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The Great Disconnect

Why spiritual progress can only come by ending senseless suffering and oppression

by Daniel Pinchbeck

May 2, 2018

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My community inhabits a world marked by an enormous disconnect that we hardly discuss. In fact, we generally avoid delving into this particular rabbit hole as much as possible. Overcoming our timidity, we need to peer into it and understand why it exists. We need to talk about it.

What inspired these reflections was reading Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, published before Trump won the Presidency. I heartily recommend this book, even though it’s troubling, infuriating, and at times, a bit monotonous as it meticulously exposes the secretive operations of the Koch brothers and their cronies. Dark Money reveals how a tiny, elite group of wealth-holders transformed the US political system over several decades. Operating from myopic self-interest and insatiable greed, this extremist cabal of oil, pharmaceutical, and beer magnates now threatens the future of life on Earth — from polar bears to plankton to people.

In the circles I run in, all of this can seem very far away and not worth our attention. Most of the people I know cherish and value things like nature, community, consciousness, kindness and compassion, peace and love. We work for these things, however imperfectly. Karla Rasmusson, with her own modest resources, started the Parade for Love. The third annual parade happens next Sunday, ending in a rally at Foley Square in New York City. Peace Accelerators, also members of The Assemblage, is a non-profit that’s nobly seeking to rebrand and revive the once-powerful peace movement for hipster millennials. This includes bringing people together for the International Day of Peace on September 21. And Stefan Cesarini has a project, 8 Billion Dreams. He plans to take a fleet of buses across the US collecting people’s dreams of the future while raising awareness of excess wealth inequality.
Peace Accelerators
The Gratitude Bus
These days, most of the people I know pursue paths of personal development through modalities ranging from nutrition to meditation, herbalism to shamanic practice. We seek to learn about our life path through astrology, Human Design, past life hypnotic regression, numerology, chakra balancing, and other techniques. We make a living as artists, designers, transformative coaches, social entrepreneurs, wellness practitioners, technologists, ecstatic dance organizers, urban neo-shamans, yoga teachers and so on. We belong to a culture that could be loosely defined as post-modern, post-New Age and spiritual. Many of us started out as scientific materialists but had a series of transformative experiences that shifted our worldview over time.

In the refined ambience of this new spiritual culture, we tend to focus more on personal development than we do on the need of organizing a coherent opposition to the grim political and environmental realities confronting us — the abyss of leadership, the rise of authoritarianism. I believe there are various reasons for this. One is that this new culture contains a hidden ideology, and a number of assumptions, that we tend to accept without thinking too much about. These include the idea that we can influence the world — even achieve whatever we desire — through the power of our focused intention. This idea spread through films like What the Bleep Do We Know and The Secret. People in the community also tend to be attracted to something similar to the “power of positive thinking,” which suggests it can be dangerous to dwell in the negative. You may draw those energies toward you by focusing on them, if reality is in essence a projection, a magic act, or a co-creation.

As people make the leap from the simple and reductive materialist worldview to an understanding that sees our apparently outer, physical and inner, psychic worlds as deeply entangled — what Carl Jung defined as “The reality of the Psyche” — we tend to absorb ideas, often taken from Eastern traditions like Buddhism, about how karma shapes our individual lives. Taken to an extreme, or when misconstrued, this can lead to a feeling of insularity, superiority, and detachment. If a Rohingya child starves or young newlyweds get bombed by a US drone strike in Syria, we can internally shrug if we think that everyone is following their karmic destiny. We can feel all current tragedy is the result of negative actions in past lives. We can also believe that this world is not truly “real” in any case, but a kind of cosmic game. Therefore, it is not worth taking too seriously.

Now I am not saying that I reject these ideas. In fact, based on my own investigations, I tend to think that intention has some transformative power, that our lives are shaped by the pattern of our past actions that may lead back to previous lives or states of being. Maybe the universe is a kind of cosmic game through which God — Brahma, universal consciousness, etc. — plays hide and seek with His and Her Creation. At the same, I don’t think these esoteric concepts absolve us from our moral and spiritual responsibility to be active agents working for social, political, and ecological change in a world that is so senselessly, brutally cruel to so many.

I would even go a step further. I think we find ourselves at a time when the only opportunity open to us to make spiritual progress is by dedicating ourselves to the mission of helping to liberate our human family from senseless suffering and oppression, as much as we can. This can only happen through political and economic means. To engineer such a change, we would need to use all the tools and techniques available to us.

That is exactly what the Far Right cabal did over thirty years of strategizing, long-range planning, and execution. They spent billions of dollars to distort and corrupt public discourse, legislation, and politics. As Mayer chronicles in exacting detail, they built an infrastructure of think tanks, publishing houses, academic departments, lobbyist groups, and “astro-turf” (rather than “grass roots”) social movements such as the Tea Party. One of their great triumphs was the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision, which removed restrictions on how much private money could be used to indirectly influence elections.

The formative ideology of this group is John Birch-style libertarianism, that the only legitimate function of government is to protect property rights. They do not think government should collect taxes, ensure social services, stop corporations from polluting the environment, impose a minimum wage, pay for public education, and so on. Libertarianism, in various forms, has become a seductive way of thinking for many wealthy people. It is prevalent in the tech world, particularly in the crypto community.

While it would be valuable to make a thorough critique of Libertarianism, I won’t do so here. Basically, individual humans are, much like the cells in our bodies, interdependent beings who rely upon the same shared commons to survive. Any social philosophy based on greed as its driving force will eventually do what this one is doing: ruin its physical environment and its future along with it.

We need something like a “prospiracy” — the happy antidote of a conspiracy — from the other side. How do we craft a strategy for reaching a future state where our human family flourishes in harmonic relationship with the natural world? What would be the tactical action plan for such a win-win nonzero game? Perhaps this is something to explore in future columns.