"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, March 21, 2011

A 'Required Reading Syllabus' for the "Spiritual Not Religious"

For the growing body of scientifically-oriented Westerners for whom traditional religious institutions rapidly lost relevance over the past 100 years - a growing body of individuals with an eclectic array of spiritual beliefs and practices, who could be roughly categorized as "spiritual but not religious" - a trio of books published before the paradigm-shattering 1960s may be classified as 'required reading' on the spiritual syllabus.

In order of publication, Richard M. Bucke's "Cosmic Consciousness," William James' "The Varieties of Spiritual experience," and Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy," carried the message from the world's varied wisdom traditions to a receptive modern audience that authentic spiritual or mystical awakening was possible and that the achievement of 'higher consciousness' in their lifetime was possible.

A fourth volume that traces the evolution of ever higher stages of animal and human consciousness is philosophical polymath and then-popular BBC broadcaster, Gerald Heard's, "Pain, Sex and Time." First published in 1939 and long out-of-print, "Pain, Sex and Time" was republished in 2004 due to a rising popular demand led by the reigning 'dean' of "comparative religious studies," Huston Smith, who credits reading Heard's account of spirituality and evolution with 'converting' him, literally overnight, "from the scientific worldview (which takes the visible world to be the only world there is) to the vaster world of the mystics."

Photo of spiritual pioneers (left to right);
Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard,
Richard Neutra, Linus Pauling,
Julius Huxley , and Aldous Huxley
(Smith notes he is in good company in this, as it was Heard who converted Huxley "from the cynical nihilism of his Brave New World to the Perennial Philosophy.")

Sub-titled, "A New Outlook on Evolution and the Future of Man," Heard's treatise lays a solid historical and theoretical evolutionary framework for  modern spiritual teachings, such as Andrew Cohen's teachings on "Evolutionary Enlightenment," which capture the synergy and synergistic potential that comes from the synthesis of ancient wisdom traditions and enlightenment teachings with leading edge scientific and psychological understandings.

As well, "Pain Sex and Time" provides as solid base of information for traditional "religionists" who seek to understand, and put into context, the rapid changes that bastions of religious conservatism, like the Vatican and Papacy, are undergoing in response to the deepening understandings of modern science. (In the last decade, the Catholic Church has rehabilitated the once-excommunictated Galileo, acknolwedged the Big Bang Theory as the most likely candidate for the Creation event, and Pope Benedict has plainly stated there is no conflict betwen the views of the Catholic Church, as set out in its new Cathecism, and the progress of modern scientific understanding.)

Heard had this to say on what may be called our "evolutionary imperative," humanity's need to push the limits of their psychical, as well as physical, knowledge of what our 'reality' is:
"It would seem that we have reached a stage in our evolution when under the terms and restrictions of our present apprehension we have gone as far as we can. Confining ourselves, as we have since Galileo, to measurement of such movements as our present consciousness can perceive, we have disregarded as unreal such vague intimations and inhibitions as are experienced by backward people who have not attended exclusively to outer phenomena but have been still aware of their inner nature. Hence we find ourselves with a sanctionless morality and a senseless universe."

"Now that we realize that we have restricted our possibilities of observation and that further ranges of reality undoubtedly lead beyond our present senses' apprehension, it is clear what is required of us is that we seek an extension of apprehension, a broadening of consciousness which will bring new data, new experiences into our range of knowledge. It seems increasingly clear that the great adventure in physical knowledge which began with Galileo was also one of those [evolutionary] specializations which, if not balanced by an equal advance in power of comprehensive apprehension, must lead to an increasing restriction of interest, awareness, and understanding. . . ."

"This specialization must be corrected by recovering once again a generalized apprehension which does not reject any experience - be it colour or the sense of self - whereby the organism lives. For the organism [i.e., humankind] which begins to dismiss actual experiences because these disturb the simplicity of its explanations is headed for the ever narrowing awareness which ends in presenting itself with a world in which it cannot live - a world without sanction but without meaning."
Gerald Heard (1892-1971)
This analysis, written on the eve of World War II - the great blood-letting that would culminate in the atom bomb, and the pre-eminent domination of scientific rationalism and consumerist materialism for at least another 60 years thereafter - was supremely prescient.

With the Western post-war "baby boom" that was born into and which fuelled this rationalist/consumerist cultural predominance now entering retirement and old-age, largely without having attained any lasting insight into their 'psychical reality,' or having achieved the lasting societal changes and higher levels of individual and cultural consciousness which was the object of their youthful protests, the temper of our times seems to be swinging back towards a search for transcendental awareness and inner meaning.

It is the search of this generation for inner meaning, with its unprecedented comfort and familiarity with science and scientific technology, combined with an inherent distrust of cultural and religious institutions which might be seen as opposing the 'march' of scientific progress and understanding, that fuels the growth in the ranks of the "spiritual but not religious."

"Store not your treasures upon the earth,
where moth and rust consume, and where
thieves break through and steal . . ."
(Matthew 6:19)


Yet, it is the search of this aging, spiritually "Lost Generation" for renewed meaning - beyond the increasingly irrelevant "stuff" that they have managed to accumulate - that makes the spiritual inquiries of the past several previous generations - as represented by Bucke, William James, Aldous Huxley, and the largely overlooked Heard - all the more important and compelling today. Small wonder, then, that Heard's works are being re-published and re-examined today.

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