Spiritual Practice in the Age of False Narratives

For the past seven years, I have lived at the Center for Transformational Practice (CTP), a small nonprofit and residential community on the Connecticut River in White River Junction. CTP works to advance inner transformation as the foundation for positive social change.  

The best way I can explain why this mission is necessary is by comparing the states that human consciousness passes through to the physical states of water. Conventional, or we could say, egocentric states of consciousness tend to focus on the the separateness that divides one thing from another. Meanwhile higher states of consciousness tend to focus on the interconnectedness of things, and so we associate the philosophy of saints and holy women as recognizing the unity of creation as primary to the diversity we see. Making the shift from the first to the second involves an enormous transition of allegiance, you could say, a dying to the self. It also involves a broadening of horizons, an opening of the heart, a deepening of our connection to ourselves and others, a deepening of our understanding of and love for this world.  

It may be okay for human kind to be limited to conventional states of consciousness while we were living on the land. But now that we are in the Anthropocene, the era when the fate of life on earth is being decided by humankind, it is no longer appropriate for human thinking and action to be guided by conventional states of consciousness. This is, intrinsically, not going to work out.

Just as it is the nature of water to run to the lowest places, it is the nature of conventional consciousness to create the unjust and exploitative society. Just as it is the nature of vapor to mix with the other gases in the room, it is the nature of awakened consciousness to create a just and sustainable culture.

And so expecting technology, politics, or legislation, in the absence of a shift in consciousness, to transition us away from the path of self-annihilation is as futile as asking water to rise up and fill the room without it ever being boiled. Only vapor can do this.

This approach has crucial implications for our path to saving ourselves. For example, it implies that it is now more important than ever for us to find time in our day to cultivate our connection to and our awareness of the inner dimensions of consciousness.

One trouble with this approach that I am becoming aware of is that though it does challenge the status quo, perhaps it does not do so soon enough. Could it be that without an analysis of the relationship between spiritual awakening and the process of overcoming false narratives something is missing?

This could be why this approach doesn’t always play well, for instance, on the frontlines of the fight for social justice. It can be accused of an implicit complacency if it evokes the image of people turning to their meditation cushions and yoga mats, and calling it social change, as their neighbors are starving or being murdered in the streets. In other words, a transformational analysis of social change must at the outset connect the dots between the processes of spiritual awakening and the processes of becoming aware of the miriad false narratives that support an unjust status quo.

The day of this writing marks the one-year anniversary of the Riots in Charlottesville Virginia that came to symbolize a US neo-nazi reemergence. So in the search for collectively-held false narratives, perhaps we should start with racism.

In addition this horrible event and the results of our recent presidential election, the national conversation about race recently came to the forefront for me through my association with the Hartford Selectboard. You may recall the news that broke when one of my fellow Selectboard members forwarded an email containing a racist political cartoon. Pretty soon, our meetings, usually attended by one or two, were filled to the brim with people intent on seeing the Town of Hartford respond with formal action. The conversations that erupted were amazing. For once, we were on the spot and sharing from the heart. And we did take some action.

For instance, we stood up a Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality, which I was asked to be on. As it turned out, not everyone on the committee was in agreement about how to approach the problem, and over the course of six months, existing tensions began to spike. At the peak of this conflict was a single statement made by a young black woman who happened to be the Committee’s Chair. She was questioning the Police Chief about his view that racism was not common in his Police Department. She made the following statement, she said, “Racialized white people are socialized to be racist.” A bit later, one of the committee members, noticeably provoked, demanded to know, “Are you saying that all white people are racist?!” Because of the accusatory tone, the Chair chose not to respond. By the next day when the story broke in the Valley News, the entire Hartford Governance for both Town and School was in a state of concern as to what to do. And indeed, this moment turned out to be a watershed event. Two weeks later, at a meeting as heated as ever, the two people in this exchange and one other person of color resigned from the committee. We all had to recognize that the Town’s work to advance race consciousness would need to pause and regroup.

Really, all that had happened was that a commonly held narrative was interrupted in a way that was intolerable for some that experienced it. Though what the Chair had said was true and at some point needed to be said, there were too many layers of false narratives, each with their own mechanisms of defense, to allow some to figure out what she meant.  

For my part, progress along the path of race awareness has been gradual and slow. It has been a process of recognizing privilege. I suppose my reaction to waking up to these blind spots has been marked by the experience humiliation. Now these are experiences that I am grateful for.

I wonder if you have seen the sweatshirts saying STAY WOKE being worn by people of color. Stay Woke here means something like don’t forget that Black, Brown and Indigenous people in the U.S. are subject to systemic oppression. The use of the word “woke” implies blindspot. It suggests that it is not easy to remain aware of the subconscious narratives that keep people of color at a disadvantage.

Indeed, it is because of these unnoticed narratives that another slogan you will know, Black Lives Matter, is sometimes found threatening or jarring by people who identify as white. Part of the effectiveness of this phrase consists in its ability to point out the aversion which it may evoke. Even if we never notice that this aversion is not consistent with our professed values, the unperturbed peace of blindspot is still interrupted. The subtle flow of white supremacist thinking has momentarily been disturbed and this disturbance causes resistance. The subconscious narrative that might remain invisible, through resistance, can be noticed.

As the author Bell Hooks points out, this same resistance is present when the flow of patriarchal narratives are interrupted. She says, “Often in my lectures when I use the phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our nation’s political system, audiences laugh. [ . . . ] I interpret this laughter as the audience’s way of showing discomfort with being asked to ally themselves with an anti-patriarchal disobedient critique. The laughter reminds me that if I dare to challenge patriarchy openly, I risk not being taken seriously.” Now, notice how it feels to hear Professor Hook’s phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” It makes me feel a little shaky. But what is being interrupted? And how does it feels as she cuts through the defense laughter seeks to provide?  How else do our subconscious narratives defend themselves?

This past year, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop lead by a woman named Heather Hackman, who is the lead consultant for of the Hackman Consulting Group. She asked us, how many people do you know that consistently view the world simultaneously through the lenses of radical feminist analysis, critical race theory and deep ecological consciousness? That’s another mouthful, radical feminist analysis, critical race theory and deep ecological consciousness. I like to think I know a lot of people in these circles, but when she asked us to write down their names, I could think of about three - two people of color, all were younger than me, all women. She went on to explain that these people are important because they are the ones with the clearest vision to guide the way to the just and sustainable future. And to those who tell her that there isn’t time to undergo the journey of absorbing all three, she would agree and simply suggest that they consider stepping out of the way to make room for those that already have.

So we also have a lot of waking up to do regarding patriarchy. More to the point, I agree with Heather Hackmann that our transition from a white supremacist patriarchy to an egalitarian matriarchy is a prerequisite to human survival. In the meantime, it is also a matter of survival to centralize marginalized voices - the voices of women, people of color, indigenous women, etc.  

And speaking of the ecological consciousness that Heather mentioned, we also can’t forget to stay woke to climate change. Can you remember the uncomfortable and anxious feelings that arose when your narratives about your environmental security were first interrupted? I wonder how many of us here would consider that moment to be a kind of awakening. Unfortunately, when there is an awakening that is not consistent with our current lifestyle, tensions gnaw at us, urging us to take action. But that can only go on so long until we settle back into slumber.

To broaden this conversation further, today, there are so many frontiers of awakening. What about awakening to the Surveillance State? How did you experience the disruption of your narratives about privacy when you learned that the NSA is working against the mandates of the US Constitution to secretly record every piece of digital communication that takes place in this country? And how did it feel to learn that the national hero who revealed this crime, Edward Snowden, is now being pursued by the State on grounds of treason? What narratives are disrupted when we notice our national heroes openly prosecuted by the State and mainstream media?    

How about the process of waking up to the Prison Industrial Complex or the Drone Warfare State or a U.S. foreign policy working in collusion with a corrupt news media to overthrow one sovereign nation after the next without ever declaring war. Each evokes inner resistance as our subconscious narratives which support the status quo are interrupted. These narratives too are invisible until they show themselves through resistance.  

Imagine for a moment that these broadly-held false narratives work together to create a fog of confusion which limits and distorts us as individual and divides and disorients us as movements. Could it be said that taken together, this collective disorientation is something we need to free ourselves from if we are to bring about a course correction?

Before I was born, my father lived for a few years in Germany. When I was old enough to learn about the history of the 2nd World War, I remember asking him how the German people could have watched their neighbors being taken away without rising up to resist. He said, he imagined it was an intentional kind of ignorance, whereby the residents who were left alone chose not to look into certain things or ask certain questions, perhaps out of fear of learning something that would put them in danger. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how people could behave this way. Now, I think I can. Now I have a sense for the amount of subconscious effort it takes to maintain a national unawareness of the obvious. I have a sense for how a cultural somnambulism can be maintained through a national reluctance to wake up.

So the question for us is still how to wake up? And what does it feel like when we do?

For a while now I have not been much of an actual somnambulist, not since I was a child. But it just so happens that this month I experienced it again.  Not long ago, I was flopping around in bed until I was finally wrenched to wakefulness by an intense desire. I needed to go to the bathroom. However, by the time my feet hit the floor, I was well on my way back to sleep and moment later, I was sleep walking back and forth down the hall unable to find the lightswitch or remember what I had come to do.  I understood that I was involved in a crisis of sorts, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. When the agony of having to go to the bathroom finally prevailed, it did so gradually and so I was able to notice the inertia of my slumber. As I awoke to find myself standing in the bathroom doorway, I could still feel the remains of my resistance to crossing over, my resistance to being awake. Such a familiar feeling.

As I relate with my spiritual practice, this same resistance surfaces as so many reasons why I don’t have time to practice, why other things are more important. But I know that these excuses are just the voice of those parts of myself that are not ready to wake up, those parts that prefer the familiar and that are still identified with the ego and so fear losing themselves.

And the same is true of the mind that resists new information or perspectives that undermine false narratives we hold dear. Of course we do. Our very sense of self is often identified with narratives that we don’t even know we hold. And that is why, observing our resistance, whether it be in the form of laughter or despair, confusion or contempt, with an open mind and a suspended judgement, is itself a crucial spiritual practice of our times. This practice of waking up is a modern-day spiritual practice not only for our own liberation, but also for the survival of human life on Earth.

It is a hard and a thankless work, and it may divide us from people we love, but it will also bring us closer to our true identity, and closer to a correct understanding of the steps that we must take towards the just and sustainable culture of the future. We can think of this flexibility as a form of service to this world.

By Simon Dennis


simon dennis