Psychic Awakening and the Transformation of Society

This is a selection from the book, “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity”   It was our attempt (Jan, my wife and co-author, and myself) to follow up on Sri Aurobindo’s chapter on “The Conditions for the Advent of a Spiritual Age” which I have written about in previous posts.  In writing this chapter, we asked ourselves, starting with the conditions, attitudes and outlook of the present society, what are the immediate ideas, intuitive suggestions and perspectives that might best begin a move inward and upward?





Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.[i]

                  Vaclav Havel, Playwright, Former President of Czechoslovakia

We must accept that today’s problems were created by our thoughts and actions; peace, human development and environmental sustainability must begin in our own minds and deeds. The world cannot change without a transformation in human consciousness.[ii]

       Oscar Arias Sanchez, from a talk on the need for A Declaration of Human     Obligations


At the human stage, with the emergence of the thinking mind, a conscious collaboration in this process of evolution was made possible. As human beings, we can choose to turn our attention inward and begin to sort out the often conflicting strands of the surface physical, vital and mental consciousness, thus dismantling the filmy screen which separates us from a deeper, vaster inner awareness. Stepping back from the thick, complex karmic web in which we’ve been caught, we can bring our attention still deeper, and awaken as the infinite conscious-beings that we are in truth. Having thus awakened, surrendering to a Force greater than ourselves, we can allow it to infuse our lives, and the instruments of mind, heart and body, with the qualities of the Divine nature.

The same process of awakening and transformation can occur at the collective level as well. Over millions of years of human evolution, the thinking mind has grown more complex, and with that development, civilization has grown to a level of complexity that is now beyond the capacity of the thinking mind to encompass. If humanity is to survive and continue to grow, a way needs to be found to collectively turn our attention inward, to see the karmic patterns we weave as peoples and as nations, to awaken to our various “group-souls,” and create an opening for the power of a Force beyond the mind to transform us and the world in which we live.

Turning Within to Transform the World?

Given the real, tangible problems that threaten to annihilate us, what is the basis for the assertion that our survival depends on some kind of intangible inner change?  Consider the following:

            Imagine you were handed a magic wand. With the first wave of the wand, you could end hunger, provide abundant clothing, shelter, and other material goods for everyone on earth. All political constitutions would be instantly rewritten to allow for both maximum liberty and equality, all laws amended for the greater good, all business and medical institutions reshaped entirely to be a means of service rather than individual gain. In short, all institutions and structures would be completely transformed with one wave of your magic wand. How long would take before the individuals living in such a world would begin to reshape that world according to their own desires – changing the laws, institutions, etc. to serve their own ends, with some amassing material goods at the expense of others?  

   Now imagine a different wave of the magic wand. This time, all outer institutions, structures, laws, etc. remain exactly the same. However, even as your hand lifts for this wave of the wand, the hearts of all people begin to be filled with love and compassion, their minds illumined by intuitive wisdom, their vision imbued with the ability to see the Divine Essence in all. How long might it take before such people would spontaneously create a world endowed with beauty, one dedicated to the material well-being and spiritual unfoldment of all beings?


If we take inner change to be fundamental, then efforts toward implementing external change can be seen from a deeper perspective. We can still work for the equitable provision of material goods, just laws and political institutions. At the same time, however, we can recognize that the purpose of these changes is not primarily to assure the survival and comfort of our fellow human beings, but rather to create conditions that would be most conducive to the awakening and flowering of the Soul – individual and collective. We can further recognize that, as the Soul of humanity continues to awaken, it will naturally bring about a greater transformation of the world than anything our minds can imagine.

To say this scenario sounds overly optimistic or a bit naïve may seem to some a gross understatement. In the past 24 hours, more than 45,000 people have died of starvation, and another 13 million tons of toxic chemicals have been poured into the atmosphere.[iii] More than three billion people in the world subsist on the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar per day, and a majority of the earth’s population does not have access to basic health care. To make things worse, we have the material resources to rectify this. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development report, it would require approximately 65 billion dollars a year  to provide universal access to such basic services as education, health care and safe water for the entire population of the planet– about the same amount of money spent in Europe each year on cigarettes and on perfume in Europe and the United States combined.[iv]

We’re not suggesting that everyone stop smoking or using perfume, nor that a weekend workshop in yoga psychology would provide the immediate resolution of these problems. Evolution takes place over billions of years. However, with the emergence of increasingly complex grades of consciousness, the evolutionary process appears to be speeding up. Most people would agree – whatever their philosophical bent – that in the past century the pace of change has quickened dramatically. A small but growing number of observers of the global scene contend we are in the midst of a cultural and spiritual awakening that is unfolding on a scale of decades rather than centuries. There are individuals and groups throughout the world who, in line with these emerging possibilities, are actively creating businesses, developing legal and political structures, organizing communities, and engaging in other activities which are helping to bring about a cultural, and perhaps even spiritual renaissance.

Awakening Out of the Cultural Trance

The whispered resolve of the individual becomes the roar of collective action. Its righteous sound reverberates in the structures and institutions of a new society. Its voice is steady and its message is clear: w can act with compassion; we can be more humane; we can live in peace.[v]

Oscar Arias Sanchez

There are many parallels between the psychology of the individual and the psychology of a society. The individual psyche is made up of a complex mixture of physical, vital and mental consciousness. It has various layers – the surface, inner, and inmost soul consciousness, with the subconscient below and superconscient[1] above. Similarly, these various grades and layers make up the consciousness of societies. There is what might be called the “soul” of a family, a community, an organization or a nation. There is also a collective ego – the limited and distorted expression of the Soul on each of these scales. There are parallels at the individual and social level with regard to development, awakening and transformation as well. For both the individual and the group, the ‘game” of evolution involves an interplay between the aspiration of the soul to awaken, and the various karmic knots which present challenges to that aspiration. In both cases, the process of transformation happens through allowing our individual and collective actions – physical, vital and mental – to be initiated from within by the Soul, and ultimately by a Force beyond.[2] [NOTE IN THE ORIGINAL:  These are of course gross oversimplifications. This association of different realms of society – economic, political and cultural – with specific movements of consciousness is a very broad generalization, meant only for purposes of illustration. In actuality, all levels and grades of consciousness are involved, to some extent, in all activities  Ultimately, it is only possible to discern the complex intermixture of conscious-energies associated with any particular activity through the faculty of yogic vision which can directly perceive the various energies at play from moment to moment. ]

The collective process of awakening and transformation may become clearer if we consider the various aspects of collective endeavor as analogous to various aspects of the surface consciousness of an individual. In any particular domain of society, the nature of the activity involved tends to mobilize particular types of consciousness. For example, business involves the production and distribution of goods and services. To the extent its focus is on material goods and the needs and desires of the consumers those goods are designed to satisfy, the group consciousness of the business tends to be focused at the level of the physical and lower vital consciousness. Politics and government involve leadership as well as the writing and administering of laws and public policy. While these no doubt require complex mental activity, they tend to keep the energy of consciousness focused at the level of the central and higher vital – related, respectively, to power and relationships. Cultural endeavor – in its manifestation as art, music, philosophy, science, etc – involves the creation of complex symbols expressing inner and outer vital and mental feelings and ideas, and this tends to mobilize the deeper and higher aspects of the mental and vital consciousness.

In the individual, before the psychic being is awakened and takes over leadership of the mental, vital and physical consciousness, it is the thinking mind that can best maintain harmony amongst them. Similarly, in a society, before the soul of a group awakens, it is the “thinking mind” of the culture that is its best means of harmonizing the various aspects of the collective consciousness. To the extent the state – as an instrument of the distorted[3] vital consciousness – dominates business and culture, they cannot fulfill their appropriate functions. The flow of goods and services is impeded, becoming subordinated to the ambitions of those in power. And culture becomes merely a tool of political propaganda.

When business dominates government and culture, the laws and policies of the state are no longer geared toward serving the needs of the nation, but rather to facilitating the acquisition of wealth, usually for a select few. Culture then degenerates into entertainment which is exploited for financial gain. If culture dominates, rather than serving to harmonize the relationship between itself, government and business, it can lead to a loss of grounding in the physical and vital spheres such that both business and the state may seriously falter. When it performs its rightful role as the integrating force of society, then culture can work together with government and business as an instrument of the deeper and higher aspirations of a people.

However, culture can only perform its true function to the extent it is free from the distorting influence of ego and desire. In their essay, Global Civil Society, David Korten, Vandana Shiva and Nicanor Perlas distinguish between “falsified” and “authentic” culture. What they call a falsified culture is what we referred to earlier as the “consensus reality” – the worldview inculcated into us at such an early age that we are generally unaware of the degree to which we view everything through its filter.

In yoga psychology terms, the falsified culture – much like the surface personality of an individual which is dominated by ego and desire – is one dominated by the desires, attachments, beliefs and fears of the collective ego. As Korten et al. point out, in the contemporary world, this culture is shaped and sustained to a large extent by the self-interest of powerful corporate and political entities, and is thus dominated by commercial, materialistic values.

From the yogic perspective, the authentic culture would be an expression of the consciousness of the thinking mind acting in harmony with the vital and physical consciousness. At a deeper level, the authentic culture would be an expression of the Soul and infused with the soul-qualities of wisdom, joy and compassion. Korten, Shiva and Perlas believe that we are now witnessing both an increased awareness of the destructive influence of the falsified culture, and an intensification of the collective aspiration for authentic culture. They see this aspiration manifesting in a number of ways, including efforts to bring greater awareness to patterns of consumption and a growing desire to prioritize inner over outer goals.

As a means of supporting this process of awakening, Korten, Shiva and Perlas describe the creation of what they call “zones of freedom”:

A zone of freedom may be as simple as a local study group.  It might be a farmer’s market, a school to develop inquiring minds, or a course on voluntary simplicity… No matter how small or isolated such initiatives may originally be, each creates a protected space in which diversity, experimentation and learning can flourish to create the building blocks of a new mainstream culture, politics, and economy. [vi]

Such zones of of freedom can be linked up

to create ever expanding social spaces in which the emergent processes of cultural, political and economic innovation can flourish.  As zones of freedom expand and merge, they contribute to the process of liberation from the cultural trance… by offering ever more visible manifestations of [alternative, more harmonious and creative possibilities].[vii].


Over the past quarter century, there have been a series of large-scale social surveys identifying a widespread shift in values reflective of this awakening cultural consciousness.  For example, the 1990-1991 “World Values Survey,” covering 70% of the world’s population, discerned a ‘postmodern shift’ toward a ‘greater search for inner meaning and development; subordination of economic growth to environmental sustainability; cultural pluralism [and] greater freedom for women.” [viii]. More recent surveys have shown a similar shift in values, with a distinction being made between those focused primarily on changing society, and those interested in combining social change with spiritual awakening. [ix]. In yoga psychology terms, the first group reflects an awareness of the need to bring greater harmony to the workings of the collective surface mental, vital and physical consciousness. The second reflects an awareness of the need to go deeper, to awaken the individual and collective Soul and allow Its Light to transform the surface nature.  We will consider some examples of both, looking first at several zones of freedom where a greater harmonization seems to be emerging.

Refining the Collective Surface Consciousness – Two Examples of Zones of Freedom

Ithaca HOURS: Making a Community While Making a Living

In 1989, community economist Paul Glover of Ithaca, New York, in the course of researching various local economic systems, encountered a form of currency that caught his interest. It was an “hour” note issued in the 1800s by British industrialist Robert Owens, intended for use by his workers when purchasing goods from his company store. Two years later, an alternative local economy was initiated in Ithaca when in response to Glover’s request, Gary Fine, a local massage therapist, agreed to accept payment in “Ithaca HOURS” in exchange for his services. Fourteen years later, over $50,000 in HOURS have been issued to over 1,000 participants. Ithaca Hours are the first modern example of a local currency, and have since “inspired similar systems throughout the world.”[x] The Ithaca program is “one of three monetary reform measures named as viable alternatives to [the] Bretton Woods system [at a] United Nations conference.”[xi]

One Ithaca “HOUR” is worth the equivalent of ten U.S. dollars, the average hourly wage in the region when the program was initiated in 1991. The aim of the HOURS currency is to strengthen the city’s local economy. All who use HOURS are required to spend them locally, “thus building a network of inter-supporting local businesses.”[xii] HOURS can be used in exchange for a wide range of goods and services from plumbing, carpentry, and car repair, to nursing, child care, and groceries. It is also possible to make rent and mortgage payments with HOURS, and they are accepted at local movie theaters, health clubs, farmers’ markets, and restaurants.

Commenting on the value of this local currency, Glover writes:

Federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and to fight wars. Ithaca HOURS, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other. While dollars make us increasingly dependent on multinational corporations and bankers, HOURS reinforce community trade and expand commerce that is more responsive to our concern for ecology and social justice.[xiii] 

In using the HOURS currency, Ithacans are also building a deeper sense of community. As Glover expresses it:

We encounter each other as fellow Ithacans, rather than as winners and losers scrambling for dollars. As we do so, we help relieve the social desperation which has led to compulsive shopping, wasted resources, and homelessness and hunger. We’re making a community while making a living.[xiv]

The HOURS program demonstrates the potential power of awakening out of the general cultural trance, becoming conscious of the subconscious assumptions and beliefs which lead to compulsive, desire-driven activity. By the simple act of printing a local currency which supports the ethical values of their community, Ithacans have been able, to some degree, to free their consciousness during an act of currency exchange, from its habitual domination by the desire for possessions, and the craving for comfort and security. They have created the possibility for a more refined mental consciousness to bring the vital and physical consciousness of the community into harmony with its ethical concerns.

Let’s look at the Ithaca HOURS experiment in the context of the question we raised earlier with regard to the relative importance of inner vs. outer change. The stated goal of the Ithacans was an external one – the creation of an alternative monetary system that would support local economic development rather than feed the institutions that create war and degrade the environment. Even given this external aim, without the inner change of consciousness that has inspired the HOURS program, it would have been more difficult to sustain the outer structure. In other words, if the participants in the program did not value the joy of greater community and the peace of mind afforded by living in harmony with their deeper values, they would have been less motivated to use the HOURS currency.

There is a more radical understanding of the relationship between inner and outer change. From the yogic perspective, the joy and peace of mind engendered bythe Hours program, are important not primarily for the sake of changing the world, but as a means of providing a more fertile soil for spiritual awakening.[4]  It is true that inner change is possible without the support of outer change. It is possible, for example, to experience peace of mind and the joy of community while participating in an economic system that is destructive, unjust and inequitable.[5]  However, inner change is easier when outer circumstances are more in harmony with the inner aspiration. In this sense, the HOURS program provides a model of how a change in the outer structure can support and enhance inner change.


The only deserts are deserts of the imagination. [xv].

Paolo Lugari

Gaviotas is a community of approximately 200 residents, located in what was once a barren savanna in Colombia, South America. It began in the early 1970s when founder Paolo Lugari invited a group of scientists, engineers, doctors, university students and other advisors to this remote location in order to discover a different and gentler way of living on the earth together. In the midst of a region torn by political chaos and terrorism, the Gaviotans established a community governed by consensus – one without locks on the doors, weapons, police or prisons. Every family enjoys free housing, medical care, community meals and schooling, with all wages above the Colombia minimum wage. Gaviotans choose the work to which they feel drawn, giving the same respect to the person in charge of garbage disposal as they do to the inventor of the newest solar technology.

For more than three decades, residents have supported themselves through a variety of clean, renewable industries reaching such a degree of energy self-sufficiency they were awarded the 1997 world prize in zero emissions.  They invented solar water heaters that work even on the many cloudy days common to the region.  Underground ducts placed in hillsides provide air conditioning for their hospital, and photovoltaic cells on rooftops provide electricity.  They built windmills that are light enough to catch the gentle equatorial breezes but strong enough to withstand the occasional gale wind.  By attaching water pumps to seesaws, they have harnessed the joyful energy of children’s play. Their inventions have been so ingenious that many of them were sold in Bogota, the capital of Columbia.  Solar collectors designed by Gaviotans were placed not only on the presidential palace, but also “atop… apartments, convents, orphanages, and on the brick edifices of Botota’s 30,000 inhabitant Cuidad Tunal, the largest public housing complex in the world to use only solar energy to heat its water.” [vxi].

Visitors to Gaviotas have been moved by the ingenuity of its technological innovations. Even more, they have been deeply touched by the unusual sense of harmony they observed amongst inhabitants. In his book on Gaviotas, Alan Weisman describes the impression the community made on Dr. Gustavo Yepes, the director of music at Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes: “The people of Gaviotas collectively exuded a quality so novel that Yepes wasn’t sure he’d seen it before – but once encountered, it was unmistakable: they were happy. They rose before dawn, worked hard and productively, ate simply but well, and were peaceful.”[xvii]

The story of Gonzalo and Cecilia Bernal and their son Juan David, offers a beautiful illustration of the deep sense of camaraderie that prevails amongst Gaviotans. Juan David was born with a brain lesion, resulting in damage to his left eye and ear. He walked with a pronounced limp and had little use of his left arm. Even simple physical activities were difficult for him. When at age ten he was given a bicycle, he was unable to ride it despite repeated attempts. A doctor’s assessment that he would never be able to ride one left him feeling miserable. At a certain point, the Bernals felt they needed to leave Gaviotas in order to have access to more sophisticated medical rehabilitation facilities for their son.

Once ensconced in the suburbs of Bogota, the Bernals missed life in the community terribly. Describing the difficulties their son faced in his new environment, Weisman writes, “The cruelty he endured at school because of his limp and curled left arm would be unthinkable at Gaviotas, where the only friction he’d inspired among the children was over who got to babysit him next.”[xviii]   After several years away, the Bernals finally realized that life would ultimately be better for Juan David back in Gaviotas. When their son was 13 years old, they decided to return. Two days after they were back, Gonzalo was talking with a friend outside a factory. He heard the shouts of children and looked up to catch sight of something which brought tears to his eyes. “The ecstatic boy with curly brown hair pedaling across the plain, leading the pack of cheering Gaviotas kids who had taught him how was [Juan David].”[xix]

Regarding the enormous potential value of what the community has to offer, Gaviotan founder Paolo Lugari comments:

There are two hundred-fifty million hectares of savannas in South America alone. There’s Africa. The tropical Orient. Places where there’s space and sun and water. If we show the world how to plant in them sustainable forests, we can give people productive lives and maybe absorb enough carbon dioxide to stabilize global warming in the process. This is a gift we can give the world that’s just as important as our sleeve pumps and solar water purifiers. Everywhere else they’re tearing down rain forests. We’re showing how to put them back.[xx]

Lugari has been intimately involved in the community from its inception. Asked what would happen when he is no longer there, he responded:

The Gaviotas Foundation is what really runs things in Gaviotas now. The place runs much better when I am not there. There are lots of people involved in Gaviotas. Several generations of people work there now and will keep it going. Gaviotas is a state of mind, more than anything. It is not really so much a place. It’s a way of living and thinking. It means not just thinking outside the box, but constant innovation and re-invention. For one problem there are ten solutions. In any crisis, there is an opportunity to try out any or all solutions.[xxi]

The Gaviotan community is a splendid example of a comprehensive experiment in which technology, the economy, and governing principles all function to support the ideals and aspirations of the residents, nurturing their inner growth and development. Living according to their ideals, relatively free from the domination of vital desire and the inertia of the physical consciousness, their imagination is set free. When the imagination, intellect, emotions and body act in harmony, a greater flexibility and creativity is the natural result.[6]  The abundant creativity manifest in both the technological inventions and in the everyday lives of Gaviotans testifies to the plasticity of their consciousness as well as their ability to generate an “authentic culture,” one relatively free of the limiting karmic tendencies associated with the falsified culture of the consensus trance.

While the stated aims of the community do not include explicit mention of “spirituality,” clearly, many qualities of the Soul shine through the life in Gaviotas:  the beauty of the environment they created and even the machines they designed; the joy and peace which permeates their daily affairs; the powerful sense of fraternity amongst members of the community; the awareness of being part of a process that is larger than any individual resident. This is a lovely demonstration of the yogic understanding that when the aspiration of the Soul is no longer co-opted by the desires and greed of the untransformed surface consciousness, peace of mind and gentleness of heart are the natural result. The peace of mind and gentleness of heart that can flower when living in harmony with one’s highest ideals is considered by yogis to be one of the essential prerequisites for spiritual awakening.

Opening to the Light of the Collective Soul – Some Examples of Spiritual Zones of Evolution

[A] society which was even initially spiritualised would make the revealing and finding of the divine Self in man the supreme, even the guiding aim of all its activities, its education, its knowledge, its science, its ethics, its art, its economical and political structure… It would regard the peoples as group-souls, the Divinity concealed and to be self-discovered in its human collectivities, group-souls meant like the individual to grow according to their own nature and by that growth to help each other, to help the whole race in the one common work of humanity. And that work would be to find the divine Self in the individual and the collectivity and to realise spiritually, mentally, vitally, materially its greatest, largest, richest and deepest possibilities in the inner life of all and their outer action and nature. [xxii]

                                                                                                Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle

David Korten, Vandana Shiva and Nicanor Perlas have observed that an increasing number of people are becoming aware of the materialistic values which shape the culture in which we live. They also describe a corresponding aspiration for the development of an authentic culture, one that would reflect our deeper human values. Beyond this, we can see signs of a still more profound awakening – the growing awareness of what might be called evolutionary consciousness – that is, the recognition that we are part of a larger unfolding spiritual process. With this recognition, our engagement with the world undergoes a profound shift. Rather than struggling to create change, our task becomes one of attuning ourselves to that spiritual process, discerning as best we can the  “music” we are called to play as instruments of the Divine “super-orchestra”[xxiii] of the cosmos.

There are, throughout the world, a growing number of individuals and groups whose work reflects this awareness of their role in the larger evolutionary process. We’ll look at several which draw on the yoga tradition of India for their core inspiration, but which are not confined to a particular religious tradition.

Sarvodaya – The Awakening of All

We build the road and the road builds us.

Saying of the Sarvodaya Movement

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka was founded in 1958 by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. During that year, a group of Sri Lankan college teachers and high school students chose to spend their vacation living in a poor rural village to give them first-hand knowledge of the conditions afflicting a significant portion of the country’s population. The visitors set up a work camp, and helped village residents to “dig wells, build latrines, plant gardens, repair the school and build a place for ‘religious worship.’”[xxiv] The camp was a great success, and became the model for what Ariyaratne later called the “shramadana camp.”  “Shramadana” means the “gifting or the voluntary sharing of one’s labor and resources for the awakening of oneself and others.”[xxv] Since 1958, over 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka have participated in shramadana camps and become part of the national Sarvodaya movement. Dr. Ariyaratne adopted the word from Mahatma Ghandi, translating it to mean “the awakening of all.”[xxvi]

The goals of the Sarvodaya movement are explicitly spiritual. Its efforts toward economic and political development of poor rural villages are ultimately intended to serve the more far-reaching goal of the evolution of consciousness. Describing the priorities of Sarvodaya, George Bond, a long time student of Buddhist activism in Sri Lanka, writes:

Real development facilitates human awakening rather than increasing the GNP or the industrialization of the country… Rather than seeking economic growth, Sarvodaya seeks ‘right livelihood’… Right livelihood stresses harmony and the quality of life rather than ambition and working for profit only.[xxvii]

The method of the movement has been to go into various villages and organize a shramadana camp in which all residents participate – from children under five to the village elders. They decide together what needs to be done, and work together on such activities as building roads, digging wells for clean water, planting trees, and creating schools and new health facilities. During a work camp, they come together three times a day, meditating on loving kindness, singing songs, or dancing – all with the aim of bringing out a deep spiritual awareness of working together as one. Members of different religions – including Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus – all participate in these sacred activities.

For Sarvodaya, cultivating the “right modes of mind”[xxviii] is considered every bit as important as selfless giving of one’s labor. Adopting the ancient Indian practice of the “Brahma Viharas,”[7] they focus on the meditative development of four particular states of mind: loving-kindness (cultivating a deep aspiration for a particular individual or group of individuals to be free from fear, greed, sorrow and other causes of suffering); compassion (identifying with others’ suffering as if it were one’s own); rejoicing in others’ good fortune; and equanimity (the recognition that no one person is more special than another, that all are interconnected because ultimately there is no separate self). The goal is to build what Dr. Ariyaratne refers to as a “no poverty/no affluence”[xxix] society where the well-being of all is ensured, and the ultimate goal is spiritual awakening.

Once an infrastructure has been set up to meet the basic needs of a village, village members can incorporate as a formal Sarvodaya Shramadana society. They can further choose to link up with other villages in clusters of ten, and if they choose, network at regional and national levels as well. Control always remains with the local village, but networking allows for a greater sharing of resources. The movement is currently focusing on incorporating modern technology, and to that end is developing telecenters which link electronically the many thousands of Sarvodaya villages.

Sri Lanka has endured many years of violent civil war, and the Sarvodaya movement has had to make many accommodations. They have set up refugee camps to help Tamil separatists, and created the “People’s Participatory Peace Program,” which organizes peace seminars, conferences, peace camps and meditation walks. Over 100,000 people have taken part in mass meditation programs and walks, the longest walk spanning 81 miles between the sacred city of Kandy and the ancient sacred capital of Anuradhapura. On October 3rd, 2005, the movement “was awarded the United Nations’ highest prize in the field of human settlement and shelter… [and] was recognized for its development work in villages with particular regard to its massive post-Tsunami reconstruction work.”[xxx]

Though developed on the basis of Buddhist values, the Sarvodaya movement emphasizes the spiritual unity underlying all religions. Dr. Ariyaratne believes that

 what is most important… in religion is not its historical, political or ritualistic aspects. These are all secondary…what is most important is the essence of religion, which is spirituality… whatever one may call it, cosmic consciousness, or universal mindfulness.[xxxi]

Ariyaratne frequently describes the goal of Sarvodaya as creating “a critical mass of spiritual consciousness”[xxxii] which will eventually transform the world. As Bond describes Ariyaratne’s view,

transforming the consciousness of individuals and communities toward compassion and peace represents an essential step toward building a just and peaceful world.[xxxiii]

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

We believe that [contemplative] practices offer insights that illuminate the central issues of our time, leading us to cultivate a wise, compassionate, meaningful life.[xxxiv]

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (CMS) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring contemplative practice into mainstream institutional life. According to co-founder Mirabai Bush, CMS began in the mid-1990s “as a conversation about the relationship between contemplative practices and social change, and the relationship between individual and social transformation.”[xxxv] Over the past eight years CMS has have established workshops, retreats and long-term programs in such major institutions as the Yale and Columbia Law Schools, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Monsanto Corporation, and Searle Pharmaceuticals. According to Bush, CMS chose initially to target mainstream institutions because their values have such a profound and pervasive influence in our lives.

CMS has created programs to address the needs of individuals in a variety of fields – lawyers, prisoners, social activists, community organizers, and others. Their Social Justice Program brings contemplative practices to activists engaged in working to create outer change. By helping them to meet conflict and opposition with a quiet mind and open heart, the activists gain a new perspective, find a deeper source of motivation, and learn to create healthier working and living environments which reflect the deeper values of mindfulness and compassion. The Law Program engages judges, lawyers, law professors and students in ongoing dialogue and contemplative practice to help them “reconnect with their deepest values and intentions.”[xxxvi] One of the outgrowths of this program has been support for the creation of the Network of Contemplative Prison Programs. CMS has also served as an advisor to people such as Chancellor David Scott, who is initiating a program on contemplative studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Some social activists have expressed a concern about the wisdom of incorporating contemplative practices in their work. In part, this stems from the fear that without anger, they will not have the motivation to work as vigorously for their cause. However, they’re also concerned that the CMS project of teaching corporate executives to meditate may simply give them more peace of mind as they continue to pursue profit at the expense of the health and welfare of human beings and the environment.

In an interview published in Tricycle Magazine, Mirabai Bush describes the conflict she faced in arranging the Center’s first retreat with the chemical company Monsanto:

 Monsanto was a big challenge for me personally, because I had spent the previous ten years working in sustainable agriculture with Mayan people in Guatemala. At that point [Monsanto’s] main product was Round-Up, the largest-selling herbicide in the world. It had been used extensively in Guatemala, where the heart of my work was the recovery of land that had been destroyed by chemicals. I believed that Round-Up had contributed to destroying the land, to the hunger and poverty that the Mayan people were living in.[xxxvii]

In helping to develop the Monsanto retreat, Bush saw her greatest challenge as letting go of her judgment without in any way forfeiting her own values.[8] After the retreat was over, Bush answered the question as to whether they had done nothing more than help Monsanto employees lower their stress level and be more comfortable pursuing the same destructive behavior:

When the practice is held in a safe space, and is taught with the best intention, insight, wisdom and compassion can increase. Over and over I’ve seen people have moments of awakening about their lives. It’s not like, ‘Oh, Monsanto is making chemicals, I don’t think that’s good anymore.’ … It’s people beginning to see that there is a process of awakening and they can begin to cultivate a different kind of awareness.[xxxviii]

Bush recounts an experience she had on the retreat while CMS teacher Steve Smith was conducting a loving-kindness meditation. The practice involves extending a deep feeling of kindness and goodwill, first to oneself, then expanding it outward, eventually including all living creatures. She observed that after several days of contemplative practice, the executives were open enough to be deeply affected by the meditation:

We hadn’t talked about sustainable agriculture or product mix; the executives hadn’t explained why they thought Round-Up was good for the planet. I opened my eyes in the middle of the meditation as Steve was talking about these different species, and I looked around the room and saw tears rolling down the cheeks of many people there.[xxxix]

The Samatha Project – A Manhattan Project for the Study of Consciousness

 At the beginning of the 21st century humanity is poised for a revolution in our understanding of consciousness, as the… modes of inquiry of the contemplative traditions of the world are integrated with the… methods of modern science.[xl]

B. Alan Wallace is a scholar of comparative religion, teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and translator for the Dalai Lama. Deeply influenced by a Christian upbringing, yet strongly drawn to the natural sciences, as an adolescent Wallace felt compelled to find some way of bridging the apparently incompatible worldviews underlying science and religion. During his junior year abroad at the University of Göttingen, Wallace happened upon a book on Tibetan Buddhism which so moved him that he dropped all his courses to focus exclusively on learning the Tibetan language.

Further reading convinced him that within the wide diversity of world religions, “there is a profound convergence at the deepest level of mystical experience, [one that points us toward] the most important reality human beings can realize.” Within a year, he had sold all of his possessions that would not fit in his backpack and headed east to Dharmasala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual community. He spent the next 14 years immersed in the meditative and philosophical tradition of Tibet, including five years of solitary contemplative retreats in Tibetan monasteries in Switzerland.

Having found in Tibetan Buddhism a way to integrate spiritual practice with rigorous intellectual inquiry, Wallace now sought an integration of East and West. In 1984, he decided to return to the United States to pursue a degree in physics in order to gain a better understanding of the worldview represented by modern science. He later studied cognitive science and philosophy of mind, and completed a doctoral program in religious studies at Stanford University. “To be able to have all of these in one container, all of these in communication with each other, all enhancing and complementing each other—that’s what I’ve sought since returning to [the West].”

Based on his own contemplative experience and research he conducted with cognitive scientists on the effect of contemplative practice on the brain, body and emotions, he was convinced of the enormous potential of such practice to effect a powerful and positive change in human nature.

One way the contemplative traditions can be of benefit in this regard is to help us recognize that there are things that we can do as individuals to address the various forms of suffering we experience. We can train the mind. We can develop new habits. We can gain experiential insights… In so doing, we can transform the mind in a way that is empowering and ennobling to the human individual.[xli]

However, in order to realize this potential, Wallace came to believe that a large-scale research project on the nature of consciousness would be required – one much like the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. His vision is of “a concerted, collaborative effort on the part of professional cognitive scientists and professional contemplatives, using their combined extraspective and introspective skills to tackle the hard problem of consciousness.”

The Samatha Project is intended to be a small-scale model for such a large-scale possibility. As a foundation for the Project, Wallace helped to establish the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Institute aims to conduct research that will explore the potentials of the mind more fully than has ever before been done, using an integration of scientific and contemplative methodologies. Research will focus on

the cultivation of human flourishing and genuine happiness through exceptional mental health and balance, bringing the physical and psychological benefits of training awareness to ever-broader segments of the population and all areas of life.[xlii]

The Samatha Project will be initiated in September 2006, with thirty individuals beginning a one-year residential retreat during which, for 8 to 10 hours each day, they will

undergo a kind of ‘Olympic training’ of the mind[that]will center on mindfulness of breath; settling the mind in its natural state, observing mental events without distraction or grasping; and resting the attention in pure awareness with no specific object of meditation.[xliii]

As part of the project, neuroscientists will use sophisticated brain scanning instruments to “find out which parts of the brain are activated when people enter into these states of refined attention.”[xliv] State-of-the-art EEG research methodology will be used to measure brain wave activity. And cognitive psychologists will use complex psychological tests and measures to determine the level of attentional and emotional balance achieved by retreatants over the course of the retreat.

Whereas the training of Olympic athletes aims for physical excellence, the goal of the Samatha Project is the attainment of what Wallace calls “mental excellence.” Just as research conducted on athletes has provided valuable information on diet, exercise and motivation that is relevant to the general population, Wallace anticipates that the findings of the Samatha Project will similarly yield broad insights that will prove useful in the treatment of a wide range of psychological disorders, both cognitive and emotional.

He further expects that ways will be discovered to help people refine and direct their attention which will be applicable in other areas, such as business, education and interpersonal relationships, where attentional skills, mindfulness and empathy all play an important role.While acknowledging that many claims regarding the efficacy of meditative techniques have been made in the past, Wallace suggests that when subjected to intensely rigorous study, “it may turn out that there are potentials of consciousness that the contemplative traditions have been unveiling for centuries, for millennia, about which the modern scientific tradition knows nothing.”

Wallace foresees a number of potential long-term outcomes of the Samatha Project. He imagines that professionals in various fields (neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, etc.) will one day choose to undergo a post-doctoral program of intensive contemplative training. In addition, he anticipates the creation of a new vocation – the professional contemplative – who will devote years to sustained contemplative training, perhaps become a specialist in disciplines such as contemplative inquiry, the honing of attention, lucid dreaming, or cultivation of the heart, and who will be available to collaborate on research projects with natural scientists all over the world.

Reflecting on the larger context of such a training program, Wallace compares the present era to that of the 6th Century BCE when there were a series of cultural revolutions occurring around the same time in China, India, Greece and elsewhere. He suggests we may now be entering into a new, global cultural revolution

 as we see the great traditions of the East and the West coming into contact with an attitude of mutual respect, mutual appreciation, and an eagerness to seek out the nature of reality with an open mind. We may be on the verge of a tremendous transition here. Not only could it unveil marvelous discoveries that will be of tremendous interest, great fascination, but it may also bring pragmatic benefits that may yield dividends for humanity as a whole. With the collaboration of the contemplative and the scientific, we may be moving towards a scientific revolution that will dwarf anything since Galileo.[xlv]

Creating Zones of Evolution Wherever We Are

The evolutionary process – the awakening of the Soul and the transformation of the Field – is occurring throughout the universe in each moment. Recognizing this, we don’t need to travel to Sri Lanka or Santa Barbara to bring about change in our own community. How might one start working toward awakening and transformation at a collective level in a typical modern town or city filled with people living stressful, busy lives, who have little or no interest in contemplative practice?

The modern world is so focused on “doing” and achieving measurable practical results, we may feel that unless we are engaged in a vast Sarvodaya-like project, we will not be making an appreciable contribution to collective spiritual awakening. But each person has a unique role to play. Perhaps we are called to do no more than engage in inner practice, carrying whatever equanimity and insight we gain through that practice into our work and relationships. Perhaps no one will even know we have an interest in spirituality. Yet in some way we may not understand, we would be making a contribution to the whole.

For example, a friend or some people at work will one day ask us for a suggestion about dealing with pain or depression. Without the pride of being a “helper,” we can share what we’ve learned from our inner practice, and this might make a difference for them. In addition, by staying receptive, attempting to tune in to the ongoing evolutionary process, we may get intimations of how we can further share our experience in ways we might not previously have considered.

Or, we may find ourselves taking a more formal role in bringing contemplative practice into a community. Along the lines of CMS, we may be invited into an institution, or a particular department within our current workplace, to introduce people to contemplative practice, giving them a sense of what it can bring into their work, their relationships with co-workers, and even into their lives as individuals.

We might find interested individuals in a particular department of a large institution – say, the oncology ward of a city hospital. Working with a few doctors, nurses and other staff to develop classes, retreats or an ongoing program, interest might be generated in other departments as well. If these are successful, the hospital might be interested in training the whole management staff so they can begin to bring similar programs into each of their respective departments. The fruits of such an endeavor might then be shared with other hospitals within the community, creating a new sense of collaboration and shared purpose. Going still further, classes and programs might be designed for different kinds of institutions, linking schools, businesses, the media, government agencies, places of worship, arts establishments, etc. If this kind of linking were to take place, a larger cultural shift might begin to occur throughout the community, awakening a sense amongst residents of participating in a collective evolutionary process.[9]

One might imagine a wide range of variability in the nature and progression of such zones of evolution. In many communities, it may be that individuals interested in spiritual practice act simply as silent carriers of the flame of awakening. In what would likely be fewer communities, one might find a contagion of the Spirit, where a conscious interlinking of various institutions might take off at a surprising rate.

Therapist and writer Arjuna Ardagh, over the course of a number of years, conducted more than 150 interviews with such prominent meditation teachers as Jack Kornfield, Ekhart Tolle and Joseph Goldstein.[xlvi] All concur that a growing number of their students report having experienced an inner awakening of some kind. Such individuals are as likely to be executives in large corporations as they are volunteers for environmental advocacy groups. Often, after having had a taste of something deeper, these individuals find it hard to reconcile their emerging inner experience with a culture that does not reflect their aspiration or new values. Creating community-based contemplative resources – whether a small center offering classes or a community-wide initiative – could help people feel less alone, and support their efforts to integrate their new sensibilities with the activities of their daily lives.

What might become possible when a number of people within a community develop an interest in working at a deeper level?

Imagining Collective Practice at a Deeper Level – A Sketch of a 10-Day Retreat

Imagine that a small business has spent several years integrating contemplative practice into its workplace. They’ve developed and refined their ability to identify the karmic knots that arise between them and to work through, in a relatively calm manner, the obstacles these knots present. The atmosphere has grown more harmonious, and the business has become more effective. Recognizing how valuable contemplative practice has been not only to their work together but to their individual lives beyond the workplace, a general feeling has grown amongst both management and staff that they would like to take some step that would help deepen their experience. They decide to arrange to have small groups of employees take time off for a 10-day contemplative retreat.

A small retreat center in a pastoral setting that caters to small contemplative groups provides an atmosphere of peace and calm. The swans and geese gliding gently over the surface of the lake outside the meeting room window add to the sense of tranquility. Retreatants spend the first two days in silence, establishing a stable inner calm.

On the third day, a facilitator helps them bring to the surface some of the deeper karmic knots with which they’ve been dealing. Having had several years of contemplative practice in bringing an inner quiet to this process, they felt well-prepared to participate in this exercise, exploring difficult issues together with calm and equanimity.

In the course of the third and fourth days, they learn to bring an increasingly intuitive awareness to these issues, seeing the layers of conscious and subconscient physical, vital and mental energies that are entangled in the karmic knots. They see how their individual karmic patterns have been interwoven with those of the group, as well as with those of the larger cultural matrix in which they live. As they begin to sense the greater subtle energies at play, remaining open to what emerges, their hearts soften.

As seems appropriate throughout the day, they engage in group dialogue interwoven with silent contemplation. Their facilitator skillfully guides them to remain attentive to the soft voice of the soul and the deeper Silence behind while they interact and talk through their various issues.[xlvii] Staying connected to the depths within, they begin to sense the deeper movements of the Soul that are seeking to emerge, as well as the process by which these movements become distorted by desire, attachment and ego. Staying connected to the Silence, they begin to become aware, as a group, of a greater Force sustaining and guiding them, filling the atmosphere with a palpable sense of peace.

During the final days of the retreat, they begin to engage in more outer-directed activities – helping with meal preparation, gardening, and building projects for the retreat center. This will help to make the transition back to their busy lives a gentler one, giving them the opportunity to practice maintaining inner Silence while engaged in outer activity. On the last two evenings, they develop support structures to help sustain the process of transformative dialogue they have begun. They work out ways to create a pause in the midst of their work, and to conduct meetings in such a way that these times become further opportunities for awakening and transformation. They decide to set aside two days each month as partial retreats – what Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “days of mindfulness.” On these days they would take a half hour every few hours to meditate or dialogue, being mindful in the intervening times to stay inwardly connected, maintaining a sense of Presence as they speak, move, and work.


Suppose a few organizations in various locations were actually to embark upon some kind of transformational process. It might seem that it would take decades before any kind of substantial change could be felt at the national or international level. With the world in such dire need of change, what possibility of survival would there be if this slow, long-term process of transformation our only hope?

Transformation Seen from the Inner Consciousness 

 Living in a culture pervaded by the view from nowhere, it is difficult to avoid thinking that the only way to gauge the effect of spiritual practice on the outer world is in terms of changes we can see. Though scoffed at by modern rationalist thought, spiritual traditions the world over have known by means of direct perception that there are greater forces at play and greater changes taking place than those we can perceive with the outer mind and senses. We may think, for example, that wars are caused by disputes the occur over territory or oil, or by a hostile act one nation takes against another. But as Sri Krishna Prem writes:

It is in the inner worlds of desire that wars originate, and from those inner worlds that they are maintained. What we see as wars upon this physical plane are but the shadows of those inner struggles, a ghastly phantom show, bodying forth events that have already taken place in the inner world, dead ash marking the destructive path of the forest fire, the troubled and unalterable wake of a ship whose prow is cleaving the waters far ahead. In war or peace we live in a world of shadows cast by events that we term ‘future’, because, unseen by us as they really happen, we only know them when we come across their wake upon this plane.[xlviii]

According to yoga psychology, the changes we see in the outer world are only a reflection of changes that have been set in motion in the vaster realm of the inner consciousness. A powerful transformative Force is already at work on the subtle planes. More powerful even than the collective aspiration of humanity is the Will of the Silent Knower working through every heart, dynamically active in every atom of the universe. By aligning our individual aspiration with the Divine Will, we can collaborate with this inner process of transformation. In the words of Sri Aurobindo,

[When we] realise in our experience the truth of the [statement in the Isha Upanishad], ‘what bewilderment can he have or what grief, when in all things he sees their oneness?” the whole world then appears to us in a changed aspect, as an ocean of beauty, good, light, bliss, exultant movement on a basis of eternal strength and peace… We become one in soul with all beings… and, having steadfastly this experience, are able by contact, by oneness, by the reaching out of love, to communicate it to others, so that we become a center of the radiation of this divine state… throughout our world.[xlix]

[1] Just as the term “subconscient” refers to levels of consciousness below the level of our waking awareness, the “superconscient” refers to levels above. These are both relative terms – for example, for a plant, the mental is superconscient.

[2]   Ordinarily, when people refer to the soul of a nation, or the consciousness of a culture, they intend it to be taken metaphorically. From the perspective of yoga psychology, there are actually collective “fields” of consciousness which have an existence and integrity of their own, beyond the combined consciousness of the individuals who make up the group at any given moment in time.

[3] i.e., egoic

[4] This doesn’t mean we’re suggesting that everyone retire to become full-time meditators. If the inner change is genuine and integral, it will automatically express itself in the form of outer change. The two – inner and outer change – occur simultaneously, and are in fact two aspects of one process.

[5]“Possible,” that is, for an enlightened being. A bit more difficult for the rest of us.

[6] Neuroscientists speak of this as  “neuroplasticity” – the capacity of the brain to create new synaptic connections.

[7]  Literally, “abiding in the Brahman,” i.e., abiding in the Consciousness of the Infinite Knower.

[8] This does not mean, as we understand it, that she abandoned her capacity for ethical discernment. She did not change her assessment regarding the destructive effect of Monsanto’s use of Round-Up in Guatemala. Non-judgment, in this instance, refers to the capacity to balance exacting ethical discernment with an inner quietude, while remaining open to the promptings of the Soul.

[9] Though they might not specifically articulate their view of it as being part of a “collective evolutionary process”!


[i] Havel, V., in Cappas, W., Interpreting Vaclev Havel, at

[ii] Arias, O., Peace in Their Time? At

[iii] Hartmann, T., The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, p. 1.

[iv] United Nations 1998 Human Development Report, in Elgin, D., Promise Ahead, pp. 126-127.

[v] Arias, O., Speech at Hunter College, April 20,1999. See

[vi] Korten, Perlas & Shiva, Global Civil Society: The Path Ahead, at

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]  World Values Survey, 1990-1991, in Elgin, D., Promise Ahead, p. 83.

[ix] Paul Ray makes this distinction in his reference to “Cultural Creatives” vs. “Core Cultural Creatives.”  See Ray, P., & Anderson, S., The Cultural Creatives.

[x] Information on Ithaca Hours from

[xi]  Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Glover, P., Grassroots Economics, at

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Lugari, P., in Weisman, A., Oasis of the Imagination, at

[xvi] Weisman, A., Gaviotas, p. 7.

[xvii]  Ibid., p. 8.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 164.

[xix] Ibid., p. 165.

[xx]  Lugari, P., in Weisman, A., Gaviotas, p. 175.

[xxi] Lugari, P., Dialogue on Innovation and Perseverance, at

[xxii]  Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, p. 256

[xxiii] Wan-Ho, M., The Organic Revolution in Science

[xxiv] Bond, G., Buddhism at Work, p. 7.

[xxv] The Hunger Project Website,

[xxvi] Bond, G., Buddhism at Work, p. 2.

[xxvii] Bond, G., in Hoang, D., A Buddhist Socioeconomic System, at

[xxviii] Hoang, D., A Buddhist Socioeconomic System, at

[xxix] Ariyaratne, A. T., at

[xxxi] Ariyaratne, A.T., in Bond, G., Buddhism at Work, p. 29.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Bond, G., Buddhism at Work, p. 29.

[xxxiv] Description of aims of CMS, at

[xxxv] Bush, M., Interview with Mirabai Bush,

[xxxvi] Description of aims of CMS, at

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl]  See Santa Barbara Institute website, at

[xli] An Interview of Alan Wallace, by Tom McFarlane, at

[xlii] Opening page of Santa Barbara Institute, at

[xliii] Alan Wallace, in Buddhadharma Journal, Fall 2004; Interview with Jeff Pardy.

[xliv] An Interview of Alan Wallace, by Tom McFarlane, at

[xlv]  Ibid.

[xlvi] See Ardagh, A., The Translucent Revolution.

[xlvii] Insight meditation teacher Greg Kramer has developed an excellent practice to help people learn to integrate meditative awareness with dialogue, which he calls “Insight Dialogue.”  For more information on this practice, see

[xlviii] Prem, Sri Krishna, Initiation Into Yoga, p. 107.

[xlix] Sri Aurobindo, Essays on Philosophy and Yoga, pp. 77-78.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.