Letter 31: The Old World View

Having looked at the authentic Christian roots of the teaching of John Main and the correspondences between him and the Mystics, I would like to explore more the actual practice of meditation and what helps or hinders us on this path.

Before we start on this journey of discovery it would be good to take stock of where we are now. One thing that often hinders us entering on the spiritual path is the prevalent worldview of our time, which forms the mental background to our life, our opinions and behaviour, although we are often not really aware of it. To change our habitual perception of reality a dramatic shift is needed. This shift may happen at different times or in different circumstances for each individual, but the possibility of it is inherent in human nature.

We have been conditioned and encouraged by the prevalent scientific materialism of our time up to recently to see reality in a dualistic way: body separate from mind and then moreover we lay a one-sided emphasis on part of our mind/consciousness, the ‘ego’, and deny the existence of anything more. This world view started in the 17th Century with Descartes and Newton. It has pervaded our culture ever since. Over the following centuries the concept of the spiritual and even religion itself has been denigrated as unscientific and mocked as a primitive left-over from our past. Richard Dawkins is the prime example of that attitude. But the point that is often forgotten is that both Descartes and Newton never doubted the existence of God: according to Descartes the mind of a human being was enlightened by God and therefore our insights came from that Source. Thus the mathematical laws ruling Creation were divinely inspired and could be relied on. Newton believed the Universe to be a body pervaded by God. Belief in God is the basic assumption underlying their work.

But Newton shared Descartes’ dualistic, deterministic, mechanistic viewpoint. According to him there is no innate creativity and freedom for the individual. The Newtonian Universe is therefore often called ‘The Clockwork Universe’. Once set in motion it obeys inexorable rules with predictable outcomes. Later interpreters drew the conclusion that therefore there was no need for God’s input any longer, once the ball was rolling. This led to a belief in an absent God busy somewhere else in the Universe, or even the feeling that God did not exist anymore at all.

From the time of Descartes and Newton the human mind has continued to be viewed as being totally separate, isolated from our body and the rest of the visible Universe. The only thing we could be sure of was our capacity to think - our only real proof of existence according to Descartes: ‘cogito ergo sum’. (I think, therefore I am) Moreover, our senses, being linked to the body, were considered to be highly fallible.

The idea of humankind as no more than a mechanism surfaces in the early 20th C as behaviourist psychology. An example of this attitude can be found in O’Brien’s statement in George Orwell’s ‘1984’: “We create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” The result of this mechanistic, reductionist approach is that a feeling of being valueless and powerless arises. Are we really a mere product of our environment and moreover only an uninvolved observer of the rest of creation, not part of the whole cosmic process at all? Are we alone in an incomprehensible Universe? If so, all we have to depend on are our wits, jostling with everyone else for survival, in the Darwinian mode of ’survival of the fittest’. When there is this sole emphasis on our own survival, it ends to push aside the effect our actions have on others and our environment, an impoverishment of our true humanity.

No wonder the idea of a possible integral connection between us and the Divine Reality seems unimaginable in this world view. But things are changing, as we will explore next week.

Kim Nataraja

(Adapted from Dancing with Your Shadow)