While I’m taking a break from today’s North American festivities – and take a look here to get my opinion on ‘Turkey Day’ – I wanted to leave a note for Kingsley L. Dennis and his recent blog on Reality Sandwich, ‘The Rise of the New Monastic,’ an excerpt from his recently published book The Phoenix Generation. (1) It hit home with me and I found it to be a notable contribution to the collaborative efforts of Evolver, The Evolver Network (Evolver’s non-profit initiative, soon to take public flight. See our recent Decolonize Consciousness) and other similar endeavors that make up the loose confederation of what has been dubbed ‘transformational culture.’
First: what, exactly, is the New Monasticism? Kingsley gives a definition:
“…whereby individuals/groups get on and create new ways of doing things, without fanfare or large billboard announcements. Such ‘monastic work’, so to speak, often operates below the radar and is authentic through its activity rather than seeking visibility and attention. The ‘monastic worker’, in seeking change, chooses a way of life that has meaning and that can bring lasting change for those involved. Often the monastic worker strives for assisting change within their own communities. They are like ink dots on the blotting paper, slowly spreading their impact by diligent yet creative work. What makes this model not only more appealing today, but also much more effective, is the rise of global communications and distributed networks. Now, the hard-working monastics can connect, share, and collaborate.”
Of course, this definition can apply to many change-makers, working in their local communities on many different fronts: permaculture projects, urban farmers, alternative currencies, gift economies, sustainability design, reforestation projects, local healers and activist spiritual communities. The term is Protestant in origin. “New Monasticism”was coined by Jonathan Wilson in his 1998 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, outlining a way of contemplative life focused on community and good works (2). In the case of Adam Bucko, another contributor to Reality Sandwich and co-author of Occupy Spirituality with Rev. Matthew Fox, the New Monasticism is fused with a sense of what William Irwin Thompson calls post-religious spirituality, or Kurt Johnson’s inter-spiritual age. (2) The critical thing we can note, at this point, is that many of these individuals and the communities they build have an active spirituality, one that is oriented towards improving the conditions of our world. (3) These need not be Earth-based spiritualities, but they do have the Earth and its ecosystems in mind. (4) Religious, spiritual or not, what connects many of these communities and makes them monastic in Kingsley L. Dennis’ terminology is their sense of running contrary to the predominant behaviors of their societies, actively working towards solutions to systemic, planetary crisis. Like their medieval monastic counterparts, you could even say that they combine disciplines under one roof: ecology, pagan practices, plant medicines and contemplative or esoteric exercises work together in a coherent vision (or visions, proper, as there is no singular community but many communities). Combinatory power liberates hyper-specialization evident in academia, presently, and draws different disciplines into a renewed fluidity. (5)
So far we have a working definition of the New Monastic as a kind of planetary-oriented change-maker, working against the current of their host society and building alternatives, not away from culture but in it (although it can be argued that communes, intentional communities, and even ecological projects like Biosphere 2 are all critical laboratories to experiment and gain insight). The New Monastic is a kind of monk without a monastery.
“All great ideas and innovations began life as ‘disruptive’ from the periphery,” Dennis writes. This is what the New Monasticism of what Reality Sandwich and similar initiatives call “transformative culture” shares with its historical monastic counterparts. Ralph Abraham, a chaos mathematician and colleague of William Irwin Thompson, suggests that societies, like complex systems, undergo “chaotic bifurcations,” whereby we move from one chaotic-attractor into a period of destabilization, only to move into another wholly different ordered system. (6) In this evolutionary process, complex systems get upturned by what seems to be unimportant peripheral attractors. In the evolutionary history of Earth’s life, 3 billion years ago, one tiny creature called cyanobacteria began to cumulatively exhale large quantities of oxygen into the atmosphere. While this caused an ecological crisis for early Earth, it made modern life as we know it possible. Cyanobacteria is an example of what Christian Schwagerl calls the “club of revolutionaries” – species with a lasting impact on the planet – in his new book, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet. (7) Modern transformational communities are case-in-point (or potential examples) of how new modalities from the periphery can become agents of systemic transformation.
The fact that we are in a systemic crisis – a meltdown of sorts as a worldview enters a point of systemic failure – needs to be emphasized. Monastics, in this regard, hold the critical position of retaining their civilization’s culture through a period of destabilization and working towards successful alternatives. In the lineage of contemporary counter-cultures, there is much precedent and value in Bill Thompson’s Lindisfarne Association, named appropriately after an island and monastery in North-east England. The same monastery responsible for what historians call the Carolingian Renaissance:
“Although I used the word as a symbol of a small group of people effecting a transformation from one system to another, the word also brought with it the archetypical associations of a small group of monks holding onto ancient knowledge in a fallen world, a world that would soon overrun them during the Viking terror.” (8)
The counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 70s produced many alternative institutions that are reflected in contemporary efforts like The Evolver Network. These include but are not limited to The New Alchemy Institute, Findhorn, Auroville, the Zen Center in California and the Lindisfarne Association itself, which was situated first in Colorado and later in New York City. As Thompson notes, these groups (and their descendants) are “at work together in a cultural movement as ambitious as the Renaissance.” (9) We might extend this vein to other institutions, like Esalen, The California Institute of Integral Studies, Goddard College’s Interdisciplinary and Psychology programs, MetaIntegral Institute, and Daniel Pinchbeck’s recent initiative, The Institute for Planetary Culture. They are in good company, and again, we can point out that these groups are very often spiritually oriented. Thompson writes that, “meditation is at the heart of the life of the community.”
In the age of distributed networks as Kingsley L. Dennis rightly notes, we can connect. Part of the systemic change we are undergoing is reflected in the impact of global, electronic communication. Lindisfarne, Auroville, Findhorn and Esalen have become distributed networks and re-formed in the collective bodies of initiatives like The Evolver Network, which has over 40 chapters worldwide. Monks without monasteries. The New Monasticism, and the revolution for that matter, will be distributed. (10)
“When you worship the God of Bread, Liberty, and Social Justice, your revolution is global and not specific to one part of the world,” Mona Eltahawy writes in the forward to Occupy Spirituality. ” Similarly, Adam Bucko states in this excerpt that “The Occupy generation is being initiated into a new kind of spirituality, one that is ready to replace the God of Religion… with a God of Life.” Further, this kind of spirituality is “democratic, transformative, and dedicated to the healing of ourselves and our world.” Adam also notes, importantly, that 75% of Americans between eighteen and twenty-nine consider themselves spiritual-but-not-religious. (11)
Stepping out of the planetary context – and arguably we have yet to realize a truly ‘planetary’ culture, but planetary-oriented transformational communities – we can recognize the deep precedent in North America for democratizing forms of spirituality and the radical, spiritual left. Dan Mckanan, author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, writes:
“The empowering encounters of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Day, and Starhawk stand in a tradition that has gone by many names. Some would call it the path of the prophets. Others speak of the “American radical tradition” or simply “the Left.” It is the tradition of abolitionists who called on their neighbors to immediately renounce the sin of slavery, of feminists who recognized patriarchy as itself a form of slavery, of socialists who labored to build a “cooperative commonwealth,” and of pacifists who saw war as the ultimate affront to humanity.” (12)
Similarly, Dr. Jeff Kripal in Authors of the Impossible discerns a potent connection between 19th century Mesmerism and the democratic vision of the Transcendentalist literary renaissance:
“Such authors were writing their way to a distinctly American aesthetic that could accommodate what Mills calls “transition states” in a democratic culture. In my own terms, they were writing their way to a democratic mysticism rooted in literature and individuals as opposed to doctrinal systems and institutions.” (13)
This is what Kripal refers to as “the religion of no religion” and stands as an important, final note for this piece in respect to the suggestion of a New Monasticism. (14) Contemporary groups like The Evolver Network, Adam Bucko’s “Occupy Spirituality” movement, and other similar networks are enacting this “post-religious” idea which seems to have finally taken hold in Western – perhaps global – cultures. “Appropriately,” Thompson writes, “this post-religious movement from nation to Emanation has no single leader, but is an emergent domain – an ecology of consciousness in which diversity is its most striking feature and strength.” (15) According to Thompson’s own analysis of this trend, the shift is from religious hierarchy to fellowship – reflecting the larger suggestion that the particular genius, or cultural excellence, of planetary culture lies in its shift from centralized hierarchies to radical, decentralized networks: “From ecclesiastic structure and hierarchy to a fellowship of self-actualized individuals.”
Contemporary, intentional movements serve as prototypes. Monastic monads, in one sense, cultivating new experimental lifestyles which may fortunately catch on as the systemic crisis, and older systems of social organization, enter their inevitable death throes. Riffing on The Evolver Network’s symbol of mycelia, the future of human civilizations may be something utterly different to our understanding today – the industrial nation-state gets swallowed up and miniaturized into an intensified ecological consciousness that has developed a symbiosis with technology and esoteric spiritualities. The concept of spores, mycelia and living networks may be a vision of our latent civilizational future – working as Kinglsey L. Dennis describes as the intermediary, Phoenix Generation.
To embrace the life of a contemporary monastic is to work on these differing elements as complicit in a larger and visionary whole. Technologies like permaculture, alternative currencies, digital networks, social justice movements and other historically disruptive innovations are integral to the esoteric vision of the inner guru, the Psychic Being of Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary yoga, the democratic mysticism of the Transcendentalists where one relies upon divinizing their individuality in Thompson’s conception of fellowship. Yet, all of this has to be done, is being done, in the context of wrestling with the problems of the modern world, working with communities at a local level, and most importantly: holding the vision as we till the soil, feed each other, and work towards what Teilhard de Chardin called “building the Earth.” This, to me anyway, is what being a New Monastic is all about.
(1) Dennis, Kingsley. The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness.
(2) See the New Monasticism wiki page.
(3) See William Irwin Thompson’s Beyond Religion: From Shamanism to Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality. Also see Kurt Johnson’s The Coming Interspiritual Age.
(4) It’s important to consider that there is a deep history of religious movements that are situated towards social reform. Karen Armstrong argues in The Great Transformation that it was certain religious movements, like Buddhism, that helped what we now call “The Axial Age” come into being. In Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, Dan Mckanan clearly shows how religion was a radical and often progressive form of social activism in American history, rather than a conservative force as it is labeled today.
(5) For example, see this CIIS talk at the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness Forum: Travis Cox on Transpersonal Agroecology.
(6) See Wouter Hanegraaf’s Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed. What’s intriguing about this fluidity is that recent developments in academic studies – particularly in Western Esotericism – are demonstrating the emergence of the modern, scientific worldview was not a simple and neat climb out of superstitious proto-chemistry. The “rejected knowledge” of our cultural heritage points to a more complicated historical matrix from which the splitting of science and religion is a relatively recent worldview.
(7) See Bolts from the Blue by Ralph Abraham.
(8) “The Club of Revolutionaries is comprised of species that have caused lasting change and have created new structures, just as fire, water, and wind have done.” pg. 12, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet.
(9) See the Lindisfarne Association wiki page and be sure to read the Goals section.
(10) William Irwin Thompson, Darkness and Scattered Light, pg 182.
(11) Global technologies, alone, are reflective of a deeper ontological shift in the Western mind. What anthropology Gregory Bateson described as sensing “the patterns that connect.” Thinking in terms of systems, connecting the dots, and relations is a key importance and runs counter to techno-materialist obsession with escaping nature, and foregoing a relationship with Earth as a living organism. Fortunately, the combinatory relationship of technology, ecosystems, and spirituality helps many of these intentional communities and transformational networks to avoid this pitfall.
(13) Mckanan. Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. Pg 2.
(14) Kripal. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. Pg. 231.
(15) See Kripal. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.