Sri Aurobindo and The Mother shared a dream of a society with no religion, money or crime. The beautiful Auroville was born; but today survives through bickering and barter, and suffers from un-policed paedophiles.
Chogyam Trungpa came to the west to create Shambhala, the enlightened society, and despite numerous meditation centres sharing the name, Shambhala remains but an unrealised vision in Trungpa’s magical mirror. (I’m sure there are many who believe this is the point when it comes to visions of an enlightened society; the dream is understood to be impossible, but we should try anyway. I’m not sure why one would wish to practice failure in this way, and it’s easily demonstrable that the founders in question had success in mind.)
History is the result of countless individuals who come not to start a religion but to create a better culture; but wherever we see this attempted through the promotion of belief, we witness failure in the irony of generating a society opposite to the one intended. (The horror show of the 20th century is the western secular attempt at this; to engineer human society based on political prejudice and beliefs, instead of the usual spiritual ideas (although sometimes with both). In the microcosm, we see the same dynamic in every single community belonging to a guru.)
It’s a short move to dismiss these intentions of a cultural utopia as naive and megalomaniacal; but the shared longing for a better society is precisely what informs this cynicism.
Outside of spiritual dreams, there have been real successes in improving culture; where the suffragettes saw gender inequality, they measured success through achieving the vote for women. Where the civil rights movement saw racial inequality, it measured success through law reform and the ending of segregation.
None of these movements aimed to end prejudice or human failing, nor did they believe they could - which is what separates them from the politics and spirituality of today - and yet they succeeded in realising a better society through a demonstrable change.
If, as I do, you believe our culture would be better off if it was common knowledge that wisdom and profound spiritual experience is not only real but intelligible and open to public participation, we could ask how we might measure success in a similar way, without entertaining the delusion of altering human nature itself.
I believe psychology offers an instructive example.
Today, the west is a highly psychologised society, reflected in its common language: ’You’re just projecting’, ‘It’s a repressed memory’, ‘He’s a narcissist’, ‘You should go and talk to someone’, ‘That’s my personality type’, ‘She has a big ego’, ‘a Freudian slip’, ’I’m a bit ADHD’, etc.
Psychological beliefs and opinions are pervasive, and everyone knows what is meant by a ‘shrink’.
Psychotherapists and counsellors number approx. 500,000 in the US; in the UK/Europe, about the same; and arguably it is the demonstration of the benefit of therapy - both as a profession and as a focus of research - that is responsible for psychology’s contribution in shaping our culture.
If, instead of a psychologised society, we wished to cultivate a culture based on wisdom, it would follow that wisdom would need to be demonstrable and of benefit; and this would mean a profession and a field of scientific research.
As a profession, access to wisdom practice would need to be available to clients without the necessity of membership to a particular set of religious or spiritual beliefs, and unburdened of the conflicts of interest found in charitable religious organisations. (Imagine a therapist asking a vulnerable client for their inheritance to ‘promote the cause’.)
Regulation, best practice, supervision, and registration would all be required, necessitating the creation of a governing body to provide oversight for practitioners.
Members of the profession would need to be free to work independently, in partnership or as part of an organisation separate from any one particular institution, or even in competition in a free marketplace.
A rigorous scientific research program would need to be initiated to articulate, measure and demonstrate the efficacy of wisdom practice, in contrast to the best of what is on offer currently in resolving personal problems (including mental illness, addiction, etc) and the understanding of the mind and consciousness.
No doubt if there were a comparable 1 million wisdom practitioners in the west as there are psychotherapists/counsellors today, we would be living in a wisdom culture; and yet exactly when we entered the era of the psychologised society and with what number of professional therapists is difficult (perhaps impossible) to pinpoint. This is not necessary, however; all we need to know is there is a trajectory with a broad range of success for the example to be useful. We can be sure we entered what we might describe as a psychologised society way before today’s current number of professionals, so we know it must have occurred with less than 500,000 practitioners in either the US or Europe.
If we were to aim for 500,000 professional wisdom practitioners in one of these locations, how long would it take to produce that number?
Given there are institutional frameworks already in place in the form of psychotherapy and medicalised mindfulness that could - once the research is in - shift to the wisdom counsellor profession, could the adoption and growth of the wisdom counsellor be much quicker than both psychotherapy and mindfulness were in becoming normalised and pervasive?
Taking an optimistic view of wisdom counsellor training - come what may - and the inevitable adoption of the practice by established institutions, it seems reasonable that we should set the ambitious goal of transitioning to a wisdom culture within 20 years.