A moment in time, a moment out of time

Published by Aubyn Howard on

In July last year I completed a series of four posts on the ‘dynamics of social transformation’, and then set about the even thornier theme of  ‘the mess we are in – how we go there and how to get out of it’. I got as far as sketching out three posts:

  • Four narratives combined to explain the mess we are in; VUCA overload, systemic failure, the imitation game, evolutionary splits.
  • A psycho-historical view of the mess we are in – present, past and future perspectives
  • A psycho-spiritual view of the mess we are in – the present day disease of the soul

Soon after that I came to a stop.  Not that I didn’t have anything to write about, more the opposite. I had started to notice that the world, or rather our collective consciousness, was changing so quickly, that what I was writing soon felt outdated.  I also found the emergent societal splits, polarisations and undercurrents so emotionally charged that I kept getting caught by my own identifications and biases, even as I was attempting to shed light on this wider phenomenon from the psychospiritual perspective. I also realised there were plenty of good writers in the public domain who were doing a fine job of describing what is going on politically, socially, culturally and sometimes psychologically. So I stopped and resolved to pick up the evolutionary leadership theme at a time when I could gain more perspective.

This year it feels like there have been some green shoots, e.g. with the new presidency in America, although I don’t believe the tide has necessarily turned on the waves of populism, puritanism, polarisation, scaremongering, scapegoating and conspiracy-mindedness, or that the wider madness afflicting society has suddenly resolved. More that these things ebb and flow and in the briefest space between the two we might find a moment of clarity.

To paraphrase what Barack Obama said so eloquently in his BBC interview with David Olusoga last year, the path of progress (or evolution) is rarely straightforward and sometimes we go backwards to go forwards. Obama went on to express a cautious, careful optimism in a way that made me feel better about the future of leadership than anything else I had heard for months!

Anyway, I have started writing again and have just submitted a chapter on Synthesis in an age of polarisation for a book Petra Guggisberg Nocelli is editing and will be running a webinar for the AAP on this theme on 24th April. This is an attempt to bring the principles and techniques of Roberto Assagioli’s synthesis to the growing crises of polarisation we are witnessing in society today. This will form part of an evolving narrative about future leadership which I plan to bring together into a new book over the summer.

In the meantime, I want to share about some of the works I have come across in my research that I would recommend to anyone wanting to make sense of these turbulent times.

The first is Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (reviewed by Nick Cohen in the Guardian), in which she explains in accessible psychological language what is going on in the minds of key enablers of authoritarian populists and why so many of the respectable right of yesterday (two or three decades ago) have behaved so shockingly at odds with their previously admirable conservative values.  She subtitles the book, the seductive lure of authoritarianism and uses the term, the revenge of the clerks to describe how ambitious but overlooked and embittered politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and business people hitched themselves to the bandwagons of populist leaders on the promise of being rewarded for uncritical loyalty. I found it shed much light not just on Trump’s post-truth America but also Britain’s recent ideological lurch into libertarianism, exceptionalism and nationalism wrapped up in a chumocracy.

The second book is Charles Eisenstein’s The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, published in 2013 but remarkably prescient of the current times. I am still slowly working my way through it, picking it up when I have time to reflect. For me, Eisenstein performs a kind of mirror role in relation to the passions of liberal progressives and the evolutionary movement to that which Applebaum plays in relation to the values and ideals of conservatism. He creates an inspiring vision of the future that holds out hope for humanity without sacrificing the need for critical thinking and thus pulls us towards a new synthesis rather than increasing polarisation. I don’t agree with everything he says but he offers his ideas with enough humility, uncertainty and curiosity to allow room for exploration and dialogue, something missing from the harsher voices of pluralistic relativism in the ideological public spats that are being called the culture wars.

I also want to recommend an article by James Meek in the London Review of Books, Red Pill, Blue Pill, which psychologically explains the lure and growth of conspiracy mindedness that is colonising both extremes (and places in-between!) of the political spectrum. The growth of the conspiracy mind worries me just as much as the populist mind, the puritan mind or the totalitarian mind and it plays a significant part in the wider collective psychological dysfunction afflicting the world. Large sections of society have become enmeshed in online conspiracy movements and we are only just waking up to the implications. This wave of collective madness is combining in complex ways with the new populism and puritanism, alongside real agents of mischief and disinformation who have their own agendas.

I don’t want to go into specifics here because my intention is not to try to counter populism, puritanism or the conspiracy theories but to wonder about the collective psychological soup that is giving rise to these phenomena.

I recently came across a new way of thinking about this in the work of Paul Levy, in which he describes the notion of self-replicating memetic thought-viruses. Levy speaks of a psychospiritual disease of the soul involving self-replicating memetic mind-viruses, which he refers to using the Native American Indian concept of ‘wetiko’ (Levy, 2013). He describes how this ‘bug in the system’ induces negative hallucinations (i.e. brainwashing) and hence an inability to recognise the truth of our directly experienced reality and, in particular, how this perpetuates the illusion of our separation from others. Drawing frequently upon Jung, he describes how such mind-viruses come into existence in the human shadow through individual and collective repression, denial or splitting of parts of ourselves and projecting these out onto individual or collective ‘others’ or something else outside of ourselves, such as ‘the establishment’ or a secret conspiracy.

Of course this is nothing new, but perhaps what makes Levy’s retelling of this analysis timely is his combining of Jung’s concept of shadow with the current vernacular of meme theory within the context of the digital age and social media. Levy explores how ‘wetiko’ holds in place the illusion of our separation, but I also find this useful in making sense of the current shifting landscape of societal consciousness and our increasing polarisations and strong tribal identifications:  Democrats and Republicans in the US; Remainers and Leavers in Brexit Britain; the growth of conspiracy thinking; the perpetuation of big lies (e.g. Trump’s big lie that he won the 2020 US election); the growing popularity of alternative realities in a so-called post-truth world.     

Levy offers a ‘cure’ or way out of the collective psychic disease that points each of us towards inquiring directly into the nature of our present-moment experience, rather than trusting received wisdom from the past, i.e. introjected limiting beliefs.  In psychosynthesis terms, this starts with the process of identification and disidentification as well as the development of our individual free will, and the owning and developing of our capacity for critical and independent thought.

In The Quantum Revelation, Levy (2018) draws upon insights from quantum physics to prescribe a paradigm shift in our worldview from either/or thinking to both/and.  The nub of his argument is that we can hold the simultaneous multiplicity of possibility in any given moment, so for example, a specific polarisation issue can represent both dangers of increased splitting and opportunities for transcendent growth. He emphasises the evolutionary importance of the clash of ideas, and quoting John Archibald Wheeler, who in turn cites Niels Bohr: “there is no hope of making any progress… unless one is confronted with a difficulty or paradox.  This is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions – out of this creative tension one can play off one against the other and begin to move ahead.”

Levy uses language which helps describe the nature of the emergent problems of societal consciousness we are experiencing today, although I am not sure yet to what extent to take his ideas literally or metaphorically.

Finally I want to recommend watching The Social Dilemma if you haven’t already, which I think is still only available on Netflix. This documentary is a wake-up call to society to respond to tech companies’ unbridled manipulation of people’s lives in pursuit of deeply flawed business models. There is a reminder that we don’t allow such unrestrained harmful abuse in other contexts (e.g. drug abuse or gambling) and that the problem has been allowed to arise because society takes time to catch up with new technologies, combining with perverse notions about the inherent goodness of free markets. There is a wonderful sequence where Justin Rosenstein questions why we chose a world where trees are worth more cut down than left standing, or where whales are worth more dead than alive and explains how our attention and imperceptible changes in behaviour have now become the product to be extracted in the same way as the earth’s natural resources. There is also the joy of seeing Jaron Lanier in full flow teaching us how to say NO to social media, the first step to reclaiming our will.  It ends with a call for the collective will of humanity to take back ownership of its destiny in the awareness that we are at a moment in time, when both catastrophe and utopia are possible outcomes (Levy’s quantum paradox), dependent upon the choices we now make. There’s a positive thought-virus to contemplate and replicate during any remaining time out of time we spend at home during this pandemic.

My next couple of posts will focus on two themes that have arisen frequently in conversation with coaches, professionals and leaders over the past year of the pandemic:

The humanisation of work– many organisations are starting to show signs of genuinely caring for their people, whilst many people’s expectations of their working lives have significantly changed during the pandemic. How does a psychology of being help leaders and organisational development professionals include the whole human being in the workplace?

The growing crisis for young people – what can we do for our young people, how can we support them to navigate these difficult times and build resilience? Linked to this is the question of how we can support the development of young leaders and help create the future leadership needed by our organisations and society.

That’s it for now, thanks for reading.

Aubyn’s book ‘Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching’ was published by Routledge 30th  December 2020


Somewhere in between
The waxing and the waning wave
Somewhere in between
What the song and silence say
Somewhere in between
The ticking and the tocking clock
Somewhere in a dream between
Sleep and waking up
Somewhere in between
Breathing out and breathing in
Like twilight is neither night nor morning

Kate Bush

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.