Australians in Search of a Soul

David Tacey

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, June 1999.
David Tacey gave this talk at the 1999 Australian Convention.

One of my grandfathers, who was a theosophist, had a significant influence on my life. He convinced me that spirituality is not confined to churches but that it is a part of our normal and deeper tradition. I perceive a hunger for spirituality in Australia today, mixed with what you might call institutional resistance to spirituality in certain quarters, especially in universities. Universities are based on principles of intellectual enlightenment and as such are factories of rationalism and materialism. Many students do not agree with this and will be pushing for change.

What is ‘Normal’?

Last year I was invited to give a keynote address in Melbourne to the Royal College of Psychiatry about the relationship between mental health and spirituality, and was teamed with a psychiatrist from Sydney who has written five or six books in his field. The psychiatrist exhibited a list of various Christian saints, martyrs and prophets and then indicated what psychological malaise each was suffering from. I was somewhat appalled. Spirituality shares, or is a cousin of, mental illness, because both mental illness and spirituality involve a displacement of the normal ego. The normal ego is concerned with our reality testing. If the ego happens to have been displaced by a spiritual experience, if we feel some deeper impulse of interconnectedness or feel ourselves connected with people from the past or the future, this is not surprising given the interconnectedness of reality. However, if we go to a professional practitioner about this we will be told that our job is to reshape our ego. When we then become as boring and normal as everybody else, we are referred to as having been cured and the practitioner can say, ‘Job well done!’.

Jung said to Freud, ‘You are educating and analysing people, getting rid of the demons, but you are getting rid of their angels as well.’ I am deeply indebted to Jung because of what he has done in the field of mental health and psychology, and who questioned ‘normality’. How true or authentic is ‘normality’? Why should we feel constantly constrained to be normal, to fit in and not to be noticed? We value conformity to a large extent in Australia, even though we call ourselves a nation of rugged individualists. In the 1960s, anti-psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing and Russell Cooper said that madness is simply a higher state of consciousness. That was never Jung’s position at all for he was a far more stable, wise man. He realised that while some mental illness did give a person access to altered states of being or consciousness, nevertheless most mental illness was, in fact, mental illness, that is, the lack of a stable ego in order to keep our life together. He put forward a theory which has influenced my thinking. This says that we have two senses of psychic being in our lives, one the ego and the other the soul. In a sense life is a balance between the demands of the ego in terms of everyday functioning, and the soul, which is concerned with larger forces to do with meaning, depth, purpose and all the things very much lacking in today’s society.

At the conference in Melbourne mentioned previously, I responded that I considered everything the psychiatrist had said was wrong and proceeded to explain why. Most unexpectedly, the psychiatrist indicated afterwards that he agreed with everything that I had said! He admitted that the saints and martyrs had meant very much to him when he was a child and that he needed to reconnect with his religious background from which his profession had separated him. He did not stop there but added, ‘Moreover, I think that there is a new religion on the way, a new religious awareness which I see in my patients in Sydney. A lot of their psychological illness is to do with the fact that Australia as a society lacks meaning, spiritual direction.’ He indicated that, if his patients are correct that they are partly in therapy because our society lacks a cosmology, a depth of soul to make sense of their lives and all of our lives, then in his opinion we are at the beginning of a religious revival. This went far beyond anything I would have been prepared to say on the subject; I was merely going to comment that mental health and spirituality had a point of overlap.

The Australian Psyche

It seems to me that the Australian psyche is very split. At one level we do not allow ourselves to talk about, or to be, spiritual. There is a certain ban against spirituality in favour of common sense, rationality, et cetera. Spirituality is felt by many to be escapist, negative, morbid or rather unreal. Often if people relax their defences, then underneath their sophisticated disbelief, their polished exterior or what Patrick White called ‘the cynical rationality’, is a deep level of spiritual desire and faith. However, we live in a society in which much of that is masked. I am very interested in trying to ‘un-ban’ that repressed life. My maternal grand-father taught me skills such as meditation and talked to me a great deal about Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo and the need to open ourselves up to our inner life and not repress or deny it.

In Search of a Soul

As I see it, Australia is in search of a soul although often we do not realise it. Spirituality is making a comeback, although it is too early for me to track this development in great detail. There are a number of areas in which I see spirituality emerging:

  • In the Experience of Nature and Landscape: The cities are teeming with youth, often as young as six, who are dedicated to Gaia and the notion of the earth as a living organism. They want to maintain their connection with nature in a spiritual and meaningful way which we call eco-spirituality. If we allow ourselves to experience the land in an unguarded way, and spend time in nature, it affects us quite deeply and transforms our lives. My own experience of growing up in Alice Springs in Central Australia affected me strongly, due to the spirit of the place.
  • Aboriginal Reconciliation:
    I consider that the reconciliation movement represents grass roots spiritual revolution.
  • Throughout the country we can sign our name in ‘sorry’ books which is quite significant and reflects this new groundswell of interest. ‘Reconciliation’, of course, is a religious word. In times gone by reconciliation before a priest was confession, by which one reconciled oneself to God. Aboriginal reconciliation is also a religious experience, because it involves sacrifice. We have to sacrifice some of our claims to the land in favour of Aboriginal native title. We want to give back some of what we have taken, which is a spiritual impulse. To ‘sacrifice’ is to make holy and I think we want to sacrifice some of Australia, some of its land, to make the land holy again. This is extremely important.
  • Public Interest in Eastern Religions: There is a very high attraction to Eastern religious traditions in Australia, interest in Buddhism being the fastest growing. Buddhism is very sophisticated when it comes to inner experience, offering not just a series of tenets to believe but a way, a path, a spiritual technology, meditation, a psychology as well as a spirituality.
  • Workplace Relations, Human Resources and Industry Leadership: In Sydney there is now an annual conference called ‘Spirituality in Public Leadership’. Hundreds of people attended last year’s conference, all of whom were very eager to learn about what spirituality would be like in the workplace, and how spirituality in the workplace can change the conditions of work. Each year the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has a conference called ‘Exploring Adolescent Spirituality’ which is a landmark movement in the history of mental health in this country. The hospital has decided that spirituality is an important part of mental health and that the values it provides are very important for creating a stable, meaningful human being. In their discussions it is apparent that the words ‘belonging’ and ‘connectedness’ are brought up repeatedly by young people who are suffering from mental disturbances, and who experience a lack of both. In therapy and mental health professions, more and more people are also becoming open to spirituality.

What is Spirituality?

What is spirituality? I would define it as all those forces and factors that enable us to transcend the alienation of the ego, the alienation of the personal self, to bring us into relationship with others. Related to this process of transcendence is ritual. Where you engage people religiously, you invariably engage in ritual. The word ‘ritual’ is based on the Latin ‘ritus’ which also forms the first part of the word ‘river’. Ritual means ‘flowing like a river’ and to engage in it implies losing the alienation of the separate self and entering into stream with the forces of life. The country is crying out for a soul, for a sense of spiritual well-being. We have to work hard to allow that inner life to come forward. The two sides of our lives, the material and the spiritual, are perfectly able to be integrated. It is only some residual problem in the Australian psyche which prevents the yin and the yang, the spirit and the body, from being brought into some kind of important relationship.

It is ironic that Western culture, exhausted by hundreds of years of secular materialism, is now so very hungry for spirituality and that many of us naturally turn to the East as one of the great world cradles of spiritual wisdom, only to find that modern Asian countries are moving in the opposite direction, at least, the younger ones. There are still plenty of people in Asia with wisdom, however — often older people. In a parallel way the oldness, the age of Australia is something which we have to bring into our consciousness. Aboriginal Australia is tens of thousands of years old. We think of European Australia as being two hundred years old, but the notion that we are only two hundred years old is a rationalistic fantasy. We did not appear out of the sky at that time but came on ships across the sea. It is important for us to get in touch with our roots, from which we can hopefully glean some spiritual wisdom about our background and not sense ourselves as purely secular, irreligious modern people without a background. In tribal and indigenous societies spirituality is an entirely natural way of being in the world, as I discovered while growing up in Central Australia. Spirituality is the basis from which indigenous Australians live — their respect for the land which they sense to be their mother, and their devotional response to landscape. Without spirituality there would be no ecological basis for reality. Ecology has to have a spiritual basis or it would not make sense.

Spirituality is about what we do not know, not what we know; it is a paradox, an emotional relationship with an invisible sacred presence. To those who experience this relationship it is real, transformative and complete. Spirituality is not beyond our grasp but is our normal way of being. Its rise in this country signifies not only the end of secular Australia but the end of modernity as we know it because the key feature of modernity is alienation. Our contemporary experience of alienation is so relentlessly overwhelming that it has activated the desire for belonging or interconnectedness as a counter response. The more alienated the self becomes the more it craves for that ancient and primordial, although repressed, experience of being dynamically related to everything.

It is difficult for churches to imagine that there can be so much spirituality when they are not part of this action, for traditionally they have regarded themselves as having a monopoly on the sacred. In 14th century France, if you claimed to have had an experience of the sacred outside the Roman Catholic Church, you were hunted and killed as a heretic. I am a member of a church but recognise that one of the reasons why churches in Australia are declining is because people are not finding the sacred in the old places. Statistics demonstrate that only seven to twelve per cent of Australians are now attending traditional places of worship. Buddhism is thriving as are Hinduism, Islam, various non-conventional churches and other groups.

Australia still does not know who or what it is. From time to time we are plagued by a chronic and ongoing identity crisis. Non-Aboriginal Australians panic about who and what we are, because we realise our roots are superficial. We do not draw either from the powerful forces deep within ourselves or from the forces of the landscape. The question, ‘Who are we?’ or more particularly, ‘Who am I?’ as a person, is not just the ego’s question — it is the soul’s question and has to be answered in a soulful or spiritual way. My view is that the soul keeps disrupting the surface of life and asking us to tell it who we are. It continues to gnaw at us from within. Australia needs something more than common sense or rational economic goals to make it work; even Australia cannot live by bread alone.

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Dr David Tacey is a Professor at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where he is Head of Psychoanalytic Studies and Senior Lecturer in Literature at the School of English.