The real tragedy of our time lies not so much in the unprecedented external events themselves as in the unprecedented ethical destitution and spiritual infirmity which they glaringly reveal.
Our dominant worldview still prefers to believe in the fantasy that we are a living species within a non-living universe, and that we can go about as ‘business as usual’ with a worldly indifference. This is the myth that the solid, material world is ‘out there’ and we are just separate bodies wondering around within it. And so, we put everything at a distance from us, believing that there is us and then there is the external world. This belief system has been responsible for humanity feeling it has the right, or even duty, to conquer and control the world around us. Yet in doing so we have orphaned ourselves not only from our own surroundings – from our life environments – but also from our own sense of self. We have alienated ourselves and become a discontented species. We have created and cultivated for ourselves a view of the world that is dry and barren – like rusting metal in a wasteland. A world of separate objects may have been reassuring for us, yet in the long term it is not life-affirming. We only have to take a look at the world today to see that things are not going well.
There is no doubt that we are living in times of complexity, uncertainty, and change. We are also in an age of extreme contradictions where opposing trends appear to exist side by side. It is where individuals take greater care of their bodies and are obsessed by diet and health fads, while obesity is an epidemic. We live amidst a paradoxical combination of playfulness and fear, of fun and anxiety, of euphoria and unease. Here is a relevant quote on this matter:
‘A week without a world sensation hardly exists. Our newspapers give us in a single issue what was once the history of a whole month. Their pages dismay and distract us with reports of new crises that follow each other rhythmically; they tense and strain our nerves with pictures of depressed markets or oppressed mankind; they narrow our eyes with stories of swift changes. The situation is already dramatic enough and would be fantastic were it not so tragic too…The real tragedy of our time lies not so much in the unprecedented external events themselves as in the unprecedented ethical destitution and spiritual infirmity which they glaringly reveal.’
This quote adequately describes our current situation and yet it was published in 1952. The author – Paul Brunton – goes on to say that ‘When a materialistic civilization becomes outwardly impressive but remains inwardly impoverished, when political relations become an elaborate façade for hiding the spiritually empty rooms behind them, menacing problems are sure to appear on every side.’ Brunton remains as starkly correct in his analysis for today as it was for his own time. The result is that ‘menacing problems’ are indeed appearing on every side: political corruption and ineptitude; economic manipulations; national aggression and politically-motivated warfare; refugee crises; human torture and suffering; capitalist greed; corporate corruption; aggravated social unrest; religious and moral intolerance; increased displays of psychopathic behaviour (private individuals and authority figures); blatant propaganda; environmental degradation; ecological ignorance; spiritual destitution, and the rest.
In a period of increased instability – of horror, terror and suffering – it is no surprise that despairing energies encircle the world. The result is that many people have become ‘spiritually numbed’ by what they see occurring in the world, and feel that only a similar harsh, physical response can be effective. And yet in others the awareness of an inner lack has become more acute, and they sense that some inner satisfaction is necessary. The words ‘mystical’ and ‘spiritual’ remain vague and ethereal. People have always depended on language to bring guidance and nourishment. Yet in this domain, words are but skeletal traces of the real flesh. The crisis of our times has clarified much for the few whilst confusing almost everything for the many. There is nowhere to turn in public for finding the truth – virtually nothing to believe in for the present and too much uncertainty for the future. The result of this is that many people have doubts that they don’t know how to deal with, and these are building up within their minds like a pathological infection, obscuring their vision and sanity.
Those people whose metaphysical grounding has been replaced by a materialistic one will never perceive the truth inherent in our potential for internal, spiritual development. Yet although they do not consider these truths, it does not remove them from their sphere of operation. It is a sign of our times that so many people are preoccupied with the external circumstances of their lives that they neglect, or do not even sense, their higher longing. There is a great deal of compensation for this lack through ‘quick fix’ guruism; that is, costly paid retreats, so-called spiritual counselling, and ‘life coaching’ mentorship. Yet these are like fast-food remedies for a deeper hunger. The real struggle today is not that which we see in the media – cultural clashes, voiced opinions, and political oppositions – but rather it is between the material perspective on life and that of the inner, spiritual dimension.
Our cultures and societies are in disequilibrium because they seek to be governed by artificially constructed laws that ignore the timeless wisdom of the ancient understanding. Our societies do not take into account human purpose and the meaning of our existence. They lead us to live by working, to enjoy through diversions, and to eventually die with debt and taxes. It is clear that the world is protected by the personal interests of power. There is no fairness or equity in this lopsided arrangement. Conferences of peace are based on compromise and not compassion. Trade is based on strength rather than collaboration. And power and might still rules the waves (from airwaves to space orbit). Power and politics has split apart; power has now shifted into an extraterritorial space that is beyond boundaries, nations, laws, visibility, and accountability. The real powers that run our world are now invisible, intangible, and almost unknown were it not at the same time so pervasive and dangerous
Today’s so-called modern cultures are increasingly fragmented, or like liquid streams, that can no longer be accurately identified or navigated by the old signs, symbols, and meanings. Modern life has, to some degree, started to dissolve in order to re-assemble. Likewise, personal power is finding its new space, within each person and through their networks. The individual is reassembling their own sense of power too. We have entered a period of an uncertain assemblage where social forms are dissolving faster than new ones can replace them. A feature of our current times is that the new ways of thinking and behaviour have not yet fully materialized into tangible, long-term frames of reference. That is, they have not yet had sufficient time to be able to form or hold their shape. The present, however, only has a short shelf-life.
Our relationships are now more fluid than ever, forming through connections, networks, and distances, rather than only through our localized cultures or local acquaintances. One consequence of this is that our personal lives are in danger of becoming now less about actual experience and more about the data we leave as trails behind us. We have entered another struggle – another social fray – where we battle between the transparency of our private and public lives.
We parade our private life in public – our photos, our song choices, favourite videos, new romantic engagements, marriage announcements, and all the rest – and yet our deep sense of what we can call our true self gets covered over as if we fear what others may see. We willingly make our private lives public, yet we shy away from exposing, or even acknowledging, our true life – our quiet, inner voice that whispers to us in the dark (A voice in the dark whispered to me saying ‘There is no such thing as a voice whispering in the dark.’)
Our joy of attention, of being noticed, is offset (or bought out) at the expense of personal disclosure. We parade what we consider to be our ‘selves’ because we now have a friend-littered platform on which to perform. We feel connected upon one level, yet can we sustain this sense of human connectivity at a more fundamental, essential level? I myself am not immune from this situation. I have an online social network where I share news on my life, and photos from my travels. The question here – and this is the question in all matters – is to strike the balance between sharing and over-exposure; between genuine joy and the need for attention. In some ways, we can see a parallel with the religious sense of confession.
We have lived for centuries with the medieval sense of confession; that is, I refer to the intimate, confidential whisper to the priest (rather than the tortured confession ripped out of us). Now we are treated to public confessions bordering on self—advertising. From the blogs, social media posts, to videos that display an exhibitionism once frowned on by most cultures. Secrecy – the secret self – is now seen as something anti-social. ‘What, you don’t want to tell me your age, or who you were dating last night?’ Schoolchildren are now more likely to be bullied online than at school. And it is not only the kids who suffer from online bullying, or the ‘trolls’ as they are also referred to. From celebrities to everyday folk, we are all susceptible to the cyber molestation and inhumane treatment that these modern times make available. At the same time, we should recognize that the online platform – the Internet, the world wide web – doesn’t steal our humanity, it reflects it. This medium doesn’t so much get inside us as it shows what’s inside of us.
In short, we need to change what’s inside of us if we wish to see a better future. Our minds – our thinking and consciousness – needs to change, otherwise things will stay the same. Modern thinking patterns have given us warfare on a global scale as well as genocide – the Holocaust and the systematic torture and ‘rational’ murder, from concentration camps to tyrannical ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Our technologies are now being utilized for social sorting, surveillance, cultural conditioning, and a vast range of practices that promote willing servitude. The real site of freedom can only be within us – our inner self – and it is to this we must turn. As is now quite clear, our external world is indeed amidst a series of profound crises. To put it another way, we are approaching a collective species near-death experience. And yet knowing all this, I continue to remain positive about our human future.
If we have a future that is the same as now, or worse, then it is not a future – it is a prolonged uncomfortable continuation of the old, dysfunctional ways. And yet all human history has been about change and transition. In each epoch there have been moments of discomfort and disruption – of course, some epochs more so than others. Ours is also a time of flux, flow, and flexibility. It is also a time for making crucial choices as individuals, families, communities, and societies – in short, as human beings. It is an important time for managing our psychological, emotional, and physical states. We may be uncertain about the future, yet we have the technologies to radically transform our age into something unprecedented. We have both external technologies as well as what I call ‘technologies of the soul.’ What we are, we transmit to others. If we display basic ‘animalistic’ urges and behaviour then this is what we share with others and the world around us. It is now time to be both sensible and soul-ful.
Let us remember that any society or civilization that does not recognize the human as a spiritual being will fall short in its accomplishments. Our aim is not to fall short – not in the long run, at least. Yet recognition of the human as a spiritual being will not come from the world, and definitely not from our social-cultural-political institutions first. It will first only come from the individual. And it is from here that the genuine change must be nurtured.
The self in modern life is about recognizing this choice, and to act upon it. It will not be easy, for all the socio-political and technological obstacles mentioned above. And yet it must be a force of unwavering inner commitment and genuine self-trust. We must choose where we wish to be, internally. We must choose our freedom from within.