Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Messianic Age: A Kabbalistic View

Millennialist predictions vary as to what the transformations of 2012 are meant to be. For some, 2012 represents The End of the World, the apocalypse, the destruction of society, or even life as we know it. For others, 2012 represents an inflection point in human consciousness, a tipping point at which our age's accelerating growth in spiritual consciousness suddenly wins out over its equally perilous growth in material chaos and devastation.

In fact, this distinction -- whether the "next age" is about spiritual transformation or material destruction -- has long been a part of Western apocalyptic thinking. The latter tradition is better known: the Rapture, the End Times, the Apocalypse. However, the former tradition is also present in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. There have just been too many Times of Transformation: 1666, 1848, Y2K (remember that?), and literally hundreds of others, now long forgotten. Then again, who knows? One of the benefits of the "spiritual view" is that it makes predictions less important. For the Kabbalists, the cyclical and linear aspects of time represent the feminine and masculine aspects of Divinity, the power of Now and the trajectory of temporality.

One of Judaism's central historical tenets is the belief in a Messiah, a redeemer who in some future time will change, or even end, history. Jewish beliefs about the Messiah have themselves evolved over time. Initially, the Messiah was seen as a purely military/political leader who would bring independence back to Judea. Later, the Messiah became seen as a cosmic figure who would change the entire nature of reality. Likely under the influence of Christianity, the Messiah was sometimes seen as a semi-divine figure, even one who would atone for the sins of Israel. In contrast to such traumatic and supernatural accounts of messianism, there has been a longstanding Jewish tradition to regard the messianic age as one of evolving consciousness rather than revolutionary history.

Imagine a world in which everyone understood that all of us are God. Not one in which each person thought he or she was God alone -- that would be disaster. But one in which the nonduality of Being was understood, in some form or fashion, by all human beings. This would be an entirely different world from the one we now inhabit, free of the conflicts and crises, petty and grotesque, which fill our moment. And imagine what it would be like, right now, to believe that, as Ramana Maharshi has said, "civilization . . . will finally resolve itself, as all others, in the Realization of the Self".

Now, in our postmodern information age, the noosphere is indeed upon us. Already, thanks to global information technology, the hidden mystical teachings of the world's religious traditions are accessible to everyone, as are the great wealth of scientific, cultural, philosophical, and artistic works from the better part of humanity. But even this is just the beginning. The internet, nanotechnology, and wearable computers are but the initial stages of a noetic revolution in which nonmaterial information may displace material matter as the ultimate future of the body. Most probably, we are only a few decades away from being able to upload our minds onto renewable data media. Is this the "immortality of the soul" of which some religions once spoke? What is the meaning of humanity if we are able to transcend the limits of matter? And more proximately, what is the significance of this new knowledge, accessible all over the world -- including, for our purposes, the highest truth (singular!) of so many spiritual traditions, that there is really no one either reading or writing these words?

What terrifies fundamentalists is that religious meaning evolves over time. Yet from an integral messianic perspective, that is exactly what it should be doing. There is no experience apart from interpretation, not merely because mystics must interpret their experiences according to the language and culture they know, but because those linguistic and cultural structures condition the nature of the experience itself. Perhaps "I" will "have" a "vision" of "angels," but all of the quoted terms are cultural constructions. The structural/historical conditioning of experience is unavoidable, so much so that it makes little sense to speak of "experience" or "God" or "mysticism" apart from the stages in which such experience is interpreted. Put simply, God looks different depending on where you stand.

From what Wilber (following the integral approach developed by the philosopher Jean Gebser) calls the magical stage, God looks like the provider who answers all of your (egocentric) needs. From the mythic stage, God -- as understood in your faith tradition exclusively -- is the sole source of salvation, and everyone who doesn't believe in Him is doomed. From the mental-rational stage, God is a moral principle and the Bible a useful, though flawed, teacher of ethical truths; other teachers may also be valuable. From the pluralistic stage, God is love, expressed in a thousand ways by a thousand religions, all deserving of respect. And from the various integral stages, God is variously Nothing, and all of the above. Experiences of all types are available to all kinds of people. But the same experience will be immediately contextualized and interpreted according not only to one's religious/spiritual/scientific tradition but also one's "stage" of religious development.

Utopian ideal? Exactly -- and that is exactly the function of the messianic urge, here reconfigured away from nationalism, triumphalism, and supernaturalism, and toward the dawning of realization on earth. Will everyone be Christian or Gnostic or Jewish in the messianic age? Will a magical chariot descend from the sky? Of course not -- that misses the entire point. Rather, the nondual wellsprings of the Baal Shem Tov's (and many other) teachings will water a thousand plants in Eden, a biodiversity of spirit which, as in ecology, nourishes the whole by supporting difference. Consciousness will shift until such a point at which even the lion may lie down with the lamb.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Program Your Money

The credit crunch may actually be good for business.

No, not in the short term. When money becomes more expensive, it is harder for most businesses to get the capital they need to conduct their most basic operations. Even successful companies borrow money to buy materials, pay employees, and cash in on invoices that have yet to be paid. Without the cash flow provided by banks, it is a lot harder for many companies to function -- much less expand.

With any luck, however, the future of business will be entirely less dependent on banks and the currency they lend into existence. The Fortune 500 will become something other than brand names on piles of debt, and business operations will be characterized more by what companies produce than how much credit their "stories" can earn them on one of the stock exchanges.

Yes, we are watching something melt down. But I'd argue the thing that's dying is not business itself, but a financial parasite -- a speculative marketplace that no longer funds business but instead seeks to extract value from healthy commerce. More a funds vampire than an infuser of needed capital, the investment industry has been exposed as a drag on business. The future of commerce looks bright to me because it may be unencumbered by the weight of this non-productive capital.

This all began back in the Renaissance, when a waning monarchy was looking for ways to preserve its power in the face of a rising merchant class. The merchants were becoming richer than the royals. So the monarchs came up with an idea: chartered monopolies. By granting one of these new companies exclusive province over a particular industry or region, monarchs earned their undying loyalty -- as well as a generous portion of shares in the enterprise. They began to write laws that favored their chartered companies, such as those preventing inhabitants of colonies from creating any value for themselves; colonists had to ship raw resources back to the mother country, where they were processed into clothes or other finished goods.

This model of business-by-extraction carried over to finance as well. European towns had used local currencies for centuries. Farmers would bring their wheat to a grain store, which would give them receipts for the amount of grain to be kept for them. These receipts served as local currency. The system was so efficient, and people were living so well, that people of this era were taller than at any time until the last few decades. By making local currency illegal, a monarch could force people to use his own more expensive "coin of the realm" instead. Instead of being earned into existence, this money was borrowed into existence.

Over the next four hundred years, the business of money slowly grew bigger than business itself. A central bank creates money and charges interest to the next bank down the line, and so on, until it gets to the business that needs it to do something useful. The problem is, more value is being extracted on each level than businesses can produce. There are simply too many institutions -- too many lenders -- to be paid.

As the banking industry grew bigger and less regulated, institutions consolidated, making the notion of a local lender obsolete, as well. Loans are centrally processed by bankers who have little knowledge of the companies or people to whom they are lending -- and little reason to learn about them, since they are simply packaging and selling the loans, anyway.

The house of cards had to fall eventually. The truly amazing thing is how long it lasted. And before we attempt to prop it back up again, we might consider whether there is a better way to do business. I think there is.

The beauty of this era -- this networked, hi-tech, and decentralized world -- is that we no longer have to do everything from the center. The laws and regulations requiring us to run our finances and resources through tremendous industrial age corporations are more obsolete than ever. And real people are beginning to catch on to how inefficient and risky it is to conduct their transactions in this way. They are starting to trust the real world around them more than the mythologies created by the public relations departments of distant corporations.

Moneys are programmed. They behave in certain ways because they have been embedded with certain biases. Today's credit crisis, for example, is no more the fault of particular bankers' behaviors than the underlying biases of the centralized, monopoly currencies we use. At least that's the opinion of a growing population of citizens and businesses turning to the use of what they call "complementary currencies" -- alternative, net-enabled, bottom-up money systems that let them accomplish what money loaned out by the central banks just isn't letting them do anymore.

Complementary currencies treat money as a utility, rather than an asset class. Their bias is towards functionality instead of savings, transaction instead of speculation. In 1995, as recession rocked Japan, unemployment rose and currency became scarce. This made it particularly difficult for people to continue to take care of their elderly relatives, who often lived in distant areas. The Sawayaka Welfare Foundation developed a complementary currency by which a young person could earn credits for taking care of an elderly person, and then spend them on the care of their own relatives in distant towns. At last count, the alternative currency was accepted at 372 health centers throughout Japan, and all administered by a simple piece of software. Close to a thousand alternative currencies are now in use in Japan.

In October 2008, as the credit crisis paralyzed business lending, companies started signing on to barter networks in droves. One system called ITEX, which allows businesses to trade merchandise, reported a 37% increase in registrations for the month of October alone. Utilizing more than 250 exchange services now available through the Internet, companies can barter directly with each other, or earn US-dollar-equivalent credits for the merchandise they supply to others. This bartering already accounts for 3 billion dollars of exchanges annually in the United States.

Local currencies have spread far beyond the experimental fringe to over 2100 US towns at last count, both because of the new scarcity of dollars as well as the availability of software and tools. Beginning a local currency requires no store of capital -- it is as easy as visiting the websites for local economic transfer (LETS) systems or Time Dollars. In one town, for example, there's a tiny organic cafe called Comfort that is seeking to expand. John, the owner secured a second location for a sit-down restaurant, but doesn't have enough money to renovate the space. Although he has great credit, he can't get a loan from any of the banks in town. Even though the bankers know him, they don't have lending authority from the conglomerates that own them. So what's John to do?

John has turned to the community for help. He invented "Comfort Dollars" that people can buy at a discount of 20%. If you spend $1000, you receive $1200 in Comfort Dollars that can be spent at the restaurant. John gets the cash infusion he needs to complete his expansion -- and for cheaper than the bank would charge him. The local community gets a 20% discount on food they would be buying anyway, as well as the chance to invest in making their town better. This is a 20% return on investment, payable as fast as the investor and his family can eat.

The Comfort Dollars scenario reveals just how much of the current mess has resulted from the way we "outsourced" our finances to begin with. The real problem underlying the global financial meltdown has much less to do with low efficiency, bad labor, or poor innovation than it does with the decreased utility of the financial industry itself. Money has stopped working properly -- at least in its capacity to lubricate transactions. The sad part is that money is working exactly as it was designed to.

Once we accept the fact that the money and banks we have grown accustomed to using are not the only ways to generate capital, we liberate ourselves and our businesses from a finance industry that has enjoyed a monopoly over our commerce for much too long. They have not only abused our trust through corrupt self-dealing, but abused their privilege through systemic usury. Businesses are only obligated to support their employees, owners, and customers -- not an entire finance industry.

The financial meltdown will help many businesses realize that their priorities have been artificially skewed towards making bankers and investors happy -- and their own communities less so. As we start to finance locally or from our own non-local communities, our services will become more finely tuned towards them as well. We will get better at what we do, rather than obsessed with growth (to pay back lenders) or financing (to achieve that growth through acquisition).

This is all good -- at least for businesses that have any remaining connection to a community or core competency. It will be possible to scale companies appropriately rather than to infinite expansion. It will be easier to take and share profits rather than watch them be extracted by last year's lenders. It will favor local and connected businesses instead of big chains operated from afar by corporations behaving as if it were still the 1500's and they had a royal imprimatur on their business license.

The future of business -- real business -- is bright as it has been for close to a millennium. It just might not be reflected in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for quite some time, if ever. That's because instead of earning money, we'll be creating value.

My Years With Ayn Rand

Psychologist and philosopher Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D. is a founding member of Integral Institute and author of twenty books on the psychology of self-esteem, romantic love, and the life and thought of Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into 18 languages and has sold over 4 million copies, and includes such titles as Taking Responsibility, The Art of Living Consciously, A Woman's Self-Esteem, and the 1969 classic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem.

In a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month-Club, the #1 book that has made a difference in people’s lives is, no surprise, the Bible. But the #2 book is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. And #5? Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In other words, two of the five most influential books written are from the hand of Ayn Rand. Meet the man who Ayn Rand considered to be the living embodiment of the principles of her Objectivist philosophy; in other words, meet Nathaniel Branden.

Nathaniel begins his story at the beginning: a boy of fourteen who stumbled across a copy of The Fountainhead lying on the coffee table. "I disappeared from this earth for the next two days, until the book was finished. It was an electrifying experience." Little did he know then that as a young man, a shade under twenty, he would actually meet Ayn and soon begin one of the most passionate and turbulent romantic relationships of his life, the effects of which would touch the lives of thousands.

As Nathaniel recalls: "I could hardly believe that this person who I had regarded as a goddess since age fourteen, saw me for all practical purposes as the apotheosis of everything she was writing about." Ayn and Nathaniel began an intense, romantic (and largely secret) relationship—she in her forties, Nathaniel in his twenties—that has become the stuff of legend and at least one movie. It is rare that any influential movement begins in such a way; rarer still to have an eyewitness report of one of the two involved parties.

Of course, when the relationship did end, it ended in an enormously difficult way. So difficult that in certain circles of Rand’s followers, Nathaniel’s contributions to the movement have been denied or ignored. But Nathaniel played an instrumental role in helping form and popularize Objectivist philosophy as a world-wide movement. Having founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute to help educate interested students in Objectivism, he was responsible for teaching distance learning courses in over 80 cities world-wide. To this day, Rand’s books sell over 400,000 copies per year.

We are fortunate to have this opportunity to listen to Nathaniel’s account of the life and times of one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. He was on the ground floor of a philosophical revolution still being felt today. (Example: it has been said that the most powerful man in the world is the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. That position was held by Alan Greenspan, one of a dozen members of the early circle with Ayn and Nathaniel.)

But there is a reason that Ayn invested so much in Nathan, as she called him, and it is that, in a peculiar way and from the beginning, Branden was his own man. He brought as much to the movement as he got out of it, as his long and distinguished career demonstrates. The Nathaniel Branden Integral Life presentation is the story of that astonishing career that has now lasted five decades, from age 23 to 73.

This wide-ranging conversation deal with the Ayn Rand years—utterly important, formative, movement-creating, and earth-shaking, certainly for a young man. But, as they say, go ahead and listen to the Ayn Rand years, but keep in mind, you ain't heard nuttin yet....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

T-Shirt of the Month Club

Paradigm, Oh Paradigm...

As a hypothesis, I propose that humanity may be undergoing a rapid transition from the biological to the psychic phase of species evolution in the next few years. The inertia of physical forces, chemical processes and cellular mechanisms, precisely coordinated over billions of years, has brought us to this make or break point. In order to continue our evolution, we need to reach a deeper level of species consciousness and self-awareness, transform our planetary culture and social systems so they serve the entire community of life, and integrate and anchor psychic capacities as part of a new paradigm and mythological substrate. This shift would also require a different approach to technological progress. We would use technology to create long-term benefits for people and planet, rather than shortsighted profits for individuals and corporations.

As individuals, we have the choice to contribute to this process in essential ways. We can shift from passive spectators to active participants, taking full responsibility for our own development and the unfolding of the whole. Currently, the first wave of individuals who are part of this tipping point phenomenon are learning to observe themselves as participators within the cosmos, and to act in our earthly realm with impartiality and compassion.

According to this hypothesis, as this level of presence crystallizes among the few, it will become increasingly available to wider circles of humanity, until it encompasses the entirety. We will supersede the confusion and destruction caused by the modern process of individuation by establishing new models of inclusive collaboration. As one aspect of this phase shift in consciousness, we will see a shift from hierarchic to holarchic models of social organization, and the melding of masculine rationality with feminine intuition. The form of the modern nation-state, obsessed with defending its own insecure boundaries, will be outmoded by a global direct democracy in which local communities realize themselves as fractal expressions of the whole, like healthy cells of the planetary organism.

Many mystical traditions propose that what we experience as reality is actually a kind of waking dream, projected from an infinite source of consciousness. According to this hypothesis, each of us can identify with our personal ego -- the dream character in the dream play -- or switch our center of identification to the projecting source. While the ego is trapped in limitation, the projecting source is infinite and free. Given the right marketing campaign, the awareness of our connection with this infinite creative source could permeate the global mind in the same way a new pop song or advertising jingle insinuates itself into the collective subconscious.

The uncertainty that many of us feel right now is, in itself, part of this transitional process. Whether we like it or not, the responsibility for the future of the species has now been placed in our hands. If we don't answer this call, our species will experience traumatic outcomes and cataclysms as the negative feedback loops of climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, fundamentalist violence and overpopulation create hell on earth, perhaps leading to our own extinction.

As I have discussed in previous works, there are good reasons to think that the positive feedback loops could also come together and self-reinforce to create a successful outcome -- what Buckminster Fuller described as a "win-win" situation for global humanity. It appears that successive transformations of human civilization happen at exponentially faster rates of linear time: while the agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial age took under two hundred years, and the knowledge or information age required only a few decades. By this model, as Peter Russell has suggested, the next revolution in human society could happen in two or three years. This would be a revolution of wisdom, of consciousness, that could, potentially, open the gates to the psychic phase of our development.

More and more people appear to be experiencing psychic phenomena -- synchronicities, intuitive realizations, telepathic episodes and even occasional phenomena such as sudden manifestations or telekinesis. Anecdotally, I also encounter many people now undergoing classic Kundalini experiences, which were once extremely rare. A number of scientists have proposed that the solar system and the earth are undergoing a transition to a higher energy state. The level of electromagnetic activity may be increasing on our planet, accelerating and intensifying our psychic evolution. We may find that there is a non-dual relationship between changes in our lives on earth and processes happening throughout our solar system and the galaxy.

The correlations between ancient mystical traditions and the discoveries of quantum physics and other modern scientific disciplines could be firmly established, and presented in popular media so that they become socially accepted. The empirical tools of modern science could be repurposed to facilitate the development of psychic awareness, while our communications technologies transmit a new understanding around the planet in an extremely concentrated timeframe. At the same time, we could use the mass media and the Internet to disseminate the best techniques for growing food locally, for producing renewable energies, for reinventing industries and creating complementary currencies, and so on.

Of course, I don't know if this hypothetical outcome will come to pass. However, I see no reason why it couldn't. The tools are there for us. All that is required is the individual and collective will to make use of them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Parktown Boys Re-Initiate

This past weekend the boarders at troubled Druce Hall, Parktown Boys High, underwent the first “Boys to Men’ initiation ever organised by a South African school. This initiation adventure, held from Friday to Sunday 6-8 March, was facilitated by the Boys to Men program. The weekend was conducted by a skilled team of 27 volunteer men – old and young – from all walks of life. Originating in the USA and refined over decades, Boys to Men initiations are now offered in several countries around the world. Rooted in the idea that boys were initiated into manhood in most ancient cultures, and that boys today still need this experience, the programme offers a ‘Rite of Passage Adventure’ that invites teenage boys into a deeply meaningful initiation that doesn’t exclude – nor include – any religious belief.

Feedback from the boys who did the weekend was extraordinarily positive, especially since they were comparing this weekend with their own school initiation tradition: “if any boy can come through this weekend, then they’re OK with us”. “I managed to connect with my heart for the first time.” “I learned to be an individual.” “I learned that only I can my future great. I have the power to be the best person I can possibly be.” “I learned that [my fellow boarders] also have issues and need my help.” “I learned that I can get in touch with my emotions easily and that there other, safer ways of initiating someone.”

This weekend the Parktown boarders took brave steps on their journey to maturity and manhood. In these three days the boys addressed issues of responsibility, compassion, trust, integrity and non-violent communication. They explored crossroads that challenge them in their personal lives, past wounds that keep them back, and were guided to find a personal mission statement for their lives. The boys came to realise how not being conscious of emotions can keep them from living their lives to the full.

Boys to Men initiations utilise facilitated dialogue, fun games, role-play, writing exercises, guided visualisations and the power of ritual and celebration. It steers a structured yet deeply personal journey towards a sense of inner personal achievement for each participant.

One weekend workshop is a powerful start to a journey. Graduates of the ‘Rite of Passage Adventure’, are called ‘Journeymen’ (no longer boys, but not yet men), and are encouraged to continue their personal growth by attending regular Boys to Men meetings. They are also invited to attend future Rites of Passage Adventures as co-facilitators alongside the adult men staff. Boys and men who undergo these initiations report that they experience relationships more fully, they become more aware of others’ feelings, they learn to listen with their hearts and summon the courage to face up to difficulties more easily.

The rationale behind the 'Boys to Men' programme, is that for thousands of years boys and young men were taught how to be adults by their fathers, uncles, grandfathers and village elders. Their progression to mature manhood was a process in which their natural youthful testosterone and aggression was tempered by the wisdom and mentorship of elder men. Today these time-tested processes of men handing down their sacred truths from generation to generation have begun to break down.

Many boys today grow up without the guidance of mature elder men, contributing to the misuse of masculine strength in various forms: violence to women and children, crime and general moral degeneration. Two Boys to Men programmes have been launched in South Africa – in Jozi and Cape Town – to respond to this problem. Any boy or man is eligible to participate in the programme, and the rich diversity of South Africa’s population enhances the experience for all. Boys to Men programmes are ideally placed to make abusive initiations in South African schools obsolete.

Singularity University

Is the world ready for an academic institution based on an event in history yet to come? NASA and Google think so. They teamed up to launch the interdisciplinary institution Singularity University. It's mission is to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges."

The Singularity denotes the theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, when advances in computer hardware, molecular nanotechnology and biotechnology, and artificial general intelligence ignite an "intelligence explosion," total integration of communications and information, mass societal change, and, potentially, self-improving technology.

Located on NASA's Ames Campus in California's Silicon Valley, Singularity University officially opened its doors in January 2009. Though it is not an accredited year-round university, it will offer an annual nine-week postgraduate summer course beginning in June 2009 (now accepting applications!). Students can choose from ten different academic tracks, including future studies and forecasting, networks and computing systems, biotechnology and vioinformatics, nanotechnology, medicine and neuroscience/human enhancement, AI/robotics and cognitive computing, energy and ecological systems, policy/law and ethics, and finance and entrepreneurship. Singularity U will also run three- and ten-day executive programs eight times per year.

But is SU itself prepared for the coming Singularity? After all, their webserver crashed within mere hours of its launch due to their failure to post usage limits - an amateur mistake in the eyes of the "blackbox" programming elite. But its all-star faculty lineup and promising opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration are reason enough to keep an eye on its future progress. As faculty member and Stanford Media-X Research Network leader Paul Saffo writes: "The vast challenges facing us require new institutions capable of understanding and responding to the new technological hazards, and opportunities, that we face. Singularity University is just such an institution."