The Hidden Face of Wisdom: Towards an Awakened Activism

Sean M. Kelly

California Institute of Integral Studies


With the birth of the modern age and the beginnings of the Planetary Era, the wisdom (sapientia) that is said to define the sub-species of humans to which we belong—homo sapiens sapiens (“the wise among the wise”)—came increasingly to be identified with the powers of science and technology, the twin engines of the West’s triumphal march towards a glorious future. In philosophical and scientific circles, the subtler, more intuitive, imaginal, and speculative dimensions of human experience, though obviously still active and even valued and cultivated by some, were generally demoted to an inferior status relative to Cartesian “clear and distinct ideas” or the readily manipulable “data” of the empiricists. To be sure, there have always been alternative trends and even, at times, relatively widespread movements that refused the otherwise dominant rationalist and empiricist orientations—most notably, the Romantic and Idealist movements of the early 19th century—but these trends remain counter-cultural. The experience of the twentieth century, however, with its World Wars and unparalled barbarities, along with the current realities of global terror and the truly catastrophic prospect of biospheric collapse, have plunged those not too numb to feel it into what Edgar Morin calls the crisis of the future—that is, into an awareness of radical doubt and uncertainty, of generalized anxiety and the specter of hopelessness. Such, at any rate, are possible responses of a mind and heart which, knowingly or not, still clings to the root assumptions of the dominant worldview, or which nevertheless finds itself embedded in the social, cultural, and psychological network of ideas and behaviors that both sustain, and are sustained by, this worldview.

One thing is clear at least—we can no longer in good faith accept the traditional definition of our species. In place of homo sapiens sapiens, Morin has proposedhomo sapiens-demens, which highlights the fact that whatever we might rightfully be able to claim in the way of wisdom or intelligence is offset by an equal measure of insanity or madness (demens suggests both “dementia” and “demented”). If our species has excelled in the discovery, production, and appreciation of truth, goodness, and beauty, it is also unsurpassed in its capacity for the creation of falsehood, wickedness, and ugliness. Demens, however, also suggests a potential for the kind of subtle guidance the ancient Greeks looked for from their daimones or guiding spirits (the most famous example being Socrates’ daimon). I will return to this second sense of demens shortly.

In the face of mounting madness on a planetary scale, many are compelled to some form of activism. Because of the urgency of the problems, however, and because of the pervasive character of the dominant, extraverted and materialistic worldview, it is easy for the would-be activist to limit his or her perception to a narrow band of the spectrum of action, to that which, in effect, corresponds most obviously or directly to the forces or situations that one would like to change. From this point of view, activism means putting one’s body on the line, most commonly in the form of protests or demonstrations, less often by going to the front-lines themselves to confront military, police, or corporate aggression. I am not questioning the value of this kind of activism, and I certainly in no way wish to cast a shadow on the truly heroic actions of people like Julia Butterfly Hill or the young man who stood steadfast before the tank in Tien-An-Men square. I only want to suggest that not only will such individuals remain exceptional—and in this way continue to inspire us with their courage and commitment—but that the kind of global change that clearly must come about, and which the activist intends, would not be served if all of us were somehow ready and able to take on this kind of direct action. It is not enough, though it may be necessary, too, to stop the saws and tanks themselves. For saws and tanks, and the people who operate them, are governed not only by their respective states or corporations, but also by the root assumptions, beliefs, and values—by the paradigms (and, as we shall see, perhaps by even subtler forces)—that unconsciously govern these very states and corporations.

What I am suggesting, in other words, is that what is needed is not necessarily more activism as it is normally understood, but a revisioning, a broadening and deepening of what it means to be an activist. More particularly, I want to give some sense of the full range of possibilities open to an awakened activism—that is, an activism which recognizes the active potential of consciousness, spirit, or what might be conceived of as the subtler dimensions of the field of action. In their association with such words as psyche, spirit, contemplation, meditation, prayer, and even wisdom itself—these dimensions are often considered irrelevant or even antithetical to what is usually considered the proper domain of the activist. In what follows, I will consider a range of examples, along with an admittedly impressionistic and provisional typology, of what I consider forms of awakened activism, some of which stretch the bounds of what is currently referred to as either “spiritual activism” or “engaged spirituality.”

1. the common view
The common understanding of Spiritual Activism or Engaged Spirituality, despite its association with counter-cultural elements (resistance to the status quo; opposition to the modern separation of facts and values; non-denominational or pluralistic spiritual values; emphasis on communitarian, social justice, and ecological values, etc.), is still somewhat embedded within the modern Cartesian worldview in at least one respect: it retains a subtle version of the ontological divide between the realm of mind, spirit, or consciousness, on the one hand, and the “real” world of action, on the other. Here are two, in other respects very different, examples of what I mean. The first is a major study on Engaged Spirituality sponsored by the Ford Foundation, based on a survey of relevant literature and material gathered from 79 interviewees, including 40 leaders in the field of integrating contemplative practices into social justice work. The study contains many valuable insights and will doubtless be well appreciated by researchers in the field. Note, however, the following statement:
Spirituality, while sometimes viewed as being a strictly inward, even narcissistic
activity, has the potential to propel people into lives of social service and public
engagement. Spirituality in this sense is a vital resource, sustaining people in the hard work of social change, and, on regular occasions, inspiring them to imagine possibilities that exceed realistic expectations. (Stanczak and Miller, 20)

The authors rightfully point to the view held by many activists (the prototype here is Marx) that spirituality is narcissistic or escapist. While they clearly intend to counter this view and show how the two realms can come together, they nevertheless tacitly accept the modern split by saying that spirituality “has the potential to propel people into lives of social service and public engagement,” as though spirituality itself is the static or disengaged starting point which can lead to—if the leap is great enough (“propel”)—action in the real (“social,” “public”) world. Similarly, spirituality is “a vital resource” which can “sustain” and “inspire” people in the “hard work of social change,” but is not therefore itself a form of work or action in the social sphere.

The second example has to do with the struggle for the abolition of slavery. According to various sources (including Lincoln’s wife, Senator Thomas Richmond, Colonel S. P. Case, and the spirit mediums J. B. Conklin and especially Nellie Coburn Maynard), Lincoln was motivated in his push for abolition by séances he attended, some of them in the White House. A more general link between spiritualism and the abolition movement is also well-documented. Horace Greeley, Karl Marx’s editor at the Herald Tribune, and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States, were two leading abolitionists and founding members of the first American section of the Communist International. They were avid spiritualists who attended séances with Kate Fox, one of the sisters that sparked the spiritualist movement (Proyect). Ann Braude has recently made a strong case for the influence of spiritualism on many principal players, including Victoria Hull, in the late nineteenth century’s women’s suffrage movement (Braude).

As fascinating as it is to learn about the strong connection between spiritualism and the emancipatory interest, at least in the United States, it would appear that the activist component was restricted to communications from the spirit world—the advice reputedly given to Lincoln is emblematic here. Spirit, in other words, is still only a “resource” (however precious to those who seek it) which must be carried over, as it were, to the (material) world of action.

2. an alternative view
The example of spiritualism, though still involved in the Cartesian split, brings us to the threshold of an alternative view, or a set of such views, which sees spirit, mind, or consciousness as (potentially at least) itself a form of action. To this set belong most idealists and introverted thinking types, as Jung might say. The contrary view—that consciousness is essentially passive, is reflective of the legacy of the materialism and extraverted empiricism that has dominated western culture from the mid-nineteenth century into our own times. In a decidedly counter-cultural tone, here is James on the “reality of the unseen”:

All our attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional…are due to the ‘objects’ of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist, whether really or ideally, along with ourselves. Such objects may be present to our senses, or they may be present only to our thought. In either case they elicit from us a reaction; and the reaction of things due to thought is notoriously in many cases as strong as that due to sensible presences…. The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know of them…swims…in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas…that lend it significance. As time, space, and the ether soak through all things, so…do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just.

Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background of all our facts….They give its ‘nature,’ as we call it, to everything we conceive of. Everything we know is ‘what’ it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions….

Polarizing and magnetizing us as they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings. And beings they are, beings as real in the realm which they inhabit as the changing things of sense are in the realm of space. (James, 56; my emphasis).

That the “polarizing” and “magnetizing” effect of ideas can extend beyond their proper realm into the social and political spheres—and these even on a global scale—should be obvious from even the most cursory survey of history. The most striking examples that immediately come to mind are the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great, guided by the idealism he imbibed from his tutor, Aristotle; the emergence of Christendom out of the life and teachings of Jesus and Paul (especially through the vision-inspired Constantine); the rise of world communism (with the specific extreme example of Stalinist totalitarianism) out of Marx’s ethical idealism and secularized millenarianism; Hitler’s brand of Nazi fascism; and fundamentalist inspired terrorism. One should not, of course, forget the less obvious but no less significant case of democratically elected right wing governments, whose extreme ideological agendas are, in the eyes of most activists, as pernicious in their effects as some of the more egregious totalitarianisms.

What I would like to draw on from James, however, in combination with his sensitivity to the power and vitality of ideas, is his use of the field metaphor which he applies to the phenomena of consciousness. Extending James’s metaphor, I suggest that we can speak of a field of action, which in some sense is identical to the field of consciousness, the same unitary reality considered from more of a motor (action) than a sensory (consciousness) perspective. As in the case of consciousness, the field of action also involves the distinction between focal point and margin—where what occupies the area at or around the focal point is experienced as more concrete or “real”—along with the recognition of the indeterminateness or uncertainty of the margin. From the perspective of the dominant (extraverted, materialistic, power-driven) worldview, the realm of the psyche, of mind, spirit, or consciousness, is marginalized and therefore practically invisible. Since what is attended to or focused upon is where most of the action is—or thought to be, at least—the dominant view is blind to fact that, despite its subtlety and general invisibility, consciousness too is a form of action (and, as we shall see, to some the most potent form of action).

One could, in this connection, appeal to the spectrum metaphor instead of, or along with, that of the field. The advantage of the spectrum metaphor is that it suggests a graded scale of increasing subtlety (from infrared to ultraviolet). One could also draw fruitful parallels with David Bohm’s theory of the implicate order, with the focal point of the field corresponding to the explicate order. Bohm has applied this theory to the special case of the relation of mind or consciousness to matter with his notion of “soma-significance” (see Bohm 1985; and Kelly 1992). According to Bohm, what we consider matter (“soma”) from one perspective—say, for instance, a photon or electron—looks like “mind” (as “active information” or “significance”) from the subtler perspective of the field with which it is inseparably associated (the field, which is described by the Schrödinger wave equation, corresponds to the implicate order of the particle). For our purposes, however, the field metaphor will suffice. In what follows, I want to consider a range of increasingly subtle (and therefore generally marginal) regions of the field of action along with some representative players in an expanded vision of spiritual activism or engaged spirituality.

3. the intellectual as activist
I begin with the most familiar (to me, and likely to most of my readers) and least controversial region of the field—that of ideas, ideologies, worldviews, andparadigms. The word paradigm (paradeigma) goes back to Plato, with reference to the realm of Ideas as the truly real or abiding, and before that to the stories of the (controlling) gods and (exemplary) heroes. With profound affinities to Kantian categories and Jungian archetypes, the term took its modern definition from Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (where it was used in both the general sense of worldview and in the more restricted sense of specific “puzzle-solutions” standing as models or exemplars for a particular field of research). More recently, Edgar Morin has written of paradigms in a manner that suggests a kind of genetic program or deep organizational structure of worldviews. A paradigm, writes Morin, “contains…the fundamental concepts and master categories of intelligibility as well as the logical relations of attraction and repulsion (e.g., conjunction, disjunction, implication) between these concepts or categories (Morin, 1991, 213; my emphasis).” This definition, which recalls James on the “polarizing” and “magnetizing” effect of ideas, is more precise and potentially fruitful than, though in no ways in conflict with, the main Kuhnian variations. The point here is that paradigms not only describe, but actively prescribe, define, and literally shape the world that is “viewed”. Morin gives the example of two antagonistic views of the human/nature relation which nevertheless privilege the same “categories of intelligibility” (in this case reduction or disjunction). One (the biological sciences, with the human genome project as emblematic) sees the human as a purely natural phenomenon and ultimately reducible to chemistry, the other (most humanities and social sciences, with deconstructive post-modernism at the extreme) as defined by culture. Both, however, in attempting to subordinate the other to itself, participate in the same paradigm of simplification, which of course is dominant in our times.

If paradigms are like the genetic programs of worldviews, Morin agrees with James that the ideas and ideologies which correspond to the paradigms are to be looked upon as functionally equivalent to living beings or organisms rather than as “mere words” or passive data. Like biological organisms, worldviews and systems of ideas in general are self-reproducing and self-maintaining. The two most pathological examples of this phenomenon—which in their excess highlight these organismic qualities—are (for individuals) paranoid delusions and (for collectivities) fascist or totalitarian ideologies. In both cases there is something like a metabolic process of assimilation of whatever can serve as “food” for the perpetuation or repair of the program, as well as an ideo-immunological response which rejects anything that threatens the core identity. Here the responses range from simple denial to brutal repression and the attempt to exterminate the perceived threat. Again, one need not go to the extreme of outright dictatorship to witness the immunological qualities of ideas or worldviews. It is enough, for instance, to note how critical or divergent views are systematically excluded from the major media, or how clearly one-sided, if not blatantly false, ruling-government claims are enshrined as self-evident or quasi-sacred facts.

To work actively, and as an awakened activist, with ideas, worldviews and paradigms as living and autonomous entities is not to ignore the concrete social and political power relations within which they are embedded (concentration of capital, control of the military, of the media, etc.). Worldviews and culture generallyare embedded in society and its power relations, which, however, are equally embedded in culture. The relation between the two, along with such terms as consciousness or spirit and nature; the individual and the collectivity; unity and diversity; culture and society, is complex, which is to say (at the least): dialogical, recursive, and holographic. Any view which privileges one term in any such pair of opposites can be taken as a manifestation of the paradigm of simplification.

The mission of the intellectual, as an awakened activist, depends upon the ability to discern the presence of the paradigm of simplification and, by contrast, to enact and model the paradigm of complexity. The latter is perhaps the closest we can come, short of any metaphysical claims, to an embodiment of what I, for one, would be happy to call Wisdom. Or at least, it might be considered the essential base of any intellectual approach to what, after all—despite our appropriation of the word in the self-definition of our species—used to be considered a Goddess. Enacting the paradigm of complexity means to privilege theories over dogmas or doctrines, which is to say an open rationality over rationalization. Morin summarizes some of the differences between the two with the following (reduced) table of contrasts:

doctrines theories
self-referential (weak eco relation) auto-exo-referential (strong eco relation)
rigid links between concepts logical necessity of conceptual relations
very strong immune response immune response (only rejects what is
(rejects all challenges) irrelevant)
anathema polemical vigor

Morin points out that the difference between doctrines and theories often depends not so much on the ideas themselves that constitute a given system, but on the degree to which the organization of the system is open or closed.
Openness depends upon the psycho-cultural ecosystem. Thus, the ecosystem of science more or less guarantees the openness of theories, which therefore can only ever partially become doctrines. The ecosystem of a rigidly centralized political party, by contrast, favors doctrinization, which in turn favors a rigid centralization: for instance, in the context of the university, Marxism can be considered as a theory, which is discussed in relation to other competing theories, whereas within a sect or a party that sets itself up as the rightful owner and sole interpreter of the theory, the same Marxism becomes a doctrine; it is considered confirmed to perpetuity and therefore irrefutable, and any data or argument that challenges it is rejected in the manner of an immunological response. (Morin 1991, 134-135)
The same, of course, could be said for the theory of the so-called “free-market” of laissez-faire capitalism (Morin’s example comes from a socialist France where even communism, though pronounced dead by the U.S, still plays an active role in national politics).

The openneness of an awakened intellectual, explicitly activist or not, involves a kind of “learnèd ignorance” (docta ignorantia) —that is to say, an informed acceptance of the limits to knowledge, of the irreducible presence of uncertainty and the inevitability of error. This kind of ignorance, moreover, though informed or educated, must itself also be learned, for the natural tendency of the mind is to settle on what most suits it, or more particularly, suits the generally unconscious feelings and drives that constitute the life-blood of the paradigm within which the ideas in question are embedded. One also sees, therefore, how necessary it is to link intellectual honesty with the corresponding psychological habit or discipline of searching out one’s deeper or subtler motives, whether these have their source in what Jung calls the shadow (the repressed, unacknowledged, or simply undeveloped part of the personality), or in more collective and perhaps even archetypal or transpersonal realms of consciousness. For, as Jung put it: “Our fearsome gods have only changed their names: they now rhyme
with—ism.” Without the kind of inoculation that comes from the practice of complex thinking and the willingness to look at the shadow—and even here there is no guarantee—there is the real danger of possession by these “-isms,” with all its attendant horrors. The danger is potentially global in proportions. As Morin states the case: “master-words” (the equivalent of Jung’s “-isms”) are “verbal giants whose empire extends over the entire political domain: thus, according to the particular optic, democracy/dictatorship, socialism/capitalism, left/right, contest and divide the world (Morin 1981, 54).”

4. the psychonaut as activist
Jung first drew attention to the dangers of archetypal possession in his prophetic 1936 essay, “Wotan,” where he described the phenomenon of National Socialism in terms of unconscious identification with the long-buried Germanic god of storm and frenzy, of lust for battle, and of illusion and magic. Jung and his followers point us to the other sense of demens—along with the sense of madness or insanity, the idea that the wisdom of the human is closely linked to the presence or activity of what used to be called gods and spirits (daimones), but which we have come to feel more comfortable calling the creative imagination or simply the unconscious.

More recently, psychiatrist, consciousness researcher, and transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has integrated Jung’s archetypal perspective with a neo-Rankian recognition of the impact of the birth trauma not only on individual development, but on that of culture at large and particularly, in this context, on key elements of our current global crisis. Echoing Jung, Grof asserts that “[a]ny plans to change the situation in the world are of problematic value, unless they include a systematic effort to change the human condition that has created the crisis (Grof 1985, 432).” Grof makes a convincing case that totalitarian systems, autocracy, dictatorship, police states, bloody revolutions, and war in general, all draw significant portions of the enormous amount of energy required to sustain them from the unprocessed trauma associated with birth. The force of the trauma arises from an unparalled hyper-arousal of the nervous system, typically combined with sustained crushing pressure and often near suffocation—all of which, of course, has to be put in the context of the experience of a being with no voluntary physical, or self-reflectively cognitive, coping mechanisms (the main defense being simple dissociation) and with an extremely dilated time sense. The titanic energies or dynamic tensions generated at birth—stored indefinitely, as somatic psychotherapy has shown to be the case with all trauma, in the body—are a ready source for the fear, hatred, and malignant aggression that are mobilized on a mass scale in times of war and civil unrest and projected onto the “enemy.” “The real problem,” Grof writes,
does not consist in isolated individuals or political parties and factions. The task is to create safe and socially sanctioned situations in which certain toxic and potentially dangerous elements of the human personality structure can be confronted and worked through without any harm or damage to others, or society as a whole. Externally oriented radical programs and political power struggles, although of vital importance if challenging a murderous regime of a Hitler or Stalin, cannot solve the problems of humanity without a simultaneous inner transformation. They typically create a pendulum effect whereby yesterday’s underdog becomes tomorrow’s ruler and vice versa. Although the roles change, the amount of malignant aggression remains the same, and humanity as a whole is not helped. (ibid., 413)

As Grof sees it—and again, in full agreement with Jung—the point of inner transformation can be summed up with the phrase: go in instead of acting out. In contrast to the more standard view of a spiritually informed activism or engaged spirituality, where “inner work” is seen as a necessary accompaniment to, or resource for, “real” action in the outside world, I am suggesting that intentionally engaged inner transformation is a form of awakened activism. If Grof is right, the world needs this kind of activism as much as it does that of the more obvious “front-line” variety.

Chris Bache has amplified Grof’s model in a way that reveals another aspect of the psychonaut as awakened activist. Coming out of hundreds of solo LSD sessions following a modified Grofian protocol, Bache makes explicit what is already implied by Grof (and Jung, for that matter, with his theory of the collective unconscious)—namely, the idea of a species mind in which the individual mind or psyche participates. More particularly, Bache suggests that part of the reason, at least, why experiential engagement of the perinatal unconscious is generally so overwhelming is that, in revisiting one’s own unprocessed birth trauma, the psyche resonates with a corresponding perinatal dimension of the species mind. This dimension of the greater Mind (again, one can think here of the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious) functions as the repository not only of humanity’s cumulative experience of biological birth, but also (as Grof demonstrates for the case of the individual) of all unprocessed traumatic residues that share the same feeling tone or other phenomenological qualities as one or more of the various phases or “matrices” of the birth process. Participating, as it were, in the same energetic field, these experiences and residues are all non-locally related and potentially accessible (especially in non-ordinary states of consciousness) by what Rupert Sheldrake has called “morphic resonance (see Sheldrake 1989).” Given these assumptions, Bache proposes the following:

…just as problematic experiences can collect and block the healthy functioning of the individual, similar blockages might also occur at the collective level. This suggests that the unresolved anguish of human history might still be active in the memory of the species-mind, burdening its life just as our individual unresolved anguish burdens ours. Continuing the parallel, if conscious engagement of previously unresolved pain brings therapeutic release at the personal level, the same might also occur at the species level. (Bache, 78)

The perinatal dimension of the species mind not only functions as repository of cumulative trauma, however, but points as well to the notion that our species is itself undergoing a kind of birth and evolutionary leap. This implies, along with the idea that it might be necessary for enough of us to do the work of inner transformation to make a difference at the level of socio-political reality, that such a difference will necessarily involve both a catharsis and an awakening of the species mind itself.

It is difficult to see at this point in time how Bache’s claims or those like them could ever be verified or tested, which does not, however, mean they should not be pursued (especially given the stakes involved). Equally uncertain is the precise relationship between the individual psyche and the species mind, the degree of relative autonomy in either direction, and how best to facilitate the new birth. In any case, if the catharsis in question can, as Bache points out, be characterized as a release of collective karma, then one sees how this type of deep experiential work—especially when the desire for such a release is explicitly taken up into the intention—can be considered a kind of awakened activism. The “inner” work undertaken is equally for the benefit of all. It is active on the level of the collective or the transpersonal and not merely that of the individual or the personal. Insofar as this form of awakened activism invokes, or otherwise involves itself with, an overtly spiritual or religious world view, one could see it as signaling the emergence of a new form of socially or politically inflected yoga—not so much karma yoga, as what might be called a yoga of karma.

5. the yogi as activist
While Bache envisions the release of collective karma through deep experiential engagement of the species mind, the example of Sri Aurobindo points to the possibility of intervening in present social and political movements—and this in the most direct manner—through a yoga of action on the subtle planes. The species mind, for its part, though described in terms of Jung’s collective unconscious and Sheldrake’s morphic fields, can also be thought of as a subtle plane entity. The main difference is that, with the language of subtle planes, one has taken the final step beyond even the most speculative of models into an explicitly spiritual/metaphysical world view. In the case of Sri Aurobindo, however, we are still dealing with deep, or high, experiential work (yoga), though at this point at least I know of no other accounts that we might turn to for comparison.

Sri Aurobindo (b. 1872), though recognized as a great Hindu sage and spiritual adept, was also a prominent political activist. Onetime leader of the Nationalist movement in Bengal and author of many political-revolutionary pamphlets, he was imprisoned for a year awaiting trial for conspiracy, but finally acquitted (see the Introduction and chronology in McDermott). Fleeing the British authorities, he retired to Pondicherry (1910) to pursue a more concentrated spiritual discipline. With the “Mother,” he guided the ashram until his death in 1950. It is said that, for the last twenty years of his life, Sri Aurobindo rarely left his room, let alone the ashram or Pondicherry.

The common view of the relation of wisdom or spirit to action would probably characterize Sri Aurobindo’s life in this way: upon his return to India from his long sojourn in England, the first phase was one of action in the world, followed by the longer, contemplative phase where, though he maintained an avid interest in them, he was no longer directly engaged in political matters. This is not his own view, however. Here, for instance, is what Sri Aurobindo, referring to himself in the third person, had to say about his role in the outcome of World War II:
In his retirement Sri Aurobindo kept a close watch on all that was happening in the world and in India and actively intervened whenever necessary, but solely with a spiritual force and silent spiritual action; for it is part of the experience of those who have advanced far in Yoga that besides the ordinary forces and activities of the mind and life and body in Matter, there are other forces and powers that can act and do act from behind and from above; there is also a spiritual dynamic power which can be possessed by those who are advanced in the spiritual consciousness, … and this power is greater than any other and more effective. It was this force which, as soon as he had attained to it, he used, at first only in a limited field of personal work, but afterwards in a constant action upon the world forces. He had no reason to be dissatisfied with the results or to feel the necessity of any other kind of action. … when it appeared as if Hitler would crush all the forces opposed to him and Nazism dominate the world, he began to intervene. He declared himself publicly on the side of the Allies, made some financial contributions in answer to the appeal for funds and encouraged those who sought his advice to enter the army or share in the war effort. Inwardly, he put his spiritual force behind the Allies from the moment of Dunkirk when everybody was expecting the immediate fall of England and the definite triumph of Hitler, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the rush of German victory almost immediately arrested and the tide of war begin to turn in the opposite direction. This he did, because he saw that behind Hitler and Nazism were dark Asuric forces and that their success would mean the enslavement of mankind to the tyranny of evil, and a set-back to the course of evolution and especially to the spiritual evolution of mankind.… It was this reason also that induced him to support publicly the Cripps’ offer and to press the Congress leaders to accept it…. When negotiations failed, Sri Aurobindo returned to his reliance on the use of his spiritual force alone against the aggressor and had the satisfaction of seeing the tide of Japanese victory, which had till then swept everything before it, change immediately into a tide of rapid, crushing and finally immense and overwhelming defeat…. (Aurobindo, my emphasis)

These are clearly staggering claims! How could one individual, tucked away in his room on a different continent, have a determining influence on the course of a war involving many nations and the interactions of millions of people? What context do we have for even understanding, let alone for trying to assess the validity, of such claims? We will turn to these questions in a moment. First I would like to point out that the standard activist view of Sri Aurobindo’s life in India is plainly mistaken. It was not a case of action in the “real” world followed by contemplation or “inner work,” but one of a continuity of action with a shift from grosser or more manifest to subtler regions of the field of action. Though he continued to act in more obvious ways—through public declarations, financial contributions, and in a consultative capacity—he considered his action on the subtle planes to be “greater than any other and more effective.”

As for contexts, I have said that I know of no comparable instances in modern times that we might turn to for comparison. Despite some similarities with Jung’s view of what lies behind the world’s “-isms,” or with Morin’s understanding of the power of “master words,” it is not a question here of interacting with the human collective unconscious or species mind, nor of encountering the manifestations of collective karma or archetypal forms per say. Instead, one has to do here with present supra- or infra- human forces/entities (Sri Aurobindo uses the Vedic term Asura, which is functionally equivalent to the Western, or Near Eastern, notion of “demon”) that are actively, though generally invisibly, involved in human affairs, and in this case, political affairs on a global scale. Apparently, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother believed that Hitler’s soul had been replaced by an Asura. One could, of course, take Jung at his word with respect to the Nazis and the god Wotan, in which case we would have a closely parallel (and contemporary) interpretive framework. Jung, however, did not claim to play any direct, confrontative role in this particular encounter between the human and the demonic, nor presumably would he recommend such an attempt, given his repeated warnings of the dangers of possession, inflation, or fascination by these powers (whether he would even think it possible for someone to do what Sri Aurobindo claims to have done is impossible to say).

In terms of known types of religious experiences and practices, the closest parallel would be the battles of shamans (most often with rival shamans, though also with other malevolent spiritual forces or entities). While these take place on subtle planes—typically in the “upper” or “lower” worlds—the issue of the battles have consequences in the manifest world: the afflicted individual is cured or the community shakes off its bad luck in the hunt. The main differences between the traditional shamanic journey and what we can conjecture about Sri Aurobindo’s yogic intervention include the following: the shamanic journey typically involves some kind of obvious trance induction technique (sonic driving, dance, fasting, sacred medicines), a ritual or ceremonial element, and is focused on the condition or fate of a single individual or that of the local community. Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of the practice of integral yoga, by contrast, do not involve any manifest trance induction techniques or ritual elements (though they might include the latter), and at least in the case of his intervention in WW II, it is a question of world-historical rather than merely individual or local concerns.

We do not know, unfortunately, any of the details of Sri Aurobindo’s intervention. What did he do in the way of preparation? What did it look like from the inside? Was the will noticeably engaged, or was it more a matter of arriving at the proper constellation of intention and inner perception? Was the confrontation with the Asuric forces direct, or symbolically mediated in some way (as happens, for instance, in the case of ceremonial magic)? I ask these questions not only out of sheer curiosity, but, on the one hand, to assist in finding the appropriate interpretive context, and on the other, to gather a sense as to how, in the absence of explicit instructions, one might go about cultivating what, if authentic, would constitute one of the most—if not the most—potent forms of political activism.

Sri Aurobindo saw his ability to act on the subtle planes as something that comes naturally to “those who have advanced far in Yoga.” There are many yogis in the world today—perhaps none have advanced so far, for there are no reports of similar interventions. Skeptics might say that, with similarly favorable outcomes, the reports will surface. The problem is that we have had no such outcomes. Or have we? An absence of reports does not necessarily mean that significant interventions on the subtle planes, though likely less dramatic than the one that might have tipped the scales in favor of the Allies in WW II, have not in fact taken place. As for Aurobindo’s own claims, because of the special nature of historical events—their intrinsic irrepeatability and extreme overdetermination—it is impossible in principle to assess their genuineness. It is a fact, however, that the defeat of the Nazis was highly improbable up until the time it happened (see Morin 1999, 99f.). Despite all the uncertainties, can we afford not to support and affirm the possibility of this kind of intervention—again, given the stakes involved, and the generally meager returns of ordinary means? Even if Aurobindo’s gifts were unique, perhaps the ability to engage in this kind of subtle or awakened activism—or something akin to it, but less dependent on rare genius or years or spiritual discipline—is more readily available than we might think.

6. the meditator as activist
Finally, a more modest, and much less dramatic, proposal for a kind of awakened, or “spiritual” activism comes from Marianne Williamson and the Global Renaissance Alliance. The GRA’s approach to activism considers stillness, envisioning, interpersonal healing, depth of insight, radical good will, and the creation of sacred space as “acts of power” with global political ramifications. The foundational practice recommended by the GRA is the formation of “Citizens’ Circles” or “Peace Circles.” A simplified version of the format is as follows: a self-selected group of (ideally) six to 10 people agree to meet weekly. There is a common perception that the world needs healing and a shared general intention that the activity of the group will contribute to a positive transformation. Following a period of twenty to thirty minutes of silent sitting, members of the group are encouraged to voice any vision of a better world that might have arisen, in the form of a statement that begins: “I see a [name of country, locality, or simply “world”] where (or that) [some positive, desirable image or outcome].” After this “visioning” phase, a group member facilitates a dialogue around whatever is “up” for the group that day.

The group may or may not choose explicitly to address matters of social or political concern in its dialogue period. Similarly, it may come about, after the group has stabilized sufficiently and if the rapport is suitable, that a particular project is decided upon that would constitute a readily recognizable form of activism. Such manifest action in the world, however, is not considered necessary for the “spiritual” activism of the group to be effective. For, as we read from the GRA’s website: “The simple configuration of people gathered in a circle, sharing prayer and meditation and heartfelt conversation, casts a web of healing power affecting not only the members of the circle but the world at large.” We are informed that the New Activist “uses prayer, meditation and forgiveness as tools for the creation of a world made right. Whoever wields the power of a loving mind wields a power that is greater than any on Earth, restoring conscience to its primary place in human affairs (GRA website).”

Despite its simplicity, Peace Circles actually combine diverse elements (power of the group, quiet sitting, shared visioning, facilitated discussion, often prayer) which, apart from whatever virtues they may have on their own, may act synergistically to amplify the desired effect. For our purposes, however, I want to focus on the meditational element, in which I include prayer (though not always present) and visioning or “imagining.” I realize these are distinct practices. I consider them together here purely for ease of treatment and since they all share the constellating of a particular form of mind-intent expressed in the phrase above, “the power of a loving mind.”

In contrast to the shamanic/yogic way of dynamic confrontation or to the psychonaut’s path of purification, both of which involve a strenuous engagement with dark forces, the GRA and its Peace Circles stand in the tradition of a certain strand of Christian idealism and contemplative spirituality (New Thought, Christian Science, the Unity Church, A Course in Miracles) and New Age Metaphysics (see Hanegraaff). The paths of the psychonaut and the yogi, at least for the exemplars I have chosen, seem more at home in the world view of what James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, describes as the “Sick Soul”—that is, a view that sees evil and suffering as ontologically real and, though perhaps ultimately defeatable, as forces that need somehow to be integrated into the fabric of everyday life. By contrast, the GRA meditator clearly belongs to James’s “Healthy-Minded” type, which has “a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering,” and who tends “to see things optimistically” (James, 127). The leaders of the Healthy-Minded world view have “an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind” (ibid., 94-95).

Clearly, James’s “Sick Soul” and “Healthy-Minded” are ideal types, which means one will most likely find actual individuals and groups that combine aspects of both types. The GRA’s “Principles of a New Activism,” on the other hand—from which I quoted above—are an unambiguous expression of James’s Healthy-Minded world view. The main difference from the specific groups that James considers in the Varieties is that, whereas these are focused on the goal of individual healing, Peace Circle meditators usually have the nation, and ultimately the planet as a whole, as the focus of their healing intention. With this social and political focus, the idealist and contemplative stream is brought into the service of activism as well as therapy.

The New Testament source for the belief in the power of mind-intent is the saying of Jesus (Mathew 7:7:8): “Ask, and it shall be given you; etc.” The idea is that, if it come from a pure heart that seeks to fulfill the Will of God, who is Almighty, any petition must surely be granted. In the context of 19C New Thought metaphysics and its New Age descendants, the personal theistic element is often muted in favor of, or is combined with, an idealist view of Universal Mind, the true reality, with which our individual minds are consubstantial. Here it is a question of achieving a certain clarity of intention or “vision,” which, given the consubstantiality with Universal Mind, must necessarily manifest in the world-at-large. Again, as we read in the GRA’s Principles of a New Activism: “When a critical mass of prayer and meditation is extended in the direction of peace, then the conditions of war will automatically be cast away from Earth.”

Though less dramatic than the claims of Aurobindo, one could argue that this kind of activism operates on the more subtle ranges of the field of action, since mere thought or intention (vision or “imagining”) is considered to be potentially effective of radical change. In terms of Aurobindo’s esoteric ontology, as we have seen, the spirits of the Vital plane (among which are the Devas and Asuras)—which is subtler and both suffuses and envelops the Material plane—exert a determining influence on the affairs of this world. Since the Mental plane is even subtler than the Vital, however, it is conceivable that any influence emanating from there could be correspondingly more potent. If this were the case, it would lend even more support to the case of the intellectual as activist, though the Mind in question here is more intuitive than conceptual in character.

In our own times, this Mind or its functional equivalent is often characterized in terms of “fields” of “energy,” perhaps even using David Bohm’s theory of the “implicate order,” which in physics is the non-local Ground of the manifest or “explicate” order of the material world as we normally experience it. Bohm himself proposed that, if enough people engaged in the process of meditative dialogue that he pioneered, and managed to clarify and harmonize the otherwise generally fragmented patterns that dominate our thinking and communication, this might have a catalyzing effect on society as a whole (see Bohm 1994; and Bohm and Kelly).” While reputable studies have been done that appear to demonstrate the ability of mere intention to heal or otherwise positively affect individual human beings, and even plants (see Dossey and Gerber), it is difficult to know how the effects on society could be reliably detected. We are faced with another version of the difficulty we encountered in wanting to verify Sri Aurobindo’s claims. With the irreducible uncertainty that must accompany this kind of inquiry, however, we are left also with something analogous to Pascal’s wager: there is no cost in allowing that it may be so. On the other hand, to deem it impossible could block one of the most powerful means at our disposal to bring into being the better world for which we all long.

We are left with a central question: How conscious is the relation between manifest action in the physical and social worlds, on the one hand, and the activity emanating from subtler worlds, on the other—the world of ideas and paradigms; of feelings, complexes, and archetypes; of Devas and Asuras; of daimones, ancestors, and angels? However far one is willing to go in admitting the reality of these and other subtle forces or entities, if the relation remains unconscious, our actions are no better than the turnings of clock-work or the gesticulations of clever-seeming puppets.

Given the dominant cultural and political bias towards the grossest forms of action, which tend also to be the most short-sighted and self-serving, it is incumbent upon those of us with more openness or sensitivity to the subtler forms of action to encourage and support each other in our various pursuits, however tentative they may be. We don’t all have to be intellectuals, psychonauts, yogis, or meditators to be awakened activists. I have simply selected these types, and their chosen representatives, to illustrate some of the main paths that have already been traveled. Though not many have Morin’s gift for discerning the pervasive though generally invisible presence of a noxious paradigm, we can all benefit from his modeling of intellectual integrity and an open rationality. And while few might have the stamina to endure the ordeals of deep experiential work in the service of planetary healing, or feel called to the kind of heroic confrontation of Asuric forces exhibited by Sri Aurobindo during WWII, it requires comparatively little effort to include our political leaders and public figures in our daily meditations and prayers. Though costing little, we must not underestimate the power of focused intention resting in, or issuing from, a clear and quieted mind and an open, aspiring heart. For it is in such minds and hearts, as in the still glassy surface of a mountain lake at dawn, that Wisdom is wont to show her veilless face.

We must waken to the entire field of action and make more conscious and intentional the relation between the subtle and the gross, the hidden and the manifest. We must honor the many paths that cross the field of action, recognizing that what might appear as fainter trails are, for some, the surest way to the desired goal. We must seek to discover where we are most at home in the field of action, cultivate the garden there, and offer up the finest fruit to the Wisdom we would have dwell among us.

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