Here is the substance of a talk I gave at a Transition Town Lewes event last night about what kind of spirituality might be emerging in the 21st Century. The idea of the evening was to stimulate thought, and encourage debate and reflection.
On Wednesday there was a lunar eclipse. Tomorrow the sun stands still. On the 1st July there is a solar eclipse. Whether or not these astronomical events influence us need not concern us now. Deep in our folk memory we sense a power in these moments. Astrologers tell us they signal change, upheaval, opportunity. We may fear change or we may embrace it, but the planets turn, life goes on, the Great Cycles continue.
These cycles move Nature and our lives through death and rebirth, through containment and release, through holding on and letting go. The seed pod tightens and hardens around its precious cargo, then it breaks and releases the new life into the waiting earth.
Here is the problem that confronts us – personally, politically, and spiritually:
We need to be held. We need containment, structure, discipline, tradition, focus, continuity, direction. But we also need release, freedom – we need to break away from all those things, to taste the Nameless Way: to experience no boundaries, no doctrines or dogmas, no hierarchy, even no direction.
Some of us resolve these apparently contradictory needs by opting for one or the other, because to hold the tension is too difficult. The tension between these two impulses can produce agony in personal relationships, tragedy in political circumstances, and in our spiritual or religious lives it confronts us with a major challenge.
In our personal lives we can feel torn by the desire for union and the desire for separation: the yearning to unite with someone and the yearning to be whole and complete in ourselves, being torn between wanting the containment of relationship and wanting the freedom of having no relationship: trapped in the dilemma of wanting to walk into and out of the room at the same time.
On the political stage this tension is most dramatically seen in the current situation in the Middle East where the tension between the tight grip of control and the desire for freedom and release is being played out in often tragic ways. This same interplay exists at the level of economics: too much control and it’s a disaster, no holding and it’s a mess.
On the spiritual stage the opposition is found in the need we can feel for the holding, containment and guidance of a defined spiritual path, rooted in tradition. We want to feel some sense of authority, in the best sense of that word. And that authority comes from tradition, structure, doctrine, and defined practice.
And yet we also yearn for liberation – to break free from labels, from specific religious affiliations, from everything that limits us and holds us.
If there is a new spirituality that is trying to be born it must reconcile these two dynamics. If we opt for the containment, the safety of the old, at its extreme we retrench into Fundamentalism. If we opt for liberation from containment and seek nourishment wherever it is to be found, at the extreme we end up feeling lost without an anchor.
Are we talking here about the Impossible Relationship – irreconcilable dynamics that are somehow destined to forever undermine our personal, political and religious lives?
The challenge is this: how can we take the tension and use it? How can it become a fulcrum rather than a ring-pass-knot we try to untangle or a trapeze we try to walk? We can find a clue as to how we might do this in a study of highly effective creative people carried out by a psychologist called Richard Coan. He found that at the heart of a range of abilities they possessed, lay the ability to move between two apparently contradictory modes of being. These people were able to be very open: freeing themselves of restrictions and limitations by having open hearts and open minds. But they were also capable of being highly focused, creating specific boundaries and objectives in a precise and determined way.
Here of course we have the two great dynamics: Yin and Yang, or in western symbology, the chalice and the blade, Excalibur and the grail. The chalice opens out in ever-widening circles to encompass all creation, the sword defines and protects.
The effectively creative person is able to let go, to break free of the limitations of prejudice, of definitions, of certainty; but they are also able to work with the container they have chosen: the limitations of their media.
So within creativity we can say that the trick is to learn how to move, as if in a dance embodying containment and release, between these two modes of being, effortlessly producing great works of art and beauty. How easy to say, how difficult in practice!
But to me this strongly suggests a way forward, and we can ask ourselves how we can apply this understanding to the emerging new spirituality, or perhaps less ambitiously, to our own spiritual lives: accepting our need for containment, for tradition, for structure, and a the same time recognising our need for liberation and the unbounded.
And when it comes to the question of what structure, when the old structures no longer seem to hold us, I would just like to suggest one idea. The same principle of two apparently irreconcilable forces interacting together may also apply at the level of structure too. What if we took two apparently very different, and even sometimes antagonistic, structures – the two pillars of our spiritual heritage here, the Pagan and the Christian – and let them meet? The result might mean nothing, it might be explosive or tedious, or it might – it just might – give birth to something new.