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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.
Marilyn Ferguson was far ahead of her time. Her thinking was based on the latest scientific research of the time which she assiduously documented for 20 years publishing the recognized Brain Mind Bulletin. I (Clinton Callahan) spoke with Marilyn Ferguson by telephone not long before her death in 2008, and she seemed to be in good health but worried about possibly upsetting people in the pharmaceutical industry, which is hinted at in the Wikipedia quote: “Ferguson died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack on October 19, 2008.”
In an early commentary in the newsletter Ferguson described her first glimmers of what she called “the movement that has no name” – a loose, enthusiastic network of innovators from almost every discipline, united by their apparent desire to create real and lasting change in society and its institutions. Her attempt to compile and synthesize the patterns she was seeing eventually led her to develop a second newsletter, Leading Edge Bulletin, and found its culmination in The Aquarian Conspiracy (J.P. Tarcher, 1980), the seminal work that earned her a lasting global reputation.
The book’s title led to some confusion, having to do with astrology only to the extent of drawing from the popular conception of the “Age of Aquarius” succeeding a dark “Piscean” age. The word conspiracy she used in its literal sense of “breathing together,” as one of her great influences, the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had done before her.
Unabashedly positive in its outlook, the book was praised by such diverse figures as philosophical writer Arthur Koestler, who called it “stunning and provocative,” commentator Max Lerner, who found it “drenched in sunlight,” and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Robert Muller, who described it as “remarkable” and “epoch-making.” Psychologist Carl Rogers credited her with having “etched, in unforgettable vividness, the intricate web of changes shaping the inevitable revolution in our culture,” and said the book “gives the pioneering spirit the courage to go forward.”
Philosopher and religious scholar Jacob Needleman predicted that the book would help to make “New Age” thinking “more understandable and less threatening” to the general public in America. This was borne out by its success, as The Aquarian Conspiracy steadily climbed to the best-seller list and its viewpoint began seeping into the popular culture. Before long the book was being credited as “the handbook of the New Age” (USA Today) and a guidepost to a philosophy “working its way increasingly into the nation’s cultural, religious, social, economic and political life” (New York Times).
Although the book was not explicitly political, it expressed early enthusiasm for the radical centrist perspective. In the “Right Power” chapter Ferguson writes, “Radical Center … is not neutral, not middle-of-the-road, but a view of the whole road. From this vantage point, we can see that the various schools of thought on any one issue – political or otherwise – include valuable contributions along with error and exaggeration.”
The book was eventually translated into some 16 foreign languages, and Ferguson became a sought-after speaker across North America and around the world, eventually traveling as far as Brazil, Sweden and India to convey her hopeful message. In 1985 she was featured as a keynote speaker at the United Nations-sponsored “Spirit of Peace” conference, where she appeared along with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.