Friday, January 23, 2009

Awakening Media

In September of 2008, bestselling Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle and television diva Oprah Winfrey conducted a ten-part online webcast devoted to the study of Tolle’s latest book, A New Earth.

The landmark event was estimated to have attracted as many as twenty million viewers and listeners from around the world. Sponsored by Skype, the makers of Post-it Notes, and the Chevrolet division of General Motors, the event demonstrated a degree of widespread interest in serious spiritual content that is nothing less than remarkable. When an automobile company that is as quintessentially a symbol of mainstream America as Chevrolet; sponsors a conversation between a German-born mystic and an African-American talk show host about going beyond ego, one begins to wonder if, indeed; as in Bob Dylan’s famous line, “the times they are a changing”.

In 1963, when Dylan wrote these enduring lyrics, the whole world was on the cusp of a major social and cultural transformation that forever altered the way humans thought about what it means to live in a free country. From feminism to desegregation, a number of radical crusades were overhauling the concept of liberty. Today, more than forty years later, one could postulate that we are seeing the signs of a similar sea change, albeit of a decidedly subtler nature. In the sixties, the revolution was taking place primarily in the counterculture, among college students and anti-war protesters who were rejecting their parents’ values.

Now, judging from the millions of Oprah fans who joined the Eckhart Tolle webcast, the change seems to be taking place within the mainstream, not against it. Could it be that we are entering a new period of transformation, one in which we are willing to engage in a deeper, broader conversation about the nature of reality and what matters in life? Certainly there are other indicators of change in the popular media. Take, for example, the venerable New York Times. Over three sequential weeks last May, the newspaper published four prominent articles dealing with spiritually related subjects. Among them was op-ed columnist David Brooks’ provocative piece entitled The Neural Buddhists, in which he stated unequivocally that there has been a shift away from hard-core materialism in recent research into the relationship between the brain and the origin of meaning, belief, and consciousness.

Then the story of how Harvard neuroscientist and stroke survivor Jill Bolte Taylor experienced nirvana graced the cover page of a May 2008 Times Fashion and Style section, by which time Taylor had already become somewhat of a celebrity. In February 2008, she gave a presentation at that high-voltage nexus of innovation and creativity, the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Monterey, California. In March, the video of her talk was posted on TED’s website, igniting a digital sensation. By May, as the Times story reported, more than two million viewers had watched the video and as many as twenty thousand people per day were continuing to do so. Time Magazine included Taylor on their list of the one hundred most influential people in 2008, and in mid-May, the written account of Taylor’s journey to bliss and back again, My Stroke of Insight, was released and quickly shot up to number six on the Times bestseller list of non-fiction books.

Mark Tauber, Senior Vice President/Publisher at Harper One, an imprint of publishing giant HarperCollins, has no doubt that “The New York Times is on to something. In the book industry, he said recently, “we’re absolutely seeing the spirituality side of things coming back, and we’ve got the stats to prove it.” Media entrepreneur Mallika Chopra concurs. According to her, the media’s sensitivity to where the public interest lies, as in the case of Jill Bolte Taylor, is foundational to how the industry works. Chopra, who is the daughter and business partner of the illustrious Deepak Chopra, recently explained to us: “We’re seeing a real shift in mainstream media that I think is coming, frankly, from consumers who are curious, accepting, and open to spiritual content.’ Thirty years ago when her father first started writing, she notes; “words like consciousness and enlightenment and spirituality were almost ‘four-letter words. Today the media is recognizing that there’s a real audience for this material.”

Moving beyond print media into film, video, and even live theater, there are more examples of a deepening interest in spirituality and consciousness in contemporary culture. The recent Broadway hit, Rock ‘n’ Roll, by legendary Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard, focused on an eclectic mix of themes; including music, politics, Greek poetry, and conflicting theories of consciousness. Director Francis Ford Coppola, of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather fame, has cited Henri Bergson; a French philosopher noted for his original writings on consciousness, creativity, and evolution as an important influence on his work. And the press release for Coppola’s latest film, Youth Without Youth, states that it’s fitting that one of America’s greatest filmmakers is drawn now; in the opening years of the new millennium, to explore consciousness. Over these past four decades, Coppola’s work has often reflected the zeitgeist. And a Romanian film entitled 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was on many lists of the top ten movies of 2007, elicited this unusual observation from a Times film critic: “The camera . . . expresses consciousness itself.”

Not everyone interprets these signs in the same way however. Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor at Harper’s and Rolling Stone and an associate research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, takes a longer view. He sees the current shift in reporting on spirituality as part of a historical pattern that has been under way since the end of the nineteenth century, when spiritualism swept the country. Every ten to fifteen years, he says, someone or something comes along that the media gets excited about. Whether it is Norman Vincent Peale declaring the power of positive thinking in the 1950’s or Eckhart Tolle extolling the benefits of transcending ego in 2008, the basic message is the same according to Sharlet. “I see a lack of historical perspective in the media”, he remarked in a recent interview. Much of what is being reported as new these days is simply the recycling of old ideas.

Or maybe with each new cycle, there is a broadening and deepening of the inquiry inherent in those recurrent spiritual eruptions. For sure, the scope of what is going on today seems unprecedented. Those same baby boomers who inaugurated the cultural revolution of the sixties, are continuing to have a significant influence on cultural values. According to Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute - a personal-growth mecca in New York; “Democracy and diversity are what define us as Americans, and what we’re seeing now is the democratization and popularization of spirituality and consciousness.” Yet, she points our; “what was trendsetting for the boomers is now the norm for their children.” Mindfulness is starting to be taught in public schools and alternative medicine, including meditation and various mind-body modalities, is becoming available in traditional hospitals.

The press is one of the last to catch on. Steven Vedro, author of Digital Dharma, parses it differently. "Consciousness”, he suggests, “as it percolates through human creativity creates signposts, visible markers in popular culture, at a time when we’re finally ready to recognize them.” If he’s right, then what we’re seeing in the media - and, more important, in society at large - may signal a genuine awakening and the desire for a deeper meaning to our lives than our materialistic consumer society can provide. And if that’s the case, then Dylan’s famous refrain may once again herald an era of exciting, unpredictable change.