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Author Robert Atkinson on 'The Story of Our Time'

Interview with Robert Atkinson by Phil Bolsta

Watch Robert Atkinson’s interview:

Welcome, Bob. Thank you for joining us today.

Thanks, Phil. Great to be with you.

Allow me to introduce you. Robert Atkinson, PhD, author, educator, and developmental psychologist, is an internationally recognized authority on life-story interviewing, a pioneer in the techniques of personal mythmaking and soul-making, and is deeply committed to the global movement of our time, building a culture of oneness. His latest book is, The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness.

Bob, what's the significance of the title of this book? And can you hold it up to show us?

Yeah, sure. That's a good place to start. So the title really does a few things. It answers the widespread call for a new story that makes sense of the tremendous transition that is happening right now in the world, and it captures how far our evolving consciousness has brought us over many millennia, offering a big-picture perspective so we don't get too caught up in the conflicts of the moment. And it allows us to focus on the larger process leading us to a more hopeful and purposeful outcome, which provides the much-needed resolution to the problems facing the world.

A couple of words about story, too, I think might be helpful. Story really defines who we all are, as the storytelling species. Story carries a power that transports and transforms us. In traditional communities, the health and the wellbeing of everyone depended upon knowing their story and keeping it current. Our time is not just the present moment we're in right now, in which we may feel confusion and conflict. It's also the eternal moment in which the past, present, and future, become one. Our time is the spiritual epoch we are living in.

In the prologue, you say that we're living in a spiritual springtime. What do you mean by that?

Well first, we can begin with the understanding that all of creation is an indivisible oneness. In nature, everything happens in cycles and patterns. And these are repeated over time. Solar cycles, lunar cycles, and seasonal cycles all have their times of growth, decline, and renewal. The same is true with spiritual cycles, or religion, because all things are governed by one natural law.

Spiritual epochs guide humanity's conscious evolution along a continuum of increasing complexity, a process of maturation followed by decline, and eventually, renewal, as evident in the realm of religion as it is in all other forms of development. So that means that it's difficult to deny that the world's major prophets, Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith in the mid-19th century, have each, in their own time, changed the course of human life over the last 4,000 years, bringing about a leap of consciousness with each new epoch they initiated. So spiritual epochs, they'll take centuries before they reach their peak growth or period of maturity. Right now, a century-and-three-quarters into the most recent spiritual epoch, the Bahá'í era, we are still in the springtime phase of this growth period.

Your book is built upon spiritual principles that are guiding our current evolutionary leap. Can you say a little about what these are?

Sure. The seven principles are drawn from Indigenous teachings and the mystic traditions of the world's religions. They provide a framework for a new story of our time centered upon the idea of the evolution of religion itself. So these principles are first, consciousness is a potentiality set in motion by organic process. Second, love is the underlying force of evolution. Third, justice maintains the inherent balance of life. Fourth, unity is the result of the conscious confrontation of opposing forces. Fifth, reality is one and global harmony is inevitable. Sixth, religion is continuous and progressive. And seventh, consciousness evolves toward wholeness and unity.

Well, this might be a good time to talk a bit about what it was from your own life experience that led you in the direction of this book. Were there some key events in your early life that prepared you for this perspective?

Yeah, I guess I ought to start at the beginning. The moment of my birth definitely influenced me, which was the day the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.


But I was, of course, unaware of that at the time, and really, unaware of it until much later when I started my own process of self reflection and discovery, of what was true for me during college. By that time, what had become part of my unconscious finally became clear, that my life has been, and still is, a subtle quest to find an elusive inner and outer peace.

Another influence in my early years was my grandmother, who came to live with us for a few months a year when I was nine years old. I became fascinated by her commitment to her spiritual life. She read daily from the Bible and The Upper Room. Something inside my nine-year-old mind or heart wanted to know more about what I couldn't grasp, what gave her such a sense of devotion. I didn't know it then, but what I observed from my grandmother made a difference to my soul.

Around that same time, I was sitting on my bed looking out the window one day, when a voice came to me saying, "Someday, you will know God." I had no idea what that really meant then, but years later I realized this was a metaphor. As I've come to understand the supreme force of the universe as the unknowable essence, though the manifestations of its bounty are evident everywhere.

And after that, in addition to these early influences, after majoring in philosophy in college, the one decision that set up everything from everything else that followed was the decision to go for a Masters degree in American folk culture in the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It seems kind of innocuous, or normal, but this led not only to my deepening interest in folklore, mythology, and religion, but also to developing an interest in life stories, which led me to meet Pete Seeger, which led to other adventures that eventually led me to meeting Joseph Campbell, all of which and more, ultimately changed the direction of the rest of my life.

Well, that leads into my next question quite nicely. You have a new book coming out in a few months, and it's a memoir with those kinds of experiences in it. So what is it about? Can you give us a preview?

Yeah, sure. So it's the 50th-anniversary edition called Year of Living Deeply: A Memoir of 1969. And that's coming out April 2. It tells the story of this coming-of-age spiritual quest framed by the marker events of that year, including the moonwalk, attending Woodstock, and being a crew member on the maiden voyage of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. It was a journey expressing universal motifs and archetypes, emphasizing the themes of an openness to the unknown, the investigation of reality through a study of the world's religions, and personal and collective transformation and renewal. It's a reflection on experiences such as living in a cabin in the woods, visiting Arlo Guthrie at his farm in Berkshires, and living as a guest in a Franciscan monastery. Underlying all of this, is the story of how Pete Seeger and Joseph Campbell became my guides and mentors during that time. It closes with my return to the college I graduated from three years earlier, to teach a course on folk-rock lyrics as poetry — what all of those adventures had been preparing me for. And being able to share with my students lessons of a life lived deeply.

Well, as you mentioned, an important part of your own inner journey has been a study of the world's religions. How did this play out for you, and how do you view the world's religions, now?

Yeah, well this started when I majored in philosophy in college, which led me into the study of religion and mythology. The more I got into this, the more their similarities became evident to me. And all this made even more sense to me when I started reading the writings of the Bahá'í Faith. This is the latest world religion which came into being in the mid-1800s with the core principle of the oneness of humanity. It's also enabled me to see creation as a unified whole, and everything in it as interconnected.

And that brings us back to your book, The Story of Our Time. So how do the world's religions reflect the interconnectedness and oneness that you describe in your book?

So again, if we start with the understanding that reality is one, if creation is a unified whole, and everything in it is interconnected, it would follow that the world's religions have to reflect this unity, as well. So I view religion as one evolving knowledge system, or as a tree with many branches. Just as the entire tree of life, religion is the ever-evolving story of one creator guiding humanity, chapter by chapter, or branch by branch to its inherent oneness.

So you also talk about the importance of culture in the evolution of consciousness. Why are Indigenous cultures so important to the spiritual evolution of our day?

Yeah, this is really interesting. Since earliest times, Indigenous cultures have held spiritual beliefs of an overarching interconnectedness that were not separate from any of their other daily actions and behaviors. And over the millennia, as cultures spread out and interacted, the consciousness of duality became pervasive, shifting from that original consciousness of oneness that Indigenous peoples had. Now, as the world's peoples are all attempting to regain a sense of harmony and unity, Indigenous cultures hold the missing link to knowing how to live with a consciousness of oneness.

What are you referring to, exactly, when you say that spiritual forces are guiding us toward unity?

Yeah, again, the underlying good news principle that the book is built upon is the idea that spiritual forces are always operating to liberate and guide human consciousness from previously restricted stages to expand our awareness and understanding of reality and to bring us into alignment with the natural laws of the universe. Just as biological development unfolds in degrees and stages, so too does our conscious evolution. And just as there is a purpose or direction to the creation and all things in it, so is there a direction to our conscious evolution. We are born into a mystery, and our nature is to try to solve that mystery.

And the other part of the good news here is that we have help in this endeavor. There's actually a twofold process of death and rebirth, or of purging and reshaping humanity for the time when the unity of the human race will be established. So we are living in the time of humanity's coming of age. The age of maturity is approaching, and all of this is happening as it should. As the Buddha said, "All things originate from one essence, develop according to one law, and are destined to one aim." We are being guided to reclaim our primordial consciousness of oneness by the same forces that are guiding the evolution of the universe. This guidance traditionally comes through the founders of the world's religions. And as the evolution of religion is ongoing, so is this guidance, leading us now to a universal code of ethics, global justice, and unity and diversity on a planetary scale.

So if we're experiencing an inevitable evolution toward global harmony, then why does it matter what people think or believe, or how they act in the world? Does that just determine the speed of this evolution?

It really determines everything, how we act in the world. That is because... I think we're all pretty familiar with the idea of global harmony or world peace being a promise found at the heart of the world's religions. It's a pretty universal idea, concept. And humanity has had the spiritual principles and tools in every era to bring this promise into being. It's also had the free will to act in whatever way it chooses. The promise has never been fulfilled on its own, and never will. At every moment in time, or every spiritual epoch, it has always been up to humanity as a whole to achieve this promise through its own initiative using the tools it has at hand. It is now more critical than ever that we use our free will to choose to apply the spiritual principles and tools we have at hand to fulfill this promise. The Bahá'í writings say that peace is not only possible, but inevitable. What's inevitable is the outcome, not when or how it will happen. The consequences of an action now are far greater than ever before.

So if we're evolving toward a unified consciousness, what will this mean in terms of actual human behavior in the future?

Yeah, that's an interesting one too. And again, as the book does, we have to take a big picture perspective of that, 'cause as our consciousness continues to evolve toward oneness, we will see gradual changes in human behavior along the way. But eventually, by the time we do get there, living in the consciousness of the oneness of the human family, and with the recognition that all things are interconnected, there will have been a complete transformation of human behavior as we now know it. There will no longer be the kind of hate, discrimination, prejudice, racism, gender inequality, economic extremes, or nationalistic conquests, including terrorism and war, that we now know. In their place, we will seek unity and diversity, think and act as world citizens, and work for global harmony and peace. That means that, in short, we'll behave more according to our spiritual nature than to our animal nature.

On a person-to-person level, this transformation of human behavior will look something like what Bahá'u'lláh called for when he said, "Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, a treasure to the poor; fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no one, and show meekness to all. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a haven for the distressed, and upholder and defender of the victim of oppression, a breath of life to the body of mankind."

Well, I think we can use a little bit of that future behavior right about now, in terms of people acting in positive and loving ways. So are there any practices or practical steps that you would advise someone to take right now, on an everyday basis to move us all closer to that culture of oneness?

Yeah, that behavior that you were referring to earlier definitely is needed now. I mean, that's really the only thing that will bring about the transformation that we're in the midst of. And we're all really the midwives of that process of rebirth. And as midwives, we have to prepare ourselves to provide the best service that we can to the process that we're helping to unfold.

So in the book, I have a longer mediation. It's called the “Living in Oneness” meditation. And that can be found in the book. And also, if anyone goes to my website and wants to get a audio version of that “Living in Oneness” meditation, I'd be glad to send them the audio version of that meditation.

On my website, I also have The Oneness Pledge. And that's something that anyone can take and can get a downloadable, frameable copy of from my website. The Oneness Pledge is, "In all my thoughts and actions, I pledge to look upon all things with the eye of oneness." So that can become... I mean, usually a pledge may be thought of as a one-time thing, but it's really meant to be a regular practice, as anything else like prayer, meditation, yoga. They're all ongoing, regular practices. The oneness pledge can also be thought of as an affirmation that can be repeated easily, quickly, and at any time of the day. A oneness affirmation might be, "I look upon all things with the eye of oneness." So those are a few of the things, along with all the other regular spiritual practices that are out there, and there're so many opportunities now with the web to choose the one that works best for each of us. The ones that I just mentioned, the “Living in Oneness” meditation, The Oneness Pledge, the oneness affirmation, these are a few to add to that toolbox of everyday practices.

Well, great. I will link to your website in the transcript of this call. And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today, Bob. I was looking forward to this conversation.

Thank you. So was I, and I appreciate the time and opportunity.

Robert Atkinson, PhD, author, speaker, and developmental psychologist, is a 2017 Nautilus Book Award winner for The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness, an internationally recognized authority on life-story interviewing, a pioneer in the techniques of personal mythmaking and soul-making, and a member of the Evolutionary Leaders Circle, a project of the Source of Synergy Foundation.

He is the author of nine books, including The Story of Our Time, called “a must read by the widest of global audiences” by Michael Bernard Beckwith; and Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story, which was called “an exquisite exploration of the spiritual craft of soul-making” by Jean Houston. Of his memoir, Remembering 1969: Searching for the Eternal in Changing Times, Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, said it was “profound, friendly, inspiring, and nostalgic… I loved it.” He also assisted Babatunde Olatunji with his autobiography, The Beat of My Drum, of which Pete Seeger said, “It is good to have this book, with his words, to tell his story more completely.”

Click here to visit Robert’s website.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 2: The Interview Issue