Evolving Contemplative Practice, part 5: A New Planetary Sadhana
by Jeremy Johnson
The evolution of contemplative spirituality is a very interesting topic. What place sadhana (contemplative practice and discipline) in the modern, globally networked, technologically advanced, world, and how does it evolve in response to these circumstances? Here are my thoughts on this.
First, to understand where contemplative practice is going, we have to look at how the modern world came to be how it is now.
During the 17th and 18th century, there was a great revolution in the educated socio-collective consciousness in Europe and the newly settled (by the white man) America. This has been called the Age of Reason (17th century) and Age of Enlightenment (18th Century). The effect of the Age of Reason and Age of Enlightenment was to overthrow political, monarchist, and theocratic totalitarianism, religious fundamentalism and literalism and lower magical-astral superstition. Instead there emerged a new world, ruled by reason, with ideals of democracy, freedom of speech and liberty, and non-sectarian universal or objective truth. Without this change from premodern to modern, secular Western civilisation, with all the liberties we take for granted, would have been impossible, and we would instead be living in a Christian equivalent to modern Islamism(1) or seventeenth century Salem, complete with witch trials and charges of heresy.
The modern age (18th century onwards) brought with it the dialectic tension between not just persisting fundamentalism (or any religious variety) and literalist traditionalism, but also the dialectic tension between logos and mythos(2), and exoteric and esoteric(3); polarities that had not been sharply demarcated in much of the premodern world. The development and evolution of a modern, postmodern, and transmodern contemplative practice needs to be considered in this context.
I wonder how much contemporary practitioners of traditional paths realise that the practices they adopt – be they Tibetan Buddhism or Sufism or Contemplative Christianity or monistic Vedanta – were developed in and meant for a very different world to our current cosmopolitan, multicultural, globally-networked, technologically accelerated, information rich, mass media saturated, consumerist throw-away society.
Up until the 20th century, and with the exception of the landed gentry, educated and aristocratic classes, and upper echelons of church and monarchy, humanity lived a very different existence to the one we have now. The vast majority of people never wandered more than a few miles or kilometers from the village into which they were born and in which they died (generally the only migration would have been through marriage to someone in an adjacent village). Until the 18th and 19th century, the very concept of universal suffrage, of liberation of slaves, or equality for women, of workers rights and children’s right to education, was unheard of. Very few, if any, could read. All people understood of the world were the popular myths and folktales, local superstitions, and religious sermons and morality tales they were told. This is the world as it was for centuries, millennia even. This is the milieu in which all the contemplative traditions developed, the same contemplative traditions that are practised today.
Faced with this dilemma, what are the alternatives for the contemporary sadhak (spiritual practitioner)?
The most common option taken are the apologists. These are spiritual and missionary teachers, such as Paramhansa Yogananda, Chogyam Trungpa and the present Dalai Lama, who, while remaining within their tradition, present and adapt it, or the essence of their tradition, in a way that is accessible to the modern world, fully taking on board the limited secularism of the modern age. Such individuals have played an important role in transmitting the wisdom and techniques of the East to the materialistic West. And many who take up contemplative practice today provbably do so in this way. But also unfortunately included here are authoritarian guru figures, who, freed from the normal checks and balances (and common-sense cynicism) of their traditional society, often abuse the sacred trust given to them by their naïve and ignorant Western devotees.
An alternative is the traditional, that is, the literalist or fundamentalist, approach. Examples here include the Vaishvanite literalism of Swami Prabhupada, the Lubavitcher Hassidic movement, and the ecumenical religious esoterism of neo-Sufi Traditionalism (Guenon, Schuon, and others). Traditionalists reject modern insights such as evolution and humanism, and harken back to a romanticised theocratic past. This sort of mythic religious attitude that would have been fine several centuries ago, but is uncomfortably out of place in the modern world.
A third option, only rarely taken, is to reject tradition altogether, and create a synthesis, whether superficial or not, of ancient wisdom, using the language of the modern world, taking into account modern lifestyle, but not adding any new scientific or esoteric insights. The classic example here is Bhagwan Rajneesh, who rejected the emphasis on poverty and simplicity traditionally associated with mystics and renunciates, in favour of expensive workshops and sexual indulgence; teaching materialistic Western “seekers” what they most want to hear, that it is possible to attain enlightenment but still have all the sensual things with the same sensual consciousness. Others in this category are Gurdjieff, who transferred the language of science (“vibration”, “hydrogen”, “all suns”) to his own idiosyncratic occult-mystical synthesis, creating a confusing technobabble that veils rather than reveals esoteric insights(4). Although the contributions of these figures to the modern New Age movement should not be underestimated, both were highly problematic figures, and neither provided a radical contemplative spirituality for a global, evolving planetary society.
Each of the above options however is still limited to the dualism of a tension between traditionalists and progressives. Each has something valid to say, but each is also limited and partial. Hence the need for a further, more universal alternative, able to not only integrate both past and present but also envisage a new and creative future which, very important, is different from the past. I call this latter approach the integral/planetary. Here “integral” is used in a non-sectarian sense of pertaining to the evolution and transformation of individual and socio-cultural consciousness(5). “Planetary” in the sense of “global” or “new age”; being used in this manner by Teilhard de Chardin, but it need not be limited to a specific Teilhardian context.
An integral/planetary spiritual worldview and practice by its very nature is different from the traditions of the past. For one thing, it developed in a totally different environment, a global, multi-cultural, scientifically literate, milieu environment, and, for me, should be applicable to the current global situation with all its many problems. So it is not enough to attain Liberation for oneself while leaving the rest of the world unchanged, or reject empirical science because it conflicts with the creation myths of pre-literate desert tribes. At the same time, it is not sufficient to buy into either positivist reductionism or “post-metaphysical” neo-Kantean scepticism simply because these constitute the consensus paradigm of a civilisation whose knowledge-base is grounded in rationalism rather than gnosis.
My own integral/planetary approach incorporates – in addition to the authentic insights of both traditional myth and esotericism and the discoveries of contemporary science and academia the following new and progressive 19th through to 21st century developments: Perennial Philosophy, Esotericism, Evolution of Consciousness, Synthesis, Sentientism, Co-creation, a new Metaphysics, and the Divinisation of the world. Doubtless more could be added to this list. And while each of these has ancient roots, it is only in the modern world that all these tendencies and approaches came into their own, and it is only the freedom of the modern West, with all its secularism and commercialism and superficiality, ironically, that made it possible.
The Perennial Philosophy is the idea that there is a universal, ever appearing, Truth beyond particular religions, a common teaching that flows from the Realised state of mystics and adepts the world over, and is accessible to all who aspire for or attain this state, regardless of whether one follows a particular religion or tradition or not. This was first taught by Swami Vivekananda, popularised by Aldous Huxley, further adapted by Stan Grof (Transpersonal Psychology) and by the grass roots approach of the New Age movement. The comments on the mystical state by psychological authors such as William James, W.T. Stace, Roberto Assiglioli, Abraham Maslow, and Ken Wilber are also applicable here. The Traditionalist movement applies this principle to religion, and Blavatskyian Theosophy to occultism.
Esotericism in its modern context dates back no further than the late 19th century occult revival, with the birth of Spiritualism, Hermetic occultism, and Theosophy. Here I am not talking aboutr religious esotericism, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, or Tibetan Buddhism, which is embedded in a particular ethnocentric religious tradition, but esotericism as a body of knowledge and practice that is not tied to a particular premodern tradition. Esotericism in this context is basically non sectarian occult, metaphysical, and spiritual understanding. Again, this was only possible with the liberation from mythic religion that the secular, rationalistic academic and scientific worldview provided. So although esotericism and secular academia seem to be at total odds, both are alike in approaching the subtle dimensions of existence as something that can be understood and known, rather than simply accepted on faith. The New Age movement itself, rather than being an eclectic mishmash (though it has that side to it at times) is actually a sort of public esotericism, and a continuation of earlier western currents of gnostic insight(6). Esotericism therefore is able to counter the crippling scepticism and doubt that characterises the metaphysically impoverished worldview that emerged with the 18th Century Enlightenment and the scepticism of philosophers such as Hume and Kant. This is not to say that modern Theosophical and New Age esotericism is perfect; indeed it shares many of the failings of naive realism found in positivism, showing that it is itself embedded in a particular (in this case 19th century rationalistic) worldview. Nevertheless, a participatory, state-specific experimental, and imaginally- and archetypally-informed esotericism can serve as an invaluable antidote to the claustrophobic, anti-metaphysical, restrictions of reductionist positivism (consciousness is a by-product of the brain) on the one hand, and neo-kantean agnosticism, constructivism and relativism (reality cannot be understood, all we know are socio-cultural factors) on the other.
The Evolution of Consciousness. The idea that both individual and socio-collective consciousness are things that can evolve and advance from simple and basic to more complex states, or alternatively more spiritual and perfect states, is again something that was inconceivable in the ancient world, which was characterised by a static, cyclic, and generally pessimistic worldview. This is not to deny there were occasional exceptions; the spiritual evolution of Consciousness can be found in the teachings of Rumi for example(7). But the general rule, especially in Hinduism (including revivalist religious movements like Krishna Consciousness), Hesiod’s classical Greek cosmology, and Neo-Sufi Traditionalism (Guenon, Schuon, etc) is that history always begins in a golden age or satya yuga or dreamtime (the “nostalgia for paradise” that Mircea Eliade refers to), and is forever sliding into degeneracy and a dark age, culminating in a final apocalypse or cosmic destruction, after which, according to the cyclic cosmology, a new golden age will emerge. This all changed with the 18th and 19th century “temporalisation of the great chain of being” (to quote historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy’s evocative phrase), according to which consciousness, soul, and spirit now ascends upward to greater perfection and proximity to God. The German Idealism of Hegel and Schelling and the pre-Darwinian Naturphilosophie movement, and Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics, all of which paved the way for Darwin’s great revolution and our modern evolutionary worldview, can be seen in this context. After Darwin, in the late 19th century, there was the idea of spiritual evolution of the soul to God or to perfection in Theosophy, Spiritualism, and in the late 19th through to mid 20th centuries channeled communications like the Oahspe and Urantia books. In secular philosophy around this time and evolutionary philosophies of Bergson and Alexander, and in the 20th century the process philosophy of Whitehead and Hartshorne, the metaphysics of Teilhard and Aurobindo, the various “structures” or “mutations” of consciousness of Jean Gebser (remarkably similar to the Theosophical culture epochs described by Steiner), and more recently the integral theory of Wilber.
Synthesis. The synthesis of different, even opposite, approaches in a new organic or integral whole is another development that would have been impossible in earlier ages, simply because no one knew any religion or culture other than their own. Not surprisingly, when advocates of different religions did meet, for example when one tribe or civilisation expanded to encounter another, each side believed they were right, and if the differences could not be resolved amicably, a holy war would result. Actually in that regard absolutely nothing has changed! It is only with decline of European colonialism after World War II, and the 60s-70s counter-culture, New Age eclectism, and the rise of the cultural creatives and multiculturalism in the later part of the 20th century that this attitude was no longer the majority one.
Sentientism. Premodern spirituality, and for that matter modern spirituality, is excessively anthropocentric and speciest, and hence intrinsically exploitative of other sentient beings. And although Jain, Pythagorean, Buddhist, Vedantic concepts of ahimsa (non-harmfulness) and vegetarianism go back thousands of years, this has done little to stop the practice of the murder of non-human sentient beings for food. It was only in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with influential figures like Tolstoy, Annie Besant, and Gandhi, that vegetarianism became once again established as a viable aspect of the spiritual path. Even so, I have noticed that most of the New Age and alternative lifestyle movemebnts are still orientated to eating of meat and hence support oif animal slaughter, which in the West means the factory farm industry. So whilst principles of human rights made great advances in the 18th and 19th century, such freedom and rights are absent for countless billions of animals still enslaved and murdered by man(8). It seems to me strange that people, for example in the New Age movement, can talk about addressing global peace whilst still participating in such violence. Ironically, here the ultra-traditional Hare Krishna movement is far more progressive and advanced than the New Age, alternative lifestyle, and new consciousness and integral movements. For this reason, I argue, an authentic integral/planetary sadhana is not karmically viable if it is not extended to all beings, regardless of the shape of their skin.
Participatory co-creation. The participatory approach only became possible when hierarchical power structures such as church, state, and mass media no longer had and have absolute control over people’s lives. The rule of the Church was overthrown with the Enlightenment, by the State with either revolutionary movements or parliamentary democracy, and the mass media with the rise of the internet and global networking. So for the first time it has become possible for people to work together to create something higher, without being told how and when to do it by a king, pope, guru, state media, or private media mogul. And here the “postmodern” revolution in philosophy enabled a new, more pluralistic approach, which rejects excessive reliance on authority figures (the down side of postmodern pluralism is both a lack of scientific realism and understanding and knee-jerk rejection of metaphysics). The postmodern, and people power approach is that people can create their own multicultural society. This ties in also as especially, as does the anti-foundationalist and participatory epistemology’s rejection of the “myth of the given” (the idea that there exists a pre-given world of things independent of human cultural constructs) with the New Age idea (stemming in large part from channelled communications such as Jane Roberts’ Seth Material and and Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles) that we create the world through our thoughts or consciousness.
A new Metaphysics. Yet at the same time, for me, and perhaps in this way I differ from others, but for me it is not enough however to emphasise participation or co-creation if there is no worldview to accommodate it. One thing that becomes immediately apparent with any review of contemporary academic inquiry, insightful as it may be in many other ways, is the total aversion to any sort of metaphysic (sensu the teachings of Plotinus, Shankara, ibn Arabi, Luria, Hegel, Blavatsky, Vivekananda, Gurdjieff, Schuon, Aurobindo, Arguelles…), and hence no way to escape the epistemological limitations of secular (post)-modernity. For all their deconstruction of “strawman” premodern literalism, (post)-modern writers don’t have anything constructive with which to replace the rubble that results from their tearing down of previous worldviews. This does not mean we should prefer the naïve realism of Adyar Theosophy or Alice Bailey. Literalist descriptions of planes of existence and celestial bureaucracies, while useful as mythic metaphors, are often as hard to take literally as traditional religions. Rather what is required is a more nuanced approach incorporating both unitary and plural aspects of transcendental insight and gnosis (including imaginal, cosmological, theistic mystic, and nondual) and the mediating, both distorting in the negative and creative in the positive, influence of history and individual psychological and collective socio-cultural factors. A new, creative and participatory metaphysics promises to constitute a totally radical development. In this regard, the ideas of Aurobindo, Heidegger, and Corbin, may have much to offer, escaping the trap of the “postmetaphysical” rejection of the “myth of the given”, and supplementing the participatory but non-gnostic perspectives of contemporary scholars such as Jorge Ferrer and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens(9) and the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar and others, with esoteric and occult perspectives regarding transcendental realities.
Symbol of Aurobindo and the Mother
Finally, the Spiritual Transmutation (not simply the transcendence) of the world, is a truly radical, heretical idea, superbly articulated by Sri Aurobindo and his co-worker Mirra Alfassa (the Mother). Here the emphasis is on the attainment of a totally new form of realisation, called Supramentalisation, which extends far beyond conventional nonduality. The result of Supramentalisation is the Divinisation of matter itself, and this is where Sri Aurobindo differs from the (in other regards) similar evolutionary cosmology of Teilhard. For Teilhard it will be a unified mental humanity (noosphere) that will be taken up into a collective divine Christ consciousness; he refers to this as the Omega Point. For Sri Aurobindo and the Mother it is not just the mental but also the vital and physical being, not just the collective divine state but also the individualised state, and most of all not the transcendence of matter, nature, and life, but its transformation and transmutation, the perfection of the entire Earth, and ultimately the Cosmos as a whole.
Bringing all these strands together enables the formation of a radical new worldview and practice. I like to think that this new worldview will become more and more relevant and accepted in coming decades.
1. Islam-ism, not Islam. Ironically in view of the current “war on terror”, during the middle ages the islamic world was one of the most advanced civilisations on Earth; in those days it was the European crusaders who were the terrorists and barbarians besieging the civilised world
2. See my 2010 essay: Mythopoesis in the Modern World. Single Eye Movement http://www.singleeyemovement.com/articles-a-essays/50-m-alan-kazlev/96-mythop… and Aacdemic edu http://independent.academia.edu/MAlanKazlev/Papers/500308/Mythopoesis_in_the_…
3. The Esoteric being the inner, gnostic consciousness, the Exoteric the ordinary consciousness. For a Theosophical definition see “Exoteric and Esoteric” Theosophy, Vol. 32, No. 7, May, 1944 (Pages 308-310) http://www.blavatsky.net/magazine/theosophy/ww/setting/exotericesoteric.html For my definition, see “Esoteric and Exoteric” http://www.kheper.net/topics/esotericism/esoteric_and_exoteric.htm
4. Croatian scientist and esotericist Arvan Harvat has made some pertinent comments on the shortcomings of the Gurdjieffian system. “Gurdjieff and Work” http://www.kheper.net/topics/Gurdjieff/Gurdjieff_and_Work.html
5. Here I want to avoid a Wilber-type “brand name” approach, as this leads to excessive insularity. For example, neither Integral Institute (Wilber institute), the Integral World website (mostly Wilber-criticism), or the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, emphasise the equal relevance and contributions of Aurobindonian, Gebserian, Teilhardian, and similar perspectives. Hence “integral” is here used in a universal, non-sectarian, context.
6. Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, provides the definitive study of this development.
7. Hence the following, oft-quoted poem (the following version is from Wikipedia) I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels bless’d; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e’er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return. For more on this, see Khalifa ‘Abdul Hakim, The Metaphysics of Rumi – a critical and historical sketch, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 4th impression, 1965 and other commentaries
8. See for example Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: The Holocaust and Our Treatment of Animals, (New York: Lantern, 2002) for comparison between human treatment of animals and the Nazi holocaust. Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (Revised and Expanded Edition ed. New York: Mirror Books, 1996) is worth it for the photographs alone; terrifying. Such references could be multiplied almost ad infinitum. Nevertheless, the fact that animal rights is finally coming to notice is proof that moral consciousness does evolve, albeit slowly, at a collective, and not just an individual, level
9. See for example Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002. This book seems to have had a very strong influence on Wilber, as following its publication Wilber, and after initially criticising Ferrer’s work as “green meme”, rejected his entire metaphysical approach (Wilber-4) in favour of the “post-metaphysical” Wilber-5 which attempts to reconcile Ferrer’s participatory approach with Wilber’s evolutionary perennialism – see Wilber Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006. Wilber’s ideas are further refined, and the excessively linear neo-perennialism downplayed in favour of a more participatory-enactive emphasise, by Wilberian scholar Esbjörn-Hargens, see Esbjörn-Hargens, An Ontology of Climate Change: Integral Pluralism and the Enactment of Multiple Objects, Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2010, Volume 5, Issue 1