Sacred Democracy-Enlightenment and Democracy

by: Posted on: November 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: In a retrospective piece on the New Age, Damon navigates the link between personal awareness and democracy in his seventh Sacred Democracy column.


I have to confess that it took me close to forty years to recognize fully the causal connection between the political movements of the sixties and the spiritual movements of the seventies. Though both eras electrified me (by the hairs on the back of my neck), each decade for me was distinctly separate from the other. It was, in fact, only after I’d left the one disgustedly behind, then suffered for several years through the proverbial dark night of the soul, that I stumbled serendipitously into the next: thus finding new possibilities for hope that earlier promises had fallen—from my perspective—sadly short of fulfilling.

Having been a restless child of the forties, and a rebel in search of a cause in the fifties, I turned 23 in 1960 with a craving for the kinds of social reform that were to make the sixties a hallmark of historical change. (At least apparently so at the time.) My initial tastes of political action came in New Jersey in the first months and years of the decade—demonstrating with the SANE Committee for a Nuclear Policy at showings of the post-apocalyptic movie On the Beach, and then later in marches protesting school segregation. After my two years in the Peace Corps in Africa, which I discussed in my column called “Glimmers of Empathy in the Shadows of History,” I protested (in various ways) against the Vietnam War—first as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, then as a faculty member at the University of Hawaii. Each of those times I expected to make a difference, and every time I was brought face to face with the specter of my own disillusionment.

Yes, some laws were passed and some conditions improved, but by 1970 I was still smarting from two years earlier—the slayings of Martin and Bobby, the failures of student uprisings in the US and elsewhere, the election of Nixon, the trial of the Chicago Seven—and I’d lost what trust I may have had in my fellow electorate and the politicians they put into office. When it came time to vote again in ’72, I elected to sit that one out.

But, despite my feelings of political despair, I was far from oblivious to the new social causes that surfaced in the early seventies, in particular the environmental and the women’s movements. Nor did I fail to acknowledge the arousal of awareness that oddly accompanied those very disenchantments from which legions of us were unable to get out from under. Something inarguably had happened in the sixties—a kind of opening in the collective heart—which had taken the insanity of the war and the arms race and the racial outrages in our own country and elsewhere to awaken. Meanwhile the injustices to nature and to women had come to the forefront of the national awareness. Yet most of us were still clueless that this awareness was leading to the dawning of a New Age of spirituality.

I and many others would enter the “new paradigm” of consciousness through the portals of Eastern philosophy. In their variety of exotic forms, the Asian traditions were a breath of fresh air to the generations of us that had broken away from the religions of our parents—which had sternly preached “the letter of the law” and the exclusivity of the rightness of their own denominations. These Eastern practices, while no less demanding, emphasized internal disciplines instead, which were inclusive in their essence and led their adherents to attitudes of compassion and forgiveness for all of humanity. Human beings shared a sacred inner nature, they said, regardless of race, creed, sex, or region of origin. Could there be any wonder that after the “consciousness raising” of the sixties, so many of us (around the globe) found a haven in the compassionate teachings of the East? Having despaired of changing the world, we could at least aspire to change ourselves.

Because along with the “religious” nature of these newfound practices, there came a “holistic” component that enhanced their credibility for being a vitalizing benefit to the whole person, including the inner self we all share. Nor did they only represent new paths to holiness. They offered new forms of healing as well, including dietary and bodywork regimens that are familiar fixtures in our culture to this day. Indeed, among the revelatory insights we owe to New Age spirituality is that the everyday word “wholeness” derives from the same root as the words “holiness” and “wellness.” (Yet I have to again admit that it took me quite a few decades to “grok” the relationship of holism to democracy.)

It is also important to note that the new spirituality of the seventies was in no way exclusively about Eastern religions. While serving to re-awaken the religious experience of the West, it at the same time re-validated and re-invigorated the spiritual history of the West, as attentions were drawn to the phrase religious experience. Today, many make the point of insisting they are “spiritual” and not “religious,” in trying to make the distinction embraced by New Agers in the seventies. [Supporting this distinction are a pair of classic texts: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), in which William James, the 19th Century founder of the science of psychology, describes the similarities in a diverse range of spiritual phenomena; and The Undiscovered Self (1957), in which C.G. Jung, the 20th Century explorer of the collective unconscious, describes the essential difference between “religion” as human spiritual experience and the “sects” that serve to institutionalize it.]

It has often occurred to me since the seventies, that if more of us were to see this distinction as so many had seen it then—that we all share the sacred inner self, regardless of which path we find ourselves following—then the word “religion” would be a joke no longer among a portion of our population who are otherwise so socially conscious and so politically astute. (And yet again, to be fair: it took me most of those years to arrive at the point where I can see not just this critical distinction, but also the resonance between the religious experience and the living spirit of democracy.) Thus I’ve also wondered: since so many were able in the seventies to use the wisdom of the East as a bridge of return to the heart of their Western traditions, who can say the values of compassion, forbearance and forgiveness are beyond hope of renewal in the social and political zeitgeist of today?

Among the metaphors the Perennial Philosophy has borrowed from the traditions of the East is that of the lotus flower, which is born in the slimy bed at the bottom of the pond yet rises relentlessly in search of the light till it blossoms in its glory at the surface. It’s a model to be sure for each of our paths to enlightenment, in a real world apparently un-conducive. Yet could the slime be just what it takes? Could our consciousness have been raised more effectively in the sixties and seventies than by the evils of war, racism, colonialism, sexism and the pollution of nature? Or how can the evils that face us today offer any less of a blessing in the raising of our awareness? Necessity mothers invention.

The materialist mindset of the ensuing decades has done its darnedest to convince us that the idealism of the sixties and seventies, whether social, spiritual, or a heady blend of both, was an aberrant interlude spearheaded by a drug-addled generation of beatniks, hippies, malcontents and would-be mystics. Yet clearly a toxic epidemic of injustices in the sixties led to an upsurge of feelings and actions on behalf of fairness and decency—some of it at great personal risk to those who got involved. And also clearly, the “flower-child” image of the counter-cultural sixties morphed along with its love and compassion into the spiritual paradigm of the New Age seventies. Many of us, in point of fact, grew up from one to the other. In the Reagan eighties and after it became politically expedient to label the seventies the “Me Decade.” But if ever there was a me decade, it was one of the ones following the seventies, probably each more self-centric than the one before it.

Either way, the question arises: Is the spirit of the counter-cultural seventies truly dead and gone? Or is it possible to imagine the intensive self-reflection undertaken by so many in that amazing decade to have built on a process of earlier eras, decade by decade throughout history, thus paving the way for the blossoming of even newer ages to come? All of the sacred traditions, at the core of their teachings, have something to say on the topic of spiritual enlightenment—and I’ll have much more to say on this subject in future columns. Suffice it to say here, finally, is while the path to enlightenment is fraught with familiar obstacles of personal weakness, history and current events alike are replete with a multitude of examples in every corner of the world of enlightened human beings. Just as the past and the present offer a pantheon to us of champions of the spirit of democracy.

Thus what I’m suggesting is the “good news” that the spirits of democracy and of spiritual enlightenment are twin sparks glowing subtly but endlessly in the hearts of each of us, waiting to be activated into personal awareness. Whether we realize it or not, the impulse we feel toward the activation of one sparks the impulse to activate the other. How, after all, can we feel the presence of our own sacred nature without having a feeling as well for the sacred nature in others? And what could be more democratic than that?


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