Relational Spirituality and other Heresies in New Age Transpersonalism
* Draft essay / book: Paradise Unbound. Relational Spirituality and other Heresies in New Age Transpersonalism. G. A. Lahood
A later version was published in The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 2010 in two parts
- Relational Spirituality, Part 1 Paradise Unbound: Cosmic Hybridity and Spiritual Narcissism in the “One Truth” of New Age Transpersonalism
- Relational Spirituality, Part 2 The Belief in Others as a Hindrance to Enlightenment: Narcissism and the Denigration of Relationship within Transpersonal Psychology and the New Age
"I write this paper with the aim of teasing out from the New Age religion and religious transpersonal psychology a more ‘relational spirituality’. New Age transpersonalism leans toward a restrictive non-relational spirituality because of its historical affirmation of individualism and transcendence. Relational spirituality (which is central to the emerging participatory-paradigm) swims against strong and popular currents in New Age-transpersonal thinking, belief, and practice which tend to see spirituality as an individual, personal, ‘inner’ pursuit (often) into Eastern/Oriental non-dualism (e.g. Ramana Maharshi etc) as promulgated in popular quasi-Christian, Western, New Age thinking (e.g. A Course in Miracles or Eckhart Tolle) and in transpersonal psychology (e.g. Ken Wilber or Stanislav Grof), whatever the merits of Advaita Vedanta (and I assume there are merits) it is not ‘relational spirituality’ not in the way that I understand the practice. I will show first how cosmological hybridization (a process in which paradises are bound together) is a process much alive in American religious culture beginning with a Romanticized-Christianized version of the Buddha. I will demonstrate how this religious Creolization gathers speed after the Second World War and peaks in the psychedelic era during the Vietnam War and the civil unrest in America between 1963 and 1974. A complex spiritual revolution took place in America in which ‘transcendence’ became a central orientation. This revolution, while successful in stopping the war, sets the scene for the emergence of non-relational transpersonal psychology (‘centered in the cosmos beyond human needs’ ala Maslow) in which Americanized non-dualism gains ascendency. Recent critiques have suggested that popular transpersonalism traps the spirit in a subtle Cartesian prison, a structure that can breed a self-serving, ‘Self-as-everything’, form of spiritual narcissism. Given that some are calling the New Age the religion of global capitalism, a more relational spirituality may be a much needed salve for New Age- transpersonalism’s self-centeredness and a world in Creolization.
"Religious hybridizations can occur when beliefs Christian and secular or “Christian and native” are merged creating a “third religion” (Pieterse 2004, 73)—but the same is true of Non-Christian hybridizations such as found in the spread of Buddhism and Islam. For example with the spread of Greek culture in to India through Alexander the Great statues of the Buddha were carved in the gesture of peripatetic philosophers wearing togas and adorned the sacred grapes of the sacrificial demi-god Dionysus. I argue here that transpersonal psychology also came to be a kind of third religion (an Orientalized hybrid cosmology) and it began to crystallize in San Francisco in the hey-day of the psychedelic 60s along with Garcia and The Grateful Dead, the Vietnam War, and a widespread religious awakening that involved communal living, and changes in clothing, values, music, drugs, psychotherapy and a host of other counter-cultural innovations. More importantly, as suggested, transpersonalism (its search for the ‘inner truth’) may well be the skeletal structure which the New Age has grown around.Central to this project was a series of strange marriages, juxtapositions, and cultural borrowings largely (but not exclusively) between the mysticism of the East and the psychology of West — between America and Asia.
These include, the American Transcendentalists embrace of the Vedas, Mahatma Gandhi with Henry David Thoreau, Nashida Kitaro with William James, D.T. Suzuki’s Zen with Romantic Nature worship, Aldous Huxley with Vedanta, Allan Watts with the Tao, Zen, Advaita Vedanta, the Beat poets Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, and Gary Snyder with Buddhism and Peyote, Timothy Leary with LSD and Tibetan Buddhism, Ram Dass with Hinduism, The Beatles with LSD, the Beatles with the Maharishi, George Harrison with the Hari Krishna Movement, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy with Mahayana Buddhism, Eric Fromm (psychoanalysis) with Zen Buddhism, Abraham Maslow’s human potential with Zen Buddhism, and, Stanislav Grof with psychoanalysis, LSD and Kashmir Shaivism. This long cultural procession of religious blending is the fertile cultural mélange out of which Ken Wilber’s influential ladder of consciousness grew: a hybrid cosmos of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Advaita Vedanta (which as we will see is also the backbone of the New Age movement). The characteristic blend of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity and the dominating spiritual hierarchy that runs through Wilber’s worldview (and the New Age) are due in large part to the strange force of hybridity long alive in the religious imagination of America (Lahood 2008). I have suggested in Paradise bound: A perennial tradition or an unseen process of cosmological hybridity (2008) that Wilber’s Orientalized cosmology is the inevitable outcome of religious globalization and the civil strife occurring in the 1960s in which religions of the East and West were brought together in America in a psychedelically informed subaltern resistance culture. The religious symbolism of this culture and its postulate ‘cosmic consciousness’ reveal not some ultimate perennial postulate beyond culture; nor a ‘One Truth’ coming from all directions but a hybridized postulate deeply embedded in, and springing from, a complex cultural matrix embroiled in war in South East Asia, an internal civil revolution, an effervescent religious outpouring and the creation of a zealously enacted counter reality (Lahood 2008). In this article I would like to further explore the procession of cosmological hybridizations that came together in the American context and show how this amalgamation of religious flavors begins to favor a somewhat disembodied, non-relational, patriarchal and authoritarian ‘One-Truth religion — one that came to overvalue individual transcendence at the expense of relationship. It is my belief that relational spirituality is the key to undoing the spiritual narcissism that plagues contemporary Western spiritual culture (Ferrer 2002, 2009).
New Age Transpersonalism
The transpersonal movement has substantially changed the religious menu of the Western world. Furthermore, the counter-cultural psychologies of the humanistic (e.g. Abraham Maslow and Fritz Perls) and transpersonal movements (e.g. Ken Wilber) were “a key influence in the emergence of New Age as a social phenomena” (Morris 2006, 305). But even more importantly the New Age’s mystical occultism—has been called the religion of postmodern globalization—which is to say that transpersonalism is either tacitly informing the religion of globalization or it is the unseen religion of global capitalism. The New Age is mostly a religion for white people (Hanegraaff 2003, 23) and has been called ‘the secret religion of the educated class’ (Heelas 1996, 124). It is so secret in fact that many a person has no idea that he or she is part of it (or if they do they aren’t saying). Indeed many a soul engaged in the widespread channelling phenomena, many a person practicing shamanism, many a yoga teacher and her students, many a religious tourist on her pilgrimage, or many a Western tantric practitioner, may be completely unaware that they are part of globalizing religion with roots in the 60s ‘consciousness expanding movement’. Furthermore, and this is the thesis of this paper, the New Age may well be contributing to the great spiritual malady of our times — spiritual narcissism. People often don’t identify themselves with the New Age yet an examination of their belief systems will often reveal deposits of New Age-transpersonalism in their psychic inventories.
But just what beliefs do have currency in New Age-transpersonalism? This is a very difficult question to answer, but very briefly, two anthropologists David Young and Jean-Guy Goulet, suggest that the New Age is a religion and it tends to “view reality in terms of different dimensions, and enlightenment as a movement to ever higher dimensions [of consciousness], either in this life or in lives to come” (Young & Goulet 1994, 8). “Reality, according to the perennial philosophy” writes Ken Wilber, “is composed of several different but continuous dimensions” (1997, 39). New Age religion joins psychology and religion with a millenarian impulse (the coming of: a New Age of Aquarius, Total Bliss, the coming of the Cosmic Christ, twenty-twelve, etc.) and an evolutionary design—the result is a self-oriented spirituality in which the transformation of, or the attainment of, a higher ‘inner self’ is of paramount importance. Furthermore, for many, the action of ‘expanding one’s consciousness’ is deemed an activity that can ‘save the planet’ (this means of course that everyone on the planet must participate in the consciousness raising). New Age religion advocates a perennial philosophy stressing the ‘transcendent unity’ of all religions although it expresses a religious metaphysic that reflects a Hindu/Gnostic, impersonal, non-dual, transcendentalism (Cortright 1997). Likewise the transpersonal psychology movement has been called “an openly religionist psychology” (Hanegraaff, 1996, 51) because it has the perennial philosophy (esoteric unity) as its foundation (Wulff 2000). The perennial construct is imagined as a universal spiritual reality that “strikingly resembles the Neo-Platonic Godhead or Advaitin Brahman” (Ferrer, 2002, 89). Like the New Age, transpersonal psychology’s interests are defined by a mingling of psychology and religion. Interest in ‘peak experiences’ and ‘expanded consciousness’ resulted is a strong focus on self-spirituality - the sacralisation of the ‘inner self’ (Heelas 1996). For roughly 20 years transpersonalism was dominated by, and conflated with, the religious worldview of Ken Wilber. Wilber joined the perennial philosophy with an evolutionary telos and a ladder of consciousness design with Hindu/Gnostic impersonal non-dualism as end-state enlightenment. Thus the New Age and Wilber’s transpersonalism deeply mirror each other in basic structure. The basic metaphysic structuring its beliefs and practices is Eastern/Gnostic in flavour in that it holds everything is God without beginning or end and the ultimate purpose of life is to transcend the individual self and merge with the Divine (Hollick 2006). The Upanishads and the Vedic writings of ancient India conceive of Brahman as an impersonal world-spirit sustaining but beyond the phenomenal world. The individual soul or atman is considered a manifestation of Brahman—and the Vedantic system of Shankara developed the concept of liberation (moksha) from the world. An organic hybridity can easily occur between the East and West through Gnosticism and Vedanta. Morris points out that ‘Oriental’ religious traditions are generally seen to be different to Christianity and ‘Occidental’ thought, however, he says the Upanishadic doctrine has close affinities with early Gnostic doctrines (2006,119). Gnostic Christians held an “absolute division between an evil material world and a good spiritual realm” (Tarnas 1991, 141). Man could escape his entrapment in the gross material world through an esoteric knowledge gleaned from spiritual intuition. But, writes Morris, “in its stress on the concept of salvation by knowledge (Greek gnosis), in its devaluation of the mundane world as a realm of ‘unreality’ [maya], and in its advocacy of mystical union [unio mystica] between the individual (soul) and this transcendental realm the Upanishadic doctrine ... resembles that of Gnostic religion” (Morris 2006, 119).I would take this insight a step further and say these two religions (Western esoteric Christian and Eastern Vedantic mysticism) have found hybridized expression in the New Age, and that this is mirrored in Wilber’s transpersonalism, indeed, Jorge Ferrer claims Wilber’s transpersonal psychology as “a hybrid of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Advaita” (2002, 65). Thus we can say that the New Age and transpersonalism have historically tended to value the Eastern/Gnostic ideal of transcendence over a devalued phenomenal world for identification with a metaphysical Big Self. Such identification is traditionally based on the yogic impulse to yoke the soul to the spirit by cutting the ‘bond’s and severing the ties to the world, severing the (so-called) limiting desires that connect us to the world – the bonds that sustain and renew relationship. The human potential and transpersonal movements (e.g. Maslow) have also been important foundations in the materialization and affirmation of what is called ‘self-spirituality’ an internalized religiosity (Heelas 1996). The touch-stones of self-spirituality were about getting in touch with ‘inner divinity’ and ‘self actualization’ through ‘consciousness expanding techniques’ which could deliver a ‘peak experience’ and enable the aspirant to attain ‘higher levels of consciousness’ – this is favourably seen as ‘consciousness evolution’ (Heelas 1996, Hanegraaff 1996, Morris 2006). However, it is this very programme, that brings us inevitably to self-spirituality’s inherent problem—and what is perhaps the foundation of a growing spiritual malady in our globalizing times—that New Age-transpersonalism is prone to breeding an overt focus on only one half of what could be a more relational spirituality. Put crudely—its concern is with a highly individual self and not the Other.
New Age Narcissism
The foundations of this self-oriented spirituality in transpersonal psychology were laid by its founding father Abraham Maslow who brought together Western psychology and mystical states (the term he favoured was peak experiences). In terms of psychology, Maslow wanted freedom from the Freudian obsession with psychopathology and a new focus on maximized psychological health (self-actualization). In terms of religion, Maslow believed that traditional religious contexts obscured or retarded a universal core experience and skewed the potential of the peak experiences and he wanted to “dissociate such [peak states] from their traditional religious contexts” (Wulff 2000, 422-23). Maslow is undoubtedly a pioneer but there was a danger here because in Maslow’s peak experiences (1964, 1968) the emphasis was on “the individual's experience over, if not to the exclusion of, the reality that is encountered” (Wulff 2002). This sounds very similar to Donald Evans description of monistic subjectivity as a narcissistic mode of consciousness; “In general, everything outside of me has significance only in relation to me; what concerns me is not this or that reality but my experience of it” (1993,42). In a discussion of ‘justice’ in Maslow’s motivational model, Anthony Taylor, points out that “the state of self actualization or psychological perfection that Maslow outlined, was supremely self-centered” (2006, 184). Maslow described self-actualization in “ethereal terms, showing a benign indifference to the outer world of reality while fostering internally a state of Nirvana of sublime spirituality ... such a state of existential withdrawal ... cannot be construed has anything but a major symptom of avoidance, inadequacy, and selfishness that is uncharacteristic in mature people (185). Self-spirituality emerged in western culture where the ego is historically “constructed dissociatively from nature, community, ancestors” (Kremmer 1996, 46) and, as such, is an ego already prone to dualism, isolation, ‘solipsism’ and self-centeredness. Self-spirituality coupled with the logic of “individual competitiveness and consumer capitalism” can result in what is called “spiritual narcissism” (Ferrer 2002 34-36), in other words—extreme egocentrism spiritualized.
Furthermore the New Age has been described as spiritual consumerism (Arweck 2002) in a ‘pick n’ mix, spiritual marketplace’ (Roof 1996). Once counter-cultural, the New Age sanctifies capitalism (Mikaelsson 2003) and promulgates a search (journey) for prosperity and a means to wealth (Morris 2006). Spirituality has in a sense become a ‘commodity’; a fetish linked to purchasing power and economically based self-esteem. Lavish spending on spiritual commodities (e.g. expensive New Age group events, spiritual tourism or showy ‘donations’ to Gurus buy power and participation mystique (without the transmutative suffering required to reduce narcissistic alienation). This kind of conspicuous consumption may also be intended to create envy in others – (there is perhaps nothing of more value to the spiritual egoist than the envy of others). Using Donald Evans’ account of spirituality as “a basic transformative process in which we uncover and let go of our narcissism so as to surrender into the Mystery out of which everything continually arises” (Evans 1993, 4), Ferrer argues that “narcissistic modes of consciousness... preclude a genuine availability to others” (2002, 36). Or, to quote Evans, “Where love inclines and enables us to engage in the mutual giving and receiving of ‘I-Thou’ encounters with other human beings, narcissism’s self-enclosure precludes such intimate encounters” (1993, 207). The problem is self-centeredness, and the inability to care about the other—but the paradox here is that immersion in self-spirituality can fail to transform these dynamic defences and ‘spiritual growth’ simply becomes another narcissistic activity. ‘Inner’ spiritual experiences and practices (sought for therapeutic ends) are easily appropriated by the ego in a form of narcissistic survival (Ferrer 2002) in what has been called spiritual materialism (see Cortright 1997). Here the person dons the spiritual garb and talks the spiritual language but ducks the appropriate transmutative suffering – her self-serving continues – a wolf in lamb’s clothing. Ultimately, this means her self-denial and suffering are prolonged rather than transformed because the spiritual aspirant mistakes “spiritualized self-gratification” for authentic self-fulfilment (Battista 1996, 255) which is the opposite of authentic spirituality.Narcissistic spirituality, then, is the use of an inflated spiritual persona which claims itself to be spiritually developed (evolved, advanced or higher) as a means of constraining, controlling and exploiting other persons (which others naturally feel as oppressive and offensive) (Battista 1996) and in my opinion should rightly oppose with healthy human anger.Adherents of the New Age claim they are overcoming “attachment to self” for altruistic purposes, but this “defence allows an apologist for ‘higher consciousness’” (Battista1996, 255) with its implicit claim to psychological superiority. The New Age votary, self-elevated in this way, has trouble recognizing, owning and working through her subtly manipulative, deceptive and dominating side. Another related defence is “spiritual bypass” or “transpersonal rationalization” wherein the person reframes her compulsive self serving behaviours in spiritual terms (Cortright 1997). A similar strategy is to invent a spiritual facade, and cleave to it, in the hope of annihilating her inner suffering.
The New Ager’s psychological narcissism (a result of primal repression ala Washburn or lack of mirroring after Kohut) is accentuated through,
A) perennialism: the notion of an inner esoteric core truth (Self, essence, etc) resides at the heart of all religions—a hybridity that allows the New Ager to claim spiritual authority for herself
B) New Age ethnocentrism (a conviction of cultural superiority) and closely related
C) religious narcissism—religious traditions almost always raise their aspired states over other systems which points to a form of narcissism where the New Ager mimics the authoritarianism within myriad traditions. Another way of saying this is that the person elevates her cult, group, or guru, tradition or practice, as higher up the chain of consciousness than others. This threefold structuring builds a spiritual facade trapping the authentic person and participatory consciousness in an alienating, self-separating shell. In the following section I explore how the New Age spiritual ego comes into being.
According to Christopher Lasch, in his influential work The Culture of Narcissism (1978), our increasing hopelessness in the face of the global disasters of our times has culminated in the dead end of extreme narcissistic self-preoccupation. During the past 100 years the Western “trust in human progress, as a way toward universal peace and happiness, was progressively abandoned due to its empirical disconfirmation by a number of bloody wars” (Introvigne 2003, 65). If two world wars, ongoing wars against communism (now Islam) and the shadow of an horrific third world war destroyed the notion of a utopian paradise of universal peace and prosperity through ‘progress’, it also gave birth to a more individualized, personalized and privatized utopia. After WWI it was held that ‘positive thinking’ might still win the day through the attainment of a “higher state of peace” (65). Massimo Introvigne points out that while all this could be easily be construed as wishful thinking, a convergence of Christian New Thought and secular positive thinking coalesced in The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) which turned out to be one of the best-sellers of the 20thcentury (65)—positive thinking is now a central dogma of New Age thinking. For the 1960s religious counter-culture the American Dream (messianic and unchallenged as it was) had dissipated into an apocalyptic nightmare of Biblical proportions. For many the wisdom of putting blind faith or trust in dualistic science and Christianity had also been disconfirmed in an atmosphere of moral turmoil, rampant materialism and violence both internal and external. This is important: according to the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah, the “counter cultural criticism of American society is related to a belief in nondualism” (Bellah 1976, 347). As one researcher into the emerging new religious consciousness put it, “previous beliefs had not worked; people were searching for a spiritual absolute that would lead them beyond war, strife and chaos” [my emphasis] (Johnson 1976, 34). If the counter-public of America (and beyond) could find a spiritual absolute, then a New Age of peace and love might dawn, but only if the people could awaken from their dualistic dream (as I see it - a wholly commendable desire). This New Age would be a psychological one arriving through the “transformed consciousness of millions of people” (34). Thus, if the counter-culture was unified at all, it was in an “obsession with personal experience...each individual was urged to pursue freely a personal state of ecstasy” (Johnson 1976, 42) and this programme would, so the dual logic goes, end the war and save the planet. I suggest that this cherished spiritual absolute would have to be found in an amalgamating inclusivity; a hybrid — One absolute truth — to avoid the chimera of exclusivism (central to Christianity), it would somehow have to be inclusive of all truths and this amalgamation would be billed as arriving through consciousness ‘evolution’. And in this we get the basic formula of the New Age: The two main tenets of ‘classic’ New Age were, firstly, that a golden age of higher consciousness was manifesting itself on Planet earth; and secondly, that it was possible to co-operate with this happy manifestation without the need for a dogmatic creed or formal structures (Introvigne 2003, 60). Or as Paul Heelas put it: New Agers are averse to traditions, with their dogmas, doctrines and moralities. Yet New Agers continually draw on traditions—shamanic to Buddhist. The solution to this seeming paradox lies in the fact that New Agers are perennialists. Before explaining this apparent paradox, let us dwell for a moment on the perennialized nature of the New Age. Unity firmly prevails over diversity. Having little or no faith in the external realm of traditional belief, New Agers can ignore apparently significant differences between religious traditions, dismissing them as due to historical contingencies and ego-operations. But they do have faith in that wisdom which is experienced as lying at the heart of the religious domain as a whole. From the de-traditionalized stance of the New Age what matters is the ‘arcane’, the ‘esoteric’, the ‘hidden wisdom’, the ‘inner or secret tradition’, the ‘ancient wisdom’. And, it can be added, New Agers attach equal importance — because it is an aspect of the spiritual realm as a whole — to the essential unity of the human species, scorning nationality or ethnically differentiated modes of being (Heelas1996, 27). Now let us return to Abraham Maslow the founding father of the self-spirituality movements (humanistic and transpersonal) for the similarities. Among humanistic perspectives on mystical experience, no others are as well known as Maslow’s (1964, 1968). In the course of his famous studies of self-actualizing persons, Maslow noticed that it was common for these exceptional individuals to report having had mystical experiences. ... Maslow called them peak experiences, a term that other psychologists have adopted as well. In describing peak experiences, Maslow reiterated the ecstatic feelings of egoless fusion with the world, of wholeness and integration, and of effortless existence in the here and now... Eager to make such experiences and their putative benefits widely available in an increasingly secular world, Maslow argued (1964) that the traditional religious contextualizations of this intrinsic core of experience serve not only to distort and suppress it, but also to create divisiveness where otherwise there might be profound accord. According to Maslow, by studying and promoting this core outside of its traditional contexts, humanistic psychology could revolutionize human existence by making the peak experience and its values the ultimate goals of education, if not of every other social institution as well. [my emphasis] (Wulff 2000, 422-423).
For Maslow religious traditions created divisiveness (even war) and it is to be remembered that some of Maslow’s most influential works (1964, 1968, and 1971) were created during the Vietnam War years, in fact Maslow (1908-1970) published throughout WW2, the Korean and the Vietnam Wars).xiv At the Esalen Institute in California during a seminar there Maslow declared that he had ‘the feeling of historical urgency... that there’s a fire that we have to putout. The world is burning. It's literally possible there (will be) atom bombs next week’ (Hoffman 1988, 293). Maslow urged his readers and followers toward an individual, inner, privatized ‘religious experience’ that went beyond, but included all traditions – I quote Maslow: This private religious experience is shared by all the great world religious traditions including the atheistic ones like Buddhism, Taoism, Humanism, or Confucianism (Abraham Maslow 1964:28). Ferrer in his useful deconstruction of subtle Cartesian dualism in transpersonal theory (specifically Maslow’s perennialism) writes: “To lump together these different awarenesses into one spiritual liberation or referent reachable by all traditions may be profoundly distorting” (2002:148). I agree, from a contextual position (e.g. Katz 1979) this conflation is profoundly distorting (on one level), but the term ‘lumping together’ (while certainly not very elegant) points to an intentional process in the American context - one of hybridization and amalgamation, which, I believe, had an anti-racist, anti-hegemonic, anti-essentialist intention. It is a ‘conflation’ based on respect for other traditions and a desire to join with them. I believe this amalgam/hybridity was originally used as an occult fetish with which to democratize religious traditions. The process of hybridization writes Nestor Garcia Canclini ‘can serve to work democratically with differences, so that history is not reduced to wars between cultures. ...We can choose to live in a state of war or in a state of hybridization” (2005, xxxi). American One-Truthism (in reality an unrecognized and complex religious hybridization glossed as perennialism) (Lahood 2008) gained acceptance and popularity because, at face value, it was a defense (by amalgamation) against the force of religious exclusivism, ideological domination, and spiritual ranking (Ferrer 2002, 159-162) - the way religious traditions, groups or creeds subtly belittle one-another by placing their aspired ultimate states above others. According to Ferrer, the elevation of “one’s favored tradition or spiritual choice as superior” is itself a form of “spiritual narcissism” (2009) and which appears to be inculcated into religious cultures as ethnocentrism (a cultural version of egocentrism). Americanized One-Truthism was/is cherished by hippies, transpersonalists, New Agers, and contemporary Western spiritual practices alike because it was also seen as a simple solution to spiritual competition and one-up-man ship (see Cortright 1997, 31). If it is believed (and performed) that all religions were inherently the same—that all religions are rivers running into the same transcendental ocean—then this goes to the relaxing and easing of tensions between competing groups or even warring religions (Lahood 2008).xvi
I believe that at one level these universalizing tactics were a sincere attempt at a kind of mystical ‘democratization’, a leveler of the spiritual playing field, and a disavowal of privileged religious perspectives. I wish to affirm here, that on these grounds, it seems to me, that there is something inherently well intentioned behind the unifying mind. However, if tilted toward the direction of one absolute or universal spiritual strand it can look like a resurgence of spiritual ethnocentrism, essentialism, narcissism and totalitarianism seemingly inherent in human beings and their religious traditions or formulations. Perennialism flourishes because it is a source of hybridization - a process which can exhaust the authoritative voice within each tradition. But each hybrid also carries the force of totalitarianism and resistance - and power configurations arise and assert. Let me a give a few pertinent examples, A Course in Miracles, something of a New Age gospel or Bible (widely touted by Oprah Winfrey and rightly appraised as Christianized Vedanta and a form of non-dual perennialism) extols a blatant assimilation/colonization process with all the arrogance and gusto of 19th century Christian missionaries: “The Name of Jesus Christ as such is but a symbol. But it stands for love that it is not of this world. It is a symbol that is safely used as a replacement for the many names of all the gods to which you pray” (Teachers manual, 59). I wonder how the Muslim or Buddhist populations would respond to this ‘teaching’. This appears to me as a thinly disguised form of spiritual totalitarianism and New Age/American imperialism carefully removing itself from its culturally relative context and human responsibility by claiming metaphysical authority while brutally effacing all other gods – the term ‘safely’ brimming with conceit and subterfuge. Canclini observes that in the vertigo inducing worlds of hybridization the human imagination becomes “afraid of losing itself” and historical movements, both hegemonic and subaltern, “time and again institute essentializations of a particular state of hybridization”(xxii). This leads us inevitably to Ken Wilber’s ethnocentric paradise - and may explain Wilber’s break from the more relaxed universalism of Huxley, Watts, Maslow, Ram Dass (and others in the first epoch), to his more essentialized, hierarchical hybrid in which he ranks his nondualism above the other contenders. Malcolm Hollick in his Science of Oneness(2006) explains,
The perennial philosophy claims to be tolerant and inclusive of all religions. Yet it establishes a single spiritual truth against which all traditions are judged. Those that do not match its criteria are rejected as inauthentic, merely exoteric, or as representing lower levels of spiritual insight. For instance, according to Ken Wilber’s influential ladder of consciousness development, the Eastern concept of non-duality is the highest form of spirituality, whereas the Sufi and Christian traditions of union with an impersonal One come a rung lower at the Causal level. Platonic archetypes and Christian gnosis are a further rung down at the Subtle level, while the mystery religions and many indigenous faiths are relegated to the Psychic (2006,)It is because of this tilt toward assimilationist and totalitarian ‘one-truthism’ that I suggest we throw the One-Truth of New Age /transpersonalism or as Wilber puts it “the Immortal One in and beyond all forms” (1996, 107) on to the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ (to borrow from Tom Wolfe).
New Age Authoritarianism
There is also an inherent problem with the universalizing tactic that feeds the problems of spiritual narcissism and New Age ethnocentrism (a belief that one’s own culture is superior to others) it sets up the New Ager to feel as if she has ‘evolved beyond’ the older traditions. Thus, Hanegraaff writes that the New Ager can “reject all exoteric religions ... because they fall short of universal esoteric wisdom” (1996, 328). In doing so she sees herself as, paradoxically, more advanced than traditional religions by laying claim to a superior vision of spiritual ‘wholeness’ (see Lahood, 2008, Hanegraaff 2003). This can create for the New Age global villager a somewhat ethnocentric and conceited spiritual outlook. Sociologist Paul Heelas observes; So, what has perennialization have to do with how New Agers treat religious traditions? The perennialized view point involves going beyond traditions as normally conceived, going beyond differences to find – by way of experience – the inner, esoteric core. This means that New Agers can ‘draw’ on tradition whilst bypassing their explicit, authoritative doctrines and dogmas, and moral codes. Instead, in detraditionalized fashion, they can discern – by way of their own experience, their gnosis or experiential knowledge – those spiritual truths that lie at the heart of, say, Vedanta or shamanism. And although these truths – by virtue of their intrinsic nature – exercise authority, they do not curtail the authority of the New Ager’s Self: the truths within the ‘traditions’ and within the New Ager are the same (Heelas 1996, 28).xx Participatory theorist John Heron has placed a great deal of (useful) emphasis on what he calls ‘authoritarian religion’ and its correlate ‘spiritual projection’ (onto external authority/s) within religious traditions (1992, 1998) from which he smartly takes his leave (2006). However, as far as I am aware, Heron nowhere attends to the non-traditional New Age spiritual ego or its unique brand of religious authoritarianism. No doubt some in the New Age run spiritual projections on traditions, or cults, or leading lights (e.g. the Dalai Lama or Rajneesh, or Eckhart Tolle) as suggested in Heron’s thesis but in the main most New Agers do not stay in authoritarian groups—and a central aspect of contemporary spirituality its anti-authoritarian stance (Morris 2006, Heelas 1996, Hanegraaff 1996). Indeed, according to sociologist Donald Stone (1976, 114) in times of rapid change [globalization is marked by rapid change], people join these religious groups in a manoeuvre that enables them to assume the “special status” of a “member of the elect” – it is not a case of spiritual projection (ala Heron), rather, it is a form of spiritual elitism. In this there is nothing new, says Stone, for people seek a new authority to compensate when their worlds are “dislocated” - what is new is the reliance on an “authoritative basis of direct experience”without reference to an outside power) (113). This trend is an epochal revolutionary movement away from conformity to an external ‘higher truth’ toward what is commonly held to be a ‘subjective turn’ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Thus the New Ager does not really go in for tradition. Hanegraaff states for example that, Although New Age adherents tend to have a positive view of enlightened “masters” or gurus who impart insights to their pupils, the idea of being dependent of somebody else (rather than on one’s own inner self) for spiritual illumination is not congenial to New Age individualism (Hanegraaff 1996,400).Or, as Heelas points out, the New Ager largely bypasses tradition (1996, 28) giving herself an unassailable position of spiritual authority and superiority by drawing on the religious capital within each ‘ancient’ tradition while at the same time disavowing traditional authority. This means the New Ager does not project onto religious authority - she is the authority. She will not claim membership with religious institutions but rather with “Shelley’s ‘white radiance’, which transmitted through ‘the dome of many-colored glass’ expresses itself in the world in the multifarious imagery of the institutionalized religions” (Prince 1974, 256).
Nevertheless, this ‘white’ person’s ‘light’ supposedly shining through all religions is still a culturally relative position brought about by globalization, and, as we have seen, it was not only ‘the light’ that gained ascendency in transpersonal/New Agism but a species of Oriental nondualism. Thomas Dean, reviewing the perennialist position writes: A transcendent referent nondualistically conceived (with the help of language drawn from Hindu, Buddhist, or mystical traditions), in which all culturally derived religious differences are ultimately transcended ... This transcendent reality is what is already and always there, and our knowing of it, which involves a mode of thinking that transcends our ordinary mode of cognition, is similarly a knowledge (gnosis) that is “already there.” Knowing is primarily a matter of clarifying, of “removing the veil of darkness that obscures,” this primordial truth (Dean, 1984, 213). The dichotomy between light and darkness can very easily translate into New Age hubris (2003). If I do not locate myself in the dissociated ‘Nirvanic defense’; if I refuse to pay cult to the esoteric light of New Age Oneness/nondualism (or if I am critical) – then I can be swiftly relegated to some dark/samsaric/unawakened realm—such is the nature of interpersonal one-upping. This hybrid ‘esoteric core’ garners some of its emotional power and authoritative force by proclaiming that it’s One Truth, is a pure, pre-existing or “given” truth (see Ferrer 2002), a truth ‘always already there’ (in life and presumably in death) awaiting our evolutionary ‘arrival’ (so says the credo of the New Age).
Charismatic authority is also secured through the idea that it is a truth that blows in from every direction e.g. ‘the world’s Great Wisdom Traditions’ (Hammer 2003). By way of example, let us observe the following proclamation by perennialist philosopher Georg Feuerstein in a work on Tantric yoga; As the great spiritual traditions of the world affirm, truth is always one, though there are many pathways to it. Truth is Reality, which is singular, what is relative are our angles of perception and comprehension (Feuerstein 1998, 42-43).xxi Affirmations of this “perspectivist perennialism” (Ferrer 2002) are numerous among New Agers and transpersonalists and are easily found. Nevertheless Feuerstein’s perspective, like Shelley’s, is relative to its context which is, inescapably, a product of globalization.
Feuerstein’s claim on the nature of ‘Truth’ gains authoritative power not only from the juxtaposition of ‘great’ wisdom traditions – but in the subtle promotion that this One-Truth Reality comes from all around the globe. Taking the religious theme of ‘life after death’ to outline how perennialism comes into being, Olav Hammer, taking a contextualist position (e.g. Katz 1979), notes that the more onelooks at “the structures, interpretations, ideological uses and narrative details of the various speculations on life after death the more they appear to be unique. Hindu reincarnation is not the same as kabbalistic reincarnation” (2003, 52) and so on. xxii “However”, he writes “for a synthesizing mind intent on finding a perennial philosophy underlying the divergent traditions, there is ample material from which to synthesize, and every opportunity to claim that the divergences are insignificant details” (2003, 52). The act of ‘synthesizing’ is what I think of as cosmological hybridization; a process that has everything to do with globalization (Lahood 2008) also leads to the disembedding of these so-called ‘wisdom traditions’, Hammer continues; Bits and pieces of non-Western traditions [e.g. satori, samadhi, prana, mana, chi] are disembedded from their original religious contexts [e.g. India, Tibet, etc]. Through an incessant bricolage carried out by leading religious virtuosi, [e.g. Wilber etc] these fragments are re-embedded in a modern, Western esoteric religious setting [transpersonal psychology, workshops, New Age groups and books]. The principal mechanism of doing this, is by forcing these exotic elements into a fairly rigid, pre-existing interpretive mould [perennialism, a religious frameworks, Western psychology, cartography]. Thereby, to the believer, the same message does indeed seem to come from everywhere [my parenthesis] (2003, 56).This act of ‘forcing’ together is cosmological hybridization. In the writings of Ken Wilber, who many see as the leading transpersonal/perennial nondual virtuosi, we find exactly this procedure, I quote Wilber: This is the phenomenon of transcendence or enlightenment, or liberation, or moskha, or wu or satori . . . This is what Plato meant by stepping out of the cave of shadows and finding the Light of Being, for Einstein’s ‘‘escaping’’ the delusion of separateness. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation, of Hindu Yoga and Christian mystical contemplation
. . . there is nothing spooky, occult or strange in any of this and this is the perennial philosophy (Wilber 1996:9). If Wilber’s perennial philosophy is a site for disembedded and re-embedded spiritual objects (after Giddens), it is also a product of what Hammer calls ‘synonymization’, a process which lends the writer a mask of authority. Synonymization is linked to a psychological process in which we “return to the trust in experts” (Hammer 2003). The crafty use of exotic words (e.g. moksha, wu, satori) in English texts expresses a double meaning and gives an “air of authenticity” hinting that the author is “cognizant with the writings of an exotic culture” (or many cultures) or at the least a grasp of “specialized vocabulary” not accessible to the layperson. Hammer points out that, “the sheer incomprehensibility and untranslatability of the terminology ensures that the reader will have little choice but to accept the interpretations of the writer. To what extent is it reasonable to claim that mana equals prana? The average reader has little possibility to evaluate the author's claims” (2003, 55-56). This all goes to the securing of charismatic, religious, and esoteric authority.xxiii With the ‘esoteric core’ of perennial-transpersonal psychology thus exposed, as—a trick of the light or sleight of hand—brought about by religious globalization, ‘One-Truthism’- the New Age paradise fall from grace. Throwing perennialism on to the philosophical funeral pyre is one thing—but this cultural ‘tradition’ of cosmological hybridization (glossed as perennialism), as we have seen, runs deep in America’s (and beyond) cultural psyche and many remain bound to it. Nevertheless, with New Age-transpersonalism’s paradise unbound spiritual alternatives become available to the New Age and the grass roots contemporary spiritual community which are perhaps closer to the New Age’s original values before the upsurge of its more narcissistic, ‘up and out’ or totalitarian elaborations - collaboration, healing and the reappraisal of divinity.
The recovery of a Martin Buber’s relational spirituality is becoming a possible alternative — if not a crucial one.
G. A. Lahood:
"In terms of relational theory I suggest our description of a cooperative inquiry in the “ realm of the between” (Heron and Lahood 2007) where we make the case that cooperative inquiry is itself a relational spiritual practice. As we saw relational spirituality has its pioneer in Martin Buber who also coined the term “realm of the Between” (1970). For further theoretical understanding of the “realm of the between,” I refer you to Ferrer’s (2002) account of “ multilocal participatory events” spiritual phenomena that arise in different loci, such as an individual, a relationship, or a community. I would also recommend Heron’s (1992, 1998, 2006) vision of relational spirituality and the enaction of situational spirit as the reality of the between. As a general theoretical principle - the following makes sense to me, When a person experiences Self as an integrated whole that encompasses the body, the emotions, the mind and the spirit.
This state of health experienced as a pervasive sense of well-being can only occur through connection with other Selves –‘without you there can be no me’. To become whole the Self needs to be experienced and expressed from the inside and recognised from the outside. Hence the critical context for both health and healing is the interpersonal (Self-Other) relationship (Fewster 2000, 1-2).The following thoughts are based purely on my own participant-observation (the stock in trade of anthropological research - which has a near neighbour in collaborative inquiry - a balance of attention with which a person does research on herself whilst participating with others) in a relational context. I would define a cornerstone of relational spirituality as the intentional practice of mutuality and co-responsibility (care for each-other and for nurturing along the outcome). It is generally held that Buber believed mutuality could not be achieved in a therapeutic relationship because the care- giving and concern for outcome is largely one-sided – the therapist is in a care giving role the client is there for healing. Intentional “ceremonies of mutual care” such as the Australian Aboriginal practice of dadirri (intentional respectful listening) (Atkinson 2008, 10) suggest an attitude of responsibility, relational obligation and collaboration in which the person must be willing to become ‘other attuned’. xxxvi Spiritual narcissism, as we have seen, is fundamentally a failure in the ability to authentically care or attune to others - an attitude that closes the door on any authentic collaborative venture. Maturing human care (coupled with a certain canniness and willingness to confront distressed interactions such as authoritarian plays, defensive ploys and narcissistic self entitlement) as I understand it, is not co-dependent rescuing; it cannot really be performed or faked. It emerges, I believe, from the integrating charismatic person as that person becomes more ‘other-attuned’. This basic attitude toward others when coupled with collaborative research principles and skills, among them critical subjectivity (Heron 1998) opens the door on true collaboration and social openness and authentic participation in ritual life. With due attention to the political economy of the group a co-creative social spiritual event can unfold (marked by what anthropologists call communitas or flow) —which we refer to as a‘charismatic’ event. The whole collaborative inquiry process can be construed ‘relational spirituality’ practice (see Heron and Lahood 2007) which, when it works well, it enables a kind of spiritual rebirth: This rebirthing is relational - consequent upon the co-creative resonance among us all. And it empowers us to come into the presence between. In short: immanent spirit becomes manifest, through collaborative action, as relational and situational sacred presence. Participation in this presence engenders a liberating wholeness, a personal regeneration - which is given expression amidst the practicalities of everyday life and work, empowering whole relations with others (Heron & Lahood 2008). While this reads simply enough there are some interesting problems that can beset such an endeavour making participatory research with others can be infinitely complex. We have learned that personal psychodynamics are often neatly woven into a person’s ‘spiritual persona’ including spiritual defences. Participants can bring with them introjected collective and cultural beliefs that are prevalent in New Age-transpersonalism such as spiritual ranking, spiritual projection/authoritarianism or One-truthism, or a belief that all spirituality is about not being here - undermining their own ability to collaborate and produce the tasty fruits that can accompany the relational process. Furthermore New Age transpersonalism tends to uphold an ‘inner’ transformation outside of the everyday sphere: One difficulty in construing action research itself as a spiritual practice is the subtle Cartesianism of recent transpersonal studies. This tacitly assumes that spirituality is a subjective experience, within a nonspatial individual consciousness, of transpersonal objects which transcend the everyday public space of social interactions (Ferrer, 2002) (Heron & Lahood 2008). This can mean for New Age transpersonalists that the everyday public space and social relations are deemed, ipso facto, devoid of any spiritual relevance. By relational spirituality we refer to a more horizontally oriented immanent spirituality grounded in the every day, the public space and social interactions. Relational spirituality conceives personhood itself coupled with a “transfigured embodiment” (Heron 1998, 77) as an end in itself. Rather than seeking Oriental non-dualism we cultivate a ‘charismatic’ person, a being-in-a-world relatively skilled at unfettering herself from past wounds and committed to relate relatively free of the need to compete with, over-power, manipulate, or capitalize on the other – but rather to cooperate with each other in co-creating a charismatic relational spiritual event.
A full discussion of validity in cooperative inquiry can be found in Heron (1996) and Heron and Reason (2007) and see Heron and Lahood (2007) for a discussion of collaborative inquiry as a spiritual practice. On a healing level traditional Eurocentric stage models of grief and loss that encourage decathexis (a severing of bonds, subject to prescribed stages) have, in recent years, been challenged by the healthier notion that the mourner maintains an ongoing relationship with the deceased (Klass, Silverman &Nickman, 1996). It could be said that attuning to these ancestral presences, at one level, is such a means of maintaining relationship, which is creatively and religiously ‘held’ in thesocial life of the group.For myself, I have a deep respect for situational spirituality and the spontaneous erotic life, the coproduction of spiritual knowledge and creative participation in hybridized ritual (see Heron and Lahood 2007) that seems to arise from rubbing shoulders with real people and the dead in our post-modern New Age era. I also find a resonance in the following account by Ogbu Kalu of an African ritual,In the Owu Festival of riverine communities of the Niger Delta, the masqueraders arrive in canoes and wear masks depicting various kinds of fishes. The community dances to the waterfront, welcomes them as a chorus into the village, and the celebration begins. At dusk, the masqueraders are led back to the beach; as they paddle off, the people wave and cry for the departing ancestors. This is the crux of the cultural form: the masqueraders are ancestors; they are the gods coming as guests to the human world. With their arrival, the seen and the unseen worlds meet; the living and the living-dead reunite, even if only for a brief period (Kalu 2001:229). Theologian Robert Avens writes that two important figures in contemporary psychology James Hillman and Jacques Lacan both affirm that much of the human suffering in modern Western culture arises from our refusal to ‘remember the dead’. Taking Freud’s statement that neurosis is related to the incomplete mourning of “the unburied dead”, Lacan argues that “therapy has as its major task the repairing of the relationship people have, not with other people, but with the dead”. Avens also points out that for Hillman, “the aim of archetypal psychology is to enable us to live in the company of ghosts … ancestors, guides—the populace of the metaxy (Avens 1984, 299). I would also point out that Erik Ericson believed, that in human beings, the desire for relationship was inherent - in his model of human development that there is in human beings “a succession of tendencies to relate to other human beings mutually and creatively.
However, “ If the natural tendency to become involved with others is frustrated in childhood, it is repressed. Narcissistic self-sufficiency then becomes dominant over the natural yearning to relate” (298). The actualization of different relational tendencies occurs at different stages of a person’s life so that for instance in adulthood there can be the “ intimate mutual love between husband and wife and a deep parental concern for the next generation”(298). It seems to me that our inquiry was toying with a little know form of love - a para-generational form of relational knowing. The extending of love down through the coming generations seems to me a natural extension of non-narcissistic modes of being it is in fact akin to cosmic love. An inquiry into ancestors (of those who have lived and who now inhabit the realm of the dead) cycles into the worship of those yet to come and is thus an extension of love into the unlived future. If any of our ancestors read this message in the years to come I hope you will understand and know that we loved your before you were even born."
Continued excerpts at The Participatory Turn and Relational Spirituality