13. It's that Vision Thing
Eccentrics, artists, poets, dissidents, madmen, saints, visionaries and philosophers, as visionaries, bear much of the pressure of the collective superconscious and give it outward expression. Occasionally, one such person becomes installed in a position of power – Mahatma Gandhi, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Chabi (first wife to Kublai Khan), Vaclav Havel, Madame du Barry or William Ewart Gladstone provide ample examples. The difficulty here is that it is rare for idealists in power to keep their hands clean.
The superconscious (as well as the unconscious) is also often expressed in the largely unrecorded pathos of women, children and victims in response to life's ruthless cruelties. Many of their feelings are felt by them on behalf of us all – the people who, relatively speaking, shut out or ignore empathically-oriented social feeling-tones, so busy are we doing other things.
The superconscious also exudes into the public and geopolitical domain through the influence of women's feelings upon men of power: the superpower rapprochement of the late 1980s was certainly influenced by Nancy Reagan, her astrologer and by Raisa Gorbachev. The superconscious surfaces also through piercing social questioning expressed by young people and their subcultures. Music, literature, films, cults and social preoccupations all draw on humanity's superconscious, and at times this can be definitive.
Women, youngsters, sensitives and society's seers nowadays play a similar humanising and sensitising role to that which religion once played – meanwhile religion, as a political force, has become relatively hardened and ideological through the efforts of fundamentalists of all persuasions, especially Christian. Similarly, the elders of our societies today tend to align with conservative elements – with notable exceptions – thus forfeiting their archetypal enlightening and enwisening humanistic impact. The demotion of elders into pensioners – just like the much earlier demotion of women into wives – is one of the greater losses humanity has suffered in recent times.
Visionaries and sensitives need not be enlightened or even spiritually-motivated. They do however need to have a capacity to draw on and elucidate the profounder, deeper impulses in the collective psyche. Sometimes their messages are noted and openly debated in society – John Maynard Keynes, Satchmo, Lech Walesa, Andy Warhol and Nelson Mandela have all spoken for something larger than themselves and wider than any personal agenda they might hold.
Sometimes visionary messages work semi-visibly, fermenting in the collective unconscious and backstreets of society, finding variegated indirect expression amongst minorities yet nevertheless having historic effect – the Renaissance religious movements, the Suffragettes, the Rochdale Pioneers (founders of the British Victorian workers' cooperative movement), the Sufis, the Freemasons and all manner of other subcultures and networks have played their part in sculpting history.
Even common aphorisms hold much wisdom: 'many hands make light work' or 'love thy neighbour as thyself', commonly swill around in the public psyche, though the full import of such statements is often forgotten. However, at times, deeper background undercurrents burst out into general view.
The superconscious vision which erupted during the Summer of Love in 1967 had a big historical impact which is yet to show its full colours. A sure sign of this was the extent to which this common vision was intentionally undermined and suppressed in an onslaught of media scepticism, legislation, police activity, bad news and unsympathetic social conservatism during the 1970s. It was rationalised away as a meaningless and immature phenomenon which died with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon and Jim Morrison – of no great historic or cultural worth.
Yet this visionary dispensation and its initial expressions, kept alive by minorities and quietly held by millions throughout the disturbingly backward-facing 1970s and 80s, slowly re-emerged into the public domain like weeds growing in the gaps of a sidewalk. Pressure groups, health food stores, complementary health centres, green and alternative research and campaign organisations, new, transplanted and revived spiritual practices and empowerment-oriented business ideas increasingly permeated society and infused surreptitiously-changing values into the body social, as the youngsters of the Sixties became the middle-aged power-holders of the Nineties. The full outcome of the Summer of Love is yet to come – it will probably be appreciated more in 2060 than 1995.
The uplift-impulse of the 1960s gave lift-off to many new phenomena, from new breakthroughs in genetic research and microchip technology through to additive-free foods, electronic music, deep changes in marital and family patterns and a revolution in ideas applied to most areas of life. The Renaissance 500 years earlier gained a similar officially-droll and disdaining response at the time. Yet the seeds planted and germinated at times like these affect life generations and centuries later.
Sometimes visionaries and creative source-people are officially (or nowadays commercially) sponsored to explore their talents. This happens at times when people feel relatively secure and 'on a roll' after emerging from insecure times of change – such was the case at the Mongol courts of Genghiz, Möngka and Kublai Khan, and at the Baghdad court of the Abbasid caliph Harun al Rashid – a contemporary of Charlemagne, who was also a major patron of culture. When visionaries find patronage, remarkable developments take place, since a combination of high-up interest, capital and facilities, scholarly interchange and cultural upswing make for a rich ferment which is officially sanctioned.
Sometimes visionaries and creators are tolerated (as were Shakespeare, Marx or Socrates) and sometimes suppressed (as were Muhammad the Prophet, Jeanne d'Arc, Martin Luther King or John the Baptist) – which option occurs depends greatly on the openness of society at any time. Openness, inclusivity, interest in the new and in expansive horizons tend unfortunately to be shorter-lived than conservatism and suppression, though their impact can go much further than their duration.
Many opposition movements or subversive ideas do not initially set out to be oppositional or subversive – they usually reflect a simple wish for change, the arising new impulses or the correction of injustices. Yet reactionary resistance and official suppression render them into opposition movements, traitorous positions and subversive activities.
When visionaries act as a subversive force – Jesus the Nazarene was one – they pointedly expose to people a deep choice between going along with authoritarian systems or following their hearts. However, since their aim is not usually specifically to oppose the status quo, only to bring new inputs into society, intolerance toward them reinforces human misunderstanding, often compounding social difficulty for a long time to come or accentuating the problem for later resolution. Many are the noble ideas and movements which have suffered undue disdain or dismissal, and many are the possibilities which have not achieved their potential, due to misunderstanding.
Visionaries do on occasions achieve historically-immediate results – the German Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses against Roman Catholic practices in 1517 clearly set the Reformation in motion, unleashing a pan-European social fermentation which occupied a whole century. If the message of visionaries is suppressed, it sometimes re-emerges later – Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement apparently failed in 1981, yet within ten years he was president of Poland and the old order was dead.
Many have been the creative thinkers who were not fully heard, though far more visionaries have lived completely unnoticed by the roving gaze of history, or they have achieved only posthumous respect. Some, such as the prophetess Mother Shipton, attained fame long after her life ended. Jesus the Nazarene experienced posthumous acclaim lasting so far nearly two millennia, though whether such popularity arose for reasons he himself would be proud of is a questionable matter.
If the time for an idea has come, it becomes accepted almost regardless of what established authorities say. The aptitude of authorities in responding determines their future survival. During such times individuals or movements stand up with a message which uncannily embodies the spirit of the time: without great need for explanation, persuasion or coercion, their utterances are immediately taken to be valid, poignant and true.
This was demonstrated by Mikhael Gorbachev in the late 1980s, whose proposals for liberalisation in USSR and for international disarmament and depolarisation were accepted with surprising ease. Few knew the man or had any conventional reason to believe him. A thorough shift of perspective resulted, penetrating every corner of the world.
The superconscious represents a far-sighted aspect of human awareness. Were humanity in good spiritual health, we would have regular recourse to it in major matters of governance, jurisprudence and social decision-making. Traditional Tibet, before the 1950s-60s Chinese invasion, made major decisions of state on the basis of the utterances of the Nechung and other highly-trained state oracles.
Some traditional cultures – such as the Celtic, West African and ancient Jewish cultures – gave special precedence to jesters, poets or prophets, to whom they listened with accentuated attention. Otherwise, a simple attitude of openness to the truth-speakers of society can achieve breakthroughs in history no amount of referenda, opinion polls and movements can equal.
The downfall of such wisdom in social affairs runs far back in history. Religions have played a major role in this tendency by institutionalising, controlling or marginalising truth-speakers or organs of truth in society. Specialised priesthoods became judicial arbiters, then progressing to acting as temporal ruling powers.
Then there came a polarisation between religious and secular institutions, each of which developed a vested interest in preserving their position and eliminating threats to their influence. Modern tendencies have moved toward complete secularisation (even if nominally espousing religious tradition) and subsequent marginalisation of spiritual and religious activity both to the backwaters of society and also into the sidings of the psyche.
Movements to reawaken spiritual awareness tend by nature to become social and political in effect, though few political regimes have encouraged and allowed this. In the case of the Hamas movement in Palestine, and other groups such as the Muslim Brothers of Egypt, religiously fundamentalist ideas have led to extensive social, educational and charitable activities in needy sectors of society. Fundamentalist Islam became a rallying-point for movements for change and for channelling youth restiveness, merging religious, social, political and self-help activities together.
Fundamentalist ferment did not sit well with the world's authorities – though it is a chicken-and-egg question as to whether terrorism caused this, or whether terrorism was caused by this. Terrorism does, after all, reflect the existence of people who do not feel heard and are prepared to risk their lives to say their message – sometimes clear, sometimes incomprehensible. But all this changed in the Arab revolutions from 2011 onwards, with Muslim Brothers becoming a new, relatively moderate force in comparison to more rigid salafist fundamentalists who sought to impose sharia law and establish a new Muslim caliphate - absolute rule, theocratically or doctrinally-based.
A notable example of spiritual and temporal power joining hands was the reign of the Mauryan rajah Ashoka in India, between 268 and 232 BCE. Ashoka, a warrior turned Buddhist, used Buddhist teachings to break the hold of the Vedic caste system and to set in motion a new social order. He combined deft actions favouring trade, agriculture, communications and towns while spreading moral and spiritual aphorisms and teachings as a core element of his political culture. He built rust-free iron pillars inscribed with wisdom-teachings all over India. He was popular, empowering and generally successful as a monarch.
After Ashoka's passing, history reversed this through the later reinstatement of Hindu traditions and social stratification and the elimination of Buddhism in India. However, this florescence of Buddhism gave it the impetus to transplant across Asia, even though its Indian home roots later withered. Other movements striving to achieve varieties of theocracy (rule by spiritual principles and institutions) have cropped up throughout history, with varying degrees of both sincerity and hypocrisy – the most recent attempt being the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Popes of medieval Europe tried hard to set up a pan-European theocracy, but kings, soldiers and later Protestant businessmen just wouldn't have it.
One of the big issues of our day thus concerns our relationship with the superconscious – the spirit of humanity. The spirit has the capacity to make things whole and move things forward. It restores love as a basic characteristic of life. It downloads new inspiration and genius. It heals hurts and changes contexts. It unites humanity.
No wonder that, in order to maintain today's status quo, spirituality must under all circumstances be drowned out, derided, marginalised, even pitied, in the public domain. Or it must be corrupted into the narrower argumentations of judgmental fundamentalist camps.
This can also suddenly change: in November 1995, Hindu temples the world over, for just one day, witnessed a miracle manifestation. Offerings of milk were visibly – even to sceptical news correspondents – being drunk by effigies of the god Ganesh. The initial media response, ranging from the 'fancy that' and the 'hoax' to the 'ignorant heathens' approach, changed to respect and resigned belief – no reporters or experts could find fault with the phenomenon. Even an Anglican bishop welcomed this Hindu miracle as a much-needed sign that religion still worked and needed to be seen to do so! Quite so.