David Spangler is probably best known for his work as co-director and spokesperson for the Findhorn Community in northern Scotland. He has lectured widely on spiritual philosophy, personal development, futures studies, and community development. David’s books include Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred; and, most recently, Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture (which he co-authored with William Irwin Thompson). In the fall, Bantam will be publishing Manifestation: the Inner Art.
James Morton, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, once described David as "a highly regarded advocate of spiritual empowerment" who is "both down-to-earth and a genuine mystic." He describes himself as a "household contemplative," admittedly fond of chocolate and computer games, although not necessarily in that order. I would describe him as one of the more holistic philosophers I know.
David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and three children.
Robert: It would be helpful, to start off, if you could tell me a little about how you came to focus on exploring the domain of consciousness.
David: Like many children, I grew up having numerous psychic experiences. My earliest memories are of being aware of presences and qualities in my environment that other people didn’t seem to be aware of. There was nothing in that awareness that said anything about connectedness; it was simply an extension of ordinary physical awareness.
Then, when I was seven years old, something else happened. The domain of consciousness itself broke through and I had a classical mystical experience of dissolving into an oceanic feeling of oneness and infinite connectedness. I became pure consciousness, which was limitless and, if I were to give it a quality, infinitely loving. It was a beingness of love.
I had been riding in the car with my parents, looking out the back window, when this happened. All at once, I felt an energy rising within me as if I were a balloon and someone were inflating me. I found myself momentarily floating in the air outside and above the car, looking down upon myself and my parents, whom I could see quite clearly as if the roof of the car were nonexistent. Then I went through a series of rapidly changing stages of awareness and perception, which culminated in my entering the domain of pure consciousness. It felt like I was in that state for a long time, but when the process reversed itself and I came back to my body, I discovered that the car had hardly moved at all. So very little earthly time had passed.
That experience not only left me with an experiential conviction of the interconnectedness – the oneness – of all things, but it also gave me tools for altering my consciousness so as to experience some of the other worlds that are not physical in nature.
Robert: Could you say more about those other worlds?
David: Perhaps a distinction would be helpful here. There is what you might call the domain of pure consciousness, what a mystic might call the state of oneness or of no-thing – consciousness without an object. Then there are the manifest worlds that unfold from this state, of which the physical world is one. Some of the other worlds, though, may seem by comparison to this physical one to be places of pure consciousness because we cannot recognize the kind of forms and conditions they manifest.
The manifest worlds can lead to the domain of pure consciousness itself and vice versa. That is, by contemplating the nature of the physical world, I might find myself entering a state of pure consciousness, and from that state, I could find myself re-entering the physical world with a new perspective. This is generally what spiritual paths are all about, taking us from conditioned consciousness to pure consciousness and back again. Or, I might become aware of an "inner" world, one of the places other than the physical that also emerge from the primal domain of consciousness; such an experience could take me further into an awareness of that primal domain and also help me see that consciousness is not simply, as you say, an attribute of the physical.
Robert: Which of those worlds are of most interest to you, and what has come out of your exploration of them?
David: The mystical part of me still focuses upon the primal domain of consciousness itself, which I call the Beloved, for I experience it as a presence of love; likewise, the esoteric part of me looks to and works with some of the other worlds and beings that represent that domain in non-physical ways – the Otherworlds of Celtic lore, for example, or the different dimensions written of in occult cosmologies. Meanwhile, the physical, earthly part of me tries to synthesize the other two and bring them both down to earth!
At different times in my life, I’ve concentrated on one or another of these. I have gone through my mystical phases, my occult or shamanic phases, and I am always going through an everyday, earthly phase since, after all, this is where I live! However, the primary area of exploration for me has always been the conjunction and blending of these three. What are the boundaries where they meet and how do they interact co-creatively with each other? That is the question that most often drives my interest and my work.
As for what has come out of my explorations, one insight that stands out is the need to move away from a pyramidal or hierarchical view of creation and spirituality. That view usually puts our physical existence at the bottom and spiritual existence at the top. As a consequence, we are either overtly or implicitly encouraged to leave the Earth in some manner because it is less real and less important than the realms of consciousness and being that are found towards the top of the pyramid (with God, of course, being at the very top).
Instead, I take a systemic view. There is pure consciousness on the one hand and the various manifestations of consciousness on the other, and they all interact with each other in co-creative ways. They are a lattice, a network, a pattern of creation, in which each entity or world has something unique and valuable to contribute.
The contribution of my earthly life, therefore, is as important and as powerful in its way as the contribution of some cosmic archangel. My contribution may not have as wide an effect as an archangel’s, but it is not less important because of that.
Another way I think about this issue is to use the metaphor from quantum physics of the particle and the wave. Consciousness, the sacred, the mystical: these are wave-like. But I am a particle. Actually, I am a continuum between the fluid, wave state of pure consciousness on the one hand and my specific, particulate, physical identity on the other.
Between those two extremes of being – the wave and the particle – is a very dynamic intermediate state, which has elements of both particle and wave to it, of being an identity and of being something much more cosmic or universal.
It is these states that the shamanic and the Western magical traditions explore: the intermediate state between undifferentiated oneness and the specificity of our particular nature. These approaches help an individual go beyond ordinary consciousness, but they do not dissolve into a purely mystical union of oneness. Some differentiation is maintained; some boundaries are maintained, but they become highly permeable.
These traditions look at what I would call the architecture or the patterning of consciousness as it interacts with itself to create the phenomena of the world. But these traditions also look at the ways in which consciousness creates patterns that can – like vessels – take on and embody deeper or more mystical states of being.
Robert: One of the concerns that many people have when they look at issues of interconnectedness is about individuality. How does the particle avoid dissolving? What is the new nature of individuality that emerges out of the kind of experience that you’re describing?
David: Well, it’s a more improvisational kind of individuality, one that dynamically combines elements of both the particle and the wave. I just recently finished reading the book Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop. I was struck by his definition of a domain of complexity and life that exists where order and chaos meet. I think that state is analogous to what you are asking about.
Using Waldrop’s descriptions of states of order and chaos metaphorically, order is like the highly privatized, individualized condition that has been promoted by Western culture. If I am in such a state, I have a clear sense of myself as a separate and even, perhaps, isolated individual.
Robert: … one for whom privacy is an obvious, absolute notion.
David: That’s right, but not only as a value…
Robert: ... but as a reality.
David: Yes, and in fact privacy can be a burden as much as a pleasure. For if I become wholly private, then I fall into a personal state that is much less creative and energetic than if I’m open to others and open to my world in ways that invite modification – in fact, that invite a certain level of chaos into my life.
On the other hand, what Waldrop calls chaos has some analogies to mystical states, at least from the perspective of the particulate individual!
Yet just as life emerges where chaos and order – the fluid and the fixed – come together, so our creative, spiritual life may emerge where the individual and the collective, the concrete and the mystical, come together. This is not for me a place where privacy or individualism is lost, rather it’s a place where they participate in and serve a more complex and synergic relationship with openness and interconnectedness.
Robert: Our society, at least in its official expressions and institutions, has been very focused at the particulate level. But what if our culture as a whole were to move to that space of quantum paradox where there’s both particle and wave, where we’re at that zone of complexity that you were just describing. What might characterize our sense of being part of various human-scale groups, like work teams and families?
David: A mistake that has been made in the past in this area is assuming that we must be one or the other, that we must be either an individual or part of a collective. But if we can see the group as a part of the individual, and vice versa, then we may be more willing and able to explore organizational structures that reflect the complexity of the whole continuum between the particle and the wave.
Also, we would have a deeper understanding of just what interconnectedness means and how it manifests. For example, I can be physically interconnected with you in that your physical actions affect my physical environment. You may live upstream from me, for example, and if you dump toxic materials into the water, it poisons the water for me.
However, physical interconnectivity in an ecological or economic sense would not necessarily imply that we are interconnected inwardly or spiritually. You may feel no distress whatever at the fact that I am suffering. Of course, the reverse can be true, which is part of what we mean by compassion: I do suffer when you suffer.
Then, there is the interconnectedness of pure consciousness, which you mentioned initially, which implies that the boundaries between our thoughts and feelings are much more permeable than our culture has accepted; in effect, there is no such thing as a truly private thought or feeling.
For example, a friend of mine is a heavy smoker. He created an environment for his family and others that was filled with second-hand smoke and therefore, as we now know, highly toxic. Anyone living with him had to suffer the effects of this environment, though the actual effects varies from one person to another, depending on each person’s sensitivity.
In an analogous way, we all grow up and live exposed to each other’s psychic environments: the second-hand smoke of our inner thoughts and feelings. This "smoke" is most recognized as a mood, but in the realm of consciousness, it is also a tangible psychic condition, very much like smoke. It can affect in various ways the psychic states of other people, who, incidentally, may also be putting out "mood-smoke."
The actual thoughts and feelings that are creating my mood or the psychic field around me are probably private, but the energy from them goes out like smoke into my environment and is there for everyone to deal with. Of course, this can be either a positive or negative condition. I can put out empowering and inspiring "moods" as well as negative ones. The point is that if we become more aware of the levels of our interconnectedness, along with this comes a heightened awareness of the kind of subjective conditions that we are creating. It is a very ecological notion: how am I affecting my environment?
This awareness brings a new level of responsibility for the quality and direction of my thinking and feeling; not that I have to be positive all the time, but that I need to be aware of how I am interconnected with and affecting others. There are things I can do to minimize the effect of my moods, like smoking smokeless cigarettes, but in the long run it will mean we all take on a greater discipline for keeping our inner ecology clean.
Robert: What you’re saying is more ecological in its perspective than the view we sometimes hear, that "You create your own reality." That view seems to me to be an extension of a particulate consciousness.
David: Yes, I feel that as well. Especially here in the West, we come out of a philosophical heritage that regards each of us as the ultimate arbiter of who we are. If I think of myself as just a particle, then it is possible to implicitly view my reality – my world – as just a bigger particle.
For me, we each participate in a co-created reality. My creative influence varies; in some situations I determine the shape and direction of events while in others I am a supporting player.
When I say, "I create my reality," I might just as easily say, "My culture creates its reality through me." What I call "myself" is a kind of internalized thought form that binds together in a somewhat orderly fashion all those images, ideas, influences, opinions, and expectations that have come out of my family and my place of growing up and my culture and so on.
So, when I think of the "I" at the center of my being, I do not think of a spider spinning everything out of its own self. Rather, I think of it as both spinning threads and working a loom on which its threads are blended with those coming from all the other beings that make up the cosmos.
Robert: It’s a weaving from a particular perspective that brings all of those multiple threads into a particular relationship. Nevertheless the multiple connections are still very much the fabric.
David: That’s exactly right. When I think about what it is that I bring to that tapestry, there are lots of things I might like to bring, such as courage, faith, brilliance, creativity, love, and so on. But I think, when it gets right down to it, what I bring is my non-repeatable and irreplaceable point of view. To change the metaphor, we are each like one of these scenic pull-outs that you encounter along the road [laughter]; we each offer perspectives of the landscape not offered anywhere else. However, to enjoy all the landscape, we need to put these different perspectives together.
Robert: If we did live in a culture in which we saw ourselves as interconnected at the level of consciousness, what would that do to schools? What would that mean for the whole learning process?
David: Well, interconnectedness is not the whole character of reality. There are also differentiation, separateness, and distinctness: the realm of the particle. And there is a deeper level of oneness and wholeness that transcends simple connections. This is the realm of the wave. All of these conditions need to be understood and honored. I want to learn to honor myself as a particle, know myself as part of an interconnected social and natural ecology, and experience myself dissolved into the oneness that pervades all the cosmos: the domain of pure consciousness or spirit. I want to understand and be able to use uniqueness, co-creativeness, and love.
Each of these three conditions has its own particular skills. What do I need to know to be effective in dealing with my subjective world, with the outer, objective world, or with the transpersonal domains of pure consciousness? How do these three areas of knowledge and perspective interrelate? Giving answers to these questions would be an important part of the curriculum in a culture that was organized around the interconnectedness of consciousness.
Another change would be to make the current boundaries and divisions between areas of knowledge far more permeable. How does literature affect science and vice versa? How does the learning of a sport affect the learning of economics or music or physics? The interconnectedness – the ecology – between different disciplines and types of knowledge is also important to know.
Robert: How might a culture that’s comfortable with a notion of interconnectedness change our sense of meaning and purpose?
David: I believe there will still be meaning and purpose centered on the proper development and expression of the individual life. Being an effective and good person will always be important. In particular, using one’s individuality so that it becomes a gateway for new possibilities and, in its creativity and compassion, becomes a channel for the sacred will also be important.
There is also meaning in people interacting together in a way that creates a state of emergence. How may we bring out the best in each other and in our world?
Thinking about this brings to mind the image of a compact disk. The disk contains an immense amount of information that can be translated into music, images, words, and ideas. This material is revealed by the interaction of a laser beam. This beam is analogous to the state of my consciousness.
If that state is narrow – let’s say I am largely focused simply upon myself and my own well-being, and I have no real sense of or interest in any kind of interconnectedness – then I may just hear one note or see one image at a time. I don’t have a sense of a melody, or perhaps it unfolds slowly in a linear way over time, one note at a time.
However, if I widen my beam and I have more awareness of the interaction and interconnectedness of the notes, the beauty and complexity of whole melodies and arrangements comes clear to me in a much shorter period of time. I hear the melody all at once, so to speak, rather than slowly over a period of time. The connections that make up the melody become immediately apparent, whereas if my awareness is more narrow, this is not true, and I have to piece those connections together a bit at a time, which may be more trouble than I want to take. With a wider beam, I am enriched by this heightened awareness that lets the melody of interconnectedness and oneness affect me more immediately.
For me, meaning in life is very simple. Essentially it is discovering how I may broaden the beam of my individual consciousness and then doing so. How may I bring, both individually and in relationship with others, the greater impact of life and creativity into our world that comes when you can hear the melody all at once. All these other meanings that we think about tend to fall ultimately into this larger sense of participating in the emergence of heightened awareness of the cosmos in which we live.
This metaphor of the compact disk is insufficient, however, unless we make it interactive. That is, the act of being aware also alters what is on the compact disk of creation; it’s so deeply participatory that the very act of my perceiving whatever I perceive can help to write something new and change the pattern of the whole in some manner. In this way, new possibilities and discoveries are always possible. I am participating in the evolution or emergence of creation, not simply listening to it or uncovering what has already been written.
If you ask me where all of this is leading, I guess to me it doesn’t have to lead anywhere in a linear sense. It is a deepening of the unfoldment of the whole of creation – a process of enhancement, transformation, and discovery. It is participating in an act of godliness without having to say that I am God in some particulate way.
Robert: Yes, although to me it does lead to delight, among other things.
David: That’s right.
Robert: We have a lot of immediate challenges to face up to as a species: a growing population, the need to make considerable changes in technologies, and so on. At a very practical level, there’s a lot of work to be done. But suppose we somehow, over the next few decades, manage to accomplish all that; there’s always the question that looms out beyond any such transformative crisis, "Then what?"
It strikes me that what you’re describing, that process of expanding our conscious capacitance – not only our individual capacitance but the capacitance of the society around us – offers a delightful but nonetheless challenging program that could engage us well into the future.
David: I exactly agree with that. As far as I’m concerned, we’re just beginning to explore the world that awaits us, so I certainly don’t see the solving of our immediate crises as exhausting our creative potential.
Robert: More just enhancing our ability to really get on with exploring this other level.
David: I think a great lesson of our time right now is the degree to which we need each other. The steps we need to take are not steps that can be taken simply using the heroic model of the past: the isolated individual going out, overcoming obstacles, and emerging triumphant. Instead, we are looking at an emerging model that says we must be a collective hero; the obstacles are not necessarily there to be overcome, but to be understood in ways that add insight and energy to our own resources.
We are realizing that in an interconnected world, not only are problems interwoven, but the solutions are interconnected as well, which means whatever we do to help ourselves and the world, we must do it together. And it is more than simply a kind of group togetherness, like a committee. It is a togetherness that is synergic, honoring of the differences we bring to the table – and the chaos as well [laughter] – one that enhances us, both as individuals and as a co-creative team or group.
Robert: … a togetherness that’s comfortable at that interface between order and chaos.
David: Yes. If we can’t communicate because of our differences and because we don’t know how to receive and empower each other because of those differences, then we have narrowed our laser beam. In that case, we access the compact disk of the cosmos in a limited way. That process is too slow to deal with the challenges and opportunities now confronting us. If we are going to creatively dance into a new world, we must broaden our beam so that we can hear the symphony and not just the notes.