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Contemplative Activism

Tending the seeds of a “new” culture — Hope, History, and Humility

We started Life Itself in 2016 because it seemed time for seeds of another culture to sprout. My hope was actually largely based on what was falling apart. Disturbing elections were happening, faith in capitalism was shaken, news about global warming was worsening.

Death makes room for life, and chaos and lost faith mean new beginnings. I felt sure others must see this, too, and we would find them and build together. Our gatherings connected people yearning for integration of the creative spirit, love of life, and the intellect. 

In 2022, our map of the meta-modern shows reason for hope: many aligned organizations have formed since 2016. It seems change is afoot, and that feels exciting. However, tending to my emotional stability (imperfectly) helped in years when the dream seemed totally quixotic, rather than fashionable. From the late nineties to 2008, preparing for a time of change could seem foolish. 

I welcome signs of hope, now, and know hope is double-edged. If I had needed to see obvious reasons to hope in 2000 or 2016, I would not be prepared for now. If we need hope to be obvious it can blind us. Hope based in wishful thinking has anxiety within it, anxiety that we can deny, but not avoid. We mights say that consciousness shift is guaranteed and a revolution is inevitable, but our anxieties tell us how deeply we truly believe our statements. Our anxiety tells us what hopes are solid, but we have to listen.

So perhaps hope can found through engaging with our anxieties. One anxiety, shared by many, is the narcissism plagues our effort to escape a culture of individual alienation. Our conditioned minds want to own this new culture and boast about our role in it. We must accept that programmes for big egos have written themselves into our minds. These seek addictive stories that give us pleasurable “hits’ of pride. Maybe we can’t help it but maybe he can help each other be different.

Hope, Ego & Novelty

We love new ideas because new ideas may suddenly go viral. We also get to take credit for new ideas. So we prefer to pretend our ideas are new. I am anxious about the tendency to discuss embodiment and systems thinking as new. A dangerous outcome of seeing ideas as new, and inventing new names for venerable notions, is the loss of history. If a necessary idea has been around for a long time, but not spread, we might want to know why. If we’re really interested at making something, we want to all about others’ experiments in creating it. We can’t do that if we’re pretending our ideas are totally new.

For example I sometimes fall into speaking about “systems thinking” as a cool new perspective, or great new wave that is forming. Actually, systems thinking has been cool & countercultural thing for 70 years. The counterculture of the 70s included many noted systems thinkers, such as the famed “second wave cybernetics” movement. The first wave was in the 50s.

Wiping the bright “new” label off of this culture we’re talking about might be healthy for our egos. A glance at our cultural dream’s history makes it seem ridiculous to coin novel-sounding phrases for rather old ideas, thereby trying to own them. History has a way of being humbling. We can see ourselves as part of the whole human history, and see ourselves in all of human history. From a view outside individual cost and benefit calculus, a view of vast sympathetic imagination, participation in collective action makes sense.

The Ancestors have Prepared for Us

We have great ancestors to connect with. Joanna Macy was talking about the great turning and the great unravelling in the 80s. Marx saw a lot of what we complain about today, even if he didn’t have solutions. The idea that the Western mind has a technical obsession that amounts to disease was around in the romantic era. It was a virtual religion in the dadaist movement of the early twentieth century and so on. Great eastern spiritual teachers recognized this. Krishnamurti, Osho, and Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about the need for a cultural revolution in consciousness, re-integrating presence into our lives, since the 70s.

What’s the difference between the meta-crisis and social breakdowns intuited by luminaries of the twentieth century? Maybe a subtle and pervasive cultural disease, long noticed from many perspectives, is finally causing breakdowns in the body politic. It is easy to get lost in details of the breakdown, but we have a good idea what’s underneath.

Here’s another old idea that can be a great source of hope: how we pursue a dream is as important as what we dream. What if “deconstruction” of our conditioning doesn’t work if it is disembodied, keeping us in our heads? Can’t ancient contemplative methods that obliterate the self (and all notions) also help undermine “modern ideas”? Aren’t spiritual communities better at transformation than isolated heroes?

A New Chance for Ancient Hope

It looks like we might be getting another chance at making a great cultural shift. If we understand the conditions for transformation, no matter how difficult, our chances improve. That means looking at history and getting to the space beyond the self.

These themes are at the center of work currently at Life Itself’s practice hub, and particularly our July gathering and August residency. In order to transform collective conditioning, we should act collectively. This includes groups of people who change their minds together: we inter think and inter-do and inter-be. Change in the ideas that define us is basically a spiritual struggle. Such hard work has always taken place among spiritual friends, who listen to their spiritual ancestors. Seeing this fact of history is a source of hope. Ours not an easy dream, but it important enough to pursue with integrity.