When I first received the press release about Banquet For The Soul, a spiritual talk fest starring guru du jour Neale Donald (Talking With God) Walsch, I nearly didn’t bother doing much more than scan. But then I noticed that his co-star Thom Hartmann was an innovator in the fields of psychiatry, ecology, and the intersection of spiritual and cultural transformation. After I read a bit more I decided to do a bit of research and the more I read the more impressed I became.

Hartmann is more than your average new-age stadium entertainer. He has a genuine and practical interest in how we save the planet, and thus ourselves, our family and friends, from further ecological devastation. He believes that our spiritual growth depends very much on our practical survival.

Because of human actions -“ and inaction -“ our planet appears to be on a collision course with disaster, Hartmann writes in his latest book The Last Hours Of Sunlight. We long ago passed a human population number that could be sustained without intensive use of gasoline and oil, he continues, so we’re burning up a 300-million-year-old fossilised-plant resource (which, if things don’t change, is expected to run dry in the lifetimes of our children) in order to feed the six billion humans currently riding spaceship Earth -¦

But what can we do? We can recycle, eat vegetarian foods, drive gas-efficient cars, and feel like we’re doing something useful. But it remains a fact that a panhandling Bowery wino in New York City has access to greater wealth in a month than most citizens of the world’s population will ever see in one year. And even that -˜poverty-level’ rate of resource consumption is something the planet cannot sustain without our burning up carbon fuel sources which will be exhausted within a generation or two.

When I talked with Hartmann by phone in Vermont just before he left for his Australian tour he was equally direct.

On the one hand he is confident that there are things that we can all do. But on the other hand he does not pretend there is a magic solution. He wants his work and his talk to change people but he is the first to admit that talk is cheap.

So much of that [current new-age seminars and thought] is just spiritual narcissism, he agrees when I share my scepticism about spiritual stadium tours.

Although Hartmann first embarked on the spiritual journey with a break-away Christian church in the States -“ the American Coptic Church -“ he is also very forthright in distinguishing between the helpful message of Jesus and the spiritual pathology of the institutional church.

Christianity was hijacked by St Paul and he changed it into something Jesus would probably not have recognised. That schism was quite clear during that time there was the Jerusalem church which was basically the guys who hung around with Jesus and then there was the Pauline Church which was Paul and his followers which eventually became the Roman Catholic Church and the Jerusalem church died out.

The whole Pauline mortification of the body, separation of the sexes, putting women in their place -“ having them cover their heads, shut up and sit at the back of the church -“ all that is a type of spiritual pathology that has infected our culture and -¦ is in part responsible for the crisis of our planet.

In The Last Hours Of Sunlight Hartmann argues that the place to start changing is in the way we think.

[We are] presented with a dizzying set of conflicting realities. What we choose to do about them will determine our future as a species. Consider these various ideas different people might have about life:

-˜We need electricity to be comfortable and maintain our way of life’ or -˜producing electricity is pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and extremely destructive weather patterns’. -˜Being able to drive where and when we want to at a cheap cost is freedom’ or -˜Americans’ driving habits are feeding the destruction of the planet’. -˜All of nature is here to serve the needs of humankind’ or -˜humans are no more or less important to the planet than any other life-form’. These ideas are grounded in the stories -“ the myths of our culture, our paradigms, our beliefs -“ that form the core of what we tell ourselves is -˜reality’. Stories, in this context, are anything we add to our original experience that alters what we think is going on, or changes how we think about things. Since so much of what we call reality is subjective, there are few -˜right’ or -˜wrong’ stories; instead there are -˜useful’ and -˜not useful’ stories, depending on what culture you belong to, and depending on your status in your culture. Depending on your relationship to the natural world and your vision of the future.

Increasingly, the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries are now moving from the -˜useful’ to the -˜not useful’ category.

Hartmann’s books are an impressive tour of thought in ecology, spirituality, politics and the new physics. His emphasis on changing the way we think is not a vague new-age plea -“ it is based on a serious analysis of the new physics which teaches a direct relationship between consciousness and matter.

Many physicists now assert, Hartmann writes in The Prophet’s Way, [that] there is a clear and solid connection between matter and consciousness, proven now in the most sophisticated physics laboratories in the world. Without consciousness to observe it, it seems that the entire universe of matter would dissolve back into energy!

Hartmann takes heart from this and talks not just of our unity with the world but our obligation to the world.

For me spirituality has to be practical, he tells me. What I find so wonderful about so many of the mystics in history is that they all talk of the experience of the deepest spiritual realities, the experience of the presence of everything that is, of all life and of all intelligence, of a billion, billion stars, the experience of all of that at once here and now and then they remind us that we have to chop wood and draw water -“ do our laundry. There has to be both.

There’s a beautiful Jewish concept of the -˜Tikun’ or -˜the obligation to heal the world’. The Jewish mystics believed that every human being is born with an obligation to heal the world -¦ and that’s not just an obligation, it’s an opportunity.

 

Thom Hartmann will appear with Neale Donald Walsch at Banquet For The Soul, a day-long seminar on Saturday 2 February, Sydney Entertainment Centre. Tickets are priced from $99 through Ticketek 9266 4800.

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