A Darwin fish with feet that says "evolve" in the middle.

Credit: CreativeCommons / LaJJoyce.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent…It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

This is by far my favorite thing that Darwin never said. But whether he wrote these words or not doesn’t matter; we shouldn’t be so insecure in our need for the intellectual imprimatur of a doyenne like Darwin to see that this textual mutation of his theory is spot on. Adaptability is everything.

Surprisingly, not everybody agrees with this. Some seem hardwired at the genetic level to resist all types of change, which is why we have a vocal minority of scientists who still side with Lysenko on the issue of global warming. Even in the midst of this still-denied “Fifth Extinction”, a change has come upon on us that not even those who still think the letters E-P-A are renegade Sesame Street sponsors can deny: technology.

Why crisis? Because the word means more than you think it does. For the ancient Greeks, the krisis was “the turning point in a disease,” which they derived from a deeper root word meaning “choice” or “judgment.” In other words, crises are opportunities. It just takes a vision to see them as such.

But as history has born grim testimony to, a vision can go either way. The same processes which ended in Nagasaki and Lebensborn produced the polio vaccine and space travel. Albert Einstein recognized that any science without religion was “lame” and as usual (except for the whole spooky-action-at-a-distance-thing) Einstein was right.

The environment has changed, and so have we, whether we want to admit it or not. The jury’s still out on the issue of the post-Cambrian explosion of ADHD and whether or not it’s directly proportional to the explosion of cable channels, but my intuition tells me it is. It also tells me that we’re witnessing a neurological adaptation to a world of confusion ten thousand times more “blooming” and “buzzing” than the one in which William James wrote over century ago. And yet psychologists are so quick to pathologize a potential adaptation without even understanding its actual etiology… When will we learn that pathologizing comes with a price — a price we are usually ill-equipped to pay?

Perhaps we would not be having this problem today if the erotic novelist Anaïs Nin had made good on her word of translating the works of Otto Rank for the popular press. Rank wrote at length about the crisis of modernity, but unlike most of his contemporaries (mostly a gaggle of angry Eeryore-types), he offered an actionable solution to the problem beyond the usual, “Looks like we’re screwed, folks.” Creative engagement with reality (read art) is what Rank prescribed for a world-gone-neurotic.

Of particular interest to Rank was what happens when “primitive” cultures clash with modernity. This process, called “deculturation” by anthropologists, is nothing less than when the last gasps of a culture’s over-arching hero narrative is replaced with the death rattle of addiction. In other words, the myths and meanings that were the warp and weft of indigenous life are shredded, the loom broken, and replaced with the bottle.

50 years later, Ernest Becker’s diagnosis that “life only becomes possible in a continual alcoholic stupor” seems even more damning given our society’s outrageous addictions to gambling, narcotics, self-obsession, and sex. This has been the natural consequence of science’s stripping the soul out of psyche and replacing it with the “self.” It’s a scary thing when the gods die. It means we’re soon to follow.

As Rank put it, the failure of modern psychology is that it “has limited its understanding of human unhappiness to the personal life-history etc…”

Well, not all psychology.

In the work of William James, we have the first American inklings of what would one day flower into transpersonal psychology. Humanistic — and later, transpersonal — approaches arose in counterpoint to the reductio ad absurdum of a field beholden to the scientific zeitgeists of the day.

The irony, of, course, is that in bringing balance to the force(s) of psychology and thus ushering in a “new age” of spiritual literacy, transpersonal psychology seemed to peter out after peaking (like most prodigies) in childhood. Enter an awkward adolescence and attendant identity crisis, as it no longer felt secure and struggled to make sense of its relevance to the world. An unholy trinity of evaporating interest, geriatric benefactors, and vanishing funding resulted in a veritable Dark Age, where little newness was added to the field. Just because there might be “gaps in the résumé”, however, doesn’t mean that such gaps aren’t important. The natural lulls in the life cycle of every organism are necessary periods — places for things “hatching in the dark.”

For those who followed the field, this darkness seemed to last a long time. Did the eggs die? Did the waning warmth of flower-power fail to provide adequate care?

Think again.

The violet “crushed beneath the heel” of a culture that no longer seemed to give two shits about the “fragrance of forgiveness” is still very much alive. The solution? It became relevant.

Is there a sacrosanct place for the Glass Bead Game custodianship of knowledge for knowledge’s sake? In a perfect world (or one scripted by Herman Hesse) the answer is yes. But the reality is, probably not.

Environments and organisms are reciprocal and co-extensive. And frankly, the environment has changed. Transpersonal psychology, in order to survive as a field, is having to adapt to the climate and conditions of the world. Again, there is no guarantee of success. Animal magnetism narrowed itself in congruence with the science of the day to survive, on life-support, as hypnotism. And even though hypnotism might be to animal magnetism as MIDI might be to the MET, it’s still music, either way you look at it, even Haydn seems to sound a little different. After all, a psychology only able to accommodate the privileged and few (and more often than not, western and white) isn’t exactly trans-anything.

Now back to the opening epigram that the species who survives is the one who best adapts to change.

A recent crisis almost plucked one of the most precious gems in the American university system right out of existence: The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. For a while, things looked bleak, until an interesting mutation occurred in its genome, bringing it into congruence with its literal and figurative environment: Silicon Valley. Like the classic Darwinian tale of the moth who survived extinction at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution by selecting for soot-soaked-looking wings, the school survived. What could moths, smokestacks, and psychology programs possibly have in common? More than you’d think.

The novel adaptation to a new environment ensured the survival of a species in a land that looked anathema to its survival to begin with. So too, has ITP survived as Sofia, its once-white wings now dipped in the liquid scintillation of a new and shiny silicon. This has not been hailed as a successful rebirth by many. In fact, many have seen this transformation as a literal and figurative death of what was once one of the premier think-tanks and training grounds for transpersonal psychology. These are the same people, however, who wonder what technology and psyche have in common in the first place.

For one thing, in a world where we increasingly outsource our bodies to technology, one has to wonder if we’re not extending our phenotype into the datoshpere without even realizing it. Granted, this is a “creative misreading” of Darwins’s idea, but potentially no less “real.” Seen from the perspective of an extended phenotype, technology is an efflorescence of our psyche, much as a spider web is an efflorescence of a spider’s combined somatic and noetic grammars.

The Carl Sagan of his era (scientist C.P. Snow) wrote his now classic Two Cultures while surveying the devastation wrought by “the bomb” to the tune of “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” A good question, since it seemed to Snow, that Hell hath no fury like enriched uranium.

If Ken Wilber sees a “marriage of sense and soul,” it has so far been a sexless one in desperate need of MDMA therapy and a highly qualified counselor. While the good folks at MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) are doing the actual MDMA studies, Sofia University is doing its own study of sorts, trying to bring the “two cultures” of psyche and science into a union beyond mere dialogue.

Snow’s anthropological arithmetic may seem overly simple, but in many ways, it really is that simple. Sofia is a culture — both in the literal and laboratorial sense – and a culture in the midst of a chemical reaction, at that. We have no idea what the product will be.

So what are the possible outcomes? Here’s one: when two hurricanes meet, one absorbs the other, metastasizing into a super-hurricane. Another is combustion. A third is an uneasy and reluctant symbiosis (the state of most universities today.) But Sofia’s president Liz Li sees a Fourth Way, a way that, if it works, could bring transpersonal education back into sync with the world around it in a manner that goes beyond transdisciplinary dialogue and into a deeper state of symbiosis.

One thing is certain: how we engage technology matters. If we see it as neutral (or even worse, with suspicion) we will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of so many science-fictional civilizations before us. Do we really want a future with set design by H.R. Giger?

Technology has become a cipher for the collective anxieties of a society in the throes of florid death denial. Even though we think we “cheat death” and “steal time,” the piper always demands his due, and the price is the return of the repressed. Technology isn’t the death of Spirit; it is its efflorescence. The choice is ours, to embrace or deny. And we already know the price of denial.

Rank realized that the only real answer to the problems of life and death is art. Why art? Because it is creative; because it not only takes in the universe, it metabolizes it. It is a participatory –and emancipatory — process. Education is an art – and transpersonal education even more so. It is fitting that Sofia University is on the pulse point of the culture wars. Whether designed by Heaven or Hell, Sofia has become the Appomatox Courthouse where this civil war between Snow’s “two cultures” has drawn to a close. Reconstruction is never easy. Just open an American history book to around the halfway point and start reading. What reconstruction is, though, is an opportunity for those with a vision to shape in real and significant ways, the future. It’s a krisis. The choice is ours: to adapt or not to adapt. Or, in words that Darwin would have approved of, to evolve or face extinction.

Nicholas Boeving is an alumnus of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University where he pursued doctoral work in the psychology of religion under the directorship of Jeffrey Kripal. Throughout his life he has been passionately engaged with the human outreach work carried on by the various secular and spiritual organizations he has belonged to. This outreach has included meal service, home-building, hospice care, and academic mentoring. Furthermore, as a true lover of language, he has also volunteered time both as an undergraduate and graduate student to help those for whom English is their second language gain greater grammatical proficiency. He has been published extensively in the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion.


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