The Emptiness of ‘Emptiness’: P2P Spiritual Knowledge and Community

P2P keyboardMichel Bauwens points out in his article ‘If we can have p2p economics, why not p2p spirituality?’ that the dominant spiritual and economic models of a particular age often mirror each other:

“Spirituality and religion always bear the hallmark of the social structures in which they were born and become embedded. Emerging religions often represent a partial transformation of these social structures because they represent new forms of consciousness, but they can never become hegemonic if they are not rooted in, and accepted by, the mainstream social logic.”

So his idea is that the emerging P2P economic forms should have a corresponding spiritual analogue:

“Therefore, it’s logical to expect that the emergence of peer production as a new model of value creation and distribution should also lead to new forms of spiritual organization and experience.”

He defines ‘Peer Production’ as:

“…any process that allows for open input, participatory processing, and where the output is universally available as a commons to all.”

As far as I am concerned, this all makes perfect sense and I rejoice in his next point which is that a truly P2P spirituality would be the end of the ‘guru’ as we know it, and the whole need to join hierarchical organisations in order to explore one’s own inner being:

“What is important here is not to see spiritual achievements like ‘enlightenment’ as transcendent qualities that trump all others and infer an unchallengeable authority on one person, but rather as particular skills that deserve respect, just as we respect great musicians or artists without giving them any special power.

That means no more gurus, just skilful teachers with a particular job to do. Such teachers are technical facilitators – nothing more and nothing less. They are equipotential peers who serve a specific function.”

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this kind of participatory spirituality myself, in the context of Holotropic Breathwork therapy, created by the transpersonal psychologist Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina Grof. The therapy has at its core the doctrine of the ‘inner healer’, a personal power unique to each individual which guides them to the material they most need to access in any given session. The leaders of the session are called ‘facilitators’ and they are apparently instructed that their main task is to keep the participants safe and focussed on the process – they will never second-guess or add any of their own opinions about anything which comes out in the session unless expressly asked, and even if they do give advice they will emphasise that it is only a personal opinion.

In other words, there is no dogma in this form of spiritual practice (and even though it calls itself a therapy, I can testify to the fact that very deep spiritual experiences are possible using this method of accessing the unconscious levels of mind). At the end of the day’s session, everyone shares their experience, with the suggestion being given that all the participants listen to each other in the spirit of an open mind and an open heart, and without judgement.

To me, this seems to be an ideal methodology of entering into serious spiritual practice, and is in line with Bauwens’ concept of “equipotentiality:”, defined as:

“…the capacity of every human being to develop their own qualities, which are all necessary as contributions to common projects. We all have the capacity to develop different skills which are complementary to each other.”

The facilitators are not ‘above’ the participants, in fact in some sense they are ‘below’ them, acting as a support, and can truly be said to be in service to those people taking part in the session. Each person’s own inner wisdom is the trusted guide, rather than an external person who ‘knows best’. This system has clearly been designed by the Grofs specifically in order to remove ‘the guru principle’ from the equation, and I have found that it works extremely well, giving one a sense of being supported by a community but at the same time allowing one to enter into one’s own inner worlds.

This brings me to a point where I slightly take issue with Michel Bauwens on the subject of P2P spirituality – in his article he makes the claim that:

“…a p2p spirituality would honour community and co-production above all else.”

I would beg to differ with this statement in that surely any kind of spiritual practice honours what is referred to as the ‘spirit’ above all else, and the community, while it may be vitally important, is not the be-all-and-end-all of the practice itself. The Buddha emphasised the importance of the Sangha, but meditation itself, where one sits entirely cut off from communication with other beings (in the outer world at least), would seem to be more central to Buddhist teachings than the role of the other practitioners, who after all, from the perspective of the individual meditator, are part of the ephemeral world which must necessarily always be in constant flux.

One’s own inner being is the goal, not in a narcissistic sense of fixating on the mind, but rather in the transcendent sense of realising that one is not separate from the greater Mind, the Spirit, the impersonal being of Life itself, of which all form a part. This surely should be the goal of any spirituality, whether it be in the most hierarchical Roman Catholic monastery (where the ultimate would be referred to as ‘God’, of course – the ‘top man on the pyramid’), or the most P2P spiritual discussion group made up of entirely equipotential peers maybe discussing how quantum physics has transformed our notion of what is meant by ‘spirituality’.

To me, an emphasis on the community of spiritual practitioners as being more important than the practice itself, whatever that might be, is putting the cart before the horse, and in a way could reflect a subtle disillusionment with the fruits of one’s spiritual labours, almost like admitting that true spiritual growth is not possible, but contenting oneself with the ‘consolation prize’ of having a great group of people with whom to not really make much progress.

Of course, dismantling outdated hierarchical spiritual structures is vitally important, because it is this which often either turns people off the spiritual search in the first place, or stunts their potential by forcing a top-down dogma onto them which doesn’t actually tally with their own experience, especially if this dogma was created thousands of years ago and no longer contains much of relevance to the spiritual practice of people in the modern world. In this way they remain stuck in limbo, unable to move forward because the spiritual ‘vehicle’ in which they have chosen to move is so weighed down with hierarchy and outdated concepts that any real wisdom they may come across is realised despite the structure in which they find themselves, rather than due to any potentiality it may hold in itself.

But, here we discover the rabbit hole goes even deeper. Having set up our non-hierarchical P2P spiritual group, and acknowledged that everyone has something to bring to the table, and even that the group is a means to an end and not an end in itself, what would the actual starting point for a P2P spirituality even be? Do we start by criticising an established religion or set of spiritual principles, or do we head for the hills and start our own?

Bauwens suggests:

“In this [contributory]approach, tradition is not rejected but critically experienced and evaluated. The contributory spiritual practitioner can hold themselves beholden to a particular tradition, but need not feel confined to it. He or she can create spiritual inquiry circles that approach different traditions with an open mind, experience them individually and collectively, and exchange experiences with others.”

However at this point I would like to bring in something I read recently from Scott Kiloby, who has been defined as a ‘spiritual teacher’ although I think he would probably take issue with that (or indeed any) definition of what he does:

“What if awareness isn’t real? A recent scientific study found that awareness or consciousness is a construction of the mind like everything else – like the self, our world views, all of it.”

He goes on: “…most of the spiritual community is ignorant of what science is currently saying and what these postmodern explorations have uncovered about how our minds conceive – essentially “make up” – everything, even our most profound metaphysical notions. Even though our spiritual circles are slow to see this, we have all already seen it, yet we often turn a blind eye to it. For example, those who follow certain regional traditions and teachings tend to see what those teachings and traditions teach and nothing more. For example, a Buddhist is not going to find Union with Christ. A Christian is not going to realize nirvana.”

So how does this relate to P2P spirituality? For me, if this is true, it cuts both ways: one, it destroys the notion of ‘one truth’ that we might be able to find, at least in terms of anything we are going to be able to describe to another human being. That is, if we find out that ‘the ultimate’, or ‘awareness itself’ is just another concept, and possibly a concept used to keep an established dogmatic worldview in place, as Kiloby notes:

“If there is one pregiven reality, why is everyone still arguing about it? […] Could it be that the notion of one fundamental truth is just another way the ego wants to be right? If so, that has nothing to do with a pregiven, nonconceptual reality. That is all about self.”

I don’t believe he is negating the notion of a pregiven reality as something to be experienced, more that paradoxically, the ‘pregiven reality’, as experienced, undermines the concept of itself, and shows that even ’emptiness’ itself is ultimately empty.

So in our P2P spiritual explorations, we might be disillusioned to discover that not only are we not correct in our assumptions as to what an ‘underlying reality’ or ‘spirit’ might be, we might discover that everyone else is mistaken as well, even our most treasured teachers, for there is no nameable or even unnameable ‘reality’, for such a ‘thing’ can only ever be a concept, and all along even as we may have been having amazing experiences of inner realms, we have in fact only been promenading down the streets of the mind itself, even as we may have blundered into regional or cultural memes and surprised ourselves to find unexpected material in the subconscious. At the end of the day, the concept of ‘Jesus’ or ‘Buddha’ or ‘awakening’ has exactly the same value as that of ‘chair’ or ‘Big Mac’ or ‘irritation’, in that they are all concepts and ultimately all empty. Not that the ‘things’ they point to are equal, only that they are all equally concepts in the mind.

So secondly, this cuts the other way for P2P spirituality – we can play with all traditions, seeing all as equally empty, but using them as one might use a well-stocked toolbox when appropriate. The more ‘awakened’ of the circle might gently remind another of the ultimate emptiness of all things if they start to take concepts and related experiences too seriously and start to insist on them as the ‘one way’, even of course, the concept of emptiness itself.

I don’t believes this invalidates in a nihilistic way the many spiritual traditions – I am with Scott Kiloby when he says:

“Is this the end of metaphysical notions like awareness? I say “no.” It just means it is time for a change in how we view these things (or non-things). Setting up the notion of awareness can be helpful on one’s path to freedom. It provides a way to identify less with thoughts and other arisings that come and go. But inevitably, many land on that conception as a final realization, still dividing the universe in two, between awareness and all that other stuff that comes and goes.”

This chimes with something I heard recently in an excellent discussion between Orla O’Donovan and Gustavo Esteva on the Commons and the theories of Ivan Illich – Esteva pointed out that if we call a group of people ‘a collective’, we are already heading down the wrong path if we want to speak about true solidarity – because the very notion of a ‘collective’ implies a grouping of disparate and disconnected individuals.

In the same way, to speak about a P2P spirituality may be useful as a sort of signpost on the way, but we are mistaken if we take it too seriously, for the reason that an effective spirituality is the realisation that we are all already One, and what is One does not need to come together, as a true collective does not question its solidarity, and indeed has no need for the words ‘collective’ or ‘community’. These may be difficult ideas to grasp these days when we are so indoctrinated into the mindset of separation, but this only highlights how much our ways of thinking have to change in order for there to be any chance of real evolution on the ‘individual’, ‘collective’, and ‘spiritual’ levels. And of course, even the word ‘levels’ is just another concept born of separation. We can use these concepts as long as we are careful and remember they are only that. To fight and die for a concept or ideal is surely the height of Utopian stupidity.

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