It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, “Who are we?”
I have always been obsessed with the Big Picture. It’s why my most valued possessions are the years of notes I’ve gathered on everything from physics, to psychology, to psilocybin. They are my flags and reminders as to why the world I live in looks and acts as it does—my own take on higher education.
This cerebral thrist has challenged and opened my mind, but I’ve spent just as much time searching for a narrative that could link these collected truths together—a vision that would unify rather than segregate the remarkable history of humanity, the scientific nature of reality, and our shared search for happiness, peace and meaning.
Such a narrative would not only be factually accurate, but usable—informing, inspiring and cultivating a sense of belonging in the world, without limiting our potential to change it for the better.
We are entering new territory as species. For the first time in history the deep past and vast present are instantly available to us, as the truths and tales of a million cultures and ages seep into one globally connected data pool. But unless we can create meaningful dialogues between the facts available to us, we are left with a shallow view of a very deep cosmos.
It’s time we discarded frail accounts that collapse the diversity of reality into one flat plane that is explained away in terms of the authors favourite part - whether the movement of atoms, the tides of culture, or the felt quality of experience. Trying to fully understand anything means pulling the rest of reality out with it. This isn’t a problem or oversight—it means we’re asking the right questions.
Without big pictures we are small people. They orient us to the universe, shedding light on the past and breaking open the future. But when these pictures exclude or inflate one of the many threads that bind life, they inhibit our sight, and conversely we hold tighter to what we can see.
This short-sightedness is not merely personal—it is cultural and biological, and it is fuelling a physical and mental unsustainability that drains human well-being as effectively as it does the biosphere.
We need appropriately inclusive responses, in theory and action. We need pathfinders with a vision and optimism bright enough to burn through an inherited myopia.
We need something holistic, empowering and unafraid.
The political theatre
To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth.
I first remember taking a more active interest in how the world works shortly after watching two passenger planes glide into the twin towers on September 11, 2001. I was only 14 at the time, but it got me thinking more intently about who was actually in control, how they maintained that control, and whether they deserved it.
Years later, after forays into left-wing politics and further-left ideologies, I found myself tumbling deeper down the rabbit hole, exploring anthropology, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and other fields that I felt addressed my core questions with more depth than the theatrical facade of politics.
For years I identified strongly with something unfortunately named “anarcho-primitivism.” This is an interpretation of history which identifies civilisation itself as responsible for the violence and inequality that has long plagued the supposedly civilised world. The proposed solution is to remove the hierarchies that define civilisation—ideas on how to do this vary from civilisation-is-already-collapsing to lets-give-it-a-nudge. The desired result is something resembling an egalitarian tribal society that would more closely resemble the world our hunter-gatherer genes expect to arrive and thrive within.
It was an alluring view for a discontented mind, and not without its insights, but I eventually grew dissatisfied with its explanatory power and moved on to new areas of enquiry, with encouragement from wiser friends who agreed that this anercoprimytevism did not sound at all healthy.
At some point I came to read a book called Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson. After initial resistance to the the books ideas, something clicked internally, and my world-view underwent a satisfying shift from social determinism to individual responsibility and self-transformation.
My attitude towards the Big Picture changed, and not long after—at 22 years old—I decided to start practising Vipassana meditation.
From the start of my contemplative career I was lucky enough to fast-track most of the timid Western Buddhist scene, and find a community of open and accomplished meditators who had no issue talking about states, stages, insights and awakenings. They talked in a language refreshingly free of spiritual obfuscations. They also had jobs, families, and seemed kind and knowledgeable. In short, I felt they were people I could trust and learn from.
But what really lit up my attention was that some of them openly claimed to be enlightened, and furthermore, that they had attained this through following basic practice instructions. After devouring everything I could find regarding the myths and truths of enlightenment, and what it had meant for those who had realised it, I wanted nothing else. The restlessness that had driven me to this point locked on to what felt like the ultimate goal, and I began to sit daily.
A month later, something very out of the ordinary happened.
Years have passed since this event, and I have had the pleasure and misfortune of encountering a variety of other spiritual experiences, ranging from total discontinuities in perception, to a constant dull pressure where the ‘third eye’ is supposedly located. Aside from the attention-grabbing “fireworks” of the spiritual landscape there have also been more subtle shifts that have permanently altered my experiential baseline, engendering a previously unimaginable sense of peace and contentment.
There have also been difficult and testing experiences: unexplainable bouts of fear and misery, periods of hollow anomie, and an ongoing struggle between the gravity of old habits and the emergence of a new awareness.
These highs and lows are the natural results of comprehending the most significant fact of experience—its lack of self, its absence of centre, or in Buddhist parlance, its emptiness. The more clearly we see this, the more freedom and peace we experience, because we are coming to see things as they actually are. Traditionally this process is known as awakening, enlightenment, satori, moksha, union with God, and a variety of other names.
Patriotism is not enough. But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.
The type of insight derived through a sincere inspection of one’s moment-to-moment reality does not, as some meditators imply, negate other areas of human knowledge. But it does offer something vital, something elementary, perhaps the most important thing.
After years of leaving the Big Picture alone to focus on contemplation I inevitably began to try and put things together again.
I knew through my own experience that meditation cultivated foundational insight into the workings of the mind, but remained silent when it came to the pervasive larger-scale socio-economic and technological dynamics that subsume us. Conversely, systems of thought that did recognise these material influences often downplayed or denied our rich inner experiences.
I tried to produce an answer to these omissions in a book that espoused a mix of evolutionary understanding, non-essentialist philosophy, deep ecology, self-awareness, and conscious parenting. I managed to pull together a first draft but gave up shortly afterwards, exhausted by task of trying relate a host of seemingly contradictory truths.
A couple of months after burying the book I chanced upon the work of Ken Wilber. He talked about integral theory—an attempt to differentiate, clarify, and most importantly integrate as much of humanity’s collective knowledge as possible. To do this, orienting generalisations are drawn from as many fields of human enquiry as possible—from philosophy to ecology to meditation—and integrated as a series of interlocking conclusions that leave nothing out. The resulting tapestry is not used to challenge the “truth” of other perspectives, but rather to criticise their partial nature—to highlight what they leave out.
Seeing the blueprint of a Big Picture that had room for states of consciousness alongside states of matter was a peak experience for me. Finally, here was a panorama through which art, psychology, science, culture and nature could ride on the same tide; a map with room for it all.
Discovering integral theory re-ignited my passion for the Big Picture, and for sharing it with others through writing and contemplation. Whilst many people are now receptive to the idea of meditation, it’s the mention of spirituality that still sends them running.
This uneasy relationship has lead to a growing movement in the West that seeks to extract the ‘technology’ of meditation from its spiritual and religious roots. The people behind these efforts are others like myself who have found immeasurable benefit in the practice of meditation, but lament its association with the problematic spiritual scene.
I sympathise with these efforts—many of the spiritual, self-development and New Age centres where people first encounter meditation are not pretty places. On a bad day you will find escapism, denial, otherworldly ontologies, New Age pseudo-science, magical thinking, pathological relativism, aversion to critical thought, regression, arrogance, abuse of authority, power politics, and a confused mass of individuals who speak, dress and behave “spiritual” instead of doing anything that might actually free them from the compulsion to adorn a “spiritual” identity.
It was the dark side of the otherwise colourful spiritual scene that made me want to write without using the term ‘spiritual’ at all. It is certainly possible, but I think the term can still be useful in three areas:
There are a variety of experiences that require us to talk about something as specifically out of the norm, as spiritual. They can also be talked about in terms of consciousness, but this often trivialises an event that can revolutionise a life in an instant.
Running parallel with these experiences, there is what we might call the spiritual perspective. This involves an intuition or glimpse of the inherent holiness (whole-y-ness) of existence, promptly contrasted with one’s sorry state within it. A sincere investigation in this direction will always be spiritual, as it calls into question the essential sense of separation that props up egoic consciousness.
From experience and perspective arise the thirst to go beyond, to transcend. The allure of transcendence is ultimately a mirage, but it’s often all we have to start with.
We could easily talk about these experiences, perspectives and urges without using the S word. But as a writer and communicator I still find spirituality unique in scope and association. Add in some phenomenological clarity, honest disclosure and a strong dose of critical thinking and I think you have something truly worthwhile.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter what terms we use. What does matter is that spirituality still functions as a vital gateway for millions of well-meaning people interested in positive change, and it’s not going anywhere. It is the magnetic north for those incurably disatisfied with the standard routine they have inherited from their peers.
For those people: the discontent, the restless, or the merely curious—beyond the hype and myth, there is something more.
1 Jan 2013