There is another world, but it is in this one.
―W. B. Yeats
The cynical reader might suppose that I will unveil “spirituality”as an escape from the bleak, dispiriting universe of the Story of Separation. I won’t, because unfortunately, spirituality as we typically conceive it is itself a key component of Separation. It concedes that the desolate materialism offered by science is essentially correct: that sacredness, purpose, and sentience cannot inhere in matter itself, cannot be found among the generic subatomic building blocks of the material world. These things, says spirituality, reside instead in another, nonmaterial realm, the realm of spirit.
Given that premise, the goal of spirituality becomes to transcend the material realm and ascend into the spiritual. A kind of antimaterialism infuses such teachings as “You are not your body” as well as aspirations to “raise one’s vibrations.” Given that our environmental collapse comes from antimaterialism as well (a devaluing and desacralization of the material world), we might want to reconsider these teachings. What is so special about “high” vibrations? Is a bassoon less beautiful than a flute? Is a rock less sacred than a cloud? Is Earth less sacred than Heaven? Is superior better than inferior? Is high better than low? Is abstract better than concrete? Is reason better than feeling? Is pure better than messy? Is man better than woman?
(And, just to throw a monkey wrench into all of it, I might add: Is nondualism better than dualism? Even to critique the idea that one thing is better than another still employs “better than” as a concept, implicitly validating that concept.)
It is no coincidence that the abstraction of spirit from matter, the removal of the abode of the gods into a heavenly realm, and the emergence of patriarchy all happened at about the same time. All arose with the first large-scale agricultural civilizations, with their social classes, division of labor, and need to exert control over natural forces. It was then that the conquest of nature that had started earlier with domestication of plants and animals became an explicit virtue, and the gods became the lords of nature rather than its personification. The builder societies, requiring standardization in their armies and construction projects, developing abstract systems of measure in their accounting and distribution of resources, looked naturally to the sky, with its orderly, predictable movements, as the seat of divinity. Mirroring that, the higher social classes—the priests, nobles, and kings—had less and less to do with the soil and with the messiness of human relationships, but were kept insulated in temples, palaces, and, when they must go out, above the ground on litters. At the same time, the concepts of good and evil were born. Anything that violated the progressive imposition of control onto nature and human nature was evil: floods, weeds, wolves, locusts, etc., as well as fleshly desires, rebelliousness, and indolence. Self-discipline—necessary to raise oneself above the desires of the material world—became a cardinal spiritual virtue.
In distilling an eighty-page chapter of The Ascent of Humanity into a one-paragraph synopsis, I hope I haven’t reduced a complicated argument into a bunch of clichés. The point here is that our conception of spirituality has very deep roots, and that it shares these roots in common with everything else of our civilization—even, remarkably enough, with science. It should be no surprise then that as our dominant institutions collapse, our spirituality goes through a transition as well. It is under way already, as the long-buried esoteric core of mainstream religion emerges into mass consciousness.
Enormous energy has gone into attempting to prove the existence of a nonmaterial realm. To take a recent example, Eben Alexander’s account of his near-death experience in the recent best seller Proof of Heaven asserts that his experience must have happened independently of his brain, which was in a deep coma. This, the book implies, is why his experience was so significant. Critics quickly gathered to refute his conclusions, arguing that there is no way to prove the absence of at least some cortical function, which, together with subsequent false memory and confabulation, offers a materialist, brain-based explanation. But I think the critics and the author himself both miss the book’s true significance. What it points to is not an extra-material source of consciousness, but to our shallow understanding of matter itself, which has properties that could not exist in the view of classical physics, chemistry, and biology. The “spirituality” of his experience lies in what it was, not what it proves.
Why are we so desperate to escape the material world? Is it really so bleak? Or could it be, rather, that we have made it bleak: obscured its vibrant mystery with our ideological blinders, severed its infinite connectedness with our categories, suppressed its spontaneous order with our pavement, reduced its infinite variety with our commodities, shattered its eternity with our time-keeping, and denied its abundance with our money system? If so, then we are misguided if we appeal to a nonmaterial spiritual realm for our salvation from the prison of materiality.
Activists are right to be wary of such attempts. If the sacred is to be found outside the material, then why bother with the material? If the interests of the soul are opposed to the interests of the flesh, then why seek to improve the world of the flesh, the social and material world? Spirituality becomes as religion was for Marx: the opiate of the masses, a distraction from the very real material problems facing our planet.
On the other hand, it would be arrogant indeed to dismiss thousands of years of sacred teachings as the bumbling fantasies of dreamers, and the last few hundred years of spirituality as the ravings of people who just couldn’t handle the bitter truth of a mechanical, purposeless universe. They are seeking to remedy an egregious shortcoming of the scientific worldview, which until recently has had no place for whole dimensions of the human experience. Phenomena that didn’t fit into scientific orthodoxy were declared not to exist; to one who accepts science as a more or less complete description of the natural world, the only way to account for these phenomena was to ascribe to them a supernatural explanation.
Put another way, if we agree that the universe of science does not bear inherent intelligence, then whatever intelligence there is must come from outside the material universe. The doctrine of “Intelligent Design” exemplifies this kind of thinking. Such order as life exhibits couldn’t just arise spontaneously from dead matter and blind forces; therefore, it must have been designed by an external agency (God). But if we accept intelligence, the movement toward order, beauty, and organization, to be an inherent property of matter, no such external agency is required.
It may sound like I am offering a defense of conventional scientific materialism. Quite the opposite. Instead of taking the route of religion and saying that the intelligence we see has a supernatural origin, science tries to deny it altogether, explaining it away as a kind of illusion, an accidental by-product of those blind forces, not anything inherent. Accordingly, science as an institution is hostile to any paradigm that suggests an inherent intelligence or purpose to matter.
In investigating various heterodox scientific theories and the technologies that derive from them, I’ve often wondered why some of them provoke such extreme hostility from the establishment. The ones that do, I’ve found, share something in common: all of them imply that the universe is, as I put it before, intelligent through and through. Consider, for example, water memory. No longer is pure water a mere meaningless jumble of molecules, but any two “samples” of water are unique; they are individuals, carrying as we do a record of all their past influences, and able to transmit those influences onto all they touch. Or consider “adaptive mutation”—the theory that genetic mutation isn’t random, but proceeds preferentially toward the mutations that the organism or environment requires. This kind of purposiveness is anathema to scientific orthodoxy. Any theory that implies that the universe has an intelligence or purpose of its own threatens to topple humanity from its privileged position as the masters of nature. Our intelligence becomes instead part of a larger intelligence, which we then seek to understand and cooperate with.
The hostility of science to anything smacking of inherent order and intelligence in matter is now changing. All around the edges of science, new paradigms are growing that are letting the properties once relegated to spirit back into matter. Another way to see it is that spirit and matter are reuniting.
One aspect of this reunion is the coming together of the activism and spirituality. In a workshop a young Occupy activist described how appalled her father, a traditional Marxist, was when she shared her interest in “consciousness” and a spiritual path. Traditionally on the left, anything smacking of spirituality is either a luxury of the privileged class, a distraction from the real work at hand, or a fantasy obscuring the correct analysis of the problem.
I can understand where he was coming from. For a long time now, hands-on activists have derided the so-called spiritual seekers. “Get off your meditation cushion and do something! There is suffering all around you. You have hands, a brain, resources. Do something about the suffering!” If the house were burning down, would you just sit there and meditate, visualizing cool waterfalls to put out the fire through the power of manifestation? Well, the figurative house is burning down around us right now. The deserts are spreading, the coral reefs are dying, and the last of the indigenous are being wiped out. And there you are in the midst of it all, contemplating the cosmic sound OM. In this view, spirituality is a kind of escapism.
To this powerful critique, the spiritual folks offer an equally powerful rejoinder. “Without deep work on yourself, how will you avoid re-creating your own internalized oppression in all that you do?” So often we see the same abuses of power, the same organizational dysfunctions among social change activists as we do in the institutions they seek to change. If these activists were to emerge victorious, why would we expect the society they create to be any different? Unless we have done transformational work on ourselves, we will remain products of the very civilization we seek to transform.
We need to change our habits of thought, belief, and doing as well as change our systems. Each level reinforces the other: Our habits and beliefs form the psychic substructure of our system, which in turn induces in us the corresponding beliefs and habits. That is why political activists and spiritual teachers are equally mistaken when the former say, “It is a frivolous, self-indulgent escape to focus on changing your beliefs around scarcity when the systemic compulsion toward real, life-and-death scarcity continues to oppress billions regardless of your beliefs and lifestyle choices,” and the latter say, “Just work on yourself, and the world will change around you. Don’t escape the real, personal issue by projecting the problem onto society, the political system, the corporations, etc.”
The two camps are meant to be allies, and in fact neither will succeed without the other. The more people who have stepped into gratitude, generosity, and trust and left some amount of fear-based thinking behind, the more receptive the sociopolitical climate will be to radical reform, which will embody the values of interbeing. And the more our systems change to embody these values, the easier it will be for people to make the personal transition. Today, our economic environment screams at us, “Scarcity!”; our political environment screams at us, “Us versus them”; our medical environment screams at us, “Be afraid!” Together, they keep us alone and scared to change.
On the intermediate level, too, that of family, community, and place, our social and physical environment enforces separation. To live in nuclear families in isolated boxes, to procure life’s necessities from anonymous strangers, to depend not at all on the land around us for sustenance insinuates separation into our basic perceptions of the world. That is why we might say that any effort to change these circumstances is spiritual work.
By the same token, any effort to change people’s basic perceptions of the world is political work. What kind of people take refuge in sprawling suburbs? What kind of people work at jobs that satisfy no desire but the desire for security? What kind of people stand passively by while their nation prosecutes one unjust war after another? The answer is: fearful people. Alienated people. Wounded people. That’s why spiritual work is political, if it spreads love, connection, forgiveness, acceptance, and healing.
That doesn’t mean that every person “should” address every level. We each have unique gifts that draw us toward the work for which those gifts are best suited. Although a healthy, well-rounded person will generally engage the world on multiple levels, being as she is an individual, a friend, a member of a family, a member of a community and a place, an inhabitant of a bioregion, a citizen of a nation, and a member of the tribe of all life on Earth, even a cosmic citizen, it is also true that we go through phases of relative inward and outward focus, action, and quiet, expression and retreat.
When we no longer hold a rigid self/other distinction, then we recognize that the world mirrors the self; that to work on the self it is necessary to work in the world, and to work effectively in the world, it is necessary to work on the self. Of course, there have always been spiritual practitioners who are politically active and political activists who are deeply spiritual, but now the attraction of each realm to the other is becoming irrepressible. More and more social and environmental activists are rejecting mainstream beliefs in ways that are more personal. The Occupy supporter is also likely to support attachment parenting, practice meditation, use alternative medicine. The hippies and the ’60s radicals are converging.