Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
By Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation
Spiritual expression, and the religious organizational formats in which context it will take place, is always embedded in a social structure. For example, we could say that the tribal forms of religion, such as animism and shamanism, do not have elaborate hierarchical structures as they arose in societal structures that had fairly egalitarian kinship based relations. But the great organized religions, which arose in hierarchically-based societies, have intricate hierarchical structures, monological conceptions of truth, and expectations of obedience from its members. The Protestant Reformation and its offshoots took on the many democratic aspects which corresponded to the rise of a new urban class under merchant and industrial capitalism, and the many offshoots of the new age movements have clearly adopted contemporary capitalist practices of paid workshops, trainings, etc … (i.e. taking the form of spiritual experience as a consumable commodity).
In this essay, we will claim that contemporary society is evolving towards a dominance of distributed networks, with peer to peer based social relations, and that this will affect spiritual expression in fundamental ways.
To organize our thoughts, we will use a triarchical division of organizational forms, and a quaternary structure of human relations. Human organizational formats can be laid out as network structures, outlining the relationships between the members of a community. A common network format is the hierarchical one, where relations and actions are initiated from the center. It is graphically represented by a star form, but also often represented as a pyramidal structure. A second very common network format is the decentralized network, where agents actions and relations are constrained by prior hubs. In decentralized networks power has devolved to different groups or entities, which have to find a balance together, and agents generally belong to the different decentralized groups, which represent their interests in some way. Finally, we have distributed networks, which are graphically represented by the same hub and spoke graphic, but contain a crucial differentiating characteristic. In distributed networks, though there are indeed hubs, i.e. nodes with a higher density of connections, these hubs remain voluntary. Think of the difference between taking a plane that is going to go to the destination via a hub airport, and you have no choice but stay in the place, whose flight path has been decided by someone else, and the much greater freedom that you have in a car, where you can still pass through that big city hub if you want, and many people do, but you can also go around it, the choice is yours.
Our first contention is that distributed networks are becoming a dominant format of human technological and organizational frameworks. Think about the internet and the web as point to point or end to end networks. Think about the emerging micro media practices such as wiki’s and blogging, which allow many human agents to express themselves by bypassing former decentralized mass media. Think of the team-based organized project groups increasingly being used in the worksphere. In a distributed network, the peers are free to connect and to act, and the organizational characteristics are emerging from the choices of the individuals. The second framework we are using is the quaternary relational typology proposed by the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske, who describes this extensively in his landmark treatise, the “Structures of Social Life.”
According to Fiske, there are four main ways that humans can relate to each other, and this typology is valid across different cultures and epochs, as an underlying grammar. Cultures and civilizations will choose different combinations, but one format may be dominant.
Equality matching is the logic of the gift economy, which was the dominant format of the tribal era. According to this logic, the one that gives obtains prestige, and the one that receives feels an obligation to return the favour, in one way or another, so that the equality of the relationship could be maintained. Tribal cultures have elaborate ritualized and festive mechanisms, organized around the notion of reciprocity and symmetry, to allow this process to happen. The second relational logic is Authority Ranking, and corresponds to the just as important human need to compare. This ranking may be the result of birth, of force or coercion, of nomination by a prior hierarchy, of credentials, even of merit. Authority Ranking is the main logic of the imperial and tributary hierarchies (such as the feudal system) which dominated human society before the advent of capitalism and parliamentary democracy. The strong protects and provides for the safety of the weak, who in exchange, pay a tribute. These societies were moved by the concept of a life debt, from the human to the divine order sustaining it, and from the mass of the living to the representatives of that divine order, who required tribute in order to extinguish that debt. The organizing principle is one of centrality (represented by kingship) and redistribution of the resources by a hierarchy. The third format is Market Pricing, based on the neutral exchange of comparable values. This is the logic of the capitalist market system, and the impersonal relations on which its economic system is based.
Finally, there is the logic of Communal Shareholding, which is based on generalized or non-reciprocal exchange. In this form of human relations, members collectively and voluntarily contribute to a common resource, in exchange for the free usage of that resource. Examples are the medieval agricultural commons, the mutualities of the labour movement, and the theoretical notion of communism used by Marx (but of course not the hierarchical Authority Ranking practice of regimes abusively using this nomenclature). There is of course a relationship between the organizational triarchy and the quaternary relational grammar. The tribal era was based on small kinship based distributed networks, which had little relationship to each other; the imperial and feudal regimes use the hierarchical formats, and capitalist societies used mostly decentralized political structures (the balance of power of democratic governance) and competition between firms. In contrast, the current social structures are increasingly moving towards manyfold affinity based distributed networks, interconnected on a global scale.
The Emergence of the Peer to Peer Format
In the current historical configuration, our technological infrastructures are often taken the form of a distributed network, such as the point to point internet, or the generalized self-publishing features of the web which allow any internet user to produce and diffuse different type of content. Humanity has therefore a technology which has the fundamental effect of allowing the global coordination of small teams, which can now work on global projects based on affinity. Well-known expressions of this is the production of the alternative computer operating system Linux, and the universal Wikipedia encyclopedia. But the over a billion already connected people are literally engaged in tens of thousands of such collective projects, which are producing all kinds of social value. The alterglobalization movement is one expression of a movement born out of such networks, which can globally organize and mobilize without access to the decentralized mass media, using a wide variety of micro media resources.
In the business environment, we see the increasing importance of diffuse social innovation (innovation as an emerging byproduct of networked communities, rather than internally funded entrepreneurial R & D), and we see the emergence of asymmetric competition between for-benefit institutions based on communities of peer producers), which are successfully competing with traditional for profit companies. In addition, for profit companies are now themselves adapting and therefore using practices pioneered by such communities. This is not the right context to explain in detail such trends, so interested readers are referred to the Wiki Encyclopedia at P2PFoundation.Net . We are witnessing a similar process as when imperial slaveholders were freeing their slaves into serfs, or smart feudal lords where sponsoring merchants and entrepreneurs.
The peer to peer relational dynamic in distributed networks is creating three altogether new social processes, which respectively represent a third mode of production, governance, and property.
Peer production refers to the ability to produce in common (or to share individual creative expression), as communities of peer producers. Bear in mind that pricing, hierarchy and democracy are different means to allocate scarce resources and that since peer production operates in the immaterial sphere of content creation, characterized by marginal costs of reproduction, it needs neither pricing, nor hierarchy to allocate such resources. It is therefore a mode of production that is neither driven by the state planning (the now mostly defunct socialist’ systems), nor by corporate hierarchies driven by profit. It can therefore properly be called a third mode of production.
Peer governance refers the techniques used to resolve conflicts and manage such projects, which are characterized by the absence of a prior hierarchy, as well as the absence of representational negotiations between different stakeholder groups. Since peer producers operate in small groups, but can globally scale and coordinate, they can mostly use direct decision-making by participants themselves. Since it is neither a classic hierarchy nor a representational process of negotiation between decentralized groups, it can also be properly called a third mode of governance.
Peer property consists of the legal and institutional formats that peer projects will use to socially reproduce themselves, and to defend against private (or public) appropriation. It uses collective choice systems (rankings, ratings, algorithms, etc..) that aim to prevent the crystallization of a collective individual’ which would rise out of the community and dominate it. It uses two main types of common property against private appropriation. The sharing licenses such as the Creative Commons allow sovereign individuals to determine the degree of sharing of their creative material, while the commons licenses, such as the General Public License, carry the obligation of putting every change back in the common pool.
The circulation of the common is the process whereby open and free’ raw material is used as input, for a participatory process of production and governance, which results in commons-oriented output, which in turn becomes open and free material for a next round. We see therefore the emergence of three powerful social movements, representing the interests of the emerging peer producers, and arising in practically all social domains. These new movements are organized around the promotion and demand of these three principles: 1) the open and free movements (Free Software Movement, Open Yoga, Open Reiki); 2) participatory movements (spiritually oriented peer circles), and 3) Commons oriented movements.
Peer to peer dynamics are not limited to the production of economic value, but can be used in every domain of human life, including the common production of spiritual knowledge.
Before we explain the latter, we need to review the general characteristics of the new mode, which overturns almost every premise of our industrial civilization. We will then be able to apply them to the pursuit of spiritual experience or knowledge, and see how it affects the organization of this pursuit.
Characteristics of Peer Production in Social and Economic Life
If one examines more in detail how peer production projects operate, one can see many reversals from not only the traditional mode of operating either a corporate or public institution, but also from NGO’s emanating from civil society. At the root of the different functioning of peer projects is the concept of equipotentiality, which was already defined by Jorge Ferrer. It means that human being are not ranked according to one criteria, or as a totality, but that they are considered to consist of a multitude of skills and capabilities, none of which in itself being better than another. In the context of a peer project, potential participants are considered a too complex mix of skills and experiences to predict a priori who can perform a certain task. The solution is to slice up any project in the greatest possible array of modules, which can be carried out separately, but nevertheless coordinated as one project. Participants can then self-select their tasks, without any a priori control of their credentials (this is called anti-credentialism), giving rise to this mode of distributed production which differs from the traditional division of labour. But given that there is no more a priori selection mechanism, how then to ensure the quality of the work, and carry out a selection for performance?
The answer is to couple distributed control to this distributed production. This concept can be called communal validation, and differs from the still credentialist peer review process in scientific publishing for example. In addition, peer projects are characterized by holoptism, this is the total transparency of the project, and stands in contrast with the panoptism of hierarchical projects, i.e. the availability of information only to those deemed to have a need to know, and with only the top of the hierarchy having a full view of the project. In contrast, peers have access both vertically (the aims, the vision) and horizontally (who does and did what), from their particular angle. Every change in code in Linux, or every change of word in the Wikipedia, is available for review, and linked to the recognized author. This is a stunning number of reversals with the traditional way of performing tasks and organizing work, yet the system turns out to be more productive in terms of performance, more participative in governance, and more distributive in terms of property, than its rivals. So there we have it: equipotentiality, anti-credentialism, self-selection, communal validation, and holoptism, as some of the key characteristics of the peer to peer mode of producing the common.
Unlike the industrial mode of production, which basically applies feudal-hierarchical modes to organization, and is mostly fit for producing economic value; and unlike the democratic mode of governance, which only applies to the political realm, we have here a mode of production and governance which can be applied to every human domain, and this is a radical advance in terms of participation. It is now possible to have self-governed communities, not just in economic and political projects, but also for example in the construction of collective spiritual knowledge.
Elaborating on this theme is the subject of the second part of this essay.
Part Two: the new Participatory Spirituality, or, The Peer Production of Spiritual Knowledge
New Value Constellations
Before we elaborate more concretely on how the peer production characteristics apply in the spiritual realm, we should stress that a new peer to peer spirituality would not just be the result of some objective new way of doing things (a new spiritual outgrowth of a new material basis), but is itself the result of deep changes in human consciousness, some of which have already taken place, some of which are still in the process of taking place, all of them affecting many different people. Some of these changes occurred before the emergence of the new peer to peer logic, some as a result of its emergence, and others the result of the continued use of P2P tools, which inevitable change the form of human consciousness in some ways, as does every tool. Broadly speaking, we would argue that peer to peer is the outgrowth of deep changes in ontology (ways of being), epistemology (ways of knowing) and axiology (value constellations).
In terms of ontology, there is a deep change concerning the vision of the human, which has been prepared by a long string of contemporary thinkers. In a nutshell, and despite the current neoliberal dominance in establishment politics and economics, the old idea, at the basis of the market capitalist society, and of the democratic liberal order, has been profoundly challenged. This conception that we were all separate individuals, needing to be socialized through institutions, and acting out of personal utility, is being replaced by visions which stress the connectedness of the human. We are always already connected, with peers, and this is how we mediate our relationships with institutions. It is no longer a matter of institutions and corporations broadcasting and/or managing masses of isolated individuals. It is partly a matter of a change of consciousness, but itself of course also a result of having a communication technology which can indeed connect. The annual trust barometer of the PR firm Edelman confirms a dramatic change from trust in institutions to trust in people just like you’, i.e. peers.
This new vision of connectedness gives rise not to a generalized altruism, but to a vision that social systems have to be designed so that personal interest can converge with collective interests, and these principles are in turn embedded in the new generation of social software and social networks. Cooperative individualism seems an apt description of this new mentality, which is most pervasive in the newest generation of young adults, the so-called digital natives or Millenial Generation (those who became 20 in the year 2,000 and after, who grew up with the internet and collective gaming, and for whom sharing is said to be a default state, as described in the recent Dutch-language book, Generatie Einstein.
In terms of epistemology, conceptions of an objective material universe which can be known from a single objective framework or perspective, have systematically been undermined by postmodern philosophers (but even before, with Marx noting the deformations through the social unconscious, and Freud noting that the personal unconscious meant that we were not the masters of our own house). They have argued that there is no absolute framework, only elements in a system which can only be defined in relation to one another. The hierarchical card catalog, which implies that there is one way of knowing the world (the hierarchical tree of knowledge), first made way for the decentralized databases which could be queried through different facets’, to the now totally distributed folksonomies and tagging systems.
In these new distributed systems of knowledge, every individual frames his own world, but he has access to how other individuals have framed the same and other knowledge objects, and all other objects in their own accessible tagging systems. Independent researchers and scholars are now able to peer in each other minds and frameworks, implying that there is not one way to interpret reality, but an infinite number of singular worldviews. Truth then, becomes a matter of integrating, encountering, and exchanging with others and their worldviews, so as to look at the world and its subjects and objects from a variety of viewpoints, each illuminating reality in a different way. Tensions and paradoxes that arise can be confronted through dialogue. Of course, certain types of knowledge, such as physical sciences, still use traditional methodologies, but the human and social sciences are certainly influenced by these new attitudes, which govern how many individuals now make sense of their world.
In terms of axiology, or new value systems, I have already described the new emerging cooperative individualism, but the world of peer production and governance itself gives rise to new types of social movements, which adhere to 3 different but interrelated paradigms, which are also value systems . The open and free paradigm, which desires that human knowledge be freely sharable and modifiable; the participatory paradigm, which asks for a maximum extension of the number of contributors, each according to his ability; and the commons oriented paradigm, which wants to produce directly for use value (not exchange value) and wants the results to be shared by all. It would be hard to say how many people share the full scala of these new values, but certainly, their number is growing, and the number of movements and initiatives which can be catalogued in this way is growing almost exponentially.
Note how these new values and movements correspond to the reproduction cycle of the new social system of peer production, governance and property. Namely, no peer production is possible without the availability of open and free raw material to work with (input side); this raw material is then used participatively (process side); and the result of the common work is then protected through the use of commons-oriented institutions and legal forms (the output side). The output side then effectively creates new open and free material which can be used to perpetuate the cycle.
General Characteristics of a Participatory Spirituality
What does this all mean for the emergence of new forms of spirituality, both in terms of personal experiencing and in terms of new social formats for organizing spiritual life?
What it means for the evolution of human consciousness is very well expressed here:
“There is overwhelming evidence that the evolution of consciousness is marching on, moving from collective living, where the individual was totally embedded in the life patterns of the collective; through a gradual, often painful, process of individuation, with the emphasis on the will and sovereignty of the individual; to what is emerging in our time: a conscious return to collectivism where individuated, or self-actualised, individuals voluntarily – and temporarily – pool their consciousness in a search for the elusive collective intelligence which can help us to overcome the stupendous challenges now facing us as a species as a consequence of how our developmental trajectory has manifested on the physical plane thus far .. . So human evolution has something to do with human consciousness awakening first to itself, then to its own evolution and to a recognition and finally an embodied experience of the ways in which we are organically part of a larger whole. As we enter this new stage of individual/collective awakening, individuals are being increasingly called to practice the new life-form composed of groups of individuated individuals merging their collective intelligence.”
Let us quickly review the changes resulting from the changing ontological, epistemological, and axiological positioning, and then review the principles of peer production that we described above, and see how it can be applied to the production of spiritual knowledge.
If we accept the new ontological and epistemological convictions that there are no absolute reference points or frameworks, no objective reality out there on their own, can we still accept fixed cosmologies and religions? If we accept that knowing is a matter of co-creation with other humans, holding different frameworks, and that approaching truth is a matter of confronting those differences in frameworks, and how they illuminate realities in different ways, can we still accept fixed methodologies and pathways, leading to inevitable conclusions about the truth? Or would we expect co-created truth to be open-ended? If we want to act and live according to the peer principle of equal worth of all persons, can we accept the deep-seated rankism that is part and parcel of traditional approaches to religion? The questions are suggesting the answer, and the answer is that in all likelihood, the forms of spirituality that we are striving will have the open and free, participatory, and commons-oriented aspects which the emerging p2p forms of consciousness are desiring to appear in the world.
An open and free approach to spirituality would not likely accept proprietary approaches to spiritual knowledge. It would expect that the code and texts are freely approachable, even modifiable. It will not accept the copyright protections of spiritual texts, nor their unavailability. The pathways to spiritual experiencing would not be hidden from sight, but publicly available. The methodologies would be available for trial and experimentation.
A participatory approach would mean that everyone would be invited to participate in the spiritual search, without a priori selection, and that the threshold of such participation would be kept as low as possible. Appropriate methodologies would be available for different levels of experience.
A commons-oriented approach would lead to co-created knowledge to be available in a common pool, for others to build on and to be confronted with.
Let us know quickly survey how the concrete principles of peer production, which we outlined above, would apply to the production of spiritual knowledge. As a reminder, we listed the following principles: equipotentiality, self-selection, communal validation, and holoptism.
Equipotentiality suggests that we should not judge a person according to one purported essence, say, as a spiritual master or an enlightened being, but as a wide mixture of different skills and abilities, none of which by itself elevates that person to a higher human status. Rather, the skill of any social system is to draw out the best out of each individual, so that he can engage his skills and passion to a task of his own choosing. One of the possible interpretations of this principle is that enlightenment or spiritual mastery is just one particular skill, a particular technique of consciousness. It is important, it deserves respect, others can learn from it.
However, just as a great sportsperson or great artist is not necessarily overall a better human being, neither is a spiritual master, as the history of the last view decades has elaborately shown. Furthermore, guidance from such a master must be specific, an invitation for practice and experience, a witnessing on his part, but not in any way a fixed authority on the lives of any followers. Individuals are free to explore this guidance, but the individual, and the communities, are still in charge of building collective spiritual freedom, without a priori fixed path. The corollary of self-selection and communal validation are also clear. No spiritual path can be imposed, the individual freely chooses the particular injunctions he wants to follow or experiment with. Nor are individuals or communities bound to any particular tradition, though they can still choose to work with such a particular framework.
In a globalized context, conscious of the various frameworks available, the search for spiritual truth may entail aspects of a contributory spirituality, in which the individual, informed about the specific frameworks, can choose between a wide variety of psycho-technologies, in a particular quest to find which combination of practices and insights is the most befitting of his needs and capabilities. As Jorge Ferrer has already argued, not only is there no single path, not only are there no multiple paths to a similar goal or achievement, but the goal itself is the fruit of the co-creation of searchers and their communities. It would seem that it is precisely in such a way, that individuals have approached their quest in the last few decades, particularly those termed cultural creatives by the sociologist Paul Ray. In fact when there is no coercion, this seems the natural way that people choose to approach their spiritual life. The principle of communal validation suggests that persons may unite in groups or peer circles, decide in common on certain exploratory paths, and exchange their experiences with it.
Finally, holoptism suggests a new openness in terms of the contents and practices of the different systems, as well as their goals, and it suggests that esoteric wil no longer mean secrecy or unavailibity, only different equipotential capacities to reach certain levels of experience and skill. Again, this does not seem to be farfetched given that most esoteric material is now available either in print or online.
Developments in theory: the participatory and relational spirituality approaches by Jorge Ferrer and John Heron
John Heron makes a very strong case for a relational approach to spirituality, for which he defines eight characteristics:
“The spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual practices, such as meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a ‘spiritual’ person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of ‘spiritual’ traditions that are oppression-prone. If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up, and this calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes. Certainly there are important individualistic modes of development that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative competence, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.
“On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-modal integration and consummation.”
Amongst the characteristics of such relational spirituality, Heron outlines how related it in fact is to the peer to peer forms cited above:
“(5) It is focused on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.
“(6) It embraces peer-to-peer, participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a core discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego. Participatory decision-making involves the integration of autonomy (deciding for oneself), co-operation (deciding with others) and hierarchy (deciding for others). As the bedrock of relational spirituality, I return to it at the end of the paper.
“(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice, in every walk of life, in industry, in knowledge generation, in religion, and many more.
“(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence.”
Heron does not deny the individual aspects of spirituality, but stresses that they are secondary to their expression in the first form, i.e. the relational expression of it.
The eight characteristic listed above, merits development, as it more precisely defines the relationship between autonomy, hierarchy, and cooperation:
“Living spirit manifests as a dynamic interplay between autonomy, hierarchy and co-operation. It emerges through autonomous people each of whom who can identify their own idiosyncratic true needs and interests; each of whom can also think hierarchically in terms of what values promote the true needs and interests of the whole community; and each of whom can co-operate with – that is, listen to, engage with, and negotiate agreed decisions with – their peers, celebrating diversity and difference as integral to genuine unity.
“Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership, as in the free software movement mentioned earlier, is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members.”
Jorge Ferrer’s landmark book, Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology, is the key classic to have reformulated a participatory vision of spirituality from out of the transpersonal psychology tradition. The first part deconstructs the non-relational biases of transpersonal psychology, while the second part attempts to reconstruct a new vision based on participation. However, the relational aspects of participatory spirituality were not emphasized in that book. The the importance of relational spiritual work is stressed in his later writings however, that deal with more practical, less philosophical issues than RTT. In his talks and conferences, Ferrer has introduced the notion of participatory spirituality in terms of three forms of co-creation: (1) intrapersonal co-creation, i.e., of the various human dimensions working together creatively as a team; (2) interpersonal co-creation, i.e., of human beings working together as peers in solidarity and mutual respect; and (3) transpersonal co-creation, i.e., of both human dimensions and collaborative human beings interacting with the Mystery in the co-creation of spiritual insights, practices, expanded forms of liberation, and spiritual worlds.
Note again the congruence between Heron’s points and Ferrer’s second aspect of co-creation. J. Kripal has already noted the important political implications of Ferrer’s influential ideas:
“Ferrer’s participatory vision and its turn from subjective ‘experience’ to processual ‘event’ possesses some fairly radical political implications. Within it, a perennialist hierarchical monarchy (the ‘rule of the One’ through the ‘great chain of Being) that locates all real truth in the feudal past (or, at the very least, in some present hierarchical culture) has been superseded by a quite radical participatory democracy in which the Real reveals itself not in the Great Man, Perfect Saint or God-King (or the Perennialist Scholar) but in radical relation and the sacred present. Consequently, the religious life is not about returning to some golden age of scripture or metaphysical absolute; it is about co-creating new revelations in the present, always, of course, in critical interaction with the past. Such a practice is dynamic, uncertain, and yet hopeful-a tikkun-like theurgical healing of the world and of God.”
I would now like to quote extensively from a critique of Ferrer by J. Kripal in Tikkun magazine, because, even if he uses different concepts, he confirms the equipotentiality principle that we explained above. This principle affirms that mystical skills are just one set of skills amongst other, they do not position that person as being absolutely above an other, and spiritual skills do not equate with other skills, such as the ethical ones.
Let’s listen to J. Kripal on this topic:
“Ferrer … ultimately adopts a very positive assessment of the traditions’ ethical status, suggesting in effect that the religions have been more successful in finding common moral ground than doctrinal or metaphysical agreement, and that most traditions have called for (if never faithfully or fully enacted) a transcendence of dualistic self-centeredness or narcissism. It is here that I must become suspicious. Though Ferrer himself is refreshingly free of this particular logic (it is really more of a rhetoric), it is quite easy and quite common in the transpersonal literature to argue for the essential moral nature of mystical experience by being very careful about whom one bestows the (quite modern) title ‘mystic.’
“It is an entirely circular argument, of course: One simply declares (because one believes) that mysticism is moral, then one lists from literally tens of thousands (millions?) of possible recorded cases a few, maybe a few dozen, exemplars who happen to fit one’s moral standards (or better, whose historical description is sketchy enough to hide any and all evidence that would frustrate those standards), and, voilà, one has ‘proven’ that mysticism is indeed moral. Any charismatic figure or saint that violates one’s norms and there will always be a very large, loudly screaming crowd here one simply labels ‘not really a mystic’ or conveniently ignores altogether. Put differently, it is the constructed category of ‘mysticism’ itself that mutually constructs a ‘moral mysticism,’ not the historical evidence, which is always and everywhere immeasurably more ambivalent.
“Ferrer, as is evident in such moments as his thought experiment with the Theravada retreat, sees right through most of this. He knows perfectly well that perennialism simply does not correspond to the historical data. What he does not perhaps see so clearly is that a moral perennialism sneaks through the back door of his own conclusions. Thus, whereas he rightly rejects all talk of a ‘common core,’ he can nevertheless speak of a common ‘Ocean of Emancipation’ that all the contemplative traditions approach from their different ontological shores.”
Kripal concludes from this:
“Ferrer argues that we must realize that our goal can never be simply the recovery or reproduction of some past sense of the sacred, for ‘we cannot ignore that most religious traditions are still beset not only by intolerant exclusivist and absolutist tendencies, but also by patriarchy, authoritarianism, dogmatism, conservatism, transcendentalism, body-denial, sexual repression, and hierarchical institutions.’ Put simply, the contemplative traditions of the past have too often functioned as elaborate and sacralized techniques for dissociating consciousness.
“Once again, I think this is exactly where we need to be, with a privileging of the ethical over the mystical and an insistence on human wholeness as human holiness. I would only want to further radicalize Ferrer’s vision by underscoring how hermeneutical it is, that is, how it functions as a creative re-visioning and reforming of the past instead of as a simple reproduction of or fundamentalist fantasy about some nonexistent golden age. Put differently, in my view, there is no shared Ocean of Emancipation in the history of religions. Indeed, from many of our own modern perspectives, the waters of the past are barely potable, as what most of the contemplative traditions have meant by ’emancipation’ or ‘salvation’ is not at all what we would like to imply by those terms today. It is, after all, frightfully easy to be emancipated from ‘the world’ or to become one with a deity or ontological absolute and leave all the world’s grossly unjust social structures and practices (racism, gender injustice, homophobia, religious bigotry, colonialism, caste, class division, environmental degradation, etc.) comfortably in place.”
From this important critique by Kripal, I would like to add an important conclusion. That the shift towards relational and participatory spirituality also necessarily have a “negative” moment, i.e. a phase of critique against any and all forms of spiritual authoritarianism.
The “theoretical” evolution towards relational and participatory forms of spirituality has not stood still. Bruce Alderman, in a summary essay on the internet, describes the new trend towards exploring intersubjectivity itself, both through personal and interpersonal forms of inquiry. He describes the work of Christian De Quincey, through his two books (Radical Nature, and Radical Knowing); the deep mystical intersubjective work of Beatrice Butreau; and the radical nature of the inquiries by the TSK approach of Tartangh Tulku.
The Discovery of the We: The Primacy of Relationality and the Collective Field
In this section, we want to articulate the relation between the developments in spiritual theory and practice, discussed just above, with the more general shift in philosophical and sociological conceptions of the human as an intersubjective being, and then look at some more precise developments towards intersubjective practice.
The modern articulation of individuality, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to “extract the individual dimension” of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related. And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that “everything is related,” while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.
This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called “postmodern thought.” Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.
In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.
If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its “relationship parts.” Society sets up a “protocol,” in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.
Indeed, human agents never just “relate” in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.
In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish (1) the totality of relations; (2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the “protocol” of what is possible and not; (3) the object of the relationship (“object-oriented sociality”), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action.
In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it “transcends and includes” individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call “cooperative individualism.” The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea. Similar to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, the best designed collaborative systems take advantage of the self-interest of the users, turning it into collective benefit.
This recognition would help in distinguishing transformative P2P conceptions from regressive interpretations harking back to premodern communion. I find this distinction well expressed by Charlene Spretnak, cited by John Heron in a debate with the conception of an “inclusional self” by Ted Lumley of Goodshare.org:
“The ecological/cosmological sense of uniqueness coupled with intersubjectivity and interbeing … One can accurately speak of the autonomy’ of an individual only by incorporating a sense of the dynamic web of relationships that are constitutive for that being at a given moment.”
In any case, the balance is again moving towards the collective. But if the new forms of collective recognize individuality and even individualism, they are not merely individualist in nature, meaning: they are not collective individuals, rather, the new collective expresses itself in the creation of the common. The collective is no longer the local “wholistic” and “oppressive” community, and it is no longer the contractually based society with its institutions, now also seen as oppressive. The new commons is not a unified and transcendent collective individual, but a collection of large number of singular projects, constituting a multitude.
This whole change in ontology and epistemology, in ways of feeling and being, in ways of knowing and apprehending the world, has been prefigured amongst social scientists and philosophers, including the hard sciences such as physics and biology. An important change has been the overthrow of the Cartesian subject-object split. No longer is the “individual self” looking at the world as an object. Since postmodernity has established that the individual is composed and traversed by numerous social fields (of power, of the unconscious, class relations, gender, etc…), and since he/she has become aware of this, the subject is now seen (after his death as an “essence” and a historical construct had been announced by Foucault), as a perpetual process of becoming (“subjectivation”). His knowing is now subjective-objective and truth-building has been transformed from objective and mono-perspectival to multiperspectival.
This individual operates not in a dead space of objects, but in a network of flows. Space is dynamical, perpetually co-created by the actions of the individuals and in peer to peer processes, where the digital noosphere is an extraordinary medium for generating signals emanating from this dynamical space. The individuals in peer groups, which are thus not transcendent’ collective individuals, are in a constant adaptive behavior. Thus peer to peer is global from the start, it is incorporated in its practice. It is an expression not of globalization, the worldwide system of domination, but of globality, the growing interconnected of human relationships.
Peer to peer is to be regarded as a new form of social exchange, creating its equivalent form of subjectivation, and itself reflecting the new forms of subjectivation. P2P, interpreted here as a positive and normative ethos that is implicit in the logic of its practice, though it rejects the ideology of individualism, does not in any way endanger the achievements of the modern individual, in terms of the desire and achievement of personal autonomy, authenticity, etc. It is no transcendent power that demands sacrifice of self: It is fully immanent, participants are not given anything up, and unlike the contractual vision, which is fictitious in any case, the participation is entirely voluntary. Thus what it reflects is an expansion of ethics: the desire to create and share, to produce something useful. The individual who joins a P2P project, puts his being, unadulterated, in the service of the construction of a common resource. Implicit is not just a concern for the narrow group, not just intersubjective relations, but the whole social field surrounding it.
How does a successful P2P project operate, in terms of reconciling the individual and the collective?
Imagine a successful meeting of minds: individual ideas are confronted, but also changed in the process, through the free association born of the encounter with other intelligences. Thus eventually a common idea emerges, that has integrated the differences, not subsumed them. The participants do not feel they have made concessions or compromises, but feel that the new common integration is based on their ideas. There has been no minority, which has succumbed to the majority. There has been no “representation,” or loss of difference. Such is the true process of peer to peer.
An important philosophical change has been the abandonment of the unifying universalism of the Enlightenment project. Universality was to be attained by striving to unity, by the transcendence of representation of political power. But this unity meant sacrifice of difference. Today, the new epistemological and ontological requirement that P2P reflects, is not abstract universalism, but the concrete universality of a commons which has not sacrificed difference. This is the truth that the new concept of multitude, developed by Toni Negri and inspired by Spinoza, expresses. P2P is not predicated on representation and unity, but of the full expression of difference.
These insights and developments are being expressed by contemporary spiritual practicioners as well. What kind of changes can we expect in the expression of spirituality?
Part Three: Case Studies
The following is not aimed to be a comprehensive review of religious-spiritual trends that are influenced by the 3 paradigms explained above, but rather, a sampling of some recent trends that are related.
Note for example how John Heron also specifically integrates the p2p concept of the commons in his spiritual world view, through his recognition of and call for a Global Integral-Spiritual Commons: “By “integral spirituality” I mean, at the very least, a spirituality that is manifest in full embodiment, in relationship and interconnectedness, in mutuality and sharing, in autonomous creativity, and in full access to multidimensional meanings. By “global commons” I mean a worldwide space to which anyone on the planet has rights of access, and which is a worldwide forum for communication between everyone who claims their rights of access. The cyberspace of the internet is such a global commons. Cyberspace itself is fully embodied in the dynamic relation between humans and the planetary network of computers; it is a space generated by interconnectedness; it is premised on the full and unfettered mutuality of sharing information; it is an unlimited space for the expression of autonomous creativity; and its provides access for all to a vast range of multidimensional meanings. It is in this sense that I call the internet, i.e. cyberspace, a global integral-spiritual commons. It has the properties and potential of an integral-spiritual space. The fact that such a space can be used for vulgar or corrupt purposes does not, in my view, detract from its inherent integral-spiritual status, in the same way that the spiritual status of free will is not in any way undermined by the abuse of free will. It is precisely that continuity of status, whatever we do with the gift, that sooner or later calls us to a liberating and creative use of the gift.”
Working the We field through peer circles
Mushin is one of the spiritual teachers who has expressed these insights spiritually, first of all by changing his own behavior from teacher’ to spiritual facilitor and mentor. Here is how he expresses the discovery of the we, as part of the story of his conversion towards a leader concerned with helping others achieve autonomy-within-cooperation :
“So it is very beautiful and makes deep sense that obviously this space is not empty at all; it is flowing over with the We that embraces all. And as I said, the We is making itself felt, understood, intuited all over this globe and is manifesting in many different ways – as people wanting to cooperate, to collaborate, to be in community and communion, seeing that the time of heroes (central suns) is definitely over, the time for the saviors and lone leaders that could set things right again. The world and its problems have become so complex that we can only hope to find adequate answers in ‘circles’ of very different people where we can meet eye to eye and heart to heart – in a sort of collective leadership maybe. And this is underfoot already on a worldwide scale. The place here would not suffice to mention all the initiatives that are going on all over the world. Yet, this is one aspect of We manifesting.
Another aspect is the sense of spiritual or soul families or clans finding each other again across countries and continents. It is as if we have chosen ages ago to come together in this critical time on the planet to be midwives to what is wanting to emerge. Whatever may be the case we do recognize each other and there is an immediate connection beyond words, even beyond understanding; all we do is accept it.
A third aspect manifests through what has been called the Circle Being, manifesting as a higher order of being together with an incredible coherence that draws in the individuals participating. This certainly is We, being highly coherent.”
The development of intersubjective facilitation
As the consciousness of relationality and the collective We field has gained currency, so have tools and practices been developed which allow individuals to grow within it. Some of the better known are Bohmian Dialogue, John Heron’s and Barbara Langton’s cooperative inquiry, Steven Wirth’s Contemplative Dialogue, Almaas’ dyadic and triadic inquiry, etc. These stand in contrast with the individual spiritual growth approaches that mostly ignored the relational and collective fields.
To illustrate just one of this new breed of group-based facilitation techniques, here is a description of Bohmian Dialogue by Bruce Alderman:
“In Bohmian dialogue, one strives to be mindful of the movement of thought in several dimensions simultaneously: as the subjective thoughts and ‘felts’ that arise at any given moment; as the objective manifestation of sensations and contractions in the body; as the gestures and body language of members in the group; as the particular content of the discussion at hand; as the patterns of interaction and conflict that emerge over time (not only in one session, but over multiple sessions); as the conventions and rules which may inhibit the flow of dialogue; and so on.
“In the beginning, this is a rather difficult practice. But one approaches it simply: starting from a position of open listening and letting dialogue unfold in the space of awareness that the group establishes. Certain deeply held beliefs, presuppositions, ‘unwritten rules,’ fears and insecurities, and so on, will gradually make themselves manifest through this process, as perceptions of individuals in the group fail to line up and various conflicts emerge. These implicit beliefs, these forms of psychological and cultural conditioning, are not readily apparent in the practice of solitary meditation; but in Bohmian contemplative dialogue, particularly if it is sustained over a period of days or weeks, these patterns will emerge over time in the intersubjective field and can be cognized and processed by the group as a whole (or privately by individuals after a particular session has concluded).”
Bohm contends (and I can confirm) that sustained practice of this form of dialogue, particularly if certain ground rules are followed, can lead not only to the emergence of insight for individuals in the group, but to a sort of collective intelligence that manifests in between participants a creative flow of awareness and inspiration that can guide the group to deeper and deeper levels of understanding and communion. The unconscious conventions and habits of thought, the conditioning which usually drives our reactions and our social negotiations, opens onto a living field of responsive intelligence in Bohm’s terms, the birth of group intelligence out of the largely unconscious field of “group think.”
Chaos religions on the internet
Remi Sussan, the author of a book on posthuman utopias, is also very knowledgeable about the new forms that religion is taking in and through the internet, and notes the following:
“During the last two decades has appeared a new trend of occultism that, in many ways reverse common characteristics of the traditional esoteric doctrines. Occultism emphasizes secrecy, the new occultists will do everything in the open; occultism is based on hierarchical systems, grades; new occultists will laugh at hierarchy, prefer disorder to order; occultism claim to be a wisdom coming from an distant past, a theologia prisca; new occultists don’t hesitate to assume their modernity, and blur the frontier between religion and imagination by using images coming from the pop culture: Mr Spock, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even bugs Bunny.
“Known under the various names of ‘chaos magick,’ pop magic, postmodern magic, this current is in fact the deconstruction of traditional esoteric thought. It is also one of the first egalitarian, non-authoritarian spiritual movements. The emphasis put on ‘chaos’ in this movement tends to prove that it is not only hierarchical spirituality that is questioned, but really the very notion of ‘order.'”
One of the latest manifestations of that trend is the Ultraculture movement, promoted by Jason Louv of Disinfo.com:
It is “a cultural movement based around the mass interest in magic and the concordent need to apply it to improving our thoroughly disturbed world.
“Ultraculture specifically means two things:
“It is the name of a social networking system. Specifically, the idea behind ‘Ultraculture’ is to apply the Indymedia model to magic, and establish open city-based “scenes” based around mailing lists and web pages where people can link up with people in their area interested in magic, esotericism, consciousness evolution, etc., discuss it in terms of how it applies to both their own experiences and their communities, and then determine their level of activity and involvement within that growing network.
“Ultraculture is NOT another magical order, group or hierarchy, nor is it just another discussion forum; in this capacity it is only a social connecting system on both a local and global scale. Occultism has traditionally been the pursuit of the ‘Outsider’ figure; Ultraculture then aims to situate magic more firmly as an activity of communities.”
Open Source Religions
Here is another form of contemporary expression, that considers spiritual knowledge to be the collective property of humanity, hence needing to be available in open source’ form, and that can be freely and co-creatively modified and adopted by various individuals and communities.
The Wikipedia notes that “Open source religions attempt to employ open source methodologies in the creation of religious belief systems. As such, their systems of beliefs are created through a continuous process of refinement and dialogue among the believers themselves. In comparison to traditional religions – which are considered authoritarian, hierarchical, and change resistant – they emphasize participation, self-determination, decentralization, and evolution. Followers see themselves as part of a more generalized open source movement, which does not limit itself to software, but applies the same principles to other organized, group efforts to create human artifacts.”
The cited article gives a few examples, including the less than successful attempt by Douglas Rushkoff to create a process for an Open Source Judaism.
Towards a contributory spirituality
The examples above show that the three paradigm shifts, although emerging at this stage, are letting themselves be felt through contemporary spiritual practices. It suggests a new approach to spirituality which I would like to call a contributory spirituality. This approach would consider that each tradition is a set of injunctions set from within a specific framework, and which can disclose different facets of reality. This framework may be influenced by a set of values (patriarchy, exclusive truth doctrines, etc.), which might be rejected today, but also contains psycho-spiritual practices which disclose particular truths about our relationship with the universe. Discovering spiritual truth then, requires at least a partial exposure to these differential methods of truth discovery, within a comparative framework, but it also requires intersubjective feedback, so it is a quest that cannot be undertaken alone, but along with others on the same path. Tradition is thereby not rejected, but critically experienced and evaluated. The modern spiritual practicioner can hold himself beholden to such a particular tradition, but need not feel confined to it. He/she can create spiritual inquiry circles that approach the different traditions with an open mind, experience them individually and collectively, and where the different individual experiences can be exchanged.
In this way, a new collective body of spiritual experiences is created, which is continuously co-created by the inquiring spiritual communities and individuals. The outcome of that process will be a co-created reality that is unpredictable and will create new, as yet unpredictable spiritual formats. But one thing is sure: it will be an open, participatory, approach leading to a commons of spiritual knowledge, from which all humanity can draw from.
Image credit: “It’s Buddha’s planet” by heiwa4126, used under Creative Commons license.