Jorge Ferrer on Participatory Spirituality
What is your point of view regarding the perennial philosophy?
On a theoretical level, the most influential transpersonal models I encountered in California subscribed to neo-perennialist (universalist) accounts of spiritual diversity that I came to see as both reductionist and problematic. There are of course numerous varieties of pe-rennialism and neo-perennialism (e.g., Neo-Vedantic,Sufi, esotericist, Wilberian, etc.), but, despite their supposedly inclusivist stance, they all ultimately privilege certain religious traditions or spiritual goals over others and result in an oversimplification, distortion, or limitation of the vast and rich possibilities for human spiritual flourishing. For example, I think that the Schuon-Smith hypothesis of esoteric unity and exoteric diversity (which entered transpersonal discourse through the work of both Grof and Wilber) is erroneous and it doesn‘t stand against historical, textual, and phenomenological evidence. Even within a single tradition, disagreement among contemplative practitioners abounds. Take Buddhism for example: Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers strongly disagree about the ultimate nature of reality; are they not considered Buddhist esoteric or mystical practi-tioners? In addition, there are important differences among traditions at their so-called mystical core. For example, when Theravada Buddhists talk about sunyata
or emptiness and Taoists talk about the Tao, or Christians talk about God, they are talking about radically different things. On a practical level, I gradually became aware that neo-perennialist visions were neither sensitive enough to the diversity of individual spiritual needs,
dispositions, and developmental dynamics, nor generous enough to the infinite creative potential of the mystery (understood, not as a reifiable spiritual ultimate, but as the generative power of life, reality, the cosmos, and/or spirit). In other words, many spiritual seekers were struggling to make their spiritual experiences conform to a pregiven pathway aimed at the particular spiritual goal that those visions presented as most enlightened or spiritually evolved, thereby unconsciously sabotaging the natural process of their own unique spiritual unfolding and constraining the creative potential of the spiritual power that can manifest through them. Although fruits can be obtained from a commitment to almost any spiritual practice, the final outcome of these endeavors was often a spiritual life that was devitalized, stagnated, dissociated, or conflicted. Although my work advocates for the existence of diversity at mystical, cosmological, and metaphysical levels, I also believe that we can legitimately talk about a mystery out of which everything arises. The problem is
that as soon as anyone ―essentializes the mystery in terms of particular qualities (e.g., empty, personal, non-dual, etc.), the challenges of spiritual pluralism re-emerge. And, it is important to consider that such mystery may be also evolving with us through cocreative
participation; for example, nondual consciousness might be the origin of things, but that doesn‘t mean that that‘s where we may want to go spiritually speaking. Taking such origin as a goal might be actually regressive in an evolutionary context. We might be able to access such supposed foundation, but my question is, where do we want to go with that today? Thus, can we embrace the world‘s irreducible spiritual diversity as something positive? Can we entertain that different traditions may have found unique soteriological solutions for the human dilemma, and that they may be advancing the creativity of the mystery in different evolutionary directions? If we accept this view, there may be overlapping qualities among traditions, but we don‘t need to come to identical truths or principles.
In relation to your critique of the perennial philosophy, you have also critiqued religious exclusivism and its associated spiritual narcissism. Can you speak about this?
This is a very important question with many practic-al ramifications. Indeed, too often, religious traditions and practitioners look down upon one another, each believing that their truth is more complete or final, and that their path is the only or most effective one to
achieve full salvation or enlightenment. I believe that a way out of this predicament is to uncover, expose, and ultimately overcome the spiritual narcissism underlying such religious exclusivism, which is unfortunately pan- demic in human spiritual history. Put simply, spiritual narcissism is the conscious or unconscious belief that one‘s favored tradition or spiritual choice is universally or holistically superior. Spiritual narcissism should not be confused with psychological narcissism, since one can be mostly free from the latter and still be prey of the former. Consider, for example, the Dalai Lama‘s defense of the need of a plurality of religions. While celebrating the existence of different religions to accommodate the diversity of hu-man karmic dispositions, he contends that final spiritual
liberation can only be achieved through the emptiness practices of his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, impli- citly situating all other spiritual choices as lower--a view that he believes all other Buddhists and religious people will eventually accept. That the Dalai Lama him-self--arguably a paragon of spiritual humility and open-mindedness--holds this view strongly suggests that spi-ritual narcissism is not necessarily associated with a narcissistic personality but rather a deeply seated ten-dency buried in the collective realms of the human un-conscious. Interestingly, the Buddhist scholar Douglas Duckwort (2013) recently published a paper in the journal Sophia presenting participatory pluralism as an alternative to Tibetan Buddhist inclusivism. In addition to impoverishing human relations,
both spiritual narcissism and religious exclusivism play an important role in many interreligious conflicts, quarrels, and even holy wars. Although it would be ingenuous to believe that these conflicts are entirely or even mostly driven by religious sentiments (social, economic,political, and ethnic issues are often central), the rhetoric of religious exclusivism or superiority is widely used across the globe to fuel fundamentalist tendencies and justify interreligious violence. After all, it is much easier to kill your neighbor when you believe that God is on your side! As an antidote to this global malady, I have proposed that different religious worlds and spiritual ulti-
mates are cocreated through human participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or generative force of life or the cosmos. Such mystery is alive and dynamically creative versus having a static or pregiven nature that spiritual knowing must
somehow access or mirror. I believe that this account is more generous with the inexhaustible creativity of the mystery, which in this light can be seen as branching out in multiple ontological directions. In other words, incontrast to spiritual visions holding a single return to the One or nondual awareness, I take the view that the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit unfolds from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of (perhaps infinite) differentiation-in-communion. In the context of our current discussion, this
participatory account immediately frees religions from the assumption of a single, predetermined ultimate reali-
ty that binds them to exclusivist dogmatisms. Why? Because seeing the various religious worlds not as competing to match a pregiven spiritual referent but as creative transformations of an undetermined spiritual power effectively short-circuits their competitive predicament. Closely related is my contention that there is a plurality of salvations, enlightenments, or spiritual goals that can-
not be hierarchically arranged (even if, as discussed above, in the context of a single tradition, certain hierarchies of spiritual states may be valid). This recognition frees us from the deeply seated belief that there must be one single spiritual goal for all humanity, which too
often conveniently resembles the one described by my favored tradition. More positively, the proposed indeterminacy of the mystery invites to cultivate an attitude of spiritual humility that overcomes self-deceptive certainties and fosters a surrendering to a mystery that can never be fully comprehended by the human mind and its conceptual understandings. If we accept this approach, it will then no longer be a contested issue whether people endorse a theistic, nondual, or naturalistic account of the mystery, or whether their chosen path of spiritual cultivation is meditation, social engagement, conscious parenting, en theogenic shamanism, or communion with nature. (Of course, each path can be complemented with practices that cultivate other human potentials). The new spiritual
bottom line, in contrast, will be the degree into which each path fosters both an overcoming of self-centeredness and a fully embodied integration that make us not only more sensitive to the needs of others, nature, and the world, but also more effective cultural and pla-
netary transformative agents in whatever contexts and measure life or spirit calls us to be.