Why we need ancient wisdom and modern neuropsychology to break out of the identity-driven tribal warfare that is engulfing us all… so we can come together to solve the unprecedented existential survival problems that we are facing as a species: from climate change, the biodiversity crisis and air pollution to the epidemics of depression, anxiety and “deaths of despair”
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. Leo Tolstoy
Trigger Warning 1: This essay, written by an entitled cis man of the patriarchy with implicit bias against other groups who went to an elite university and has succeeded economically in the existing capitalist system helped by white privilege, may inspire frustration.
Trigger Warning 2: This essay, written by the grandson of Holocaust survivors, who grew up traumatized through divorce, was relentlessly bullied and socially-excluded for many years, and who has worked tireless to heal his trauma within and dedicate his life to leading systemic change with purpose, may inspire wisdom.
Right now, as you read this, depression is the single greatest burden on health worldwide. Suicide kills more people than war and natural catastrophes put together. Anxiety is the fastest-growing illness in teens. Middle-aged people across the USA are dying from “deaths of despair”, especially in “red” states. 40% of US adults say they are lonely, up from 20% in the 1980s and loneliness is twice as dangerous as obesity to health. In some post-industrial towns, from the middle of France to the rust-belt, there are half the jobs of a century ago. Child poverty is up in the US and UK (100,000 more kids than last year even as companies have record profits). Homelessness is at its highest rate in London and Los Angeles; and food banks cannot keep up with demand.
In the USA, with its booming stock market, 20% of prime-age men are out of work. Many millions more are in the “precariat”, dealing with jobs in the gig economy with little job security, healthcare or predictability. Above all, unprecedented wage stagnation means that, for the first time in human history, many children will not out-earn their parents. Only 37% of Americans expect their kids to be better off than they are. Almost all of us are caught in modern-day “wage slavery”: unable to exit 10-hour-a-day-jobs in the system without risking a full life implosion. And still we only just get by. The psychological toll on us is hard to over-estimate.
After decades in which politicians of the conventional left and right have failed to solve our problems with redistributions or trickle-down tax breaks, nationalizations or privatizations, welfare programs or back-to-work programs, things have got worse not better for most. People feel understandably alone, afraid, and angry, whether they are part of the white majority that will become an ethnic minority in 25 years (they already are in London and LA); or part of an oppressed minority. This is fueling a rejuvenation of politics across the political spectrum which can be seen in the the rise of the so-called “alt-right” and “alt-left”.
At the core of the rise of alt-right populism and alt-left activism is the extreme loss of dignity, meaning, community, quality of life, and autonomy in the current social and economic system. Threatened by what is perceived as oppression by other identities and their agenda, each group has placed its own identity at the core of its sense of value, status, and relevance. In the vacuum of meaning, consensus, connection, and compassion that is the hallmark of advanced capitalism, “memetic tribes” are enacting vicious culture wars by harnessing the raw power of identity. People clearly hope that more extreme politics — animated around a shared gender, sexual, racial, or national identity — will solve their myriad problems. But I believe this path is doomed to failure because both alt-right and alt-left have risen around the very thing that will hold us all back: identity. We need to hack identity or we will forever be caught in its vice-like grip.
The conventional two political parties have fragmented into scores of 21st century tribes — from incels to those enamored by Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web; from those fighting for LGBTI rights to those fighting for the principle that Black Lives Matter and for the destruction of colonial legacies — that have developed a set of identity-driven values and narratives that cement strong bonds. People are retreating into these ever-fragmenting sub-groups, often fighting amongst themselves as more pure than others, armed with ideological weapons: memes. They spread these “memes” across a global village wired up by social media — where trauma-driven triggers can be so easily and cynically leveraged to create outrage and anger unchecked by the empathy that comes from genuine human connectivity and presence — to recruit new members and to flame and troll their identity-driven enemies. Each tribe is wrought together through a shared sense of identity: a tendency built into our natures through the “love” hormone oxytocin. It strengthens in-group bonds but reinforces separation from, and angst with, those out of the group.
This warfare between these “memetic” tribes, elegantly explored within the Netflix show Dear White People, threatens to engulf us all: the energy, trust, creativity, and goodwill lost in the endless conflicts is devastating our societies at a time when we need to come together to engage fully in the species-level existential threats that face us all. Ending the tribal warfare is of world-historical importance because we all have to deal with what I call the “triple threat” of: 1) existential risks like climate change, pollution, loneliness, and depression; 2) exponential technologies like AI, blockchain, and robots; and 3) disrupted societies with fast-changing social norms that are transforming existing institutions, hierarchies, and structures.
It is natural to fight, or flee from, threats that we don’t know how to deal with. Yet this conflictual war premised on different and diverse identities — that find it hard to relate to each other with respect and compassion — is exploding across our culture from college campuses to the US senate. Simply put, we need to find a way to hack through it if we are going to move ourselves out of the current deadlock; and move our societies forward by engaging with our challenges head on and resolving them together.
When I trained in conflict transformation with prolific author and conflict philosopher Ken Cloke of Mediators Without Borders in LA, I discovered that all conflict is creativity waiting to emerge from a system that is ready for transformation: poised for a transcendent breakthrough that occurs when we transform the out-dated beliefs/habits that are driving the power struggle in the first place. Until we have this breakthrough, the exhaustion and depletion from being caught in a power struggle that can never be won — using beliefs and behaviors that are no longer fitted to the outside world causes us to enter what I call the Breakdown Decline.
By leading ourselves and others across what I call The Transformation Curve, we can land transformations that bring us from a sense that our social institutions and ideologies are fading and failing… to a new and more appropriate “higher-level” order that includes and builds upon the old but has new emergent properties — with more stability and capacity — that fits the change world better and so leads us to thrive more. This is the evolutionary imperative to “adapt or die” calling us to transcend our obsession with identity and find a higher-order sense of group cohesion and individual meaning that can equip us to deal with the triple threat. We can, if we come together, heal the divisions that are wreaking havoc and wrestle from the jaws of chaos a fundamental breakthrough in society. But how?
I recently published a book Spiritual Atheist: A Quest To Unite Science and Wisdom Into A Radical New Life Philosophy To Thrive In the Digital Age, in which I set out the philosophical foundations for a new social and cultural narrative — and theory of transformation — that includes yet transcends pre-modern, modern, and postmodern ideologies (so is, apparently, “metamodern”). Within it is a rigorous “dual-aspect” metaphysics that sees the scientific and wisdom traditions as two different, yet complementary, ways of knowing one “non-dual” or unified reality. Both are understood as having full ontological existence even if the secondary qualities of consciousness cannot be “proven” to exist by a science — i.e. Western science — that purposefully evolved to study only the primary properties of matter.
In this phronetic — and so very practical — philosophy, science is the most rigorous way we have found to date to give us reliable and replicable data about what works to change the material world of atoms, neurons, and financial systems. Wisdom, whether through burning ecstasy, incandescent intimacy, or quiescent meditation, is the most rigorous way we have found of building up a reliable and replicable knowledge-base of our consciousness so that we can consistently change our biologies to experience compassion, creativity, and collaboration.
For a spiritual atheist, neither consciousness nor matter is more important or more “true”. This is unlike either idealistic gurus, who pronounce matter (including abused children and scarred forests) to be an illusion; or mechanistic madmen who state that even their own consciousness — the one that is making said utterances — is a delusion. For a spiritual atheist, mastery of both aspects of one world are vital if we want to transform ourselves so we can step up as the transformational leaders we need to be to solve the species-threatening problems we now face. We must master both domains of our being — how we think and feel in our consciousness and how we act on the world in matter — to upgrade our Neolithic neurons to a state where they can deal with our Anthropocene (our current geographical epoch, the first to be influenced by humankind) agonies in our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world.
Spiritual atheism is underpinned by the majesty of modern science without limiting our wisdom to what can proven with a methodology explicitly designed to study just the measurable “primary properties” of matter. But by recognizing the refined wisdom that emerges after years of “inner work”- consistent meditation and the processing of our trauma and “shadow” within — as equally valid to scientific knowledge we do not fall back into superstition, we do not cede control to a priestly tribe, text, or temple, nor do we fall into the trap of much “New Age” spirituality: remaining an aesthetic choice — tattoos and yoga pants — rather than a profound psychological and political one.
Built on the dual-aspect — both matter and consciousness, both science and wisdom — metaphysics of spiritual atheism is a methodology and process of human and systemic transformation that we, within my enterprise, have called the Switch On Way. At the heart of it is a dual-mode understanding of human consciousness that is underpinned by recent neurobiology whilst being fundamentally informed by timeless insights from the great wisdom traditions. I believe these two modes, working in an antagonistic pair as our biceps and triceps do, are the everyday manifestations of our dual-aspect metaphysical nature.
Control and Protect Mode is a state of consciousness in which we are focused, often without being fully aware of it, on defending ourselves against threats and dealing with uncertainty to maximize our chances of survival with control and predication. In this state we are classically smart, relying on efficient, but not always effective, memes, habits, and ideologies that have worked in the past to protect us and to help us survive trauma and threats. When threatened to the extreme, these include variations of the fight, flight, or freeze response. In quotidian life, we are measured, logical, and attempting to remain in control.
Through recent brain studies scientists have identified a powerful brain network called the Cognitive Control Network or Executive Control Network, which dominates us when we are solving familiar problems with existing rules (and so relying on our patterns to control the world). I sense that this correlates with Control and Protect Mode (thus reuniting the latest science with timeless wisdom in a very practical way). In Control and Protect Mode (C&P Mode) we see the world as separate lumps of material to be measured, explained, and mastered with science and reason. The tendency is to conserve what works, using an existing rule-book (religious or scientific) as best-practice to get predictable results with known and knowable problems.
Create and Connect Mode, on the other hand, is a state of consciousness in which we are focused on growing, learning, loving, leading, and thriving by connecting with ourselves, each other, and the universe. In this state we can access imaginative thoughts, ideas, insights, and intuitions to create effective, if not always efficient, solutions to new and emerging challenges (the kind we must all face today). There is another important brain network, the Default Mode Network (often called the “daydreaming” network), which allows us to create new solutions to problems as they emerge in a changing world (without which our species would not have been so successful). This seems to correlate with Create and Connect Mode.
In Create and Connect Mode (C&C Mode) we see the world as alive, connected and creative: ripe to be explored curious creativity and within intimate and trusting relationships. We experience what William James called “cosmic consciousness” and what I call connective consciousness. The tendency in this Mode is to progress to a better place, feeling our way into next-practice rather than be locked in repeating old habits and assumptions. We follow principles of heart and mind and we are willing to disrupt old rules with courage.
These Modes play out in organizations: some are dominated by creativity (and so chaos); some by efficiency and control (and so little innovation). The ideal is to be adaptable and agile, able to switch Modes to suit the moment — and the nature of the problems we face. At the macro-level, which Mode we favor or have access to appears to me echoed in the party we vote for. Whereas left wing and right wing used to disagree over the size or role of the State, and how resources should be distributed, now research shows that the major fault line in modern politics is whether we feel inspired to reach out and embrace a changing world (those with plenty of access to C&C Mode); or whether we want to back away from the threats, hunker down in tradition, and return to a “better” time (those dominated by C&P Mode).
A third brain network, the Salience Network, well-connected to the sub-cortical emotion-processing parts of our brain, determines what mode we are in. Scared, threatened, upset, frustrated, and anxious about loss of power, dignity and meaning… we enter C&P Mode. Feel psychological safe, trusted, purposeful and that people have our back and we can enter C&C Mode. Little wonder then that Google, after spending 5+ years researching what drives their highest-performing teams, came to the conclusion that emotional safety is the number 1 driver; way ahead of numbers 2–5. Strong emotions of fear or safety (dare we say love?) are the key to the Mode we are in.
To survive and thrive we master our emotions so that we can master our Modes: consciously choosing the right mode for the moment, rather than just react with our defensive patterns whether that means “fighting” for either our collective rights or our individual responsibilities. Any reaction creates an equal and opposite reaction. History teaches us that violent revolution begets reactionary overthrows. Communism creates Putinism. Obama leads to Trump. We must get out of the ping-pong nature of trigger and reaction by mastering our biology. This means becoming fully aware of what triggers us, why, and how we react. We can then begin the long process of self-transformation.
As soon as we feel threatened by another’s identity and any defensive/aggressive activities that go with it, we lock into C&P Mode even if we are looking genteel and calm. Immediately our empathy disappears (this is a survival benefit as we don’t want to befriend the saber-tooth tiger). We take up a position, which always leads to the power struggle of conflict. We no longer see others — especially those that we feel are oppressing us with their white privilege / misogynistic patriarchy / racial stereotypes / affirmative action / justice warrior-ship / rights (*delete as appropriate) — we just see objects that are threatening our sense of safety and structure. We can no longer experience their fragile humanity with compassion and caring. We just want to defend ourselves. We then justify our anger or anxiety with stories that make us feel right; and that justify our behaviors and beliefs making them seem eternal truths. We cast the “others” as crazy, stupid, and dangerous.
A core principle of the Switch On Way is that every trigger that enacts a reaction with us is ours, no matter how abusive and objectionable people are. Yes people can be responsible for inspiring fear and anger or joy and love. But how we react or respond to a situation — of any kind — is always in our domain of empowerment. As I say in my first book, Switch On:
Even in some of the worst places the world has ever seen, people have chosen to switch on to life, rather than retreat from it, blaming, shaming, and complaining as they go. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl spent time in Auschwitz, where many of my great-grandparents, -aunts and -uncles died. In his profound book Man’s Search for Meaning he declares:
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Our biology is a closed system in that we don’t ingest the hormones or neurotransmitters of others. Which means their words and actions don’t “make” us feel the way we do. We make us feel the way we do. The latest neuroscience testifies to this truth. Top scientists believe that we make our emotions up based on stories and memes. Which means we will be trapped reacting with “negative” patterns — blaming, shaming and complaining about others — until we master our emotions, thoughts, and habits. We must own our own triggers otherwise they will own us: causing us to act in controlling and protective ways even when we want to — and need to — connect, create and collaborate. This is essential for the activist of left or right to accept and take on. It is neuropsychological reality. Before we try to change the world, we must know how to change ourselves.
To the spiritual atheist, every trigger is a signal that something within our consciousness is incomplete, unhealed, and dis-integrated. A trigger is an invitation to go inside to transform trauma, sabotaging habits, and addictions within. We will often need to shed tears of pain and suffering and grieve old wounds and lost versions of ourselves. Then, and only then, can we come back to the people who don’t get us and have total compassion for their state of consciousness and their stage of psychospiritual development. We can allow them to be as they are without being diminished ourselves.
The people around us may be enormously threatened by our transitions and social transformations; perhaps terrified and confused, jerking into extreme C&P Mode and refusing our entreaties to see us and respect us. With the separation consciousness that is one of the hallmarks of C&P Mode, they may react in the exact opposite way to what we want: with more patterns designed to protect themselves and that attempt to control the changes. This can feel unjust. This can cause us material suffering: less rights, less income, less status in society, less likely to have a promotion at work. At this point, we get to choose whether we respond or react to this. We can accept them as they are without needing them to change — even if they are our parents or partner — to feel whole ourselves. They may never make it to a more conscious state. They may never be able to give us the love and respect we crave. They may never call us “they” or respect our race or creed. But we can always respect ourselves. The more we love and cherish ourselves within, the more we have the power to shift others with connection rather than with force.
There is a doozie though: we absolutely need to access ancient, timeless wisdom from the great traditions, from Buddhism and Taoism to Vedanta and Kabbbalah — to break out of the triggers and anger that are crippling our cultures. We cannot hack identity without discovering and embodying the quintessential “mystical experience” of unity: it is the only phenomena I have discovered that can break us free from the prison of identity. Identity (and so Identity Politics) exists because people need to create for themselves a solid sense of who they are and how they fit into society into order to fully individuate and become self-authoring, self-improving adults.
But we must keep on moving past identity if we want to become truly flexible and adaptable in heart and mind. To do this, we must go within ourselves using wisdom practices with discipline and diligence to find an inalienable truth: perhaps the only absolute truth that cannot be deconstructed by postmodernism (some of the insights from evolutionary biology and developmental psychology are also great contenders). Within we will discover that rather than being separate individuals that need to cling to each other through a shared identity, we are all already one. This is enough for us to feel limitless love within. This sense of unity that we describe as love in human language is the core truth and value of spiritual practice.
As I explain in my books, this kind of “spiritual” love — whether we call it that or not — allows us to experience old pain and trauma in a safe way and so let go of it. Love within provides us with what attachment theorists call an “internalized secure base” so that we can heal trauma and become more whole. Rather than seek security in others, which is what happens in memetic tribes, we build it within. Because the love is self-generated, it is unlimited and totally unconditional. This kind of love is the only thing I have ever heard of, or experienced myself, that is bigger than our fear and therefore strong enough to transform our protective patterns: the kind that have us get angry, attack others who don’t agree with us, and even deny the legitimacy of free speech. This liquid love within can dissolve away our pain, our addictions, and our reactivities so we can find peace inside — and so bring more peace outside.
Science has shown that the only emotion that can get us to share content on social media more than anger is awe. The limitless love we find within is a source of that awe; and inspires us to create memes and stories that are awe-some too. When we feel it within — a love that nobody can give us and we have to find ourselves on the inside — we love everyone as our brother, sister, and friend. We can forgive all acts of hate and harm even as we create strong boundaries to stop them from occurring. We can give up shaming and blaming and see the best version of anyone we encounter in our hearts as we engage with them. Even as we are victimized, bullied, and hurt we remind ourselves of the frail foibles of the people who are doing it. We can criticize the act but love the actor. We can turn the other cheek. This was the greatest teaching of the wisdom teacher Jesus of Nazareth. As he lies dying on the cross, he says: “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
We can quench the righteous anger of modernity that comes from our loss of dignity and security within love we tap into within our consciousness. If we don’t feel find a way to reliably access this unconditional, universal, spiritual love then there is nothing bigger than ourselves into which we can release our pain, disappointments, and troubles. We are stuck with them. We are condemned to constantly being triggered by others and then acting out old patterns in C&P Mode that limit us.
Todays identity-driven conflicts and hatreds feed on our triggers that exist because of our traumas (anything that we experience earlier in life that we did not have the resources to full process at the time). The alt-left and alt-right share this reactionary, identity-driven patterning. The memetic tribes have been triggered into defensive reactions because they feel that they are threatened. Both have done this to promote safety, defense and protection in a world that is pressing in on them, in their view, and disenfranchising them. Defensive patterns become our persona, our mask: the front we have developed to keep us safe but then traps us in identities that limits us as much as liberate us.
The alt-right has taken a white male identity — driven by commendable Enlightenment values of self-reliance, self-improvement, responsibility and reason — and reified it as King over all. In this reality, safety comes from the conservation of what already works: national cohesion, self-reliance, religious and family values and tradition. The alt-left has taken a diverse ethnic or gendered identity — driven by commendable Enlightenment values of equality, rights, and justice — and reified it as Queen over all. in this reality, safety comes from making progress to something better: universal cohesion, social change, atheist and liberal values.
The irony is that both worldviews are underpinned by a crucial fundamental mistake; a sense of separation instead of a feeling of unity. Conservative narratives see man as separate from God; given dominion of a separate Earth by him as part of God’s plan. The moral individual must work hard to make good, harnessing their Protestant/Promethean creative genius to create a strong family, enterprise, and state. Progressive narratives are rooted in Marxist historical materialism and atheist scientific materialism. It’s survival of the fittest: gene against gene and species against species. One separate group must wrestle the means of production from another; enacting class warfare (or power analyses) to ensure the power of the Proletariat is made manifest.
Control and Protect Mode, feeling so much fear from the agonizing sense of separation enflamed by the intense anxieties of the age, has fixated on rightness on the one hand and rights on the other as ways to exert control over the Other(s) that they see as oppressive (and just plain wrong). When we identify as a race, class, sexuality or age (or anything else), we enter an in-group that has to have an out-group. This will lead us to the extremes. This means that all Identity Politics — that is to say a belief in a social and political order driven by identity — tends towards fascism. This is not a surprise. This is what C&P Mode always does when its threatened. It gets positional and claims it is right. It may be more obvious that those identifying as white supremacists and then marching in Charlottesville are fascists; but recent “grievance studies” hoaxes, one of which took a segment of the book that Hitler wrote in prison, Mein Kampf, replaced key words with feminist ideas, and then submitted it to a left-wing journal — where it was approved — shows that ideological fascism is equally thriving in left-wing circles too.
Within the life philosophy (and metaphysics — shh don’t tell anyone we’re using the M word) of spiritual atheism lies a way for us to transcend the identity-driven tribal warfare devastating our societies and our politics. Spiritual atheists accept that the system, the way our society is structured in the matter — whether we see that as unjust laws, affirmative action, voter suppression, crumbling welfare systems, crony capitalism, consumer manipulation corrupt political parties etc etc — is deeply flawed. We see that “the system” is unjust and we seek to change it through social activism and purpose-driven innovation. But we also realize that changes in matter are not sustainable until we transform the shared beliefs and habits in our consciousness — our emotions and thoughts — that crystallize into “the system” in the first place.
The dual-aspect metaphysics of spiritual atheism teaches us that our socio-economic system, manifested fully in the material world, must be challenged because old forms of hierarchal power are diminishing our shared human rights. But spiritual atheism also teaches us that the reactivities, triggers and patterns in our inner world of consciousness — that reduce our self-reliance and ability to deal with life are our sole responsibility to transform (although one hopes others are there to support our transformations). As soon as we become positional on either rights or responsibilities — driven by an ideology wrapped around an identity — we leave the realm of co-creative possibilities and enter predictable patterns. This sucks out of the space the very innovation we need to rise up to the challenges of the tripe threat.
We might see more clearly the pain of those of a race or gender who have been constantly and systematically excluded from positions of power; and abused and oppressed for centuries from slavery right up to the modern prison system— but the profound species-level empathy of C&C Mode allows us to see that those of the white, male majority feel like they are now at the “back of the line” for prestige and power (and income) in the postmodern, progressive world. After spending 5 years doing ethnographic research deep in Louisiana with right-wing conservatives, liberal professor at UC Berkeley Arlie Hochschild suggests that those Alt-Right supporters are searching for the American Dream — wealth, success, dignity — but feel like those with very different identities, people of color, women, immigrants, refugees, are all ahead of them. This has directly led to Trumpism, Orban in Hungary, and Brexit amongst many other populists who intentionally trigger the trauma of fading ethnic majorities.
When we don’t understand this dual-mode system, and are therefore unaware what mode we are in and why, C&P Mode will hijack any idea or ideology in order to do what it has evolved to do: to help us feel safe, secure, and in control. But when we are aware of our Modes, can can switch on in an instant (or as close to this as we can muster). Inspired by our connection within — which we experience as love in our hearts and peace in our minds — we can surrender our identity into the non-dual universe that we are all intrinsically part of. If we stay stuck in “who I am is my identity” we reduce the speed at which we can always transform ourselves into ever wiser and more masterful versions of ourselves. But if we feel safe enough to give up who were being an identity we can then accelerate who we are becoming. Identity is a freedom from oppression that becomes its own form of prison until we know how to switch our of C&P Mode (and the oxytocin-system that has us love one group more than another) and into C&C Mode. There is only one group: our species as is attempts to solve the problems it has created with, hopefully, a new level of consciousness. We must find our way to love all; care for all; and have compassion for all — fast.
This is not spirituality as lifestyle choice but spiritual practice as a way of practically embodying a life philosophy that confidently re-enchants the world, without religion — and without cynicism (although skepticism and playfulness are most welcome).
This means we absolutely have to move beyond identity (politics) — whether of left or right — by first coming through it as a rite of passage: an important milestone in our journey into advanced stages of human consciousness. We need to own our own identity, fully claiming and inhabiting the space in the discourse and in the system that we deserve — whether we identify through ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality or any other form of difference. But if we stay at the stage of identity we can never unleash our true potential as leaders. And we can never access our birthright: lasting inner peace and a lifetime of purpose. We need to fully individuate and become a stable individual with an identity based on self-authorship and autonomy not social pleasing, pressures or conformity… before dissolving away that identity in “non-duality” so we can engage and embrace with all identities out there and be a genuine leader in the systems we touch.
In fact, if people skip the many years of committed adult development needed to build a strong, self-authoring, moral, and responsible individual identity, they cannot fully appreciate, or handle, the intense ego-dissolving experience of genuine connective consciousness. They will tend towards “spiritual bypass”: getting high on the moments of bliss in meditation and ecstatic dance whilst never fully owning their triggers, patterns, and trauma. This kind of “salad bar” approach to spirituality — picking the bits one likes and leaving the hard inner work on the buffet table— haunts the contemporary world and seems to lead so often to a dangerous and damaging form of mass “personality disorder” amongst those that identify, as their in-group, as “spiritual” or “conscious”.
As spiritual atheists — being careful to never make spiritual atheism an identity by letting C&P Mode hijack it to generate an in-group that judges other group(s) — we purposefully yet playfully pay attention to the material world and all forms of discrimination and domination within it (whether emanating from the left as much as right). We can critically, yet compassionately, appraise all human-created systems. We can recognize systemic biases and destructive privilege; and we can speak truth to power. We can consciously spot where people have used, and are using, their power-knowledge to repress and oppress and help them let go of these old protective habits to embrace genuine community. This is the essence of transformational leadership: creating the conditions for people in C&P Mode to come into C&C Mode so they can play their full part in solving our species-level challenges in the micro-moments and human-level communities where they play out.
This means, in practice, working to support police officers who enact racial profiling, whether consciously or not, as a way to control people of color (and protect themselves from poorly-understood others) to surface and transform their habits of thought and action. It means becoming aware of politicians who, rather that present powerful positive visions and inspiring narratives, “dog whistle” to stir up old radical prejudices through media soundbites. It means educating and inspiring them and the people they enflame to get out of C&P and into C&C. This means becoming woke to the power-knowledge that is used by powerful people in the old hierarchies to diminish us: whether scientific discourses on gender, the social norms of patriarchy, or political narratives of ethnic supremacy… whilst recognizing that their desire to conserve things that have worked well (for them at least) — whether self-reliance, entrepreneurial creativity, or family cohesion — is an understandable and commendable, in part, ambition.
As we hold the Po Po, politicians and the polis as a whole to account, we can have compassion for everyone’s pain and anxieties. We can find ways to bring everyone into C&C Mode — perhaps by honoring the joys and import of family, community, or patria — so all can co-create solutions to their own challenges. Having spent many years attempting to walk this path as a leader and teacher of leaders (and many others), I am by no means saying any of this is easy. But it is possible. And it is the only path out of the mess we are in. We must always remember that people (and that means us to) change most successfully when they feel safe, trusted and connect rather than shamed or blamed.
It is time for us all be free to draw attention to the excesses of all Identity Politics — when we glimpse white patriarchal supremacy or suppressive leftist demagoguery — without agreeing with oppression in any form or becoming vanilla-centrists with no vision. We can feel the pain of middle-aged white men who live every day the economic injustice of advanced capitalism — where nothing they do is ever enough to provide and where the community they love is being fractured by forces outside of their control — without suggesting that the millions of descendants of mass slavery are free from the daily indignities and structural disadvantages of being people of color. We must feel all this pain in our hearts but not despair. Instead we go “through, up and out” of the pain by dipping into the ultimate truth of our shared unity as we journey along the Transformation Curve.
We must stop the fighting between memetic tribes, whether on left or right or between left and right. We need to look up from our identity-driven navel-gazing and come together to deal with a possible 4 degree rise in temperature before our kids retire, a devastating drop in biodiversity, the rising specter of air pollution that kills 9 million are year, more than malaria and TB combined; and the pandemics of depression, anxiety, suicide, and despair. We must make a stand — in the way Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr all did — to transform our dying systems. The only way to do this is to first change ourselves. Then, and only then, can we meet people where they are at — at whatever point on the political spectrum — and then elevate them with our words and deeds. We can be in the field that the wisdom poet Rumi spoke about: beyond right and wrong/left.
We must become dedicated to our inner work not for our own pleasure or bliss but to clear away the anger and anxieties that stop us being able to serve what’s seeking to emerge from our shared hearts in the form of genuine social innovations. We must become a full self-authoring individual so that we can be fully in community with semi-permeable membranes that balance our responsibilities and rights, what we own and what we share. A spiritual atheist values the innate equality of every human being. Your presence and my presence are equally important in our world. However we can also accept that there are key development stages in both child and adult consciousness — as we move from dependent infants to purpose-driven leaders — which afford us differential skills in dealing with problems that matter, in matter. As we progress through levels of consciousness development we also become more capable of effecting change in matter: we can get more stuff done, influence more people with our ideas, and make more impact.
So we can resist “dominator hierarchies” that tyrannize those at the bottom without needing to erase what we might “creative hierarchies”: the recognition that within groups of human beings, there will exist different talents and skills for organizing and creating in the material world. Some have done more self-development. Some have released more trauma. Some have cracked transformational innovation. Some have stepped up further into leadership positions. We do not need to to force flatness onto the material world with regulated compliance, conformity or communism, destroying the up-right talents, commitments, and courage of the very people that we need to get us out of the messes of modernity. By the same token, we can celebrate this Promethean individual genius without diminishing the intrinsic value of the presence of all; and the importance of sharing what we are lucky enough to have by choice not by force.
Within the Switch On Way is an important piece of practical philosophy: to move out of either/or thinking (either white or a person of color; either left wing or right wing) and to realize that true wisdom and transformational leadership comes from seeing both/and harmonies between seeming opposites. Following a fragment from an ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, I call this finding and embodying a “palintonic harmony”. To be part of a genuine socio-economic transformation we must hold polar opposites — both rights and responsibilities, both conservation and progress, both meritocracy and equality — to be true.
At simplest, we must access the genius of the individual master of her trade and the astonishing wisdom of a crowd of everymen and everywomen. We must celebrate the ideals of individuality and identity, before returning home to unity and acting from that loving hearth of safety within. When we master both matter and consciousness, we can harness the best of both reason and emotion, both civil responsibility and civil rights, both mystical and rational to love, lead and thrive fully in this intense, challenging and amazing Digital Age. When our inherently creative, agile and loving consciousness is reunited with the power of science, technology, and innovation to rapidly and radically change anything in the material world, then, and only then, will everything be impossible.
Ultimately we must take responsibility for our own transformation — healing our own hearts — before we can seek to recalibrate capitalism with connection, ensuring social, economic, and ecological justice for all. Understood through heart as much as mind, spiritual atheism is a fully embodied life philosophy that invites us, calls us, to do this: to transform ourselves so we can step up as transformational leaders at a scale never seen before. It teaches us that we must all do the inner work needed to unleash our purpose — love-in-action — into the world from our healed hearts. Such purpose anchors us safely within so we can go out and embrace the chaos in the world in C&C Mode and not C&P Mode. We can then harness exponential technologies like blockchain and the Decentralized Web not to make more efficiencies and profit but reshape “the system” into one that works for all life. We leverage the intense power of C&P Mode to get stuff done and control our own destinies; but always in service of C&C Mode and connective consciousness.
Those who are yearning for a truly better world must turn the triple threat into an opportunity to transform our socio-economic system through a massive evolution in consciousness. We cannot go back to a mythic past of American or British (or colonial, white, national or any other identity-driven) “greatness”. There is no value in an escape (fantasy) like going off grid, living permanently at Burning Man, or hunkering down in a tenured existence in academe. We must ride many Transformation Curves as individuals and as a species.
It is time to double-down on our culture, not fight it. We must act to change the world but first know to change ourselves. We are not a fixed identity. We are large, to echo Walt Whitman. We contain multitudes.