From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Albert Einstein)
The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. ( Albert Einstein – The Merging of Spirit and Science)
The human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)
The essence of a religion is a teaching, and a teaching requires a teacher. More often than not the teacher is an alpha male that attracts strong women and weak, unindividuated men who submit to his dominance because they feel incomplete and lack a sense of their own inner authority. The leader who projects confidence and power provides what they lack. JFK and LBJ both ran the institution of the American Presidency in a culture of alpha male dominance and sexual epigamic display—a display that became quite literally phallic in LBJ’s case.
One of the reasons religion is so dominant in human culture is because it gives new life to behavior that has been rooted in primate evolution for millions of years. Women are attracted to powerful and successful men even if they are homely like LBJ and Kissinger because there are millions of years of evolutionary pressure urging them to avoid weak losers to mate with the winners who can insure their survival and that of their infant. Notice that in many of the cases where women went public about the sexual abuses of the leader of their cult that they did so when their alpha male was falling from power, and not earlier when they were attracted to sleeping with him at the time he was at his peak.
This ethological substrate to culture can also be seen in other areas of culture besides religion and politics. Carl Jung in the field of psychology created a classical religious movement with himself as the charismatic prophetic figure surrounded by admiring women and sub-dominant men. As a religious movement, Jung’s path of transformation and individuation is isomorphic to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. And even ordinary graduate school professors who seek to clone themselves through their students and wish to see them do bits of their research rather than have them explore new areas and modes of thinking express a common example of this enduring alpha male pattern of culture.
New leaders arise when there is a crisis. When the ancient Near Eastern civilizations that began with Sumer in the fourth millennium BCE were decaying and coming apart from catastrophes and terroristic militarism, prophets arose who did not carry the traditional message of the High Priest in the Palace Temple.
Moses was the first to re-vision history against a background of catastrophes–catastrophes transformed by the Hebrews into legends and folklore that were later reworked by the Christian Protestants into a militant code of command and control presented as the literal words of God–words that they used to support persecutions, witch hunts, and murders from the Thirty Years War to now.
In 1159 BCE there was a volcanic explosion, probably in Iceland, and tree rings in Ireland show that there were no summers for eighteen years. A Dark Age, brought on by crop failures, famines, and probably more earthquakes and tsunamis in the Aegean area, caused great movements of populations and the confederation of the post-catastrophic Sea Peoples—a group more known to us as the Philistines in Gaza and Ashkelon in the biblical story of Samson and Delilah.
But out of the ashes of the ancient civilizations, the Axial Age began to emerge. The age was axial because it swiveled from the ancient to the classical civilizations, and prophetic leaders continued to come forth after Moses with new ethical teachings–from Pythagoras to the Buddha and Mahavira to Lao Tzu and Confucius.
The esoteric masters of the School of Chartres worked to mark the end of the European Dark Ages and the rekindling of the light of Western Civilization. In constructing their cathedral on an ancient Druid site, they drew life from secret Celtic springs as well as Spanish Sufism and Jewish Cabbalah. To speak to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear they left their teachings enshrined in the cathedral’s sacred geometry, statuary, and entablature, because anything written risked provoking persecution from the Church.[i] In the silent metaphors of the incarnational path of the Maze and the statues of the prophetic succession, they indicated a line of continuity with its turnings and wanderings away from the center. The statue of Melchizedek holding the chalice of the Grail indicated the beginning of the prophetic line with Abraham that was established by an intercession from outside of historical time. The world itself was the Grail and the Hebrews the chosen people for the incarnation of the Solar Logos, the Messiah, the Christ.
Chartres is a testament in stone seeking to soar above the streams of ink and blood and bring the Abrahamic prophetic lineages back together. So different from the militaristic thuggery of the Crusaders–in which Richard the Lion-Hearted massacred the inhabitants of Jerusalem–the invisible initiates of Chartres showed us with the statues of Melchizedek and Pythagoras that their idea of a prophetic lineage went beyond dogmatic fanaticism and was a vision of an orthogonal crossing of a transcendent sphere into linear historical time.
We are now in another era of crisis in which catastrophes and new visions have come forth to shift humanity from a militaristic and materialistic industrial civilization to a new planetary culture. Appropriately, this post-religious movement from nation to Emanation has no single leader, but is an emergent domain–an ecology of consciousness in which diversity is its most striking feature and strength.
There are many visionaries of this cultural transformation, but for the purposes of this brief column, I wish to concentrate on four: Einstein, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother,” and to explain why I choose these four as having made significant contributions to what Teilhard de Chardin called “the planetization of mankind.”
Einstein is for me to post-religious spirituality what Luther was to Protestantism—a historical marker of a shift in cultures. Einstein was Jewish and gave donations for the founding of the state of Israel, but he was no orthodox devout Jew praying with Tallit and Phylactries. Einstein’s form of prayer was a communion with God as the Mind of the universe. So caught up was he with the life of the mind that he used his paycheck from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies as a bookmark. Einstein did not go to temple on the Sabbath; he dwelt in the mysteries of the Mind of God every moment.
Einstein is also a cultural marker in the sense that—unlike Freud and Jung–he was not a prophetic leader of a movement. He was so intelligent that there were few who could follow him, or become his followers. His colleagues were not followers but highly individuated geniuses as well: men like Niels Bohr in Denmark, Paul Dirac in England, and Werner Heisenberg in Germany. Modern physics was neither a church nor a mystery school; it was a fellowship of geniuses.
Fellowship is the critical word here because it indicates a shift from organism, hierarchy, and reproduction to a noetic polity of entelechies—inspirited minds carrying a new condition in which a more symbiotic evolution moves from the reproduction of the past to the emergence of an emanational future.
In the Self Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda we see another example of this movement from followership to fellowship.
Vivekananda embodied the first wave of Eastern gurus to come to the United States in 1893 for the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Yogananda was part of the second wave and came to the United States for the Congress of World Religions in Boston in 1920. Vivekananda was a wandering monk, but Yogananda chose to stay in the U.S. and moved to Los Angeles to establish his Self Realization Fellowship. Two generations before the third and great media wave of gurus inundated the West—expressed by the Maharishi and the Beatles in the sixties–Yogananda went to work in finding a way to transmit esoteric knowledge and practices of transformation to the most extroverted and exoteric culture in the world. A generation before Carlos Castaneda popularized fables about the mysterious Yaqui shaman Don Juan, Yogananda, in his 1946 bestseller The Autobiography of a Yogi, fascinated readers with his stories about legendary superhuman yogis who remained above the course of human events in caves in the Himalayan mountains.
What Yogananda initiated in his efforts at popularization soon also became an intellectual wave, as high culture literary figures like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood published new editions of the Bhagavad Gita and popularized the Perennial Philosophy for a new generation of college kids.
Yogananda’s success came from his decision to link kriya yoga to an esoteric reading of Christianity and to appeal to the popular American tradition of self-help and positive thinking boomerism. Taking the esoteric complexities of guru to chela transmission, he transformed them into a program of Self Realization by writing a four-year course of weekly lessons for home study. Upon the recommendation of a college buddy, I sent off for the lessons in the general mood of enthusiasm for things Eastern in the sixties.
Because I had grown up in Los Angeles, I had driven by the Self Realization Temple on Sunset Boulevard many times on my way to the beach at Malibu. When I was sixteen and at L.A High School, I, and my high school buddy Antonio Fernandez, used to visit various occult societies for their public lectures, buy occult books at Pickwick Bookstore at Hollywood and Vine, and discuss the Bhagavad Gita, Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, and the Hermetic Kybalion. Neither one of us was interested in Elvis Presley and the pop culture of the fifties, so we went our own way. Tony played Chopin on the grand piano in his home in Central LA, and I would listen, and then hang out with his mother Senora Fernandez to practice my Spanish with her as she made sweet tortillas de harina for me in the kitchen.
One evening Tony and I decided to attend a local occult society in our neighborhood called the Centrum. I forget the Western guru’s name now, as the group moved to South America a year or so later to escape his prophesied coming catastrophes in California. On one evening the leader shared his center—a converted garage behind his house—with a monk in saffron-colored robes from the Self Realization Fellowship, a Brother Bhaktinanda. Because I had been raised in the Catholic Church, I was used to the religious approach in which you terrorized the child by talking of the grizzly martyrdom of the saintly and the hellfire awaiting unbelievers. The priests and nuns always appeared to me to be angry at the world and fond of punishment for its fallen inhabitants. This was the first time I had ever met a monk who seemed to speak from an inner center of direct experience. When the priests and nuns spoke of God in parochial school, they clearly did not know what they were talking about, but this monk did and he radiated an unusual presence and inner peace. I made a mental note to check out his Self Realization Fellowship to see what it was all about. But I never did.
With a focus on my intellectual development, I concentrated on college and graduate school, so it wasn’t until I was a professor at MIT and had published enough and didn’t have to worry about my job that I remembered my high school experience and decided to take up my LSD-taking friend’s recommendation to subscribe to the weekly lessons.
They proved to be a real challenge, but not for the reasons you might think. I was ready for the mysteries of kriya yoga, but what was hard for me to take as a highly developed intellectual snob was Yogananda’s own literally god-awe-full poetry and his love of religious kitsch.
In my freshman year at Pomona College I had heard Alan Watts lecture on Zen and the Art of Calligraphy, and, at Esalen Institute in Big Sur in 1967, I had spent a long weekend taking one of his workshops.[ii] With his upper middle class British accent and his learned approach to the spiritual classics of the world, this former Anglican priest was just the right sort of salesman for someone like me from the working class who was trying to move up and out of the uncultured masses. I read Yeats, Rilke, Lorca, and Kenneth Rexroth in college and wrote poetry and tried in vain to get it published in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic.
But Yogananda was just the opposite; he was someone who was trying to appeal to the masses. Oh how I would have preferred that the weekly lesson had begun with a poem by St. John of the Cross, Thomas Traherne, Rumi, Yeats, or Rilke, but week after week I had to suppress my hard-won elitär snobbery and try to get beyond it. Each weekly lesson was a lesson in humility, but as a recovering Catholic, I was not well disposed to lessons in humility.
Yogananda’s fondness for writing a poetry of prayer with a diction that was “a fountain of nectared words” expresses an Indian cultural trait in which poetry is revered as a vehicle of vatic spiritual authority and not of a secular high art in its own right. I guess, as it is with funny clothes, so must it be with art: acceptance of clichés and kitsch becomes a mark of religious commitment. If you like the art of Catholic holy cards, or Hindu posters of a syrupy-eyed Krishna, then you will not confront any of the obstacles I found on my spiritual path.
Nevertheless, I persevered and did complete the whole four-year course. I did find that the SRF techniques worked for me and so meditation became part of my daily life.
In Yogananda’s shift from the esoteric shaktipat transmission from guru to chela—which I received from Muktunanda in the seventies in New York–to an open fellowship, he gave the individual the means to empower herself outside of a religious hierarchy. When the time of his death was drawing near, a few of Yogananda’s advanced students hoped that they would be anointed as his successor and dharma heir in the lineage of the exalted gurus, Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Sri Yuktesvar. But before Yogananda performed his mahasamadhi–a conscious exit from life–by stopping his heart, he announced to all that there would be no successor to him in his lineage, that the age of gurus was over, and that henceforth a fellowship of the spirit would be its replacement. In a continuation of the syncretism in which he had united Yoga with esoteric Christianity, Yogananda affirmed what esoteric Christians would call the Mystical Body of Christ. No Church hierarchy or single exalted guru was to be the vessel of Self Realization for a new age. A few of his prominent disciples were greatly disappointed and went their separate ways to establish their own ashrams in which they could become the great guru that they had wanted to be.
Like Einstein communing alone with the mind of God instead of going to temple, Yogananda affirmed that the individual was now to learn how to shift from noisy prayers of petition to listening in silence through meditation. He taught the individual how to meditate in private instead of praying publicly as the Pharisees had done and had been criticized for it by Jesus. (Matthew 6:5) In this shift from ecclesiastic structure and hierarchy to a fellowship of self-actualized individuals, Yogananda embodied the very essence of post-religious spirituality.
To be continued.
[i] See the writings, films, and lectures of Keith Critchlow for further study of Chartres Cathedral.
[ii] See Chapter Two, “Going Beyond It at Big Sur” in my book At the Edge of History (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 20-48.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad