Individualism: spiritual or not?

I’ve just been redoing a collection of holistic videos and they reminded me: one and all, just how interconnected we all are.

Yet spiritual growth is an individual process. It’s so individual in fact that the Dutch newspapers had a debate a few months ago about whether or not spirituality was in fact selfish. It’s an old charge, but that the newspapers were covering it shows just how mainstream spirituality is becoming.

Our modern culture is more and more individualistic. When sociologists say that, they mean people have more freedom from social constraints than ever before. That’s another way of saying that we aren’t limited in our circle of friends to the people we grew up with. In fact, I’m not in touch with anybody I went to school with. While that may be a bit extreme, a large number of our social connections are chosen – instead of givens.

Imagine yourself in a village – say 200 years ago. You’d know the person next door. If they were your age, you probably grew up together. You would know the grocer. You would know how many kids the barber has, and you probably know them by name as well. His oldest son is likely being trained to take over some day.

There are a lot of social constraints, a lot of very specific expectations to follow. That’s all different for most of us now. As I wrote before: most of humanity (over 50% anyhow) lives in cities. Social networks are looser in cities.

The only stable connections many people have in their lives are the ones we grow up with: specifically family. Yet many relationships even in the family are strained or superficial.

So in a very real sense we are more free today than they’ve ever been. Free to choose our career. Free to wear what we want. Free to marry whomever we want – though perhaps not someone of the same sex in all Western countries. This is the direction even Asian cultures are growing towards as well (though for now freedom to marry whomever you want is limited to a privileged few in India for instance).

I’m sure this freedom is precisely why religion is being replaced by spirituality. We no longer feel at home in churches – for the most part. We want and have come to expect the freedom to decide for ourselves what is true and to change our minds. Many people distrust all religious or spiritual organizations. I was chatting online with someone the other day whom I knew was very interested in theosophy. I assumed he was a member of the TS – I was wrong. He wrote something along the lines of: I don’t like religious organizations.

It’s a sign of the times. People don’t want to commit to an organisation because that just doesn’t feel right – or something. I’m not the one to explain why, because I feel very much at home in the TS. I need a group of people that IS reasonably constant in the midst of a life that keeps throwing surprises at me. And the TS does give me the freedom to believe whatever I want.

The main issue I want to go into today though is something else: it’s the illusion of individuality.

Back to those holistic videos: they remind us that we are all in this together. In fact one of them was a plea for everybody all over the world to meditate on just that truth at least once a day. A very optimistic project, obviously.

We ARE all in this together. And from a spiritual perspective we are more connected than we can fathom. Or perhaps I should say: our conscious minds can’t grasp just how connected we are. Our intuition should have no problem with it. The classic Indian approach to this is to say that our deepest consciousness (atman) is one with the source of the universe (Brahman). Or in the words of a mantra that Annie Besant composed (and which is used all over the world by theosophists at theosophical meetings):

Oh hidden Life
Vibrant in every atom

Oh hidden Light
Shining in every creature

Oh Hidden Love
Embracing all in Oneness

May all who feel themselves
As one with Thee

Know they are therefore
One with Every Other

What does that leave of individuality? What does that leave of asserting your independence?

But lets go to one of my other reasons for questioning individualism.

I just wrote that we are free to decide what to wear. Sure. If I want to wear clothes made 100 years ago, I’m free to do so. But I’m not sure wearing them to a job interview will help with me getting hired. They may remember me by it, but it would be a sure sign that I don’t know the basic rules of social behavior.

I was at a theosophical conference in the US a few years ago. I had a string of bad luck in the health department. I came in with a cold and the skin on my face got infected with bacterium during the first week or so. Theosophists are notoriously individualistic. It may be one reason why we find it so hard to agree 🙂 But the advice people gave me for dealing with my troubles was remarkably similar. I mean down to the specific pills I should take and the precise moment I should go find a doctor. Turns out: they were collectively right about the doctor, wrong about the pills. But then, my problems are usually best taken care of by orthodox medicine, not alternative treatment.

My point: however proud we may be of our individualism, humans act as a collective anyhow. The recent problems in the stock market underscore this as well.

4 thoughts on “Individualism: spiritual or not?”

  1. As I read this post an insight from the Dalai Lama came to my mind:
    “A strong ego is needed, but without becoming egoistical. To make a wish that you become able to help all beings throughout space, you need a strong self; with a weak self such an intention is impossible.”

  2. I don’t agree with your conclusion. You say humans act collective anyhow, again your in a situation or a group called “TS”. Could the group have the collectivist behavior? what if the the individuals in the group never met each other and they suggest you something on medications. Would their suggestion have been the same? Could “TS” have affected the way they think?

    1. The TS here stands for the Theosophical Society, not that that matters: while it’s a group that contains loads of individualistic people, the fact remains: we’re none of us as individualistic as we think.

      Fashions, opinions, how we lived, what we eat, how we talk: we are influenced by other people in everything we do. And that’s precisely the point of this post. Agree or not… I would have you look at your own life and be honest with yourself: how much of your individuality really isn’t that unique or special? Why do we, collectively, feel such a need to stress our individuality?

  3. Katina thanks for your reply. I agree with your argument that my individuality isn’t original and it has been borrowed, influenced by others, society, people who i interact with, etc. But if i take a person as a whole, he will have his own set of behaviors, that have been influenced by others. What i believe is this “set” (collection) of behaviors is unique for everybody and it is not the same since every person has had unique experiences in being influenced by people. We didn’t have the same experiences in the society. Hence the collection of behaviors that define us is unique to every person. let me know what you think about this?

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