The New Age Gets (Somewhat) Political

The New Age Gets (Somewhat) Political
By Wade Lee Hudson

A review
A New Republic of the Heart:
An Ethos for Revolutionaries
Terry Patten

North Atlantic Books, 2018
384 p., $17.95

Only a few political people are becoming more spiritual, but many spiritual people are becoming more political, aiming to integrate the personal, social, cultural and political dimensions of human experience. This development is encouraging.

The Shift Network, a clearinghouse of information about such integrative projects founded by Stephen Dinan, is “a transformative education company” that aims to “work together to create a better world…[by] shifting toward a planet that is healthy, sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous for all.” Their offerings do not “focus solely on your personal transformation but also on how we can shift our world.”

Marianne Williamson, an American spiritual teacher, activist, and author of 13 books, including four New York Times best sellers, is a candidate for President. Her new book, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution will be released April 23. She declares:

Corporatocracy has replaced democracy as our primary organizing principle, our government has become little more than a system of legalized bribery, and politicians too often advocate for short-term corporate profit maximization before the health and well-being of people and planet.

And Terry Patten’s 2018 magnum opus, A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries, rooted in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, has received strong praise from many New Age thinkers as well as Joan Blades, MoveOn.org co-founder. Presented as “a guide to inner work for holistic change,” Patten’s 384-page book includes many valuable insights, especially with regard to personal and spiritual growth, often presented with poetic passion. Unfortunately, his political perspective is weak, and the book is redundant, contradictory, and inconsistent with its logic.

His website presents summaries of and excerpts from the book and includes links to some of his other work. He reports that he grew up on a pacifist commune, became a student activist in the 60s and early 70s, lived as a monastic with a guru, Adi Da, and became an author and teacher of Integral Spiritual Practice.

His overview of the book states:

Humanity is now confronting “super wicked” problems that combine an ecological crisis with a sociocultural crisis. And new technologies are reverse-engineering our neurological hardwiring, distracting and hypnotizing us, shrinking our attention spans, trapping us by our aversion to what we fear, and making it almost impossible for us to see what is in front of our faces. This tipping point implies the necessity of Whole System Change….I critique and reject inner work that doesn’t also express itself in outer work. And I critique those who focus on outer work without recognizing that inner transformation is also necessary.

He aims to reunite

transcendental spirituality with the spirituality of the soul, the spirituality of human relationships, and with sacred activism…. Our practice aspires to co-create an awakened community of practice that can stand, like Gandhi or Dr. King, as the moral center of a movement of social transformation. Thich Naht Hanh famously said that “the next Buddha may very well be a Sangha,” one that we co-create by becoming friends and fellow citizens of a “new republic of the heart.”

His recommendation for the development of small “communities of practice” whose members support one another with their spiritual development and activism is laudable. That approach addresses a void most activists ignore.

A major weakness in his argument is that it’s too future-oriented. He proposes preparing for future “disasters and calamities” that create “critical windows of opportunity for more fundamental systems redesign.” At times, he qualifies his predictions, as when he writes, “Realistically, most well-informed observers believe that big disruptions are probably inevitable.” But generally he’s more definitive, as when he uses “will” in: “These crises will punctuate our current deadlock and stuckness. Each will present ‘windows of opportunity’…” (emphases added).

The overall thrust of the book is apocalyptic, which leads to his conclusion: “Preparation is everything…. Some of the most powerful change will come after it’s ‘too late’!” He often refers favorably to Charles Eisenstein, who aims to “animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble.”

Patten’s excessive focus on the unpredictable future stokes unnecessary fear. Current crises should be sufficient to motivate political action. If crises worsen severely, as he envisions, calamities could lead to more authoritarianism and militarism, not liberation.

Despite his frequent praise for Gandhi and King, Patten does not really embrace their methods. He does not envision massive grassroots movements that initiate confrontations with decision-makers by presenting winnable demands for immediate improvements in public policy. Rather, he opposes “becoming agents of escalating and dangerous conflict.” He generally casts confrontation in a negative light and doesn’t see that presenting strong demands can be productive — especially if those demands are presented with an attitude that consistently seeks reconciliation.

Given that perspective, Patten’s hope to co-create another Gandhi-King-like community that serves as “the moral center of a movement of social transformation” seems audacious, to say the least. Rather, it feels like an effort to appropriate popular icons while neglecting the substance of their convictions.

As a way to advance their long-term goals, Gandhi and King focused on “incremental” demands, which led many of their comrades to criticize them for being too willing to compromise. Patten often adopts a similar hyper-critical stance toward reform. He writes:

It can often seem that we face challenges that are so urgent that there’s no way they’ll be met by the slow process of cultural, social and political reform. (Notice that this is the unstated subtext of many anxious “progressive” political communications!)

Once again, in this passage he obscures his real belief with a qualifier. But elsewhere he often states his conviction clearly, as when he says: “A system, culture, or civilization built on this [our current] model will eventually fall apart.”

He incorrectly frames his perspective as “evolutionary” and “transformative.” In fact, it’s neither. Evolution is “the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.” And “to transform” means to change structure, character, function, and appearance — as in “A little creativity can transform an ordinary meal into a special event, [and] the old factory has been transformed into an art gallery.” Evolution can lead to transformation, but neither involves collapse, or a complete break down.

Patten contradicts his denigration of reform when he writes “efforts to enact enlightened reforms are necessary and laudable,” and acknowledges “win-win solutions are not always possible; sometimes it is necessary to fight for a single position against others.” But overall the book reflects the anticipation of, if not the hope for, total catastrophe.

His cursory attention to politics contributes to this confusion. Less than five pages in his enormous tome are devoted to “in-the-system” politics. In fact, he disparages politics: “The integral revolution of our time is no so much political (although the political implications are important) as it is a change in our way of being with ourselves, each other, and with all of life….The center of battle is a nonviolent revolution in every heart.” He declares “healthy politics is the uplift of human relationships.” That statement reflects his primary interest, inner work, and distorts the real meaning of politics: the art or science of government.

His considerations of “consequential outer work” generally fail to include political activism aimed at impacting public policy. He devotes most of his attention to “outside-the-system” projects that build counter-institutions as models for the future.

His lack of concern about pressing political issues such as economic inequality and regressive taxation is disturbing. And he fails to offer a clear vision of the society he envisions. None of the seven largely utopian “radical changes” in public policy he briefly affirms address economic justice. Citing his former guru, Adi Da, he advocates a “politics of love [that] doesn’t focus on political ‘issues’ but on the self-regulating integrity and authority of ‘everybody-all-at-once.’” That is hardly a viable political strategy.

Patten fails to envision communities that simultaneously integrate “in-the-system,” “against-the-system,” and “outside-the-system” efforts. Alternative communities can work in the system and against the system — with a long-term vision to transform the system. It’s frustrating and unfortunate that one immersed in Integral Theory did not integrate those dimensions.

Rather than massive grassroots movements, Patten relies on elitist thought leaders influencing leading decision-makers:

  • Reach the decision-makers and supply the white papers that built a carefully-reasoned argument for dramatic policy decisions….
  • Getting buy-in from influential political players.
  • It is especially consequential to consort with the powerful. We want wisdom to gain access and influence….
  • Gaining the ear of the emperor.

His perspective on personal change also falls short. He disagrees with the idea of becoming “better” human beings, without explaining why he objects to that word, which he disparages by placing it in quotes. I can only assume he supports the New Age notion that we’re already “perfect” or “good enough.”

Nowhere does Patten consider the need to acknowledge mistakes and resolve not to repeat them, and face weaknesses and work to address them. Nor does he discuss how peer support can enhance self-improvement, or that peer learning is the most fruitful form of learning. In these ways, Patten, in his understanding of the “whole system,” leaves out essential elements of being human. Self-improvement and mutual support are natural parts of being human.

Patten’s persistent insistence about the “illusion of separation” is overstated. Individuals are interwoven with all of life, but we are also distinct and separate. Contrary to Patten’s belief, we do experience the objective world “out there.” It’s not either/or, but both/and. We are both at-one and separate. To deny the reality of the distinct self is to undermine the potential for self-development.

Despite these weaknesses, A New Republic of the Heart offers many valuable insights with regard to self-development. The fact that the book has received considerable attention is encouraging. Perhaps Patten will soon write a clear, concise, and more logical new book without so many ambiguities and inconsistencies.

But to do so Patten will need to sharpen his understanding of the potential of partnership as an alternative to the drive to dominate and the willingness to submit — which is reflected in the work of most gurus, spiritual teachers, and political activists. He’s close. He could do it. He’s an excellent writer. If he does, it could be a very useful tool that would help us transform our society from one based on elitism and domination into one based on partnership and greater democracy.

2 Responses to The New Age Gets (Somewhat) Political

  1. Wade, I haven’t read Patten’s book, but I’m struck by your criticism in which you say that he is stoking fear by pointing out the probability of massive disruptions to our “civilization.” Seems to me that the fear is already intense and preparation and seeing opportunity for transformation is one way to sensibly heed it’s warning.

    • I agree the threats are many and serious. Careful thinking and strategic action are required to address them and heed the warning. Present conditions should be enough to motivate action. I do not know how much worse the disruptions will be. Speculating about the unforeseeable future is a waste to time. Moreover, fear is counter-productive. It’s future-oriented and abstract. Focusing on the present and the concrete hold greater potential.

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