• Richard Whitehurst

Clear Perspectives from the Overview Effect

Originally published Friday, April 3rd on

The Effect of Seeing the Bigger Picture

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians. – Astronaut Edgar Mitchell

I can remember the first time I got to fly in an airplane when I was a small boy. It was a single prop 6-seater – with my father and the pilot in the two front seats, and me just behind, free to shuffle a bit between the two middle seats. As the sky cleared we were finally allowed to taxi out to the runway, at the then small airport in Norfolk, Virginia. The pilot throttled up, and like strange magic, we left the ground! 

Climbing and climbing for some twenty minutes on that breezy morning, I remember looking down from high above and eventually seeing my very tiny (tiny!) house far below. I slumped into a trance of intense fascination. Everything that mattered to me; my family, my friends, my neighbourhood, my beloved forests, the saltwater bays, and even the beaches bordering the Atlantic – it all seemed to be sleeping down there in precise, miniature arrangements … in some other reality. 

I utterly lost myself in feelings of awe. Everything became miraculous. Though only a boy of seven, by the time we landed, I had matured and attained a kind of wisdom. I had encountered … ‘The Overview’. 

Window Seats Every Time!

Ever since that first flight, I have almost always asked to sit in window seats. As ordinary as flying is to some, for me, and for many others who fly, it remains a wonder. What is that urge that stirs in my heart to see things from a higher perspective, to know where we are within a greater scheme of things? I wanted to go higher and higher to see even more and more.  Mountain climbers feel this. Socrates was surely feeling something similar when he said,

“… For only then will we understand the world in which we live.”

Humanity must rise above the Earth, to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. For only then will we understand the world in which we live.

What if humanity was able to integrate this ‘higher-understanding’ of the deeper truths of our planetary context; how might that support and enhance positive outcomes for the many challenges we’re now facing?

I remember the first time the astronauts’ much grander overview really clicked for me. I was wandering through a bookstore in Hawaii on a rainy afternoon in the winter of 1989. ‘New Arrivals’ caught my eye – an entire display of them. Many were coffee table editions representing all kinds of topics; gardening, luxury yachts, jewellery, and one that seemed – how shall I put it, unusual and deeply intriguing: ‘The Home Planet’ – forward by Jacques-Yves Cousteau – conceived and edited by Kevin W. Kelly – for the Association of Space Explorers.’ I became spellbound.

Carefully opening the large body of the book, I saw a two-page sequence of what had come to be known as ‘Earthrise’ … with the gorgeous blue and white majesty of planet Earth, seemingly floating up from the horizon of a barren lunar moonscape. Magnificent! Other wonders begged for scrutiny, especially numerous statements by astronauts that stirred my heart like tiny little love notes. 

Direct Transmissions from Astronauts

“For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.” – Astronaut Ulf Merbold

“I can talk about it for a long time. It is one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had.” – Astronaut Gene Cernan

“Suddenly you get a feeling that you’ve never had before, that you’re an inhabitant of Earth. You don’t look down at the world as an American, but as a human being.” – Astronaut Tom Stafford

“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.” – Astronaut Sultan Bin Salaman al-Saud

“Suddenly you get a feeling that you’ve never had before, that you’re an inhabitant of Earth …” Image: Richard Gatley

Other Fascinating Accounts

Overview-like experiences are not, it seems, the sole property of astronauts. They can be found in various transpersonal accounts and synchro-mystical literature. Psychologist C. G. Jung had an out-of-body planetary overview in 1944 that he described in his autobiography – Memories Dreams Reflections.

Jung states, “It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India.” He later continues, “It was as if I were in an ecstasy. I felt as though I were floating in space, as though I were safe in the womb of the universe in a tremendous void, but filled with the highest possible feeling of happiness.”

I have spoken with deeply aware individuals who have described their own planetary overview epiphanies attained through powerful regression experiences, wherein they saw themselves coming into the Earth system for the very first time eons ago. They believe every individual has the planetary overview and its impressive effect situated in the deepest, most remote regions of their inner-mind. 

We are spiritual beings having a human experience.  – Teilhard de Chardin

Entering a New Planetary Myth

But, how might the planetary overview and its ‘overview effect’ relate to society at large – and what benefit might it bring to the world? The cultural historian Thomas Berry was known for saying the human species was in trouble because it was between stories; that we no longer had a viable story by which to unify; to orient and to operate. I am curious as to what stage we might begin to sense the appearance of the new healing story for humanity – The New Myth

Joseph Campbell, the great academic scholar in world mythology known broadly for the slogan, ‘Follow your bliss.’ – had this to say in his book, The Power of Myth, as he considered the stunning ‘Earthrise’ image from the moon: 

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet … and everybody on it. When you see the Earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come.

 “There is a unity in the universe and a unity in our own experience.” 

He continues, “With our view of Earthrise, we could see that the Earth and the heavens were no longer divided but that the Earth is in the heavens. There is no division, and all the theological notions based on the distinction between the heavens and the Earth collapse with that realisation. There is a unity in the universe and a unity in our own experience.”  From that first flight of an excited boy back in the late 1950s to my current absorption in the powerful unifying effects of a planetary overview consciousness, a lot has changed in the world. Having heard numerous astronauts talk about entering into new life-affirming attitudes, values, identities, and planetary eco-perspectives, my conviction is that the overview effect can propel or at least ease us into a much-needed New Operating Story.  It is a planetary story for all of us. It doesn’t require billions of years, nor any creative deity, nor any big-banging about, nor even a poetically worded narrative. Rather, it’s an unspoken ‘story’ infused with ‘right-now’. It is succinct, ineffable, and beyond beliefs. It transcends the boundaries of any spoken language. No translations are required. In Her gentle and loving caress, planet Earth reaches out through Her mind-boggling beauty to moisten our hearts and to wake us up from the destructive stupor of separation. 

Nowadays, on rainy autumn afternoons, as I sit in all the chaos of these late times, I can hear my bright-eyed, seven-year-old magical self, looking down from that little airplane; amazed, enraptured … his little lips moving as he slowly whispers Rumi’s sublime declaration from a dream long, long ago …

Now, is the time to unite the Soul and the World!”

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