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Does Spirit Matter?

In trying to go into this question I was immediately struck by the ease with which we can be seduced and trapped into a particular way of thinking. How rapidly the topic ‘Does spirit matter?’ evokes the question ‘What is spirit?’ Suddenly the game’s afoot and, like Holmes and Watson, we are racing along the corridors of the mind seeking clues and clarifications. I believe that we all share this prevalent tendency to question, categorize and reify concepts. We create boundaries around the categories of our thought in order to objectify what we think about. Indeed, if what we call our Western mindset tends to divide the world into what can be bounded in space and time then, by extension, our minds also attempt to grasp the immediately non-material in terms of what can be bounded in thought.

How easily do our fragmented abstractions take on noun forms, how quickly do they become objects for thought to operate upon, observe, distance itself from; objects that can be turned in the mind just as a Greek vase is turned in the hand. And so at our very first step we fall into the trap of talking about spirit as something that can be studied, described, discussed and made the object of thought.

At this juncture I can’t help observing that Native Americans do not trouble themselves, as we do, with such questions. They would certainly reply courteously when asked ‘What is spirit?’ or ‘Is that rock alive?’ But one would soon sense that such questions are not really significant or appropriate. Indigenous Spirituality seems to me intensely practical in nature and it has never been separated from Indigenous Science. Rather than seeking categories and definitions it is more concerned with proper behavior and acknowledgement in the face of spirit and with the achievement of a harmonious level of power.

Throughout the world Indigenous peoples hold ceremonies to assist the sun in its rising to ensure the success of the hunt or the fruition of crops. Such ceremonies celebrate the harmony and synchronicity between inner and outer worlds, between spirit and matter, between social ceremony and cosmic dynamics. Although I have only a passing understanding of the Native American worldview, what I have seen and experienced convinces me that it is both subtle and highly sophisticated. Rather than being immediately concerned with objectivity, factual truth and the inner material composition of objects, Native Science deals in harmony, balance and transformation. Some of the first stories that a Native child learns concern the dynamics of transformation; stories in which plants, animals and people are constantly changing form. And so children grow with the understanding that spirit and the sacred in nature is ever present and ever real.

In its concern with the harmony of cosmos and society Indigenous Science could almost be called a technology of spirit (and we must remember that long ago in our Western society we too had a similar technology of spirit.) For example, Richard Wilhelm, translator of many Chinese classics and friend of Carl Jung, has told the story of a rainmaker’s successful visit to a drought-ridden area. When asked what he had done the rainmaker emphasized that he did not ‘make’ the rain. (In terms of our western notions he was not the effective cause of the rain.) Rather when he arrived in the village, he sensed a general lack of harmony and so retired to a hut for several days in order to bring himself back into balance. With the rainmaker in balance and a general harmony between inner and outer, then nature carried out its proper function, which includes periodic rain.

My own experience of spiritual technology includes a ceremony I once attended at a Blackfoot medicine wheel. It so happened that I was able to walk beside a Hopi Elder as he examined the arrangement of stones on the hilltop prior to the ceremony. The Elder had not see this medicine wheel before, indeed he was somewhat disoriented by the different altitude of the sun in the Alberta sky. However, as I watched him circle and then enter the wheel, I was struck by an image of a Russian scientist visiting an elementary particle accelerator in the United States. While the scientist would be unable to read the equipment manuals, he or she would very quickly grasp the overall working principles of the accelerator for the simple reason that the laws of physics are universal and apply as much in the US as they do in Russia. In an analogous fashion while the Blackfoot medicine wheel may not have been familiar to the Hopi, nevertheless he understood its functioning and what would be an appropriate form of ceremonial activity within the wheel. It was as if that pattern of stones was a piece of technology used to celebrate, focus and concentrate spirit; a device whereby ceremonial actions of the group would be connected directly, and in mutual dependence, to the workings of the cosmos.

We should also remember that Native thinking does not favour a single definition or all-embracing concept. The Native mind lives in a dynamical world of ambiguity and multiplicity. To the Blackfoot, Napi is not only the creator but also a joker. While Napi may have named the animals, he is also deceived by them. Native science sees spirit in many different forms and does not demand an unambiguous delineation. The most important actions and ideas flow in and out of conceptual boundaries and, like King Arthur’s Merlin, they constantly change their form and return to surprise us. Maybe this is why the clown or trickster makes an appearance in the most sacred and serious of ceremonies. As we deliberate the question ‘Does Spirit Matter?’ we should take care not to forget the existence of a jokester who may turn all our best intentions on their heads.

Once we see that our path is not so much to define spirit as to learn how to work with it, then we can take inspiration from the fact that this too was partly the attitude at the birth of our own science. Kepler’s insights into the solar system were furthered by his understanding of planetary motion as the archetype of Father, Son and Spirit, and Isaac Newton was willing to admit the existence of ‘occult forces’ into his physics. Indeed the great Isaac Newton went for days, and even weeks, without sleep so that he could maintain a fire in the furnace of his laboratory and so attend to his alchemical workings.

Alchemy to Newton was not some scientific aberration, the confused matrix of superstition out of which chemistry was born. Neither was it, as the Jungians sometimes suppose, only the symbolic projection of inner spiritual workings onto an external material stratum. For the Sufi alchemists, the Work involved the operation of spirit within matter along with the synchronistic transformation of spirit within the Alchemist. The goal of the Work remained the creation of gold; and not as a metaphor but as an actual objective fact. It is important to emphasize that this quest was not motivated by materialistic gain but rather that the appearance of gold was the final litmus test that indicated when the spiritual reactions and transformations were complete. Alchemy is about that parallel movement between spirit and matter. It is about the freeing of spirit from matter and its return; the synchronistic transformation that occurs in the planes of both matter and spirit. The alchemical workings within our own scientific past parallel, as a science of spirit, the ceremonies of Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world today. In both cases spirit is an objective fact within the world and plays a significant role in daily life.

In our present society, however, when spirit does happen to be acknowledged it is generally pictured as an internal power that is sometimes referred to as ‘the gods within.’ If we do recognize spirit in the world outside, it is as an externalization of these interior gods or a projection of some archetype. Just think how convenient it is to our modern sensibilities to interpret the inhabitants of Prospero’s island as the creations of Prospero’s own fertile imagination. It is worth nothing that in the director Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books not only is Prospero played by Sir John Gielgud but, until the point where Prospero abjures his rough magic, the actor’s voice is also used for all the other characters. And do we sometimes wonder why, in that most modern of plays, Hamlet, the ghost should be seen not just by the troubled Prince but by Horatio and the soldiers as well? Man has become the measure of all things and that includes our creating of the gods and spirit as well.

It goes without saying that such a dichotomy between inner and outer would be foreign to the thinking that is prevalent in so many different parts of the world. Moreover, in the last analysis, Shakespeare also escapes our attempts at confinement for he stands at a watershed, at a time of differentiation when the old gods had not yet died and spirit still moved within matter.

Yes, we seem to have forgotten so much of this today, the reality of spirit and the means for invoking the transformations it brings about. But there have always been a handful of special individuals who acknowledged the workings of spirit. These have not only included artists, writers, poets and mystics but also those scientists who have a deep sensitivity to nature or who sense the presence of spirit within matter. One thinks of, for example, Wolfgang Pauli and his work with Carl Jung or of David Bohm’s realization, very early in his career, that a metal’s plasma is in fact alive.

In the nineteenth century, science investigated the transformations of matter via energy. Today there is an increasing interest in the transformations of energy itself or, to put it another way, an investigation of how something even more subtle can give form to transforming power energy itself. And so we invoke the notions of subtle energy, subtle matter and the subtle body. Or we speak in terms of David Bohm’s active information, Sheldrake’s morphic fields and I engage in my own speculations on a non-unitary physics. We also posit fields of meaning within the body that exercise a synchronistic relationship to the immune system and our general health.

Now at one level this may seem like a retreat from the direct and vivid world of spirit into a materialistic explanation, albeit one that exists on a more subtle level. But, to return to our Native thinker for a moment, we must remember that there is no one definition of spirit, no single explanatory concept, no unique division between inner and outer, spirit and matter. I think we need to realize the extent to which we too live in a world of ambiguity and dynamical transformation. While spirit, and its operations, must be acknowledged in all their fullness, there could well be a provisional role for ideas such as active information, morphic fields, body meaning, subtle energy and subtle matter. They are particular sides or facets to that rich and mystical marriage between the worlds of spirit and matter and may provide one, amongst many, gateway into this new arena.

The technology of spirit calls for ways of coming to knowledge, for seeking conduits of power, methods of focusing and understanding the transformations that spirit can evoke in the world of matter. Indigenous societies have their ceremonies, dreams, visions, sacred directions, sacred colours, sand paintings and medicine wheels. The alchemists were engaged in their secret alchemical workings. The Greeks celebrated and maintained the balance between spirit and nature, individual and society within their theatre. In India the flowering and manifestation of spirit within creation is made manifest in their music and dance.

Throughout the world there exist ways of bringing spirit into balance, of discovering levels of power, of creating harmony between inner and outer, matter and spirit. But for us, in our modern world, the understanding and meaning of this science of spirit has been lost. Somehow we must learn again how to sense the presence of spirit and how to focus it without dissipating its power. We must come to knowledge in the science of synchronicity between inner and outer, matter and spirit, body and meaning. We must understand the movement and circulation of spirit and the transformations it can effect. We must engage in some contemporary equivalent of the alchemists’ Great Work. We must realize that our instrument is the human soul, the harmony of the natural world and the good order of society.

Creativity, love, human relationships, health and the movements towards wholeness and balance are all manifestations of the operation of spirit in the world. Just as the scientist designs and protects the most delicate instrument that will indicate the passage of an electrical current so we too must care for the instruments within ourselves that register the activity of mystery.

My own approach to these issues has been furthered by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s notion of Inscape. Inscape refers to the in-dwellingness of nature and I have taken that term to express my sense of the inexhaustibility and infinite subtlety of matter at all its levels so that there can be no one most fundamental level or law and no absolute reduction of matter to some subquantum ground.

I believe that our experience of the world is always of this nature for both observer and observed are inexhaustibly rich both in themselves and in their potential for interaction together. Thought can certainly choose to divide up the world and analyze it conceptually. It can separate matter from spirit, mind from body, and observer from observed, but this process will always be limited, provisional and contingent upon some greater whole.

In conclusion, it is my sense that we can no longer afford our excessive fragmentation of inner and outer, matter and spirit, body and mind, individual and society, society and nature. We must seek to acknowledge the operation of objective spirit within the world. The earth has been desecrated and the spirit of nature calls for a return to balance and harmony. If we are to become active participators within that restoration we must be prepared to face a world of spirits and accept them in all their aspects (both ‘good’ and ‘evil’) by realizing that they cannot always be dismissed as the projections of our own damaged psyches. There is a need for harmony within our fragmented society and for balance within our own bodies. And it is my feeling that one cannot simply deal with this desire for health at the level of medical technology or social engineering alone. We must also come to terms with operations of spirit. We must discover the lost technology of spirit in a form and a language that is appropriate for our modern world.