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Practising Transcendence: Living truthfully in an axial age

Jul 08, 2019

We are living in a pivotal point in history. For the first time, human activity is the dominant influence on Earth’s environment and ecosystems. It’s being called the Anthropocene Age, and the impacts are troubling. 

Species are going extinct at a rapid rate, climate change is wreaking havoc on ecosystems, world powers are sucking up resources, and truth is in scarce supply. With all that in mind, Dr. Christopher Peet, associate professor of psychology at King’s, says we would be wise to learn from the Axial Age of 2,500 years ago, another pivotal time.

“I use the metaphor of a map,” says Peet. “Imagine being lost in a forest, surrounded by animals, with little food. It would be pretty scary. But if you have a map to find the way out, it’s less scary.”

Dr. Peet offers readers a map in his upcoming book, Practising Transcendence, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019. As the title implies, he believes a key learning from Axial Age thinkers is the value of living a deliberately meditative life. 

German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term Axial Age in the aftermath of the Second World War. Convinced that humans must learn from history or be condemned to repeat it, he looked for the roots of globally accepted truths. He found thinkers in scattered civilizations whose beliefs have shaped worldviews since: Old Testament prophets in Israel; Confucius and the first Taoists in China; Buddha and early Jainists and Hindus in India; Zarathustra in Persia; philosophers like Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato in Greece. Noting that they all lived around five hundred years before Christ, Jaspers identified that period as a dividing line in history, or Axial Age. 

The visionaries of that time intentionally lived on the margins, Dr. Peet observes. Railing against the moral and ethical depravity of big power, including big religion, they created local, small-scale communities committed to contemplative ways of seeking truth and living truthfully. Yet they had global influence. In fact, today’s dominant religions trace their roots to these thinkers. But as the religions moved from the margins to mainstage, they strayed from the ethics of their birth.

“We always have a draw to big power, but one lesson of the Axial Age is that the real action is happening on the margins and on the outskirts,” Dr. Peet says. Recalling Jesus’ parable of the poor woman whose tiny gift is counted more than the billionaire’s largesse, he adds: “I think that reversal of thinking, which is very spiritual, is what all the religions of the world need to be doing, and what believers need to be doing, to really confront the big problems of our time. The authentic, truthful answer is surprisingly a very small answer.”

Human beings of the Anthropocene wield enormous power, Dr. Peet notes. “To use it responsibly, we need to set limits to that power. The only way to do that authentically, without external coercion, is through spiritual practice that teaches us how to restrain and transcend our egos.”

The coming centuries are crucial, Dr. Peet continues. “We’ve been setting fire to our own shelter for far too long. We need to cherish it and protect it – for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of each other, for the sake of the earth. Which is God’s commandment: love yourself and love your neighbours as yourself – including our animal neighbours. All the world religions are founded on those values, and I believe those values should inform our scientific understanding of the Anthropocene—particularly at this pivotal moment in history.”


By Cheryl Mahaffy

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