by Jeremy Johnson
“I require a society on the brink of social breakdown to do my work. A society on the brink of social breakdown is the healthiest situation for individuals…” – McKenna
“I require a society on the brink of social breakdown to do my work. A society on the brink of social breakdown is the healthiest situation for individuals…” – McKenna
Willow Dea and Matthew Rich
Willow is the author/editor of Igniting Brilliance: Integral Education in the 21st Century. Education is such a hugely important topic for me, and I think, for transforming culture. Like the monasteries (since this morning’s session is still on my mind) of Medieval Europe were containers for education, religious practice, cosmology, and culture (and among other things, gardening, technology… Yes, you know, the monks developed the first modern clocks to keep track of the calender), schools are modern-day containers for raising the next generation, getting the community involved, and nourish the towns, cities and villages they find themselves in. Education is integral to culture. That’s why I’m here.
1:45 PM: Willow Dea and Matthew Rich introduce themselves. They’ve been working together – mainly online – and so this is their first time really collaborating in person. Yes, this is friendship in the internet age.
Willow discusses her book : “It’s about embodied education and perspectives.”
We go around the room, introducing ourselves. Wow, so many educators here already. Great to be in the room with them.
2:00: Willow guides us through a heart-centered meditation. Feeling grounded, more folks walked in the door immediately after. Here we go.
2:07: Matthew Rich asks the room who’s familiar with Integral Theory, Integral Yoga, and Edgar Morin’s Complexity Though. Mixed responses for the latter two – I’m not as familiar with Morin’s work, but Integral Yoga (Sri Aurobindo) has been a spiritual companion for me.
Integral Yoga is first. Very happy to hear Sri Aurobindo‘s work brought to attention (not enough IMO). Matthew recognizes that Aurobindo’s influence on Wilber is tremendous, even if Wilber has mis-appropriated it in some respects. Very true. Aurobindo has a huge literary output spanning so much: education, social psychology, east/west synthesis, so much more.
Now onto Edgar Morin. Complexity Thought and meta-theory. “Very different sensibility and texture to Wilber, and Bhaskar. Much more contintental flavor, and a strong influence of postmodern, continental theory, systems thinking… Strong neomarxist influence. Early in his career, he was very involved in communism in France. He is a sociologist by training, but very trans-diciplinary.”
Wrote Seven Complex Lessons for UNESCO: “Important contribution in transmitting complex insights that can be used in the classroom.” – Excellent!
Now Ken Wilber. “One of the most comprehensive meta-frameworks available… but not without room for criticism.” Matthew says that its “incredible elegance” is “one of its greatest strengths and one of its greatest weaknesses.” Can be applied in immediate ways. His desire to create something elegant and simple has led to sloppiness in his scholarship. This is one way Bhaskar and Morin can contribute by “re-introducing a kind of messiness” to integral thinking – big yes to this! Something many critics of Wilber have been saying for over a decade, including my own writings here on EL and Beams and Struts. Mentioned this in my first blog: “a good theory leaks.”
Willow Dea: “We get to store information faster, and have a more seamless experience.” Gives example of Steve Jobs, producing elegant machines that we experience. “I get to walk through the world an navigate… with these distinctions.” Yes, there is a kind of metanoia that happens when you internalize a set of orientations.
Willow says that there is a synthetic aspect to this, in bringing so many things together. Folks who are like this tend to be “on fire” and really hold attention to “whatever they’re embedded with.” Good way to put it.
She brings up Zach Stein’s critique last conference: Using integral in a descriptive and evaluative way. “We have to be careful about collapsing it as a way to describe people.” Again, another big yes and important criticism. I personally moved away from the integral communities for a while around this issue.
Matthew Rich brings up the “growth to greatness” idea: using Spiral Dynamics to move towards greater levels. “That’s just blue,” or “that’s just orange.” The idea that people “get better” as they get “more developed” is a fallacy and misuse of Integral Theory.
“What we’ve lost touch with is the incredibly dynamic nature of development. It’s not this really simple, linear process. Complexity thinkers like Morin have a lot to contribute to our understanding of development in that way.” – Matthew Rich
“People in the educational system do a lot of damage to students with these evaluative labels.” Yup. But to toss out these labels is also a loss – Matthew encourages us to maintain a tension between embracing labels too readily and dismissing them offhand. I tend to agree with this “middle-way” approach. Could it be the rigidity of embracing – fetishizing – developmental models (growth to goodness, etc) are actually a kind of failure to embrace synthetic, “complexity” thinking? A kind of failed leap to a new metanoia. Just thinking out loud here.
2:51: We just went through a great meditation/visualization exercise. We moved through the evolution of the universe. Some great moments contemplating the vastness of the universe without life – rocks and inanimate objects – and then into life (Matthew notes that Sri Aurobindo called this “the Vital”), and then into the awakening of the self-conscious mind.
Teilhard de Chardin called this mind “turning upon itself.” We ended with an imaginative exercise into the future. What might be next? Interesting answers from everyone. Blankness – infinite potential – white light. For me, I thought of the mystics and Sri Aurobindo’s “gnostic being,” and physiologically, felt a humming around my forehead and the top of my head. I thought: “This, whatever this is. There is more, and there is joy in this encounter.” Not sure entirely how that plays out, visually. But there it is. Good exercise.
“There’s a kind of enfoldment taking place,” Matthew describes. “This narrative… this evolution of consciousness Sri Aurobindo talks about, especially in his philosophical work, The Life Divine, and his epic poem Savitri.” Savitri will get your mind buzzing and your heart into a flutter of poetic ecstasy. It does for me, at least.
Matthew is giving a run-down of Aurobindo’s writings. That man is a transitional being, “part of an evolutionary process that will be, once more, transcended and included.” Aurobindo has the physical, the vital (life energy, emotional energy, drives), the mental, the potential to move beyond the mental into the supramental.
“This narrative we carry in our own bodies, and in our societies.”
“Our relationship to our physicality takes place through our minds… and to our relationship to our vital aspects take place through our minds.” Commenting on the visualization exercise and what we were doing. Matthew says there is great educational significance in integrating these aspects of ourselves.
“From an educational perspective, we can integratively engage all of these domains, and this gives a new psychological model of wholeness… in how we engage people in an educational sense.”
Matthew also says we need to situate everything into “complexity.” Education. Culture. Everything involved, everything interconnected. All of this plays directly into education. Matthew was a Montessori teacher, notes about “cosmic education.”
“Rooting whatever we teach in its interconnectedness, and in this grand narrative of consciousness. I’d like to issue an invitation to engaging educational interactions/occasions from this perspective of wholeness and interconnectedness, and in terms of how they fit within a story which has directionality. Consciousness’s evolution, which is going somewhere. There’s no stopping it.” – Matthew Rich
“When we’re bringing consciousness into the classroom, what we need to do better is listen.”
3:07: “How do you bring the consciousness of consciousness to your practice?” Willow asks everybody. Great question! Very interesting answers. Some of us are currently working with kids, others adults. Learning about how they implement these ideas in the classroom or with their organizations. Some are more personal, like “Just reflecting on consciousness and self-awareness,” being an exercise.
For me it is my writing that is often a kind of psycho-spiritual exercise. Contemplative and imaginative exercises as I work out things in myself and also, most importantly, work with what I sense “wants” to be said through the work. The complex storm of practicality, creative ecstasy, communion with the “spirit” of the page as a creation, and the self-reflexivity of writing as I switch in and out of these different modes of consciousness – all while getting words on the page! And I don’t mean this in terms of fiction writing (though it is true there too) but academic, scholarly, and consciousness-oriented literature. Many folks seemed to resonate this in their own work. Orients me towards the importance of the “messy” orientation Matthew and myself seem to be saying. This seems to be hugely important. Not only in that it applies to meta-theories, but our own personal alchemical journey of transformation of “self” and “society.”
3:22 “Individual, species, society.” Matthew Rich brings up this idea from Complexity Thought. These three things orient us towards a perspective of wholeness… Break time!
3:37: Great interim conversations on education and integral in transforming culture. More on this later. Now we’re back. Brief introduction to Spiral Dynamics, but as it turns out, we’re all pretty familiar with the basics. Moving on…
“Healthy blue is a really helpful stage for learning about discipline, morals and rules, how to be good. A lovely structure for how to behave in the world. Having moved to Texas, I’ve got a lot of exposure to this.” -Willow Dea
Next is orange. “Very few systems are orange. Very few emphasize an achiever mindset.” Interesting. I wonder if this has changed since the 1950’s – prior to the postmodern turn.
This part is interesting because of the earlier comments on not using these categories so sweepingly, but we’re using it here, now. Describing “orange” and “blue” and “green” schools. Then again though, we’re on the topic of S.D. and using that model to reflect on educational approaches, so I don’t think it’s a problem. Plus, everyone’s familiar with it. I wonder, though, if we can use models like S.D., well, more dynamically (messier). Perhaps here more than elsewhere for folks who’ve adapted S.D. in their consciousness curriciulum is where we have to be the most adept and dynamic if we’re to use it as a pedagogical tool (as Matthew Rich was saying).
“Integrity is a huge part of each of these stages… but in an orange school, integrity looks like academic rigor.” -Willow Dea
A good question: someone brings up her experience about public school actually being more orange: gold stars, competition between students, goals and achievement boards, behavior management, etc. I tend to agree.
Matthew has a good response to this, in that modernization has affected and influenced just about everything, making education economistic. In practice, he says, “the values brought in by the people working there… the social milieu is far more ethnocentric, more blue.” Again, interesting. I wonder if we can really detach bell ringing and secularized mechanizations (grading, routine, etc.) from the culture floating atop the system – doesn’t it mean that the system, the sea in which we swim, has a dominant influence or affection?
Interesting, Willow admits to making a mistake of a “big fat generalization.” Love the receptivity from both her and Matthew on this. The discussion is going really well.
3:59: Now we’re moving onto the next part. Time to get out of our chairs. Image of a Whirling Dervish, “Dancing the Altitudes.”
“Such a reaction, the reaction of a mentality headed for a fall, is only too typical of man in transition.” – Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin
“It has become fashionable today to mock or treat with suspicion anything which looks like faith in the future. If we are not careful this skepticism will be fatal, for its direct result is to destroy both the love of living and the momentum of mankind.” – Teilhard de Chardin
“My feeling is that until the number of whole lives is greater than the number of shattered lives, we remain stuck in some kind of prehistory, unworthy of humanity’s great spirit.” – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
“Hegel says it in a scarier way. He says dialectics of philosophy does not run from Death and Devastation, but it carries with it for a while, and looks it in the face.” – Rick Roderick
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin
This article has underwent three different incarnations; each one, I think, did its best to describe a single facet of what I wanted to say. Apparently, I wanted to say a lot. Instead of writing a book about it (and maybe, one day, that’s what I’ll do), for the time being I’ll try to summarize a storm-cloud of passions, arguments, and ideas concerning the question of progress. I decided to publish this series because it is an important question, not only for the integral-evolutionary community, but also the larger cultural discussion currently happening through books like Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on the one hand, or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants on the other (while both are quite different, Pinker is a psychologist and Kelly is one of the co-founders of Wired, a self-proclaimed “techno-philosopher,” they are both seeing a positive trajectory in recent history. One technological, the other sociological).
Jeff Salzmann, whose TED-style video initially inspired this project, has mentioned Pinker’s work consistently, and referred to other authors and colleagues like Steve McIntosh (Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins), and Carter Phipps (Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, former editor of EnlightenNext magazine). There is clearly something bubbling up in the cultural dream machine, whether in spiritual counter-culture or the Silicon Valley techno-culture (…or arguably, techno-mystics, since some institutions at Google and elsewhere are busy working on artificial intelligence and the technological Singularity).
Andrew Cohen, former guru and spiritual founder of the EnlightenNext organization, has recently acknowledged the influence of what he calls the “‘Prophets of Progress’..Stephen Pinker, Matt Ridley, Stephen Johnson, Hans Rosling, and Peter Diamondis to name a few.” He tells us that these authors have inspired him with their “persistent optimism about where we’re headed in the future, even in the face of so much pessimism in progressive culture today.”
Rattling off a few of their arguments, it’s easy to see why they can be so enrapturing. Jason Silva, a film maker and self-proclaimed “epiphany addict,” has produced a number of videos in stream-of-consciousness style, rattling off evolutionary possibilities of technology and futurism (he’s featured on Reality Sandwich.com, The Joe Rogan Experience podcast and a number of other media hubs …Disclaimer: I listen to the Joe Rogan Experience!).
So while Jeff’s video may be coming from a very specific angle (that is, Integral Theory, developed by Ken Wilber, and arguably founding a small but strong bulwark that’s trying to start an intellectual and cultural movement), the idea is present again in popular culture, as a rival meme to the apocalyptic obsession leading up to and beyond 2012 (see Gary Lachman’s article: “2013: Or What To Do When the Apocalypse Doesn’t Arrive“).
I’ll wrestle with this question because I feel it is so vastly complicated. Because I feel that the cynics have a different kind of vision (but are no less visionary) than the optimists. That the weight and immensity of crisis, and death, and even the potential for failure is tremendous, and has been tremendous, since we stepped out of the African savannah. That death is real, but so is life. That transformation is wrapped up in so many “little deaths,” so that the real ends to the process – that elusive Transcendental Object, that realized Self – are never clear. Never given. No, the way of life, or evolution, or transcendence is never set about by clear trajectories. Time’s arrow bears no meaning for transformation. It is cracked brittle against the stones of history. And history is a labyrinth. Of twists and turns, curves and spirals, progress and retrograde. The winding path of transmuting the catastrophe of history into something akin to Utopia – or Heaven on Earth – is never clear. “Coagula et solve,” wrote the alchemists, and neither coagula (the accruement of a substance) nor “solve” (after coagulation, its total dissolution) describe the process of the evolution of the human psyche.
Nothing short of a “whole” orientation can help us understand the time we presently live. To dismiss some process occurring, even if only visible to the poets and the ecstatics, is to neglect the vast “living laboratory” (as Aurobindo described biological life) of our existence. Yet, to only see the gradual ascent (to only be an epiphany addict), is to quite literally fail to engage with The Great Work (what alchemists called the process of transmuting lead into gold – not to be taken literally, since it is also a path of spiritual growth). Somehow our vision of human potential must gain more rigor, make room for the sidereal realms and abysmal depths. For these too, and not merely the waking moments, make up the trajectories of history.
Lately, I’ve sympathized more dearly with those bleaker visions of our human condition than those who, to the contrary, are intoxicated with possibilities, and so, arguably, the worst among us to realize them. The cynics, contrarily, have frustrated me to no end, because their sensitivity to the “dark side” of transformation is integral to articulating and paving way for the future.
In a sense they are the threshold guardians. They do not oppose a better world, they are in fact standing at its gates. What is it that the Threshold Guardians are protecting? They guard life. Suffering. The dark places that grow in us and through us on our way to Realization. The cynics have the upper-hand because they, in traditional story-telling and psychological language, contain our shadow. In the spirit of these thresholds-to-transformation, I decided to write up a number of questions, interjections, and examinations into the chapters of history that have been conveniently forgotten – like Dark Ages or catastrophes. These periods – reversals, collapses, and retrogrades – are an integral part of how we came into being.
So let’s approach the gatekeepers.
Jeff Salzmann argued in his video that while predatory corporations, while not yet good, are somehow incrementally better. After all, McDonalds isn’t beheading people (though in many nations, arguably, a case can be made for tremendous human suffering, biological catastrophes and predatory capitalism, sending whole nations into the equivalent of indentured servitude). Jeff is saying that things aren’t perfect, but in some way, it’s all an improvement – we should “relax” our criticism of the world and turn on our wonder-factor, trust the up-swing. But “relaxing” our critical faculties is the opposite of what we need to be doing. As the Information Age etherealizes our libraries and economic systems into abstraction, so too has it virtualized violence into stock markets and mass-media empires.
The question remains whether these vaporized aggressors are an improvement in history (and, considering their environmental and social impact, are they so ethereal?). Many of these new tyrants won’t cut off your head. Does that make them any less dangerous? Noam Chomsky, famous American philosopher and linguist, makes a compelling argument that corporations are incompatible with democracy. This contradicts Jeff’s position that corporations are (as etherealized violence), somehow, part of the “upswing” of improved life freedoms (and developing consciousness):
“Fascism is a term that doesn’t strictly apply to corporations, but if you look at them, power goes strictly top-down. Ultimate power resides in the hands of investors, owners, bankers, etc. People can disrupt, make suggestions, but the same is true of a slave society. People who aren’t owners and investors have nothing to say about it.”
It begs the question: can we actually sublimate violence by etherealizing it? And is such a power structure really improvement, or rather, recapitulation of the past?
Chomsky’s vision of a neo-tyrannical corporate state syncs up with many contemporary critiques of our postmodern electronic culture. From another angle, Rick Roderick, a popular Texan philosopher on YouTube, in a lecture on Postmodern Culture (highly recommended), argues that no, we can’t etherealize violence, for the structural barbarism – either in our time or in previous times – remains the same:
According to the Frankfurt School, Roderick tells us, electronic culture’s effect was to reverse the process of Western Enlightenment. That is, of individuation. Mass culture undoes the reflective individual:
“Now it looks as though we are heading towards a society where, you can plug yourself into it, and it will meet your needs… the Global System that I am talking about, that is on its way perhaps… In this system, the walls will be much harder to storm. It’s hard to storm the walls on T.V. In fact, like in Total Recall, you’ll feel you’ve already stormed them… Those kind of walls, and that kind of totalitarianism I suspect many people in the world don’t suspect is… the dark side of the American Dream. I hope that there will be forms of resistance. But the basis of that hope today is slim… Don’t forget that the structural principles in our society are as barbaric in their structure as they ever were. Perhaps more so. Perhaps more so.”
So if postmodern tyranny is just as big (or bigger) a beast as ever, one wonders if the digital age, which is engulfing everything into virtuality from libraries to (perhaps, eventually) human consciousness, unleashes the heart of Roderick’s “barbarism,” and highlights the fact that violence begins at a psychic level before it ever reaches materiality. And if this is the case, then our age holds for us a dual promise: the first, to cut through materialism and unveil violence as primarily a psychic act. Secondly, it reveals an opportunity to tackle the forces within us, lest we destroy ourselves in that process. I’m reminded here of Carl Jung’s video interview, where he states that the 20th century revealed like no other that mankind is the danger. “We are the evil,” he says, and what he means by this is that our technologically mediated age allows us to actualize our state of consciousness. It brings forth into reality what is deepest in us. If the basic psychic structures of human civilization has been violent (whether forced upon us our us upon others), then this age will realize that “karmic” state with expedient force. The state of consciousness in our age, in other words, requires some form of intensification if it is to survive. So, while I am not exactly an optimist, I am certainly no pessimist. It’s just that, all-in-all, the stakes are high. The risks are great, and I sure hope we make it.
“We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man. Far too little. His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all common evil.”
To clarify: I am not here to critique, or dismiss the possibility of collective socio-cultural development. I do believe it is possible, and that there is something more to the seemingly random and often retrograde dance of history. But let’s, as Roderick quoted Hegel saying, “carry” ourselves with death for a while. It is an integral teacher of transformation and renewal. We have not learned to live if we have not come to deeply know our death. And, having said that, it is my hope that articles like this one can help us steer clear of the pitfalls that come with metamorphosis. We can’t avoid death, only temper it with embrace, discern its language in our chattering bones and dance with it for an evening. If we take seriously the mysticism of yogis like Sri Aurobindo, then this should be no surprise: we are born in death, you know. The human life is a little death for the soul, as much as it is new life. Born into time, struck on the lip by the angel so that we would forget our spiritual origins. Like Aurobindo’s call for an “integral yoga,” a yoga where we bring down spiritual realizations to solve and transmute our lives, we should call down the armies of our projected futures and bring them to the task at hand, the prima materia of our lives: the Great Work is here if we would take it up.
This is the first in a series of articles examining the nature of progress and evolution’s dark side. The next installment is by contributor and friend, Trevor Malkinson (founder of Beams and Struts), with his essay: “A Time to Mourn, A Time To Weep: The Many Faces of Progress.”
Yes, and to some degree, ontologically, the creation of a metaphysical being actually is that metaphysical being. – Alan Moore
The Believer recently posted this fascinating conversation with artist, comic book writer and magician, Alan Moore: creator of V for Vendetta, The Watchmen and other stories. He is known for a darker twist on superhero stories, social commentary, and a definitive mystical outlook (see this wonderful documentary done with Moore on his life and work). Read the rest of this entry »
In this video, I recommend three books (Solaris, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the I-Ching) in just over three minutes. I also discuss their mutual theme: interrogation.
Beams and Struts has recently launched a Zombie and Vampire series, exploring why supernatural stories are so popular now in modern media. From True Blood to Game of Thrones, to Grimm, to even super-hero films. What’s with the return of all this mythical and magical stuff?
A few weeks back I attended Andrew Cohen’s seminar for evolutionary spirituality. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having seen Cohen only once, about two years ago during Evolutionary Enlightenment day in Lenox. This seminar went from about 1-5pm, so I came in with an open mind and an empty cup, curious to see this spiritual teacher, and now recent author (his book, Evolutionary Spirituality, was published right around the time Occupy Wall Street began). Read the rest of this entry »
Inspired by last week’s post, Robert Forman’s Enlightenment: thoughts on rebirthing a sacred culture, I wanted to share a summative essay I came across: Some Central Themes in Sri Aurobindo’s Works (PDF). For those of you who don’t know this gent, he was a yogi and mystic who lived at the turn of the last century. Aurobindo wrote voluminously on the evolution of consciousness and what he called “Integral Yoga,” which he believed was a new form of spiritual practice centered around bringing a higher, spiritual consciousness down into the material world. For the early part of his life, he was a British educated political activist in India. Following a series of dramatic spiritual events (the central one was quoted at the end of Eugene’s article), he left the political scene to become a full fledged Yogi.
Some of his major themes center around involution, which is something like the process of “descent” whereby spiritual energies become embodied and physical, and evolution, where these physical bodies actualize their spiritual nature. Aurobindo had a spiritual partner, the Mother (Mirra), and the both of them lived at an Ashram for the large part of their lives. Read the rest of this entry »