Today, I believe we are in the midst of a spiritual renaissance, which will involve the next step in the evolution in the way humanity relates to spirituality. To illustrate why what is unfolding today is of such a profound nature, it is useful to give a basic outline of the history of how human spirituality has developed.
The History of Human Spirituality
True spirituality is always concerned with the search for that which has deepest meaning in life so as to be able to embody it for the benefit of others. For many thousands of years before the advent of the Common Era, and indeed for the majority of humanity’s history, spirituality had been shamanic. Through the cultivation of psychic-states and visions, as well as a profound connection to nature, shamans had sought to penetrate into a deeper layer of meaning in life for the benefit of the tribe.
Over time, on the basis of this shamanic orientation and seemingly across the world, human spirituality sought to penetrate higher and higher into realms of subtle energy and higher consciousness. These forms of spirituality explored contact with chakras, angels, devas, souls, god, gods and goddesses, lights, sounds and energies (e.g. the mysticism of Ancient Egypt, Vedic India, Jainism). These increasingly became the focus of spirituality.
By the time of the Axial Age, from around the 8th Century BC in the lead up to the beginning of the Common Era and the couple of centuries after, those mystical pathways and practitioners that were riding the crest of the most cutting edge waves of spiritual exploration had penetrated even deeper. Now spiritual practitioners had extended their depth of realisation to the unmanifest formlessness and stillness out of which the whole world – on subtle, psychic and physical levels – was realised to be arising from. Examples of pathways where this realisation became a central focus are Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, most streams of Theravada Buddhism, or early Gnostic Christianity.
Beginning around 500 BC, though some traditions say long before that, there developed streams of a truly radical teaching, exceedingly rare and communicated only orally from a master to their closest disciples. This teaching developed among the forest yogis and yoginis of the Upanishads, the earliest practitioners of Hindu Tantra, from the teachings of the Buddha on buddha-nature, and the earliest masters of Tibetan Dzogchen. The realisation shared in these communities was of an Ultimate Reality not solely to be found in nature, higher subtle realms or formless nothingness. Rather, it was a primordially free, perfect, and self-evidently divine Absolute Consciousness, radiantly arising to know itself through everything.
These lineages persisted and underwent massive developments over the next thousand years or so. One crucial aspect of their development was the exploration of how spiritual awakening expresses in the world. The radical non-dual teachings pointed to the fundamental insight of awakening, but it wasn’t until a later point in the evolution of spirituality that the view from the mountain top was then taken powerfully back into the world to express as compassion and love. Examples of this include the development of the bodhisattva ideal in Buddhism, where a being dedicates their path of awakening to the liberation of all beings from the bonds of suffering. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring example is demonstrated in the life of Christ, where we see a being passionately expressing their fully realisation of the divine in radical love for all beings.
By the turn of the first millennium CE, something profound happened. Around then, give or take a couple of centuries, many of the small streams of oral teachings on non-dual awakening transformed into the deep rivers of complete traditions – Advaita Vedanta, Vajrayana Buddhism, Kashmir Shaivism, Zen, and Sufism (there is a lineage of such awakening in the mystical Christian tradition too, but it was suppressed and was unable to fully land as a pathway of awakening within the Christian tradition as a whole). These traditions grounded pathways of awakening to the non-dual nature of all reality into human culture. From then until today they have transmitted the realisation that Emptiness and Form are not two; that Dharmakaya/Brahman/Shiva/Allah/God is the world, and yet also utterly beyond it. From the rush of the wind through the forests to the busy lives of humans everywhere to the place of our planet, solar system and galaxy within the universe as a whole, all of these are radiant passing waves in an infinite ocean of boundless Presence.
These traditions pointed then and still point now to our capacity to awaken to the Ultimate Presence that is arising as the entire cosmos. In a certain sense, they could not be more whole and complete. They initiate us into realisation of the singular essence of Awareness that is emanating as everything. And yet, as the Western academic fields of science, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, neuroscience, and many others, developed over the centuries leading up to the turn of the second millennium, something else started to be seen. We started to realise that when it comes to not just deeply understanding the fundamental Ground of all manifest reality, but the intricacies of manifest reality itself, the spiritual Wisdom Traditions are actually very partial.
The Evolutionary Turn
The academic disciplines have illuminated the vast 13.7 billion year evolutionary process that the whole universe has been unfolding through; the bio-physiological, emotional and cognitive journey that each of us is making as developing human beings; and the patterns of development that have characterised our societies and cultures over the course of history. They have variously demonstrated that there is a process of growth, unfolding and continual complexification that every individual, humanity as a whole, and the universe itself is undergoing.
More than all this, they have illuminated that this journey seems to have what the Ancient Greeks called telos, or purposeful direction, always seeking to expand into greater complexity, sophistication and integration. This is the case whether we are discussing the emergence of the biosphere from the geosphere in the evolution of the Earth; the neo-cortex from the limbic system in the case of the brain; the emergence of what developmental psychologists call formal operational cognition from concrete operational cognition in psychological development; or of the presently dawning informational age from the industrial revolution, and before that the agrarian revolution some 10,000 years ago.
What these disciplines have contributed is immense, and significantly expands humanity’s worldview. The Wisdom Traditions have shared what it means to awaken to and as the Source of all reality, but have not come to realise the profound nature of what is unfolding within manifest reality. What the western academic traditions have shown is that the manifest universe, which is the Source’s radiance, has purpose and directionality built into its very heart – seeking to evolve always into greater complexity, inclusion and integration. The realisation of the first millennium’s spiritual renaissance, phrased according to the Buddhist presentation, was that Emptiness and Form are not two. The realisation at the core of the presently dawning second millennium’s spiritual renaissance is that not only are Emptiness and Form non-dual, but that Source is emanating the world of form according to a supremely intelligent pattern that tends toward ever-greater sophistication, complexity, inclusion and transparency to the brilliance of the One. There is a divine Ground of Being that is emanating a process of perfection, and we are both the orchestrator and actors in this wondrous and terrible adventure.
The New Integration
Now, there is not simply the opportunity to awaken as that radiant openness of Absolute Presence that is the ground one with all things, but also to participate in the profound journey of form and to live in harmony with its flow. This brings online a deeply creative embrace of every dimension of human and earth life. It brings us into a magical reverence for the evolutionary journey that we are a part of, and that has proceeded through so many struggles and points of crisis over time – just as it is today. It invites us into an engaged reverence for the path of development into ever-increasing spheres of wholeness that every individual has the opportunity to grow through – physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, soulfully and spiritually. And it invites us to contextualise the journey of our single human family, with all of its diverse communities, within this framework of our collective growth into increasingly inclusive, integrated and connected expressions of culture and society.
For those who aspire to the most sophisticated and integrated approaches to understanding reality, the context for our collective journey has changed forever. The integration of the wisdom and knowledge generated by the spiritual and academic traditions has initiated a revolution in the way we relate to our world – a new spiritual renaissance. Though it is still in its early stages of emergence, it inevitably sets a new bar for the highest, most comprehensive view and spiritual path to incarnate the fullness of what we are. From now on, any spiritual pathway that does not integrate the wisdom of the spiritual traditions with those of the academic traditions also, thereby celebrating and encouraging not only our spiritual awakening as the One, but also our individual and collective growth into ever more whole expressions of that One, cannot justifiably claim itself to be a truly comprehensive and complete path – something that most spiritual paths do as a matter of course.
Without doubt, our world still remains characterised by intense suffering, pain, and brokenness. So much of human culture and society is operating in a way that is not in harmony with the intelligence, love and purposeful expression that qualify the life-force of the One. Surely the intensity of this suffering may be why previous worldviews, even those generated by human beings who had some of the deepest insights into the nature of reality, saw the manifest realm the way they did – a realm of pain and incompleteness only to be transcended. Now though, as the approaches to knowledge and wisdom generated by the spiritual and the academic traditions increasingly come into contact with each other and are integrated in the lives of those who aspire to witness and enact our very deepest, the clouds of our suffering are parting to reveal a beacon of new hope.
The promise of this contemporary spiritual renaissance is that not only is the possibility to awaken to our primordial freedom and radiance as the One real, but that the entire world is being driven by the evolutionary life-force of that One. It lives in the soil, in the rocks and mountains. It is that which is coursing through our veins, pumping our hearts and fuelling our growth, individually and collectively. It is intelligent, loving, and is purposefully seeking to reveal divinity more and more fully through everything. It is the intelligence and love of this one that has built pain into our experience as something that arises when our lives deviate from being in harmony with it, individually and/or collectively, so that we might reorient and find our way back. The moment or recognising this, for an individual or a collective, is the beginning of an entirely new phase of the journey – one that is founded in both the safety and unconditional sacredness of our alpha-pure nature, and the opportunity to live our lives in alignment with an ever-more glorious omega.