Lifeism: Beyond Humanity


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Cosmos and Us

As we seek answers to the important questions of life, including — meaning, purpose, existence, identity — we too often ignore one of the most obvious sources of insight and wisdom.  That source is the act of cosmic creation — that moment known affectionately — and incorrectly — as the “Big Bang Theory.”  Although astrophysicists are mindful and fascinated with this critical moment, and seek to understand its origins and consequences, there are too few commentators who find philosophical, theological, and psychological, significance in this moment.  How often do we seek answers to what we are, who we are, and what we are becoming within that very moment in which creation of the universe occurred?

It is assumed, and the evidence mounts daily, that there was enormous explosion of a single infinitesimally small mass or concentration of matter/energy that was hurled in a billionth of a second across the space/time of our cosmos. This moment lead to the formations of our galaxy with its billions of stars — the Milky Way Galaxy — and of billions of other galaxies that extend to a current “known” distance of 14.5 — 14.7 billion lights years.  And now as if to make humans seem even more infinitesimal small and inconsequential, astrophysicists are speaking of universes beyond our universe, and of an endless dance of creation in which there is a constant process of “fission” (separation) and “fusion” (connection). Fission and fusion are at the heart of our universe as we know it.  Energy, matter, dark matter, gravity, space, time, black holes, quasars are the stuff of our universe. And everywhere, amidst this cosmic wonder, we can see the processes of separation and connection.

For me, there are important insights for us as human beings regarding our popular perceptions of human nature, and our failure to grasp that fission and fusion,  separation and connection, diversity and unity, part and whole — abstractions in physics — apply to us, and should not be ignored.  At the core of this thought is the concept of context.  All things exist in context!  By context I mean the notable relationships (some would say “ecology”) that bring with them the changes associated with survival, growth, and development.  I believe humans have lost their sense of place in our universal contextual order.

Learning from a Weed

What is important in these remarks are the implications they have had for my embracing the act of “cosmic creation” as a powerful idea for bringing together three interesting topics regarding context: “Life,” “Humanism,” and “Hope.” I stumbled across this view of connections by accident.

It was a hot day in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, where I live. And I was traveling to town only to be caught in a huge traffic jam on the major highway. The traffic was brought to a standstill, and after the usual blaring of horns, expressions of irritation, and collection of noxious fumes in the heat of day, I simply turned off my ignition, pulled down the window, and decided to wait it out. There is a certain comfort in accepting one’s fate when it is clear that no amount of struggle will yield a change. As I looked out the car window at the long concrete barrier separating different streams of driving, I noticed a small clump of green weeds pushing up between a crack in the concrete. There, amidst the oppressive heat, the noxious fumes, noise, and the absence of any substantial amount of earth and water, there emerged a small clump of green weeds. Do you grasp that image? Life was rearing itself under the harshest of conditions. Life would not be denied.

There was no question of preference or choice of locations by this small weed, there was only its intent to grow, and to become what it was capable of becoming within the limited context it had been given. It was driven by life itself — that force that animates the universe, and all about us, and that pursues an evolutionary course of becoming in any of its manifestations all it is capable of being.

The automobile traffic began to flow once again, and I was forced to drive away from this green weed that had given me so much insight. But I took with me the image of that moment as an understanding of the mystery of life itself—its omnipresence, its omnipotence, its absolute capacity to exist in a myriad of ways, forms, and expressions inherent within it seed and sanctioned by its milieu. I understood in those few moments a number of things about life, purpose, and meaning. The Germans call this type of immediate insight and apprehending, Verstehen.  Verstehen means sudden insightful learning across the totality of being, by the totality of being.

Assigning human qualities to nonhuman forms of life is questionable, unless one considers are common origins. I kept wondering to myself if “hope” in humans is related to a felt sense that even under the precarious conditions in which sub-human and non-human life forms may find themselves in at any given moment, there is the potential to realize survival, growth, and development – change!  Is the human experience of “hope” a response to the amazing forces of life to endure amidst adversity? Is “hope” the resonance or echo of the push and pull to survive amidst difficult circumstances? Is the awareness of “distinction” (i.e., part) somehow also an awareness of the opportunity for connection and restoration of a fulfilling context? Is the life force within all of us, and within all living things, a powerful residue of that moment in cosmic creation when all became separate and yet connected?

The Issue of Life as “Potential”

The concept of “potential” is important here. Potential is an inherent fundamental characteristic of life. Munroe (2007) described potential in this way:

Potential is dormant ability, reserved power, untapped strength, unused success, hidden talents, capped culpability… All you can be but have not yet become, all you can do but have not yet done, how far you can reach, but have not yet reached, what you can accomplish but have not yet accomplished. Potential is unexposed ability and latent power (Munroe, 2007: 3). Munroe is referring to human potential, but his words reveal a great deal about the potential of life itself. For isn’t there present in each seed or spore of life, the capability to become all that it can be within the constraints of its milieu? Isn’t life itself a seemingly endless potential to become varied, diverse, and fulfilled in al of its capabilities?

Using the metaphor of the seed, Munroe (2007), states: If I held a seed in my hand and asked you, “What do I have in my hand”?” What would you say: “a seed.” However, if you understand the nature of the seed, your answer would be fact, but not truth. The truth is I hold a forest in my hand. Why? Because in every seed see there is a tree, and in every tree there is fruit or flowers with seed in them. . . . In essence what you see is not all there is. That is potential. Not what is, but what could be (Munroe, 2007: 1).

This is what I believe humans are failing to grasp. This is what is limiting our identity and responsibility.  As we proceed recklessly toward of down a path of killing and destruction, we are failing to identify with life. We are destroying not only human lives, but life itself. It is insufficient for us to address the problems before us with humanistic and humanitarian efforts, important as these may be. We must move beyond our pre-occupation and prioritization with humanity, and placed ourselves within the larger context of life.

Lifeism: Humanity in Cosmic Context

Identity: Separation and Connection

The emergence of a global era — a borderless psychological and physical milieu –confronts us with new and bewildering challenges to identity formation, change, and assertion. Age-old questions regarding identity — “Who am I?” What do I believe?” “What is my purpose?” “What are my responsibilities?” “How did I become who I am?”– must now be answered amidst a context of unavoidable competing and conflicting global forces that are giving rise to increasing levels of uncertainty, unpredictability, confusion, and fear. Indeed, many of our traditional political, economic, social, and religious institutions — long a major source for shaping individual and collective identities — have become part of the problems we face in identity formation and negotiation.

Personal, Cultural, and National Identities

A sense of identity is at the core of human existence and meaning. It is the self-reflective and dialogical anchor — both conscious and unconscious — that grounds us amidst the constant flow of changes in our settings and situations.  It offers us a sense of who we are and what we are. The many and varied forces that shape our identity(s) are determined by both unique and shared experiences. The accumulation of these lived experiences — their dynamic interactions and their constant appraisal, evaluation, and modifications — form the crucible in which we, as individuals and members of groups, claim place, position, and agency.

Human beings have many different identities, including personal, cultural, and national identities. Each of these identities commands loyalties since they define and position self. At a personal level, identity can be a source of great comfort or a source of great conflict and difficulty. This is very clear in adolescence when a youth is forming an identity, a process that continues through a lifetime. At a cultural level, identities enable us to function within boundaries of acceptability and deviance according to various norms accepted through socialization. Similarly, at a national level (see Footnote A at end of paper), our identification with a nation can lead to excessive nationalism, and a willingness to fight and/or die for our country.  Erich Fromm (1955), the social psychoanalyst stated this very well:

The problem of the sense of identity is not, as it is usually understood, merely a philosophical problem, or a problem only concerning our mind and thought. The need to feel a sense of identity stems from the very condition of human existence, and it is the source of the most intense strivings. Since I cannot remain sane without the sense of “I,” l am driven to do almost anything to acquire this sense. Behind the intense passion for status and conformity is this very need, and it is sometimes even stronger than the need for physical survival. What could be more obvious than the fact that people are willing to risk their lives, to give up their love, to surrender their freedom, to sacrifice their own thoughts, for the sake of being one of the herd, of conforming, and thus of acquiring a sense of identity, even though it is an illusory one (Fromm, 1955, p. 63).

But amidst this quest for identity — essential to human functioning – we are missing an identification that may be critical for our survival, and that is an identity with life itself. We seem oblivious to the fact that above all things, we are alive, and life deserves our loyalty as much as any other identity we may have or pursue. We are more than humanity, and we must identify ourselves with more than humanity. We are embedded in life, we are surrounded and immersed in life in millions of ways. It is the most obvious and yet most ignored aspect of our being, and in our ignorance, we fail to see that we are connected, united, linked to so much more beyond ourselves. And that “connection” holds the key to our very nature.

Yet, we find ourselves as human beings assaulting and killing life in all its forms—species are becoming extinct, bio-diversity is declining, global warming is occurring, and there is a depletion of our water, energy, and agricultural resources, and wars and conflict are endemic. I would like to suggest that a solution for many of the challenges we face may be to move beyond our conventional identifications with self, culture, nation, and even humanity, to an identification with life — Lifeism.

Dependent Origination (Engi)

Each time we as human beings assert our identity, we are challenged to understand the essential principle of separation and connection. Each time we state: “I am,” in whatever setting we may be in, we affirm our existence, create meaning, establish connection and position, and empower our self and others.  But unless we learn that “I” is never separate from all else, we run the risk of the “I” in our identity becoming a travesty with regard to what is possible and what is necessary. When we separate the “I” from all else, we engage in an affront to the most important cosmic principle revealed across time — we are part of something more than ourselves and if we reject or ignore this essential truth, we face the risks of isolation, disharmony, and conflict. Identity, then, in all its forms — personal and collective — is, ultimately, in my opinion, the pursuit of meaning and purpose, and is best found in those moments of conscious awareness that recognize that separation and unity can never be thought of apart from one another. This is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. Daisaku Ikeda (2010), leader of a secular Buddhist organization, stated:

The Buddhist principle of dependent origination (Jpn:Engi) reflects a cosmology in which all human and natural phenomena come into existence  within a matrix of inter-relatedness. Thus we are urged to respect the uniqueness of each existence, which supports and nourishes all within the larger, living whole. What distinguishes the Buddhist view of interdependence is that it is based on a direct, intuitive apprehension of the cosmic life immanent in all phenomena (Ikeda, 2010: 235-236, A New Humanism).

When we separate the “I” from all else, we engage in a denial of the most important cosmic principle revealed across time — we are part of something so much more than ourselves. If we reject or ignore this essential truth, we encourage ignorance, confusion, and conflict. Identity, then, in all its forms — personal and other, self and collective — is, ultimately, in my opinion, the pursuit of meaning and purpose. It is best found in those moments of conscious awareness that both recognize and experience the fundamental truth that separation and unity can never be thought of as existing apart from one another. Everything exists in a complex natural ecology of interdependency, reciprocity, and interaction in which parts are never separate from the whole, although it may sometimes seem so because of our limited understanding in which we too often extract or withdraw things from the contexts in which they are embedded (e.g., reductionism).

It is also here that the very principles of separation and unity — of the cosmic principles of “fission” and “fusion” — become apparent, and reveal an awe-inspiring and reverential statement about the nature of life and the cosmos itself. Fission and fusion are, after all, the very principles by which the cosmos appears to have its origins and continuation. The idea is so profound that it taxes our comprehension because of limitations in our logic, language, and learning. Can it be that in our quest for meaning and purpose we have forgotten about the basic principles of fission and fusion that are present in our everyday lives in so many ways.

(At this point in the original published paper, I write of possible errors we have committed in interpreting ancient myths, especially those associated with biblical persons and events.  I discuss and question the story of Moses and the burning bush – “I am what am,” and The Book of Genesis which suggests g _ d made man the master of all things.”).  If g_d spoke to Moses, I think there we have misinterpreted the communication.  “I am what am” suggests all is connected and shares a common essence.

We Are Alive: We Are Life

“We are alive.” We are part of life, the very force that animates the universe and that is present in all things we call living. We are surrounded and we are embedded in life in a myriad of forms. This is the most important and essential truth. We are alive — we are part of life! By accepting this premise, and by making it the core of our identity as individuals and groups, we can affirm a truth so obvious and so critical to our sense of well being that it can be the anchor for all of our personal, collective, and national identities.  It can move us beyond the borders of these identities that so often keep us prisoner to limited beliefs and behaviors. With this affirmation and acceptance, we can build a foundation for connection to all forms of life. We can move beyond the struggles for identity at individual, cultural, and national levels, in favor of the ultimate identity –life, and the ecologies that nurture and sustain it. And with this identification, we can also move beyond humanism — a noble belief itself—to a new philosophy, and a new set of beliefs and practices that considers humanity as only one reflection of life.  As we wantonly engage in killing, we must consider what we are doing.

It is important to recognize that assigning humans a dominant role in the web of life can only be just if humans accept the responsibilities, obligations, and duties to look after life in all of its forms and manifestations. Trimarco (2011) has pointed out that we take for granted that humans have rights, and corporations have rights, but what about the rights of animals and nature? He points out a number of groups are now filing lawsuits on behalf of natural resources and complex ecosystems that are under pressures if extinction. Indeed, is humanity on the path to extinction? The issues are complex, but it serves the purpose of pointing out that there are rights associated different life forms and manifestations.  ndeed, in a posted article, “Human is as Human Does: Reflections on Human Nature” (Marsella, 2014), I raise the challenging question whether or not we are moving toward singularity and total robotic, mechanical, and non-human domination.

Identifying with Life: Lifeism

Identification with life – lifeism — is our most essential and most authentic identity. This identity with life should, in my opinion, be placed above personal, cultural, and national identities. It is the most important because it implicates all other identities in a far more meaningful way. If we accept the truth that we are part of life, there emerges a new sense of connection and harmony with the world about us. We experience the life affirming impulses of evolving, developing, and becoming. There emerges a sense of humility and wisdom that offers insights into unforgivable carelessness and disdain we have demonstrated for life in all its forms—how much we have done to destroy life and, in the process, perhaps to destroy ourselves.

Lifeism is spirituality — that transcendent sense of awe, reverence, and connection in which are moved beyond ourselves, and beyond time and place to new levels of consciousness. Spirituality moves us, as individuals and groups, beyond our past to the richness of the immediacy of the moment.  And with this comes an experience of attachment and belonging to something much larger than our individual or collectives experiential levels. We are part of life, and that means we have ties to all forms of life on Earth and to the mysteries of the cosmos itself (Marsella, 2007, 2008).

Clearly, at no time in human history have we been at such a point of assaulting all forms of life about us. We are destroying the complex ecology that generates, sustains, and promotes life in its many forces. We are destroying more than ourselves as humans, we are destroying the very broth of life from which we cannot be separated if we are to survive. We — as humans — possessed of that most wonderful and highly evolved form of being — consciousness — have become the destroyer of life. We are — in a microcosmic sense — acting like a cosmic black hole grasping and abusing all about us in a frenzy of waste, pollution, contamination, degradation, and destruction. We offend and insult life. We seem to have no identification with life itself — the very force that animates our lives and the world about us. And, unfortunately, we seem to be immune and in denial to the consequences of this essential fact.

Separation and Connection: Fulfilling Potential by Becoming

Life is about energy, its transformation, and its replication. It is about using our personal energy to become –to fulfill our seemingly endless potential to become all that we are capable of being via the seed of life that we bear within us and its relationship to the opportunities and challenges of the milieu in which we exist. This is the ecology of our existence. I have found that I feel most alive in the fateful moments in which I am acutely aware and conscious of myself as both a separate being and also as a being that is part of something more — not only a family, or society, but the very cosmos itself. And when I experience one of those rare, but inevitable moments, I am filled with life — an élan vital — a special vibrancy that vibrates in harmony with the world about me. I am at this point in existence, caught in a stream, a simultaneous wave of “fission” and “fusion” that is filled with insight and awareness of a different magnitude and acuity. Life abides and abounds! It is from this that a belief in Lifeism emerges.

There are so many terms across the world that embody the essence of Lifeism. For example, there is the South African term ‘‘Ubuntu,’’ which means ‘‘A quality of humaneness, embodying the supremacy of compassion and the rejection of anger, resentment, and envy.’’ “Ubuntu” combines ideas of remorse and apology with forgiveness and is at the heart of the truth and reconciliation movement. And there is also the Sanskrit term, “Ahimsa,” meaning “The quality of humanness implying the absence of “Himsa” or violence that allows one to resist injustice without fear on the one hand or hatred on the other.” There is also the Native Hawaiian term, “Aloha,” which is difficult to translate, but essentially refers to love and the intent to establish a spiritual connection. Some have said it means “I greet the spirit of life within in you.”  There is the term “Satyagraha,” meaning ‘‘nonviolence in being and practice’’. This is at the heart of Gandhi’s mission of “nonviolence” and the more recent nonkilling movement of professor Glenn Paige. And we must not forget the Japanese word, “Engi,” that refers to the unity and connection among all things. To these we can add “Agape,” the Greek term meaning ‘‘an unconditional altruistic love for humanity’’, that is considered to be at the heart of Christianity … when not forgotten by its members (Marsella, 2006).

Lifeism, as a belief, also does something more for us. Within its assumptions and advocacies, the omnipresent cycle of life and death become more obvious to us. Lifeism encourages us to encounter and to reflect upon death, and to understand its inseparable relation to life. As we behold life in all of its forms, as we witness its blossoming and its passing, we become acutely aware of the inevitable cycle of life and death, especially the fact that they are one. To understand and to accept the mystery that life and death are one, can only enrich our life, and can only promote a greater sense of responsibility to promote life.

In our global era, at this moment in time, as unrelenting exploitation, destruction, and death occur, nothing can be more important than this simple yet profound truth. A meaningful identity for a meaningful life must embrace an identity with life.  “I am what am!” “We are what are!” “I am the stuff of stars!” “We are the stuff of stars!” “We are part of the very life force that animates the universe!” It is essential for humanity to identify with “life,” and to grasp the responsibilities, obligations, and consequences this imposes upon us.

Let us move beyond defining ourselves in more limited terms as humans or as members of certain nations or ethnic groups. Let us acknowledge, recognize, embrace, protect, and preserve life around us —Lifeism! Let us respond to life about us with respect, awe, and reverence. Let us embrace the fact that I/we, life, and the universe are one!


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This excerpt on Lifeism is modified from several prior publications:

Marsella, A.J. (2011).  Nonkilling psychology and lifeism: I am what am.  In J. Pim & D. Christie (Eds.) Nonkilling Psychology (pp. 361-378). Honolulu, Hi: Center for Global Non-Violence;

Marsella, A.J. (Feb 28, 2011). Identity-beyond-self-culture-nation-and-humanity-to-“lifeism” ; Marsella, A.J. (2008).

Marsella, A.J. (2008). IDENTITY: Beyond self, culture, nation, and humanity to “LIFEISM” -TRANSCEND Media Service –  PsySR Herald, May 1, 2008, 9 pages. Newsletter of the Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

I have made revisions and deletions from the originals to accommodate to space and content.


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at


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