Sustainable Spirituality

There is a taboo in most cultures on critical reflection on spirituality.  Our beliefs are considered sacrosanct, especially when they are supported by established religions, and it is impolite (in many cultures even life threatening) to question their validity.  But not all beliefs are equal.  Some help us to cope with reality better than others, some increase human well-being, while others diminish it.  Some beliefs threaten the very existence of humanity, while very few, if lived to their full, would be sustainable over time, and be so for humanity as a whole. 

In any case, every belief will at some point have its reckoning with reality, and it would seem that a very large proportion of our shared beliefs are facing the most rigorous testing by reality right now. 

A first lesson of the current reality checks is that all fundamental beliefs are wrong.  It is in the nature of fundamentalism to believe that one can know things as they are in themselves, for example a god, an object, an economy, a person, a society or a truth.  It denies the need for interpretation.  What is believed is true, not because it has been tested and found to be viable, but because it is believed.  For fundamental beliefs of all kinds, reality is not a touchstone of validity.  A collapse of the financial markets as a result of fundamentalist economic policy leads to no insight among believers that would change the view of the way markets work.  An aids epidemic in Africa fostered by the rejection of condoms for reasons of religious dogma, or even sexual misconduct of priests on a large scale does not make the Church question its beliefs about the nature of sex.  Fundamental belief is self-sustaining and self-justifying, and is extremely robust in explaining away evidence to the contrary.  But we cannot know things in themselves, as Kant already demonstrated in his Critique of Pure Reason.  To believe that we can is to deny our own role in knowledge, and amounts to an abdication of responsibility for what we think, feel, do and experience to the irrational forces of superstition, ideology and blind faith.

That is not to say that we could do away with belief—a dream the enlightenment philosophers had which ended in the French terror.

Our neurobiology requires beliefs on two levels:  First, consciousness is narrow, apparently operating at a data bandwidth of about 2*10 to the 3rd bits/sec, while perceptual input to unconscious brain functions flows at about 4*10 to the 9th bits/sec.  That means that we are conscious of, and have potential control over only the tiniest part of our experience. Most of our lives run of necessity on automatic pilot, as for example when we drive a car expertly from point A to point B without any detailed memory of how we managed it.

A second level pertains to questions of higher meaning and purpose.  Experiments into the functioning of our temporal lobes done by Michael Persinger in Sudbury, and experiences with temporal lobe siezure patients would indicate that our brain has evolved to create transcendent states of awareness.  Likely this provided some evolutionary benefit in our development, helping us to give our primitive experience an organizing meaning that helped us succeed in life.  But as with so much of our original hardware, what served us well in an earlier and simpler stage of our development becomes a liability today unless we update the way in which we use it.

Just as our capacity for reasoning has had to develop to cope with the challenges of a modern world (and we aren’t there by a long-shot yet!), so our spiritual facility must evolve if it is to support our existence in a complex world and not become a problem.  As Ken Wilber describes in his Integral Spirituality, while our cognitive development has been prodigious, the development of our spirituality has not kept pace.  Faith, in the premodern developmental stage it exists in for most believers today, is probably the greatest threat to our existence we know.  If we still thought the way our ancestors did, we would be living in caves and have a 25-year lifespan.  Yet we still by and large have faith the way our ancestors did, as if their way of believing could have eternal validity independent of the complex modern context it is applied in.  Given the technological prowess we have achieved through cognitive development, it is understandably frightening to contemplate nuclear weapons in the service of the beliefs of the Mullah’s in Iran or evangelical Christians in the US.

For Wilber, the path forward lies not in reason and science, but with the religions themselves.  He envisions a “great conveyer” of religious development, initiated and run by the religions as they reform their outdated dogmas and bring their notions of spirituality into the modern world.  At present, the Sufi reformers are persecuted by the Muslim fundamentalists, Christian mystics have no voice in the established Catholic and Protestant religions, traditionalists rooted in an ancient mythological consciousness dominate every world religion and hinder development at every turn.

But the dysfunctionally believing majority is under increasing pressure.  People with modern and post-modern sensibilities are trying to satisfy their spiritual needs by strengthening the reformers in the established religious traditions.  Many are attracted to consciousness practices outside any religious traditions, or meditate with teachers versed in Buddhist discipline.  And belief is not just the domain of religions in our modern world, but of every endeavor in our lives.  What of an economics with a core of higher meaning beyond shareholder value and measures like GDP for financial performance, as Umair Haque passionately argues?  Or a political landscape devoted to human well-being, energy security, future generations, quality of life, clean water and the host of other big issues, rather than short-term interests of interest groups and power?

One of Germany’s most popular trend analysts, Matthias Horx, describes in his book “Wie wir leben werden (How we will Live)” a potential future political landscape in which parties no longer line up along the outdated right-left split, but reflect the thinking and belief patterns of different developmental levels represented in society.  One group of parties is called the “Reductionists,” who yearn for a simpler life and seek simplifying solutions to complex problems.  The other group of parties is called the “Complexists,” who embrace complexity and seek solutions that will realize the opportunities complexity presents.

I imagine a Christmas in the future as a celebration of complexity, embedded in an integral spirituality, a period of collective spiritual innovation, generating transformational beliefs upon whose application we collectively reflect.  What a joy!  What a starting point for our New Year’s resolutions!

One thought on “Sustainable Spirituality

  1. The first paragraph of this post is particularly strong– cutting right through the heart of relativistic approaches to clearly explain why “not all beliefs are equal.” We need more consciousness of this fact. Regarding Horx’s vision of the future political landscape, your comparison of the “Reductionists” and the “Complexists” seems heavily laden with judgment for the former. Won’t a sustainable future require a transcendent view that supports the healthy functioning of each developmental level? I just posted on this subject at Thanks for the food for thought.

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