The Findhorn community in northern Scotland is usually described mythically — 40-pound cabbages in otherwise barren soil, communion with Pan and the nature spirits, and in the recent movie, My Dinner with Andre, as a center of light during the coming darkness.
When David Spangler arrived at Findhorn in 1970, he found that fantastic tales weren’t the whole story. “Findhorn was always primarily a working community,” he says. “It wasn’t started around specific religious or spiritual teachings. It emerged out of action.”
Spangler was co-director of Findhorn for three years, during which time it expanded from 24 to 170 members and became a major center for spiritual studies. Instead of waiting expectantly for the thunderous arrival of a new age, the community learned to bring about change on a personal level. People who came looking for exotic teachings found an almost suburban-looking community knee-deep in the practical. “The whole community,” Spangler says, “became one giant schoolroom, learning the skills of community building, not just physical skills but how to communicate with each other, how to empower each other in spite of and embracing all the many differences between members. This was Findhorn’s primary yoga.”
This work is very much his own. Since the age of 21, Spangler, now 36, has been lecturing on spiritual and community growth and other topics. He doesn’t enjoy the label of spiritual teacher, and calls his work that of an educator. “True education,” he believes, “is freeing . . . it assists an individual to realize and express his wholeness.” In addition to his lectures and workshops, Spangler teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, designing courses about spiritual transformation, community development and politics. He works closely with the Lorian Association, a group he helped found, which creates educational programs focusing on spiritual growth.
Born in Ohio, Spangler spent most of his childhood in Morocco. He returned to the U.S. at the age of 12, lived in Massachusetts, and studied genetics at Arizona State University. Much of his work has been inspired by information from “upstairs,” encounters with non-physical beings which he’s had since childhood, although these have become less frequent as he’s integrated the teachings and learned to function without their guidance. “Having been born with this ability,” he says, “I can claim no particular merit for it; it is simply part of my life. . . . though having it has meant needing to learn how to live with it and use it properly.” He presents this material, along with his own, in his books: Revelation: The Birth of a New Age, The Laws of Manifestation, Reflections on the Christ, Towards a Planetary Vision, The Little Church, New Age Rhythms, Links with Space, and Festivals in the New Age.
I interviewed him at Wake Forest University, where he was lecturing to the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship. Although I felt put off by much of the new age hoopla at the conference, Spangler helped put me at ease. When he spoke of the new age he emphasized our ability to creatively bring about such a change. “Instead of drawing back from the world in search of spiritual peace and oneness,” he writes, “one breathes through action his own inner peace back into the world.”
In another essay he writes, “There is no new age. There is only a need to recreate, rethink, refeel, reperceive, renew, reconceive and give rebirth to an ongoing process of planetary life and growth. There is one age, filled with many forms that change and one essence that does not.”
We met after breakfast in the college cafeteria. The conversation was warm, his words clear and thoughtful. He seemed very much at peace, his tone more playful than pretentious. He nurtures this playfulness. “I’m a big kid,” he said. “There’s something about our inner child that doesn’t take itself too seriously, at least mine doesn’t. . . . Something like a spiritual quest is meaningless for it.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: What are your thoughts about the meaning of the new age?
SPANGLER: The new age for me is a very great presence. I use the word presence because it has a more organic, personal feel to it than “force” or “energy.” It is a great presence engaging with our world at this moment in history with the result that something further, maybe new in some of its aspects and not so new in others, is taking place. You can look at it from the level of national and international relations or technological progress or consciousness-raising — all the movements for a more harmonious and peaceful world. These are human responses to the need to take a further step.
SUN: Where will this further step take us?
SPANGLER: Closer together as members of a species and closer to the world around us. This is something more than just an ecological step. We don’t suddenly become more conserving or more nature-oriented, but instead the spirit of the world becomes more real to us and we become more accountable to it. Like so many shifts, it contains the elements of what has gone before and yet synthesizes them in a new way. We could say that some elements of this step have been prefigured by the Native American Indian culture, and traditional cultures in general. In medieval society the view was more organic and wholistic, before the rise of nation-states as we know them. It’s also prefigured by certain technological expertise that we’ve developed. It’s prefigured by a lot of things, and yet it’s none of those things in themselves. Imagine a compassionate and world-sensitive culture that nurtures the growth of each individual and of the collective, that has a solid technological base but is not ruled by its technology — that to me is what’s trying to emerge.
Love is more than just an emotion from the heart. It is clear thinking. It is the right use of the intellect. It is playfulness. It is humor. It is detachment. It is being glad to be a human being upon the Earth in this moment of history.
SUN: What responsibility does an individual have to bring about this shift?
SPANGLER: That depends on where the individual is in his or her life. I would ask myself the question, “If I were a citizen of a new culture what would this culture be like?” And then I would ask myself, “If I were a citizen of that culture, for what would I be accountable? What would my rights and privileges and duties as a citizen be? How would I be living my life?”
I can give you an example from when I first went to Findhorn. There were elements in what started Findhorn of a survivalist nature — not like the conservative political elements in this country who do it with guns — but in the early days, before I went there, Findhorn thought of itself as a center being created to survive an ultimate planetary holocaust. After it was finished, Findhorn, and other survival centers, would be able to carry on and build a new world. But gradually that idea became less and less in the forefront. When I arrived it was still there but wasn’t being emphasized as much. One day we got a letter from a group in Australia — a group that was where Findhorn was maybe 15 years earlier in world view. This group was saying that the holocaust was about to come and that they needed to stockpile food, make contact with U.F.O.’s and do a whole number of things in order to survive.
We had a meeting about the letter because it triggered something for Peter [Peter Caddy, a founder of Findhorn]. He was wondering how to respond to a number of letters like that which we got. He wanted to have some policy. To me the new age has always been here. It’s not a thing in history but a spirit that can work through history when we allow it to. So I shared that perspective and we got to talking about it. Findhorn policy, we decided, was that the new age is here now. So the responsibility of a member of the community was to say, “The new age is here, now what do I do?” It was like playing a game of let’s pretend. If the new age was here now, what would I be doing, right where I am? How would my life be different? That unleashed a tremendous amount of creativity. All the energy that had been tied up in waiting for something to happen became focused on what was needed to be done right at this moment that would express in substance the values of the new age that we honor. That’s a long way of answering your question, but that’s what I see as the responsibility of the individual — to say, “If the new age was here now, what would I be doing differently? How do I give flesh to the values I honor?” If a lot of us begin doing that then, lo and behold, the new age actually is here.
We are the authors of whatever this new emerging society will be. One of the challenges is that we can become lost in the bigger picture, what we would like society as a whole to be. But ultimately society emerges out of all of our decisions, how we order, organize and conduct our environment. This game of pretending that the new culture is here now and trying to act accordingly, requires a dual vision. The first part is seeing what little steps I can take in my immediate environment and then in what way those little steps align with the larger global vision.
SUN: Ram Dass has made the comment that the new age movement is becoming like a middle-class boutique. Does that seem fair to you?
SPANGLER: Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that. I’ll tell you another story. When I was eight years old I joined the Cub Scouts. I was living in Morocco at the time. We didn’t have den leaders, we had den mothers, and as a result most of our Cub Scout skills were things like sewing and knitting.
One day we had a baseball game. One of the rules was that any Cub Scout that made it to third base got a Coke. Well, I didn’t know how to play baseball. The rules were very funny to me. I knew the mechanics of it, you hit the ball and then you run, but that was about it. Somehow I made it to third base. I immediately trotted off the field to get my Coke. The coach and my parents and the crowd were yelling “Get back on the field, run home!” But nothing anyone could tell me was getting me back on to that diamond. I wanted my Coke.
That’s what happens to many people in the new age. There are certain immediate goals the idea triggers for them, like cessation of suffering, of joy, or abundance. These fall into the established images of the American dream. People hit third base and instead of going all the way, going back home in a sense into something deeper, they head off for their Coke.
SUN: Do people’s perceptions of you as a spiritual teacher get in the way of your ability to communicate with them.
SPANGLER: Sometimes. I try to get around that in a number of ways. Humor is one. I honestly don’t think of myself as a spiritual teacher, but it’s an image I’ll work with if it seems appropriate to the situation. In order to accomplish something I will borrow on the authority the image carries. More often than not I find images like that a great hindrance because they carry with them elements of glamour, and certain expectations that don’t match the reality, nor should they match the reality.
SUN: What does the Christ mean to you?
SPANGLER: In a very personal way, I look upon Christ as a source I turn to. I hesitate to say it’s my source. God is my source. The Christ is a shining presence of love and wisdom and light to which I look. Publicly, I avoid an overly Christianized expression, mainly because that energy is truly universal. I don’t relate much to what is popularly conceived of as Christ in the Christian religion, which sometimes becomes far too narrow an image to embody the universality of the presence. When someone asks whether I’m a Christian I have trouble answering. In my own mind I feel that I am, but I don’t subscribe to a lot of the Christian decrees and doctrines of the churches. So in the eyes of some churches, at least, I am not a Christian. Spiritually, what the Christ represents for me stands at the center of all that I’m about.
SUN: You’ve spoken of Jesus as someone able to incarnate divinity, and said we all can do that. What does incarnating divinity mean to you?
SPANGLER: Divinity comes in so many shapes, sizes, and forms. I love the Buddhist story of how many incarnations Buddha had as a road, a bridge, a dog, or a rabbit. Divinity can be in so many forms that to have one image for its incarnation is not to do it justice.
Contact with divinity always helps a person to transcend their personal selfhood. Not necessarily in a self-sacrificial way — divinity can also be very honoring and nurturing of the self as we experience it in everyday life. But it doesn’t see the self as the whole reality. It is not self-referencing in that way. It doesn’t derive all meaning from the personal self. It expands it and gives it a larger perspective, and says, “You are part of a larger whole.” So that to be a full self, you need to act in reference to the larger whole of which you are also a part.
I’m a big kid. I feel that in some ways the meeting place of our humanness and our divinity lies in our capacity to play.
SUN: When you find yourself stuck in loneliness or depression, how do you deal with it?
SPANGLER: Our approach to questions like that draws a lot on our current medical paradigm, which is crisis oriented, so that when something happens I reach for my first-aid kit. But there’s a shifting now into a more preventive paradigm where we begin building into our health care system, both personally and collectively, things that give us strength when we actually do have a crisis. Most crises are preventable. If I’m lonely or depressed, it isn’t something that has just sprung out of nowhere, especially not loneliness. It is the build up of the trend of a life that has led me to this point. To deal with that often means having to completely alter life habits. Maybe I’m lonely not because there aren’t enough people around, but because I’m not open in my life to people or to my own inner richness. Perhaps I am uncomfortable just being by myself because I’ve never practiced the art of solitude. Perhaps I have become so sunk into self pity that I push people away, and actually create a breeding-ground for depression.
These are all things that can’t be dealt with effectively through first aid. There’s no magic pill to take, but if you practice some preventive work, which means you incorporate into your life elements of a positive outlook, a sense of self-worth, then when you’re hit with one of these moods, my advice is not to resist it, let it flow in and then rid it. In effect you listen to it and ask, “Why am I depressed, what is this saying to me?” Don’t try to judge or evaluate it, just listen and let it pass. It’s the moving of it that is important, keeping it dynamic. Once it has begun to move, then reach out to the other positive elements that are there. I may be depressed but I know that within myself I am a very strong or a joyous person. So I can let this pass and know that it’s not my only reality and be willing to learn from the mood and look at what brought it on. I believe very strongly in the preventive medicine of individuals developing the sense of being pleased with themselves, being able to sit with themselves and enjoy their own company.
Often I find, in myself and others, that we dramatize our moods in order to give them more meaning. We love to play out our little scripts. That’s okay, as long as I know that I’m doing it. Sometimes it is wonderfully entertaining to get into a depressed mood, put on a sorrowful ballad, mope around for a bit. It can be wonderfully cathartic if you know that’s what you’re doing. It’s deliberate and I take responsibility for it, and at all costs avoid the feeling of being a helpless victim of my mood. Instead it’s like, “Hey, this is like watching a Greek tragedy. This is my soap opera for the day.” Then it can become fun. The moment it starts becoming fun, automatically the mood starts to break and you become open to new possibilities.
SUN: You’ve said you like the definition of communication as the art of shared vulnerabilities. What do you think makes for effective communication?
SPANGLER: I suppose the art of effectively sharing vulnerabilities. (laughs). Well, how do you think we’re doing here?
SUN: I think we’re communicating well.
SPANGLER: Why do you think we’re doing well?
SUN: We’re listening to each other, and there’s a good contact beneath the words that makes for understanding.
SPANGLER: The willingness to make that contact is a willingness for a certain amount of intimacy. That’s what makes for effective communication. Depending upon what the nature of the communication is, of course. If I’ve stopped my car and I’m asking you for directions, I don’t need to be overly contemplative and gaze deeply into your eyes to try to establish a profound connection.
I think effective communication is made up of two things. One is knowing what is appropriate to the need of the moment, what has to pass between us in order to allow us to move in clarity through the further step, either together or apart. And if what is appropriate is that we make a connection beyond just words or information, then it is a matter of finding out what is required to achieve the necessary level of intimacy. Of course, as you said, listening has a major role in that.
I don’t believe in sitting down and doing things to which I cannot bring an attitude of discovery. I don’t expect the action itself to provide this.
SUN: You said last night that it’s important to reach for our humanness at the same time we reach beyond into non-physical realities. Can you speak about how you maintain this balance?
SPANGLER: As those who know me will attest, I’m a big kid. I feel that in some ways the meeting place of our humanness and our divinity lies in our capacity to play. There’s something about our inner child that doesn’t always take itself too seriously, at least mine doesn’t. Something like a spiritual quest is meaningless for it, because it wonders, “What have I to quest for?” That’s a very adult image, that I’ve lost something that I have to regain. Incorporating an element of playfulness in my life is very important. Some do that through competitive sports, but that isn’t what I really mean. I don’t mean a particular form of play, but instead a playful attitude toward life, like a child has. But it is a playfulness held in balance with our accountability to the rest of our life. Sometimes the adult side of us comes down pretty hard on the side of responsibility. When it does, I believe it is overcompensating for not knowing how to play, for feeling afraid of that playfulness.
SUN: What do you do for fun?
JULIA SPANGLER: What doesn’t he do for fun is the question.
SPANGLER: Everything. Things are fun for me. Sometimes writing is not so much fun, but I wouldn’t do it if it never was. I don’t believe in sitting down and doing things to which I cannot bring an attitude of discovery. I don’t expect the action itself to provide this. I don’t say, “Unless this is fun, I’m not going to do it.” It’s more the sense that I have to provide a spirit of fun, see that possibility in the action, invoke it. My hobbies are playing games, and I’m a board game designer. I’ll go through phases where I’ll spend a lot of time working with that, other times I’ll hardly touch it. Still, it is important to me. I’m a movie buff — that also creates a sense of wonderment for me.
SUN: Many couples seem to have lost that sense of wonder in their relationship. How do you keep it?
SPANGLER: Well, there’s someone quite wonderful sitting over there. It is so strange. I never know what she’s going to do from one minute to the next. I can’t expect the relationship to be always stimulating and wonderful on its own terms unless I’m willing to inject that into it. It’s not like it really exists independently of me and I’m passive and have to be stimulated or something has gone out of the marriage. I feel that is how many people go into not only relationships but many situations. In our group Lorian, sometimes we start talking about this separate entity called Lorian. Then we have to step back and realize that Lorian is us, a group of twenty people, and that what it does comes out of our decisions and input. It’s the same with a marriage. The marriage is not an autonomous entity that suddenly springs into life when a priest says, “Say I do.” You’re still two people engaging with each other, having to put out and to receive.
SUN: If you had one paragraph to give to somebody as a present, the thought you’d most like to communicate, what would it be?
SPANGLER: It’s hard because it depends on who I’d be giving it to. One of the problems with that question for me is that I don’t think of myself as having a message to deliver. I don’t carry around an image of what I want to get across to people. But I suppose it would be something like this:
I have found in my own life, and I do not feel that I am at all unique in this, that God is truly a present and compassionate and loving force. We are so loved, by what is beyond us and by what is inside us, that to open to that, to explore the implications of that love and learn to be a channel to extend that love to others is one of the greatest joys that a human being can enter into. Love is more than just an emotion from the heart. It is clear thinking. It is the right use of the intellect. It is playfulness. It is humor. It is detachment. It is being glad to be a human being upon the Earth in this moment of history. It is a great feeling of appreciation for all that one is and one has. That thankfulness is more real, more connecting, than any sense of lack or resentment. God never compares us with anything else. We are completely and wholly unique and in a very special one-on-one relationship with the divine. If I can recognize that in my life, there may still be things I want to do, changes I want to make, growth I want to achieve, but I can do so companioned by this spirit of playful and compassionate lovingness. If I can find ways of extending that to others as God has offered it to me, then I’ve found a real gift. I would just want to communicate to someone that they can be open to that gift and learn how to pass it on.