We met Alnoor Ladha at his home in Tierra Valiente, the community he helped create in 2016 in Costa Rica. We talked about The Rules, Community, Capitalism, his Sufism, global history, ancestral knowledge and other topics brewing on the edge of a post-capitalist world.
The Rules – podcast
“What is preventing us from having really strong local communities and economies is a set of global rules that have been institutionalised through the nation state, the corporate state.”
Alnoor talks about his organisation, ‘The Rules’, why its only temporary, its two-fold purpose and the impetus behind it: to start shifting the modern discourse at the structural level.
Sufism – podcast
“So the moral philosophy at the root of mystical practice I think pushes you to have a critique of capitalism, and to have a critique of your culture. I think the relevance of a spiritual practice or tradition is directly related to how contextually adept it is.”
Alnoor talks about his Sufi background outside of traditional Islam, and why it isn’t a tradition.
God is the market – podcast
“So, God is the market essentially, and it’s full circle—how Christianity and Capitalism feed each other to keep us separated, and leave us in this place where the dominant narrative has been taken away from us.”
Alnoor talks about how the base unit of modernity, is the individual.
Aurobindo – podcast
“I think a problem with the new age movement and even their interpretation of Sri Aurobindo, and not re-contextualising him to this moment, (is that) it gives people the belief that the inner path alone, will do the work.”
Alnoor talks about Sri Aurobindo and the pathway from individual consciousness to super-consciousness.
Awareness of global history – podcast
“I will just say that spirituality in the absence of the structural understanding of power is irrelevant at this moment in history. To not understand how capitalism works is missing half of the spiritual equation.”
The discussion develops into the importance of understanding global history and the complex adaptive system that is capitalism.
Globalised wetiko – podcast
“We now have this globalized wetiko, it’s the distributed fascism, and that is capitalism. It’s in every transaction, and none of us are free from it. We are all in the contradiction.”
Alnoor speaks about how the indigenous tribes used the term wetiko, or cannibalism, to describe the western Europeans, who they saw as literally cannibals, who were destroying the natural world, and themselves.
Ancestral knowledge – podcast
“We want to take the best aspects of western culture and merge that with the best aspects of indigenous traditions, and the best aspects of mystical traditions, because if any of these ways had the answer, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
We discuss the importance of recognising our collective history, and having knowledge of our ancestors, and its relationship with karmic undoing and redemption.
The Individual and the Collective – podcast
“If we believe the antidote to globalized capitalistic full democracy, is localism, then we have to figure out how at a local level we can balance the communitarian impulse with autonomy. I think part of that is firstly and foremost: shared values.”
Alnoor talks about the three areas of inquiry in his community, Polis, Eros and Gnosis.
From the Fringe to the Mainstream – podcast
“I think the two tasks that we do have, and they are related, are these. The first is to disrupt the establishment cultural assumptions right now, by any means necessary. And the second is, to start telling these new stories in a way that captures the heart and minds of people, and is using all the tools that are at our disposal.”
On deconstructing the neoliberal myths, creating a physical transition infrastructure, and a new mythology that is infused with a spiritual impulse.
The Full Transcript
Dialogue with Alnoor Ladha at Tierra Valiente, Costa Rica. 14/12/2018
3rd Space: Hello Alnoor, and welcome to 3rd Space!
Alnoor: Hello, thank you for having me.
3rd Space: Could you speak briefly about the work you’re doing with The Rules, and whatever else might be emerging out of that project?
Alnoor: We have been running The Rules since 2012. Actually, we close The Rules next year at the end of 2019: it’s an eight-year project. Part of the idea of having a temporary organization was to allow new configurations to emerge. And have a defined period of time, in a time in which time itself is speeding up, and not create an organization that would be in perpetuity, because then you would become in service of the job creation industry, like many NGO’s.
The work at The Rules is really twofold. There is a think tank arm called ‘the cultural hack lab’. Its main purpose is to get more radical and progressive ideas into the mainstream, and make them feel like commonsense. We use a mix of tools and methods from cognitive linguistics, memetics, evolutionary biology, big data. They are listening tools to understand what’s happening in culture, and then finding ways to hack that language and that discourse. So ideas like universal basic income or regenerative agriculture, or solutions to climate change. And we work with journalists, storytellers, filmmakers and others around the world, to put these kinds of alternative narratives into the mainstream discourse. So that’s the think tank work. We also have an organizing arm that is working more directly with social movements. These are largely movements from the global south, peasant movements, farmer movements, indigenous movements, post-capitalist movements, to try to help them in key moments in their respective struggles.
We also want to link the various resistances around the world, and to bring a more spiritual and contemplative dimension to the work. For many years we ran a fellowship program called the Activist Ashram. It was working at the intersection of spirituality and politics, or really mysticism and anarchism, and other similar impulses. In many ways the ‘left’ has lost any sense of mystery. It’s like, God died for the ‘left’ in the 1700’s or the 1800’s. Ever since then it’s been this Marxist rational, historical, materialist discourse. So, its how do we bring back the mystery and the offerings in a more animistic worldview into this work? So, when The Rules closes next year, there is a series of projects and initiatives that are spinning out. One will be the ‘the cultural hack lab’, which will become its own co-op collective, and for the Activist Ashram, we are creating a physical centre here in Costa Rica. We helped create a community called Tierra Valiente or Brave Earth, which is about two years in now. We’re sitting in it as we talk. It’s really applying some of the thinking from the past few years of The Rules, and creating a post capitalist community, which means cooperative ownership structures, gift economy, direct decision making, etc.
3rd Space: For people who don’t know much about The Rules—why did you call the project called The Rules? Are you wanting to change the rules, or do you want to abandon the rules altogether?
Alnoor: Part of the impetus was to start shifting the discourse to be at the structural level. Many of us come from an anarchist political philosophy, so it’s ironic for anarchists to call their organization The Rules (laughs). By anarchism, we don’t mean anarchy. The right likes to conflate those things. But anarchism is a very sophisticated political philosophy that’s really about human creativity and ingenuity, self-governance and self-organization. I think a more apt word would be localism. What is preventing us from having really strong local communities and economies is a set of global rules that have been institutionalized through the nation state, the corporate state. The modern brand of capitalism is neoliberalism, is this market fundamentalism, and rules are generative. And the rules that we have agreed to at a global level—not that we have agreed to them, the rules that have been imposed at a global level—are essentially determining behavior, and rewarding short-termism, greed and extraction. By rules we also mean norms…cultural assumptions, narratives, in addition to legal structures and systems of law. So the dialogue we want to have, is how do we create a system that allows for resilience, that allows for local autonomy, for self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, the key things that are going to be required in order to be able to transition to a post-apocalyptic world, a post-climate changed world, a post-capitalist world?
3rd Space: We have heard you have a connection to Sufism. I am wondering how your connection to Sufism has affected the way you’re seeing the kind of changes you’re looking for.
Alnoor: So, I grew up in an Isma’ili tradition, which is a branch of Shia Islam derived from Sufism. My uncle is a Sufi scholar and he raised us outside of traditional Islam, in an almost pre-Islamic Sufi impulse, pre-‘tareeqa’. So, the first set of teachings in this tradition are that Allah is a metaphor for the universe, and you read the Quran accordingly. There is no God above you. The types of traditions we incarnate in are simply omens to either incorporate or abandon completely, and that’s a decision you have to make. In the type of Sufism we practice, you are not born into it. You choose if you want to maintain it, remix it or forget it. This is because it’s not a tradition. The second teaching that my uncle gave us was that if anyone tells you what Sufism is, they are not a Sufi; and that included him. So, in some ways it’s a form of mystical Daoism, or esoteric Buddhism. It’s really about direct experience, direct relationship to the divine, which includes you, but you are Allah becoming self-aware as part of a greater whole, that is fractal, and also becoming self-aware.
3rd Space: Is that why you’re saying that it’s not a tradition as such, because it’s based in an individual’s direct experience?
Alnoor: Yes, and I guess it isn’t a tradition because even though there is an oral esoteric passing on, it doesn’t mean you are anything, because the person who gave that to you is not anything. They made a decision to, in a sense, dis-intermediate themselves from mullahs and priests and Quran’s and Bible’s. So you yourself have to make that decision. And it’s not an individualistic impulse either, because it’s a non-dualistic strand of thought that there is no other, and simultaneously you have individual agency, and both are true at the same time. So I guess it’s the pathless path, as Sufism was originally called, and considered itself. I think this impulse for direct relationship to the divine also lends itself to really examining privilege. What are the conditions that allow some people to have the freedom to pray and have access to ecstatic experiences, whether that’s a tradition, access to mosques, or access to plant medicines—and allow others not to? This is the kind of un-freedom that comes with the structural violence of capitalism. I think the two are so interconnected, because if you are connected to ‘everything’, then the inquiry is, why do you have what you have, while others don’t.
If you are in a position of privilege, the response in the Judeo-Christian and even Islamic tradition is charity or seva. But if you are a good student of your culture, you understand that charity doesn’t work in a system that’s broken. The rules of the game are fixed, and in that case we are actually preventing the spiritual creative potential of 99.9% of humanity. It’s also impeding on the more than human life, the nonhuman species. So if we are one node in this interconnected fractal universe, what gives us the right to do that? So the moral philosophy at the root of mystical practice I think pushes you to have a critique of capitalism, and to have a critique of your culture. I think the relevance of a spiritual practice or tradition is directly related to how contextually adept it is. So, how good of a student of your culture can you be within a certain belief system? I don’t believe most traditions allow that, because they themselves are calcified in historic texts, or in a certain set of practices that date from 2000 years ago. They are not relevant to a world where 200 species a day are going extinct, and you have corporate rule, and 80% of humanity is living under $5 a day. If there was a religion that had a point of view on climate change or inequality or capitalism, I would be semi-interested.
3rd Space: My understanding of certainly some of the traditions in India is that they were by their nature, living traditions, in other words they were constantly being reinterpreted according to the times.
Alnoor: Non-institutional traditions can do that, because it’s inherent in the culture to be in dialogue about what do I believe, and what do we believe, right now. Those core first principle questions are had as a community, as a culture. This is why I think indigenous cultures are much more relevant to a globalized world than any sort of Judeo-Christian, Islamic structure, because they are also living in symbiosis with nature, so they are much closer to what is happening. A lot of what we see in institutionalized traditions is this desire for conformity, and this desire to fit into the establishment culture. Then either the religion becomes the apparatus of the state as you see in Iran, or one could argue, fundamental Christianity in the US, or you’re an immigrant in a new culture, as we see with a lot of East Indians in Silicon Valley. What we then do then is, we adapt our cultures to pray to Ganesh to be a better venture capitalist or whatever…I think unless the culture itself has some mechanism baked into it that allows it to critique and understand and deconstruct what’s happening around you, these traditions are not useful to a world in crisis. They may be individually useful, and I don’t take away from what they do for people spiritually. I think truth is a pathless land. But the lens I come from is—what is contextually relevant and useful to make me in better service to Gaya at this critical moment?
3rd Space: One way that I’ve heard you critique modernity is that its ‘base unit’ is the individual.
Alnoor: Yes. This comes back to the mystical impulse and how it has informed my political worldview. My third lesson from my uncle’s heretical branch of Islam is that the primary identity is the universal identity; and the secondary identity is this individual identity you have. What western culture and modernity does is that it reverses that. Everything we do reifies the individual, from the idea of gifted children, to ID cards, and passports. The entire culture is based on this idea of individual agency, which is an illusion, right? We know we are highly interdependent. What has happened is the merger of Christianity and Capitalism—the story of the savior God, who died for your sins, merged with this neoliberal moral philosophy that the rich are inherently smarter—that there is no history. Colonialism, slavery, genocide—all the things that gave certain people, largely white males in the west, this head start—don’t exist. All that matters is your competitive nature in a zero sum Hobbesian war. So it’s essentially an anti-historical, pro-rich type of moral philosophy, which is based on a set of illusions, and on the atomization of the individual. And what happens then is that the culture influences the structure, and the structure influences the culture, in this discursive loop. We live in separate houses, we create suburbs and subdivisions, we compete with each other for who has the most amount of money, and the most amount of influence or Facebook friends, and the entire modern culture depends on that.
It’s reinforced by scientific structures that are highly reductionist, materialist and linear, where the entire world can be reduced to an atom, and the atom to a proton and a neutron and an electron, and that’s it. It’s the end of history, right? And then, our economic system, which is market fundamentalism, which is just a form of individualism, is this idea of the invisible hand, that if everyone pursues their own self interest, somehow perfect equilibrium will be created. So, God is the market, essentially, and it’s full circle—how Christianity and Capitalism feed each other to keep us separated, and leave us in this place where the dominant narrative has been taken away from us.
If we look historically, and ask how did this happen…it obviously happened in pre-capitalism and pre-Christianity, and all neoliberalism is, is the latest iteration of this confluence of various streams of psychosis, that meet at this historical juncture. Of course, you could trace it back to the Neolithic revolution and farming, because we went from hunter-gatherers who were trusting in the bounty of our mother, to extractive sedentary hierarchal, surplus orders. From that point, it’s very easy to jump to the modern city-state, and how we got there, and then what’s the root of that? And it’s hard to say…At some point we disconnected from the belief that we are sons and daughters of Gaya—that we are children of this greater cosmic entanglement, these universal forces, and the beliefs of our great ancestors. And we started believing in the mythology of dominance and control, which very soon leads you to where we are now. This idea of interdependence that we are somehow claiming back in some ways is on the rise. We are feeling that, but it’s going to be a horse race, to see if this myth of modernity and the individual will destroy us, or if this idea of interdependence and generosity and coevolution will win out.
3rd Space: Looking at this question of individuality from a different angle, in the early 20th century, the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo saw the individuality that he was witnessing emerging in the west at the time as having a significant evolutionary potential. He saw the emergence of subjectivity as the freedom of the individual to no longer be tethered or bound to any specific identity or ideology, whether that was political, social or religious, as had been the case historically up to that point. He was clearly conscious of the dangers of this kind of individualism, as we are seeing played out today in the narcissism, atomism, and this kind of ‘homo economicus’, which is resulting in the kind of inequalities and environmental degradation that we have. I think he was really aware of the dangers of individualism, where the values are all centered on the individual rather than on the whole. Do you agree with him that there is an evolutionary potential in the flowering of subjectivity and individuality that we are witnessing today and if so, what is that potential?
Alnoor: What Aurobindo is pointing to is this idea of super-consciousness, that the individual can access this unity consciousness but has to make that choice as an individual. But we also have to understand that Aurobindo was a product of his time. He probably wrote this in the 1920’s or 1930’s in India, when there was a huge fear of the Bolshevik revolution and communism. I think if Aurobindo was alive right now in the height of the rampant consumerism and narcissism of the west, he probably would reframe the way he positioned those insights. What has come true is his worst fears about individualism, where this subjective individuality is actually a distraction, and the question is, what is the pathway? Clearly collectivism that’s enforced on you doesn’t work, whether that is communism, which is just another form of state capitalism, or tribalism, on the other side. If the individual is not free to make their own choice, they can’t re-enter the stream of unity consciousness. So, in some ways the flowering of this individual expression is a precondition—necessary, but not sufficient. That’s how I see it.
Part of the reason we want to remove inequality and impoverishment is so that when we have 7 billion people or whatever we get to, 8, 9 or 10 billion people, which is doubtful with the climate change predictions, we can give them access to the types of things that the new age movement in the west has had access to. Imagine what would happen then. The flowering of the individual has to have some kind of collective mythology and understanding of why it’s doing what it’s doing. What is the evolutionary potential of humanity? We don’t have these overarching meta-mythologies. What we have is the invisible hand—that’s what we are given: the idea that your selfishness will somehow create this God mechanism. But what we actually need again is some kind of unifying story that makes this individual pursuit of the flowering of the consciousness worthwhile, beyond your own evolution. In fact a focus of Aurobindo’s integral yoga was that the point of meditation is not to achieve enlightenment in a cave, but to apply it to the third dimension, and be in this active discursive pursuit of your spiritual practices in real time.
3rd Space: Yes, I think when he is talking about the potential of individuality, that’s what he is pointing to. To me the point he is making about subjectivity is that once the individual connects to the higher unity consciousness, then for the first time in a sense, the individual can be free to have an ongoing creative relationship to everything, not just to the individual’s experience, but to every aspect or what it means to be alive, because that is what that consciousness is all about.
Alnoor: Yes, I think this is what is interesting about Aurobindo, this individual flowering leads to the super-consciousness, right…
3rdSpace: Or has the potential to.
Alnoor: Has the potential to…But I think what he couldn’t have known in 1920’s India, is that this pathway from individual consciousness to super-consciousness would be hijacked by an ego influenced by a cannibalistic globalized culture. So actually what you need is not only a free individual who can access the super-consciousness, but you need a culture that cultivates our better nature simultaneously. The individual is not outside of their contextual circumstances. Osho, being the perfect archetype of individual enlightenment—even deep access to the super-consciousness, 600 books via lectures, and he probably achieved a state of consciousness that very few human beings will ever achieve. Yet, he was seduced by materialism and hedonism, because our minds are so tricky, if we believe in this fractal reality that the inner reflects the outer and vice versa.
As we are coming to the end of late-stage capitalism, what we are seeing is this bifurcation moment, this deep psychosis of capitalism. At the time of Standing Rock and the re-indigenization of cultures, and the globalization of plant medicines, and these growing communities of people…We are also in the time of Putin and Trump, and Netanyahu and Brexit. Both are happening at the same time. There is extreme dark, and extreme light, and the inner is reflected in that. So as we become more awake in some ways, our ego, similarly to capitalism, doesn’t want to die. It finds ever more tricky ways to make itself relevant in its drama creation, in its war creation, in its violence creation. It’s a mechanism of self-defense; it’s a sort of psychotic entity that knows it’s at its end of days. I think we have to be really aware of that, that the pathway that Aurobindo saw from individual consciousness to super-consciousness, does not happen in a vacuum; it’s happening in a culture that is deeply psychotic. So we do need to change the rules, we do need to have a global political and economic system that brings out the best aspects of humanity, while simultaneously removing the conditions of impoverishment, so the individual has the ability to flourish. These things have to happen simultaneously.
I think a problem with the new age movement and even their interpretation of Sri Aurobindo, and not re-contextualizing him to this moment, gives people the belief that the inner path alone, will do the work. The universe is within us, is one of the new age mantras. The universe is within us, yes, and in non-dualistic thought, we are part of the universe becoming self aware, and consciousness is not happening outside of us, evolution is not happening outside of us. There is a great Ram Das line where he says the universe is perfect, including my desire to change it. And so yes, the universe is perfect and on-path, and part of our job, and our role as people who are expanding our consciousness, is to politically engage, and be students of our culture and our time, and at least be in the inquiry of how we ask for guidance, how to best be in service to this moment.
3rd Space: As you said, there are these alternative networks and alternative thought systems emerging that are more collectively oriented. You also mentioned history and the need for an awareness of our global history. I am curious how much you feel that there is an interest in that history, because as you said the new age movement happened, and there have been multiple alternative movements through the last couple of centuries. But, it seems at this moment because we are so interconnected, our historic karmas are playing out as well, and they are all playing out in the context of the ferocity of capitalism, as you said. So I am curious whether in these new movements that are happening, how much that is part of the awareness?
Alnoor: I don’t think it is, actually. I think it’s quite rare. I was just recently at…I won’t say his name, a famous Guru, with a big following… I went to one of his satsang’s. And, you can imagine, with my kind of mystical anarchist worldview, I am not really one for guru worship or that kind of a structure. But, I’ll pray with anyone, and a friend of mine was going, and so I went. It was four days of satsang—very beautiful—people in prayer, in a Hindu tradition. It’s a Hanuman kind of community that believes in service and selflessness. So I’m sitting there for three or four days, and someone asks me on one of the breaks, “What do you think?” And “how do you like our community?” And so I said it’s beautiful, I love the collective prayer…And at the same time, I’m left wondering… there’s been eight dharma talks, all basically about the same thing: about mindfulness and the self. And it’s amazing that we are at this critical time in history, and this satsang is happening in the United States, in this imperialist authoritarian regime where thousands of immigrant children are being taken from their parents and put in jail, and black people are being shot in the streets without trial, and climate laws are being repealed and the devastation of the ecosystem etc. So why are we not talking about that? Why are we not holding a prayer at least? And she says, “Well, that’s not what I want in this space. This is a space of love, and we don’t want you to bring your political beliefs in here!” So from my experience the dominant belief system in the new age, is that spirituality is an escape from reality. Modernity is so hard to swallow because we are all interconnected, so we know what’s happening. We feel it when on some level, or at least our higher selves understand, that children in Yemen and Syria are getting killed for the oil that goes into our Tesla, or whatever. So, I think spirituality has just become another avenue for consumption in order to prevent the deep feeling, the deep solidarity and empathy with the rest of life, because it’s too much to bear. And I understand that. I also have a sort of empathy for that perspective. But I also believe that people of privilege cannot abdicate their responsibility at this critical moment in history.
3rd Space: That leads me to another question. Because it seems like there are some elements that are filtering into the mainstream that were previously considered fringe, even 50 years ago. Yoga is very prevalent, mindfulness, even plant medicine, is becoming more mainstream. On one hand that’s a positive thing. But something that we are very aware of, is that it can seem that things are changing, but the system is very good at appropriating, and in its very absorption of these things, actually still pursuing the same agenda. Because for real change to happen, it would seem that this deep mystical impulse that you are talking about, would need to be the source of any other changes, otherwise everything does become absorbed and contorted to the agenda of modernity. So I am curious what your thoughts are on that, because you’re involved with a lot of spiritual communities, and the problem that you just identified of spirituality often being separated from life itself, is a very big issue.
Alnoor: I don’t believe you can separate spirituality, true spirituality, from political understanding. People will say, ‘I am not interested in politics’…Well, I am not interested in politics either. I don’t give a shit about electoral politics, because electoral politics are spectacle, they are the pageantry of imperialism. But, what we have to understand is that by politics what we mean is power; and if you are not sensitive to power, you are actually not in your spiritual practice. If you look at all deep mystical impulses, they were deeply immersed in understanding their particular culture and their power. Daoism really took hold because they were trying to change the culture of an imperialist China. Lao Tzu, for example, was influencing the emperor’s belief system, and thought that that would be the liberation of China. Most mystical impulses were also in some form of exile, or were ‘persona non grata’ by the state. And so there was always this understanding of the application of spirituality, you could call it activism or just being contextually relevant to your time.
I will just say that spirituality in the absence of the structural understanding of power is irrelevant at this moment in history. To not understand how capitalism works is missing half of the spiritual equation. This is the problem with institutional religion because they themselves are businesses, and they themselves as institutions, are apparatchik of the capitalist establishment superstructure. For example, if you look at a tradition like Buddhism that is so hugely based on the understanding of suffering…If you don’t understand how suffering works, or you only understand how your internal suffering works, in absence of extrapolating that to a larger whole, then you’re essentially practicing an individualized form of Buddhism, which you might as well trade for consumerism. When you use the word ‘structuralism’, people think it means such as a big thing, but it’s basically understanding the oxygen by which you breathe. Capitalism is simply a complex adaptive system. It’s alive; it’s Frankenstein; it’s artificial intelligence. We are waiting for singularity and singularity exists, we have created it, in the market machinery. When you understand that, you realize this thing is alive, it’s adaptive; and if it’s adaptive and evolutionary, well then you see the world completely differently. You understand that everything we are being told from our education systems, to the high priests of science, to media, are hardwired to tell us a certain story. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s not that these are bad people who work at NBC or CNN, or teach at Harvard, or are pastors at our churches. But what capitalism does is it creates this sort of distributed fascism, so everyone is worried about his or her own little piece of the puzzle. They have internalized this belief system that there is this individual merit, and if I just do well in my particular job, I’ll be rewarded by the system, and then will have more influence to do good. Well, the system works the opposite way. It rewards those people that best serve its logic. But what is its logic? Well, just look around us. It’s extractive, life destroying, greedy, short-termist, psychotic. The people who best serve that logic are the ones who are going to rise to the top, and you will be compromised to do that. That is why we look at someone like Obama, and we can say how could a black community organizer end up dropping drones on poor Pakistani children, and hunger after fame and power and money? Well, that’s how he got there. Those are the compromises that are made to service the establishment system. If you understand that, then you understand that reform is not possible within a system that is that psychotic. The structure itself has to change, and any form of resistance will be co-opted. If you don’t understand that, you can’t be a good revolutionary. To believe that just because people are doing more yoga or are doing mindfulness practices…well…why are they doing it? They are doing it so they can be better day traders and more flexible corporate lawyers. Even the way they approach things like sacred plant medicine ceremonies is a form of consumption, it’s about what do I get out of this?
3rd Space: Exactly.
Alnoor: Well I paid $200 for this Ayahuasca ceremony, so each cup is worth $50, so the whole transactionalisation happens. But if you start understanding the structure, then you can deconstruct it. Then you can say, well, okay, if that’s the logic of the system, the very act of doing the opposite of that logic, isthe rebellion. The act of giving a gift, in a culture that’s about commodification and transactionalism and atomization, is a radical act. The act of growing your own food in a globalised capitalist system that wants to dis-intermediate you from your food sources is a radical act. You don’t have to be an activist. But you also can’t abdicate your responsibility for understanding what’s happening on this planet, because it’s not comfortable.
3rd Space: Absolutely. It seems to me that one of the powerful things about more indigenous spirituality is that it was essentially holistic, and holistic in the sense that, just like you were talking about with Daoism, it didn’t see the political world as being in any way separate from anything else. And therefore everything had to be responded to from that kind of understanding, and I think that is powerful. It’s powerful because it’s not interested in creating institutions, it’s interested in direct response to what is not right, to what doesn’t express this kind of whole understanding of every aspect of life being fundamentally spiritual, being alive, being full of spirit essentially. I totally agree with you, that what is required especially now, more than ever, is that kind of full response to every aspect of all this, which includes the historical understanding of how we got here. You have to understand all of it, as best you can, to know how to respond to it.
Alnoor: Yes, and in some ways it feels daunting. But I think just being open to the idea will allow that information to come to you, and that’s what it means to be in a living universe. You are setting your will and your intention to say I actually care about what’s happening. If we look at a lot of these spiritual communities, for example the satsang I was in. You will see 95% white, baby boomer, rich, elites, New York, LA sort of elites, which is fine and they are beautiful people. And I think, if you were just interested in the inquiry of why the world is what it is, and you opened up that dialogue, then more people of colour, more indigenous people, would be interested in coming there. Because they would understand that you have empathy for their plight: that you understand how the structure of the system works: that you understand that you are not special, but you are lucky, and there is a very big difference in that. As soon as you understand that, well then people are like, well, I want to be in inquiry with these people.
3rd Space: Great point, yes.
Alnoor: And you expand the tent, by expanding your empathy. And all you have to do is say I’m actually interested in what’s happening in the world, and that may mean reading one book a year, it may mean just having discussions like this.
3rd Space: That’s very interesting, because I’ve sometimes wondered whether there’s a deep intuition of the truth of how the west got to be where it is, because how did we get to be privileged? It’s not because we are special, it’s not because we are smarter. It’s because of the historic circumstances, and I think a rabid impulse for acquisition, which is now, as you said, an expression of neoliberalism. I think its very interesting to look at history, because 700-800 years ago, trade was happening from the Far East, from China through Southeast Asia, all the way to the Baltics. This was obviously economic trade, but it was also a real exchange, philosophical elements were exchanged, religious thinking and language were exchanged. It was in a sense, the first globalization. But unless we know and appreciate that, it’s very hard to understand clearly how aggressive globalization has become: it has become purely economically driven. We end up being privileged as elites, with the misunderstanding that we think we are better in some way. There is an enormous thread of superiority in that. But I sometimes wonder about why it isn’t obvious to some degree, and why we aren’t asking those questions. We all know a little history. I wonder if there is an intuition of this, of the devastation that has happened in the last few years, and where the responsibility lies.
Alnoor: I think it’s partly because it’s deeply uncomfortable. I think privilege is a blinding constraint, right? When you are as comfortable as we are, you don’t really have an impetus or cultural need or desire to do that type of self-interrogation and what it brings up is often so messy, and it doesn’t have to be. What’s interesting is that the culture of self-help and psychotherapy, new-age narcissism and all of that, is so self-reflective and really problematizes out own individual psychosis, our own family lines, etc., and there doesn’t seem to be any end to that healing. Yet, when we expand the circle of empathy and the circle of solidarity, that depression seems to go away, right? We know this from people who are depressed, who go into service work for a dying person. They very quickly come out of that depression.
I think actually part of the solution to the ennui and existential angst of modernity is to widen our gaze, and just go into that reflection and inquiry of why is the world the way it is. Why is all this inequality happening and what can I do about it? I think as soon as people move to that service energy, but service informed by more holistic understanding of what’s happening, we are going to see the expansion of this global social justice movement that’s already happening. We are going to see a new type of purpose, and the removal of a sort of anxiety that right now we’re stuck in through the navel gazing of the individualistic, psychotherapeutic worldview of linearity, and problems and solutions, and the fetishism of childhood trauma: because the trauma that’s happening collectively is so much bigger. And the flip side of trauma is healing. So the flip side of what is available to us as a resource, could nourish us in ways we don’t even understand.
I think there are a lot of reasons why, as you said, the conquest has come from the west. There is this indigenous concept called wetiko, the idea of cannibalism. It was initially a literal concept. Members of tribes, especially northern tribes, like the Algonquian, if they ended up eating the flesh of another human being, thought two things would happen to them. One would be this unnatural desire for more flesh, even when there was abundance. And the other would be an icy heart, a lack of empathy. And when they first met the western Europeans, they re-appropriated this word for western Europeans. They believed them to be literal cannibals, because they were destroying, eating their mother and themselves, actually. And they didn’t understand why all these people were working to build a house that only two people could live on the top of. It made no sense to them. I think in some ways it doesn’t matter that it came from Western Europe, we don’t need to get into the self-flagellation, because self-judgment and self-pity isn’t going to change what has happened. We now have this globalized wetiko, it’s the distributed fascism, and that is capitalism. It’s in every transaction, and none of us are free from it. We are all in the contradiction. Our clothes are made in sweatshops; our fossil fuels are coming from the same destructive forces, etc. What’s interesting about memetics—this modern idea of meme science, that memes are the cultural equivalent of genes—is that when you are aware of a meme, it loses its power. When you understand that the thought forms exist, then they lose their power. So the idea of seeing wetiko and seeing the cannibalism that exists within us all, actually starts to free us from it. But if we are using spirituality, or consumption, or hedonism, or whatever form of distraction, to prevent us from seeing that—then we are not doing the work.
Part of what’s required right now is actually to see how we’ve been colonized: all of us have been colonized, right? It’s as important to de-program and de-school our minds as it is anything else, and this is a spiritual practice, this is a constant practice, and this is what the ego doesn’t want to allow. The point of mindfulness is not just to go into a state of nothingness or not-knowingness. It’s also to go into a state of deep awareness of your patterns, a deep awareness of the programs that have been foisted on you by a culture that we didn’t sign up for. What modern culture wants to do is to make you identify with your culture. That’s what patriotism is, that’s what nationalism is. Ten years ago, if you talked ill of capitalism, people would try to conflate capitalism with innovation or with progress and it’s none of those things. We have to actively say I am not a capitalist; I do not commodify; I do not want to consume people; I do not want to cannibalize. I am not American; I am not Canadian; I am not English; I am not Saudi Arabian. These are figments of our imagination. If they were useful ideas, then sure let’s identify with them, or let’s temporarily identify with them. When I have a passport and I am going through an airport line, then I’ll use the privilege of being Canadian. But these ideas are programs that run in the background very purposefully in order for us to identify with cultures, so we don’t actively change them or critique them, because that is seen as disloyalty. But if we have any love or respect for these ideas, what we need to do is to dismantle them, and remake what it means to be Canadian, what it means to be a capitalist, if these ideas are worth salvaging, and to be honest I don’t think they are, but some may be.
3rd Space: I wanted to just touch back about western history, because I feel there is a place in all this, which is not about self-flagellation, because that’s not really facing something with an open heart, right? It’s another form of narcissism in a way. But I do think there is a place to actually understand that part of the reason we’ve got to where we are, is because of behaviors and beliefs, ideologies really, that have emerged in the west. They are not the only things to have emerged in the west, it’s not that it’s all negative, but they have emerged here. And I think to be able to open up and begin to connect to what other cultures have to offer, how they think differently; they relate differently, they have a different source of relationship to the world. I think it’s important to see through the reality of what happened. I think part of the fear is, whoa…we don’t want to feel bad, we don’t want to beat ourselves up. But we don’t have to beat ourselves by looking at what’s true. And if we look at what’s true, well it’s really curious, why did this global trade, once Britain and France and Western Europe began to set forth, why was it acquisitive? Why did Empires grow out of that, when trade had been happening before where it didn’t? It’s just an interesting question. I think it leads to looking at what is the cultural foundation that lay beneath this trade for example, that actually were the foundations of culture at large; of social organization, of political governance etc. When you start to look, you begin to see there are other options there that have had life, sometimes thousands of years ago. That is the one thing I just wanted to say, because I think it’s very hard to jump to empathy without somehow, seeing through the walls.
Alnoor: Well, three thoughts come to mind. One is, that there is going to be a different but related role for people whose ancestors come from, and created the dominant oppressor culture. And you are right, I don’t feel at all what is required is self-pity or self-flagellation. But what is required is recognition, and at least an inquiry on what can be done. A lot of westerners I meet say I have no connection to my ancestors, and when indigenous people talk about their ancestors, they don’t know how to communicate with them, or they feel left out. I think part of it is a dissociative block. I think part of spiritual practice should be to do that deep ancestral work, to find out who your ancestors were, to actually meditate on their archetypal energies, to access those places. The reality is, most of our ancestors were psychopaths, it doesn’t matter what colour you were, or where you came from, or we wouldn’t be here, right? They outcompeted on some level. They were products of their time and history and culture. So part of the karmic undoing and the release energetically, is to not only historically understand what happened in the world in large, but what happened in your individual narrative, as a spiritual practice of release. At the end of the day we are all in the redemption business, and there are going to be different pathways to do it. I think for people who come from colonizer cultures, to even just recognize the land on which they live, or do honoring’s and offerings in a certain way…If we believe the universe is animistic and alive, it responds to that. It doesn’t matter how spiritually evolved you are, if you are not looking at that aspect, you are actually limiting your spiritual growth, and limiting your ability to be politically impactful. And I think if you are coming from indigenous cultures, part of it is to resist the seduction of modernity, and this embarrassment that has happened for generations and generations of people, who have been told they are lesser.
Look at a place like India, where they’re clamoring to go to Silicon Valley, their technological institutes, their business schools, they are reading economist magazine. Actually, the reality is that the most likely people to survive the next 100 years on this planet are indigenous people, because they have a symbiotic relationship to nature. If I was going to bet on a subgroup of humanity, it would not be the Silicon Valley techno-utopian engineers—it’s almost a laughable proposition. It would be the people that have two things: a relationship with land and community, that’s what’s going to save you. Who is going to fly their private planes or their private submarines, or man their little islands—nobody! When debt-based capital falls, which is just a trust based mechanism; as soon as people decide that the US dollar is not worth anything, and there’s a 20-meter sea level rise, and a billion people mass migrating, ignoring every form of national border, we are going be in a very different place. So I think indigenous people need to start taking pride in what it is to be of a culture that has a relationship to land. And for all of us, it doesn’t matter what our lineages are, it’s to access the deep storehouses of ancestral knowledge, and the deep storehouses of psychic powers we forgot we possessed.
3rd Space: Just coming back to that question of redemption again, it does seem to be that one of the big factors of our world is that the west has considered itself to be ahead—to be superior. That’s why we have this situation where other civilizations are just not taken seriously. They’re still considered to be catching up. So like you said, somehow there needs to be this recognition of…history, of what’s actually happened. Because otherwise where is the humility going to come from to recognize that other civilizations, other cultures, actually have incredibly important information for all of us, and that we need to be…open to what is already here, which we are so much not. We are so blind to what is already here, and what we can learn from.
Alnoor: Totally, and it’s also what makes us naïve consumers of bullshit, right? The whole Steven Pinker, Bill Gates neoliberal optimism industry, they prey on that. Because if you believe that progress is an arrow, and that we are going from worse to better, from savages, to barbarians, to civilized people, then you have bought into this myth of progress that’s actually trapping us. Because, what they are measuring is not what any of us actually believe. Okay, so GDP per capita is higher, and there are microwaves in more places, but what are we valuing? Ancient forests are being chopped down, 200 species a day are going extinct, and the ocean is acidifying—where is their notion of progress even coming from? If we understand that for every dollar that is created about 93, 94 cents ends up in the hands of the top 1%. So, of course, again, privilege is a constraint, maybe they are psychotic, maybe they are not; in some ways it doesn’t matter. But they are hardwired to believe this because they disproportionately benefit from it. So they are going to say, look how great everything is, and its also a form of distraction, and it’s a prophylactic, it’s a salve, you know, it’s a lullaby, to put us to sleep. And something in us wants to believe in that optimism. So they are appealing to the better angels of our nature, as Steven Pinker says, in order for us not to see reality as it is, in order for the status quo to continue. Unless we have some historical recognition, then we actually can’t even recognize where we are right now, and we have no idea how to course correct for the future.
3rdSpace: Right. Because there’s only one, monolithic view, that’s going in one direction.
Alnoor: Yes, and this relates to this other idea of…what’s the alternative? What’s the solution, and what do you do? I think a lot of westerners are fearful of co-opting indigenous cultures…and this comes back to white guilt. To be students of other cultures is not a form of co-option.
3rdSpace: Yes, exactly.
Alnoor: And we are getting to a point historically where going to India and sweeping up at an ashram for 10 years, or going to the Amazon apprenticing with a shaman for 10 years so you can get one layer of the secret revealed…we don’t have time for that anymore. True mysticism and true knowledge is free and open and our collective endowment, and it needs to be shared, and it needs to be done with urgency. The antidote to monoculture, which is what capitalism is, that is I’ll buy Apple computers and have Microsoft Office, and wear Nike shoes, and listen to Miley Cyrus, and eat Monsanto GMO Foods—the antidote to that is polyculture—many ways of being and many ways of knowing and many tongues. And the only way we can access polyculture is if—and this is the light side of globalization—we use what we have access to right now. This revolution has to happen by any means necessary, which includes honouring and not consuming other cultures, and that requires studying those cultures, and I think we can’t fear that, and co-optation is a result of the manner by which you approach this.
3rd Space: Right. It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. I think it’s also when there is an existential angst, co-optation is more likely, because you are looking…you are a hungry ghost, so your relationship is not going to be one of enrichment, it’s one of wanting.
Alnoor: And if you have not done that ancestral healing work, and you don’t have a relationship with what came before you, then you will seek other people’s ancestors. This is why white western shamans in Peruvian or Brazilian or other Amazonian Ayahuasca traditions, are more rigid than their Amazonian counterparts. They feel not worthy to be there in some way—one aspect. The other aspect is that because they lack a relationship with their ancestors, they become fanatics. This goes back to that work that really needs to be done: that historical reflection has to be done at a cultural level of how we got here, and at a community level, and at individual level. And the spiritual work also has to happen on the individual level, the community level, and the cultural level. And the political work has to happen on the individual level, community level, and on the cultural level.
3rd Space: It’s interesting because the spiritual work in a way gives a foundation to allow all the rest to happen in a way perhaps that is helping. Then you don’t fall into the guilt thing, or the avoidance or the denial, or try to jump over.
Alnoor: And the spiritual work is so deeply connected to the ancestral work, and that’s so deeply connected to the political work. Because you have to understand what the people who came before you who, at least on a physical level are responsible for you being here, what they did, and what they believed. And it’s about how you hold the shadow in its full shadow, and the light in its full light, in order to synthesize. And it’s also true for western culture. We are not trying to amputate the innovations that have come. We want to take the best aspects of western culture and merge that with the best aspects of indigenous traditions, and the best aspects of mystical traditions, because if any of these ways had the answer, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
3rd Space: Exactly. I’d like to explore a little bit more something we spoke about earlier, which is the relationship between the individual and the collective. We spoke earlier about the fact of individualism being a gift, it isn’t something to hide, but that it has its shadow side, which is narcissism—my right to be here at the cost of everything else. And this comes from, as we spoke about, being disconnected at a very deep level from the fact that we one, and we are all interconnected. So the negative side of that sense of individuation is that it has happened in isolation from, or divorced from the fact of our unity.
One thing that we explored a lot in the community we were in, was how can individuation, the gift of individuation, the gift of independent thinking and agency, operate within a collective? How can that happen where the collective becomes an expression of all those individuals, so there is a merging and an emergencethat takes place, in which the autonomy of the individual isn’t compromised at all, in fact it’s amplified, but it’s not amplified as separate from the collective. So, in a way it becomes one mind, but in that one mind, it’s not groupthink. It’s one mind that is being fuelled and taken forward by all the individuals, and that is to me a very exciting potential.
3rd Space: At the same time, what often happens in a collective is that the autonomy of the individual gets subsumed into the collective.
Alnoor: It’s the risk.
3rd Space: It’s a risk, and one of the challenges of living in a situation where there is a great powerful unity between everyone, is that that kind of independent thinking and creative autonomy gets lost.
Alnoor: I think this is really the critical question of how we organize ourselves at a community level. Because, if we believe the antidote to globalized capitalistic full democracy, is localism, then we have to figure out how at a local level we can balance the communitarian impulse with autonomy. I think part of that is firstly and foremost: shared values. For me the practice of mystical anarchism is essentially that. You are God sovereign and free, and non-dualistically interdependent, and if we choose to live together, and occasionally not choose to live together, either way, we have to recognize a set of factors. One is the entanglement itself. How do we get to be here? I think that actually has to be an exploration. What is the context? What is the co-agency in creating what we want to live in? This sort of entanglement, context and co-agency, are in some ways prime units for a more quantum ethics that takes into account the circumstance to get there. Because, most communities are not going to have pre-figurative circumstances where they can decide everything, what their governance structure is going to be…
Even here at Tierra Valiente, we’re in Costa Rica, and we have to abide by Costa Rican rules. So the sort of exploration we have is, what are the values by which we want to live? What rules do we want to adhere to, and which ones are we willing to take risks not to? For us, what we set out early on was to say, we would want to create a community of masters. We don’t believe in gurus, and we don’t believe in disciples, we don’t believe in students and teachers, everyone is simultaneously our student and simultaneously our teacher. And we want to cultivate a group of people that have healed key aspects of their ego, and have gone through initiations of some kind. That doesn’t have to be a traditional religious or spiritual initiation, but we have a discussion on what initiations do you believe you have gone through? We also say, our shared goal, if we are looking for healed initiated people of a certain disposition and inclination, is to be able to walk into a room and pray for everyone in that room. There’s a very specific frequency when you say something like this. To say that our goal is to walk into a room and pray for everyone in that room, to hold the vibration in a selfless way for everyone in that room; literally praying for their ancestors, praying for the birds, the wind, the grass, all of the animistic elements that make up life, and being aware that we are Allah becoming self-aware; and to hold that level of awareness while representing ourselves as individuals. That non-dualistic thought is a very difficult place to achieve, and I don’t think anyone of us claim to be there. But that is a practice that we all strive for. And by this very act of saying what a shared practice is, we are co-defining who we attract to the field.
The second thing we do is that we are very clear about the values. We don’t say, ‘here are our values’. We say we have three areas of inquiry. Because as students of our times, we are in inquiry, and those three, at least for now, are Polis, Eros and Gnosis. Polis is about the political economy, cooperative ownership structures, direct democracy, and non-hierarchical ways and non-violent communication. Eros is, you know, we are not an open love community, but the idea that your love relationship is somehow separate to what’s happening in the rest of the community is just not true, and it affects all of us. So we at least hold space for non-private conversations to happen in a public sphere, so we can support you as a community. So, by this very structure, we are removing the atomization that comes with traditional hetero-normative nuclear, largely patriarchal notions of what family is, or what relationships are. Just by opening up the discourse, that’s all we are saying. The third is Gnosis. We don’t believe there is a way, we believe there are pathless paths, and you decide on your belief system. What we are trying to cultivate here is a direct experience with the divine, and you can define that in any way you want. You could be a scientific materialist. But part of the discourse is to recognize who your God’s are, and who your deities are, and what you are actually praying to, because everything is a prayer. To pretend that you are not, even as an atheist or a pluralist or a secular modernist…you are praying to some deity. So let’s just expose that, and let’s discuss that, and let’s have that discourse. And having the discourse, and the space in quite a structured way, to discuss Polis and Eros and Gnosis, eliminates certain people who this scares the shit out of them. And part of the Gnostic practice is to merge Shamanism and Daoism and Sufism, and all of these practices. It doesn’t mean that we have a way…some people are doing this, and some people are doing that, and we come and we report back, on what our beliefs are. I think this is for us part of the way that you balance individual agency and this communitarian ethic. You very clearly declare what you are aspiring to, you very clearly declare your values, and what areas of inquiry you are coming together to explore.
3rdSpace: When you speak about cultural hacking, how do you see moving from the fringe to the mainstream. I mean, sane, holistic, mystical, practical, ways of living and being together and organizing ourselves in creative ways, in perpetuity, how does that become the mainstream, or how do you move that to the centre? Because obviously, there have been movements in response to modernity historically, the romantics, the transcendentalists, that have reacted to the horror of industrialization, etc. But they never managed to stop this juggernaut from moving forward and just re-morphing itself into some other form. So how to actually change the structure of power, so this doesn’t just remain on the fringe, even a big fringe?
Alnoor: I wanted to read this quote, a Max Planck quote from his autobiography, which says:
“A new scientific discovery does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In some ways, that is the answer. But the more important thing is that we don’t have an alternative mythology or set of mythologies that people can go to. We have not created our equivalent of the invisible hand; and maybe there is no equivalent. Maybe this goes back to this idea of polyculture versus monoculture; that there will be no blueprint for post-capitalist reality. But I think the two tasks that we do have, and they are related, are these. The first is to disrupt the establishment cultural assumptions right now, by any means necessary. And the second is, to start telling these new stories in a way that captures the heart and minds of people, and is using all the tools that are at our disposal.
On the first idea of disrupting cultural assumptions… If we look at the very core of what is allowing things to exist as they are, part of it is the belief that this is human nature: that all capitalism is doing is reflecting back our own nature to us. This is a very common argument, and we know this to be fundamentally untrue, right? We know that human beings are not inherently evil or inherently good: we are highly contextual beings. What 30 years of social science, almost every major field of social science including behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology: what they have showed us is that we are highly contextual beings. Someone in a white lab coat tells you to shock someone to the point of death, and most people will do it. Although we were hunter- gatherers for 99% of human history, and as hunter-gatherers we were highly altruistic, highly cooperative, highly egalitarian. We had roughly 2000 calories a day each, and we were living in abundance. So does that mean human beings are inherently that? Well, we are more inherently that than anything else, and we are also highly adaptable and highly contextual. So we have to challenge the story of what human nature is, and this is the best worst system we can create. All of these neoliberal myths need to be completely deconstructed, and also part of that is that we have to disenchant young people from entering the western education system. We have to stop telling our children to go to Ivy League Schools and take on their debt, and work in their companies, because that is what is brainwashing them. And the only way to do that is for us to create our own alternative, strong, local economies and communities, outside of the capitalist mainstream grid.
This is a transition infrastructure that is actually required for our current historical context, and if we do not start creating this transition infrastructure now, it is going to be dystopia to try to create it when there is 20-meter sea level rise and the globalized capitalist system is imploding. It will be impossible. We have to do it now. We have to use all the capital, all the resources, and all they’re shit against them—the master’s tools, to build these permanent autonomous zones.
Then we get to this idea of how do we tell these new narratives? I think part of it is smart organizing work; organizing with journalists, telling the story of the polycultural fringes, what’s happening with these resistant movements, the beauty that exists right now; the student movements; the indigenous movements; the peasant farmer movements: there is an entire world of alternatives, an entire resistance that’s happening, that represents the world’s majority, significantly. And we are not hearing those stories, so we believe there is no hope. We believe that this is progress, and that this is its arrow. But it’s fundamentally untrue. So I think part of it is deconstruction of the core assumptions and myths at the heart of the neoliberal psychopathy. Part of it is creating the physical transition infrastructure; transition towns; alternative communities; alternative currencies, etc. Part of it is communicating the alternatives that already exist, and part of it is creating a new mythology, and there is no linearity to this, there is no sequential nature to this work. It’s what appeals to you.
I think also what’s key to all of these elements is infusing a spiritual, I don’t want to say overlay because that cheapens it, but a spiritual impulse. Actually informing what we’re doing through the internal work is asking for guidance, praying for help, making offerings to the land, making offerings to spirits, making offerings to deities and to trees, and to go back into that mystery of not-knowing. Part of having a structural perspective and having a strategy, and having a critique, is also being in the not-knowing. You’re just slightly better off in the not-knowing when you have some semblance of a clue of how we got here. I don’t pretend to have any of these answers, I am also just in inquiry, but I’m trying to make my inquiry better informed.