This piece is “early.” Before I moved back to Chicago from Madison, I had to answer for myself the question, “Why am I doing this? Why am I going back to the place where I started life?” It was important for me to do that sociological thing: to define the situation.
New Age Spirituality, Traditional Values
and Social Problems in America
The “New Age” has been with us for twenty years now and it is not going to go away. Its root is a sudden increase in the number of people interested in the higher-order (post-rational) inner experiences the human organism is naturally capable of but which until this period of history were only cultivated by extremely small numbers of people in monastic and other highly specialized communities (e.g., the Beguines). The increase in the numbers of people who regularly meditate from thousands to millions in advanced industrial society constituted a social movement whose scope is evolutionary. This is not merely dynastic change, it is change in consciousness.
However, major shifts in consciousness are dangerous and chaotic, because the old rules do not apply to the new experiences. Therefore, the New Age is a two-sided phenomenon, and the crucial skill in making use of it is to discern its spirits.
Let me note at the outset that this is an overview, and I realize that the well-informed reader will at points be surprised at the mental leaps I appear to make without substantiation. I crave your indulgence for a moment. I think it is important to sketch the larger outlines of the situation. I have given much thought to the elements of the argument, but I am sure there are mistakes of emphasis and nuance. So, when you a come across a point at which you say, “Now where the hell does that come from?”, ink in an asterisk and we can discuss it later. Everything here is open for fine-tuning and revision.
Let me first present the argument, and then enlarge on the meanings of the terms.
One, the present steering mechanism of the advanced industrial economies is in the products of the rationality project, the 1500-year-old effort to institutionalize formal reflexive thought in Western society.
Two, the mastery of formal reflexive reasoning is an advanced stage in the personality development of the human organism, but not the final stage. We are capable of higher-order experiences.
Three, when the organism is ready, it moves on. This is the pure desire to be complete. Western society at the end of the twentieth century is ready to move on.
Four, the next stage of personality structure subsumes formal reflexive thought into non-linear, post-rational information experiences that cannot be described in precise language precisely because they are post-rational. But these experiences have always been accessible to the human organism and show up historically and socially as the great mystics, founders of great religious systems and intuitive spiritual personalities.
Five, the movement from reason to integration is complicated by two problems. One is the pre/trans fallacy and the other is unfinished emotional work.
Six, in the 1990s we are at the beginning of a sorting out process of transition technologies. A social learning curve is in progress. We are still early in the game, but a set of guidelines to judge the quality of offerings is possible.
Seven, higher-order spiritual achievements will enable us to solve apparently insoluble social and personal problems. They will also bring us higher-order, more exotic problems to deal with. Progress is not utopia.
Eight, I will sketch the outlines of a transition technology that I think works.
1. THE RATIONALITY PROJECT
This project has been the priority of social leaderships for about 1500 years. All the major institutions of this society are rooted in formal reflexive thought rather than myth or magic. Commerce is contracts and the movement of money. Government is consensual law and
effective rational organization. Science is precise conceptualization. Technology is precise application of science. Religion is theology: what you say (the creed) is what you are.
The rationality project has been in public discourse in the West ever since the time of Socrates. His condemnation to death of course indicates that it was not yet socially dominant. By the time the theology of St. Augustine triumphed over the more holistic Pelagius, the rationality project was clearly in the ascendancy, and Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God) was its first bestselling book. The institutionalization of reason swept aside all competing wisdoms, often with terrible violence, but it also produced irreplaceable results. Such is the paradox of history that the drive to growth can be marked by numbing insensitivity.
What was the issue here? It was mastery and institutionalization of what Ken Wilber calls “formal-reflexive mind”:
2. THE GROWTH IMPERATIVE
Western society is now ready to move on. On the positive side it has mastered formal reflexive thought and solved, for the majority of its population, the food problem. On the negative side, by its neglect of other human capacities it has set in motion global forces that can result in its extinction. These are very recent achievements, and together they produce a powerful thrust to move on to the next stage of development.
Just as reason replaced myth and magic in a slow and uneven but irresistible process, so the higher-order capacities move in on reason with slow and uneven but irresistible force. The myth-fixated law of Athens sentenced Socrates to death, but Augustine’s grim cultivation of mind became dominant social policy. So too the rationality project burned many mystics at the stake, and now we are flocking to their retreats and seminars in ever larger numbers.
It is not my purpose here to detail the many ironies, and sacrifices that have accompanied the rise of reason. Suffice it to say at this point merely that the process had a dual character. It promoted life and it produced death, including its own. The side-effects of the rationality project should be of immense interest to us all as we go through the present learning process. But for the moment I want to stay with just the main scenario: there is an historical and personal process going on at this moment in which reason is being transcended. This is a positive process; it is a natural process; it is an irresistible process. And it is a process fraught with new dangers that call for new wisdom. It is my hope in this brief essay merely to carve out a little space for the cultivation of that new wisdom.
Ken Wilber makes this observation:
Alternative wisdoms have been present in the West all through its history, but they were always hidden or suppressed until relatively recently. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all contain major contributions. In fact, these are probably the bedrock to which the secular New Age is slowly returning, as it gets past the egotism of mass religious organizations.
In the late nineteenth century alternative wisdoms started to gain more ground, but they were still minority movements with a mixture of higher-order achievements and regressive/ escapist elements. Social historians sometimes speak of the New Thought movement, which would include Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Mary Baker Eddy, Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Rudolph Steiner among its major figures.
In the late 1960s using the energy of mass communications and opposition to the final stages of a rationalist imperialism (“the war”), these alternatives started to take the form of a mass movement. In 1969 Theodore Roszak documented its largely youthful forms with his book The Making of a Counter Culture and shortly thereafter the term “New Age” was coined. We have made an adjective out of it. We have new-age everything: shops, clothes, music, books, magazines, religions, fads, starts, media and on.
Roszak correctly called it a culture. Even though it was youthful then, the dissent was not on the political level, but deeper than that. It was about assumptions, about deep structures, a different Weltanschauung. And now it is no longer youthful. It is grown-up and middle-aged, on the very threshold of wisdom. Ken Wilber provides for us a thumb-nail sketch of its inner core:
5a. THE PRE/TRANS FALLACY
The social artifacts we call new-age have only one thing in common: they all dissent from the rationality project. Beyond that they split into opposite directions. They regress in consciousness or they advance in consciousness, and untutored rationality cannot tell the difference.
The term pre/trans fallacy was coined by Wilber:
And so some new-age practices are regressive copings that lead to catatonic self-absorption. Some are escapist flights of fancy that entirely leave the body in ethereal imaginings. And some are inclusive expansions to a higher-order awareness that we recognize when we experience it because it is full of compassion and common sense.
5b. ESCAPIST TRANCE
Unfinished emotional work is an issue because when we let go of thinking, repressed memories of pain can arise. Coming to terms with them takes skill, and avoiding them is an ever-present tactic of our defense mechanisms.
“Higher consciousness” is an inner awareness, but inner stillness is easily invade by painful unconscious material. Meditation can turn into trance. The tricky part is that trance is essential to investigate certain deep parts of the inner self, but when trance is constructed to avoid pain, it can become a seductive state of consciousness that poses as permanent fulfillment.
Therefore a crucial skill in post-rational growth is to distinguish between being awake and being in trance. It is not the point never to go into trance, but rather to come back out of it: always “return to the body.” It turns out that the ability to know when you are asleep and when you are awake is actually quite subtle. Inner pain makes us extremely clever in confusing the two. Escapist trances form the foundation of cults and other totalitarianisms.
And so, in new-age circles you find everything from true mystics to real nut-cases and it is not always easy to tell the difference.
6. THE RULES FOR DISCERNMENT
The guidelines have to do with staying awake and distinguishing the different kinds of “feeling good” that can occur in inner practices.
The basic issue is simply to know when you are awake. It is so easy to get mesmerized. Wakefulness is an inclusive state of awareness. It does not leave anything out. It befriends darkness as well as light. If you know when you are awake, and enjoy being awake more than being in trance, then you will easily spot teachers and practices that don’t tell you when they are putting you under. You will only trust teachers and practices that make you more in touch with yourself and your normal world. “Higher consciousness” is normal. The overall watchwords are wholeness and integration: be all that you are, bring all the parts together.
The entry-level practices that support increasing wakefulness are: relax, breathe, move. These practices are breathtakingly simple, but to observe them consistently is something of a challenge.
Relaxation is square one. In order even to get in the game you have to let go of the chatter of the mind. This is difficult for practitioners of the rationality project. Think of the rigors of any professional training: graduate school, law school, medical school, business school. They all trainings in control-by-the-mind. Professional creativity functions within the imprint of certain key controls. Higher consciousness requires a relaxation of just those controls. The paradox is that it does not erase them; it completes them. It sets them more clearly in a wider context. But it is a paradox. People of mind find it hard to relax deeply.
Don’t forget to breathe. Oxygen is spiritual food. It is the food of consciousness in the body. The possibility of pain can produce panic. Panic makes us want to leave our body. We hold our breath. We hyperventilate. Breathing is a technology of wholeness.
Move freely. Exercise and healthy eating are basics of staying awake and in the whole body. Aerobics have their place, but movement that is too controlled brings on the fixed stare of the exercise trance.
Other guidelines are about the various forms of “feeling good” and the oscillations of darkness and light that occur in inner exploration. The difference between larger awareness and an adrenalin rush is not always easy to detect. The value of “ecstasy” versus grounded generosity will be debated for quite some time. But even when faced with these higher-order issues, we will always come out all right if we relax, breathe, and move.
7. SOCIAL PROBLEMS.
Note that the rationality project through its subsidiary called science has rid us of bubonic plague; through its subsidiary called representative democracy has greatly reduced the amount of political repression in the world; and through its subsidiary called the corporation has vastly increased the amount of material wealth the human race has access to. All of these achievements are of course threatened if we do not move on to the next stage. But then, clumsily and often with much pain, the human race has always moved on, and often only in the nick of time to save its own collective skin. And just as reason solved major problems of the pre-rational age, so higher consciousness will solve some major problems of the rationality project.
What then are the social problems of the rationality project? I submit that the two main ones are the distribution of wealth and the disposal of waste. If we can handle wealth and garbage with compassion, we will live in a much better world.
I further suggest that both of these problems have the same deep source: stuffing inner spiritual emptiness with material things. As we who have mastered rationality learn how to fill our spiritual needs with spiritual goods, we will stop trying to increase our consumption of material things to absurd amounts and pause long enough to fit our material needs into nature.
First of all, note that the distribution of wealth is a novel problem that has gone one step beyond the problem of producing enough wealth, which corporate capitalism has taken care of. The rationality project has gotten us from the problem of scarcity to the problem of distributive justice, and this is a great leap forward.
Secondly, as you distribute wealth better, you make great inroads into crime (social problem #3), much of which is related to poverty and illegal drugs, and disease (social problem #4).
Thirdly, note that garbage includes carbon dioxide and fluorocarbons as well as chemicals and solids.
I won’t trace out in detail right here the connection between spiritual emptiness, the distribution of wealth and the disposal of garbage. I think that is very easily done, and that it will be an educational exercise. This is an overview. Let me just give a few examples.
One, the president of the government oil company in Ecuador recently explained with genuine regret that the reason why their operations have polluted so much of the lower Andean rain forest is that in the first years of the project they were under great pressure to pay off foreign debt and so they took short-cuts. Two, ask yourself why Michael Milken needed to amass two billion dollars in personal assets through junk bond fraud. What need was he feeding? Three, ask yourself why Charles Keating stole the life savings of hundreds of elderly Arizonans by high-pressure selling of worthless bonds. If you go deeper than “greed”, I think you find anxiety and stuffing.
8. A MODEST PROPOSAL
There are many methods afoot to fill spiritual needs with spiritual goods. People are learning to relax, experience stillness, and move freely. Sitting is good. The study of scriptures is useful. I dip into all of these, but the core of my practice is a program I learned from a woman by the name of Kay Ortmans, who was born in London, England in the year 1907. She put these pieces together over forty years ago. The foundation is free movement, music and massage. The program also includes expressive art, journaling, meditation and counselling. It is a blend of relax, breathe and move techniques that use classical music as the integrating element. The two elements that make it solid, I think, are the way it uses music and movement.
The classical music of western culture is after all already there. We have just not realized its potential fully enough. I think this is chiefly due to the fear of it by organized christianity, which relegated it to “secular” status because it stimulated a larger set of emotions that what the church could handle.
As for working with the body, there appear to be only two approaches. One is to keep it still, and the other is to keep it moving. I suggest that we obviously need both, and that the movement part has not been sufficiently cultivated. So I appreciate a program that knows how to use movement. The massage is also important. To get where we want to go we have to confront the association of touch with sexual energy and transcend it. There is touching for taking and touching for giving. To be complete we must master touching for giving.