Rediscovering Spinoza

Doing research for my contribution in the January 2008 issue of the Integral Leadership Review I rediscovered Baruch de Spinoza, one of the most influential philosophers of modern western society. Spinoza, a Portugese jew,  lived in Amsterdam from 1632 until 1677. He desired to change the world with his philosophical ideals.

The 17th century is called in Europe the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. In this ‘age of reason’ people believed that systematic thinking might be applied to all areas of human activity. Reason was the primary basis of authority, mysticism and revelation were rejected as the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom, and were blamed for fomenting political instability. The Enlightenment-era is known for its extreme skepticism and inquiry into the nature of “knowledge.” This period and these thoughts set the basis for modern day democracy, political economy, philosophy and science.

The Enlightenment era is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values of society. Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also influenced by Enlightenment-era ideas. Spinoza was critical of the perception of God by the Catholic church and Jewish authorities. Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and other religious texts.

The core of Spinoza’s ethical philosophy is that nothing is intrinsically good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to be by the individual. Things are only good or evil in respect that humanity sees it desirable to apply these conceptions to matters. In the universe anything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects, or of God/Nature. According to Spinoza, reality is perfection.

“All things in nature proceed from certain necessity and with the utmost perfection”. Therefore, nothing happens by chance and reason does not work in terms of contingency. While elements of the chain of cause and effect are not beyond the understanding of human reason, our grasp of the infinitely complex whole is limited because of the limits of science to empirically take account of the whole sequence.

Albert Einstein named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted the most influence on his world view (Weltanschauung). Spinoza equated God (infinite substance) with Nature, consistent with Einstein’s belief in an impersonal deity. Also today’s deep ecology movement is highly influenced by Spinoza.

Personally I am very touched by both his definition of God as his conclusion that emotion is formed from inadequate understanding. The highest virtue of being is, according to Spinoza, preservation of the intellectual love or knowledge of God/Nature/Universe. He also states that emotions must be detached from external cause.

His concept of three types of knowledge – opinion, reason, intuitive – and assertion that intuitive knowledge provides the greatest satisfaction of mind, leads to his proposition that the more we are conscious of ourselves and Nature/Universe, the more perfect and blessed we are (in reality) and that only intuitive knowledge is eternal. His unique contribution to understanding the workings of mind is extraordinary, even during this time of radical philosophical developments, in that his views provide a bridge between religions’ mystical past and psychology of the present day.

And here we are in this modern Western society using all these eastern techniques and philosophies. But are we integrating these with our own Western imprints? Or are we trying to transcend without inclusion? In my opinion there also is a tendency of rejection of our own roots. Well for me here is a big opportunity to include while trying to transcend or emerge.

I have been studying more of the Hebrew, especially Kabalistic, foundations and here in Spinoza I find some kind of a ‘soul mate’. We are both Portuguese Jews who have been living in Amsterdam and both critical on the mainstream religious thoughts of our times and both trying to support breakthrough in common thinking in our society.

I see many parallels between Spinoza’s idea to make a distinction between emotions and the external cause and that what Buddhists call attachment. Or how Byron Katie translates this into the work. There is the distinction between thought and external environment. “Is that really true?” is one of her key questions that supports to make the distinction between the perception/emotion and the environment/reality.

But I am also reading Spinoza’s work and have this question about his focus on reason and rationality. Personally I believe we have reason – and ego – for a purpose and at the same time I consider it as something that can also limit us in our presence. Are we using reason to fulfill our full potential and purpose in life? Do we understand Spinoza’s and other great teachers teachings the way they meant them? I dare to doubt that strongly.

The last few years I have been chewing on a triangle that I now see that interconnects mind/thought, emotion/feelings and spirit/presence. Touched by Spinoza I’ll try to share some of the thoughts, senses and presence I experienced over this.

Spirit or presence is there, always and everywhere. It is inside and outside the physical body. It just is and it is all there is. Everything is spirit and spirit is everything. There is no good or bad, no right or wrong. There just is. You can call it God, Love, Chi, Allah, Presence, Jaweh, or whatever. It doesn’t need to forgive because there is no judgement. It is nature of all things, it is nature and therefore all things.  Us trying to understand is a necessary and at the same time tricky thing to do. So I am on a steep hill with lots of cliffs here. We are one and yet at the same time we experience differences. Or we think we do. We are divine and the divine is something we are part of. Or we believe so.

There is a funny and fuzzy ‘something’ going on when we try to understand the experiences we have. Does mind understand love? Is the definition that we have given to it ‘true’ to the experience of it? Are the emotions that we define as (being in) love really us being – in – love?  The latter I can definitely answer with a NO. The moment we try to describe the experience we are creating a distinction between us and the experience. Maybe that is an essence of duality. I don’t know.  But yet we need to describe what we experience. There is this drive to understand and this necessity to share. It also is a driver for all great art. Why do we have this intrinsic drive? Maybe because we are animals living in a group that need to share and maybe because we are conscious beings that sense that the collective intelligence is more than a sum of the individual ones. Andrew Cohen speaks of evolutionary consciousness and impersonal enlightenment. In business environments we speak of sense making in organizations (Weick) and synergy.  As I warned in earlier posts I am an Advaita … What are you actually if you have experiences and thoughts that are called Advaita? So every attempt to describe reality is just an attempt and not reality it Self. Check Tony Parsons’ ideas in this matter. He is quite confronting. So why do we have mind and thoughts and why do we have emotions/feelings?

Well, for one thing it is fun and it keeps us in a way very busy. Look what we have achieved and look at how much better our life conditions are from those of our parents or grandparents. And yes, at the same time there still are huge differences between rich and poor and do 5% of the population own over 80% of the assets. But is that wrong? For me the key question is “How can reason/mind/thought serve spirit in its unfolding?” I don’t have an answer, but keep on trying, and trying, and trying … How would the world be if we would be able to use mind and thought to serve the whole? Well it starts with a question and with the belief that you have a choice, always. This is where consciousness starts. And emotion.

Emotion can be very nice or very painful. ‘I am happy’, ‘I am angry’, ‘I am disappointed’, ‘I am in love’ etc. Well you are not your emotions, you experience them. Or you think you do. In the 21 day silent retreat or oneness process in India we were taught that emotions are not personal. We all have them and we all experience them. But, like Spinoza pleas, one must make a distinction between the emotion and the environment. Blaming the external trigger for the emotion is not taking up responsibility and doesn’t improve your response ability. Acting according the emotion without taking the emotion in consideration is not being human. It might be natural animal behavior, but mind gives you a choice. You can choose how to act, under every condition or circumstance. This to me is consciousness.
I realize this is easy to write from a warm home with a cup of tea in a wealthy western country, but it is one of the essences of spiritual teachings, scientific researches and philosophies, both eastern and western. And in this complex society we seem to forget. I believe it is time to take this back in. How? Practice, practice, practice. Not to achieve something or to maintain something but for the sake of practice it Self. I really liked the way my friend and colleague Terry Patten expressed this during our CHE afternoon with him. Enlightenment is not something to achieve, it happens just like that. You can’t practice or prepare for it. You also cannot maintain it or use practice in order to do so. But practice is needed.

This is difficult enough on an individual level. Mind and emotion blur the clear vision of presence and experience it Self. But it also is not enough to do your own individual work. We are living in a society where we need to collaborate. Therefore the collective is as important as the individual. For me lies here the importance of Ken Wilber  and his Integral Theory and Don Beck with Spiral Dynamics integral. The individual practitioners also need to interconnect on order to be able to vitalise.

About Alain B. Volz

Alain Volz M.Sc. (1969) - Social Economy Entrepreneur, founder and director of ATMA - has studied Business Administration and Organizational Psychology. He started his career with Royal Dutch Ahold and has worked with IPMMC and TC&O. For 10 years Alain has been working with Twynstra Gudde Consultants and Managers as senior consultant Human Talent & Change Management. He was responsible for Competency Based Human Talent Management. He is co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence in the Netherlands (CHE), a former member of the CHE alignment circle and founding director of CHE School of Synnervation (currently Synnervate). In 2011 he held the position of partner with the RnR Group in Maarn. Alain is Strategy & Alignment Officer at Dipaliya Women's Association in Tamale, Ghana. In the Netherlands he is board member of the committee for the position of women and minorities in the Dutch Democratic Party (D66 Thema Afdeling V/M Sociale Innovatie). As such he represented D66 in the PVO; a cross party National committee consisting of represents from 6 different political parties (CDA, CU, D66, Groen Links, PvdA, VVD). The office of ATMA is located at the ImpactHub Amsterdam & the ImpactHub Accra.
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