The Emergence of Connected Consciousness

Something very interesting occurs when a group of jazz musicians improvises together. A number of separate individuals, all making their own decisions, act together as a whole. As the music flows, any of the musicians can take the solo spot, that leading role gliding seamlessly between the players. Who decides when the piano or trumpet player should come forward? It isn’t just the person playing that instrument, for the others have already stepped back just a little to create an opening. There are two levels of thinking happening at the same time here; choices are made from moment to moment both by the group as a whole and by the individuals within it.

When people coordinate their actions through a collective thinking process, we can think of this as “distributed intelligence.” No one person is in charge; the players act freely while being guided by their intention to serve the purpose of the group. For musicians to improvise together, they need to listen very attentively, expressing their individuality in a way that contributes to the overall sound. When they tune in to the group and become connected with it, it is as though the music itself plays through them.

A key feature of distributed intelligence is that no one part has to have the whole answer. Rather, the intelligence of the whole emerges through the actions and interactions of its parts. In a creative team, an idea may arise in conversation, then be added to and refined by other team members, its development shaped by everyone present. What allows a team to gel is a shift in identification, so that people identify with, and act for, the team rather than just themselves.

Could the next leap in evolution arise out of a shift in identification, in which we shed the story of battling for supremacy and move instead to playing our role as part of the larger team of life on Earth? Could the creativity and survival instinct of humanity as a whole, or even of life as a whole, act through us? Connected consciousness stems from a widening of our self-interest, where we are guided by the intention to act for the well-being of all life. Within Buddhism, that intention is known as “bodhichitta.” Bodhichitta moves our focus from personal well-being to collective well-being.

We stand at an evolutionary crossroads, and we, collectively, could turn either way. Our own choices are part of that turning. We can choose, to borrow a phrase from Star Trek, the “prime directive” of our lives. When our central organizing priority becomes the well-being of all life, then what happens through us is the recovery of our world.