When I was in my twenties, literature was my ruling passion, and my heroes were writers such as Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, and Henry Miller. I longed to emulate the passionate intensity of their prose, and the “negative capability” which infused their characters with recognizable life.

When I passed through the crucible of my own transformational process, I lost interest in novels and discovered a new pantheon of intellectual heroes. These days, I find the same level of electrical engagement that I used to find in novels in the works of thinkers whose central theme is the evolution and possible extension of human consciousness. This varied group is made up of mystics, physicists, philosophers, cosmologists, and paleontologists – the roster includes Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Edward Edinger, Jean Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, F David Peat, Sri Aurobindo, and Gerald Heard.

For me personally, most contemporary fiction, like most current film, has an increasingly retrograde quality. In their efforts to make their audience identify with a particular drama or trauma or relationship saga, these products seem almost nostalgic. We live in a culture that continually seeks to entertain or at least distract us with an endless spew of personal narratives, whether paraded on lowbrow talk shows or parsed in literary novels. If you step outside of the cultural framing, you suddenly become aware of the mechanism that keeps us addicted to the spectacle – and, above all, hooked on ego.

Our entire culture is dedicated to inciting and then placating the desires and fears of the individual ego – what the media critic Thomas de Zengotita calls “the flattered self.” Although they use different language to define it, the various theorists on the evolution of the psyche all agree that the crux of our current crisis requires that we transcend the ego. They suggest that the stage of material progress and scientific discovery we attained in the last centuries is not the end of human development, but the launching pad for another stage in our growth. However, this next stage differs from previous phases in one essential way – it requires a “mutation in consciousness” that can only be self-willed and self-directed. According to this paradigm, it is as if physical evolution has done billions of years of work on our behalf, to get us to this point.

Right now, it is our choice whether we would like to go forward, or fall by the wayside like untold millions of other species, who over-adapted to one set of conditions, and could not recreate themselves as their environment changed. In his influential book, Pain, Sex and Time, the British polymath Gerald Heard defined three stages in human evolution – physical, technical, and psychical. “The first is unconscious – blind; the second is conscious, unreflective, aware of its need but not of itself, of how, not why; the third is interconscious, reflective, knowing not merely how to satisfy its needs but what they mean and the Whole means,” wrote Heard, who believed we were on the cusp of switching from the technical to the psychical level of development.

As we enter the psychic phase, we shift “from indirect to direct expansion of understanding, at this point man’s own self-consciousness decides and can alone decide whether he will mutate, and the mutation is instantaneous.” Originally published in 1939, Heard’s book has just been reprinted in the US; it was James Dean’s favorite work, and inspired Huston Smith to turn to religious studies. Despite its antique provenance, Pain, Sex and Time remains “new news” for our time. Heard viewed the immense capacity of human beings to experience pain and suffering, and the extraordinary excess of our sexual drive compared to our actual reproductive needs, as signs of a tremendous surplus of evolutionary energy that can be repurposed for the extension and intensification of consciousness, if we so choose.

“Modern man’s incessant sexuality is not bestial: rather it is a psychic hemorrhage,” Heard wrote. “He bleeds himself constantly because he fears mental apoplexy if he can find no way of releasing his huge store of nervous energy.” Heard foresaw the necessity of a new form of self-discipline, a training in concentrating psychic energy to develop extra-sensory perception, as the proper way to channel the excess of nervous hypertension that would otherwise lead to our destruction. He thought that we would either evolve into a “supraindividual” condition, or the uncontrolled energies would force us back into “preindividuated” identifications, leading to nationalist wars and totalitarian fervors, and species burn-out.

A sign I saw at last year’s Burning Man put it succinctly: “From Ego to We Go.” As the climate changes and our environment deteriorates, we are being subjected to tremendous evolutionary pressures that could push us beyond individuation, into a deeply collaborative mindset and a new threshold of psychic awareness. Seventy years after Heard’s manifesto, whether or not we want to evolve as a species remains an open question. But the choice is in our hands.