Self-organizing fish shoal. Credit: http://cognition.ups-tlse.fr. All rights reserved.
Is it possible to peer produce spiritual experience and insight, just as knowledge, software and code for computers are peer produced by communities of self-organizing individuals? If so, does this matter?
My answer is yes. Spirituality consists of socially-constructed worldviews that may no longer be appropriate to the time and space in which we live. In this context, newly emerging spiritual viewpoints and practices can be seen as necessary ‘upgrades of consciousness’ that can help us deal with new social and cultural complexities. The implications are profound.
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.
For example, it’s not difficult to see that the Catholic Church and Buddhist Sangha have strong feudal elements in their organisational structures and ideas; or that Protestant churches are strongly linked to emerging capitalist and/or democratic forms; or that what has been called “New Age spirituality” is often geared towards a marketplace of commodified spiritual experiences that are available for sale. There is little doubt that the Catholic Church and the Buddhist Sangha would not have grown as they did had they not accepted the Roman political order and slavery respectively.
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.
Peer production or ‘p2p’ is defined as any process that allows for open input, participatory processing, and where the output is universally available as a commons to all. This definition includes a number of elements that might also apply to peer to peer spirituality.
First, the spiritual community needs to be open to everyone who accepts its basic rules and injunctions. Second, there must be no pre-defined hierarchies capable of imposing centralized roadmaps or beliefs. And third, spiritual knowledge cannot be copyrighted or privatised, as, for example, occurs in Scientology.
The key positive ethical value of a peer to peer spirituality - and what distinguishes it from all older forms - is rooted in what has been called “equipotentiality:” 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.
Equipotentiality is the necessary antidote to the ranking methodologies that infect authoritarian and hierarchical spiritual forms. According to the Spanish transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer, the “comparing mind” is an essential underpinning of hierarchy, constantly engaged in ranking individuals as higher or lower to each other.
By contrast, “An integrative and embodied spirituality,” says Ferrer, “would effectively undermine the current model of human relations based on comparison, which easily leads to competition, rivalry, envy, jealousy, conflict, and hatred. When individuals develop in harmony with their most genuine vital potentials, human relationships characterized by mutual exchange and enrichment would naturally emerge because people would not need to project their own needs and lacks onto others. More specifically, the turning off of the comparing mind would dismantle the prevalent hierarchical mode of social interaction—paradoxically so extended in spiritual circles—in which people automatically look upon others as being either superior or inferior, as a whole or in some privileged respect."
Instead, each and every individual should be considered as a set of many different attributes, strengths and weaknesses, and in each of them they can be worse or better than others. The key is to build a social system that allows every individual to contribute their best skills and qualities to a common project, and to be recognized for it.
This is exactly what happens in peer production, and the same would be true for p2p spiritual projects. 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 skillful 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.
Of necessity, the methodology of spiritual inquiry in this approach is radically different. The “cooperative spiritual inquiry groups” developed by John Heron are a good example of this methodology in practice. In these groups, the spiritual search starts by collectively accepting certain experiments and injunctions in order to facilitate the emergence of spiritual experience, but there is no pre-ordained path.
For example, an experienced Zen teacher might be invited to lead a meditation exercise, but all the participating individuals would share their experiences with others in the group in order to enhance mutual understanding and learning. Unlike the spiritual practices of hierarchical groups, there is no a priori validation of certain experiences, nor condemnation of others. Every experience is honoured, and forms part of the collective meaning-making experience.
In the past, spiritual seekers faced a choice between traditional religious structures whose horizontal or communal aspects were usually embedded in hierarchies; and more individualist New Age versions which were often quite narcissistic - based on the acquisition of spiritual experience (often in exchange for money) and only weakly rooted in horizontal relationships. By contrast, a p2p spirituality would honour community and co-production above all else.
All this suggests a new approach to spirituality which I call ‘contributory.’ This approach considers each spiritual tradition as a set of injunctions within a specific social framework that’s influenced by epoch-specific values such as patriarchy and doctrines of exclusive truth. At the same time, each tradition also contains a body of psycho-spiritual practices which disclose particular truths about our relationship with the universe. Discovering these spiritual truths requires at least a partial exposure to these practices, but it also requires ‘inter-subjective’ feedback from other people, so it’s a quest that cannot be undertaken alone. It has to be shared with others on the same path.
In this 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.
Through these circles, a new collective body of spiritual experience can be continuously co-created by inquiring spiritual communities and individuals. By adding p2p governance and p2p property relations to the peer production of spirituality, we can also create pre-figurative practices that can help to construct a different future. Like the Catholic monks who created a new Christian subjectivity that would become the root of the newly emerging Christian civilization, peer to peer spiritual practitioners are co-creating an emerging p2p-based, commons-oriented society.
The outcome of this process will be a co-generated reality that is unpredictable, but one thing is sure: it will be an open, participatory approach that leads to a commons of spiritual knowledge from which all humanity can draw.