What was the earlier consciousness like?

If what has been said about the spiritual origins of language is right, along with its intimate connection to the emergence of human consciousness, that mentality must originally have been very different from now.

Barfield called this earlier experience of things, “original participation”. It’s similar to what the French ethnologist, Lucien Lévy-Brühl, called participation mystique, an experience of life in which there is little distinction between what’s inner and what’s outer because the modern boundaries of individual self-consciousness do not yet exist.

The primary mode of experience is collective. There is felt to be a continuous experience of movement between what is me and not me, of blurry lines between mortal and immortal, between past and present, and also between other creatures and the human creature. “Early man did not observe nature in our detached way. He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer processes,” Barfield writes.

The inner life of the cosmos was the inner life of people. And that was shared. Considering the link between “wind” and “spirit” that Emerson noted is helpful. The old word, pneuma, which can mean both, is an expression of the undifferentiated consciousness of original participation. Back then, the material world mingled with the immaterial; outer with inner; wind with spirit.

It’s an experience of life not wholly alien to us today, and which is enormously attractive when glimpsed.

There’s a powerful sense of it in poetry, of course, and when enacting rituals like lighting candles, and in other activities like harmonious singing, which is a kind of temporary dissolution of the boundaries between oneself and others; or in the waves of emotion that sweep across a crowd; or in the moment when you forget yourself in the heat of the Sun because it warms both body and soul.

Or in the ecstasy induced by psychedelics and entheogens – although that analogue can be misleading if it implies that ancient people were in perpetual states of frenzy or trance, as Julian Jaynes described in, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Rather, early people experienced life from the shared outside in, not the isolated inside out, as we’re inclined to. Their self-consciousness was embedded in their other-consciousness, not their individuality. So when they took psychedelics, I imagine it enhanced what they already knew.

That’s very different from the individuals today who reach for psychedelics to dissolve and smash through their sense of lostness and isolation in a longing to break out.

It’s for this type of reason that the people who experienced original participation have left monuments and artefacts that still greatly impress us. The most obvious are the great pyramids of Giza, built by the ancient Egyptians to reach out to the life of the celestial divinities manifest in the rhythms of the stars, the Sun and the Nile.

It would have taken the resources of the entire nation to construct what became the tallest manmade structures for almost 4,000 years. It’s now known that it was not slavery that kept them hauling the massive limestone blocks up long ramps, rising tens of meters into the air, and setting them in place at a rate of one every two and a half minutes month on month, year on year. The people must have been assured by the activity. They belonged to it.

It was their inner and outer life.

Others, more ancient than the ancient Egyptians, looked not to buildings but to the natural world. They painted aurochs, horses and deer in ochre, whites and blacks on the back walls of dark caves. The images of Paleolithic humans, now preserved in the grottos of the French Dordogne, must have helped develop their conscious association with other animals, their union with the rhythms of the seasons.

Nowadays, the braying heads, shadows, and galloping bodies take our breath away. When Picasso first saw them, he famously remarked that art had learned nothing since.

What has impressed me about them is the sense of belonging to a stream of life that must have been utterly engaging back then. I was struck by how the surviving paintings appear to have served ancient people’s needs for millennia because, once the original pictures were done, no-one from one generation to the next thought of making additions, amendments or improvements. They were maintained and stayed the same.

It must have been the case that what mattered was not innovating, which is indicative of an isolated, agitated mind.

That’s another sign of original participation: people were who they were because they belonged to others. Life was fundamentally social, the communal crucial. Changing the cave images, let alone erasing them, might have felt like a kind of suicide, maybe a genocide. Presumably, it would have been a sacrilege.

It has an uncanny allure for us now, an experience brilliantly caught in a scene from Werner Herzog’s film, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.

In it, an expert on the rock paintings of Australian Aborigines describes traveling with an Aborigine to a remote site, where he hoped to document some rare specimens of the art. When they arrived, the Aborigine began touching up the images, at which the expert was shocked. He intervened, fearing the loss of valuable data. What are you doing, he asked?!

I’m not doing anything, the Aborigine replied. It is the Spirit, the Aborigine stated and quietly continued.

His was a consciousness still shaped by a participatory mode of being. It was directly in touch with the pulse of life. The difference between the past and present meant little to him. The relationship between himself, his ancestors and the Spirit was similarly continuous. He was informed by values often incommensurate with our own.

Another fascinating account of the collision of original participation with our consciousness can be found in the writing of Daniel L. Everett, a former missionary and linguist. He traveled to the South American rainforest to convert the Pirahã tribespeople to Christianity, and quickly found himself immersed in a world of spirits that the people relate to in arresting ways.

They are fully visible to them, not ghostly or inferred, Everett reports. A tree could simultaneously be a spirit, as could a jaguar. The world seen by the Pirahãs has a spiritual concreteness that is as irrefutable to them as the cash value of the paper called money is to us.

Everett found it disorientating and confusing. Where they saw a spirit, he could not. He saw only an animal or object or, at times, thin air. “I have seen an entire village yelling at a beach on which they claim to see a spirit but where I can see nothing,” he writes. “I have almost lost my life by going out to ‘scare off’ a spirit at their request at 3am, only to realize that the spirit was a jaguar!”

Similarly, to don a ritual mask is not to pretend to be a spirit, or to represent a spirit. It is to become the spirit.

If you don’t write it off as a superstitious, collective hallucination, the implication is that a participative perception of reality has an immediate quality of aliveness that is hard to sustain, or seems simply fantastical, to modern, scientific consciousness.