Our meaning crisis and the new gods of modernity

Ahead of advaya’s upcoming multi-teacher online course Contemporary Spirituality, we speak with host and curator Hannah Close about how the ways in which we seek meaning have changed, what has taken the place of grand narratives and the institution of religion, moving towards healthier sources of meaning and foundations of the ‘sacred’, the ethics of spirituality practices and cultural and religious exchanges, and more. How can we find our place within intersecting ecosystems of meaning in the modern age?

Tammy (advaya): Welcome, everyone to this recorded conversation ahead of advaya's upcoming course, Contemporary Spirituality, starting in 2024. I'm really excited to be in conversation with Hannah today. Hannah is a familiar face at advaya. And if you have been following advaya for a while, then you will know that Hannah is the curator of Kinship, two iterations of a wonderful multi-teacher course. In some ways, I guess this is kind of a continuation of that, so if anyone has followed that course, and wanted to join it, but couldn't, this is your chance to hop on board that kind of collective inquiry that's held really beautifully by Hannah.

And so just a short introduction, and then I'll let Hannah introduce the course, Contemporary Spirituality. But Hannah—Hannah Close, is a writer, photographer, curator and researcher, exploring philosophy, ecology, culture, and being alive in a world of relations. Currently, Hannah is making a documentary, and also writes on her Substack. All of this information will be linked below. But for the purposes of this conversation, Hannah is the curator of our upcoming multiteacher course, Contemporary Spirituality, which is also available for registration at advaya.life. So if you would like to come on board this journey, please do join us. But in this conversation, it will be touching on the key themes and questions of the course, and explaining what we will be getting into, why we will be getting into those things, and why you should join us. So Hannah, please do introduce the course a little bit, and tell us a bit about why you decided to convene this really ambitious course.

Hannah Close: Thank you, Tammy.

So I mean, the full title of the course is Contemporary Spirituality: Meaning and Mysticism in the Modern Age. And it's basically a deep dive into the ways in which spirituality—which is obviously an enormous topic that contains so much that cannot be contained in one course, obviously—how that's interacting with... contemporary culture isn't a phrase people usually use, I would say, modernity. So it's the ways in which spirituality is becoming mainstream, the ways in which spirituality is being altered by things like technology, science, anything in kind of mainstream or pop culture, or even those kinds of subcultures peripheral to that. And I mean, the course came about because there's a lot of talk of different spiritual traditions and subcultures... For example, eco-spirituality is obviously on the rise because of the climate crisis. But there's no broad conversation on: hang on a minute, this is happening, you know, something that was once in the margins, and people will say, Oh, that's just woowoo, or that's just, you know, whatever, has suddenly hit the mainstream. And by that, I mean, in mainstream newspapers and news outlets, dominates internet culture. So, I find that really fascinating, and I thought it would feel very timely to have a conversation, zooming out, and zooming in. I mean the course will zoom in on various different parts of this topic. But the general idea is to kind of take a step back, take stock of what's working, what's not working—and obviously, that's entirely subjective. But to just gather, basically, around these themes, and see how we can move forward.

Tammy (advaya): Thank you for that very brief description of the course. I think what it's important to notice that the course is, I guess, like ideally attended by people who are interested in these topics, but also open and friendly to people who have never really thought about these themes, as there'll be a lot of speakers and teachers going in depth on these things, so you can expect to come in with not too much knowledge, but gain a lot from the course, but also people who are really interested in these questions already, and are maybe spirituality practitioners or I guess, affiliated with religious organisations who are interested in thinking about these kind of these topics in more contemporary, like what it means now, at this point in time, and who want to come together and explore these questions together. And I know that this course will have holding sessions for people to discuss, and people can discuss also not live and in the discussion forums, so just wanting to say that it's not only open to people who are interested in this super niche topic... but I mean, I guess not super niche since it's become mainstream, but you know...

Hannah Close: It's also... you don't need to be like a theologian to take this course. It's really about meaning. And spirituality is a way in which we find meaning, right? And we can all relate to that on some level. So yeah, wanted to add that.

Tammy (advaya): Yeah. And I mean, that leads nicely to the first question, which is, I guess, the centre of this conversation, but also one of the centres of this course, which is the phrase 'the meaning crisis', I think it really succinctly explains a lot of problems, and ailments of the current times. I wanted you to explain the origin of this phrase, who it comes from, and also, tell us a bit about what it means and why the course on contemporary spirituality really is an inquiry into meaning, capital M...

Hannah Close: So, the meaning crisis is attributed to John Vervaeke—who's going to be on the course, which is really exciting. He's got a fantastic series on YouTube called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, which is a spiritual experience in and of itself, so I do recommend watching that. So the meaning crisis... it's like, there are lots of words at the moment for what's happening: metacrisis, polycrisis, there's a mental health crisis, climate crisis, economic crisis, the list goes on and on and on. And what Vervaeke is saying is that actually, at the root of all of these crises, this overarching polycrisis is a crisis of meaning. And then what does that mean, right? What even is meaning? And it's basically the idea that humans have been severed from sources of meaning that are healthy for them. So community, family, healthy relating, a healthy relationship with the mystical, which is obviously very important to this particular course, support structures, like the infrastructure for belonging in society has been sort of eroded as well.

And so, meaning obviously still exists, people still find meaning in life—I don't know if life could even exist without meaning—but the ways in which we seek meaning have changed. And obviously, we'll talk about the kind of loss of religion and the secularisation of society related to that. But now, it's like meaning is found in toxic substances, addictions, abuse, being constantly online, or, you know... sources of meaning are still there, but they've substituted more nourishing sources of meaning. And, of course, this is just my opinion, but it's one that's... there's a consensus on this. That, okay, we have a crisis around this. And it's really clear, particularly in the crisis of mental health, that there is a crisis of meaning. Because people are not coping with what's happening not only on the level of the very material things that are happening politically, but on a much deeper, deeper level... and the line between inner life and outer life is blurring and blending, in so many ways...

So meaning is obviously something that's very, very subjective. And we all have our own ways in which we both seek and create meaning... which is actually a very interesting point. Is meaning something that is inherently found in the universe, an inherent property of life itself? Or is meaning something that we create? Is it something that we cultivate? And in some cases, particularly in the context of this course, is it something that we fabricate? Is it something that we simulate? And I guess the answer to that, well it's not very clear, but it is on the other hand... Well, yes, to all of those things. I could speak from personal experience, and I'm sure lots of people would agree that... particularly in your teen years, you might find meaning by going to nightclubs, and having that collective ecstatic experience with people. And in many ways, an experience like that has replaced... it's a congregation of sorts. Another huge source of meaning is relationships. And obviously, that was one of the core things we discuss at advaya, and what the previous courses I've done have been really focused on is relationship. And that's relationship of all kinds... we can find meaning in relationships, and we can also be hurt by relationships, and not all forms of relationship will provide meaning and not all forms of relationships are healthy or created equal. So it's, it's incredibly, incredibly broad. And to say, Oh, we need more meaning... it's not the end of that question. It's a door that it's being opened. And I think the distinction that we'll make on this particular course is, what are healthy sources of meaning, and how can we cultivate more of those?

And I think, going back to the thing on, do we create meaning? That's something that has really come to the fore of a lot of conversations I've been in myself, and I've been sort of listening to over the past few years... that humanity seems to be realising that yes, we do create meaning and oh, we do have agency. We can use our imagination and our collective and individual agency to create something that is going to lead to flourishing. And that's really powerful. And that might actually signal the kind of transition that's been happening from religion, to a secular society, to a spiritual one, because religion is less about agency, whereas spirituality... and I mean we will talk about, because they're hard to separate, they're one and the same. But spirituality seems to give people more agency in their meaning making. You know, you're not told what to believe, you're not told what's meaningful. Instead, you are kind of provoked, sometimes, or prompted—a less intense word—to go out and find it for yourself, find out for yourself, think for yourself, feel for yourself, and feel hopefully and think with others as well.

So yeah, I guess just to wrap up that point, we live in a world where the dominant culture is trying to arrive at a conclusive, objective meaning of life. But we're all subjective creatures, with our subjective meanings. And so there's like almost a fundamental conflict—or not necessarily conflict, like a contradiction—that might not be able to be resolved. But how do we navigate that? How do we navigate each of us having our own inner life, that's separate from everybody else, and then having the completely shared outer life? Actually, I don't agree with what I've just said. Because this inner and outer distinction is obviously not black and white, is it? But maybe we could talk about that later.

Tammy (advaya): I think the back and forth is actually really interesting that you just had with yourself, because I mean, it just goes to show that like, there's really kind of a lot of tensions that exist within these things that we're talking about. And all the more like, it is important to untangle that together, and bringing multiple perspectives into the conversation to dissect all these very complicated things.

But to step back from what you were talking about a little bit, I wanted to focus on... because I think you went a little bit into the religion/spirituality part, and I wanted to pull that out a little bit more. It's interesting to say that we are going through a meaning crisis, and that we are... people are losing a sense of, or like... that senses of meaning are eroding in the transition from religion to spirituality. I would love for you to give us a little bit of context on what you were thinking when you put together the course. And I guess the distinctions between those two things, which we were starting to talk about already, with a wider, constructed meaning and outer life, and then something that's your own and kind of negotiated by yourself, in community, which is more spirituality, I guess. Yeah. I mean, I don't think that we'll arrive at an answer to this, but I just wanted to get your sensing of what you were hoping to disentangle through bringing those two things together in this course.

Hannah Close: So... kind of how I perceive the distinctions and connections between religion and spirituality...

Yeah, it's interesting, because... to simplify it, there are two camps. And each camp says no, my way is the best way. And spiritual people will say, Religion is dogmatic. Religion is the source of all war. Religion oppresses certain groups. And then on the other side, religions will say, well, spirituality... there's not enough sort of commitment or devotion, or that it's too individualistic, or, the New Age beliefs in particular, are colonial and harmful. And so, that's always going on. And my view is that neither is better than the other. Each has pros and cons. And again, just to add the caveat, I'm not a theologian, and I'm not myself, religious. And in many ways, I would say, I'm not even spiritual. But I have a commitment to the mystical. Let's just put it that way. Though, I have been through... I went to a Church of England school, I've grown up in a culture that is secular, but still very Christian. And in Britain, where I live, there's a... almost like a hangover of Christianity... That Christianity is an organised religion has... declined. It's still very much here, but it's declined compared to what it used to be. But the core myths and metaphors of Christianity inform so much of western culture. And we don't call it Christianity anymore. But it is. That's a lot of where it comes from.

I felt very scarred by my experience with religion. And again, I'll just say it's with Christianity. Because I felt like the core myth—the story of Adam and Eve, was sort of demonising the body, demonising pleasure, demonising sensuousness, and as someone who had struggled with being disconnected from nature, being disconnected from my body, I thought, This doesn't feel like it's going to help me. So I go to spirituality and I meditate, and I encounter all sorts of practices from different traditions, and mostly Eastern traditions. And I think, Okay, the answer is going to be in here. And of course, the answer is nowhere to be found. And then I get involved in some problematic things like psychedelic tourism, the appropriation of psychedelic medicines from other cultures, without any kudos to that tradition whatsoever. And so, I've been ricocheting between religion and spirituality thinking, Well, hang on, aren't they supposed to be the places where we find meaning, and why isn't this working? And I've ended up at a place of peace, sort of in between them. And on the one hand, I recognise that, and many others recognise that, religion provides a deep history, it provides tradition, it provides an infrastructure for collective communing, that spirituality perhaps doesn't provide at the same depth.

And also, you know, you don't have to read the news every day to see that, particularly monotheistic religions, are really coming up against their limitations in a globalised world. Because we've got multiple cultures with their traditions and beliefs interacting, which on the one hand is amazing, because there's so much learning and exchange that comes from that. And on the other hand, if one person's God is better than the other person's God is better than the other person's God is... and so on and so forth... Conflict will come... we're not just seeing it in this current moment, but that's the whole history of religion and cultures sort of mixing. And it's not as black and white as that obviously, but that's just the general pattern.

So you have that side of things, and then spirituality, though it's coming to the fore, in the kind of modern Western culture, again, it's not a modern thing. It's, something like... I know a lot of Buddhists, from all over, from all different walks of life, which is one of the things that I love about Buddhism, is that it's really inclusive like that. And they will say, Oh, it's not a religion. So what is it? Is it spirituality? Like, is it philosophy? Like, what... what is it? People will obviously have different definitions of it, but that's one of the things that I really like about it—and I'm not a Buddhist either, but I find that really fascinating, that it sort of evades the category, and it has some elements of organised religion, and it has elements obviously, of spirituality. And I feel like it might be, perhaps I haven't, and perhaps I can't make a clear distinction between religion and spirituality, because religion is spiritual. But then what is spiritual? It's like, a connection to something broader than yourself, something outside of yourself, that you can connect to, individually and collectively... you know, the spirit means something in the ether, something that's not tangible. It's like, the air... it's this amorphous, metaphorically speaking, it's this amorphous thing that we can't quite grasp, but we can gesture at. So I find that really, really fascinating because it sort of transcends physics and metaphysics.

I mean, that's getting pretty abstract, but basically, I don't know. I don't know, I only have my own sense, very loose sense. And I'm monologueing a bit so please feel to interrupt me...

Tammy (advaya): I can cut you right there. And I think, kind of moving around a little bit in the order of the questions, since we landed a little bit on what is spirit and you started talking about the ether... I think it's really interesting because the idea of the sacred has really, and, you know, we'll get into the thorny bits about this in a little bit, but I think, just to talk more broadly about how the sacred has kind of hit the mainstream. Why—not getting ahead of ourselves and not talking about the thorny bits first, but... really wanting to focus on why the sacred has been such a... like, there has been such a revival of it. And what is it about spirituality... Like, what is spirituality really? And going on in that segue that you were already going into... Yeah, I think it's really interesting when you described the realm of the spirit in ways that we still want to love and ways that we want to self-reflect... That these things have... the spiritual has never really left us. And that even the search for community, the search for deeper relationships, these are all in search of the spirit, is in search of the sacred. Yeah, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that, and your observations about how this has gripped a lot of people... now.

Hannah Close: The sacred has always been there, right? It's like, even in a secular society, we revere things, we worship things, we devote ourselves to things, we have faith in things, we believe in things that aren't us, that are bigger than us, we believe in things that can't be proved. And, one thing I find particularly fascinating is the ways in which the sacred has been almost transplanted, actually, from... Jesus to, or, you know, choose your god, to Beyonce... Something like this. There's been an apotheosis of celebrity, a deification of celebrity. And not just celebrity... Elon Musk is another good example of someone who has been turned into a god. And so that impulse, to attribute the sacred to lone figures is very much alive, in this culture, in Western culture, particularly, or let's just say modern culture, because it's more complex than that.

And the sacredness is like... what I find fascinating about the sacred it goes hand in hand with the profane. And they're always kind of pitched against each other—sacred, good, profane, bad. And many people would say, Oh, well, modern Western culture, or consumerist culture, capitalist culture, whatever, is extremely profane. It's sinful. If you look at it through the lens of traditional religions, let's say, that's very broad, but it's... we're living in a time of deep, deep sin. And at the same time, liberation—personal and collective liberation, sensual liberation, and so many different forms of liberation. So this idea of sacred and profane: I find really, really fascinating. And actually Eddy Elsey will be touching on this a little bit, in his session, which is the second session of week one, about demystifying spirituality. And that doesn't mean demystifying, as in taking the mystical out, but it means understanding that the sacred is not this thing that's up here, and it can't be touched, and it's pure, and it's out of reach. And it's not for the sinful. And the idea, on the other hand, is that the profane is this awful thing only reserved for certain people. I love the Yin Yang metaphor, because it gets at the inherent paradox in this, in that the profane will contain elements of sacredness, and vice versa.

And again, as we spoke about earlier, it's completely subjective. I could look out of my window right now, and I see a plant growing out of a concrete wall, and I think, that's so sacred, but then I think of the profanity of the industrialist, like concrete and the synthetic material, you know, it's just... you could go on and on with this.

You know, the Church used to be the home of the sacred. And the home as the sacred has moved. I used the metaphor earlier, of the sacred has been transplanted. It's like really important to understand that the sacred is still there. The sacred cannot be erased. But it also apparently cannot be agreed on, because something like religion is saying, we've got a consensus on the sacred: this is what the sacred is. This is what it means. And then some people are like, Well, that's not sacred to me, actually. What's sacred to me is my family, my pet... what's sacred to me is cooking food or what's sacred to me is going outside or, Formula One is sacred to me... It's like so subjective. And so obviously, a lot of conflict arises when folks are sort of going at each other say, No, mine is more sacred. This is more sacred. This is more sacred. It's ultimately an attempt to validate one's own existence in the world by saying, My source of meaning is valid. Yours is not, therefore my existence is valid. And I mean, this can go off into all sorts of like, political discussion, but I'm not sure if that answered your question. Sorry, I just...

Tammy (advaya): It's interesting, because I had a lot of thoughts building off of that. Specifically, I think referencing Clementine Morrigan... what you were getting it about... that disagreement and trying to... I mean, I guess, I would love for you to talk a little bit about that, the inclusion of that session, actually, to kind of ground what you were saying a little bit, working across our differences, why you decided to put that session in, and then but also tell us a bit about why the inclusion of the session gets at the spirit of what we're trying to do with this course in general.

Hannah Close: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to the session... I can't remember the full title... Well, it's about solidarity, and integrity. And it's about trying to work together across our differences. And anyone that's taken any advaya courses previously will know that actually... that differences are strength, and that difference and diversity is what makes life, life. And what allows us to relate. When it comes to religion and spirituality, depending on who, what, where, when, you know, the current sort of political climate we're in, it often appears to be a competition of people sort of asserting their particular God or belief system or practice or tradition or moral purity, essentially, and who 'deserves' to go to heaven, and so on and so forth. Obviously, this creates complex, because people have different beliefs, and at the root of most religions and spiritual traditions is the basic belief that we should be good humans, we should be kind to each other... Love thy neighbour. And we're seeing a lot of hate thy neighbour happening in the world. So it doesn't appear to be working. Something in both religion and spirituality, the whole melting pot, does not appear to be working.

It's not helping us relate, it's not helping us... not even move beyond our differences, but relate through our differences, become through our differences, make meaning through our differences. So I thought it would be interesting to include a session on that, as a kind of antidote to the impulse that humans have to form into sects. And of course, we'll always form into groups, we'll always form into tribes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we form into vacuums, and push away... like two magnets opposing each other everything on the outside. Spirituality in particular, is coming to be known as something that's very individualistic, and it's very about the private inner life. Not that religion doesn't have that too. But religion is often about congregation and meeting together for prayer and so on. Spirituality seems to be more about journeying through consciousness itself. So, that obviously has an impact on how we come into relation with others. If we're so, you know, the term that's often used is navel gazing... if we're just navel gazing and meditating and pushing the world outside, that is going to reduce our sort of, not even tolerance, like, our, sort of, relational skills. Like our ability to come out of ourselves, being in relation with others.

So when spirituality becomes focused too much on the individual, it also allows people to cultivate a quite extreme level of entitlement. Like, I'm going to speak my truth. So your truth is, therefore, invalid or lesser than. And we're seeing this a lot, and I mean... it comes to the fore, particularly in internet culture, where people will be fighting in the comments about who's inner world is more valid or whatnot. Yeah, I don't know.

Tammy (advaya): Yeah, no, no, no, I think, where this is leading is... is then what? If it's not—and we'll return to, I think that question talking about new gods in modernity in a little bit, which will probably be easier to talk through, but I think we're coming up against such difficulty trying to ground it because this is what the course is supposed to do, and we're trying to talk it out between two of us... thinking that two of our brains can come up with some kind of conclusive answer, but, you know, I think what's coming out to me is that, one might read this course description and think that we're just slamming religion, and that spirituality is somewhat better, but from what you're saying... it sounds, obviously to be much more nuanced than that. And there are specific things about religion and the way it brings people together, that we can cultivate, and that journeying of the individual, cultivating the spirit in spirituality is also something that we want to keep. And is there a way that we can bring those things together, in this time, without being problematic, being respectful, but also, negotiating something new, and what does it take for everyone across this whole spectrum to come together and be like, Okay, well, how do we get to that healthier form of whatever we're trying to... of like, deriving meaning and cultivating meaning for ourselves and for the people around us and community, whatever...

I'm wondering, what are your preliminary thoughts, just to wrap this very amorphous conversation... What are your thoughts on, just preliminarily, on what it means to come to a healthier form of this? And what will it take, really, is it just people coming together, but even if people come together, it doesn't necessarily mean that we can have constructive conversations, because a lot of these things are very... understandably, very sacred... very key to our identity, so, not wanting to compromise or negotiate on that... So what could really help alleviate these problems?

Hannah Close: My immediate feeling is... something even bigger than religion or spirituality... And then, what's that... it's like meta-metaphysics. But what I'm thinking of... I'm actually, I'm thinking of the climate crisis, partly because it's something that we're all entangled in. It's something that is going to have a tangible material effect on all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what we believe in. It doesn't matter. It's a thing. And in many ways, it is mobilising people, because it's... when I say it's tangible and material, I don't therefore mean that religion and spirituality isn't... More that...

I really want to make this... I've got a chip on my shoulder about this, as you probably know, when people say that what's abstract is not real. Because what's abstract, even if it is floating around in the social imaginary, in the realm of metaphysics and philosophy, and language and semantics... it's having material consequences, it is affecting our cellular organism, it is affecting the way we eat, it is affecting having children... it's really physical, even if it's not physical, which is something that I find really fascinating. We've moved from the kind of, I think, therefore, I am, split between mind and matter, and we're coming back to a place in the culture where that is becoming unclear again. And we're saying, Oh actually, there's a reason why so many people are working on narrative work, changing the social narratives, because actually, narratives have material consequences and outcomes, and they are very tangible; imagination is very tangible.

So that's a bit of a sidetrack, but what I was talking about before, was... what's going to help us across these conflicts and divides? What makes communities strong, in my experience, is a common challenge. And that common challenge is climate change. There are lots of other common challenges as well. And, lots of people might say, well, actually have you not thought about this, and have you not thought about this, and climate change is just one of many crises in the polycrisis, but it really is the most prevalent one I can think of that unites us all, and it's something that we can all collectively work towards. And if ever the climate collapse, if you could call it that, climate change, or whatever people want to call it... In my life, even though it's an immense source of suffering, it's also an immense source of meaning because suddenly, in this morass of like a plasticised culture and of separation, suddenly, there's something that we can agree on. Suddenly, there's something that we can work on together. Suddenly my life... I'm aware of my mortality, we're all aware of our mortality. And we're particularly aware of our children's mortality, and of the future of humanity, and one's mortality. I couldn't think of a greater source of meaning and a greater cause to act for.

So yeah, I mean, that's the answer. Like a bigger shared problem that transcends the minutiae of particular religious and spiritual belief systems.

Tammy (advaya): Pivoting away from the very complicated discussion for which we have no answer to... I think... something that we'll spend quite a lot of weeks on is the other things that have taken the place of... you know, speaking of like, narrative work... taking the place of the collapsing narratives that have happened... we are beginning to see a very different era of like, gods and worship, and these, as you point out in the sessions are, materialism, science as a dogma, and celebrity, like you were talking about earlier, even atheism, like not even having a god. I would love for you to talk us a bit through these, and it's a big ask, but I guess, more in the sense of like, talking about a little bit of the sessions, like some of the sessions that these are about, and also why talking about these things are important in our inquiry journey through spirituality. Because I think this is more than cultural or anthropological, almost, analysis of the issue, and not necessarily about religion or spirituality itself. Yeah. Kind of a can of worms, but respond as you wish.

Hannah Close: That's a really good way of putting it, actually. It is like a cultural and anthropological analysis, but it's almost non analysis. You know, I wrote something the other day saying, when you've just said it, opening a can of worms, we're just opening... well, we're not just opening a can of worms. Everyone will learn something. It's just a case of what. There is no sort of curriculum of like, okay, you will learn this precise thing about spirituality. And fortunately, we're living in a time where people are seeing the value in asking questions, rather than always seeking answers. It's a mode of knowledge production, to put it rather dryly, that is generative and healthy.

We've already touched on the apotheosis of celebrities. So, an example would be Beyonce, and Elon Musk, and the sort of deification of... particularly tech guru... I mean, they're called tech gurus. And guru is supposed to be a source of spiritual guidance and wisdom. And, lots of people are saying, Well, Mark Zuckerberg is that. And I'm sort of thinking, um, I don't know about that. I don't necessarily agree. So there's the example of celebrity replacing the Messiah, in many ways, there's the example of what we've mentioned, tech gurus, but also just technology in general... Technology itself seems to be viewed as a kind of... not only as a form of godliness, but it's something that will give us godliness. You know, transhumanism is particularly interesting, because the basic idea is that by adorning ourselves with various technological... microchips and becoming cyborgs, that we will develop more godlike powers. This is obviously very both interesting and troubling at the same time. And we could go off on a whole conversation about that. That's a whole separate thing.

Then there's the idea of, you know... science, I mean, it's been for a long time that science has basically replaced religion as a way of knowing. I mean, religion, spirituality, science, philosophy, whatever—they're all attempts at knowing. That's like, the basic logic of what they are. Knowing or understanding. And there's a whole conversation in there that we won't go into about the difference between knowledge and wisdom and understanding. So you've got science, which has sort of replaced religion in many ways and it's coming up against its limitations. And that's why I think it's important to talk about this, to talk about, Okay, we've substituted and we've transplanted the sacred and meaning and religion and all of these things, and we've got this modern context of science, technology, and something like consumerism is almost a kind of religion. The ways in which people consume have become—myself included in this—devoted to a brand. A brand is almost like a god to some people. People congregate in the Nike store, for the latest release of that thing. So, that, to me, signals that there is an impulse.

There is an inherent impulse that's just always there. And it's not a bad thing. When I see people devoting themselves to consumerism... Yes, it's a bad thing in terms of the environment, and what it does to people, ultimately. But if you wanted to look at the positive side of that, you could say, people have the capacity to devote themselves, people have the capacity to have faith, people have the capacity to believe in something other... though, I will say, and this appears a lot in traditional religions as well and spirituality, that these modern god-substitutes... They're icons. They operate on the same logic that an icon or a symbol operates on, when we say, Okay, this stands for that, this means that, but it's not the thing in and of itself. And our icon-making impulses have really sort of... run away. And often, we'll look towards an icon, but we won't look towards each other. We give up our agency to whatever this icon is, whether it's the god of consumerism, the tech guru, the celebrity, even the rockstar scientist—we've got those too, we've got rockstar psychologists, we've got rockstar scientists now, which is really interesting. Again, not necessarily a bad thing.

One of the key reasons I wanted to convene this course, was... lots of people are saying, Actually, we shouldn't have become secular, we should have religion, we need these places. There's sort of a well of meaning for us... It was a bad idea to abandon religion. And then on the other hand, lots of people are saying, yes, but religion is really, really bad. And it's doing these really, really bad things. And so there's this tension point, this transition point, that we're in, where it's almost like we're trying to salvage the good parts of religion, and adapt it to contemporary society, which is in part what this course is about. It's like, obviously, we're doing that, but how, and is it working? And I find it particularly fascinating. I don't know if you've noticed this, but there's this huge resurgence and interest in Christianity, and like a green version of Christianity, or like, extracting the pagan folk aspects of Christianity and yeah... salvaging it. And I find this completely fascinating. And I wonder how successful that it's going to be.

I see a lot of people in my generation, so millennials, who are atheist or agnostic or spiritual, but barely any are religious in the traditional sense of the word, and suddenly, in the last year, even, as societal problems have been intensifying, I'm noticing a lot of people in my networks, my age groups between 20s, 30s, 40s, saying, You know what, I'm going to be Christian, or I'm going to take up Islam, or whatever. And it's such a strange turn, from such intense atheism and materialism, and trust and faith and belief in science and tech, to go back—or to remember, or to invoke these things that, we, my generation, once thought were incredibly toxic. And I'm just very curious about that.

Tammy (advaya): Yeah, just to say, I think I've noticed that as well. And, definitely, in advaya's space, I feel like there's... just within our community alone, there's definitely a lot of people who are interested in the question of, how do we kind of reconcile religion, and environmentalism, and eco-spirituality, that we are also talking about in the course, and I do also find it really fascinating, the way in which these people are not necessarily trying to reject the fact that these religions have caused a lot of harm and done a lot of terrible things, and continue to do so today, but that you can still, like you said, salvage that, and still find meaning. And you know, at this point in time, like, what hasn't been ruined? And what hasn't done some amount of damage or some amount of harm? There really isn't very much that is, like, purely good, and so maybe really, the question is how, if we take the premise that we have to salvage these things, because they're all not pure anymore, not purely good, then how do we salvage that? And that's, I guess, a question that I'm curious to be learning about on the course.

And I guess another thing that's coming up for me is that... to the people who are watching if you are interested in, or confused about why people care about this thing, or that thing, or why people derive meaning from this thing, or that thing, and then noticing the different ways in which people are deriving meaning now, and trying to find ways to coherently move together through that, and work through our differences, then this is kind of the place to come and listen and sort out what those questions could be. And, yeah, it's a safe space, because in this space, we're also acknowledging all of the difficult parts that we can't reject from these things that we are trying to salvage.

And on that note, I also want to spend a little bit of time, I guess we're coming to the close of this conversation, but... spending a little bit of time about the thorny bits, and the difficult parts, and this is specifically referring to the sessions on tokenising, the sessions on importing spirituality from the east to the west, again, not as simple as that sounds, but also about refinding localised forms of spirituality, that are local to the west, and also, I guess that bit about the psychedelic space and how that's also really wrapped up in the whole tokenisation, which we've begun to touch on just now, but I guess the question is: are we making space to discuss that? And out of curiosity, does it make you less want to go into these spaces knowing that there's a lot of kind of harm and problematic behaviour happening? Especially I think when you mentioned your reservations in the psychedelic space, I'm also a bit curious about that. And how do we engage people in conversations like this without entirely being like, well, you're cancelled, you know? Yeah.

Hannah Close: Yeah, so there are lots of thorns in these topics, particularly to do with the appropriation of different spiritual traditions from places outside of... and we're talking about the West here, this is a sort of Western crisis. But I do want to add that, I feel that West is no longer a... it exists, and it's a thing, but it's much more complex than that. And I'm almost starting to talk about just modernity itself. Because, Western culture is no longer in the West. Western culture is bloody everywhere. But anyway, that's a side thing.

So this idea that, we can exchange, spiritually, we can exchange practices, we can exchange literature, we can exchange... we can travel to Peru to drink Ayahuasca with a Shipibo shaman, or we can travel to Tibet to go and meditate in a Buddhist monastery... we can kind of have that experience. And there's nothing inherently wrong in that, or harmful in that, it's the attitude with which it is done, right? And I know I've been part of this problem myself, where spirituality becomes... you know, there's such a thing as spiritual tourism, which then becomes spiritual colonialism, if not conducted with care. And this seems to come from the idea that Western cultures do not have their own forms of spirituality, or robust forms of meaning, and that they therefore must go out and seek, and then take, other forms of spirituality from other people in places. I mean, that's just colonialism. And it's also not true. Because there's tons of healthy religious and spiritual history in Western cultures, and we'll be touching on that. And I think it's really important to talk about appropriation, because there's so much nuance in it to do with spiritual, cultural exchange, and where is the line... where does it become harmful for people? And how do we figure that out, how do we feel it, and how do we discuss this with care?

So it kind of links to this idea that spirituality is something abstract, but actually spirituality, a lot of time, is something that's very rooted to place, a very specific place, and to try and take those kinds of teachings and sever them from their place, move them halfway across the world and expect them to work in the same way is possibly misguided. You know, one example of this is the idea that if we all just drank ayahuasca, then we'd all be fine, and we'd have this collective enlightenment and we'd fix all of our problems. I'm not saying that's not necessarily true—it would be an interesting thing to happen—but ayahuasca is made of plants that come from the Amazon rainforest, in a very particular part of the Amazon rainforest, and the brew is only possible because of particular place-based knowledge with particular people. Does that therefore mean it needs to stay private within that community forever? No, not necessarily. Cultures survive by connecting and exchanging with each other. That's relating. If we all lived in vacuums, and kept our eye knowledge to ourselves and our traditions and our practices to ourselves, I'm not sure what type of world we would live in, it might be even more sort of depressing than what we're going through now.

But yeah, there is this other. And obviously, I've just spoken about psychedelics, and maybe I'll go a bit more into that. But there's been this huge resurgence of interest in psychedelics. And I think the last psychedelic renaissance was in the 60s or 70s, around about that time. And Alexander Beiner will be talking about this specifically, the shift that we're going through, from the psychedelic renaissance to the psychedelic enlightenment. And personally speaking, I felt like I was sort of riding the wave of the psychedelic renaissance... I was getting involved in cultural events around it, research around it, going to retreats, trying different psychedelics, plant medicines, in different contexts, in different cultural, spiritual, religious containers, very much in a kind of seeking energy, and at the time, I thought, yeah, this is it. This is the answer. It's had such a profound impact on me, it must have a profound impact on others, which it clearly has. However, a few years later, I thought maybe this isn't the right way... I'm drinking ayahuasca with zero knowledge of where or who it's coming from, zero knowledge of its history, like, even the mythological significance of the cultural narratives that surround it... All of this stuff, nope, just completely abstracted from its context. Drink ayahuasca then go out into the sort of modern Western consumerist, capitalist world, whatever you want to call it, unable to integrate, because something's not right. Something's not matching, the context is off.

So at the same time, as this psychedelic renaissance was happening, new ageism, you know, it's always been there, but it was increasing in its kind of... It is still a subculture, but it was increasing its impact and myself included, lots of people were getting sucked into that... and what is new ageism? It's so many things. I would say new age thought and belief is more of a quality of something, rather than its own sect. And a lot of the sort of ideas in new age subcultures are very liberating; they're very interesting to the individual who wants to really go into their inner world, but there's also a lot of thorny issues, like the appropriation of other cultures, traditions, and the idea that we can pass it off as our own and say, we discovered this, we have access to this, this is ours now, and actually, we got to this discovery first... And that's just not true. So, there'll be some discussion on that as well, whilst also acknowledging that we should exchange, but how do we exchange?

And so a shift that I'm seeing from this sort of appropriation of other cultures' spiritual traditions is—and the thing we spoke about Christianity is related to this—it's like digging where we stand. So what spiritual traditions do we have here already, underneath the layers of consumerism, underneath the layers of colonialism that we can repair really, and revive? Christianity is one of them, which is not without its problems, which we will discuss, but also, just folk culture in general, sort of pagan beliefs, that are also very pan-psychist. This idea that consciousness is in everything, which is also animist, obviously, there's just lots of words for the same thing, basically.

So, related to what we were talking about earlier about the deification of the individual and the apotheosis of the celebrity, something that I'm also seeing a lot of is the fetishisation of indigenous people and indigenous cultures. And, with that, the appropriation and the tokenisation that comes with this. And the basic idea is that because Western cultures are, outwardly facing, so devoid of spiritual wisdom, that we must therefore go to indigenous cultures, and say, Hey, what do you know? Of course, what often happens in that dynamic is that there's no reciprocity, the exchange is based on extracting knowledge, when the thing that we're really engaging with is wisdom. You can't extract wisdom, you can't consume wisdom, but we live in a culture where we romanticise that and when you romanticise something, you strip it of its own aliveness, because it's a projection of what you want it to mean, or you want it to say. And so this is obviously really damaging pattern that's happening at the moment. I guess the challenge is like, how can we learn from certain indigenous cultures, and allow that knowledge and that wisdom, in the context of spirituality, to relate with the knowledge and wisdom of this place, and not get into a dynamic where one cancels the other out, or one is more superior to the other, because in that case, we're just re-entering... master's tools, master's house kind of thing.

Tammy (advaya): I just want to emphasise, it's a very ambitious course. So it really covers a lot of the bits of spirituality, and you went over a lot of the very problematic aspects of what we will be trying to disentangle, and we could obviously go on and on about it, but that's why the course is as it is, with this many teachers and over this many weeks. So it makes perfect sense that it will be kind of a sprawling thing, and again, we're opening up a can of worms, and I don't think that the answer would be organised in any way. But I think that's a good place to close, actually, and we have come to a point where we have more questions than answers, always... But I think what we've done here is really opened the inquiry and just briefly touched on a bit of the big questions, and also some of the small questions, and the conclusive answers will come for each person as they go through the course. So this conversation is only the beginning of what we're getting into.

And, yeah, I mean, I just wanted to wrap also by saying that this course, is really carefully structured, Hannah, as you've already begun to talk us through. And if people are curious about each week's breakdown, there's two sessions in each week. And so we have, I think, a total of 12, maybe now 14, including extra lectures, but 14 teachers who will be guiding us through this very nebulous and hard to pin down inquiry, in which everyone will come with their own set of questions and their own answers, I guess? And yeah, I mean, I think people should be prepared to be held in a collective inquiry that is in the spirit of finding more questions than answers, and also in the spirit of coming together in a very messy way, while respecting each other's different opinions, and also being willing to come together to find something that can only be found when we are together. Don't know if that makes sense, but that kind of feels like an important caveat to say for this course.

And the course runs in 2024, February... just the day before Valentine's Day, on Tuesdays, Tuesday evenings, UK time. And it's open for registration, and inviting everyone who has listened to this conversation, who has found all these points of, lines of inquiry interesting, to sign up, but also to write in if you have any questions, and if you would like to know more about some of the things that maybe weren't covered during this conversation, do write in and we can pass your inquiries on to Hannah, who can also maybe answer those questions if you have any.

Hannah Close: It's nebulous, but expansive. It's like, you know, when I hear the word nebulous, I think of a cloud expanding outwards. And that's kind of how I see this course, which I find it's funny to call it a course... in some way, I really am thinking of it as a gathering. And, as you say, collective inquiry. But, it's a place to show up with curiosity, and just the desire to ask questions. If you're in seeking mode, which I suppose we all are, to some extent, some points will get closure, and other points will just be... the knot will become furthermore entangled. And I guess it's almost a spiritual practice in some way to be with that, and to accept the lack of conclusion, and to be excited by the conversation, and by all of the really interesting stuff that's going to come out of it. I'm very excited, but I'm biased, obviously.

Tammy (advaya): Amazing. Thank you Hannah, and we'll see you all on the course.


Hannah Close

Hannah is a writer, photographer, curator and researcher exploring philosophy, ecology, culture and being alive in a world of relations.

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Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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