William Irwin Thompson is a brilliant writer and historian and teacher who speaks eloquently here about the spiritual movements of today — their promise and their shadow side — and the emergence of a new planetary culture.
He has written many books, including Passages About Earth, Darkness and Scattered Light, and At the Edge of History. His most recent books are Pacific Shift (Sierra Club Books) and Islands Out Of Time: A Memoir Of The Last Days Of Atlantis (Dial).
He has taught at M.I.T. and the University of Toronto and is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association, a contemplative educational community with branches in Colorado, New York City, and Bern, Switzerland.
Thompson was interviewed at Findhorn, the spiritual community in Scotland founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. The interview originally appeared in One Earth, which is published by the Findhorn Foundation (Findhorn Publications, The Park, Forres, Scotland IV 36 OTZ; subscriptions $12, surface; $17 airmail) and is reprinted with permission.
ONE EARTH: What do you see as the most important spiritual work of our time?
THOMPSON: I would see the spiritual work of our time as the elimination of religion, and that’s why it is perceived by the fundamentalists, perhaps quite sensitively and appropriately from one point of view, as threatening and irreligious and even as the anti-Christ in relation to the way the Christ has been incarnated in a pattern of culture called “church.” What the new age spirituality is trying to achieve is the sacralization of everyday life. Presumably the angels don’t go to church on Sunday.
To use Sri Aurobindo’s or Teilhard de Chardin’s language, we are talking about the divinization of matter or about bringing the supramental down to earth. In the modern world there has been a great divorce between work and prayer, and we have tended also to feel we were holy only when we were serious, to the point of being hypocritical, pretentious and pious. And we were relaxedly free, but would never want to admit it, when we could get out of church and our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and romp, but we felt there was something evil and pagan in romping.
When you read the Gospels, you find an amazing story of a very compelling, powerful character who shines through even the indirect narratives of his disciples. There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the cultural externalization of his prophetic mission or vision leads in the direction of religion — to religious rallies in football stadiums or a guy on a throne being carried through the Vatican.
If the second coming of Christ is to complete a mission that wasn’t just a once-upon-a-time-long-ago story that finished with the Incarnation, but is rather an ongoing process of intersection with history, presumably the second coming would of necessity have a kind of cleansing activity. It would say, “This is about cosmic life, about how the universe is supposed to be. It is not about creating religion.”
This is seen as a threat. Many times some of the great liberating forces for spirituality are profane, sometimes even coming out of the marketplace. Godspell, for instance, a contemporary rock opera of the Seventies, had power because of its combining of the sacred and the profane. In some of these new things coming in, you can see an energy of the profane touching society and liberating it. Society’s first response is to say it is sacrilegious. The Life of Brian, for instance, was a very religious show which basically pointed up all the nonsense we load onto religion — especially in the “It’s the Sandal” scene, that marvelous parody when everyone goes running off to worship the Sandal. That is a literal description of how cultures incarnate certain forms of spirituality, and it is a profoundly helpful assessment to say, “Hey guys, this isn’t the real message. We’re creating a system of idolatry.” But people don’t want to hear that, so church members got on TV and and ranted and raved about how The Life of Brian was a desecration of the life of Christ.
So the first quality of the spiritual work of our time is to reconsecrate daily life so that the split between the sacred and the profane, between the serious and the comic, is overcome. Part of the way to do that has been to go back to previous cultural patterns. So there is a fascination in places like Findhorn with pre-Christian Celtic mysteries. A lot of it just becomes a mirror opposite of the society as a whole.
Religion is a kind of spirituality that arose with the origins of civilization, around 3500 B.C. Civilization basically meant writing, standing armies, social hierarchy, accumulation of wealth and a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. Religion was therefore an attempt to compensate by affirming the opposite values. Where civilization meant the accumulation of wealth, the religions would emphasize simplicity or right livelihood or poverty. If civilization meant standing armies and violence, they would talk about peace and love. If it meant patriarchal dominance, they would talk about the prehistoric Great. Mother or Mary or Inanna. It was always a mirror opposite linked as an antidote to the poisons of civilization.
ONE EARTH: Is it just the mirror opposite or is it also pointing the way to the next stage?
THOMPSON: It points both forward and backward. You see, when you move out of the center to the margins, the turbulence at the edge will give you glimmerings of both past and future. A lot of times people confuse the future with the past. We talk about the “new age,” but eighty percent of it is filled with atavisms, really archaic stuff that is not futuristic but just the dredging up of all the old knowledge, of dowsing and palmistry and reflexology and acupuncture. Just look at the stuff some people are into at Findhorn. The only new age thing about these archaic systems of knowledge from previous cultures is that they’re getting broken down and digested into what will become the tissue and fabric of a new body. One hundred years down the line (maybe fifty because we’re moving faster now) we might begin to see something more futuristic, but right now most of the new age movement is into the past. It’s a reaction — and it’s reactionary — to technological society; and therefore it celebrates community instead of cities, agriculture and rural movements instead of high-tech spaceships and things of that sort.
ONE EARTH: What about the remaining twenty percent?
THOMPSON: They are foreshadowing glimmerings of some new possibilities. But I think the new possibilities can come about only when people have worked through and redeemed the old karmic patterns of the past, because if you don’t work through them they will just take possession of you in a new disguise later on.
For example, if you do something like kuhdalini yoga before going through some kind of psychoanalytic cleansing, and if you have a problem with your mother and a destructive pattern that hasn’ t been worked out, then God help you when you energize all that unconscious material through these intense yogic practices. You’ll just raise all that mud up into the stream of the conscious life. A friend of mine did this and became a kind of psychotic casualty. It’s very important to flush out the tanks, to work through the past, redeem the karma and come out the other end.
Communities often times attract people who have not resolved familial relationships. “This is my real family,” they’ll say, and then you’ll see in their language and behavior what “father” and “mother” mean to them. It’s very light and dark. There can be fearful projections of the unnourishing mother or the violent father. Community is for them a second chance to go back into intimate, nourishing and non-threatening situations and try to develop the soul in ways that were never fostered in the nuclear family. This means that the small communities are inevitably going to create a pattern that attracts strong women and weak men — men who have difficulty with individuation, who find the larger world very threatening, who see it as hostile, menacing and unspiritual. This means that the shadow side of community begins to be a suspicion of excellence and of the standards of the larger world, and the tendency to put up a protective wall so people’s sense of self-worth won’t be threatened; they know their poetry or weaving or dance or whatever is not going to make it in London, Paris or New York, but at least it will be affirmed in Findhorn or Chinook or Auroville.
ONE EARTH: How about the strong women? Why are they attracted to communities?
THOMPSON: Because it gives them something they haven’t had since 6500 BC. You see, in the neolithic culture, the woman, the Great Mother and matrilineal descent were the dominant institutions. With the coming of civilization in 3500 B.C. and the shift to patriarchy, what happened was a process of miniaturization: the neolithic culture became domesticated into the household, and the woman was demoted to housewife. This was reinforced by urbanization and then again later by industrialization. Woman has been in the situation where she’s stuck in the household; she can’t even go down to the river to beat her laundry on a rock and talk with other women — she’s got her own washer and dryer. So women adore community because it gives them association with other people, ideas, culture, crafts and all the rest of it. Wherever you look — at Chinook, at Findhorn, from one end of the world to the other — you’ll see women really prospering in community. Men have a tougher time of it. They come and go and come and go and have all kinds of ambivalence.
ONE EARTH: To go back to religion. . . .
THOMPSON: Religion is both an antidote and a prophetic indicator of a new change, and once we have gotten rid of the psychic baggage and unredeemed karma from thousands of years of history, we will be really open for something new. We’re probably not open for just how normal it’s going to be. A lot of people want to be initiated into some really sexy cosmic mysteries — flying saucers, cosmic bases — so they’re all set up for the future. They get off on being some kind of elect. It’s a challenge not to be something special, to lose charisma and be just folks. Findhorn has come through the end of its charismatic period pretty well. I don’t know that Auroville has done so well. Auroville was generating an enormous glamor that the Mother [the spiritual leader of Auroville, a religious community in India] would not die, that she was reversing the aging process in her cells and was going to materialize a new celestial body. That’s a heavy trip. if you look at the early myths of Auroville and Findhorn, they’re so glamorous and intoxicating that the people attracted by them would have great difficulty with the message that the next step is just the revelation of cosmic life. Although cosmic life is definitely a lot more exciting than parochial life, of course.
ONE EARTH: Could you say more about the twenty percent in the new age movement which is giving us some glimmerings of the future?
THOMPSON: Looking out the window here at the Findhorn garden, I think it was certainly a divine revelation to make the garden a central symbol. Historically, it goes back to the neolithic culture before civilization, so it redeems women’s mysteries and reintroduces them into a decaying patriarchy. Even though Peter became the worker, nevertheless behind him as the source of revelation were Dorothy and Eileen. The pattern they set up was historically important in that it created a redemption of the past, but it was also prophetically important in the sense that a garden is like an ecological earth mass, a symbol of unity in diversity. We now know that it is scientifically disastrous to eliminate diversity and to plant all Kansas with a monocrop of wheat; after fifty years of quick return it will be a desert. So we can’t continue that way. Ecology works by energizing differences rather than by eliminating them.
The Findhorn garden made a new dialogue possible between myth and science. By allowing the garden to become a religious symbol for what animism had to say about reconsecrating nature, it helped instruct science into new ways of doing things. It’s no accident that I have been able to bring an ecologist like John Todd here to Findhorn, and that other people like Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis are very much interested in the relationship between science and the gardening ecology myth. Gaia, as a conceptualization of a mythic perception, deals with both points of view, animism and science.
Animism is actually a way of understanding the chain of being, the interpenetrating presence of one life form in another. If you’re an illiterate peasant in eighteenth-century Ireland walking through the fields and looking down at the leaf mold, you’ll imagine the fairies and little people twinkling in the decaying leaves and say that the elementals are the foundation of life. If you’re a twentieth-century Lynn Margulis, you’ll look at the same thing and say, “Yes, there is an elemental life here that we have to register, but the physical bodies of the elementals are not little eighteenth-century people in caps and cobbler’s shoes with silver buckles — they’re actually bacteria.”
In visionary form, the elementals would always take on a form that was half human and half a-human — with human eyes but leafy ears, for example. In a transmission kind of experience your perception of an angel or elemental is a negotiated reality; it’s a form of currency or exchange set up between you and “the other” so the two beings can fuse. It’s as if the elemental is saying, “For the sake of this conversation I am going to appear to you in this form. But take it as a system of metaphors. I have leafy ears because I participate in the vegetable kingdom. I have human eyes because I have a consciousness and can move in you and through you. I use English and language as communication, but actually neither you nor I are thinking in English when we’re talking. Thinking in English is you translating into your human forms of communication what you are perceiving in this other kind of daimonic level of consciousness, which is definitely not English.”
Animism and science have an enormous future together. Some philosophers are now talking about myth and science as parallel systems of narrative, and even in the university culture there is a convergence of myth and science. That is definitely the wave of the future, and Findhorn helped make it possible. Myth and science are both cosmological pictures: they enable you to relate to the universe rather than just working in a job from nine to five.
We talk about the “new age,” but eighty percent of it is filled with atavisms, really archaic stuff that is not futuristic but just the dredging up of all the old knowledge, of dowsing and palmistry and reflexology and acupuncture.
ONE EARTH: Could you talk a bit about spiritual discrimination? As we explore both the mirror side of the current culture and look ahead to the future, there seems to be a lot of “stuff” around.
THOMPSON: There sure is. That’s kind of natural. At the time of Christianity there was a lot of “stuff” around too. It’s like the abundance of the seed. There are always a million more seeds than you really need to create a particular plant. That’s the way nature works. Presumably it enhances the gene pool and gives a greater source of innovation. Novelty can’t come from a restricted source; you need a wide resource to draw off that has randomness, chance and openness almost to the levels of chaos, and from that, new combinations can come. If the system is closed, then it’s a machine and not a living system.
Look at some of the cultural exchanges that have occurred. When we invaded the Middle East in the Crusades, for example, no one knew what was going on. We thought we were conquering the Holy Land and eliminating the infidel, and the Moslems thought we were a menace to Islam; but what happened was that through our invasion routes there was a re-infection back of all the Islamic science, algebra, the astrolabe, navigational instruments and the lost Platonic dialogues. What came out of that was the Renaissance. And Renaissance Europe is not medieval Europe, nor is it medieval Islam; it’s a whole new culture.
Now we’re in a period of planetization where America fights Japan and we get an exchange.of opposites — Toyota takes over the automobile business and Zen monasteries appear in California. Thanks to the communist Chinese the Tibetans move out and the whole Tibetan movement into America takes place. The first response of the Americans is cultural xeroxing, which is to say, “I know I’m holy if I wear a turban or shave my head or look Japanese — if I xerox the culture in some way.” So you see thousands of Americans trying to take on the whole external container of Oriental culture as a way of escaping their own culture. It happens in other Western countries as well, of course: the English do it with the Middle East, they take on Islamic names or become Sufis; and there are groups in Germany who could be twelfth-century mullahs.
That’s the first wave — all these people performing little religious fantasies of holiness. Then that gets broken down as a process of digestion occurs, and finally the inner essence of the religion is absorbed and it turns into something new. Every time Buddhism, for example, has moved into a new culture, it has changed. So Buddhism in Tibet is quite different from Buddhism in India, which is different from Buddhism in China or Japan. Buddhism in America is going through a huge crisis, basically having to do with money, sex and power, all fairly dominant themes in American culture. That will wear out and through, and a new form of Buddhism will emerge which will be American Buddhism. I imagine it will be very simple, a kind of Shaker or Quaker Buddhism.
So the first response as we digest these religions is to try to reconstitute them. The gurus come to America and try to become Maharajahs and set up palaces for themselves as well, but they’re working on karmic dreams that relate to India. Any of the gurus who just sets up a pattern of “Admire me; I’m special” is very regressive. But we have to work through all these archaic patterns before we reach a point of karmic redemption and are set for something new. Human beings simply don’t move very fast. They have to go through long processes of digestion and breaking things down before they go through transformation.
We’re still in the process of planetary digestion. Civilizations are being broken down. Part of the role of America, its esoteric purpose, is actually to “deconstruct” all the world’s cultures, to put a McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee in Paris and Disneyland in Tokyo. Otherwise these cultures would have such a maniacal hold — the provincialism of the French or the isolationism of the Japanese is so intense — that they would be totally hermetically sealed and no global culture would ever emerge. Now global culture is not American culture. American culture is just a transitional enzyme that is breaking down the molecules which are the world’s civilizations and the traditional cultures of Europe or Islam or Japan. I don’t think the Pacific Basin culture in the twenty-first century is going to be specifically American. The relationship between Japan and California is perhaps the most prophetically advanced dynamic involvement in this new culture.
ONE EARTH: What is that relationship?
THOMPSON: It’s moving into the next cultural level. The old one of Europe was industrial technology, the Protestant ethic and materialistic science. The new one is electronics, information, pure data and maps of consciousness from Buddhism. It’s a movement from prayer, obedience and ritual to meditation. It’s also a reaffirmation and rediscovery of the body. Everybody in California is jogging and meditating and playing with a personal computer. Not so in Switzerland, you know. In California and Japan many more people have just jumped into the next culture.
ONE EARTH: There was also the human potential movement, initiated in California.
THOMPSON: You know, the hidden guy behind all that is Michael Murphy. He was part of the whole East-West dialogue of bringing Western psychology and Eastern religions together. He spent eighteen months with the Mother at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, studied world religions at Stanford, created Esalen in the Fifties and was part of Esalen’s impact on the.world in the Sixties. He went into the jogging and physical fitness thing in the Seventies, and then went on to create the whole one-man campaign between the United States and the Soviet Union. He is a force for the good not to be underestimated.
ONE EARTH: He’s also researching the body, isn’t he? He’s written those two novels about it, An End to Ordinary History and Jacob Atabet.
THOMPSON: Yes. He’s basically inspired by the Mother’s project about cellular evolution. I tend to think these are metaphors that are getting concretized too soon. I think the Mother was intuiting something that’s down the line. When you expand your consciousness to be more aware of the past and future as simultaneously present, it’s very easy in terms of ordinary ego location to lose your focus of attention on where you are in history. In some ways that’s correct because if you really understand this moment of history then you see what the past is doing and how the future is impregnating the present, so that is a process of illumination. But if you get so focused on the future, as the Mother did, that you start making prophecies — well, when prophets start making specific predictions, look out; they’re usually wrong.
I tend to be suspicious of all the literalism of the Mother, but I think her intuition was on. She was a very powerful woman. I met her, and she was no charlatan. She was caught in a tremendous contradiction though, because she said, “We are not creating a religion,” and yet she went around in flowing robes and acted precisely like a priestess, and everybody revered her and said, “Mother says this, and Mother says that.”
This pattern of followership is really so detrimental. Rudolph Steiner, for instance, was an amazingly creative and innovative fellow in every field of knowledge you can think of, but the followership pattern that has been put around him is just life-denying, asphyxiating. I think Findhorn has saved itself a lot of trouble by not being so dependent, by being able to survive Peter’s leaving and by promoting Eileen to elder statesperson, by not having really hard leadership.
It pays the price for it sometimes in that Findhorn will wobble like a record not quite in its groove. People will experiment with how far they can get away from a central vision enunciated by their visionaries, Dorothy or Eileen or David Spangler. But that’s a necessary sort of adolescent phenomenon; you have to define yourself independently of your parents if you’re going to have your own destiny. I think Findhorn’s done pretty well in that sense.
The authority problem is difficult because the only way you can have equality is to achieve a certain kind of similar energy level. If, for example, you want to study the guitar, you’ve got to find a master of the guitar. In the hippie movement, when they said they didn’t want professors anymore, that they were just going to have group sharing, what they did was lower the energy level to the least common denominator so anybody with knowledge therefore threatened the state of unanimity which was achieved through mediocrity rather than through excellence. However, if excellence is institutionalized into a political form of repression as a theocracy, one also has to suspect it. So one needs to keep authority apart from power. For instance, David Spangler had a lot of authority at Findhorn but he didn’t have any particular power. I think that’s a healthy relationship. And he left because he was being put into a position of high priest, of leader and followers, that was tremendously reactionary. So he left, and I think that’s a healthy thing.
The small communities are inevitably going to create a pattern that attracts strong women and weak men — men who have difficulty with individuation, who find the larger world very threatening, who see it as hostile, menacing and unspiritual. This means that the shadow side of community begins to be a suspicion of excellence and of the standards of the larger world.
ONE EARTH: Anything more on spiritual discrimination?
THOMPSON: As far as the last word goes, people are not going to get discrimination in advance of their timing. You just almost have to slosh through all the experience and make a lot of errors. It’s easy to look back at certain adolescent patterns and with 20/20 hindsight see what was benign and what was malignant. But I think there are certain kinds of acid tests you can apply.
For instance, if the group’s collective identity is achieved through suppressing your individual identity, then you should begin to suspect it is psychically a vampire and negative. If the group tends to uniformity rather than universality, then you should suspect it. If the group has an extremely glamorous leader who is the enunciator of the vision and who is revered and admired an awful lot, you should suspect you are in a cult and are being locked into patterns of followership. If a group feeds off fear — if, for example, it holds itself together by generating a fear of the end of the world and by saying, “Stay with us because everybody’s going to be destroyed but we’re the elect; flying saucers are going to pick us up and our leader is an extra-terrestrial in a human body who will cart us off to a safe place” — then suspect that you’re in a cult.
If the group generates hate, then suspect it. The basic teaching of the New Testament is that by their fruits you shall know them. When you watch some of the fundamentalist ministers on televison, you will notice that their body language is tight and con‘ stricted, that they’re dividing neighbor against neighbor, that their basic thing is “hate the other person.” “Now I’m really going to disturb you,” they will say. “You think it is just rock music that is evil, but it’s gospel music too, and those people who think they’re Christians aren’t.” Long ago they divided Jew against Christian and Episcopalian against Fundamentalist, and suddenly half the audience feels, “Gee, if I like gospel music I’ve fallen into the hands of Satan.” They’re generating hate, hostility and seeds of violence.
So if a group generates hate or fear, violence, suspicion, or any of the really negative and sinful emotions, then suspect it. If it generates love and trust, commitment and loyalty and faith and all those other qualities of joyous human sharing, then you can begin to relax. And if it can tolerate criticism and if the forms of leadership are open to dialogue, then you can relax even more.