What might a contemporary wisdom embrace? Can we seek to better express a shared narrative that seeks truth and goodness? How do we make this wisdom fit for purpose in 2020?
Part 1 explored spirit from two perspectives. First, the outer journey of connecting to a greater reality (Spirit). Second, the inner journey of integrating our physical, emotional and mental resources to nurture our essence (spirit). Both are basic freedoms for which we are each responsible.
We recognise and acknowledge different spiritual narratives – or religions. Many (see Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy) believe that they share a core wisdom. The core wisdom seeks truth and goodness. Humans, as story-tellers, are free to express the stories that help us make sense of, and apply, wisdom.
Purpose and Direction
More people die from suicide (800,000 per year) than are killed by human violence (21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Y. Harari, 2018). While fulfilment of basic needs has improved, human wellbeing is in decline. Suffering – particularly in terms of anxiety and depression – is overwhelming. Despair is widespread.
The core purpose of spiritual wisdom is to reduce suffering. As we reduce suffering, we experience more joy. This is the direction of spirit in action. It is simple and clear.
- Understand and reduce suffering.
- Seek to build wellbeing and joy.
The fuel for this journey is hope. Modern wisdom must deliver a message of hope to people. That hope must be built on a good narrative and practical steps one can take to reduce suffering and increase joy. Each person must learn from an early age how to take responsibility for their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. The must believe in growth for it is here that hope lies.
Subjectivity and Inclusiveness
Usage of “I” has trumped “we” in recent decades. Does spiritual wisdom serve the individual or all life? We express a wide range of subjectivity. Some risk health and life to boost muscle mass for a fleeting sense of pride. Others seek a drug or alcohol fix to serve an impulse of joy. Many fiercely serve and defend their tribe, race or nation as we see in modern populism. We may even seek to serve all sentient beings and the resilience of the planet.
This is a wicked challenge. It may be the most crucial responsibility of wisdom. While humans are easily seduced into selfish impulse, we are equipped with empathy and altruism. We spontaneously seek to reduce suffering. We can care so much for a child, money or a cause that we can neglect ourselves and others who need us. Unrestrained sympathy can cause more suffering.
Religious conquests with noble objectives to serve ‘god’ and secure a place in heaven, destroyed communities and their cultural achievements. Today we serve money with a devotion that has squandered the beauty of our planet and put all forms of life at extreme risk. Many put their own life and wellbeing at risk on a daily basis to earn an extra dollar.
At the end of the day, the dilemma is what to love? Myself now, my place in heaven, my children, my tribe, money, humanity, the rhinos or pangolins, all life, natural beauty, truth…? One can understand the frustration of rural leaders when billionaire naturalists want to protect animals by taking land, food and hunting rights from their people. Conservation is a war zone driven by love. What irony.
When resilience fails our behaviour becomes increasingly deluded, short sighted and destructive. We suffer, those around us suffer and hope for a better world is extinguished. The foundation of spiritual wisdom is to support and nurture this inner journey.
The higher we rise the more important it becomes to reinforce this inner discipline. When leaders lie, steal, self-aggrandise and abuse, the community and natural environs suffer. We see this in corrupt nations, churches, NGOs and businesses.
Maybe spiritual wisdom is to serve personal enlightenment only. Ultimately, working on both the inner journey of integrating self and connecting to a higher reality is the only show in town. This is the choice of the contemplative in a cave or monastery. Everything else is secular – cultural, political or scientific.
The commandments might be:
- Respect, discipline and love yourself
- Respect, acknowledge and be kind to others
- Take care of your body
- Regulate your emotions
- Use your mind to see the truth
- Act with wisdom and compassion
The Social Contract
We are social creatures. Our individual wellbeing is intimately connected to our community resilience. When we jointly debate and resolve how best to move away from suffering and towards joy, we become an enlightened and just society. The community is a powerful catalyst and support of the personal, inner journey.
A spiritual wisdom can be the mission and values that bond individual and community into a just, compassionate and creative force. When leaders and community hold each other to account, good will prevail. The different perspectives of a community increase the probability of truth and goodness.
When spiritual wisdom is absent, we have corrupt communities (or failed states). Self-interest, greed, corruption and mass suffering follows. Evil prevails. It is extremely difficult for personal enlightenment to proceed.
The extensive suffering and destruction to people, economies, environment and all fellow species is a catastrophic tragedy that takes generations to repair. Our ‘western’ attempts to intervene have failed miserably. This becomes a challenge to the next level.
We live in the age of the Anthropocene when human activity is the major shaping force on the planet. What we do over the next decades will shape the future of life. For 30 years we have known clearly the threat to human life and ecosystems. Yet, we continue to play a game of blind Russian roulette with nuclear arms, carbon emissions, population growth, and waste.
Neither the individual nor the community – not even a group of nation states – can solve this particular problem. Governance has evolved from tribe, to region, to nation and now wrestles with integrated regions such as the European Community. The pressing challenge is wise and just governance for all humans and the ecosystems we rely upon.
Our actions or non-actions have profound implications. How much plastic waste is enough? Do we leave failed states to the pillage of their leaders or do we intervene? Do we close coal plants and face economic decline when a coastal population is threatened? Do we leave Africa to double its population knowing full well that many species, habitats and entire ecosystems collapse? At what point do we obliterate a rogue state threatening nuclear attacks?
It is possible to construct a spiritual wisdom that might guide the decisions of global bodies such as the UN or WHO? We are facing questions of what is sacred and what is not. Religions have long restrained our impulses and excesses. It feels like a time when a new wisdom might be needed to restrain our consumptive hedonism so that there is something beyond suffering and despair left for our children’s children.
The call for a spiritual wisdom for humanity is loud. It may go by many names. The principles or commandments might be:
- Seek and communicate the truth
- Live with restraint and compassion
- Respect and steward our planetary ecosystems
- Act with courage and creativity
- Keep a sense of humour and radiate joy
We will need enlightened individuals and resilient communities to help us debate, construct, guide and maintain it. The alternative is dark.
Part 3 addresses the personal practice of spirit in action.