Book Review : Serge Beddington-Behrens, Awakening The Universal Heart: A Guide for Spiritual Activists, Umbria Press, London, 2013, 368 pp; ISBN-10: 0954127587, ISBN-13: 978-0954127589, price (paperback) £14.95
‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.’
In the Thatcherite 1980s in Britain, many left-wing activists became so disillusioned with the futility of fighting against the policies of a right-wing government that they ‘discovered’ therapy (I know, because I was one of them). This fascinating cultural phenomenon has been virtually ignored in the sociology of therapy literature, but this new book provides a plausible spiritual take on it – i.e. that there was a kind of collective realisation, certainly in humanistic and some psychoanalytic circles, that perhaps one reason why our political activism was having such little effect was because we were all unconsciously projecting our inner ‘neuroses’ on to society, and then quite inappropriately trying to heal our own inner woundedness via outer political action.
Yet as Serge Beddington-Behrens wisely points out in Awakening the Universal Heart, this can never work; and with searing and admirable honesty, he gives us plenty of examples of his own particular journey that bear this out. Writers like Robert Sardello have also argued forcefully that to go straight to the spiritual without doing the necessary preparatory ‘soul work’ first is a grave error, and the clarity with which this crucial point comes across in the book is just one of its many strengths. Serge sets himself the ambitious task of showing how any ‘fully realised’ activist must needs incorporate and integrate both outer and inner worlds, if they are to achieve a fully integral activist praxis – and he goes a long way to achieving this in the book.
Serge Beddington-Behrens is a transpersonal psychotherapist, a couples therapist, motivational speaker, coach, business consultant, and teacher of spiritual retreats. Perhaps a practising psychotherapist is amongst the best placed of cultural commentators to help us understand the degree to which the successful activist needs to engage fully and openly with the psychological and the biographical, if their work is not to become little more than an unconscious acting-out and projection of unintegrated biographical issues on to the world (e.g. see Chapter 10, pp. 108–17).
The book is divided into four parts. Part I, ‘Understanding the Heart’ (five chapters), explores just why the heart is so important (particularly, perhaps, in the current age of burgeoning neuroscience), looking at the its treasures, woundedness and healing aspects, along with the challenges of being an activist. Part II, ‘Heart Work’ (five chapters), looks at the inner soul work that we all need to do to heal our own heart-woundedness, covering both Eastern and Western perspectives on self-healing, and in the process investigating ego wounds, healing what Serge calls ‘the universal heart’, and understanding and integrating our (and society’s) ‘shadow’. Part Three, ‘Cultivating the Garden of the Heart’ (nine chapters) constitutes the main body of the book, and is concerned with how we can deepen our humanity, touching on such themes as opening to the spiritual and the meditative heart, engaging with the heart of prayer and the heart of love, embracing the heart’s virtues, working with the heart of relationship and what Serge terms the sacred `help forces’ (the book’s longest chapter), and concluding by looking at forgiveness, and the crises of the heart. Finally, part IV, ‘The Great Heart Work’, is perhaps the part which will most interest practising activists, where Serge looks into our troubled, crisis-ridden present and possible future terrains for spiritual activism.
There are some 25 wide-ranging chapters in all, touching on such important themes as the heart’s virtues (Chapters 2 and 15; cf. Sardello, 2012); the various sources of our heart woundedness (pp. 35–9); an openness to the possibility of past lives (pp. 90–4, with a wonderfully wise statement on page 94 showing why the truth or falseness of these experiences is to miss the point); the importance of understanding our own shadow material (Chapter 9); and the place of meditation, prayer, love and relationship, and forgiveness (respectively, Chapters 12, 13, 14 & 16, and 18). It’s worth listing the eight virtues that Serge identifies, as they are surely key to any fully mature activist praxis (on the assumption that, of itself, love is not enough – pp. 168–9): namely, wisdom, vision, beauty, joy, peace, courage, kindness and truth. I was reminded of Michel Foucault’s inspiring notion of ‘fearless speech’ on reading that ‘To be effective activists, we need to love truth and be prepared to stand up for truth and desire to have it infuse as much of our lives as possible’ (p. 176). Moreover, the book’s closing chapters on evil, ‘transforming war’ and ‘awakening the corporate heart’ are excellent examples of the way in which these ideas have great prescience in relation to international geopolitics and the future trajectory of the economic system itself.
Serge is by no means the first spiritually informed writer to engage with the heart. Apart from mystics and poets across the ages, a number of contemporary writers have emphasised the place of the heart, including Chilton Pearce (2012), Hillman (1992), Marinelli et al. (1995) and Rudolf Steiner (e.g. 1922); and the notion of ‘sacred activism’ (Harvey, 2009) surely has much in common with Serge’s ‘spiritual activism’. That these various and highly complementary literatures are not referred to in this book is by no means a criticism, as this is not intended to be an academic book; rather, as David Lorimer points out in his foreword, this is a predominantly experiential treatise designed to outline an ‘enheartening pathway’ for aspiring and existing global citizen-activists – and it does that job admirably and engagingly. As a psychotherapist myself, I particularly admired the author’s honesty and openness about his own journey and its many challenges. To be convincingly authentic, a book such as this must ‘walk its talk’, and Serge is exemplary in modelling in his writing the very qualities that a successful spiritual activist will need to cultivate.
A few minor reservations. I am always surprised to see Rudolf Steiner’s work missing from books of this kind (Steiner had a great to deal to say about the human heart which chimes closely with Serge’s arguments). Some excellent quotations are unsourced (which can be frustrating when we’d really like to follow them up!); and some on the political left would be less confident than Serge that capitalism can be humanised into the Gaiaean ‘capitalism with heart’ that he powerfully advocates, in the face of the internal dynamics of capital accumulation which, to use Marx’s famous phrase, inevitably generate ‘the annihilation of space by time’, and all that goes with that process.
But Serge has written a book which is full of wisdom, sensitivity and clarity – truly a book of the heart which is a clarion call to all who wish to bring spirituality and activism together into a potent, urgently needed union, as we struggle in the crisis-ridden liminal space between old and the new paradigms. Finally, those wishing to see Serge speaking about the book at his 2013 London book launch can visit http://www.spiritual-activism.com/awakening-the-universal-heart-book/; and those wishing to support his new initiative to set up an institute teaching activist skills can contact him at www.spiritual-activism.com
Chilton Pearce, J. (2012) The Heart–Mind Matrix: How the Heart Can Teach the Mind New Ways to Think, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, reprint edn
Harvey, A. (2009) The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, London: Hay House
Hillman, J. (1992) The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, Spring Publications, Putnam, Conn.
Marinelli, R., Fuerst, B., van der Zee, H., McGinn, A. and Marinelli, W. (1995) ‘The heart is not a pump: a refutation of the pressure propulsion premise of heart function’, Frontier Perspectives: Journal of the Center for Frontier Sciences (Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa.), 5 (1), Fall–Winter; available online at: http://www.rsarchive.org/RelArtic/Marinelli/
Sardello, R. (2012) The Power of Soul: Living the Twelve Virtues, Goldenstone Press, Benson, NC (reprint edn)
Steiner, R. (1922) ‘The human heart’, lecture given at Dornach, Switzerland on 26 May 1922; GA 212; available at: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19220526p01.html (reprinted in The Goldren Blade, 1978)
Richard House, Ph.D., C.Psychol. is a trained counsellor-psychotherapist and Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten teacher who is currently Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at the University of Winchester, and who has been an ‘activist-campaigner’ on early childhood issues for many years.