If religious institutions won’t save us, then what of the thing that underlies the institutions? The energy that originally inspired them? What if humanity could ascend to a higher spiritual plane, so that harmlessness became the guiding light of our behaviour, and higher consciousness for all became a reality? What, in short, if there were a hundredth monkey moment?
That would be wonderful. Sadly, though, the hundredth monkey effect is woo, not reality. And the popularity of the story in spiritual circles is yet another example of the credulity of those who espouse a spiritual solution to our woes.
Once again, I am not a cynic. I actually believe in spiritual evolution. Not just for an individual: this is the basis of Dhamma practice, of course. I mean for humanity as a whole. Our ethics are becoming more refined. We are more aware of what is happening in different parts of the world. We are less tribal. We are more flexible and open in our beliefs. We are less violent. We have changed, genuinely changed, in our acceptance of people of different colors, religions, and sexual identities. Moreover, we are moving more and more towards meditation; probably more people meditate now than ever before. All of these things are a genuine and very positive manifestation of a real spiritual growth.
As a species, and as a planet, we are becoming more conscious. Even as a gross physical fact this is true: there is more brain matter on our planet than at any time in history. In fact, we can see the whole environmental mess we are in as the result of reshaping our planet to service the growth of brains.
I believe it is possible that this spiritual growth could save the world. But I don’t think it’s going to. Why not?
For a start, it’s too little, too late. Much of the world is still enmired in gross ignorance. The future is here (as William Gibson said in another context)—it’s just unevenly distributed. Spiritual growth is hard, patchy, and slow for an individual, how much more so for human culture as a whole? Even those who have been meditators, or otherwise engaged in genuine spiritual practices (as opposed to the brainless woo that discredits much of what we think of as spiritual) still progress very slowly, and for a long time can keep following destructive patterns.
To have a breakthrough in awareness, a new way of seeing, is a rare and precious thing, and it doesn’t by itself guarantee any particular changes to one’s lifestyle. Plenty of spiritual practitioners find themselves feeling more content, wanting less, living simpler lives. But plenty don’t. There’s nothing really wrong with this, it’s just how these things go. But it does imply that we can’t expect spirituality to lead in a genuine transformation of how people live on a massive scale in the near future.
Moreover, spirituality has often gone over to the dark side. Any New Age or “spiritual” festival is full of shysters selling ridiculous cure-all water or miracle foods. Rather than showing us a world beyond reason, much popular spirituality is a retreat beneath reason. Again, this doesn’t show that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the spiritual path, just that most people are not very good at it yet.
But these things are trivial. At a deeper level, spiritual practices, even the good ones, can, and frequently are, active contributors to the problem. There is no clearer example of this than the recent disruption of a Google “corporate mindfulness” event by San Francisco residents calling for a stop to evictions.
There’s some good commentaries on this at various places on the web. I don’t want to be too hard on how the Google people handled this particular event; the security guy was out of line trying to pull the banner away, which seemed pointless and, I guess, attempted theft, since it was their banner. But he just acted spontaneously, and you can’t blame the company too much for that.
What is really striking for me is how Bill Duane, the Google exec running the show, immediately shifted attention back from the events to “mindfulness of the body”, saying to “check in with your feelings”. This is, of course, straight out of the mindfulness/vipassana playbook, and it seems churlish to criticize him for merely repeating what his teachers have said.
But it is exactly the wrong thing to do: it is straight up elevationism. What he should have done is to directly address the actual issue. Talk about the evictions, explain Google’s policy, and make a commitment to meet the protesters personally later on and discuss solutions. But also to tell them, this is not the forum: you’ve had your moment, now let us get on with what we’re here for. Instead, he used “mindfulness” to avoid the issue, treating a social problem with a cure meant for personal suffering.
Why expect anything else? Of course Google is going to use mindfulness to further its corporate interests. And still, it’s better than not using mindfulness. But there’s just no way that in such a context we can expect that spiritual practices will lead to genuine transformation.
Ken Wilber gave a good explanation of why we make these kinds of confusions. He said that we use the word “spiritual” to mean two quite different kinds of things, without being aware of the difference. First, there are certain specific things that we call “spiritual”: meditation, ritual, and the like. But sometimes we use spiritual to speak of the integration of all the aspects of our consciousness. Quite simply, one does not follow from the other. You can meditate until the cows come home, but you won’t, just by doing that, become kinder, or more ethical, or more conscious of the effects of your lifestyle on the planet. This is why the eightfold path includes all the different aspects of life, and each aspect must be developed in and of itself. This is the essence of Bill Duane’s problem: right mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood.
Now as always, those who are really embodying spiritual transformation are few indeed. There are many of us who try, and get some things right and some things wrong. With time, perhaps, we might learn from our mistakes. But we don’t have time. And the promise of spiritual evolution, rather than extending the possibility of a cure, becomes just another tragedy: humanity’s boundless potential destroyed by greed and thoughtlessness.