INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Vitvan and the School
of the Natural Order
New Age Culture with a Do It Yourself Ethic
Daniel Gustav Anderson
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NOTE: This is a paper I presented at the 2010 Western Literature Association conference in Prescott, Arizona, USA. I think it offers some ways to advance the conversation in integral studies by considering some paths not yet taken, rather than strictly “new” developments: first, to see ways in which integral theory as we know it now relates to the older but still demonstrably “modern” tradition of New Age thought and practice, and more specifically still, to reflect on the contributions made by the great American yogin Ralph Moriarity de Bit, who taught under the name Vitvan
and founded the School of the Natural Order. The School persists today at the Home Farm in Baker, Nevada, USA, and also online (www.sno.org
), presenting a way of learning that in my judgment has much to offer contemporary researchers in integral studies, integral theory, noetic studies, bioregionalism, ecocriticism, and those interested in cultural life of the North American West. –D.G.A.
In the English-speaking world, the term “New Age” connotes a spectrum of practices and belief systems that are first held to be alternative to dominant or mainstream canons of value, and second more appropriate to contemporary conditions and future growth: hence the name, New Age. Inclusive of its analogues and antecedents, such as spiritism, automatic writing, and Theosophy, New Age practices, doctrines, and communities have been features of the popular-literary, spiritual, and material landscapes of the North American West since before the First World War. One might go so far as to say that New Age is a cultural form indigenous to the American West: this identity of Western places with New Age practices is reflected metonymically in our everyday speech as well as our cultural criticism, as in Michel Foucault's considerations on the “Californian cult of the self” and Slavoj Zizek's dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” You can get my meaning here with a thought experiment: here in Arizona, when your sister tells you that your niece has dropped out of business school at Arizona State and moved to Sedona, what assumptions do you automatically, even unfairly, make just on the basis of that sliver of information?
This paper proposes to consider the writings of Vitvan (birth name: Ralph Moriarity de Bit), who lived from 1883 through 1964, in the context of his itinerant teaching practice and establishment of more or less stable centers of New Age learning in the West, particularly the School of the Natural Order, and primarily in California, Colorado, and especially Nevada, where the school persists today. Vitvan presented his teachings as appropriate to a New Age and hence understandable only to a select few of his contemporaries, and in its synthesis of Shaktism, astrology, Protestant Christianity, and popularized science, it is clearly recognizable as a New Age teaching in contemporary terms. However, Vitvan's pedagogy is unique among other New Age doctrines in its vigorous attempts at very precise conceptual rigor—Vitvan reorganized his teaching in midlife around the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski—and further, Vitvan's community is unique in that it refused to unquestioningly engage in mainstream consumer capitalist exchange, preferring to self-publish comb-bound volumes instead of the mass-produced paperbacks and other media so typical of the seeker scene of the 1970s and the good-living industry for which Oprah Winfrey still serves as a spokesmodel today. This D.I.Y. ethic sets Vitvan and the School of the Natural Order apart from cognate New Age projects, and anticipates certain of its contemporary themes by some decades.
I will give a historical overview of Vitvan's work in order to put some muscle on this skeleton of a claim, but first some comments on contemporary New Age culture are helpful in order to show how this body of work is significant and in some respects complicates our understanding of New Age cultural life in North America. Andrew Ross, in his monograph Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, proposes that the role of New Age practice in the contemporary public sphere should be understood as a kind of vanguardism:
Prominent New Age ideologues are […] inclined to present the whole community as a decentralized avant garde with a theory of global human transformations, and with the desire, like all vanguards, to initiate people into making a radical break with history. And like all vanguards, the responsibility for the Aquarian revolution lies in a creative minority, while the conditions for a revolutionary transformation require only a sufficient number of consciousness-changing individuals (66).
This can be seen in the work of such contemporary writers on “alternative spiritualities” as Ken Wilber or Andrew Cohen: we, the vanguard of human evolution, possess a new worldview that has the power to change the world by changing the minds of a few people now. Consequently, there is a specific relationship between the doctrines these writers present as a form of knowledge (which draws in an appeal to science and rationality), and the relationship of this knowledge to practice. As it happens, Ross's decision to describe this in terms of a vanguard intent on revolution, and hence to draw an analogy between New Age aspirations and Leninism, is not accidental: the content of New Age doctrines differs substantially from dialectical materialism, but the relation posited between theoria and praxis in both doctrines do bear a strong resemblance. And as it happens, this kind of dialectic between transformative knowledge on one side and social consciousness on another side is also at work in the teaching of the School of the Natural Order, and in fundamentally the same terms as many contemporary New Age doctrines including Wilber's and Cohen's. In this way, Vitvan's early intervention complicates one of the foundational assumptions of scholarship on New Age culture. Ross, for instance, claims that “most of the transformational rhetoric of New Age comes from the 1960s counterculture, and it is there that any narrative of the history of New Age politics is obliged to begin” (66). But because Vitvan died three years before the Summer of Love, his doctrine and pedagogy present a challenge to our understanding of New Age's historical development as well.
Ralph Moriarity deBit was born on Christmas day, 1883, in rural Kansas. Around the turn of the century, economic forces pulled him westward, to very rural Idaho, where he worked in forestry and established a family. While working in the woods, he began to hear a voice that gave him instructions. This impulse led him eventually to Spokane, Washington, where he met an Indian immigrant named A.K. Mozumdar, reputedly sent to the U.S. by his guru to teach meditation to Americans. DeBit identified the voice he heard in the forest with Mozumdar's voice, and became his disciple. DeBit remained with Mozumdar in Spokane, living with him and working beside him essentially as an apprentice for seven years. Mozumdar gave deBit the name “Vitvan” meaning “one who knows” after an enlightenment experience, when the younger man was 34 years old.
After a four year period on his own in Greenwich Village, Vitvan established himself as a semi-itinerant spiritual teacher in the American West beginning in 1921, settling for a time in Los Angeles, then during a long period from 1925 through 1942 at an ashram named Po-Ahtun near Bailey, Colorado, then with a change in his pedagogy a change of place, to a center called Eschatologia near San Diego, and finally establishing the Home Farm of the School of the Natural Order in very rural eastern Nevada in 1957. This location is something of an oasis geographically, quite near Great Basin National Park, in close view of Mount Wheeler, and here the School of the Natural Order persists to this day.
Vitvan's oeuvre is quite large and complex, but in the last analysis, it should be understood as a form of tantric teaching, specifically deriving from a Hindu tradition known as Shaktism, a teaching strongly featured in the popular and influential writings of Aurobindo Ghose (a writer Vitvan admired deeply), taught famously in India by Baghwan Nityananda, and later disseminated in the global North by teachers such as Swami Muktananda, Swami Rudrananda, and Da Free John (Adi Da), the latter a formative influence on New Age thinkers such as Ken Wilber and Saniel Bonder. This is the tradition in which Vitvan's guru, Mozumdar, had been trained, and its characteristic teachings—a model of the human body in terms of subtle energy flowing through channels and centers (chakras), the descent of a divine energy (Shakti) and ascent of an occult force (kundalini), for starters—feature prominently in Vitvan's major works. However, Vitvan presents these claims in terms of the Biblical literature he and most of his immediate students had grown up with, Theosophy, and popular science. In his book The Christos, for instance, the Shakti is represented as the secret meaning of the word “Christ” in the Greek Testament (87). In this case also, Vitvan followed his guru's lead—Mozumdar was also publicly devoted to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and not just as a rhetorical means to reach skeptical American housewives or as a teaching tool but also as a matter of personal conviction.
However, Vitvan breaks with Mozumdar on a point of pedagogy, and here the significance of Ross's analysis of the relation between theory and practice in New Age culture shows one way in which New Age-ism is a distinct formation from the traditional cultural practices that preceded it. Mozumdar had given deBit precious little theoretical or doctrinal teaching; he would give his student a brief maxim to contemplate or teach him by example, and had him meditate on these fragments until he understood them one by one, over and over. There was no systematic overview, no magnum opus to buy and study. Vitvan felt this master-and-apprentice style of pedagogy to be wholly inappropriate for a North American public increasingly enamored of scientific-seeming discourses, and hopelessly inefficient for reaching a mass audience:
I believe in telling just where the bear sat in the buckwheat. And I strongly contend that manufactured mystery and a reluctance to explanation are handicaps to understanding. I feel certain that had I been presented with a careful description of the mechanism by which consciousness operates, my meditations would have been more fruitful and my own certification of the process not so long delayed […]. After all, these ideas are fundamental to the Wisdom Teachings and totally accepted by the modern scientific community. Granted that an intellectual explanation of the hypothesis will not on its own trigger the awareness that transfers mental concept to full realization, nor can it flush out the vast implications therein; but that is not sufficient reason to withhold its presentation. It is there that they may eventuate in perceptive awareness” (quoted in Satriano, 84-85).
Several tropes characteristic of contemporary New Age thinking are visible in this pedagogy: an insistence that contemporary science verifies the doctrine, that an understanding of the new paradigm can induce changes in consciousness which can eventuate a New Age of peace and understanding, and hence, that mass distribution of teaching materials to achieve this summum bonum is warranted (of which more in a moment). These are commonplaces to writers such as Wilber and Cohen today, but if one considers Vitvan's claim that his teaching holds true for all cultures and all branches of knowledge (which is, of course, not a plausible assumption), it may seem a sadly absurd claim for a solitary and elderly man on a rustic Nevada farmstead to make on his own behalf, but for two considerations: first, that Vitvan felt himself to be but one representative of a vanguard bringing a new dispensation of truth to the world, so his intent is not self-promoting in the strict sense (and this points to the existence of an established New Age culture well before the countercultural boom of the 1960s); second, such claims are a characteristic doctrine of New Age culture and its outgrowths in integral studies, specifically the aspiration to build a Theory of Everything or key to all mythologies on the premise that our theory represents the summum bonum of world culture (a trend represented most hyperbolically by Ken Wilber). Aldous Huxley, Vitvan's contemporary, expressed this form of the old doctrine of the perennial philosophy as:
the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions (vii).
This doctrine and its anthropological assumptions have had a place in mass culture since Helena Blavatsky's popular 1888 book The Secret Doctrine. One might say Vitvan advanced this premise in his aspiration to unite his spiritual doctrine with the findings of contemporary physical science into an integrated body of knowledge: the Natural Order Process.
Vitvan made another break with Mozumdar's pedagogy midway through his teaching practice. In 1937, at the prompting of one of his sons, Vitvan read Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. Before his exposure to Korzybski, Vitvan's teaching was expressed in much the same terms as Mozumdar's had been, primarily in theological and metaphysical terms. Afterward, however, Vitvan became convinced of the need to scrap this approach and begin again in with a non-metaphysical mode of expression, to attempt a much higher standard of conceptual rigor in his written works, and demand a greater attention to language and thought in his students. Toward this end, he traveled to Chicago from Colorado to study with Korzybski personally in 1938, returned to the Po-Ahtun ashram and destroyed all his manuscripts and printed materials, sold the ashram, renounced metaphysical thinking entirely, and effectively alienated a great many of his students, a gesture among religious figures that Brook Ziporyn describes as “revolutionary charisma.” A quick before-and-after comparison shows the significance of this transformation: Universal Will (1930) emphasizes devotion and the value of traditional Christian practices such as taking communion in a faux-leather-bound volume clearly designed for middlebrow seekers of Serious Material; the three-volume Natural Order Process (published 1968-1971), by contrast, is comb-bound and, while carefully produced, are clearly home-grown and made not with an eye toward the market but strictly toward the use-value of a teaching tool. These volumes present the entirety of reality as a nondual spectrum of wave-patterns rather than as any traditional ontology or Godhead in any sense but a metaphoric one. And here is an interesting tension in Vitvan's work: a longstanding desire to present his doctrine in a way appropriate to a North American cultural milieu juxtaposed to an equally urgent need to present a rigorous pedagogy, which is hardly a selling point in the mass-market paperback business. While Oprah Winfrey may provoke an interest in New Age treatments such as The Power of Now among American daytime television watchers, something as ambitious as General Semantics is a non-starter. Vitvan led his vanguard into a cultural desert as well as a literal one—to suggest a shabby Zizekian pun, he led the New Age into a Desert of the Real.
A similar tension is also expressed between Vitvan's aspiration to promote the arising of an Aquarian New Age through his teaching and his school's insistence (an honorable insistence in my opinion) on do-it-yourself publishing and distribution of teaching materials, which has the advantage of allowing for free and unhindered expression of the material, but the disadvantage of limited exposure and subsequent isolation and obscurity. The New Agey-ness of Vitvan's teaching is made very apparent on the first page of the first chapter of the first volume of The Natural Order Process: “we are, in a time-sense, in a transition between two great cycles respecting this planet. The old cycle is drawing to a close and the 'spirit' which animated its institutions and forms is withdrawing; the forms are falling into dissolution. The 'spirit' respecting the new cycle now coming in has not sufficiently developed its forms or configurations to effect stability” (1). In the context of the transition he posits between cycles of human development, Vitvan seeks to present the perennial philosophy in such a way as to open up the New Age in terms of growth and progress, a doctrine he reiterates in different terms throughout his lectures. The teaching, he explains in The Christos, “must be re-articulated, re-expressed in language structure comparable to the age, times, and advancing Self-awareness” (227): terms drawn primarily from the natural sciences and sciences of mind in Vitvan's judgment.
And this rapproachement in Vitvan's teaching points to one contribution New Age culture can make in our moment, as Andrew Ross observes in regard to the generation of New Age writers in the years since Vitvan ceased teaching: rethinking cultural production in terms of ecological scarcity and technological limits (Ross 73-74). Vitvan probes the question what does it mean to be part of nature? in a radical way, insisting that personal and spiritual development are integral to a natural order process (hence the name of his school). In direct contradistinction to consumer capitalism, which is all about expressing yourself through the things you own and developing your identity through commodity choices, Ross observes in these practices one substitutes potentially infinite internal development for necessarily limited external development (72-73). Consequently, the New Age school that explicitly turned its back on consumer capitalism in practice by self-publishing is also the vanguard school that explicitly anticipated New Age culture's response to the consequences of consumer capitalism, the problematic of personal development and cultural expression in a world of scarcity.
Blavatsky, Helene. The Secret Doctrine. London: Theosophical Publication Company, 1888. Print.
Bonder, Saniel. Waking Down: Beyond Hypermasculine Dharmas: A breakthrough way of self-realization in the sanctuary of mutuality. San Anselmo, CA: Mt. Tam Awakenings, Inc., 1998. Print.
Cohen, Andrew. Embracing Heaven & Earth: the liberation teachings of Andrew Cohen. Lenox, MA: Moksha Press, 2000. Print.
Da, Free John. The Dawn Horse Testament of Heart-Master Da Free John. San Rafael, CA: The Dawn Horse Press, 1985. Print.
deBit, Ralph M. Universal Will. Los Angeles, CA: Sacred Science Publication Society, 1930. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982. Ed. Frederic Gros. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005. Print.
Ghose, Aurobindo. Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol. Third. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper, 1945. Print.
Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: an introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics. Third. Lakeville, CT: Institute of General Semantics, 1948. Print.
Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.
Satriano, Richard. Vitvan: An American Master. Baker, NV: School of the Natural Order, 1977. Print.
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---. The Natural Order Process: Basic Teachings of the School of the Natural Order. Baker, NV: School of the Natural Order, 1970. Print.
---. The Natural Order Process: Basic Teachings of the School of the Natural Order. Baker, NV: School of the Natural Order, 1971. Print.
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Ziporyn, Brook. Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism. Chicago: Open Court, 2004. Print.
Zizek, Slavoj. “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism.” Cabinet Magazine Spring 2001. Web. 13 Sep 2010.