Conscious Evolution and The Small Communities Solution
Self-expansion and aspiration are among life’s most basic impulses. Expansion is visible everywhere: in life bursting out of little seeds and growing to maturity; in the expanding rings of a tree trunk; in the spreading of a forest; in life’s urge for self-propagation. Aspiration also is visibly expressed in the plants as they reach toward the sun, and explore the potentials for beauty in the flowers.
These impulses are most clearly manifested in consciousness itself: in the need of human beings for love, knowledge, and understanding; in their desire for happiness; in their ever-resurgent hope for a better life. Both self-expansion and aspiration are expressed in evolution’s thrust toward greater awareness; in birds as they soar exultantly on the air currents; in scientists’ quest for ever-new insights; in the hopes of artists, poets, and musicians, as they weave dreams into works of inspiration.
The skeptic may scoff at these assertions as “sentimental.” To him, all things are mechanisms and in essence, therefore, unconscious. The interest that the biologist, physicist, economist, social scientist, and political theorist have been schooled to cultivate is in how things work, not in what they mean. This bias — it is only that — in urgent need of correction, lest mankind be plunged once again into darkness — time, perhaps, not to emerge so easily. Indeed, ours would not be the first civilization to vanish in oblivion.
The strange thing is that the universe can be explained from any point one selects. That is part of its inscrutable mystery. Viewed as a mechanism, it seems that only. Viewed as a “dog-eat-dog” struggle for survival, it seems that, too — life’s very instinct to survive is surely more than mechanistic. Viewed as unconscious, it seems persuasively bereft of either purpose or meaning. Mahatma Gandhi observed, “In the midst of death, life endures.” Another might observe the opposite: “In the midst of life, death endures.” The universe is all things to all men, depending entirely on their point of view.
Viewed, indeed, as an expression of cosmic love, the universe comes magically alive with hope. The wise of every age have discerned a plan everywhere, of which, they say, love is the ultimate secret.
Who can say whether the physicist’s view of reality is more valid than the poet’s? The former understands with his intellect; the latter, with his heart. Reason and feeling, both are necessary for correct understanding. Both, moreover, in the vast kaleidoscope of reality, offer explanations that are coherent and convincing. The atom, as I said earlier, is the key to the universe, and the ego, the key to human nature. All things, similarly, provide windows onto infinity. John Keats, the English poet, lamented, “There was an awful rainbow once in heaven. . . . She is given in the dull catalogue of common things.” Yet I think his despair was born of insufficient comprehension. Why should the rainbow’s beauty not be accepted even by science in this scientific age, as intrinsic to the natural order? Indeed, why shouldn’t science itself, with further refinement, open windows wide onto love, beauty, and spiritual understanding? Albert Einstein declared that the sense of “mystical awe” is the essence of all scientific inquiry.
The mechanistic outlook has brought us, blindfolded, to the brink of disaster. Sophisticated weapons are all the more dangerous for the common belief that life has no meaning. Moral and spiritual values have been superseded by fascination with gadgetry.
The greatest need today is for a refined understanding of reality to offset the stylish denigration of all values. “Value judgments” — expression is itself a judgment! — scoffed at in university classrooms as if values had disappeared with Einstein. “Everything is relative” is the solemn pronouncement, as if to say, “Everything is meaningless.” Forgotten in that numbing declaration is the simple fact that “relativity” implies relationships.
I made this point at some length in my book, Out of the Labyrinth. Moral values, I said, though not absolute, are directional in their relativity, and their direction is universal. True values — opposed to those based on human ignorance — rooted in human nature, of which certain realities never change. Food that is suitable for an adult might prove fatal to an infant. The rules of life change as life grows to maturity. The fiercely competitive spirit so common at present in the corporate world will yield, eventually, with people’s growing sensitivity, to a spirit of cooperation. Competition and cooperation are, each in its own context, equally valid. Of the two, however, cooperation works better if practiced with understanding. Only people who lack the sensitivity to perceive cooperation as an expression of self-expansion and aspiration view its opposite, competition, as right and normal. Rules are equally valid for all who stand on the same plateau of understanding. To greet someone with open arms who you know wants to stab you would be naive. One must have the sense to recognize that others’ realities are not necessarily one’s own — because “everything is relative” in the false sense of non-existent, but because there are many plateaux of understanding on the mountain climb of progressive refinement.
One of the most appalling photographs I’ve ever seen was of a group of cannibals gloating around a human cadaver in preparation for eating it. Obviously, at their level of understanding, what they were doing seemed to them a wonderful thing. One sensed in the photograph, however, hatred and an utter lust for revenge. Other people, more civilized than they, might rub their hands in happy anticipation of a feast, but the faces of those cannibals, though laughing, showed only bestiality. Will the cynic — one, perhaps, who hurled that word, “Sentimental!” at us earlier — down his gauntlet in further challenge now with the demand, “Who are we to impose our value judgments on others?” That photograph would offer him a clear answer. The cannibals, without realizing it, were self-condemned already! Their brutish glee held quite as much pain as it did pleasure. Their very pleasure, moreover, would be disgusting to them someday, when they’d developed more refinement. In terms of what every human being most deeply wants — and inner peace, for example — “delight” was an insult to man’s nobility.
Again, a drunkard’s pleasure in his drunkenness may be amusing to some, but it is also painful to see for anyone who knows the superior satisfaction of self-control.
I hope this next example will not seem too absurdly banal: Don’t people find a certain pleasure in scratching mosquito bites? And doesn’t it at the same time hurt to scratch them? The prurience of grosser pleasures is similar in that, although pleasurable, they are also painful. The sense orgy is followed inevitably by repugnance. People for whom pleasure is a first priority show no happiness in their eyes, but only mental dullness, restlessness, and insensitivity to more refined enjoyments, as, like buffaloes, they wallow in “primal mud.”
What we see in the world around us is what we are capable of seeing. Everything reflects back to us who and what we are. If, with the economists, we limit our perception of wealth to its material aspects, those will be all that wealth is, for us. If we choose to see evolution only as a struggle for survival, that, too — us — what evolution is all about. And if we choose to define humanity by its “animal” nature, that again — us, though not for people with keener perception — what the human race is.
If one looks for the animal in man, he will not see the Buddha. Even the most degraded human being, however, can be viewed with kindness and respect for his higher potentials, well hidden though they be. If we prefer to see in him that potential, we may inspire him to strive toward it. And if he will not, we may inspire ourselves, anyway, to be more diligent in our efforts at self-improvement.
Excessive concentration on mechanisms leaves no room for thoughts about genius, or wisdom, or inspiration. Yet the fact that these high potentials have manifested themselves repeatedly in the past shows them to be at least latent in mankind. To view life as an opportunity for self-expansion is to aspire toward a possible fulfillment which everyone, whether consciously or not, desires.
We have seen that humanity, far from being diminished by astronomers’ discovery of the grandeur of the cosmos, can actually claim a more central place in it than when creation was thought of as geocentric. “Center everywhere, circumference nowhere” is the cosmology of wisdom. In the universe that science has revealed to us, every atom, and by extension every ego, is central to everything else. To understand the atom is to understand the universe. And to understand one’s own self fully is to know the source from which everything emerged.
I speak here especially of centers of consciousness, not of material atoms and material self-knowledge. Solutions to the problems we’ve been addressing must not be sought in new theories, but in conscious experience. They must be sought not in new and ever grander reforming schemes, but on a small scale, where it is feasible to make needed alterations. If a new idea works well, and if it fills a real need, it will spread effortlessly.
Sweeping social reforms have never really changed anything. If they aren’t given willing support by those who are affected by them, they will be circumvented at every opportunity. A French saying applies well to reforming zeal: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they remain as they always were.” When the dust kicked up by the reformers’ zeal has settled, and perhaps after a few million people have been slaughtered for the Great Cause, nothing has improved. Why not? Because human nature was not consulted. A reform must win people’s willing consent and cooperation. The reformers must accept human nature as it is, and not pummel and punch it in an effort to cram it into the box of their grand theories.
In communist Russia, only two percent of the arable land was privately owned, yet that relatively tiny portion yielded over forty percent of the country’s produce. No social edict could have altered the simple fact, which Adam Smith noted, that people will always be interested primarily in promoting their own interests. Social reforms must begin with acknowledgement of this simple fact. A new principle cannot be driven down people’s throats. If they find it unpalatable, they will more likely gag on it than ask for a second helping. Reforms must be appealing, not appalling! Furthermore, they must appeal not only to people’s reason, but to their feelings and desires.
It is not necessary for masses of people to be converted to a new social philosophy. A few individuals only, if they give the concept a try, may spark a conflagration that can eventually destroy a whole forest of old ways. The magnetism of old habits is only the inertia surrounding them. A new, dynamic energy, however, can break up the solid block of outmoded customs even as the warmth of springtime melts an ice field and turns it into a floe, which is swept away on a raging river.
Decades ago, in the 1930s, there appeared in Punch, the English humor magazine, a cartoon depicting a crowd of people in the main hall of a railway station. The cartoon was in three segments. In the first, the people were all standing about or sitting on suitcases, waiting for something to happen. In the second, one man was speeding through the hall with an air of urgency. In the third, everyone was dashing after him.
People will follow dynamic energy if they believe it to be in their best interest, but they’ll never follow a lack of energy. In that cartoon, everyone was worried, evidently, that his train might leave without him. Action stirs people; static theories lull them to inaction. If even a few people commit themselves to an idea, others in time will imitate them. New movements and new ideas aren’t often accepted quickly. Usually, at least a generation must pass before a new idea is widely adopted. Few people, for one thing, have the courage openly to embrace a radically new idea. They may believe in it secretly, but their tendency is to wait until others accept it, too. For them, the power of popular opinion is too great. Only when the new ground has been broken, and new crops have been planted, and if the seeds also yield a bountiful harvest, will people take to new concepts eagerly.
Small, intentional, cooperative communities are an obvious way of bringing about needed changes in the world. What is required is for a few people, only, to live sane, happy, and purposeful lives together.
Cooperative communities are an answer to the concept propounded by Adam Smith, that competition is the best way to achieve prosperity. In fact, cooperation is vastly more effective for all purposes if practiced with genuine fellow feeling. Cooperation is no mere strategy: It is an active principle, convincingly effective. Gradually, the influence of cooperative living must surely become widespread as small groups demonstrate its validity by their attunement, idealistically, with higher potentials of human nature; realistically, with the dictates of natural law; and spiritually, by opening doors onto higher truths.
I propose communities partly because, although it is always the individual in a group who must be inspired, it takes the united influence of many individuals for most people to be significantly affected. Even such men as Buddha and Jesus Christ needed followers to propagate their ideas. The communities I envision are not shadow groups huddled in dark basements, hatching their devious plots by candlelight. They are visible, open, and reachable. And they are founded not on rigid control, but on fairness and flexibility. They are also founded on acceptance of idiosyncrasy as a human norm, provided it isn’t a threat to anybody.
Repeatedly in these pages we have seen that rigid systems, though useful up to a point, can obstruct further development by discouraging initiative. Flexibility facilitates growth for the individual as well as for institutions. Rigidity ensues when people are afraid of erring. Error, however, if it isn’t too outrageous, should be tolerated, not condemned. People need the freedom to make mistakes; that is how they learn. Reasonable acceptance of error gives them a sense of being supported, and invites their cooperation in return.
It is too much to expect perfection in this imperfect world. One man’s concept of excellence is another’s of mediocrity. The best hope for a community lies in striving for directional improvement, directional upliftment, directional fulfillment, directional understanding. In all these respects the direction can be upward toward ever-expanding vistas.
The authors we’ve studied were not concerned so much with living realities as with fixed concepts. For Marx, communism meant the definitive triumph of what might facetiously be called “mindlessness over matter.” (Even matter is in fact more adaptable than Marx was, with his rigid theories!) Freud didn’t suggest progress toward anything. Neither did Darwin. We live at a time of transition. Matter, formerly, was thought of as definitive and solid. Now, people are slowly developing a more fluid awareness. Energy is becoming recognized as the essence of all things. People still want, however, to know how those things work. They are fascinated by this information “binge” and the technology it has produced.
“Did you know that a mere square inch of sky photographed through the Hubble telescope reveals millions of galaxies?”
“No! Well, here’s another one: Did you know that the algae on a pond may contain enough nourishment to feed the entire human race?”
“Well, I’m not exactly up on the esoterica of pond scum, but do you realize that a simple quartz crystal can actually transmit information?”
And so it goes on, and on. We are so deluged with facts that it is almost impossible to know what to do with them. Even more difficult is it to ponder imponderables like consciousness.
“Has man evolved more in producing a brain,” was the question rhetorically posed by the psychologist James F. Crow in that statement we quoted earlier, “than the elephant has in producing a trunk?” From his question it is clear that he would have scoffed at my insistence on defining progress as a refinement of consciousness. Crow, however, was wrong in any case. The progressive nature of evolution was demonstrated incontrovertibly with man’s entrance upon the stage of life. Crow based his argument on the premise that all significant changes are physical in nature. Moreover, the alternatives he presented were poorly thought out. Man’s brain and an elephant’s trunk are not logical opposites; their functions cannot be compared, and their difference proves nothing at all. Crow was merely trying with heavy-handed humor to ridicule what he considered man’s self-delusion in thinking himself important in the scheme of things. Science, he believed, has reduced man to just another denizen of this very minor planet. (One is tempted to imagine the standees at the back of Crow’s lecture hall making catcalls and shouting, “Whose brain are you talking about, Jim? Your own? If so, my vote goes to the elephant!”)
Crow would have shown greater discrimination had he posed another question: “Has man evolved more in producing a large brain than has the porpoise — mammal like himself, with a brain of fairly large dimensions — learning to live under water?” In this case the answer might be, “Not if the world were suddenly to be submerged in a flood. In that case, the porpoise would survive, whereas mankind might not.” In other words, if survival were the sole criterion of evolutionary success, human beings might find themselves, despite their great intelligence, holding the loser’s straw. In that case, however, would humanity deserve to be written off as a failure? By no means! The earth would bear ample testimony to human achievements. Should Shakespeare be written off as a failure simply because he is no longer alive? Past greatness can inspire future triumphs — , imaginably, by some new species. In any thoughtful context, intelligence and refined awareness are what really matter in evolution. They are what life itself is seeking: not survival, merely, but survival of awareness.
Survival, we have seen, is not the centerpiece of evolution Darwin tried to make it. It is only the table on which he exhibited his carefully assembled data. Otherwise, the salient fact presented by his own evidence is that life demonstrates, to varying degrees, an awareness of its existence, and a thrust toward continued expansion of that awareness.
Lower forms of life may defy Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Molluscs and other primitive creatures do not impress us as thinking at all; what they display, rather, are mere urges. They wouldn’t have even those, however, if they weren’t conscious. Primitive emotions, too, may not be discernible in those blind impulses. Nevertheless, all living forms cling to whatever degree of awareness they do have, and consciously resist any perceived threat to their awareness.
Beyond the simple urge to survive, there is something else that all living creatures seek. To whatever degree their own awareness allows, they seek to enjoy their existence. Since awareness is in many cases so dim as to awaken doubts as to whether they actually enjoy anything, what may be said is that, for them, “enjoyment” consists in continued awareness, as opposed to losing that awareness altogether.
Consciousness introduces progress into the schema of evolution. Without consciousness, we’d have nothing but change and diversity. Evolution may rightly be described, however, as upward in the sense that climbing a mountain brings ever-broader vistas of the land below. Life, similarly, moves toward ever-greater clarity of awareness. When it reaches the human level, it demonstrates a refined desire for personal fulfillment.
The discovery that the earth does not lie at the center of creation brought to mankind everywhere the realization that we are not the supreme purpose of God’s creation after all. If man is the key to all things, however, then the skeptic’s materialism collapses; life itself assumes rich meaning, and the future shines before us with hope.
Such is not, today, the common view. No one who has swallowed whole the philosophies of Machiavelli, Malthus, Smith, Darwin, Marx, and Freud can stomach the thought that he does more than survive. He cannot imagine surviving happily.
In the last chapter, I suggested that psychotherapy be conducted with clear directions in mind. And I proposed the name, “Directional Therapy.” In intentional cooperative communities, the guidance people receive should be to assist them in their own directions, based primarily on who and what they are, and not on any institution’s expectations of them. “People are more important than things.” Modern psychiatry is moving in this direction. In the communities of which I have had actual experience, what those who visit them notice first is the glow of well-being in the members’ eyes. Even the eyes of guests shine after a few days. This sense of well-being is never visible in people who have no sense of purpose. Small intentional cooperative communities, idealistic, and conscious of the way they direct their energy, can fill a serious lack in the present age. Despite the fact, moreover, that many people nowadays consider such communities irrelevant in history’s flow, they represent a way of life that has repeatedly shown itself successful in the past.
At the time when ancient Rome was disintegrating, what may have done more than anything else to save Western civilization were the monasteries. Most historians agree on this point. It wasn’t only, as some of them suggest, that the monasteries kept precious manuscripts from being lost or destroyed. Nor was it merely that they kept literacy alive. Both of those contributions were important, but the chief value of the monasteries was that they inspired faith in higher values. In the spiritual desert that was then creeping over the West, the monasteries were small oases of hope. Groups of sincere men and women, united in their love for high principles, helped to raise the general level of consciousness everywhere.
Even a few people can exert a powerful influence for change. It usually begins, in fact, with only one person, but for an idea to take hold it usually needs at least a few core people. At a certain point in its growth, the new concept, having burst like a seed, spreads a new energy and consciousness outward across the earth. When a Leonardo da Vinci brings his insights to outward manifestation through his art, a few people at first, then many more come to appreciate new subtleties of beauty. When an Isaac Newton discovers a new law of Nature, other scientists to begin with, and then people everywhere gain a deeper appreciation for natural law. When a George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson bring fresh insights to bear on molding a new nation, they spark a handful of others, then gradually many more, until hope for the future of mankind is renewed in human hearts everywhere.
All of those pioneers of thought conveyed to others something of their own contact, above all, with higher levels of consciousness. The influence of one inspired person, or even of a few, increases geometrically as more and more come to know him.
It was this influence, above all, that the monasteries conveyed. Masses of people, ultimately, were affected, even those whose own personal interest in spiritual matters was tepid.
I have touched only lightly so far on consciousness itself, as opposed to the more obvious impact of new discoveries. Consciousness includes subtle levels of perception that we may call superconscious. Human beings of refined consciousness, like Leonardo da Vinci, who have expressed for others’ benefit their subtle awareness, have rendered humanity the greatest imaginable service. An inspired piece of music, thrilling to those who hear it, can enable great numbers of people to contact levels of awareness that few of them ever knew existed.
The monasteries, similarly, at least in the uplifted consciousness of their more committed members, had a transforming influence that extended far beyond their own cloistered walls. The very atmosphere surrounding those places uplifted most who came in contact with them. Their magnetism was greatly augmented by the united dedication of their members to high ideals.
In the communities I propose, large central organizations are not necessary for their support. Today it is possible for individuals, and certainly for groups of people, to sustain themselves far away from the big cities without depending on the usual rural means of self-sustenance, like farming. With telephones, computers, e-mail, and fax machines, even isolated areas can be in active contact with the world.
What the monasteries of the Dark Ages generated, above all, was a renewal of spiritual faith. This fact raises a vital question: What about cooperative communities in this day and age? Could they succeed without a foundation of spiritual principles? In the average project of social upliftment, spirituality is ignored almost conscientiously. This disinterest is due partly to a fear of being drawn into theological quicksands, or embroiled in sectarian bickering. (Sectarianism, in our shrinking world, is becoming as passé as geocentricity has been for centuries.) The present disaffection with spirituality is due also to the modern mechanistic bias. If, however, we ask that question again, “Does it work?” we see that mundane attempts at social upliftment have never really uplifted anybody. What they’ve lacked has been the one ingredient essential to true progress: inspiration. Instead, what they’ve offered is a convenient, but pale, compromise between the desire to do good and the inability to imagine any good higher than one that is ploddingly pedestrian.
There all those willing workers were, earnestly recommending to others “norms” they themselves had already rejected in their desire to “serve” others! Their very dedication must have struck them, personally, as a travesty!
I remember a cousin of mine writing to me when we were in college, saying that she was thinking of becoming a physician. I wrote back supporting her idea. “Medicine,” I said, “is a noble profession. I’d be happy to see you rendering such service to others. You’ve made me think more, however, about my own future. For as you know, I too want to be of some service to others. Yet I find that what I want is to offer them something better than ‘normalcy.’ I’d like to inspire them to be better human beings.” This ambition has, in fact, been my life work.
Can cooperative communities thrive without some commitment, at least, to spiritual values? It was in their spirituality that the ancient monasteries inspired others, not in their monastic renunciation. Renunciation in itself was negative, in the sense that it rejected everything that other people cherished. What inspired everyone, rather, was their love for God. No mere “good will” could ever have exerted so profound an influence. Indeed, I doubt whether any cooperative community could succeed, let alone thrive, without some kind of spiritual focus. Attempts at creating communities based on lower principles seem, so far, to have been lackluster affairs.
I should explain here the difference, as I see it, between spirituality and religion. Spirituality fosters sympathy for others, and inspires individual (as distinct from institutional) charity. It needn’t have a label such as “Christian sympathy,” or “Jewish sympathy,” or “Buddhist” or “Hindu sympathy.” It means caring about others without necessarily specifying that one’s care is in the name of some religion. It means to have ideals that inspire soaring aspiration. One needn’t belong to any sect, nor cling to any specific religious creed. In this sense, even an atheist would render a valid spiritual service by bringing relief to others in pain. (His act would be even more spiritual, however, were it in the name of some high principle, and not offered only with a bias of personal pride or attachment.) An ardent religious believer, on the other hand, might betray a want of spirituality if he served others only in the name of his religion, but with little charity in his heart. Truth never marches under a banner. Religious institutions misrepresent the very truths they teach if, flaunting creeds and dogmas, they claim to be the guardians of truth.
Religious institutions were created, of course, to uphold truth. Unfortunately, excessive zeal too often undermines whatever good they accomplish. Their zealous workers should deeply practice their own ideals. Without that practice, their beliefs become hollow as they render lip service, merely, to their cause. Many, in the name of religion, act as if the purpose of all that bustling activity were only to “get the word out.” Prating about “the word,” but not living it in spirit, they succeed only in trivializing it. Thus, although religious institutions do good by bringing lofty teachings to the general awareness, they dilute those teachings — even more so, if they claim a monopoly on them.
When people ask me, “To what faith do you belong?” I often reply, “Isn’t it enough simply to have faith?” If pressed further, I explain, “I’m not an ‘ist’ of any kind. I believe in what I know of life, and have done my best to live by the truth. In that spirit, I am universal. I am not, however, a ‘Universalist’! I consider myself a Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim — of them, and more! I don’t mean to say I’m eclectic. What I believe in is the universal truth underlying all those ‘isms.’”
Human nature is not often comfortable without a label to stick onto its ideas. But what is the use of labels, once the contents are known? If you paste ”Orange Marmalade“ onto a jar of mustard, will the contents change? The essence of religion is the upliftment it inspires. Spirituality means to live one’s aspirations, and thereby to deepen one’s experience of truth. Spirituality isn’t a mere belief defined with exquisite exactitude. It is an expanding consciousness. Whatever a person’s ideals, they need to bring him ever-increasing awareness. That is spirituality.
Where, then, does God come into the discussion? Ought a person or a community to believe in a Supreme Being? “Ought” is a loaded word! There is no obligation in sincerity. The word “God” is a symbol. What one “ought” to do, rather, is believe in whatever promises him the fulfillment of his deepest desires — and bliss, above all. Here is a new approach to this sort of faith:
All of us believe in life. Even Darwin gave us that much. Belief in life underlies any faith we can have.
We believe in something else, too: We believe we are conscious: Indeed, we know we are conscious, just as we know that we exist. No process of reasoning could either prove or disprove these two certainties: life, and consciousness. They form the basis of any understanding we have.
There is something else we know: Besides being conscious, we also know we’d rather enjoy life consciously than live in pain. From this third certainty it follows that we’d rather increase our conscious enjoyment of life than have it diminish. We don’t want a bovine sort of happiness: We want it dynamic and ever-more-deeply conscious.
The trouble with most definitions of God is that they are static — bovine, certainly! but fixed in motionless poses. To believe in mere definitions is to substitute concepts for the living reality of what we all want. We don’t want life to be like a stagnant pond. We’d like it to flow like a laughing brook. It cannot interest anyone to believe in something he doesn’t even consider his business! And that is what abstract concepts are for most people: abstractions, and as such not particularly their business. What we most deeply believe in is any intense feeling we have. This is what truly convinces us.
Few people know what they mean when they claim to believe in God. Usually, they refer to some fixed concept. Yet what really motivates them is not static definitions, but a goal toward which they can aspire. They believe in directions of energy and consciousness.
Symbols are incentives to aspiration. “God” is a word, but that word symbolizes a state of dynamic perfection toward which everyone, in one way or another, aspires. Whether or not we believe in that perfection is less important than that our aspiration be directed toward greater awareness and joy.
Do we, then, create God by our expectations? Is God a human invention? Here is what tips the scale in favor of an existing, universal consciousness: The less emphasis we place on our egos, the more sensitive we can be to other realities. And the more we quieten our minds, the clearer the insight we can gain into that reality. The very effort to “create” God, then, is a way to lose him. In that effort we enclose ourselves in thinking, instead of opening ourselves receptively to whatever actually exists! The way to develop faith is to concentrate on what we actually know. Belief is projection, but faith is the fruit of actual, conscious experience.
In Australia many years ago, a man said to me, “I’m an atheist. If you believe in God, tell me: Can you define him in such a way as to have any meaning for me?”
I thought for a moment, then answered, “Would it help you to think of God as the highest potential you can imagine for yourself?”
He was taken aback. “Well, ye-e-es,” he replied slowly, “Yeah, sure, I can live with that!”
What is sincere aspiration toward anything higher, if not spiritual? Labels have minimal importance. What matters is that our aspiration be directed toward something that we perceive to be our own true potential.
Unfortunately, what is most lacking at present is spiritual aspiration. Concepts are thrown about, as curiosities. What is needed now is experience— experience of love, for example, not merely the concept of it. We may pride ourselves on being “hard-headed” realists, but why dismiss a higher promise of happiness without even testing it? This isn’t realism: It is mule-headedness!
We need ideals that can be defined in terms of the possible. (I like to think of myself as a devotee of the possible.) We need to understand natural evolution itself as upward, in the sense of bringing us ever greater fulfillment. To have no aim higher than pleasure and self-aggrandizement is to abandon oneself to a meaningless existence. It would be pointless, in that case, to create intentional communities.
Well, but must a community’s aims be spiritual? Inevitably, communities that aspire to nothing better than egoic fulfillment will be contractive in their awareness and sympathies. We have seen even in works of art that greatness increases in inverse proportion to the degree of egocentricity they express. To achieve true freedom means much more than winning release from subconscious repressions. Above all, it means climbing out of the abyss of self-absorption. Personal freedom comes in direct proportion to the fullness with which one can enter into a greater reality. A cooperative intentional community ought therefore to be based on expanding sympathy for all.
The experience of such communities has repeatedly been that the less preoccupied a person is with himself, the happier he is. Happiness is not a condition to be attained so much as a reality one already has — state of consciousness that needs simply be revealed, like the sun after an obscuring cloud has passed.
Human evolution has not been significantly physical in nature since Homo sapiens first appeared on the stage of life. Since then, it has been largely a question of developing one’s awareness. Consciousness can of course evolve in many directions, not all of them upward. For when evolution reaches the human level it becomes directed by more than blind animal instinct. Human intelligence can alter that natural upward course, and — of all — increase its momentum. It can also, on the other hand, make each individual’s path as tortuous as he chooses. It can even, given man’s talent for twisting logic, justify a downward direction.
To work on self-improvement is better, obviously, than to correct others and do nothing about correcting oneself. Self-improvement, however, among those whose first impulse is to blame everyone else, is difficult. Negativity has its own powers of persuasion. Encouragement toward self-betterment, on the other hand, is natural to cooperative communities, whose very raison d’être is aspiration.
Communities, as I indicated earlier, are living laboratories. To set aside what you want and choose what is best for everyone; above all, to choose what is right: This is accomplished more easily among fellow aspirants than surrounded by people who determine their values by narrow self-interest. This is one of the benefits of living in cooperative intentional communities. To make generous decisions is more difficult where expressions of kindness so often get trampled underfoot in the rush for self-aggrandizement.
To preserve a sense of humor in the turmoil of vicissitudes is, again, admirable, but it is difficult where people direct so much of their humor sarcastically against others. And even the kindliest humor passes over the heads of people who are grimly determined to “look out for number one.” Again, forgiveness — expansive trait — embarrass people who are filled with resentments. In intentional communities, self-expansive attitudes such as these receive friendly and sympathetic support.
Consider a true account: A couple in a cooperative community had just lost their home to a forest fire. Ten days earlier the wife had given birth to their first child. The loss of their home and all their possessions was almost more than she could bear. Her husband, wanting to console her, remarked with a smile, “Well, at least we won’t have to worry anymore about those leaks in the kitchen!” Exceptional people elsewhere might have shown such courage, but in a cooperative community that man’s statement held an additional meaning. He was saying, “Isn’t what we are doing with our lives what matters most to us? Isn’t this far more important than any material possession?”
To think first of others’ needs, not of one’s own, comes more easily among others of similar disposition than in the society of those whose first thought is, “What’s in it for me?” If a community is expansive in outlook, it naturally includes everyone else in its concerns: It is not focused exclusively on its own needs. And the unkind gossip so common in the average village becomes a kindly interest and concern for one another.
It was because of their expansive outlook that the monasteries of the Dark Ages had such a magnetic influence. We read about the inspiration people felt from them. An individual living alone might also affect others positively, but unless his energy is joined with others of like mind, people in general will be more inclined to admire him as an individual than think of emulating him.
Everyone can strive for perfection. Everyone can be happy in the face of adversity; friendly to those who hate him; concerned with what is right rather than with what he himself likes; willing to place the needs of others before his own. For most people, however, such attitudes go against ingrained habits, endorsed by society. Seldom if ever do attitudes like these come easily. A great aid in developing them is the example of people who have traveled farther along that same road. Under their influence, right attitudes can gradually become second nature. A few deeply committed individuals, whose spiritual focus has been honed by years of practice, can uplift many others. Hence the importance not only of communities, but of good leaders in those communities.
A good leader asks more of himself than of anyone else. Putting his own needs last, he works willingly, without selfish interest, for the welfare of all. He asks nothing of others that he isn’t willing to do himself. He sets an example of right attitudes and never thinks, “What’s in it for me?” or even, “What’s in it for our community?” Always, his first thought is, “What is right and true?”
In the monasteries of the Dark Ages, however, what inspired the monks and nuns to live selfless lives was — more so than the example of a dedicated few — faith in God. Indeed, what they had went deeper than faith: It was love for God. Can such love be expected in communities today? Without something of that spirit, certainly, the balloon of aspiration will never rise very high off the ground.
Many people object to being told what to believe. I myself resist zealous efforts to convert me. Yet — speaking personally — cannot help sharing my enthusiasm: for something beautiful, let us say, or meaningful, or true.
If I see a tulip field covered with gay colors, I want to tell others, “Do go, if you can, and see those tulips!” How would my sharing differ from the conversion tactics I deplore? The difference is that, when I find something beautiful, I don’t nag others to go see it as though my own peace of mind depended on their going. I only suggest, with no strings attached to the suggestion.
Because I resist tactics of conversion, I am also not inclined here even to name the communities of which I am the founder. It isn’t that I’m shy to speak about them. Indeed, if anything in my life deserves to be so called, they are my crowning achievement. What I am proposing here, however, is a concept, not a place. I’ve learned, moreover, that people often prefer a sound theory to an even sounder accomplishment. Very well then, consider my proposal to be a theory, simply, and forget the specifics. My only wish is for you to take these concepts seriously.
For this communitarian concept is like a seed: Once planted, it can grow and flourish, perhaps in time to become a forest of many different types of “trees,” or communities. Cooperative communities are too great a need in this day to be confined to a single vision. What I offer here is a solution that has been tested and proved again and again through the ages. Yes, the idea works.
Take this hypothetical example: Supposing a few people are inspired to live serene and happy lives together. Then suppose after a time they separate and move, each to a different city. Would their independent examples have the impact they had when they lived together? Imagine them working in offices and commuting from the average suburb. The people they meet might find their serenity and good cheer impressive. They might conclude only, however, that here were unusual human beings, pleasant to know, but probably born that way, and anyway not examples others could follow. It might not even occur to the average person, except vaguely and fleetingly, to try to be more like them. It is when those individuals demonstrate a combined dedication to high ideals that their example becomes contagious. People soon realize, seeing them all in that one setting, that what makes them special is what they are doing with their lives, not their personalities. From this realization it becomes easy to think, further, “I might be doing the same thing with my own life!”
A monastic community, committed as a group to lofty principles, its members radiating serenity and joy, projected an influence that spread far and wide. Thousands flocked to join such communities, and many others who stayed behind thought, “Perhaps I, too, could become more peaceful, charitable, and stronger in my faith.”
Cooperative communities offer a key to fulfillment that few would have the courage to find on their own. By the example of those communities, and by the expansive consciousness they emanate, people everywhere can be inspired to seek a deeper fulfillment for themselves. No example is so convincing as one that is set by many people of different temperaments, from different social strata, and from many nations, all of them united in their dedication to God and to high ideals. Variety is, in fact, what cooperative communities attract naturally to themselves. In that variety they effectively contradict the rationale one sometimes hears that people who long for a better life are just different from “ordinary folks.”
Is it realistic to hope for peace and harmony in this world? Yes, of course it is, if one’s hopes are kept realistic. Peace and harmony must be sought first on a small scale, not in grandiose schemes of world betterment. The important thing, always, is that people be allowed to develop as individuals. Without the individual for its main focus, a community would be just another village, united for reasons of mere economy. The individual’s role in relation to others is the key to a community’s success. Community isn’t about living amid the beauties of Nature. It is about people. Even in an earthly Eden, self-centeredness would be as suffocating as it is in “normal” society. Communities, by setting an example of universal friendship, are the surest way of inspiring hope for universal peace and harmony.
It is important, therefore, that such communities objectify their development also. They should offer to the world some form of practical service, apart from whatever they are doing already to sustain themselves. To render no service to anyone would be to stagnate.
That service might take many shapes. For instance, they could develop schools for children. What sort of schools? I’ve written a book on this subject proposing a new and enlightened system of education. It is titled, Education for Life, and has received praise from educators in more than one country. This book is used in our own community’s “Living Wisdom” schools, as they are called. Both the concepts and the curriculum promote a universal understanding of life, based on the children’s own experience of it. The teachings emphasize living principles, rather than any specifically religious or sectarian teaching. For people, however, who prefer a different focus, I recommend that they at least encourage universal sympathy in the children. Lofty, workable ideals are desperately needed today, when the very children learn cynicism, and when triviality is encouraged as the most “suitable” subject matter for growing minds.
A community might offer facilities for sharing the insights it has gained and the ideals toward which it aspires.
It might offer concerts of singing and instrumental music. People are more affected by music, often, than by the spoken word. Indeed, when I’ve asked members of our own communities what first attracted them, their frequent response has been, “The music.”
Communities might also send groups out “on the road” to share their ideals. As they do so, they should emphasize principles first, rather than promote their own activities.
Communities might also be inspired to offer healing services. Standard clinics might be established if the right medical personnel can be attracted to them. Experimental healing methods might be explored also — , light, and sound therapy, and creative applications of energy.
Prayers for others can also be a valuable service. I don’t mean the traditional supplicating prayers — assume that a loving God needs our persuasion to be compassionate! — healing energy sent out on waves of kindness and love, while mentally holding the persons to be helped in an energy-field of light. Experiments have been conducted along these lines, and are persuasive that something seems to be working here. Those for whom the prayers were offered, compared to others in control groups who received no prayers, showed significant improvement.
Seminars might be offered on enlightened business practices; to doctors, nurses, and hospital staffs on methods of “cooperative healing,” or on how to remain compassionate instead of hardening oneself in an effort to remain unaffected by people’s sufferings; to corporations on concepts of enlightened leadership; to individuals and groups everywhere on how to succeed by focusing one’s thoughts and energies; to business executives on practical alternatives to ruthless competition; to people wanting to learn self-healing practices; to parents and teachers on techniques of enlightened child-raising; to single people on how to find suitable mates; to couples having difficulty in their relationship on how bring to it more harmony and happiness.
The possibilities for meaningful sharing are limitless. What matters most is the willingness to let the discoveries you’ve made as a community become more widely known. In upwardly progressive communities, discoveries like these will no doubt be numerous.
Cooperative communities, it must be clear by now, are not the same thing as cooperatives. The difference is mostly a matter of emphasis. A “cooperative,” in contrast to a cooperative community, is distinguished by the fact that every member has one vote regardless of the size of his investment. In cooperative communities on the other hand, decision-making requires no such defined system. Everyone automatically has the same status, and voting is not likely to become an issue.
The practice of voting is in any case neither wholly fair nor so wholly democratic as most people believe. Where large numbers are involved, or where it is important that the members register their choice individually, the best way may be by ballot. For relatively small groups, however, voting can have several significant disadvantages.
Consider majority rule: Certainly it is not always true that the majority know best. One person in a group may see the truth more clearly than others, either because he is more knowledgeable in the matters under discussion, or because he is simply wiser. In issues decided by ballot he may be out-voted. But if the others know they can trust his opinion, and if their desire is to be guided by the truth, they may often prefer to follow his advice.
Another problem with voting is that to have winners means there must also be losers. Why, in a genuinely democratic system, should anybody have to lose? Isn’t compromise possible? Cannot both sides be satisfied? Often, in small groups, they can be.
Finally, the system of deciding everything by vote forces the members to be either for an issue or against it. Some of them, however, may not be convinced either way. Being obliged to vote when they are uncertain may cause them to support a conclusion with which they are not wholly in agreement. Once one has cast his vote, moreover, he may consider it a commitment to which he must be loyal no matter how he comes to feel about it later.
I do not, on the other hand, recommend rule by consensus. When consensus is mandatory, the members must decide even if they feel incompetent to do so. In such circumstances, they may agree to a proposal simply to “let the show go on,” and not because they give it their heartfelt consent. In such cases, voting becomes merely routine, and people cease in time even to interest themselves in the process.
Formal voting systems, though designed to ensure cooperation, are often an effective way of minimizing it. People worry that without a vote some leader might arise who would bully everyone into doing his will. Maybe so, but in small groups there are few decisions so vital as to endanger anything or anyone very much. If a leader reveals this bullying weakness, he can be replaced if and when necessary. Or he may simply learn, in time, to behave better. No human quality is indelible.
Obviously, there must be free discussion at community meetings, so that people may express themselves should they so desire. Thus, reactions can be invited that might, in the voting process, be lost in favor of someone else’s phrasing. Many issues can, as I said, be decided in favor of more than one side; often, people don’t have to be either for or against anything. If some of them want one thing, and others, another, both sides can often be satisfied. There are times, of course, when a straightforward yes or no decision is necessary. There are also times when a formal vote is desirable. If the discussion leader omits to request a show of hands, at least, there will always be someone to remind him of this courtesy. There needn’t be an actual rule in the matter.
One may safely assume that most members of a cooperative community want what is best for everyone, and that they define that “best” in terms of what is right and true. Indeed, a cooperative community must be predicated on this assumption. If this spirit is lacking, the community will fail as an intentional venture. There are plenty of other communities — average township, for example — people’s first priority is to promote their own interests. What I mean by intentional cooperative communities is groups for whom living and working together in harmony for the good of all is a basic principle.
In times of nationwide economic depression, a further benefit may emerge from such communities: They can create a nationwide network of many communities, each specializing in manufacturing or producing items for which the others would be the natural customers. In this case, the network might even establish its own internal currency. (This was what one township in America actually did during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties.)
At the same time, cooperative communities ought not to separate themselves in spirit from society as a whole. In this respect, communities like the Mennonites in Pennsylvania are anachronisms. The calendar cannot be set back hundreds of years. The present needs are too great.
In the members’ attitude toward the larger world also — their dress, speech, and behavior — would do well to show respect for the ways of others. They ought not, of course, to sacrifice their integrity or their ideals. If a group decide to be vegetarian, however, though it would not be wrong for them to adhere to that practice strictly, they may feel justified by circumstances to compromise. The important thing is that they not flaunt their beliefs or be dogmatic about them.
Only by building bridges to the whole of society can cooperative communities be an influence for generally improving life on earth. Thus, many thousands can be inspired to embrace ideals at which it is fashionable nowadays to sneer, as though high aspiration were naive and its goals, merely “relative” and unworthy of honest consideration. The more a group can share its inspiration with others, the more it, too, will be inspired in its quest for inner peace.
What is needed also is upward aspiration — of the heart, not only of the intellect. Aspiration without love is like an archer’s bow without a string.
Cooperative communities are a highly practical solution for everyone seeking true meaning in life. I say this from many years of experience, and after observing countless educated, intelligent, aware individuals in the conduct of their lives. With this ideal, I do indeed see hope — I say this with conviction — a better, happier, more peaceful world!