Consciousness Culture, Tech, Mind and the Future

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Integral Embodiment in the Classroom: Transformative Practices Across Three Lineages – Pre-Conference Workshops #ITC2013

by Jeremy Johnson

Education is Integral to Creating Culture

Willow Dea and Matthew Rich

photo (7)

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

Now Willow…

“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.”


A Time to Mourn, A Time to Weep- The Many Faces of Progress

by Jeremy Johnson

By Trevor Malkinson

One must honor beauty, idealism, and the hunger for progress, while confessing in Marxist or Nietzschean style how much blood and wretchedness lie at their root. Only by bowing to our mortality can we live fulfilled.” – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution


In my entry I’m going to offer a critical reading of Jeff Salzman’s video ‘The Case for Progress’ by viewing it through the lens of the Hebrew prophetic tradition.

Let me first begin by making a couple of important general statements. The first is that I’m well aware of the type of cultural pessimism that Salzman refers to in the video, in fact, I hear it all the time. I’m currently in seminary at the moment and even there, even right within this spiritual tradition where themes of hope, promise, and a future kingdom of God on earth are central, deep pessimism about humanity and our current situation abounds. Many of my classmates are wearily waving the white flag, and I find myself running around with the defibrillator of hope, trying to resuscitate my fellows who are drowning in their anguish.

And this relates to my second point- I’m an unabashed optimist. I have been since as long as I can remember. Since I was twenty I’ve been making impassioned speeches to people about a better future. I didn’t even really know why at the time, I could just feel it in my bones that something was wrong with the way things were, and that something else was possible. Bruce Springsteen, no stranger to the promise, became my favorite musician, and I clung hard to the passion and dynamism I found in poets like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. “Allons! the road is before us!

Fast-forward to two years ago and I had a sort of watershed moment with all this when I saw Charles Eisenstein speak for the first time. Standing in front of about a hundred or so people, Eisenstein just sort of casually said that, “something wants to be born on this earth”. And he called this “the better world our hearts know is possible”. I just kind of sat there stunned, relieved and grateful. Others were feeling this too. Excellent.

So I actually share Salzman’s general view that the universe is going somewhere, that this telos or directionality is a good one, and that this unfolding also wants to happen (and to some extent is already happening) on this earth. In my writings at Beams and Struts I voiced this view in multiple entries, often surfacing with this vision after first diving into darker territory. So I could not be more in agreement with Salzman on this important front.

Now let me turn to the prophetic tradition and highlight three major aspects of the prophetic voice and its unique role in human transformation, and through this lens suggest ways in which Salzman’s talk falls short.

the-prophetic-imaginationThe first characteristic is one we’ve actually already touched upon- the prophet as energizer. As Walter Brueggemann writes in his 1978 classic The Prophetic Imagination, “It is the task of the prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the newness that is at work in our history with God” (1). The prophet is a bearer of hope and vitality for the weary. Through the use of poetic and impassioned language (s)he enables what Teilhard de Chardin called the “activation of energy”, and gives voice to a people’s repressed yearnings for a different future. It’s this impulse that I suspect animates Jeff Salzman’s video, or at least it’s this role that I see him enacting in the talk.

But there’s an important correlate to this role of vital energizer, which is that the hopelessness found in a given historical context is usually brought on by a system of political and economic domination. The despair and anguish the prophet seeks to dispel through their energization is often produced by a situation of profound oppression and a ruling power that the majority cannot imagine changing. We live in one of those times. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously quipped recently that the reason there’s so much apocalyptic literature in our culture today is that ‘people can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. According to Brueggemann the dominant powers always seek “to overcome history and therefore by design the future loses its vitality and authority” (2). It’s in the interest of a ruling elite to have the general population believe that there’s no possible alternative future (Margaret Thatcher’s TINA in our day), as this saps people of their spirit and hope and thus power. We can also see this move in our time with the “end of history” ideology that was triumphantly pronounced after the fall of communism.

This situation leads to the second role of prophet, which is to express the grief, anguish and despair that people are feeling in these periods, as it often gets repressed or pushed away because it’s too hard to face and bear. The prophet acts as a courageous vehicle through which this collective grief can be released of its disabling power; the prophet “brings to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there” (3).

stephen-jenkinson1-275x275One person who is profoundly playing this role in our time is Stephen Jenkinson, who calls himself ‘the Griefwalker’. Jenkinson argues that “we are living in a dying culture” and that there’s a lot of “unspoken dread” about this disturbing fact (4). I think that this is much of what animates the strong current of pessimism that pervades our culture. We can add to this something that Charles Eisenstein said recently, which is that behind the veil of cynicism often lies a broken heart. It’s actually out of a deep caring that this gloomy negativity is arising, and this needs to be better understood and attended to in my view. I think Jeff Salzman too quickly and easily (and uncaringly) dismisses this dimension in his talk. But Salzman is not alone, for too long now in the integral-evolutionary community people have been pushing against this cynicism by minimizing this pain and relentlessly promoting anything at all (whether a book or article or video) that’s a possible counter to it. But Brueggemann points out that it’s precisely by entering into and genuinely holding the despair that we can truly allow the space for a different future to emerge. He writes:

Jesus’ concern was for the joy of the kingdom [of God]. That is what he promised, and to that he invited people. But he was clear that rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order…There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come. There is mourning to be done for those who do not know the deathliness of their situation. There is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power and the freedom to bring it to speech. This grief work is a precondition of joy…Only the public embrace of deathliness allows newness to come. (5)

 So although this impulse to resist the prevalent cynicism and promote what’s positive is understandable enough, I think this one sidedness needs to be transcended and augmented with a full-hearted embrace of this despairing dimension. As Chris Dierkes wrote in an article at Beams and Struts, it’s time for the (over) emphasis on Eros to be combined with a thorough going Agape, and I don’t think we’ve really yet to explore in a general way how the latter might open up and enable the former.

In a recent article entitled Progress or Pessimism- How Should We Think About the Future?, Carter Phipps makes some further cautionary points when it comes to this partial orientation towards progress. He writes:

Optimism can carry with it a concurrent blindness, especially when it’s driven by the need to prove wrong all of those counter-cultural thinkers who are telling us that capitalism has failed and modernity’s promise is a mirage…

And here is the delicate part: If we’re more concerned about defending modernity than actually embracing the world as it is and the evidence as we find it, we may downplay and dismiss critical issues that need our attention. 

This last point brings me the third and final characteristic of the prophetic voice that I want to highlight, which is a deep passion for justice. At 14:27 of his talk Jeff Salzman utters a sentence that I find truly astonishing and morally reckless. He says that with his evolutionary worldview he now realizes he “can actually just trust the system, because I see that it’s reliable. And isn’t that a relief”.  Wow.

global_91885Forget about the more fundamental possibility that capitalism itself is the crisis, or that structural violence is endemic to its operations (as Marx understood early), or that some outcomes of this are that medicine is kept from people who need it by patent laws and profit motives or that even Bill Gates admits that capitalism will spend more on men’s hair loss than malaria. What’s worse then these basic points is that a turbo-powered market-fundamentalist version of capitalism has been dominant on this planet for the last forty years and has resulted in by now undeniable amounts of inequality, environmental devastation and widespread suffering, which cannot just be glossed over any longer as Salzman does.

Just listen to this (tiny) litany of the signs of our times. After the financial crash that was brought on by corrupt financial systemstoo big to jail, corporate profits are soaring as worker income limps. We have price fixing and bank scandals at the highest levels, and governments that have been totally corrupted by money, leading some to speak of a “coup d’etat in slow motion”. There are new elite classes of super wealthy who are not beholden or responsible to any nation, and they’re building fortresses to protect themselves. Corporations routinely avoid paying taxes to nation states by keeping money in tax havens, while austerity is systematically pushed on general populations and the working class is demonized. Slavery has reentered the United States, a place where whole communities are being left behind, for-profit jails are being expanded to house the growing and potentially dangerous impoverished populations, and police forces have become increasingly militarized. As George Carlin summed it up in one of his last performances- “there’s a big club and we ain’t in it”.

This is not a reliable system, nor is it one we should just sit back and trust.

For the prophets and for the Judeo-Christian tradition in general justice isn’t just something that we hope for, something that would be a nice add on to the inevitable wreckage of history, it’s something much deeper and more fundamental and than that. Abraham Heschel describes this key point in his 1962 ground breaking text The Prophets:

[For the prophets] justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern. It is not only a relationship between man and man, it is an act involving God, a divine need. Justice is His line, righteousness His plummet (Isa. 28:17). It is not one of his ways, but in all His ways. Its validity is not only universal, but also eternal, independent of will and experience. (6)

The integral political writer Joe Corbett has questioned the absence of a justice dimension in integral discourse, asking, “Is justice a part of the shadow of Integral Theory, a kind of repressed aspect of its existence?” Salzman’s statement would seem to answer this question in the overwhelmingly affirmative.

social-activism-2Let’s hold this point around justice for a moment and pull back out to the broader story mentioned at the beginning, of a cosmos that’s evolving and going somewhere and which displays tendencies and directionalities (ie. progress) that can inspire great hope. Sri Aurobindo- one of the towering founders of this modern evolutionary worldview- had something important to say on this topic that’s always stuck with me. Aurobindo said that, in his view, ‘Nature’ and the cosmos are indeed going somewhere and are animated by a divinely infused telos. However, there’s nothing to say that humankind will inevitably be going along with this current. In fact, says Aurobindo, if we don’t align ourselves with the greater and wider wholes of which we are only a part (ie. Spirit, earth and cosmos), then we’ll be discarded along the way as just another of nature’s many failed experiments.

In a recent podcast around the work of Teilhard de Chardin, the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson made a similar point. After praising de Chardin for his many prescient insights, he says:

Now it is true that we have the increasing scale of society all the way to the mega societies of today, but the idea that this was going to result in a single global brain, and especially that there is some inevitability about this, is what’s not quite right. It could happen. It’s within the realm of possibility, but it is by no means certain. There is such a thing as collapse…I think the real situation is that, yes, there’s an Omega Point, but we have to work real hard to get there. And if we don’t get there, then woe is us. (7)

I think these views are much more sober, realistic and humble then the quasi-deterministic view that Salzman so confidently promotes. And what would it look like for us to move beyond the current global world-system that’s running roughshod over the planet and its inhabitants, and to align with the wider currents of reality? Well one thing might be to take the prophetic teaching on justice seriously, to recognize it as fundamental to God’s dream for this earth, and thus to put the work of justice front and center in an evolutionary worldview and praxis.

The other would be to continue creating systems and modes of being-in-the-world that are life enhancing, that are in accord with earth and cosmos, and no longer so separated, extractive and wasteful as our modern civilization has been (8). This difficult transition appears to be humanity’s planetary initiation, and there’s already much movement in this direction that inspires hope.  It’s through this ongoing prefiguration of a new society within the shell of the old that we can glimpse the New Jerusalem slowly forming amidst the hard rains of our time.


But this tomorrow will not come inevitably and of its own accord. To shepherd it into being we must acknowledge the cultural death swoon that’s begun, and exorcise our collective grief through a love and broken-hearted solidarity that embraces the deep pain felt by so many. As Brueggemann says when speaking of the prophet Jeremiah, “He cannot cry enough. More tears need to be cried that his eyes will permit” (9). And as Jesus will say later, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

post-apocalypticAnd finally, let’s always remember the possibility of collapse, or that we humans will not prove fit for the cosmic plan. In a recent podcast interview John Cobb Jr.- the process theologian and great purveyor of the thought of Alfred North Whitehead- said something in this regard that I found quite startling:

If I tried to be very philosophical, and look at things very broadly, I think that the divine experiment on this planet is not going to continue much longer. But I think whatever we have done, whatever we have accomplished, has enriched the life of God and it has not been a waste, so the experiment has not been a total failure. And I hope somewhere else in the universe, maybe many other places in the universe, there are other experiments and some of them will be more successful then this one. 

Well I don’t know about you, but I ain’t going out like that. I appreciate the humility and graciousness with which Cobb spoke those words, and I admire his ability to really own up to the possibility of a termination to the whole human experiment. But I’m also still convinced that something wants to be born on this earth, this better world our hearts tell us is possible, or what Jesus called the coming ‘kingdom of God’ (10). And with any luck some of the points made in this article will act as one of countless trim-tabs that’ll direct us past the multiple dangers we face, and towards this awaiting future.


“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God”.  –Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution’


(1) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination.

(2) Ibid, p.

(3) Ibid, p.


(17:30) “The inability to be sad is a culture wide dilemma”.

(18:30) “It’s not pessimism…Let’s be frank and say, that our corner of the world has turned into a low grade hell, certainly during the course of my lifetime. But I would prefer to say that the deeper understanding of what’s happening is, the culture that gave me my education, my livelihood, and so on, that culture’s dying. There’s no question in my mind, I know what dying things look like, I’ve been at enough deathbeds to know the signs and the symptoms, and the culture itself is beginning to die. I’m not talking about the rivers being fouled, although that’s certainly a piece of it, or the air, I’m not talking about the wretched economic spirals and the extravagant greed that has become part of doing business. All those things are the signs, they’re not the causes, but the culture itself is dying”.

(23:20) “Those among us who plan to be human while the culture’s dying, our job is to be as close to the death as possible, so someday we can bear faithful witness to it”.

(5) Walter Brueggemann

(6) Abraham Heschel. The Prophets.


(8) “We are on the cusp of realizing ourselves as one species organism, in symbiotic relationship with the planetary ecology as a whole. Once we make this leap, we will share resources equitably, adopt cradle to cradle and no waste manufacturing practices, and shift from competition to cooperation as our basic paradigm. We will go from acting like a parasite or a virus on the earth to becoming the earth’s immune system”. Daniel Pinchbeck. ‘Planetary Initiation.

“Earth is primary and humans are derivative….The Earth economy can survive the loss of its human component, but there is no way the human economy can survive and prosper apart from the Earth economy….There is no such thing as a human community in any manner separate from the Earth community. The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single integral community or we will both experience disaster on the way. However differentiated in its modes of expression, there is only one Earth community—one economic order, one health system, one moral order, one world of the sacred.” Thomas Berry. The Ecozoic Era. Eleventh Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, 1991.

(9) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. p.51.

(10) For a good nuanced discussion of Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God, cf. this sermon/post by Father Chris Dierkes.


Cracking Time’s Arrow: The Catastrophe of History, Cultural Evolution, and The Prophets of Progress

by Jeremy Johnson

“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.”

r1009192_11345285mza_593915022885355336.170x170-75Rattling 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, 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.

The Recurring Leviathan

globalizationJeff 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.”

Diner Dialogues: Planetary Consciousness in the Techno Era

by Jeremy Johnson

Hey readers, and listeners, I’d like to introduce to you EL’s latest podcast series. Miriam and I have weekly conversations that involves us talking about our work. We figured, why not start recording them? We cover a lot of stuff. Evolution. Consciousness. Mysticism. Culture. Social change.

We are young and aspiring grad students at heart. These chats will often be at diners, on trains, or even coffee houses. I always loved the experience of talking about these topics in a public area. Maybe because it spilled forth private meanings and insights back into the world that seems so alien and indifferent to them? Either way, I’m excited to share with you our raw conversations. They’re the most important, I think, because they aren’t published or polished. It’s just us, talking our hearts out.

Diner Dialogues: Planetary Consciousness in the Techno Era

Folks who are interested in evolutionary and planetary spirituality might feel disconnected from having access to social occasions where these subjects can be openly discussed. This is no replacement! But I think the more we share our private and inner visions of the world and our potential futures, the more we can generate that world. In other words, let’s dare to share our conversations and make them public ones–especially in the internet era–that help foster alternative media and culture. As Daniel Pinchbeck recently said on Facebook:

Artists and media makers perform the crucial function of constructing the narrative or mythology that underlies civilization and impels people into action. Our culture requires a rapid polar reversal of its governing ideology, through all forms of creative expression and storytelling. What artists and media makers need to develop, first of all, is the moral courage to recognize the full dimensions of the planetary emergency, without flinching away from it. As they undergo their personal initiation into new levels of awareness and compassion, the work they make will automatically reflect this.

As artists, myth-makers, and social activists, how can we participate in this “crucial function?” I’m hoping to gear EL towards a more service-based platform for creating alternative media, dialogue and discussion. Here’s to social change and transformation, and getting our hands dirty with the paints, and platforms, that require us to grasp the prima materia and work with it. In our time, in an age where a new culture and re-imagined human life is needed, the prima materia is human culture.

The Evolution of Spirituality: EL’s January Question

by Jeremy Johnson


I picked this image because of the “religious” or “sacred” feeling it invokes in us. Despite being in a scientific and material age, the Hubble Telescope and other satellites are showing us some deeply awe-inspiring images of our universe. The question arises: what is “sacred” in our age? Particularly, how has religion, the religious experience – or more particularly, spirituality – evolved in our age? By evolve, I simply mean “adapted” or “transformed.” I do not imply that modern spirituality is “more” of something or less. Only that it has changed.

Next up for EL is a series of questions sent out to the blogger and scholarly community concerning:

  • What is “evolutionary spirituality” or new takes on spiritual practice in the 21st century.
  • Secondly, what is it like, what is the nature of a contemplative in our contemporary age?

The second question invites possible responses from various lineages and traditions (or non-traditions). The first is more specific. Particularly, I’m interested in getting feedback and feelers for the “evolutionary” community and their take on their own spiritual journey, practice, and contemplation. Feel free to send me an email if you’re interested.

Rediscovering Teilhard’s Fire

by Jeremy Johnson


The following is an excerpt from a recent (academic) publication. The author, John Haught, explains why Teilhard’s philosophy is compatible with evolutionary theory as it stands today. I thought the read was interesting, but be warned, it’s not a light essay!

I had been thinking of these recently, and will work on posting an article on Teilhard’s spiritual vision of the world (instead of focusing on his most known and more scientific work, The Phenomenon of Man). What strikes me as interesting is that Teilhard’s understanding of matter is deeply imaginative and multi-layered. A rock is not just a rock. From the perspective of “Omega,” a rock holds in it the seeds of all future modes of being. If we look at the physical universe not through our biological eye but our third eye, we can perhaps get a little closer to understanding Teilhard’s vision. He, much like Steiner (in my opinion) had a deep appreciation for imagination, and it is through this looking glass he viewed biological evolution. There are some points in his writing where he begins to sound deeply mystical, talking about a “place” where all things are one (Omega) and the unity that is hidden within all things has become apparent. I suppose you could summarize this view as: matter itself is divine, when you are looking at it through your own divine vision; it is only a matter of making that manifest and apparent.

At any rate, here is a snippet or two of the highlights: 
Teilhard and the Question of Life’s Suffering 

Teilhard’s many writings imply, the fact of an evolving, and hence unfinished, universe, alters dramatically the cosmic context in which theology and theodicy must now function if they are to be believable. If the universe, as Teilhard emphasizes, is still coming into being, if it is even now being drawn toward a new future from its original condition of fragmentation and simplicity, it could never have existed in any initial state of perfection. The universe, in a sense, does not fully exist even yet, so how could it have been fully actualized in the past? Teilhard’s synthesis of faith and evolution makes it clear that in the absence of any past state of completed creation the idea of restoration is no longer applicable.

Teilhard proposes an alternative cosmological framework, one that is fully supported by science, to serve as the context for theology’s reflections on the meaning of suffering—and here I am talking about all of life’s suffering and not just our own. In a universe that is still unfinished—one that is even today emerging from the “nothingness” of primal multiplicity—the attribute of perfection can be applied only to a future cosmic unity that will occur in the everlasting care of a God who calls the universe into being from up ahead in the future.



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