The Politics of Waking Up 5: What Counts as Spiritual?
From Extinction Rebellion to the Headspace app, a yearning for spiritual growth seems to be reentering our public discourse. How can we feed this awareness into a new politics?
In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part five. Explore the rest of the series here.
The busy room was interrupted by a rude call. A young black man was calling out another, stopping him in his tracks. The tension escalated between them and it was some time before we realised we were caught in a theatrical performance. Even so, nothing prepared us for the brutal smashing of a chair on the floor - legs flying - right in our midst. Or for the beauty of his poetry as he nursed us back to a safe place. We all looked at each other, relieved and moved. Although we were total strangers, we’d moved closer. We’d shared something.
Turning on his computer was like, well, turning on. From the drab walls of his sad, useless, bedroom, he was suddenly in his own altered reality. Headphones on, he could conjure up his mates wherever they were, the best beats with mind-blowing images, properly immersive learning vids, stuff to buy. He could watch, without being watched, to his heart’s content. And yeah, in the best games, he could actually be someone else, occupy another body and live another life. This was surely what freedom meant.
Having faced death up close more than once during my teenage years, I knew death was not the end of everything.
Early in life I went on a spiritual quest. Having faced death up close more than once during my teenage years, I knew death was not the end of everything.I felt I could maintain relationships with those that had passed on – but didn’t have a clear sense of where they had gone or what they had become.
In the course of trying to understand more, I developed a greater sense of what lay beyond the material world we inhabited physically. I didn’t have a name for it. Despite my convent school education, heaven did not describe it. Any more than God described, for me, the force that determines our lives. Yet, there was something more than nothing at all. Relating to this ‘more than’ life as we know it, was what I began to think of as my spirituality.
Meeting the Nichiren School of Buddhism in my early 20s helped me to frame and activate my spiritual life. Our group – 21 million practitioners worldwide – chanted rather than meditated, channelling our spiritual insights and energies into what was described as ‘soka’ a Japanese word for the ‘creation of value’. Our movement was committed to culture, education and peace and gave rise to a political party in Japan – though our ethos was that of the bodhisattva. Serving the buddha nature present in every human being. It was great for us adolescents, looking for training – and purpose - in life.
Spirituality was a tricky word: too nebulous for the religious, simply deluded to the atheists.
Growing adult in cosmopolitan London gave me an infinite landscape for exploring further. But not everyone was up for it. Spirituality was a tricky word: too nebulous for the religious, simply deluded to the atheists. A stroke of luck meant that I had been offered a two-year bursary by NESTA to explore almost anything I wanted. But when I proposed an exposition on spirituality, the money was swiftly withdrawn.
Yet, I thought, you clearly all live spiritual lives. Wondering, experiencing Art, sensing and intuiting, connecting with people and events in unexpected ways. These all seemed spiritual activities to me. Ways to see and feel beyond the material reality, as described by science and logic.
One of my portfolio jobs was curating events for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and while the current Director, Philip Dodds was highly sceptical, he gave me permission to pull together a six-part series called The S Word: grappling with 21st Century Spirituality. I still have the leaflet: events included the legendary Brian Goodwin on Science and Spirituality, Esalen guru Erik Davis on Spiritual Tech and Annie Lennox talking to Rupert Sheldrake about sex.
Even in its hey-day the ICA was rarely sold out as every one of these events was. Not that we came to any conclusions: a second series was deemed too risky for the ICA which was wary of becoming a home for hippies.
So how has that query into 21st Century spirituality changed in those intervening years? Looking at the quotes on the back of The S Word, it seems the market for an enhanced understanding of how spirituality ‘works’ to help us create value in our personal and civic lives has not changed much. This from EO Wilson in 2001: “We’ve got to get moving on an effort to spiritualise the environment movement. Not in a sense of offering up prayers but with a sound empirical base. It’s got to be done in a way that touches what people like Joe Six-Pack are thinking”.
Which may be why fifteen years later, Jonathan Rowson began a similar - though far more intellectually rigorous - investigation at the RSA, called Spiritualise. That six-part series gave rise to Perspectiva where I am now an associate. Perspectiva’s work seeks to articulate the relationship between systems, souls and society in ways that may already be helping to reframe the climate discourse and help it to have more agency.
Mindfulness, once an esoteric Buddhist practice, is now a multi-million-dollar business.
Extinction Rebellion, the suddenly effective international uprising against ecological and climate breakdown, is clearly driven by spiritual insight and connectivity. Co-Founder Gail Bradbrook attributes the initiative to visions experienced while taking the plant medicine, ayahuasca, something she has written about in an article for this website. Their symbols are heavily influenced by spiritual indigenous rituals. And at the heart of their vision for the future is a regenerative system, capable of reconnecting the people to nature and the planet. How this embeds itself in a new politics is a challenge that green socio-economic projects like Transition Towns have been exploring for a decade.
But can we also ‘spiritualise’ the other two dimensions of our current crisis, social division and individual psychosocial health? From our research on the Daily Alternative, the answer would be maybe. There’s an important conjunction for example, between the plight of alienated workers, instrumentalised by a relentless growth and the gig economy - often described as an existential crisis – and the search for spiritual growth.
On the one hand, it implies the need for a new socio-political settlement that gives citizens an enhanced role based on a growing response-ability. But on a more personal level, the call for more self-control, self-sovereignty and reclaiming the mind is also increasing.
Mindfulness, once an esoteric Buddhist practice, is now a multi-million-dollar business. For example, following its launch in 2010, the Headspace App was downloaded by 36 million members across 190 countries. In the UK Parliament, a third of all MPs have been on a mindfulness course and the practice has been introduced into the ministries of education, health and crime.
While some prefer to talk about mindfulness as cognitive, the shared language of internal and external connectedness creates an easy bridge to a relationship with the non-material. When we bring attention back to ourselves and are able to observe our own thinking, we come into relationship with a very different self than the one which is routinely instrumentalised by the public space. Less the consumer client, on a treadmill to keep the system going. More the autonomous agent, free to reconnect with other realms and realities through thinking and feeling.
More challenging might be the common language between technical and spiritual exploration – captured by Erik Davis in his book Techgnosis. Notions of interconnectedness, interdependency and ultimately inter-being are all shared evidence that the human race can evolve beyond a crude Cartesian duality. Meantime, do the virtualities of the net – game playing, personae adopting – also mean that we are now able, in a very practical sense, to live and experience life in other dimensions at the same time? Is techgnosis the front line of spiritual development, or is what we are witnessing mostly tech engineers high on substances, projecting their own sensibility onto the net?
Back in ‘real life’ it’s easy for ‘burners’ to return to business as usual, taking part in the old system as vigorously as ever.
The same questions might be asked of the Burning Man Festival – for all intents and purposes, a socio-political innovation space for the creative community, held annually in the Nevada desert since 1986. Predicated strongly on self-reliance within co-creative communities, Burning Man Festivals are ‘temporary autonomous zones’ that use art and relationship as a vehicle for spiritual transcendence. Described by one participant as a space where ‘Why Not?’ overwhelms Why.
Yet how do the skills and new sensibilities learnt at Burning Man transfer to the mainstream? Back in ‘real life’ it’s easy for ‘burners’ to return to business as usual, taking part in the old system as vigorously as ever. Except maybe in those moments that they meet and find each other again. Does that make their spiritual odyssey any less valuable?
What is remarkable to me, is that the language of personal, social and planetary transformation, appears in so many different places at the same time. Not just geographically dispersed, but also in the kinds of communities gathering. The new sense of deeply connected autonomy that is happening at Burning Man sounds oddly similar to what is happening within the various independence movements – from Barcelona to Scotland to Frome. But also within the civil society sector at the grassroots. Or within social work in the heart of big cities.
All talk about more self-knowledge, authenticity and autonomy. About awakening to a more connected system and to the crucial importance of relationship within that. All talk about the need for new structures and cultures, but none talk as if they can see the future clearly. For that they seem to be relying on something more than the sum of its parts.
That moving into a collective, co-created yearning for something that might help us in the face of existential and material crises, feels as close to a modern-day spiritual journey as anything. To get somewhere, we will need to seize on the new language, build new systems and structures. But we will also need new ontologies – new ways of being and feeling – that help us put new markers down at every stage of the journey.