Tag Archives: Lissa Rankin

The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

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Let’s End the Story of Separation In 2015 _ The One-Many (OM) Project

Next up in the One-Many OM Project: “Let’s End the Story of Separation in 2015,” by Lissa Rankin. Her thought-provoking article is quoted below:

As we embark upon the journey of 2015, I am dreaming of a world in which we remember, as the indigenous people do, that our Story of Separation is only an illusion, that we are all connected, not just to other people, but to the plants, the animals, the mountains and rivers and oceans, that we cannot harm one another, we cannot violate nature, without directly harming ourselves. What would a world governed by our certainty of Oneness be like?

I just had the unspeakable privilege of living in such an experiment while spending most of December in Australia, preparing to speak at the Uplift Festival amidst a group of modern day spiritual teachers, indigenous elders, and sacred activists. The experience was so profound, moving, and hopeful that I was launched into a phase of grief after leaving our bubble of Oneness in Byron Bay. Even though I know this shift towards Oneness is already underway, and more and more of us are acting from a space of kindness, generosity, compassion, appreciation, and love, I still found it hard to walk through the airport on the way home and feel the pain of the remains of the separation story among us.

What’s Next?

I’m still integrating and digesting it all and asking myself, “What’s next?” How do we go about dreaming into being such a world, characterized by compassion, collaboration, imagination, flow, interconnectivity, recognition of our inner Divinity, and respect for Mother Gaia in all her glory, a world free of the greed, competition, anger, selfishness, judgment, and righteousness that stem from the Story of Separation?

What’s next? How do we balance our tendencies towards Being versus Doing ? Is it enough for each of us to do what it takes individually to peel back those layers of All That Is Not Us so that we collectively raise the vibration of the planet? Or is there more to do? Is this a time of exiting the old systems? Should the doctors just quit participating in a system that is so out of alignment with their nature as true healers? Could we as doctors possibly just leave our emergency rooms untended in protest of the old way that isn’t working? What about our commitment to care, our ethics? Should the lawyers who really care about real justice stop going to the courthouse? Should the teachers who really believe in educating our children to be conscious humans just walk out of the schools? Should the politicians who truly care about their constituents walk out of the vote because they know money will win, rather than true democracy? Should the bankers who know that the economic system is all one big sham ready to dissolve with the slightest unraveling quit signing the loan checks? Should the corporate executives, asked to compromise their integrity every day by putting money ahead of sensitivity to good people and nature, just go fishing?

Should we just quit participating in a culture of separation so a culture of Oneness begins to reconstruct it effortlessly from a new consciousness of interconnectivity? Should we all just sit down right where we are, opening our hearts, freeing ourselves from all judgment or victim stories, holding hands with one another as we imagine this more beautiful world? Should we just occupy the new world and refuse to participate in the old? Would this catalyze a revolution of love?

Or is it time to do something more active? Where do we start?

What Would LOVE Do?

I, for one, feel called to love more. When I’m making daily decisions, I ask myself “What would LOVE do?” Right now, in this Now moment, love wants to use me to write. Aside from that one inspired action, I am just surrendering it all, turning it over to Divine Will and trusting that we will be guided in the direction of That Which Wants To Become. This guidance will not be subtle.

Perhaps we are simply in that space between stories, as Charles Eisenstein , who also spoke at the Uplift Festival, so eloquently describes in his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible :

The old world falls apart but the new has not yet emerged. Everything that once seemed permanent and real is revealed as a kind of hallucination. You don’t know what to think, what to do; you don’t know what anything means anymore. The life trajectory you had plotted out seems absurd, and you can’t imagine another one. Everything is uncertain. Your time frame shrinks from years to this month, this week, today, maybe even this present moment. Without the mirage of order that once seemed to protect you and filter reality, you feel naked and vulnerable, but also a kind of freedom.

Possibilities that didn’t even exist in the old story lie before you, even if you have no idea how to get there. The challenge in our culture is to allow yourself to be in that space, to trust that the next story will emerge when the time in between has ended, and that you will recognize it. Our culture wants us to move on, to do. The old story we leave behind, which is usually part of the consensus Story of the People, releases us with great reluctance. So please, if you are in the sacred space between stories, allow yourself to be there.

It is frightening to lose the old structures of security, but you will find that even as you might lose things that were unthinkable to lose, you will be okay. There is a kind of grace that protects us in the space between stories. It is not that you won’t lose your marriage, your money, your job, or your health. In fact, it is very likely that you will lose one of these things. It is that you will discover that even having lost that, you are still okay. You will find yourself in closer contact to something much more precious, something that fires cannot burn and thieves cannot steal, something that no one can take and cannot be lost. We might lose sight of it sometimes, but it is always there waiting for us. This is the resting place we return to when the old story falls apart. Clear of its fog, we can now receive a true vision of the next world, the next story, the next phase of life. From the marriage of this vision and this emptiness, a great power is born.

What do you think? What’s next for you? What’s next for us?

***
Lissa writes of herself: “I’m fired up about healing our broken health care system, one empowered patient and one conscious health care provider at a time. I’m obsessed with helping patients and health care providers view illness, not from a place of victimhood, but as an opportunity for awakening. I doctor not just bodies, but souls. I write pretty much every day and I love it as much as life itself. I believe that the key to living a long, vital life is an optimistic attitude, the willingness to love expansively and receive love in return from a wide circle of people close to you, engaging in work that lights you up, tapping into Source, allowing your creativity to flow boundlessly, being unapologetically
who you really are, moving your body in ways that make you smile, and drinking as much green juice as you can. I relish helping visionaries find their callings and realize their visions. I’m inspired by people brave enough to transmute adversity into spiritual growth, vulnerable enough to let their imperfections be witnessed, and courageous enough to keep their hearts open, even when those hearts are at risk of getting hurt. I’m moved by hiking in redwood forests, skiing in fresh powder, live music of all types, and dancing barefoot.”
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