The Spiritual Imprints of Collapse

By Anneke Vo

The role of spirituality in activism, in my experience, seems to be thriving on the fringes of our earth community, yet is often ignored and under-appreciated on the frontlines of the environmental movement.

Since our work relies primarily on factual and pragmatic evidence-based discourse it can be easy to assume there is no room for broader spiritual and philosophical concerns. Who has time to ponder the meaning of life when we’ve reached ‘peak everything’ and ecological collapse demands serious preparation? Why should we preoccupy ourselves with the afterlife or supernatural when there are concrete problems to be solved and innocent lives to be saved in the here and now? It’s an understandable position, especially when existential humanism is viewed as a ‘given’ framework in which we are able to mandate human rights and extrapolate personal meaning.

Spiritual perspectives have not been easily reconciled, culturally and historically, with the scientific naturalism, determinism and materialism of the Cartesian-Newton paradigm, which has dominated western thought since the Enlightenment era. Statistically, atheism and agnosticism have risen in educated societies, due to our need for existential security being met by a higher standard of living. There is a diminished need to depend on a higher power, or think too hard about concepts like ‘the soul’, since we can afford the resources to strengthen and develop the ego-self or personality.

There’s an unspoken assumption that we will be fulfilled if only we jump through all the hoops of training our brains according to the latest neuroscience research, invest in the only self we will ever be, and approach our lives with a sense of urgency because it’s the only life we will ever have.

Evolution of Spirit through the Epochs

In Cosmos and Psyche, pioneering cosmology theorist Richard Tarnas refers to a historical schism within the western mind between Romantic and Enlightenment worldviews. Romanticism embodied the soul of western intellectual history; the Enlightenment ruled our schema of objective reality, where a reasoned life of the spirit was valid only within the interior, subjective confines of the modern psyche.

Our greatest aspirations for consciousness, manifested through mythic and sensory enchantment within the arts, literature, philosophy and mysticism, seemed to be constructed within an “atomistic void” — a fundamentally impersonal, purposeless and indifferent universe. The liberation ideologies of modernity — capitalism, industrialisation, scientific positivism, existentialism and individualism – invested in the belief that we are the sole determinants of our fate, employing a kind of faith that the rational ego will remain central and in control throughout our lives.

We have built high defenses against the possibility of being accountable to guiding, interdependent principles larger than ourselves — whether that is implicated in our unwillingness to surrender to Gaia’s ecological laws, or peer beneath subconscious, archetypal complexes on the soul level. Our times are governed by lack of a unified cosmology and the paradox of our shared humanity.

The irony of spiritual plurality, represented as objective nihilism or moral relativism, remains a liminal construct of the postmodern era. When quantum physics became infatuated with multiverses and supernatural dimensions, evolutionary biology buried god in the carbon-dated soil. Observer bias permeates our most advanced scientific times, yet contemporary philosophy still hungers for an integrated worldview to bridge the existential divide between holism and reductionism, romantic spirit and objective science.

Since the emergence of humanistic and transpersonal psychology in the 1960s and 70s, unconventional faiths and spiritual movements began to gain wider momentum and acceptance in our collective consciousness. The decline of organised religion paved the way for more personally intuitive, eclectic ‘salad buffet’ approaches to spirituality, while those who retained their faith were permitted to become more open-minded to its mystical, allegorical interpretations. Universal lessons began to be sought out and explored in pursuit of psychospiritual growth from a range of different cultures and wisdom traditions. More commonly among environmentalists and cultural creatives, contemporary spirituality became integrated within holistic healing modalities, which nurture the “mind-body-spirit” connection, such as meditation, yoga, shamanism, depth psychology and naturopathy.

In later revisions of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the pinnacle of human motivation extended beyond self-actualisation and the fulfillment of personal potential. Mystical or transpersonal dimensions of the self were unravelled through self-transcendence, defined as “seeking to further a cause and experience communion beyond the boundaries of the self through peak experiences.” Peak experiences can be understood as enabling the mind to calibrate and awaken to a deeper sense of purpose, inner stillness or psychological “flow.” Insights gained from self-transcendent states, such as losing our inhibitions in conscious intimacy, reconnecting with nature, surrendering our ego in altered states, meditation or meaningful service, anchors us within the bigger picture, enabling us to grow through existential lessons from a space of greater presence and compassion.

Seeking a Spiritual Path to Wholeness

La Trobe University professor and cultural scholar David Tacey argues that loss of contact with the sacred in secular societies has led to an endemic psychosocial decline in wellbeing, particularly among youth and indigenous communities. His interdisciplinary research into contemporary spirituality, philosophy and Jungian psychology cites Indigenous understandings of neurosis as an ailment of the soul, an inner crisis of profound disconnection from nature, the mystical undercurrents of life and ultimately, our true essence.

Overpowering addictions in our culture, such as consumerism, workaholism, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships, thrive in the absence of meaningful rites of passage, altered states of being, or outlets for free self-exploration and self-transcendence. Meanwhile, spiritual colonisation has displaced the existential identities of many indigenous communities, through the dispossession of land, commons, sacred myth and ritual, in favour of techno-industrial ‘progress’ and its mechanistic, materialist cosmology. Social commentators have coined terms such as “the age of anxiety”, “social collapse of meaning”, “the managed heart” and “mutiny of the soul” to describe the current zeitgeist and its underlying, inner revolt of the spirit.

Founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, believed that following the formation and eventual disintegration of the ego, the psyche is predisposed to seek transcendence and wholeness. Traditionally, indigenous cultures held communal and shamanic rituals, such as soul retrievals and vision quests to guide them through their journey of individuation. Their concept of ‘self’ meant being in service to a unified, transpersonal reality or ancestral spirit, which extended beyond individualistic confines of egoic identity and self-interest. In such a worldview, meaning was intrinsically imbued in the fabric of existence, with sacred regard for the earth’s anima mundi and its archetypal cycles of separation and reunion, destruction and regeneration, across the vast animated cosmos. Unlike the isolated subjectivity of the modern psyche, an ensouled, numinous, deeply purposeful universe, as envisaged by indigenous cultures, could be synchronistically symbolised and psychologically integrated in the ‘objective’ world.

Faced with modernity’s collapse, we are increasingly restless for spiritual meaning and catharsis as a result of excessive bio-psycho-social stress, intergenerational trauma and systemic conditioning, much of which we are exposed to during our early, critical developmental years.

When introspective spiritual discourse is deliberately excluded in secular institutions, such as healthcare, psychotherapy, social work or education, we neglect an entire dimension of self-awareness, and risk contributing to a culture of spiritual repression and alienation. Spiritual repression denies our compulsively rational minds an inviting space for our intuition to flourish and explore meaningful possibilities, unconsciously delegating them to the shadow. It leads vulnerable people to buy into false gurus, new age delusions or religious fundamentalism in their search for broader spiritual perspectives, which are philosophically relevant, practically transformative and therapeutic in a secular context.

Our relationship with the sacred, ultimately, cannot be prescribed by any external authority, whether it be cultural, religious, scientific or political. The ‘eco’ spirituality, which many restless change makers yearn for, bears little semblance to the fixed caricatures and ideological battlegrounds of dogmatic religion, new atheism or metaphysical solipsism. It is concerned with both ‘doing’ and ‘being’ more intimately present, worldly and engaged in this life, rather than controlling or escaping above it. In a similar way that the personal is understood to be political, ecospirituality integrates care of the earth with care of the soul. Regardless of how literally or metaphorically we choose to take the notion of spirit, individual self-actualisation and transcendence involves deepening our relationship with the greater whole; reconnecting with our inner truth, shared values for meaningful change and capacity to serve our highest calling.


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