Spirituality is now such a medley of different ideas and beliefs that it can be difficult knowing what spiritual growth is and how to best achieve it. This article explores its essence.
HE'S A REPTILE, she said with conviction. Not realising that she was being literal about her father, I pushed for another perspective in which her father was merely a human being expressing some of the darkness that she was unable to express herself — I knew she found it difficult to express anger so was probably projecting shadow. It was a risk to be so blunt, but I thought that being a New Age spiritual seeker she might appreciate a new perspective, one that could ultimately release her from emotional deadlock. For by demonising him in the way she was, she was excluding him from her heart and therefore from the forgiveness that would release them both.
Unfortunately, I misjudged the situation and my challenge only served to break our relationship: from that moment she completely closed down on me — she didn't speak to me for days afterwards and our relationship fizzled out a month later. I had inadvertently betrayed her by questioning a central tenet of her New Age spirituality — that evil reptiles literally masquerade as human beings, reptiles that deserve only our hatred and fear.
That was over five years ago now, and I still look back with some incredulity at how a seemingly loving relationship could be scuppered by a simple challenge to ideology. The only clue perhaps was that she had relatively recently become involved in spirituality, and it takes the abrasion of time to round the hard edges of idealism to something a little more compassionate, accepting and inclusive.
This incident highlighted for me the strong attachments that most of us have to our belief systems and how we often fight to maintain even limiting and destructive beliefs. And we do this because we have personalised those beliefs — we have identified with them — and our defence of them becomes a defence of ourselves. This process is the same regardless of our ideology, whether we are a New Ager, a Christian Fundamentalist, a Muslim jihadist, a Buddhist or an Atheist.
My grandmother, for instance, was a very devoted Christian, but her faith was defined more by a devotion to God than an obsession with Christian ideology. As a result, she did not reject spiritual experiences (and she had many) that fell outside the map of Christian ideology, and she never rejected another person because his or her expression of spirituality was different to her own. From her I learnt that true spirituality has absolutely nothing to do with the adherence to and defence of particular spiritual beliefs; becoming spiritual is not a process of trading in one set of beliefs for another labeled "spiritual," although many people seem to think it is.
All of us are born into the ideology of our parents. Christians bring their children up as Christians, New Agers bring their children up as New Agers, Muslims bring up their children as Muslims, and Atheists bring their children up to be Atheists. But there comes a moment in many of our lives when some inner 'spiritual' calling makes us dissatisfied with our default ideology, and we go seeking something — we initially don't know what — to better represent and express that inner part of ourselves. If we are young, we tend to be awaking on all levels so that there is a complete overhaul of who and what we are, not only in the area of spirituality, but also in our own psychology and our politics. This is the natural process of throwing aside what our family and society have made and defined for us and reformulating ourselves to correspond with an emerging inner landscape. We become ourselves; we become who we are meant to be.
If we are older, that spiritual expression is often made independently to other factors in our life because we have too much self (or ego) invested in our psychological and political expressions, and so spirituality transformation is more often an annexation than a complete rebuild. The young have less to lose by completely bull-dosing the older young self!
Whatever our age, the spiritual transformation first brings our old belief systems into awareness (we cannot transform something that we are unconscious of). Before that moment of awareness, those old belief systems were likely to have been unconscious and therefore confused with 'reality' — they were a given and we never questioned their veracity. But when a new 'truth' moves inside of us, that feeling or energy pushes out these old beliefs into the stark relief of awareness so that we can move past them into a new paradigm. And the final step, which ideally should really be avoided, is that we then over-identify with our new beliefs or label them as 'reality' and so that we end up adopting them as a new set of dogmas. But at least these dogmas better fit our spiritual expression, for the time being anyway.
The process of spirituality is the process of becoming conscious in all areas of our lives. We meditate, for example, so that we can be awake in mental states in which most are unconscious — i.e. those states with minimal and/or predictable/boring sensory input (we even eventually become conscious in our sleep); we forgive our enemies because we do not want to be unconsciously blinded by anger and resentment; we enjoy helping others because of a growing awareness of our collective nature; we do yoga so that we become more conscious of our body/mind; we analyse our dreams and fantasies, so that we may become conscious of psyche and the disowned parts of ourselves; and we become more mindful of our thinking so that we can consciously direct our mind's reality-creation and or filtering processes, and to realise how contrived most of our beliefs about reality actually are. So spirituality can be considered the movement towards ever greater consciousness in all aspects of our lives.
This movement has little to do with the form or path that we use or take. We can become conscious in many different ways and in many different circumstances in which we are usually unconscious. Spirituality is hard to define because it is less to do with beliefs than how we believe. At least in its essence. The process of becoming conscious is one that can be highly individual, ranging from taking something like ayahuasca in the Amazonian rainforest, to kneeling with head bowed, Bible in hand, before a cross. All roads lead to Rome but some are much shorter than others. Generally speaking, the greater the challenge to the ego, the quicker we become conscious. (In the example above, taking ayahuasca is likely to flower consciousness far faster than contemplating Christian ideology.)
On the whole, we are more conscious in belief systems that we have adopted than we are in belief systems we were born into and therefore had less cause to question. Therefore, those in the West who have adopted New Age or Eastern spiritual belief systems tend to be more conscious than those who are unconsciously playing out their inherited spiritual habits. The new beliefs are more difficult to confuse with reality because they have been adopted, usually in adulthood, and so we have more opportunity to experience them as belief systems — particular maps of reality that we have chosen to use.
This increase in awareness of beliefs during this transition to a new set of beliefs is, however, asymmetric. We tend to understand the nature of our old set of beliefs because, if we have confused them with reality, they necessarily need to be 'demoted' to beliefs or perspectives before we can let them go. If we are not very conscious, we will label them as 'wrong' beliefs or perspectives, and our new ones as 'right' beliefs and perspectives. If we are more conscious, we will understand that there is no 'right' and 'wrong,' and that spiritual belief systems are fundamentally a choice because they are not objective: they are not testable like scientific beliefs, but rather something we adopt because they 'fit' our inner and outer lives better. (Scientific beliefs are also ultimately a choice, but at least there is a high level of pseudo-objectivity that gives us more of a shared illusion of a single reality.)
Certain spiritual systems of philosophy, such as New Age, Buddhism and many of the gnostic traditions, are more sophisticated in their understanding of perception and psychology, and how they determine and colour the reality that we experience. The New Age seems to be more explicit on this process than more established systems such as Buddhism, but established systems tend to be more sophisticated in dealing with ego issues and give less opportunity for the ego of ordinary followers to become the star of the show. With New Age belief systems the ego is often confused with the spiritual self, with the result that New Agers are more likely to be self-obsessed and narcissistic — there is little room for humility when you are literally God creating your universe!
The so called "New Age" spiritual movement, which originated in the 1970s and '80s, is a mishmash of many different religious concepts and beliefs. It flowered in the fertile soil laid down by the new consciousness movements of the '60s, a period during which people had the courage to throw aside centuries of tradition and dogma, and start to define their own reality, and more specifically their own spirituality. Traditional religious authority became redundant, and in its place arose countless self-appointed New Age priests and gurus, ready to guide anyone prepared to listen (and pay) to their particular vision of spirituality, which usually involves a montage of psychology, spirituality, healing techniques, Eastern religious concepts, meditation, NLP, dowsing, personal development, ET/UFO beliefs, eschatology, shamanism, and money-making schemes. The list is as long as you like, although as the New Age movement matures, a series of particular dogmas is emerging and it is likely to eventually mature into a religion.
The central tenets of the New Age movement include the beliefs that:
- We create our own realities with our mind and attitudes.
- Love is the answer to all things.
- Everything and everyone emits certain energies which we can interact with, including people, spirits, animals, plants, rocks (crystals), planets and stars.
- We are all interconnected energetically with each other, with all of Nature and with the Universe. (Therefore as we change ourselves we change the world. Synchronicity rules!)
- Meditation, prayer or trance is important to connect to our deeper selves which is further connected to everything else.
- We are spiritual beings in a human body "vehicle."
- Death is only the end of our "vehicle." Our spirit is immortal.
- We are living in a special time of awakening. (2012 etc.)
- We are not alone in the universe and are visited by ETs and beings from other dimensions.
- The current patriarchal "System" is destructive and we are slaves, both physically and energetically, to a small group of greedy, controlling and manipulative individuals which some call The Illuminati and/or the Reptiles.
Personally, I think that many of the above are quite sane and beneficial, certainly better than most belief systems held by society and the consequences in our behaviour in adopting, usually unconsciously, those belief systems. However, like all beliefs, this list can and often is blindly adopted as dogma and/or used in service of the ego — consciously adopted as a means to the end of greater consciousness. It really depends who is believing them and how they are believing them.
If we confuse these types of belief with reality, then they become a set of dogmas that exclude rather than include. (True spirituality is always about inclusion because it is the path back to the awareness of unity with all things.) If we are egotistical, then these beliefs can be used to prop up the ego, creating a reality merely to serve its desires. If we are greedy or excessively materialistic, for example, we can justify an obsessive pursuit of material gain as the spiritual process of "creating our own reality" and getting what we deserve — we can act exactly like non-spiritual greedy men and women but with impunity because we are following a 'spiritual' formula. "100% responsibility for creating our reality" can also be used to justify having a closed heart when faced with the misfortune of others — it can be used to occlude compassion. And if we are excessively lustful, we can justify our conquests under the banner of 'love' or 'energetic balancing.' There are many such examples which show that beliefs can drafted into service by the ego for many different ends.
So like all sets of beliefs, these central tenets of the New Age Movement can and are used by the personality. 'How' we believe is actually more important than 'what' we believe. The beliefs themselves, therefore, are not a good indication of a person's spiritual evolution; they just give it a particular flavour. The real indication of spiritual evolution is how conscious we are in relation to how we use our particular spiritual beliefs. Again it comes down to consciousness: true spirituality is called "awakening" for a very good reason — most of us not only confuse beliefs with reality, but we are unconscious of how we use them to maintain the illusion of self.
Authentic spiritual growth comes from becoming aware how our beliefs serve the ego/personality function. It is the process of dismantling the ego because the ego is a structure of unconscious assumptions about ourselves, assumptions that lock us into a particular identity and away from awareness of our fluid integration with All-That-Is. In reality, we are indefinable and not as 'individual' as we believe, but a part of something much greater, and, as a result, any illusion of one particular discrete self that deserves this or that is counterproductive to realising our true identity. Authentic spirituality is about free-flowing awareness (rather than the focus of that awareness), and so we cannot be spiritual unless we dissolve our rigidity.
How do we do this? By practicing ever greater awareness in all areas, especially our beliefs and how we use them to construct reality and to prop up our ego. This commitment to awareness in all aspects of our lives automatically challenges the ego because the ego thrives on fantasy or false awareness. We must look to acknowledge ever more aspects in our concept of self until we become confident enough to let go of concepts of self altogether. This takes three qualities: an attention to detail; honesty and authenticity with ourselves; and acceptance of what we perceive, warts and all. (I could use the word 'love' instead of 'acceptance' but generally avoid using this term because it refers to many things that have nothing to do with the heart). The reason acceptance is important is because if we hate or disown aspects of ourselves, we enter into a power struggle with them and they become repressed and much harder to change. Acceptance/love dissolves the need for power over.
So focus, authenticity and acceptance/love become the main spiritual tools for transformation, and the antidote to unconsciousness and an obsession with the concept of power (as opposed to power itself). Generally speaking, the more obsessed we are by the concept of power, the more egotistical we are. And so much of the New Age is an obsession with the concept of power — 'I can heal this', 'My mind creates my reality', 'We have infinite power', 'Power vs Force'. And this is why so much of the New Age, although refreshingly open-minded, can be unloving, judgemental and egotistical.
Nowhere is the concept of power more prominent than in the area of reality creation and conspiracy.
Much of the New Age can be defined as a spiritualization of the ego, with the result that what we gain by becoming conscious of the reality making process is lost as we become unconscious of how we exercise this 'power' to support the structure of the self — the ego. By focusing on a new-found power over our reality and lives we can block the immersion into higher spiritual processes that often literally blow away our old self, opening us up to something that we previously could not even imagine (and therefore could never have consciously created). To grow in consciousness we often need to leap helplessly into the dark and have the humility to take what comes and integrate our experience into a new authentic self. And we cannot do this if we are too busy creating our own realities — defining what should happen and what we deserve. It is precisely those areas in our lives in which we have no control that usually offer us the greatest salvation, provided we are humble enough to let go to what we might perceive as chaos.
The other area in modern spirituality movements where the concept of power has reached unhealthy levels is modern conspiracy theory. Let me say straight off that conspiracy has absolutely nothing to do with spirituality; in fact, it is almost entirely counterproductive to spiritual growth because it is obsessed with the concept of power over. That is not to say that there is no place for conspiracy, only that there is no place for it in the area of spiritual growth. After all, examining these types of theory can have very important benefits and implications — knowing whether our governments have lied to us about 9-11 or whether there is a cabal of unimaginably wealthy men or reptiles running the world is of crucial importance to a society that wishes to remain free and democratic. But never confuse these ideas with spirituality; if we do, spiritual awareness will elude us as we become ever further entrenched in a cycle of fear, anger and us-them separation.
A good example of a New Age spokesperson who has melded spirituality with conspiracy is British conspiracist David Icke. Icke was originally a professional soccer goalkeeper who retired early due to arthritis and subsequently became a BBC sports anchorman before moving on to becoming a spokesman for the Green party. Politics, even green politics, left Icke cold and he started looking at more fundamental issues. It was at this point that he spontaneously underwent a spiritual awakening that blew away his old self and his conventional life. Perhaps one of the lowest points in Icke's life came when he was publicly humiliated on Britain's leading television chat show at that time — Wogan — in which Wogan himself mocked Icke which nationally branded him a lunatic.
Anyone else would have buckled under such a high level of ridicule, but Icke is an extraordinarily courageous man who stuck to his guns and pushed on regardless of what millions of others thought of him. Several books and many hundreds of lectures later, Icke is finding increasing acceptance for his beliefs, and the ridicule he was once subjected to has largely dissipated as his book sales soar and his lecture circuits are sold-out. In fact, Icke is now an icon of the New Age movement and his mix of conspiracy and spirituality have come to define the New Age itself for many people.
However, although Icke is a courageous man who has undoubtedly undergone some sort of spiritual awakening, his mixture of conspiracy and spirituality is fundamentally flawed because the conspiratorial framework has no room for inclusion and oneness; rather it separates a good 'us' from a bad 'them.' You can see the mutually exclusive nature of these two aspects as Icke, in his sequence of books, introduces us to terrifying baby-eating reptiles who are running the world and then urges us, in subsequent titles, to love these reptiles despite their inherently evil nature because they are just part of the mass illusion. What he has failed to grasp is that the authentic spiritual perspective does not look for nor can it see baby-eating anythings because it is entirely focused on healing the separation between "us and them" so that we may awaken to our innate oneness. This separation or dualism, which is the bed-rock of conspiracy theory, is entirely artificial, does not exist anywhere except the psychology of the mind that is perceiving it (so it is here that the real healing needs to happen).
Conspiracy strongly attracts those with prominent disowned parts of themselves (or shadows) — the people who are most split. In general society, people with that sort of disposition tend to project the darkness that they hate in themselves onto another representative group of people and so self-hatred can be mitigated to justified hatred of others. This is an entirely human process and is no different in those who identify with the spiritual movements: New Age conspiracists tend to be spiritual Neanderthals because they have done little work to integrate their shadow, but would rather project it out into the world onto reptiles, ETs and/or the Illuminati, in exactly the same way that the Nazis did it with the Jews, Westerners do it with immigrants, feminists do it with men, and Americans do it with Arabs.
So what we see in the world obviously depends on how integrated we are psychologically. We have different perspectives and goals, many of which are contradictory, because there are different levels of truth and consciousness which actually co-exist within us. (Some believe that they are related to the different energetic systems in the body — the so called "Chakra" system. Wilson also wrote about these different truths or circuits in Prometheus Rising.) However, we tend to have our favourite flavours of truth that reflect our predominant psychological states. If we tend focus on power and identity, for example, then spirituality gets distorted through this lens so that it becomes a power struggle between light and darkness, between God and the Devil. In this way, spirituality becomes a concept that reflects our ego structure, rather than a perspective in which we become more conscious and challenge that ego structure. In this case this type of spirituality can congeal into hateful and violent religions, fomenting the sort of fundamentalism that calls for "holy wars" and supports counterproductive "wars on terrorism."
The spiritual perspective is healing (or 'wholing') precisely because it reunites the separate warring factions of our concepts, and in so doing we eventually let go of our attachment to those concepts altogether because we have less ego invested in them. This letting go is not a process of becoming unconscious but rather one of stopping the ego's incessant identification (the ego lives vicariously through the process of identification). And paradoxically, if we over-conceptualise our letting go of attachment to conceptualisation, our ego is shunted from conceptualisation to conceptualisation of conceptualisation, and we can end up even more stuck. This is why so many spiritual paths try to keep the mind focused with a mantra, physical work, body postures, breathing etc., all to distract us from conceptualising the letting of concepts, which is a step backwards on the spiritual path.
Even though we may step backwards on occasion, however, it actually takes effort not to move forward into greater consciousness because we are resisting a natural flow: it is the nature of our basic awareness — the 'I am' — to become ever more conscious in all areas of our lives, to let go into greater acceptance of all things. Yes, we can change our lives and we can create our realities — manifestation works because the inner and outer worlds are intimately connected. But genuine spiritual seekers should not get distracted by trying to change things to support what the self believes will make it happy, for that self is actually the root cause of our unhappiness.
Jung wrote, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." Making the darkness conscious is not usually an easy process because it is resisted so strongly by the ego; in fact it can literally be hell. The process of becoming conscious, which is the essence of spirituality, is not a process of self-satisfaction or one of realizing our dreams or connecting to love and light. It is a process of letting go of our attachment to wanting those things in the first place, and in letting go that attachment we paradoxically welcome them into our lives. And if they don't come into our lives, we don't care. That is the spiritual process: it is a means to greater consciousness, but it does not dictate what we become conscious of.
So my ex-girlfriend probably still believes in reptiles ruling the world, an idea which integrates perfectly with her "light and dark," "good and bad" New Age concept of spirituality. But one day — and perhaps that day has already come — she will realize that Reptiles is just a word that represents a concept that blocks her from becoming whole — a concept that only shatters her reality because it excludes. We all have these concepts and it is surprisingly easy to see them at work in others, and surprisingly difficult to see them at work in ourselves. I only write about hers because I am no doubt unconscious of my own!
But we are blessed: for it is the very nature of consciousness to breathe the right amount of chaos and capriciousness into our lives so that our complacency in thinking we have "figured it all out" is ALWAYS challenged. No map can ever completely substitute for the territory it maps, and authentic spirituality is the process of first enlarging these maps (including ever more) and then getting rid of the maps altogether so that, from the spiritual perspective, we no longer conceptualise but maintain pure awareness — we awaken.