The Dramatic Backdrop of the Rising Generation and the Tasks of the Goetheanum

The Dramatic Backdrop of the Rising Generation and the Tasks of the Goetheanum

20 December 2023 606 views

by Nathaniel Williams

A particular dynamic that influences countless young people today who are striving spiritually, is showing up most strikingly in the use of both digital media and psychedelics. This dynamic consists of two powerful processes, one of contraction and urgency, and the other, a kind of expansion and liberation.

These two movements are familiar to everyone. They were aptly portrayed in Ready Player One, the book from Ernest Cline, that became a well-known movie. In the opening of the book, the main character introduces his story, the situation of the world, and his wish that someone had leveled with him when he was young. He wishes someone had told him that the stories about God were fantasies, millennia in the making—elaborate variations on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. He wishes someone had described how:

After fighting a bunch of wars with each other over land resources and our made-up gods, we eventually got all our tribes organized into a global civilization. But honestly, it wasn't that organized or civilized. And we continued to fight a lot of wars with each other. But we also figured out how to do science, which helped us develop technology. For a bunch of hairless apes, we've actually managed to invent some pretty incredible things: computers, medicine, lasers, microwave ovens, artificial hearts, atomic bombs.”[1]

He wishes someone had given him the bad news: this civilization had a cost, it was built on technologies and energies that were almost used up. He wishes someone had told him that the polluting gases that were released had the side effect of raising temperatures on the planet, leading to rises in sea level, mass extinctions of plants and animals, and human struggles with homelessness and starvation. He wishes he had understood that people are now fighting over the remaining resources and that prospects for the future seem bleak. Luckily, he has an escape hatch, the Oasis—a portal into a virtual world that offers him sanity, a playground and a preschool, an enchanted place where there are still possibilities. In this world he can create an avatar that is not limited by earthly realities.

In recent meetings with young people around the world, variations on this theme have emerged again and again. There is a feeling of contraction and urgency in relationship to the outer, shared world of the planet. It is felt in the climate crisis, the ecological crisis, the growth of population on a finite planet with finite resources, and all the issues of economic justice that are connected with this. The outer world is felt to be dispirited or un-spirited—it is a contracting world of necessity where stories of enchantment are fiction and wishful thinking. The world is on a tragic and definite course toward strife and catastrophe. It's course is calculable and proven.

In step with this, many young people are engaged in a relationship with digital technology which has paradoxical significance for them. It is connected to great hope and optimism, but also to dissipation and distraction. Regardless of whether one is pessimistic or optimistic about the effects of the new technology, one thing is clear: it offers a type of expansion, of liberation—a kind of freeing oneself from the pressure of being a creature on the earth. Young people describe it as a kind of release valve that can support self-development and connection, but that, at the same time, is a menacing distraction and temptation to escape from reality. Today, this powerful technology has reached a level of affordability for widespread use, and because of this, many of the limitations faced by the rising generation 50 years ago are radically altered for young people today.

Terrestrial Judgement and Digital Technology

We can see the dynamics of contraction and expansion working in opposing directions. Consider the capacity to form a judgment about the value of a glass of clean water, a pile of firewood, or a bowl of grain that we might be eating for breakfast. How is our understanding of the value of these foundational parts of our lives influenced by spending so much time in a pseudo or virtual world where an understanding of earthly, qualitative limitations is not developed in us? These simple judgments are related to living on the earth. We can call them terrestrial judgements—judgements we have traditionally learned through our participation in life on the planet. The earth can articulate us through our engaging in life, and this “articulation” is connected to our understanding and sense of our world.

One aspect of the tension young people are growing up in emerges here, because ecological pressure and issues of social and economic justice are related to terrestrial judgement and yet we can feel that precisely this judgment is being atrophied. This form of judgment is not only important for a sober understanding of the values of natural resources and commodities, but for capacities of working together in groups and organizations, the allocation of shared resources, diplomacy, and statecraft.

We have developed technology which offers an expansion of consciousness and miraculous possibilities, yet we experience that the form of this expansion doesn't support the development of our judgment of the peculiar, qualitative contours of the Earth. This is an uncomfortable place to be for young people who value and care about the future of the planet and the social future. It is like being placed in front of a balance beam and then having a bout of vertigo.

Connectivity and Isolation

When we take a closer look at the refrains we hear over and over again about the digital revolution, some important nuances come into focus. We see there's a kind of “connectivity” and, at the same time, a tendency toward isolation. Internet use, social media sites, video gaming, and video streaming platforms all have this effect. While this array of offerings expands the horizon of our consciousness, it also leads to connections of limited depth and quality, and a feeling of being less connected in our normal day to day life. We might feel a certain numbness in concrete situations with non-digitally mediated people and places. Sherry Turkle ends her study Alone Together by describing how young people can feel that interacting in “real” space is overly demanding. Many prefer to have mediated digital exchanges, even while in the same room; the inclination to spend time together without digital mediation recedes. She characterizes psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and social workers, who observed how a number of their patients:

“…present in the consulting room as detached from their bodies and seem close to unaware of the most basic courtesies. Purpose driven, plugged into their media, these patients pay little attention to those around them andd others. They seek what is of use. An echo of that primitive world of parts. Their detachment is not aggressive. It is as though they just don't see the point.

Almost all of us can relate to this on some level. When we spend a lot of time online, we don't have to be “bothered by” or to interact with people—we experience a certain kind of freedom but also a kind of isolation. Many people experience this kind of expansion in spending time alone and relaxing. This method of “expanding” consciousness and connecting reveals a counter intuitive tendency toward isolation.

We can try to understand this on a deeper level through basic introspection, and in a more specific way, through schooled inner observation. Using contemplative knowledge practices, we can ask what is happening when we integrate digital technology into our lives? What can be found is a certain weakening of a spiritual dynamic that is normally an unconscious part of our daily perceiving of each other and our environment. This unconscious element is also connected to our ability to have feelings and develop memories. It is referred to as the formative force body, or life body. Speaking about it as a part of the self can be misleading because it is a part of the self that is intimately connected with a creative and spiritual field of life that permeates the world altogether. Contemplative orientation and practice can bring this spiritual activity, which is creatively forming both ourselves and the world around us, to awareness. It is this intangible part of who we are that is weakened when we engage with digital technology.[3] Observations using imaginative consciousness suggest that the medium itself casts some of the tragic pallor we experience when we look toward the world, which was described above. The weakening effect on the subtle and living dynamics of the human being casts a shadowy veil over our feeling of life, of being part of the world, and that our actions matter.

Digital technology has a paradoxical effect. While connections of communication and transaction are accelerated and our consciousness is expanded with innumerable images, it also isolates us through weakening certain intangible dynamics of our constitution and our connection with the world.

In making this observation it is important to avoid demonizing technology. In trying to understand something, we have to approach it from many perspectives, and we should not quickly adopt value judgments as we do this. We can say that being awake makes us tired, but we will never conclude that we should stay asleep. It is also clear that if we're learning to ride a bike, part of riding a bike is falling down. It is possible to hurt yourself. Still, it is part of learning to ride. It's important to try to understand digital technology from many perspectives, in its relationship to human life and experience. The goal can only be to find the right relationship with it.

Bringing Life into Virtual Reality

The digital realm of interaction is not the only place where radical opportunities for the expansion of consciousness and liberation are unfolding today. It is very interesting to consider that in Silicon Valley—the center of the digital technological revolution in the last half century—there's another kind of consciousness-expanding opportunity which is re-emerging, namely the use of psychedelic substances. We see a strong interest in bringing technology and psychedelics together.[4]

It is fair to say that current forms of digital-virtual reality are not an experience that fills people with vitality, enthusiasm, and an interest to stay “plugged in”. This is quite different from the experiences that many people have when they take psychedelic drugs. If we look at digital imagery, while it offers a huge possibility for expansion, it also has a kind of drying out and isolating effect. The experience of taking psychedelic drugs, on the other hand, runs in the other direction. Individuals describe it as positively transformative and existentially disturbing. While these experiences are highly variable, the power of the drug induced images differs fundamentally from the power of digital images. The American journalist Michael Pollan surely spoke for many people when he wondered why psychedelic experiences left such a powerful impression, why people didn't just write them off as a dream or as some kind of flimsy, drug induced hallucination. William James gave a name to the powerful convincing power of these experiences. He called it the “noetic quality”. It is a conviction that you have come into contact with a profound objective truth, one deeply connected to the world and a deeper reality. It is as if the images lose their image character and become experiences filled with a primal energy that is utterly convincing, even though it may leave you baffled.

Using techniques of electricity and magnetism, digital technology can be seen to give an architecture for consciousness outside the terrestrial world, but somehow it doesn't provide a tone of life. The power of psychedelics represents a possible complementary movement. And it is not only psychedelics which is being considered in this way, but also direct influence of the brain through irradiation of different frequencies.[5] There are many ways that we might act on the physical body in concert with technology to amplify and alter the power and quality of digital/virtual reality.

In approaching the quality of many psychedelic experiences through contemplative knowledge practices, we can observe that they unfold through an intervention with the unconscious life process described above. However, instead of weakening it, as we see in the case of digital technology, this living dynamic is, in part, separated from the constraints of the material body. Normal perception and thinking that are conditioned by terrestrial forces recede and a powerful and visionary form of spirituality emerges.

Bringing these two modes of expanding consciousness together creates the possibility of leading our awareness into virtual worlds while imbuing these worlds with the vitality of spiritual life that usually unfolds in its connection to the greater world through the material body. One way of characterizing this is as a de-coupling of our awareness from terrestrial conditions with the help of our own indigenous life forces.

The Goetheanum and the Middle Path

Many youth movements today are focused on collective issues related to climate change, ecological crisis, economic justice, and social justice. Their heart and actions are turned toward the values of our collective life on the earth. It is moving to see these forces of conscience in young people working towards values for the good. The important challenge is to create a relationship to the new technologies that does not undermine these goals, through asking deeper questions about the moment we find ourselves in.

Superficially we can see that one side of the dramatic backdrop of the rising generation emerges in the possibility of an expansion of consciousness untethered from the earth. It begs the question: Can we find ways to expand our consciousness that do not weaken or undermine our ability to make sober judgments in our normal, everyday life on the Earth?

The other side of this backdrop presents a spiritless outer world on a path toward increasing strife and conflict, in which, sooner or later, the spirit will disappear. It begs the question: Can we expand how we understand nature, how we understand the human being and society, in a way that leads to insight into spiritual dimensions of the human being and the world?

The middle path is one description of the aims of the Goetheanum and the anthroposophical movement. This middle path involves developing an inner life that stays connected to normal consciousness and terrestrial judgement. It is a strengthening, through practice, of the life force that we experience being weakened through our newest technologies. This path can lead to an experience of divine life in the human being and the world which is no “fairy tale”.

This leads to an insight that can only be indicated here: our intervention, our participation in these dynamics is dramatically significant. The apparent gap between an “outer”, spiritless world and an “inner” world of consciousness untethered from the earth is an “open secret”, a question of how we will participate in the world’s evolution.[6] It is a call to discover the spirit in the world, and the world in the spirit. Here we find new life, courage and hope, and a realization that the evolution of human thinking and the earth are intertwined.

[1] Ernest Cline. Ready Player One. Random House, 2011.

[2] Sherry Turkle. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, 2011.

[3] Observations made possible through contemplative knowledge practices are offered here in the spirit that anyone who is willing to pursue a similar path of inquiry will arrive at comparable results.

[4] “Psychedelics Meet Up With Virtual Reality at South by Southwest.” March 13, 2023.

[5] For more on this see the Center for Consciousness Studies at Arizona State University, USA.

[6] For a remarkable exposition of the middle path referred to here and the relation between knowledge, imagination, and evolution see Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances.