The transformational community
It is no news to anyone that a widespread spiritual reawakening is currently taking place-one that has two distinct aspects. On one side, we find a resurgence of religious fundamentalism that embraces an historic view derived from the Middle Ages-a literalist belief system that proclaims this world to be the kingdom of a remote, transcendent authoritarian father-God, alternately wrathful or beneficent-a narrow perspective that has been embraced in our time by misguided religious zealots who have the capacity to ensure that this world will be their God's kingdom... or nothing.
On the other side and in opposition to this view, we have the spiritually awakened and expanded perspectives of the secular humanists who perceive an omnipresent, immanent Divine Presence or Creative Force existing within all of creation, one that is benevolent, life enhancing and life sustaining.
It is significant that this latter view is quietly, yet definitively, being embraced by increasing numbers of well-educated, well-informed, and well-connected individuals, many of whom are in professional and social positions from which they may influence the larger society's ideas and trends. Their secular yet spiritual perspective is intensely democratic, cutting across socio-economic levels of achievement and status, transcending cultural, political, and ethnic boundaries as well.
The number of people who hold the new view is not known with certainty, but fourteen years of sociological research conducted in the United States by demographer Paul H. Ray and his wife Sherry Ruth Anderson (see their book The Cultural Creatives) has revealed that more than fifty million Americans fell into this group as of the year 2000, representing more than twenty-six percent of the adult population. This is not a small number, and it has grown to more than seventy million since that time (Ray, personal communication).
Ray's analysis suggests that we Westerners have arrived at a point in our history in which our prevailing mythologies are not working any more. The seventy-plus million among us know, without being told, that the time has come to create a new cultural mythos in which we synthesize a new set of ways of viewing ourselves and our society, our problems and our strengths, our communities and our world--a concern shared by another ninety to a hundred million in Western Europe.
Ray and Anderson have observed that a shift of this magnitude in a dominant cultural worldview happens only once or twice in a thousand years, and this one is occurring during a period of ever-accelerating social change, enabled by a high technology and a communication system unlike any seen before. Their survey reveals those who hold the new view to be socially concerned, environmentally aware, and spiritually focused, creative people who are carriers of more positive ideas and values than in any previous period in history. And today, there is no question that if we continue to do business as usual and fail to produce a new story, Western Civilization may well collapse, taking the rest of the world with it.
This awareness is being reinforced by the specter of catastrophic environmental change, producing a sense of urgency, accompanied by a growing insistence on social, political, and economic reform that will benefit everyone, not just the powerful and the privileged. Anthropologists might call this a new kind of cultural revitalization movement, one that is oriented toward the future rather than retreating into the past, and a recent analysis of Western history reveals that this one is happening right on schedule.
Recurring Phases in Western History
Historian Richard Sellin has suggested that our Western preoccupation with the linear development of human civilization is, in fact, a misconception, and that the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times embodied within the intellectual trends and moral values characteristic of any age or epoch, has tended to express itself in cycles that repeat themselves every several thousand years (See his book The Spiritual Gyre).
From my perspective as an anthropologist, the Upper Paleolithic Period (the late Stone Age) was the first of these cycles, a long one beginning perhaps 40,000 years ago and ending with the melt-down of the ice sheets at the end of the Ice Age about 11,000 BC. During this time, the cave and rock art reveals that the religious practice was animist, a view that affirms everything, both animate and inanimate, to be invested with its own personal supernatural essence or soul and that everything in Nature could therefore be communicated with. During this cycle, the religious practitioner was the shaman.
The Neolithic Period that followed could be considered as the second of these cycles, beginning with the closure of the last ice age and the end of hunting-gathering as the predominant lifeway. This cycle lasted for perhaps four thousand years and was defined by animal and plant domestication and by the establishment of the first settled communities. Spiritual awareness during this period was still largely animist, and the religious practitioner was still the shaman, yet the prevalence of carved objects representing pregnant women suggests that some new form of spiritual awareness and practice may have developed during the Neolithic. This cycle came to an end with the emergence of the first city-states in the Middle East, and it was among them that a new religion took form-polytheism, a stratified, hierarchical view of the supernatural world that reflected an entirely new perception of ourselves.
The third cycle that followed lasted about three thousand years and included such cultures as the Sumerians and the Akkadians, the Babylonians and the Persians, the Assyrians and the Egyptians, the Mycenaeans, the classical Greeks and the Romans among others. All of these cultures expressed polytheistic religions featuring various high gods and goddesses situated above and beyond Nature-a new perspective that resulted in the creation of the first organized hierarchical religions run by full-time priesthoods. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, this third cycle came to an end, and as before, a new religion emerged: monotheism.
Monotheism's three major expressions -The Abrahamic Traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- have been the dominant religions in the Western world for our current two-thousand-year cycle. Sellin has proposed that our cycle began with a comparatively long Theocratic Phase in which society relied heavily on religious doctrine and truth was determined by divine direction from the father God operating through a bureaucratized and politically motivated priesthood. Any informed overview of Western History reveals that such has indeed been the case from the emergence of Christianity at the end of the Roman Era until the Renaissance, a period that lasted roughly fourteen hundred years.
The spirit of the times changed considerably at this point. The rise of science, as well as the infrastructure of the current corporate world-state through the guilds, initiated the second stage of our cycle, a Secular Phase, in which an expansion of our geographical and intellectual horizons, as well as economic power, occurred on an unprecedented scale. In response, truth was redefined within a new mythology-science--and religion was generally discredited. This relatively shorter phase, dominated by rationalism, has lasted for about three hundred years.
The current spiritual reawakening suggests that it has now drawn to a close. With the dawning of the age of Aquarius, Sellin asserts that we are moving into the third and final stage of our two-thousand-year cycle, a Spiritual Phase, in which science and spirituality are being synthesized and integrated in an attempt to transcend both previous stages. The plethora of recent conferences that have featured both mystics and scientists as plenary speakers are a testament to this impulse.
It is also significant that this revitalizing impulse appears to be associated with the appearance of a new spiritual complex, emerging much in the same manner that Christianity took form at the end of the last cycle.
The New Spiritual Complex
It is not surprising that the 'new spirituality' is integral in nature, drawing on all the world's wisdom traditions, from the East to the West, from Animism to Zen. What is surprising is that right at its core can be found a cluster of principles that were embraced at one time by all the world's indigenous peoples.
In approaching the idea that principles of indigenous wisdom are involved in the genesis of a new spiritual complex in the West, I am broadly concerned with the general mystical insights that were once held in common by virtually all of the traditional peoples and are thus the birthright of everyone everywhere. I should quickly add that modern spiritual seekers do not seem to be retreating into archaic belief systems, nor, with rare exceptions, are they interested in 'playing Indian' or becoming born-again Aboriginals. To the contrary, members of the Transformational Community are beginning to reconsider the core beliefs and values once held by the traditionals, and in the process, something entirely new is taking form.
This new religious complex has no name as yet (although Ken Wilber's term 'integral spirituality' is as good as any), nor is it focused on the teachings of some charismatic prophet, guru, or holy person. Its singular, distinguishing feature involves the realization that each of us can acquire spiritual knowledge and power ourselves, making the direct, transpersonal contact with the sacred realms that defines the visionary, without the need for any priest or religious organization to do it for us. In this manner, each person acquires the freedom to become their own teacher, their own priest, their own prophet, receiving their spiritual revelations directly from the highest sources themselves.
As they engage in this ancient human experience, each inevitably discovers that their personal consciousness is part of a greater field of consciousness at large, a deep insight currently being illuminated and confirmed by quantum physics. This is the direct path of the mystic at its absolute best, one that leads the spiritual seeker into the experience of self-realization and spiritual empowerment. This advance, once begun, changes us profoundly and forever because it conveys to each of us the experience of authentic initiation.
A Spiritual Revolution
It has been my experience that modern mystics tend to develop in isolation, becoming deeply immersed in personal, spiritual studies that are often triggered by paranormal experiences that society at large has taught them to conceal. An oft-cited Gallup Poll revealed more than two decades ago that as many as forty-three percent of the general population in the United States has had such experiences, revealing that this pool may be even deeper than Paul Ray has suggested. Modern mystics tend to be individualists, people with very full lives who like to gather in local meetings or spend their vacation time attending conferences and workshops in which they can acquire direct experience of such practically useful subjects as qigong and reiki, psychic healing and shamanism, meditation and yoga to name only a few. They then tend to disperse back into the wider society where they utilize what they have learned to benefit themselves, their networks of family and friends, and their communities at large.
Beyond these general contours, it is easier to describe what modern mystics are not, rather than to accurately define what they are, and perhaps this is just as it should be because it is much in keeping with the nature of transitional, evolutionary events. For example, most of these individualist seekers are not religious ascetics, shutting themselves away in monasteries, ashrams, or remote mountain caves. Most are not involved in practicing austerities and enduring endless periods of deep meditation. They are not religious extremists, invoking fundamentalist belief systems in search of their own exclusive connection with the godhead. Nor are they outright religious wackos, embracing recently uncovered secret doctrines, hidden away for ages and proclaimed as divine revelation by some smooth-talking New Age charismatic. Modern mystics are not involved in cults, nor are they the least bit interested in turning their power over to some holy so-and-so who claims to have the inside corner on the market of spiritual truth. The time of the guru is over.
It has been my experience that contemporary spiritual seekers are interested in spiritual liberation, not repressive or rigid dogma, and they tend to be deeply distrustful of any organized religious hierarchy. Because of this, steadily increasing numbers are leaving our mainstream religions in droves. In their search for authenticity, they are quietly, yet definitively, gaining a level of spiritual freedom that has not been experienced in the West for almost two thousand years.
Ray and Anderson's research reveals that these transformationals are evenly distributed throughout the general population, suggesting that they are everywhere, in every community, and at every level of society. In short, this quietly and steadily escalating social phenomenon has all the appearances of a spiritual revolution.
Let us now have a closer look at these transformationals, briefly examining their beliefs and values in particular. And as we do, we must keep in mind that these individuals are the seed people who may well determine the shape and orientation of spiritual practice in the Western world for much of the next two thousand years.
Values of the Transformationals
When I started leading workshops a decade ago, I was surprised to discover that most of the participants in my seminars and workshops express a strong sense of social justice and seem to be deeply concerned about the quality of human life at all levels of society. They feel strong support for women's issues as well as those of minorities. They are concerned for the safety and well being of both children and the elderly, and human relationships are clearly seen as more important than material gain. Social tolerance, personal individualism, and spiritual freedom are highly valued ideals. The reweaving of the social fabric through the rebuilding of families, neighborhoods, and communities are major areas of concern.
In looking at these values, it quickly becomes apparent that they have little to do with being a liberal or a conservative, a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, or even a patriot. Yet they have everything to do with being a humanist in the evolved sense of the word. Although the Western world continues to be driven by greed and fueled by denial, motivated by fear and dominated by competition, members of the transformational community are oriented toward democratic, humanistic ideals, and they tend to favor cooperative endeavors that benefit the many.
The importance of balance and harmony lies right at the core of their values, and in this respect, they, like the indigenous peoples, have grasped that humans must strive to live their lives in ways that contribute to the greater good rather than following lifestyles and pursuing goals that create its opposite. Accordingly, the value of simple, natural living is seen as a high ideal, and the monumental waste being generated at every level of the world capitalist system is regarded with grave concern.
Another area of consideration involves healthcare. Ever increasing numbers of the transformationals feel a growing distance from Western allopathic medicine. While all are very much aware of Western medicine's miraculous achievements, more and more feel that it is failing on many levels. In addition, all see quite clearly how the business-oriented and profit-motivated Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO's) are affecting the quality of health care in an increasingly negative way while inflating costs beyond the imaginable. The need for healthcare reform in the United States, for instance, is overwhelming, and the majority within the transformational community express strong interest in preventative and alternative health care strategies, perceived as adjuncts to rather than as replacements for allopathic medicine.
The transformationals are environmentally savvy, and like the indigenous peoples, they feel an active, almost ritual respect for Nature. They express a deep concern for the environment and, by association, the survival of the human species. All are seriously committed to stopping corporate polluters, reversing greenhouse warming, and discovering the limits to short term growth so that we can achieve the long-term ecological sustainability upon which the future of humanity, as well as Western Civilization, depends. Unlike many of the hardcore environmental activists of the last several decades, however, members of this emerging social movement are deeply committed to achieving the direct, transformative experience of the sacred realms, and it is really this that defines them as mystics.
Modern Mystic Beliefs
When one has had authentic transpersonal experiences, these lead the experiencer to an inescapable conclusion: that everything, everywhere is interconnected, and that consciousness is the 'etheric field' through which this linkage is achieved. This is a core belief that is clearly articulated by the indigenous tribal peoples at one end of the human continuum and by the quantum physicists and Zen Buddhists at the other.
Another core belief concerns the existence of more than one reality. In addition to the everyday, objective physical level in which we all live and have families, friends, and careers in an ongoing basis, there are the nonordinary, subjective levels of the dream worlds or spirit worlds outside the time-space continuum, where the laws of physics and cause and effect do not work in the same way.
This belief leads directly into another: the ability of some individuals to expand their conscious awareness and enter into these alternate realities-a conviction that reveals why the rediscovery of shamanism has become a major thrust within the movement. In my workshops I have witnessed the relative ease with which the shaman's time-tested methods for achieving mystical states can be learned and practiced, even by non-tribal Westerners who return from their transpersonal 'journeys' with extraordinary accounts that are much in alignment with those of indigenous shamans.
Another belief: by utilizing the shamanic method to journey into these inner worlds, the same levels that C.G. Jung called the archetypal realms of the psyche, the seeker may enter into relationship with spirit allies-inner helpers and teachers who may provide them with access to power and knowledge, protection and support. Among these beings can be found the personal Higher Self, variously known as the Transpersonal Self, the Angelic Self, the God Self, the Over Self, or simply the Oversoul.
Interestingly, despite their disaffection for and lack of affiliation with organized religions, most transformationals profess belief in some form of universal god-like consciousness, and Jesus of Nazareth is regarded as an important spiritual teacher, whether or not the seeker is psychologically Christian.
Another related belief concerns the existence of a field of mystical power, perceived by virtually all as an invisible essence or vital force that is widely dispersed throughout the universe and highly concentrated in certain objects, places, and living beings. It is becoming generally understood within the movement that everyone can learn how to access, accumulate, and focus this power, and that one's health, well-being, and success in life are ultimately dependent on being able to maintain, and even increase, one's personal supply.
This awareness gives rise to the belief in the existence of a personal energy body - a self-aspect that carries this power as life force and provides the "etheric pattern" around and within which the physical body is formed and maintained. The ability of some transpersonal healers to manipulate the energy body in restoring and repairing the physical is a skill that many in the transformational community have personally experienced. It is believed that this energetic matrix can be perceived as an aura by those who have psychic awareness and that it can be enhanced utilizing the energy centers within it called chakras in Eastern thought.
Taken together, these beliefs and values constitute an emerging worldview that is being embraced by an ever-growing population of well-informed souls. Those who hold the new view perceive quite clearly that it offers an unprecedented promise of hope for all human beings everywhere as well as a firm guarantee of sweeping changes to come.
The Global Consequence
In summation, this new complex of beliefs and values is being held by an ever-growing sector of the general public in the West. In the United States for example, their numbers currently match and are now surpassing those of the fundamentalists and evangelists. It is also significant that this heightened awareness within our citizenry is emerging in a time in which humanity's problems appear to be reaching critical mass.
Whether the solutions to our issues can be achieved by our current political leadership or by the increasingly questionable machinations of our military-industrial complex is not known at this time. In response, increasing numbers of concerned citizens are coming to consider the possibility that our problems may not have political, military, or economic solutions, but rather that they may actually be spiritual in nature, in alignment with the beliefs and values outlined above-a conviction that may, in turn, enhance the growth of the new spiritual complex. In addition, if our children are acquiring these altruistic, spiritually based values and beliefs within the fabric of their families, they are already spreading rapidly throughout the larger society, accelerating the shift.
Although the current spiritual reawakening is most visible in North America and Western Europe, the invasive influence of Western Culture upon the rest of the world suggests that it may, in fact, extend deeply into the international community. In Paul Ray's words "we should take heart, for we are traveling in the company of an enormous number of allies."
The transformational community taking form in the West is thus of enormous import, for the emergence of the new spiritual complex within it, as well as the awareness that the complex is engendering on an increasingly societal scale, has the power to alter the directions of history in much the same way that the emergence of Christianity utterly changed the Roman world, as well as the Western mind, almost two thousand years ago.
While the time frame for this shift may vary with the ebb and flow of current events, there are no maybes here. The proverbial handwriting is on the wall. The history of the world's peoples will be profoundly and inescapably changed by the spiritual awakening going on in the West. The results will be felt at every level of society, in every country, and will, by association, determine much of the politics and individual lifeways of the Twenty-first Century and beyond.
This essay is an altered version of a chapter published in Mind Before Matter, eds. Trish Pfeiffer, John Mack and Paul Deveraux from O Books, John Hunt 2007. Still another version can be found in Sandra Ingerman and Hank Wesselman, Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation (Sounds True, 2010)