Why progressives need to take higher states of consciousness seriously

Far from being detached from reality, visionary alternatives to neo-liberalism are the product of deeper and deeper engagement.

Emil Ejner Friis Ronan Harrington
26 May 2016

Replica of cave painting at Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc. Credit: By HTO - Own work (own photo), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Politics could be characterised as contempt for the ways other people see the world.

People who are not like us have views about society that we can’t fathom a reasonable person holding, and they feel the same way about us.

This is something that the British left is particularly guilty of. Within our relatively small political bubbles, we stand aghast as the majority of our country takes what we believe to be a ridiculous political direction.

This was captured perfectly in the satirical news story published by The Daily Mash after the 2015 British General Election: “New party for socialist misanthropes a hit” proclaimed the headline. The article stated: “Formed by disaffected Labour voter Joseph Turner, the Socialist Misanthropic Party is dedicated to improving the lives of the masses who are too idiotic to vote for it.”

It went on: We’re like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was considered a fucking joke by the poor while they rallied round the Sheriff of Nottingham because he seemed like a bloke you could have a pint of mead with.”

Of course progressives are subject to an equal but opposite flow of contempt. The characterisation of the “completely bonkers” 2015 Green Party manifesto in the right-wing Spectator Magazine is a worthy example.

Our favourite line was this: “If Communism had been designed by middle-class women, this is what it would look like: a sex paradise with more emphasis on tax and telling-off and less on gulags and terror.” 

But a growing number on the left are finding the courage to advocate more visionary alternatives to neo-liberalism. This desire for vision explains the success of Inventing the Future, a book doing the rounds in left wing circles at the moment. Its red cover is emblazoned: “DEMAND FULL AUTOMATION; DEMAND UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME.” The authors boldly claim that the goal of 21st century social democracy should be full unemployment, or “fully automated luxury communism”.

These post-capitalist visions are usually dismissed as completely detached from reality, but in fact the opposite is true. The real problem is that most of the time, our experiences are too shallow to grasp the possibilities that alternatives provide.  

To substantiate this claim, here’s a brief glimpse of a new theory of conscious development proposed by the Nordic think tank Metamoderna in their forthcoming book Nordic Ideology - a guide to metamodern politics. Emil is a co-founder of Metamoderna.   

Metamoderna have suggested that humans, typically, experience some range of 13 ‘states’. States represent the felt experience that human beings are in at any given moment. This is related to our ‘depth’, the way in which we go about the felt experience of existence, which is the result of our long-term acquaintance with these states. The words are meant to evoke the feeling associated with each state.

Lower states:

1. Helvetic

2. Horrific

3. Tortured

4. Tormented

Medium states:

5. Very uneasy

6. Uneasy, uncomfortable

7. Somewhat uneasy, OK, full of small faults

8. Satisfied, well

9. Good, lively

10. Joyous, full of light, invigorated

 High states:

11. Vast, grand, open

12. Blissful

13. Enlightened, spiritual unity

Metamoderna argue that when we experience reality, we are always somewhere in between these two poles. They say that most of the time we are in the medium range, mostly around 7, and that many people never get to experience the higher or the lower states. The average person may in fact only be aware of the existence of states 5-10, as most of us have succeeded in avoiding the more tormenting states, but at the same time never had the chance to experience the higher ones.

As a result, many people have difficulties truly relating to others who have been through extremely tragic experiences, while at the same time believing that people who have experienced the higher states of existence (through spiritual practice, drugs or simply life changing experiences) are outright lying.

For example, when a spiritual teacher talks about higher states, they are seen as dishonest by people who have not experienced the same states. Some people see such "wisdom teachings" as frivolous and irresponsible.

Depth, on the other hand, is the way in which we relate to these states. That means that we need to have been acquainted with a state in order for that to add to our depth. The more different states we have experienced, the greater depth we have the potential to develop. That does not mean that one necessarily develops greater depth just because they have experienced a certain state, but only that the potential is there. Usually time, and energy for introspection, is required to develop greater depth.

Depth can also be translated to ‘wisdom’, wisdom about life and experiences of being in existence and its potentials. From the felt experience of being we all develop some amount of depth over time, but usually the ones who have experienced the very low and very high states have a richer understanding of what it means to live and be in the world - and most importantly, how to avoid the lower and reach the higher states.

This richer understanding of what it means to live and be in the world is the birthplace of visionary alternatives to neo-liberalism. Experiencing higher states leads to a profound shift in perspective about the purpose of our lives. Having ‘communed with the universe,’ one rarely draws the conclusion that we should be working 40 hours a week for 40 years in order to become a material success. The more likely conclusion is that we should be discovering our unique gifts and being of service to humanity. It then makes more sense that full unemployment should be the goal of 21st century society.

Far from a detachment from reality, visionary alternatives are the product of a deeper engagement with reality. Of course, this sounds frivolous to anyone who hasn’t experienced what we’re talking about.

This dilemma has deeper political consequences: if there are higher states, and if most of us, most of the time, are to be found in a mediocre, somewhat faulty state, isn’t it then a moral imperative to heighten the states of all our fellow human beings?

We believe it is. We should consider increasing the prevalence of higher states and the development of greater depth as a key political goal and a measurement of progress. At the moment we make nods to alternative indicators of progress like happiness, but this pales in comparison to formally encouraging the development of adult consciousness.

In practice, this would mean encouraging practices like mindfulness, yoga and meditation, putting more emphasis on philosophy and wisdom in our schools, regulating the careful use of psychedelics, mainstreaming spiritual rites of passage, and making conscious development a core part of our health and education systems.

This is not just a political strategy to persuade people of visionary alternatives, but a new end in itself. As Einstein reminds us, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’—a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” Society should be designed to enable our self realisation and self transcendence, opening us up to experiences that expand our understanding of who we are and what we can become.

To encourage this requires a new kind of politics. A politics whose leaders embody the poetic skill of making the new familiar and the familiar new, drawing our attention to the subtle ways in which we experience the most meaningful moments of our lives like the ecstasy of an injury time goal or the grace of a timely passing. These higher states are a calling into greater depth, and the source of our renewal.  

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