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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Re-Appraising Our Notions Of What Progress Is
David Jon Peckinpaugh
If, as the Gnostics contend, as A Course In Miracles states, and even as the Buddha himself portrays things as being—namely, that this-world is not fundamentally Real in the way that even some of the majour orthodox religions lead us to believe that it is, then we it would seem that it is high time for us to reconsider what we mean by 'progress;' and to what extent there is really any 'improvement' in the world-predicament and the ongoing human-condition as a result.
First, a false condition cannot be improved such that it is better than it was—as it is still a false condition or existence. It is a lie. It is erroneous. It is an illusion.
We could even argue that a 'better illusion' is fundamentally a 'worse condition' because it may serve to ensure that the illusion has more power and influence over those who have bought into the illusion. As Ramana Maharshi is reported to have stated, everyone wants to wake up from a nightmare!
And so what if we take the 'nightmarish propereties' of an illusion and somehow address them so that they are not nearly as disturbing or upsetting? What if we take the 'nightmarish properties' of an illusion and we take the teeth right out of them, such that they no longer elicit any incentive to 'awaken' in us. Now, wouldn't that be a more dangerous position overall for one to be in? Isn't the illusion that we don't want to 'wake up from' much more of a challenge and obstacle for us—especially, in terms of our awakening; precisely because it is so non-threatening?
Like I said, if there is indeed any virtue and/or validity to the Gnostic contentions regarding this-world—and as also pointed out in movies like the Matrix Trilogy—then we have to begin to (re)consider exactly to what extent any sort of improvement of the world-predicament, and the human-condition as a result, is going to be ultimately beneficial for anyone. If such 'improvement' only makes an illusion more comforting—which means, 'less upsetting'—then such 'improvement' is really another way to just forego the Real. In this way, as far as the 'enlightenment of all apparent peoples and beings' goes, there is a much greater threat provided by 'improving the conditions of an illusion' than there is by continuing to allow the 'nightmarish properties of an illusion' to still hold sway. We are much more liable to 'awaken' from a nightmare than we are to 'awaken' from a sublime dream where nothing ever comes to disturb the sanctity of the oh so sweet illusion.
'Why'd you wake me up!?! I was having the best dream ever! Damn it all, you should have left me sleeping. Shit! Now I'll never get that dream back.'
Don't let the dream end. Don't let the dreamer awaken. Don't rouse the happy sleeper.
It would seem that the so-called 'reality' of the so-called 'real world' must not necessarily be much of a match for our best dreams. Even our 'best dreams' outmatch our apparent 'reality' here in this-world?
We want to sleep. We want to dream the happy dream. We want 'more' than this-world can offer. We thirst for those dreams that intimate of this something 'more' or 'other' than this-world.
Perhaps this is because we were not made for this-world. Perhaps we thirst for this 'more' because we were made for this 'more.' Perhaps our appetite for happy dreams is an indication that our ultimate destiny is not to be content with a 'civilization of discontents'—nor with a 'nightmare' that is posited as 'real,' simply because it is all that is seemingly 'known' by the naked eye. Perhaps we crave what this-world cannot bring us because we are not 'of this-world' in the first place. Perhaps the thirst is not irrational so much as the most Rational and Logical extension of the fact that we cannot help but crave That Which We Are. This is why any intimation of That Which We Are in the form of dreams and illusions here in this-world can become so alluring and attractive to us.
But let us remember that an intimation of That Which We Are is not That Which We Are. Intimations will not suffice to fulfill us of our Ultimate Destiny. We require the Real Thing. And the Real Thing—we are told—can point the Way through the intimation of Its Existence here in this-world. But Its Totality cannot be fully known in, as, or through this-world. Just as the false can never fully disclose the True—even if there are some partial truths in the false. And just as the illusory can never fully indicate the Real—even if there are intimations of the Real within the illusory… such as there are in this-world.
The best we have are 'signs' pointing the Way: the Way to the Real: the Way to That Which We Are.
As mentioned previously, there is no ultimate 'end' to be realized or discovered in this-world—that is, as an aspect, form, or phenomena of this-world that we can rely upon as an 'end' in and of itself. However, as also mentioned previously, this does not prevent or bar us from trying to make various forms of the ephemeral substance of this-world into 'ends' themselves. We do seem to be very much prone to seeking the self-creation of 'ends' to be sought in this-world, all in the hope that they will provide us with some sort of concrete reassurance that is definite in nature—that is an 'end,' if you will.
This would seem to generate a strange sort of irony—if not contradictoriness—that I don't recall being mentioned before in any analysis of the current dynamics of Civilization & Secularity. To begin with, we seem to have this two-pronged approach. On the one hand there is the notion of Progress—which seems to be open-ended and indefinite, i.e., we are always going to advance, improve, evolve, develop, grow, and so forth. Yet, coupled with this is the incentive to seek out various 'ends' that are posited as worthy pursuits that we should take up, i.e., objects or states, conditions or lifestyles that we should seek as 'ends' in and of themselves.
Given this double-whammy of a dilemma it should be little wonder why there can be seen to be such a 'schizophrenic' nature to Civilization & Secularity. There are essentially two divergent principles operating on the human psyche subject to these forces. One: Progress. Two: Ends.
Perhaps this explains why, in light of all the talk of 'growth' and 'development' and 'technological advancement,' there is also this underbelly of Apocalyptic thinking that haunts the whole of Civilization & Secularity—that constantly reminds us of 'ends.' For just as much as there is this driving imperative towards 'growth' and seeming 'evolution' there is also the specter of a cataclysmic End to it all.
So our life in lieu of this becomes one of a head-long rush into the new day and the next night, all the while secretly fearing that it can be completely undone in an instant: that our Pursuit of Progress will result in an End that we cannot possibly foresee, if not entirely escape.
This: the hope of progress; the dread of an end. That our progress will end. And yet, our progress is powered by our defining and determining various 'ends' to be sought after and pursued with a passion and a fervour that is nothing short of the subtle fuel that drives Civilization en masse! This, then, is once again to highlight the strange and twisted nature of the underlying psychodynamics of Civilization & Secularity: that we are driven to pursue these notions of progress and advancement, evolution and growth, development and increase; which only makes us more fearful and anxious, afraid and neurotic, precisely because the whole set-up includes the possibility of an 'end' other than the one we are conditionally inclined to pursue in the name of the god Progress.
The Unspeakable Dread of Incessant Desire
Let us be called to reflection for a moment, and consider once again—although in greater detail—the precise psychodynamics of Civilization & Secularism. Here we have the pervasive, and near all-consuming myth of Progress, which comes to exercise almost complete dominance over the lives of those who are driven and compelled to seek for various 'ends' that are considered desirable from a 'progressive' standpoint.
We have just spoken of the 'dread' that can accompany our seeking of various 'ends' in the name of the (post)modern god Progress. It has been suggested that this dread is the result of the arrival of an 'end'—or simply the anxious sense of impending closure, that we are not pursuing in the name of Progress, but which finds us nonetheless.
Here is but the Apocalypse seen as the flip-side of Progress.
Progress, then, is not unlike the Greek God Janus. Two-faced: painted in tones of hope and dread. Indeed, a hope and a dread that seem to be so anti-thetical to one another, but which, upon closer examination, are seen to be mutually reinforcing of one another. Meaning, hope feeds our sense of dread, precisely because what we have hope for in this-world may not come to pass; meanwhile, dread feeds our desire for hope, precisely because hope (as well as something, someone, or somewhere to have hope in) seems to offer us a way out of the disturbing nature of so existential a sense of dread.
Like I said—and please do excuse me for reiterating this point once again, as I only do so because it is so central to the argument being put forth here—that it is owed to the fact that an 'end,' other than the one we are conditionally trained to pursue in the name of Progress can come about, results in our hope in attaining any desired end to forever be tainted with elements of dread, a sense of impending Doom—in other words, with Apocalyptic moments. Popular movements such as those expressed in the Left Behind series of books, movies, and audiotapes indicate the 'other-side' of our steady diet of Progress. It is the Apocalyptic counter-balance to the forces pining away about the virtues and validity—as well as supreme value—of Progress.
Apocalypse: the Shadow forever looming over, behind, and within the designs of Civilization & Secularity.
The unforeseeable end. Not the one that we seek. The one that finds us. The one that enters into the village from out of nowhere. That falls from the sky. That rises from the dead. The one that comes as the uninvited guest. The one that we dread—which is why the Evangelical Christians are always wondering whether or not they are part of the so-called 'Rapture,' i.e., wondering who will and who will not be spared the Apocalypse.
Who will escape the End Times? Who will be spared the fate of the End that Civilization & Secularity together are not pursuing, but which people all over the Planet dread is somewhere in the designs, if not destiny, of things?
What a ways we have come. Richard Tarnas compellingly writes of the strangely odd and diametrical nature of the journey that humanity has undergone under the auspices of Western Civilization in the last 400 hundred years (which, I should add, have been 4 centuries of increasing secularity). Tarnas makes the point that there has been…
…enacted an extraordinary dialectic in the course of the modern era—moving from a near boundless confidence in his own powers, his spiritual potential, his capacity for certain knowledge, his mastery over nature, and his progressive destiny, to what often appeared to be a sharply opposite condition: a debilitating sense of metaphysical insignificance and personal futility, a spiritual loss of faith, uncertainty in knowledge, a mutually destructive relationship with nature, and an intense insecurity concerning the human future. In the four centuries of modern man's existence, Bacon and Descartes had become Kafka and Beckett. 
Exhibit A: Hope turned to dread.
Our sense of being able to 'control our own destiny' and 'order the shape of things to come' was replaced with a growing sense of doom as we came to increasingly realize the relevant insights into just how flippin' ignorant we still are as a species. Chalk it up to Freud and his finger pointing to the Moon of human unconsciousness. Blame Marx and his understanding of how the forces of historical materialism shape destinies as much or more than all of humanity's good intentions combined. Whatever the case, it once again makes evident the harsh nature of what forever lies on the other-side of our this-worldly hope. An aching dread that what we dream so diligently about and for may not come to pass. An anxious attitude surrounding the 'ends' we seek to attain… because, after all, there is the unmistakable threat of an End that could doom or dreams to piles of ash and rancid smoke. And this we cannot escape if we cannot forego hope in anything less or other than the Transcendental Source and Suchness of That Which Alone Is worthy of our highest aspirations.
 Tarnas, Richard, prev. cited, 1991.