It’s often assumed those living in more traditional cultures have a greater degree of metaphysical awareness and lead more spiritually oriented lives than their modern counterparts. To varying degrees virtually all who study Transpersonal Anthropology harbor this essential bias. Many claim traditional living provides surroundings and conditions more conducive to recognizing the greater, more essential spiritual truths of human existence. They expect the inhabitants of these favored cultures to be more receptive to metaphysical and psychic phenomena and live in greater communion with the fundamental forces of being than those of contemporary societies. It’s an easy assumption to make. Modern peoples are frequently perceived as spiritually compromised owing to their isolation from nature, materialistic priorities and their slavish devotion to the soul stifling positivist paradigm which devalues the power and influence of the mystical and transcendent. These assumptions may create a perplexing situation for those interested in transpersonal or psychic studies as they frequently fail to square with observable reality. Is the idea of traditional cultures being more spiritually attuned and directed merely a romantic but ultimately archaic notion? Could certain elements of the same modernity so frequently derided as being spiritually constricting actually be more conducive to attaining higher degrees of spiritual awareness and knowledge than exists within any traditional, historic society? It would seem there’s much to suggest many of our classic assumptions are misplaced.
Over the last thirty years I’ve traveled extensively observing the qualities and effects of spiritual awareness within traditional cultures. While the experience has been fascinating I must confess the romantic in me is usually disappointed. Though I’ve studied many intriguing systems of transcendent thought rarely have I found the forms and behaviors attendant with such ideals displayed within the daily lives of the people to whom they relate. I clearly remember my first trip to the Tibetan plateau in the early 1990’s. At the time, the Tantric strain of Buddhism practiced in Tibet held the top slot of spiritual exotica in the Western imagination. Familiar with its underlying tenants and transcendent assertions I was anxious to see how its insights and profundities manifested themselves within the populace. Legend claimed Tantric practitioners possessed a wisdom gleaned from direct experience with the ultimate forces of Being. Theirs was reputedly a life of pure harmony with the mystical truths of existence. Having thoroughly absorbed the books of Alexandra David-Neel I knew the tales of lamas holding secrets capable of perverting the concepts of time, space and physical law; traveling miles in a single step, passing through walls, generating heat and fire with their minds and dematerializing into rainbows of light upon death. Of course I was skeptical. In truth I’d no expectation of encountering a culture of supernatural or psychically gifted beings. However, given the continuing physical isolation of these people, the limited penetration of modernity, the purported depth, influence and centrality of their faith and the avowed severity of many of their rituals I did expect to find a highly spiritually oriented culture. I thought Tibet may be a place where notions of the mystical elements of existence would have a strong visible presence and play an observable role within daily life. I was wrong. Virtually every Tibetan I encountered outside the orthodox havens of the monasteries displayed many of the same defining characteristics I’d observed in other people throughout the developing world. Life for most seemed an all consuming struggle against great hardship, material want, a tenuous food supply, social insecurity and the mercurial whims of environmental and political factors. I saw little within the fabric of their lives suggesting an active, much less higher spiritual dimension at work. Survival in the stark and rugged realm of the plateau seemed to allow little room for loftier concerns.
The Tibetans were hardly unique. I’d repeatedly seen this apparent disconnect between traditional spiritual ideals and the patterns of ordinary existence across a wide spectrum of cultures and geography. Many are the people of this world living lives seemingly devoid of any influence from the transcendent systems that reputedly shape and inform their cultural thought world. I wasn’t concerned by the more dramatic hypocrisies between spiritual doctrine and individual behavior invariably found within all societies. I was perplexed by a more prosaic contradiction. Most believe the ideals of spiritual and transcendent awareness are of primary significance. As such they are clearly reflected and have a noticeable impact on the more temporal elements of corporeal life. They reprioritize perception and behavior towards a truer, more fundamental basis of existence. If this be the case why do we not see greater evidence of this type of perspective within the individual and collective behavior of those traditional cultures more tightly linked to their original spiritual systems?
Invariably the question arises; why saddle traditional lifestyles with this observation? Couldn’t the same inconsistencies between traditional spiritual ideals and normative behavior exist within modern cultures as well? Obviously they can and do. However, the question relates to the notions and expectations we impose on both modern and traditional societies. We don’t expect spirituality to have a strong presence within modern society. Prevailing sentiment holds the forms and ideals of modernity to be antithetical to spirituality. Many believe the positivistic scientific paradigm that is the mainstay of modern life effectively negates or trivializes the internal, subjective realm of human existence. We expect this wholesale embrace of science and technology to create modern cultures filled with spiritually compromised souls with limited degrees of transcendent awareness. There are also social dimensions within contemporary culture reinforcing this anti-spiritual perception. Modern settlement patterns have created larger, more diverse and ultimately more impersonal communities. We no longer live within like minded groups. Without cultural reinforcement our traditional spiritual identities are prone to compromise, dilution and diminishment. Additionally, few dispute the pace required to keep abreast of the economic rigors of modern life is less than conducive to great amounts of deep reflection and introspection. Between a subjectively hostile science and discordant social factors many feel modernity has stripped us of our spiritual dimension. Few are comfortable with this condition. In response we look to those who retain a greater degree of their traditional culture to restore what modernity has drained from us.
As more traditional cultures have yet to acquire the same level of material development and ethnic dilution as their modern counterparts we expect them to remain closer to the original lifestyles that spawned their unique spiritual sensitivities and ideals. We expect more technologically underdeveloped people to have a more direct and unmediated perspective on the essential relationship between human beings and the greater forces of existence. We expect them to be more influenced and in communion with the internal, spiritual realm of Being than those living within the confines of the economically driven western mono- culture. We expect those less tightly wed to the scientific paradigm to be more receptive and responsive to subjective awareness. We expect their life values and actions to be oriented towards different priorities than our own. From a social perspective it’s reasonable to assume more isolated groups of people would retain more of their cultural characteristics in their original forms. More insulated from outside influences, their patterns of belief would likely be less subject to modification and more consistent with their historical ideals and rituals. As such we expect to see lives in greater concert with traditional spiritual structures. I’m not alone on this one. Though few may admit it, one of the principle allures of anthropology is a deep conviction that the lesser developed cultures of our planet retain a certain primal authenticity we of the modern world have either lost or can no longer access. As Jungians and Freudians would both agree, we’re all trying to find our way back to the garden.
Having defined the expectations or prejudices (take your pick) the question becomes exactly what specific spiritual qualities would one expect to find within these traditional cultures? How does a spiritually affected person or group of people appear? This question can suffocate the intemperate speculator in a wash of ethnocentric quicksand. Absent the ability to spiritually interrogate each societal member, anthropologists remain fond of empirical assessments. They’re prone to gage the presence of spirituality through the existence of such observable forms and behaviors as the amount of open ceremony, the presence of ritualistic objects, the number and prominence of sacred structures, number of religious specialists, overt displays of metanormal behavior, reported incidences of supernatural occurrence, etc. Of course, historic forms and rituals are not always accurate indicators of the qualities or degrees of individual interiority and “awareness” drawn from traditional spirituality. Spiritual vitality is a complex psychological phenomenon whose origins and dynamics elude consistency and predictability. However, the astute modern seeker doesn’t visit to enumerate classic indicators of spirituality. They’re looking for something more basic; something more essential and immediate. They expect to witness traditional spirituality coloring and informing the ordinary appearance and activities of the people and their community. Regardless of how the specifics of life may have changed they hope to see a culture operating in concert with its defining mystical traditions. They want an experience that assures them the priority of a culture’s traditional spirituality still exists and thrives. Unfortunately, in the world of today such situations are extremely rare. While many artifacts and attitudes endure, it’s quite evident the appearance, nature and integrity of traditional spirituality have significantly eroded within the areas of its historic origin. There would also seem little doubt in most cases the root cause of this diminishment can be traced to contact with the realities and imperatives of modern existence.
When assessing the relevance and integrity of traditional spiritual systems within their attendant culture the diluting effects of outside factors is inescapable. Today, virtually unknown are any regions immune to the patterns and spread of modernity. Even the most previously isolated cultures now find themselves living in ever nearer proximity to new ideas, materials and values. As all are aware, continuous exposure to the ideals, influences and economic imperatives of contemporary society has taken a severe toll on traditional cultures. The resulting degradation of native environments, change in material basis and the psychological reorientation of their people has unquestionably compromised historical life patterns. While external influences affect different societies in different ways, the result is always apparent; and for the preservation of traditional perspectives rarely for the better. Most often these new and powerful influences exist at odds with historic sensibilities and predictably modify if not wholly replace indigenous behavior.
Obviously, spiritual modification and transformation in the face of outside influence is not a wholly modern phenomenon. Varying degrees of this process have been in evidence since the onset of human interrelation. While certain pockets of orthodox practice endure within any culture there’s little doubt the general spiritual landscape of every traditional society has always been undergoing constant modification. Some of the more benign examples of this process resemble the synchronistic melding of Roman Catholic saints with native spirits within the Candomble practices of Brazil. More radical are instances of wholesale substitution as found in certain regions of northern and western Africa where the practice of Islam has completely replaced traditional tribal animist belief or in Central America where Catholicism has done the same. However, in most cases the process is less dramatic. More the norm is the gradual diluting and degrading of the “old ways” as the inevitable priorities and technologies of modernity relentlessly infiltrate classic life styles, demeaning their standing and eroding their forms. Eventually what survives is often only a mere shadow of their former spiritual character molded to fit newer sensibilities.
The source of these new ideologies or the pace of their infiltration matters not. Traditional forms of spirituality are always reacting to new ideas and influences. However, unique to the present situation are the changes in attitude towards spirituality itself this new prevailing wave of modernity has wrought. Where once every new cultural influence contained its own potent spiritual dimension, the character and ethos of the encroaching developed world is quite the different animal. The reigning Western, empirical and economically driven cultural invasion is distinctly anti-spiritual in nature. Unlike other invaders of the past it rarely offers any theological replacement for the spiritual traditions it subverts. Additionally, its material basis can easily seduce and reorient the aspirations and ambitions of those once consigned to traditional societies. The result is often a further degradation and subordination of the vitality and relevance of spiritual existence in favor of more tangible concerns. In many cases this is not purely a matter of choice but necessity.
Compounding the assault of modernity on traditional spirituality is a more insidious reality. Individual survival within traditional societies is often made harsher and more untenable by the appearance of new social and economic orders. The process of dealing with powerful outside forces they can neither control nor effectively assimilate often results in the wholesale exploitation and alienation of traditional peoples. Few within these relatively isolated cultures possess the temperament or training to adequately manage these overwhelming realities. The result is a life of greater hardship than may otherwise exist in an already complicated and difficult survival strategy. I suspect such added earthly insecurities and deprivations take a large toll on the remnants of any traditional spiritual practice. My experience suggests the heightened demands associated with coping with basic survival make significant inroads on an individual’s ability to live in concert with their spiritual precepts and prescriptions. To actively cultivate and indulge one’s higher perspectives is more often a luxury associated with those enjoying material surplus and social stability than those clinging to the edge of existence. This is not to suggest a spiritual dimension to life is nonexistent in circumstances of material and psychological marginalization. However, in such situations mystical practices, metaphysical realizations and ultimate truths are apt to become secondary to other more immediate corporeal concerns. It’s often difficult to gaze into the sky when your eyes are forced on the hard reality of the ground.
It’s important to note traditional spirituality of any stripe originally evolved in concert with the specific circumstances of native existence. It’s always been crafted around the environmental, material and social realities of a particular way of life. When these circumstances shift any spiritual system is by necessity compromised. It no longer relates in the same fashion to the cultural particulars in which it formed. Under externally imposed conditions indigenous spirituality must adapt to factors unrelated to its essence. While this may not undermine the essential ontological truths upon which any mystical system is based it certainly affects the conspicuous appearance of its practice. Granted, within any modern incarnation certain spiritually informed rituals such as weddings, funerals, holidays and other observances may continue to be staged in traditionally prescribed manners. However, these often become socially compartmentalized exercises unrelated to the prevailing character of the new reality in which most now reside. There is a vast difference between acknowledging one’s heritage by maintaining its forms and enacting its rituals as opposed to aligning your psyche to its ultimate truths and precepts. Such incongruities are starkly evident within the fabric of daily existence.
Conversely, the same cultural interchange so detrimental to the integrity of traditional spirituality has proven to be a spiritual bonanza for those within contemporary cultures. The mystical perspectives and practices of traditional cultures have had a titanic influence on the existential perspectives of the members of these modern invading societies. They often find the natural and transcendent orientation of these beliefs better suited to their spiritual quests than the ethically driven doctrines that overwhelm the modern world’s major religions. The once spiritually and culturally esoteric now enjoys a growing familiarity, respect and acceptance within the repertoire of the modern seeker. Eastern schools of wisdom, tribal rituals, animist fetishes, indigenous psychotropic materials and an eclectic variety of transcendent theories are just a small sample of the imported spiritual exotica many now integrate within their personal ontological pursuits. As noted earlier, there is nothing new about intermingling one ideology with aspects of another. However, certain social and economic circumstances peculiar to modern society have allowed traditional spiritual systems to flourish in a historically unprecedented manner. In many ways these factors are facilitating the development of a spiritual dimension within the modern psyche as deep and vital as those found within any of the worlds surviving traditional cultures.
Given the reigning bias of the modern world being hostilely “anti-spiritual” this may seem a peculiar assertion. However, such defining features of highly developed societies as their size, demographic diversity, more egalitarian social structure and the high degree of material affluence of many of their members are well suited for the accommodation, practice and preservation of traditional spirituality, whatever its nature or origin. The modern urbanite has a wide exposure and easy access to a vast variety of spiritual expression. Unlike those within closed, tightly structured traditional societies, modern seekers are less susceptible to the power of communal pressure and precedent to conform to any historic doctrine. They live and intermingle within mixed communities filled with a broad diversity of belief and can marshal support for their spiritual inclinations through the ever burgeoning channels of enhanced communication and contact. Such circumstances encourage a spiritual path more accommodating of one’s individual interests and resonant with their sensibilities. When personally adopted rather than culturally imposed, spirituality usually assumes a greater relevance and importance and is treated accordingly.
The psychological legitimacy of any spiritual system is further determined by its ability to critically examine and feasibly address our existential issues. In other words, how well does it answer and relate to our greater cosmic questions? Towards this end the modern seekers distance from the historic context of any traditional spiritual system often allows for a purer ideological evaluation and application of transcendent ideals free from social or religious taint. This is an important distinction. Regrettably, regardless of faith, geography or time, the use of mystical truths as tools for individual and communal manipulation is an inarguable reality. However, when released from their social and ethical anchors these ideals may be better accessed, explored and evaluated as to their viability as systems of ontological explanation. Some may be uncomfortable examining any spiritual ideology apart from the circumstances of its creation and traditional use. They would argue (as I have earlier) context and history are crucial towards understanding the development and functionality of any mystical system. However, in this case modern seekers are not looking to understand the relation of any traditional spirituality to any particular social context. They are concerned only with assessing the purely ontological credibility of any such ideology regardless of context. By definition, ultimate existential truths are not exclusive to any culture. Under these circumstances it would seem the explanatory capabilities of traditional spiritual systems may be better examined through a more detached perspective.
The direct assessment and pursuit of traditional spiritual ideals may also be enhanced through the greater levels of affluence more commonly found in contemporary societies. Though intrinsically antithetical to the essence of spirituality, higher levels of personal and communal wealth can have a tremendous impact in facilitating and prioritizing spiritual activity. Greater economic independence affords wider opportunity for individual ideological pursuits not directly chained to the process of survival. It provides the means whereby increasing numbers may bring more intensive degrees of time and dedication to their spiritual pursuits. Historically the contemplation and study necessary to comprehend and contextualize the metaphysical was usually conducted by an elite class of people; professional theologians living on the community dole. To them fell the responsibility of interpreting the nature and will of the transcendent and structuring communal beliefs. As a result of this division of labor most people had an incomplete and limited understanding of the theoretical, mystical and more nuanced aspects of their spiritual structure. To the laity most spiritual activity is confined to the practice of dogmatic ritual whose relation to ultimate forces is often poorly understood and frequently encouraged for distinctly non-spiritual purposes. Greater affluence has in many ways created a more spiritually egalitarian society. The unprecedented conflux of available time, economic security and mystical inclination found in modern cultures allows greater numbers to actively pursue the higher and more transcendent issues of existence on their own terms. What was once the exclusive domain of the monk, lama or shaman is now independently available to any of adequate means and desire. By eliminating any mediating agent, people are also freer to confront and access the spiritual in a direct, authentic and personally relevant manner. Of course, greater numbers of people independently pursuing the spiritual opportunities higher standards of living afford does not by itself assure any higher degree of spiritual integrity or awareness will be gleaned. However, it does exponentially increase this very possibility while raising the visible spiritual profile of any society.
None of the above observations relating to either traditional or modern societies are absolute. Individual exceptions to every rule exist within all societies relative to all theories. However, despite this caveat the above noted trends are readily discernable. So what does this mean for the study of transpersonal anthropology? For those who’ve yet to do so it would seem a reorientation of expectation may be in order. It would seem obvious in an ever shrinking world it may be erroneous to assume within any traditional culture there is such a thing as a predominant system of beliefs or spiritual identity. There may or may not be. In either event to assume these beliefs direct and inform the daily behavior of the majority of individuals would be a gross presumption. Too many external elements working on too many distinctive personalities make such generalizations impossible. Spiritual values don’t automatically accrue to all members of any faith. Within our own modern society many have abandoned the spiritual principles of their birth for a variety of reasons. Even in the distant past not all within a certain group ascribed to the mythology and morality of their tribal religion. The history of any culture is filled with changes, modifications and reinterpretations, most necessitated by material challenges and changing circumstance. We must understand the practical limitations of what we refer to as traditional spirituality.
By the same token a different evaluation of the nature of modernity on transcendent awareness and behavior may be required. Affluence, individual choice, better education and enhanced exposure are conditions that may ultimately provide for the greater sustainability and vitality of traditional spiritual beliefs then any found within the lingering societies of their origin. As one of my professors lamentably noted, “More and more the study of anthropology is becoming the study of history.” Above all we should resist falling into the science equals anti- spirituality trap. While it is true the objective, materialist paradigm of science is by definition at odds and wholly dismissive of the existence and value of interior experience, many is the modern physical researcher obsessed with the same spiritual intuitions and questions that haunt us all. Though limited to external phenomena, modern science is proving to be a formidable tool in the search for ultimate answers. In addition to providing credible theories for some of humankinds most spiritual and esoteric speculations it is unveiling highly relevant transcendent possibilities that cut to the heart of our essence. Equally important, science and the technology it breeds free ever growing numbers from the uncertainties of material need thereby promoting the necessary conditions for spiritual pursuit and growth.
Philosophers, psychiatrists and theologians speculate all human beings possess within them an innate awareness of what they are and their place within the grand scheme. Unfortunately, by itself, the bare necessity of being human may be inadequate to draw this awareness into consciousness and convert it into a knowledge allowing us to operate in concert with these insights. My purpose is not to solely disparage or laud the transcendent potential of either traditional or modern cultures but rather to deflate some of the more prominent and romantic biases that seem to permeate the study of cultural spirituality. Certainties within any field are difficult to find. However, when studying transpersonal or psychic phenomena one enduring truth should never be lost; the mystical essence of existence which we seek to understand is by necessity present in all places at all times. It is not the privilege or domain of any person, community or culture. Any who wish to study this topic may need to appreciate this and alter their expectations accordingly.