Episode 37: Paul Ray – Co-Creating a New Wisdom Culture

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Coleman Barks (click on his name at right for Living Dialogues program), poet and leading American translator of the world-centric poet Rumi, has observed that “we are trying to create a civilization without elders to lead us”.  That is not to say that this new civilization – or wisdom culture – will be without elders, but as I take it, only that in these literally unprecedented 21st century times we must become our own elders.  Collectively we can do this by recognizing that only through mutually informing and respectful dialogue, between generations, between men and women, between different ethnicities, between different spiritual traditions and approaches, between private enterprise and government, etc. can we collaboratively bring forth a new wisdom culture.  To meet the demands of interpenetrating globalization, peak oil, and global warming, such a culture must be planetary in scope, capable of holding the exploding worldwide diversity in a larger creative and cooperative whole.  To do this, we also have to grow up, to mature beyond what Paul Ray in this dialogue describes as the narcissistic, self-centered adolescent economic model that currently dominates in many spheres.  We here elaborate on what I have said in many of these dialogues -- that we can do this by activating an energizing remembrance of a deeper felt sense of unity that is part of our collective past, together with the individual creativity and innovation of our modern mind, to co-create the new structures and content of a transformed culture.


To order a full transcript of this program you can contact me at my website: www.livingdialogues.com or at [email protected]. Many thanks again for your attentive deep listening in helping co-create this program. All the best, Duncan


Duncan Campbell: From time in memorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions, through the work of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo and quantum physicist David Bohm. Mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning, a dia flow of logos meaning beyond what any one individual can bring through alone.

So join us now as together with you the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.

Welcome to Living Dialogues. I’m your host Duncan Campbell and with me for this particular dialogue I’m truly delighted to have once again as my guest Paul Ray. Author with his wife Sherry Anderson of the ground breaking book The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World. Paul welcome once again here to Living Dialogues.

Paul Ray: Oh it’s so good to be back with you Duncan.

Duncan Campbell: It really is Paul. I’ve been deeply inspired by the work of you and Sherry as have I know many people. All of us yearning for similar kinds of transformations in the world and yet having many diverse paths to get there and different personal styles and so on. One of the things that I’ve come across since you and I last talked at the time of the publication of the paperback edition of your work was a quotation by our mutual friend Coleman Barks [sp] who said at one point that in observing the modern mind he feels that we are trying to invent a civilization without elders and that has never been tried before and in his own life, he is bringing through the spirit and the wisdom of the great Persian poet Rumi from the 13th century and he is as relevant we might say today perhaps even more so as he was then.

This is an example of how we are trying to call back in some kind of ancestral wisdom or  ancestral spirits into our present world and yet the problem remains that the modern culture in a sense is so fascinated with novelty and innovation and a certain kind of individualistic creativity that the honoring of elders, the honoring of tradition, the honoring of the old altogether is a problem. A problem of consciousness and it’s one that I think we all feel intuitively and yet it’s only together I think that we can find our way out of this and so perhaps we can talk about what you’ve been talking about in your own presentations around the country and around the world and that is how to create a true wisdom culture in our time.

Paul Ray: Well as it happens I am in the midst of writing a new book called Creating A Wisdom Culture, strange you should ask.

Duncan Campbell: It just in synchronicity I actually didn’t even know that.

Paul Ray: Yeah one of the key things about traditional cultures of course is that they are typically not literate so everything depends on memory and the elders are the keepers of wisdom. You can have really terrible traditions for elders where they’re the ones who remember every slight, every injustice, every bad thing that was ever done to us. That kind of elder we do not need. What we want are the keepers of wisdom is really to start developing a clear cut picture of what it is that the next culture after the commercial getting and spending, materialistic culture is let go of.

We’ve been on a very rapid economic and population growth path in the world for the last several hundred years and we got to have a leveling off of old population and we got to have a new pattern which is ecologically sustainable where you can have increasing levels of well being without using up the planet. That means the population growth has to slow, come to a stop, actually have fewer people after awhile so you have a population decline back to what’s sustainable for the long run either that or we’ll have a crash.

Part of that development is a development of a wise perspective which is a longer term perspective. One of the things the elders were really responsible for is getting past the adolescent pattern of reasoning that so dominant in Western culture today and taking a long term perspective and taking a perspective of what’s good for everybody’s children. The native American pattern used to say “Do what’s good for the seventh generation.” That’s a classic way of putting it, but there’s lot of wisdom themes about what’s the wisdom needed for our time. It’s probably going to be a new wisdom. It’s probably going to be more sophisticated than the wisdom of the past but wisdom is going to be what’s needed.

Duncan Campbell: Then I think that’s obviously one of the themes that is a real harbinger of this wisdom culture that there’s a psychological and spiritual path that needs to be awakened in all of us to let go of certain kinds of attachments and arguments with one another and arguments with the world. That really is a different way of embracing tradition as you point out.

Paul Ray: Yes, it’s like the Middle East has to get past that old business of never to forgive, never to forget. Yeah what we’re looking at is the emerging pattern is linking our future oriented perspectives to our deep collective past. So we draw from the themes of what was here before industrialism but now we don’t have to do it just inside of our Western cultural tradition. We can pick up cultural themes from countries anywhere in the world because there’s going to be a certain number of cultural universals who we are going to want to draw from.

I don’t know how many people who are listening have come across that book Guns, Germs and Steel but in there Jared Diamond talks about why was that so much more cultural inventions came in Asia and of course the answer was you can carry food and seeds and trade goods and all sorts of inventions back and forth across Asia on an East West pattern but you can’t carry them back and forth North South across Africa or South America. That is a very major issue in why the particular countries of the world, some of them have enormous numbers of inventions because they were recombining ideas, traits, possibilities from many, many cultures in the world.

Jared Diamond actually started that book Guns, Germs and Steel with this highly intelligent guy from Papua New Guinea who is obviously smarter than Jared Diamond and he comes from a low primitive tribal culture. He is obviously smarter than most Westerners because he’s had a very tough survival pattern in the mountains of New Guinea. But the thing about New Guinea of course is they were in the stone age because they were completely isolated from the rest of the world. There was no stuff to recombine from other cultures because you didn’t even deal with your neighbors 20 miles away.

We are now at a point where we can draw from spiritual traditions. Everywhere in the world, people are using co housing ideas that come from Denmark from 25 years ago. We’re going to lift that into American culture and it’s going to probably make a difference. So this inclusiveness, the willingness to draw from all kinds of people and to be concerned about what happens with humans and nature alike, that’s much wider, that’s new, that’s the wisdom culture of the next level of civilization. On the other hand the willingness to reach way back into the past for items, justifications, myths and think forward into the future is partly  new and also in a way kind of ancient and reassuring.

I like to use the term “drawing the bough” for this. The more you want to have an invention go into the future, the more you have to reach for symbols and myths and structures back into the past and that creates tension. If you say, “I want to shoot an arrow into the future.” You got to grab hold of the bough right here in the present but have your other arm that’s pulling the air reach back into the past and that will give you the energy to propel you forward.

Duncan Campbell: So Paul what do you see as some of the challenges going forward in that perspective? I think you’ve rightly termed our modern civilization adolescent and in fact that reminds me of Dwaine Elgin [sp] in his work in which he says that in all the presentations he makes around the world, he often asks a question at the beginning of his presentation to whatever audience, whether they’re in Asia or Latin America or Africa or United States, Europe.

He says, “If we think of the development of the species on a planetary basis as the development of a single consciousness like the development of a human being, an individual human being. What stage do you think we are as a species? Are we at the toddler stage? Are we at the childhood stage, the adolescence stage, the mature parent stage, the elder stage?” He says about three quarters of the time, people all over of the world intuitively: a) understand the question and b) immediately say adolescent.

Perhaps we can define what some of those features are because there’s both positive and negative aspects to the adolescent phase of development and what would be the initiation that we might describe that we are going through as a species into a mature adulthood to create something new and to create a culture that could be enduring, a wisdom culture.

Paul Ray: Oh that’s very good. That notion that people intuit worldwide that we are adolescent species is very, very crucial one because willing to take a longer term time perspective is something adolescents have a hard, hard time with and something corporations have a hard time with and politicians have a hard time with. So we’ve got reward structures put in place in the West and in the industrial urban civilization that are adolescent reward structures. They favor short term perspectives over long term perspectives. One of the things you can say about maturity is that it is a wider, more encompassing kind of consciousness.

Schumacher who wrote Small is Beautiful also did another book that I really love called A Guide For the Perplexed. In here he updates a medieval concept called Adaequatio. Is this explanation adequate to the problem is one way the medieval scholastics put it but the key idea of Adeaquatio the way Schumacher put it is the lesser awareness is never able to encompass the greater awareness.

So an adolescent for example has a hard time understanding mature love between adults. Adolescents have a hard time encompassing longer time horizons. Adolescents have a hard time understanding how noble purpose could be a life commitment and indeed the adolescent has a very self centered view point. Now that’s developmentally appropriate, they just don’t out grow it but the think you know about adolescents is not only raging hormones but it’s a time of very intensely self centered kind of development and getting the adolescent to learn how to take wider perspectives, more idealistic perspective and all is in fact a crucial thing.

One of the great evils of our time is that the corporate community and a lot of the libertarian community wants to insist on the crucial importance of selfishness and self centeredness as what’s rational and that of course is a very destructive kind of thing in the history of Western culture. Our mutual friend Elizabeth Saturist [sp], the evolutionary biologist talks about the Western culture as the psychology of the weeds which grow very rapidly into disturbed spaces but the climax for us has very little extra energy available because all the niches are filled. The weeds on the other hand are using up resources very rapidly for a very fast transition.

That kind of a weedy path of development once things fill in and become a complex and interdependent is no longer what you want. So the weed mentally is like the adolescent mentally. The fully developed climax forest which has very, very sophisticated interconnections is the more mature part and that’s what we’re moving towards. So that much more mature part will have spiritual principles that are things that are in many cases not about up, up, and away into the clear, white spaces, but about what’s good for all of us? What’s good for all life? That goes right back to our classic notion of what’s the elder concern? Concern for all the children of the world, no one excluded. It’s also accepting change and it’s going after philosophical depth. What we’re looking at here is the idea that there is a new kind of wisdom needed for our time. That’s not trivial, it’s a new kind of wisdom.

Duncan Campbell: And I think even hallowed elders in our time like Joe Campbell recognizing that he was at the end of an era and that indeed the age of the hero and the hero’s journey that he described so beautifully by bringing in and weaving together sources from many traditions around the world was in a sense coming to an end. That we’re embarking now on something beyond the individual hero’s journey of going off and having the isolated vision and bringing it back into the collective. Even in the native tradition you now have the beautiful vision of black elk doing the same and coming back and saying that I understood more than I saw and I saw more than I can say and bringing that gift back to the collective.

Yet there are many of us feel that what is characteristic of this particular next evolutionary leap is a co creation of the vision that it will be coming through many people together and each person will have a piece of it so that it is a real dialogue and creation of community and a community of people humble enough not to attach to the proprietariness of the particular vision that they would understand that it is something larger than all of us that is coming through all of us collectively is already a movement away from the hero’s journey as traditionally conceived.

I remember on this program talking with Sam Keen a number of years ago an American philosopher. He had just written a book called Hymns to an Unknown God and he was talking about how in his view that the time of King Arthur was a proto-typical, modern heroic journey where the individual knight would ride into the forest alone into the darkest part, knowing that this was the challenge that had to be met in order to search for the grail.

At this time although each one of us is on our individual steed if you will or individual energetic consciousness, we don’t ride into the forest alone but we can ride into the forest together and together evoke a larger collective vision and create at a time when really there are no direct elders in modern culture.

Paul Ray: Also we’re not out there to kill dragons, we’re out there to build something new together.

Duncan Campbell: Exactly.

Paul Ray: What I’d like to talk about exactly this image that you’re talking about is that each one of us cannot imagine the whole of a new civilization. It’s too big to hold in any one mind but each one of us can help build one of the facets of a new civilization. Kind of like a fuller dome or bee’s eye which has thousands and thousands of facets in the bee’s eye. In fact I’ve done brain storming with citizen groups where they clearly see this after awhile is that no one of them can encompass the whole complexity but together we do indeed invent something that’s an image of a desirable future, an image of a new guiding story for ourselves. That’s quite remarkable, you can get that sense of having to create it together and having to trust so that all of us together will do the job that in fact we are all needed now.

Duncan Campbell: And in fact that could be one of the ways of answering the question we rhetorically posed earlier in this dialogue is, what would be the description of the kind of initiation that awaits us as we are moving from adolescence in this stage of human evolution into a deep and more mature wisdom culture that could sustain the species on the planet? One thing that has come to my mind for many years is this image diamond culture. As you described, a bee’s eyes having thousands of facets like a diamond wisdom or consciousness emerging that would have literary countless facets. Each one of us would understand that we were a facet of the whole and would have bring through whatever clarity that we can in our own life, in a collective way and yet at the same time a sense of remembering a collective deep wisdom in the species that would take us again beyond argument, beyond polarity. The very kind of either, or reductive mentality that was at the core of scientific revolutions in the West that allowed us to deconstruct if you will certain material reality and then reconstruct it in ways that invented the steam engine and the airplane and the laws of physics.

That kind of the use of rational divided consciousness in either or to promote inventiveness is now something that has become in a sense a kind of trap and that we can go beyond that in a more poetic and more evocative way of letting revelation if you will come to us out of a larger, alive universe rather than continue to try to master in a reductive way a universe seen to be in the modern mind as inert and unenchanted and something that we can fashion for our own benefit. So in a way it really I think at it’s core involves a kind of remembrance of a deeper, spiritual unity if you will. That is part of our collective past as a species.

Paul Ray: That’s right. Looking for the spiritual level as a collective enterprise means that you probably don’t have just one prophet either. Just like you don’t have just one hero leader who will do it all in our behalf. You don’t have just one prophet, you have the ability to get guidance and perceive things in a prophetic mode as something that can get passed around the room almost. That leadership is present in the room, that’s what hierarchy is as an idea is about. That’s what it is when you really go into a community that’s got a spiritual base is that you start realizing that it doesn’t just all hang on the guru and his insights or the prophet or on the unique holy book. In fact what we’re doing is coming to a kind of consciousness which is got this collective co creation.

One of the things that I thought was fascinating that came up recently in the new, engaged Buddhism is that they’re starting to say, “Oh my try of the Buddha of the future is the collective Buddha, not a single individual Buddha.” That’s a typical insight, a little glimmer of what’s starting to emerge with the new guiding story of our time.

That’s an interesting issue is the sense that there’s a guiding story and it’s not going to be handed to us by the ancestors, it’s not going to be handed to us by a hero author writing in a garret somewhere but we are going to create that new story ourselves. It’s going to say something like this, humanity is all one people living on small, fragile planet. We have to care for our home, we have to care for our home and we have a wonderful diversity of spiritual insights and arts and foods and philosophies and we should be celebrating that rather than fighting over it.

Every culture has a facet of some larger truth that we can’t comprehend until we hear from all of us. That the real spiritual center will hold because it’s everywhere. That unthinking modern production and consumption are rather immature responses to the world because we are deprived of our real satisfactions and other people are struggling with physical deprivation because of it. So the idea that maybe if some of us are oppressed, all of us are going to turn out to be oppressed together. The inner life is going to have to be more satisfying, much more important so that the commercial life doesn’t destroy the planet. The technologies are only good if they are placed in a wisdom context rather than a context of maximizing profits and production and so on.

It’s that kind of new story that some of the novelistic have to create perhaps and the great artist has to hit those themes but that’s the kind of thing we are looking at. I predict we’re going into a time  the next 20 years of crisis, upon crisis, upon crisis. That we are going to be looking at global warming that is going to be triggering this whole series of crisis of disease and water shortages and outbreaks of extreme weather, droughts, and floods and monster storms across the Atlantic with hurricanes and like that.

In that time of instability, what happens of course is just like a rite of passage, initiation for an adolescent, part of the old ego structure has to fall apart and a new more mature ego structure has to happen. First the old ego has to get stripped away and then you get to be nobody and nothing for awhile. You get to lose some of the old highly integrated structures before you go to the next level. Tightly organized living systems don’t just take on a new kind of organization, you have to delegitimate some of the government stuff, you have to delegitimate some of the corporate stuff. Some of that has to lose control, some of that has to be taken away.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell