The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness welcomes paper and panel proposals for its meeting on April 4-6, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The theme of the conference is “Times of Transition: Shifting Individual and Collective Consciousness.” SAC seeks traditional academic paper and panel submissions but also invites visual art and experiential workshop entries. Through this meeting, SAC aims to further our tradition of integrative scholarship and exploration of consciousness through multiple perspectives.
It is purposeful that the 2013 meeting theme follows December 21, 2012, the end of the Maya Great Cycle. This date, shortly approaching, has elicited predictions of changes in human consciousness from mystics, believers and prophets alike: an energetic upgrade, the start of the Wisdom Age, the return of Quetzalcoatl. Hogwash – or so say most Mayanists.
A statement from the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies’ website explains, “Maya Scholars…have been watching with amusement and dismay as self-styled experts proclaim that ancient Maya prophets foretold an earth-shattering happening to occur December 21, 2012.” In truth, there is little archaeological or ethnographic evidence to suggest the Maya thought any global shifts in human consciousness or existence would occur on this date. But this date is still a significant symbol for many groups around the world.
Symbols are some of the most powerful tools available to humans. With symbols, humans direct action, compress and displace ideas, harness intention and share meaning. Assessing opinions of experts and colleagues, I have reasoned predictions about December 21 are less about an objective “thing” that will happen to a “collective consciousness” than about a shared consensus creating a change in thinking and relation.
This inter-subjectivity is anchored in reassigned meaning given to set of symbols: a date, a group of artifacts, and coinciding economic, political, and natural phenomena. Whether or not this date marks the shift of consciousness for individuals or groups is largely dependent on their thoughts. As Bruce Lee espoused, “As you think, so shall you become.” We anthropologists can learn a lot from this martial arts master and 2012 devotees.
As a discipline, anthropology is in transition, seeking to find its place in a shifting academic landscape. Recently, American anthropology experienced a crisis of identity. Temporarily excluding the word “science” from its mission, the American Anthropological Association attempted to describe its purpose in more expansive ways. The intention was to make more explicit AAA’s holistic values. The result, however, was alienation of some hypothetical-deductive anthropologists. Caught between what was and what is to be, academic departments have fissured, removing humanistic cultural and linguistic sub-disciplines from more deductive biological and archeological frameworks.
It is simpler to focus on reason or expression, logic or creativity, science or spirituality. Unfortunately, as anthropologists, we do not have this luxury. We know all too well that economic transactions cannot simply be described by equations, that brain scans do not completely describe a drug user, and that religious texts do not tell the biological story of human origins. Humans are multifaceted, messy and astoundingly beautiful creatures.
As anthropologists, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a robust renewal for our discipline. As the world becomes increasingly complex so can we. By spending our time arguing which framework, science or spirituality, is “better” we miss the tremendous potential of combining their insights. As Albert Einstein explains, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
Science is an incredibly powerful method for understanding material phenomena from an unbiased perspective. It shows, objectively, a representation of casual events in ways that myth, stories and art cannot. For example, we know that frequent meditation normalizes brainwave activity and creates growth in the hippocampus, an area necessary for memory. So, from science, we know that meditation increases memory. But science tells us nothing about the experience of meditation or the depth of sacred connection felt. We need other tools to do that.
Verbal or visual creative expression is the only way to relate the profound experience of union felt during meditation. Yes, our glucocorticoids decrease, but our minds are connected to infinite vibrations, washing over in soothing surges. In that peace, only verse or vision can convey that absolute connection: clouds silently curl as the moon’s fingers pluck the sonorous shore. When art and science are combined, we get a fuller, more representative picture of meditation phenomena. From these descriptions, we can see the validity and usefulness of each framework and that neither has a monopoly on truth.
At the 2013 SAC conference, we aim to create a holistic forum to share art and science in an open and constructive way. For the first time, the meeting will invite visual artists to feature work depicting human consciousness. This work will be displayed throughout the conference as scholarly research is presented. We strongly encourage all hypothetico-deductive scientists who research consciousness to submit abstracts for this conference: your work is invaluable to advancing our understanding of human awareness. We hope this meeting will generate new insights, new connections, and even new disagreements to propel our discipline into uncharted waters.
So as we move into and past the winter equinox, I propose a new meaning for December 21, 2012 for anthropologists and other brave scholars. Let us see this date as a symbol for integration, real integration, of logical and expressive frameworks. How perfect for a date that until now has pitted materialists against spiritualists to serve as representation for a new way of relating to and learning from divergent disciplines. Disagreement is necessary to advance understanding of human complexity, but let us do it in a compassionate way. So, count me in the pool of believers that December 21 represents a shift in consciousness, but one that I and hopefully many of you, will help bring about.
Mark Flanagan is program chair for SAC 2013 Spring Meeting and SAC Member-at-Large. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hillary S Webb is the contributing editor for the SAC column in Anthropology News.