Evolving Contemplative Practice: Part 4, the Rise of Mystic Fellowship
by Jeremy Johnson
by Jeremy Johnson
“The rhizomatic approach is the way forward.” – The Scarlet Imprint
This is the fourth addition of EL’s Evolving Contemplative Practice series, a convergence of various authors, rogue scholars and bloggers who are exploring the emerging contemplative traditions and schools of thought in the 21st century. The central theme has been: how is digital technology and globalization affecting the world’s wisdom traditions? In what ways are they mingling and interacting with mainstream academia and our modern, materialistic and often secular culture?
A major dimension of my studies at Goddard has been exploring the “rise of digital technologies,” as John Ebert puts it, and how they are impacting our world. This semester in particular has been focused on the social dimension: how is the internet affecting social organization? The overall thrust of this subject can be summed up, perhaps, as decentralization. The internet has enabled networks, which have always existed, to vastly expand and even thrive competitively with centralized academies, bureaucracies, and the status quo. The ability for anyone to self-publish has created a lot more information to sift through, but a single voice of a blogger can become enhanced to the point of challenging, and rivaling corporations and mainstream media. This newfound ability, perhaps for the first time in a long time in the history of human societies, favors the network over the centralized bureaucratic, or pyramidic structure of power. This has, as the cultural critic John Ebert suggests, catastrophic implications for the old systems of world order.
The result of this newfound enhancement of underground networks has seen the proliferation of movements and new ways for people to self-organize. Of particular interest to me is how the once-fringe subjects of consciousness studies, altered states, psychedelics, and mysticism are all emerging in a newfound voice of collective confidence, pushing for credibility in academies with events such as the Daimonic Imagination, or Breaking Convention, at the University of Kent, Canterbury. At my own school, Goddard College, the Consciousness Studies program is a recent addition that was created to facilitate the rising interest in the study of consciousness. What was once obscure is now being overturned in this transitional age, where one system of order is turned on its head as another emerges. From roots below to branches above.
In this “esoteric renaissance,” universities and scholars are working up the courage to blur the lines between science and mysticism, myth and history in an attempt to imagine a multidisciplinary, and even multi-faceted consciousness present in mainstream culture. This more holistic appreciation for the human experience is something that can’t be neglected in the present, because our world is in dire need of a greater integration of all forms of knowledge and experience in order to make it through the most challenging century our species has faced.
Fellow contributor David Metcalfe raises a good point: that whether or not these newfound interests in consciousness and mysticism become established in academia and more mainstream outlets for discourse, there now exists a thriving, rag-tag network of scholars, artists and social movements that will only continue to expand, producing their own work and research regardless. It may even be the case that such rhizomatic networks will be the life-pulse of whatever does creep up into mainstream institutions. If there is one major trend here, it is that the underbelly of all that modern society has either ignored or dismissed is now growing through the cracks of monolithic institutions and revealing the sheer diversity of ideas, perspectives, and indeed consciousness that has always permeated the human experience.
With all of this in mind, the digital community of Buddhist Geeks has organized their first conference in LA to discuss the emerging and evolving tradition of Buddhism. In a recent interview, Vincent Horn discusses the power of “informal learning communities,” that provide once isolated practitioners with a vibrant and non-local digital community. A recent addition to this explorative idea is #OPENPRACTICE, a twitter hash-tag for practitioners to share their daily reflection, advice and overall experiences in meditation. The idea is to create a vibrant and social community of practitioners who support each other on their contemplative path.
In what ways are such communities better, or worse, than their physical counterparts? One idea that seems to be emerging is that the virtual and the physical need not be separated. That kind of dichotomy is misrepresentative of the emerging digital-physical landscape where mind and matter seem to intertwine. Virtual communties pour over into physical ones, organizing events, publications and influencing mainstream awareness.
If we pause for a moment and look at this in a larger perspective, the shift from what Deleuze described as “arborescent” power to “rhizomatic” might be analogized in the transition from single-celled to multicellular life. The ability for cells to cooperate with one another and form an emergent whole did not erase, or destroy, the individual cell but place it in a vastly larger and more complex environment. It’s no wonder that in science, we’ve begun to see a shift of emphasis away from competition and towards the often-neglected dimension of cooperation in books like Empathic Civilization and in the work of scientists like James Lovelock and the biologist Lynn Margulis.
The Emerging Face of Post-Religious Spirituality
A major concern in these discussions has often been: what role does religion have to play in the 21st century? In our secular, Western culture it is not a popular subject, save to be trashed by authors like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Religion is mainly considered to be something superstitious and based on un-founded beliefs in deities and other supernatural forces. An evidence based spirituality, some have come to say, is required for a scientific age.
Is this truly all of what religion is, was, and can be? I’m inclined to agree with the scholar and theologian, Karen Armstrong, that the purpose of religion was not for it to be a dogmatic belief system, but a way of life and practice–a spiritual participation that yielded its fruits through compassion and good works. Myth was not a belief, but an early form of psychology in which the intention was to learn embodied, spiritual exercises for daily life. We have since lost that understanding of myth.
“Today we’ve rather reversed this. First you have to believe in a whole set of doctrines, then you start putting it into practice. Not much point living a religious life if God doesn’t exist. But that would be, for people like the Buddha or even Jesus, this would be putting the cart before the horse. First you practice, then you begin to understand what it’s all about. The word belief used to mean “belove”—it meant connotations of loyalty, engagement, involvement, trust. When Jesus is asking his disciples for belief, he’s asking for commitment…to live compassionate lives… He is not asking for doctrinal assent.” -Karen Armstrong
Religion was considered to be a cultural vehicle for the practitioner to move from the outer manifestation, to the inner origin. This “inner” practice, which is often called mysticism, is the study of the perennialist scholars and is often called the Tradition, for despite the myriad outer forms, there is a universal and all-embracing source, Buddha-nature, or Godhead. It is the many and the one. Much of modern religion has unfortunately degraded and entered into a “deficient” phase, where only the outer manifestation is present and the inner unity is lost, creating an amalgamation of literalist interpretations and dogma instead of direct knowledge (gnosis).
To view the Church or religion as a unity in its physical manifestation is to miss that the only Unity that exists is in G-d, thus Muhammed can speak in praise of the “People of the Book” and Buddhism can speak of “hidden buddhas” and “buddhas of all times and places,” and Prophets in Judaism can say that the people of G-d will be taught by a stranger.
Islam means “submission” and Muslim “one who submits,” Catholic means “universal,” it’s only when we start taking secular authority and secular organizations for the truth that divisions arise due to sectarian beliefs that are inconsequential to the teachings of an Tradition.” -David Metcalfe, The Crown of Glory & the Decadence of Contemporary Conflict.
It is also a mistake to consider, as some scholars and theorists are saying, religion strictly as linear development. In a recent talk between the artist Alex Grey, his wife Allyson and the philosopher Ken Wilber, Wilber suggests that religions have failed to evolve beyond their “mythical” formulation, and because of this they will continue to quarrel with one another, unable to understand the hidden unity behind the various outer garments and masks of God. Rather than seeing it simplistically, I believe it would be more appropriate to consider that “mythic” religions, in their truer form, were quite capable of understanding the unity behind all appearances and articulated it with both sophisticated logic and transcendent wisdom. Consider the medieval Sufi philosopher, Ibn Arabi:
“There are those among us who see God but are ignorant of Him… Though no-one loves any but his own Creator, he is veiled from Him by the love for Zaynab, Su’ad, Hind, Layla, this world, money, position, and everything loved in the world. Poets exhaust their words writing about all these existent things without knowing, but the gnostics never hear a verse, a riddle, a panegyric, or a love poem that is not Him, hidden beyond the veil of forms.”
While browsing Reddit the other week, someone posted the question: can you be an atheist and be a Buddhist? The first thing that came to mind was, well, you can come to the contemplative practice “being” whatever. The robes come off in silent attention, secular or not. After contemplation, we return to the world, we use our words according to the culture to describe the infinite. Buddha did this, Christians did this, and secular “geeks” also do this. But the center of the temple asks you to surrender those labels. Surrendering your heart, your mind, your being to silence requires no particular, creative way to label yourself beforehand, and that sacredness can be discovered by all–despite their culture.
The embrace of quietude is what the anonymous medieval contemplative called “the Cloud of Unknowing.” The center of the practice requires nothing to be carried with you but a silent mind and opened heart. It is a profound emptying out, leaving our thoughts on the altar of contemplative quietude so we might enter a more direct way of knowing. This is a knowing of the heart.
This inner, contemplative tradition is at the heart and soul of every world religion. The outer forms may be entering into a “deficient” stage of literalization and decay, but it is this inner form which may at last begin to see the light of day. As mentioned earlier, the new “rhizomatic” way of social media and communication technology can amplify the voice of the mystic to contrast the broken voice of the fanatic, putting light on an often-neglected mystical understanding of spirituality that transcends any one religious order. It is this mystical core which may finally have time to shine, and certainly why I find the idea of an “esoteric renaissance” in our digital age a fascinating prospect worthy of exploration and participation.
There is certainly nothing wrong with our secular culture’s appropriating the mystical experience and studying it in a laboratory. If anything, for the mystic, this is a convergence of the world of manifestation and the inner formlessness. It is a uniting of mythos and logos. New techniques might arise that help us understand our consciousness and enable mystical states of consciousness to be more accessible, and transmittable in technique for more people. As much as this could be the beginning of an esoteric renaissance, it could also be considered the democritization of the esoteric.
In a recent essay, the historian William Irwin Thompson suggests now that religion has entered into a deficient phase (in line with Gebser’s “structures of consciousness”), the emerging post-religious spirituality is an age of fellowship:
Fellowship is the critical word here because it indicates a shift from organism, hierarchy, and reproduction to a noetic polity of entelechies–inspired minds carrying a new condition in which a more symbiotic evolution moves from the reproduction of the past to the emergence of an emanational future.”
The “reproduction of the past” is a good way to describe what religions often do, that is, reproduce a new line of hierarchical successors–this is not only true for religions but for the bureacratic imagination of today’s culture. While I am sure lineage won’t disappear, the point is that more sophisticated means of preserving knowledge are now emerging, without sacrificing the important universality of the wisdom traditions. To shift from lineage to emanation, or in other words, a kind of gnosis where direct encounter with the Unknown, the Godhead, or as Gebser describes, “origin” — would be a major shift after all, indicative of what Sri Aurobindo described as the “gnostic being.“
This kind of “emanative” quality, ironically, is coming from the vast networks below, rather than the heirarchical structures above. To be more precise, it is a kind of Taoist imagination whereby all things emanate their true nature; where the center is everywhere and nowhere and all things abide in awareness of their source. It could be the decentralizing force of new communication technology that makes the democratization of the esoteric, and the emergence of spirituality as fellowship rather than hierarchy, possible. With humble beginnings such as #OPENPRACTICE and artistic movements born through the web, it seems that this rhizomatic fellowship has a chance to take root.
To me, this is truly a profound vision of spirituality to aspire to. The core of all religions has been this mystical fellowship, as Dogen Zenji, Ibn Arabi, Maimonides and many other ancient theologians and mystics exemplified in their writings. The mystical core with its vision of unity and diversity was always a threat to the established power of religious institutions, and as the world turns over, it is perhaps the anarchic mystic that is the archetype of the new age and not the priest.
Previous Articles in the Series:
2. Sri Aurobindo, the Gnostic Being and Spiritualit Evolution, an interview EL had with the scholar Alan Kazlev.
3. An Evening with Karen Armstrong, an excellent one hour talk where Armstrong describes some of her ideas on religion as action and God being beyond any conception. Also see her Charter for Compassion. Excerpt: “In that moment of stunning realization of the impotence of speech. We humans push our minds to a state of transcendence. Our minds segway very naturally into transcendence, it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind. And in fact the desire to live constantly in relation to this transcendence is probably the defining human characteristic.”
4. The Cloud of Unknowing, translation by William Johnston.
7. The Esoteric Renaissance, A Five Year Conference Series at Esalen.