mind and the transformation of society; they are intricately connected and need to be worked on simultaneously.
In the brain, large numbers of seemingly disconnected neurons can suddenly converge in a synaptic insight; in the case of a society, millions of individual innovators and seekers, unaware of each other, can suddenly spark a significant cultural change.
Ferguson’s insights came from years of experience as the founder and editor of the highly regarded Brain/Mind Bulletin, a forum for leading-edge research into human potential.
If we expect politicians and institutions to get rid of antiquated and self-centered behavior no longer serving the public good, then we need to let go of thought patterns based on fear and motivated by desires no longer aligned with our true values. As Ferguson detailed, the more we tune into the scientific and psychological potential of our brain/mind to develop insight, creativity and health, the sooner we will see transformation in the public square.
She picked up on John Lennon’s great insight. When called upon to create a Beatles song reflecting the turbulent era of the late 1960s, he wrote “Revolution,” which included the lines:
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know you better free your mind instead.
Here in 2015, despite the fear-inducing onslaught of 24-hour news coverage focusing on war, terror and devastation, The Aquarian Conspiracy continues to percolate through the culture.
Discoveries of the potential of the human brain/mind that Marilyn Ferguson championed have continued unabated. We now know from neurobiologists that the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons and make new connections. So can entire societies. The “hundredth monkey” effect gives us reason to believe that.