Pronoia: The Antidote to Our Social Fears?

July 15, 2009 - 2:37 pm 74 Comments

Pronoia: Our New Antidote to Social Paranoia?
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Pssst… Psst.. I have a secret to reveal to you…. Its all about a new wave of thought in the Western world. … It is a way of looking at the world that generally unsupported by traditional religion, certainly not accepted by conservative or pessimistic politicians, is looked at skeptically by traditional psychology, and since most philosophers are already suspicious, it has, of course,
gotten my attention!
Similar in intent, but not in tone to the great but largely unfulfilled paradigm shift of the 1980’s, called The Aquarian Conspiracy, this new movement is announcing itself in an irreverent but joyous way, and holds out to us the promise of a new personally and culturally transformative conspiracy. It is all held within a wider, more inclusive set of beliefs called Pronoia. But before I define that term, I want to speak to you about a very important word, so often maligned, conspiracy….
All too often, a conspiracy takes on a sinister definition; as a nefarious plot, or as a fearful reaction that sees some lurking form of evil collusion. Conspiracies and their malevolent actions are always set to strike down some treasured value system or patriotic platform, or if they are heeded and accepted, their influence will personally corrupt our morals with intrigue, while it threatens us with complex international diplomatic schemes…

No, I have not been listening to Glenn Beck too much, nor have I been overdosing on negativity by watching Fox News, or tuning in all those prognostications on the History channels about the year 2012, and all the certain disasters that are to come!
I believe that we forget that charming use of conspiracy found in the Christmas song whose lyrics talk fondly about conspiring by the fire, in a winter wonderland, or that a strong, working conspiracy is necessary for the ideals of social groups to manifest- from American Revolutionary patriots, to the Civil Rights movement, from environmental awareness to peace rallies, all of which depend, for their effectiveness, on a shared feeling of working together for the same goal1 To unite, and to rally, and then to act in concert towards change, reform, or to establish new freedoms from oppression and combat tyrannies large and small… Remember, That is a conspiracy, too!
As a pastoral pneumatologist, or as a process theologian who believes deeply in the shared power and noble effect of what united hearts and minds can accomplish in their lives, the concept of a conspiracy for me is a cherished and vital one.
Conspiracy, from the Latin, con spirare which means to breathe together, and then be inspired as One… To share one breath, one essence, one life within an instant of intimacy, can have great sustaining implications for our personal transformation, and for the cause of global, human empathy-
A breathing, working force that offers us release and connection, hope and healing, justice and compassion… While today I will defer from explaining some of the esoteric ways and visceral means of conspiracy held or hidden within the breathing techniques: such as Buddhist Tantra, and the healing practice of Tonglon, or recommending Holotropic exercises, Centering prayers, or Kundalini training… And so on… Simply put, I affirm that we all can learn how to breathe together…
What I will say today is that any genuine community that shares principles and a commitment to common ideals, needs to aspire to becoming a benevolent conspiracy… The purpose of coming together is to inspire one another, to work and breath together to accomplish an important public mission and to energize crucial goals… In short, a conspiracy is as good or as bad as the intentions and motivations that inspire its actions.
One of the visions I have for this or any liberal religious community is to become a benevolent conspiracy; not just to rail against oppressive religious beliefs, or restrictive, exclusionary dogmas, not just be smug intellectuals who enjoy a good debate, but to be an energetic, positive and dynamic conspiracy where we come together to celebrate life; to offer one another hope, healing, courage, and love….

Then, once that is truly known and experienced, as a church, we can conspire to take public stands that promote greater justice and wider compassion in our world!
Now, what about this new idea for our lives called Pronoia? Pronoia is the assertion that the universe itself is a gracious conspiracy working on your behalf, that among the foundational purposes for human life is to teach us and to bless us, and provide us with tools and experiences for our happiness and well being… So Pronoia functions as the polar opposite to our socially popular and pervasive sense of psychological paranoia.
Paranoia? Since I no longer, with any assurance, call myself a clinician, I will gladly defer any definitions of paranoia to those who can define it with exactness or clinical confidence.
Instead, I will employ the linguistic approach, by looking at its Greek origins… The combination of two words, para and noia or nous…
Para refers to many prepositions- in, with, among, and beyond starts the list… And noia and it linguistic cousin, nous refers to the nature of human mind, and to the expanse of our intellect… When linked together, these Greek words refer to how we comprehend or understand the inner workings of our thoughts and the expansive effects of our feelings. I prefer, then, to define our social and popular concept of paranoia as being… All in one’s mind, or if I am referring to the Bible, it is being beside yourself;
or its all within your own fantasies, mental perceptions, and it is tragically promoted by our willing and ready sharing of our irrational fears… You know, when I look around, all through our media, it seems that our culture truly enjoys contaminating the social awareness, and promoting all the ways and events that cause us to become afraid… And conversely, then we tell each other to quickly dismiss all that irrational thinking… when people glibly say to you- Oh, you are just being paranoid about this!
So, in this same context of root words and possible definitions, Pronoia is the affirmative- that it is for the pro or positive side of our thoughts and our feelings- being pronoid is for the sake of one’s affirmative comprehension of any ideas, issues, thoughts, and feelings we might have or entertain.
Let’s continue… with this national or cultural observation: Many of our society’s “way out” ideas seem to begin or start in the fertile imagination and soil on the West or the Left Coast… And then a few of these ideas do eventually trickle or reluctantly migrate over here, to the less fertile, and more staid and traditional East or Right Coast… Where they are more critically tested or quickly rejected. (The social legacy of TV/Film/Media? So much of our popular media is all about fantasy, or it emphasizes banal forms of reality, etc…)

So let’s examine some of what Pronoia teaches, and then allow each person to make up their minds for themselves whether this approach merits the word conspiracy, or whether its is just another culturally outrageous, socially irrational notion such as each person will have 15 minutes of fame. (Worhol, and it seems what is behind the craze of all those trying out for talent shows such as American Idol)
The origins of this word can seem dubious, like many other words in our English language- it takes on adaptations and easily promoted definitions…
As a word and as a concept, it seems to have been invented by the sociologist Fred Goldner in an article in Social Problems in 1982, in which he defined it pessimistically as “the delusion that others will think well of you”, or referring to the unreasoned belief that your superiors think you are indispensable, or that your colleagues adore you, and that you are doing brilliantly in your work. … Boy, with that attitude, he must have really been fun to be around! So dour! His faculty meetings had to be awful!
The next definition, far more optimistic, comes from Industrial psychology and research writings in the field of Organizational Development:
“[When addressing the qualities of leadership, Pronoia is the idea that everyone is not out to get you; instead, people are out to love you, or at the least to appreciate you, if you reciprocate.
According to the best insights from Social Darwinism, only the pronoid will positively adapt, will survive — in fact, only the pronoid truly understand the survival value of mutual affirmation, appreciation, and affection- Because of this, they can endure and flourish. [Fast Company, Nov. 1999]”
In a similar way, the harsh competitiveness of our lives does little to access the sharing, the support, and the relational equality needed to resolve most, if not all of our social problems.
Carl Jung once observed this:
“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there is where love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” Psychological Reflections-Anthology.
In the newly published, whimsical, irreverent, blasphemous, ribald, yet, remarkable and insightful book called Pronoia, by poet, mystic, and philosopher Rob Brezsny, he offers us the most widely considered, newly formed definition of pronoia that has now caught on across Western European cultures:
The philosophical and spiritual outlook that contends or that affirms that the universe, and life itself, has conspired to give us blessings; that we were born to express bliss, empathy, and happiness. Rather than seeing life as some sour experience to be tasted then endured, or that we are here living out some desperately chaotic incomprehensible existence!
Pronoia exclaims that life is beautiful- it is filled with blessings, opportunities, exhalted moments; Life offers us many cooperative expressions of love and caring, happiness, and a multitude of experiences and connections that can promote well being…. Wow! What if life were truly like this? Maybe it is!

The largest question that a world view or a life philosophy such as Pronoia tries to tackle is this: “Is the world a dangerous, chaotic place with no inherent value or worth, running on crazed automatic like a malfunctioning machine, and is our culture functioning in ways that are really inhospitable to our happiness? OR we can ask:
Are you surrounded by caring helpers in a friendly universe that gives you challenges in order to make you wiser, smarter, and kinder? Ah, those are all trick questions, right?
It all depends on what you believe to be true, for you will experience your life based on how you approach the experiences of your life, and more importantly, how you respond to them!
Remember this perspective: While both pessimism and paranoia are self promoting and self affirming, pronoia seeks to cooperatively affirm and promote the positive outlook and the healthy, receptive open state of mind and heart that releases you from any self imposed prisons, negativity, emotional ruts…
9 No matter how enticing pronoia and its positive benevolent message may be, you should expect a lot of people to resist this notion of pronoia… Why? As novelist Tom Robbins points out:
“The unhappy person resents it when you try to cheer them up. … Because then they have to stop dwelling on themselves, and start paying attention to the universe.
You see, unhappiness is the ultimate state of self indulgence. When you are unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. You get to take yourself oh so seriously…” Pronoia declares, ” Lighten up!” “Get A Life!”
One of the finest advocates of pronoia, Albert Einstein, was reported to state this: There are two essential questions in life: The first question, and most important question you can ask yourself each day is this: Is the universe a friendly place?
The second is this: We have two ways to approach living our lives; The first is as if nothing is miraculous, and the other is as if everything is a miracle… That choice is up to you…
Another advocate… since Pronoia believes deeply in the grace of change and in the fact of physical and spiritual evolution… Pronoia quotes Darwin in his famous Origin of The Species, when he observed: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent, but it is the ones who are the most responsive to change.”

Ah, but here is the catch about Pronoia: Life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it, but it doesn’t give you exactly what you want, when you want it!
Our task in a pronoic outlook is to be willing to have faith in yourself and to trust in ultimate outcomes- that there is a lesson to be learned in every one of life’s experiences that will make us more happy, wise, or more kind.”
Pronoia is inspired by a desire to promote, expand, and cultivate dignity, hope, and a sense of worth in all people. It is an assertive form of gratitude that prefers to count one’s blessings in life, rather than dwell on one’s defects or defeats for a sense of life’s meaning… .
What it not is a “Pollyanna” rose colored glasses approach to life- it recognizes and appreciates the fact that it takes a lot of courage to look at things optimistically; to look for silver linings, to wait for one’s answers under stress, and to work thorough your personal difficulties, and then join together in healthy groups to work through the world’s injustices by first be willing not to deny or avoid them.
We are to become more personally pronoic and then we are to conspire benevolently with others to engage our human challenges vigorously, open-heartedly, without pessimism or the limiting programming of premature possibilities of self defeat.

One pronoic therapist, Jennifer Welwood, creates this statement of intention:
[She is willing to experience aloneness; and discover my connections; That I will turn toward life and face my fears, and meet the spiritual warrior that lives within me;
I open to what has been lost, and know that I have also been given unimaginable gifts;
Each condition I flee from, pursues and follows me;
Each condition I welcome, transforms me, and what or who it is also becomes transformed. Who or whatever crafted this Master Game of life, I promise to play it with delight, and to honor its lessons as my true devotion.]”
Admittedly, this is a rambling, impossibly complex topic that I have tried to summarize, and I fully realize that my words are inadequate because this book declares itself to be a radical notion- a book written in a very unique, colorful, and amusing style, so I hesitate to ask you to take it seriously… so you might want to skip it, that is, except for the anecdotes, quotes, and pondering… Except for the optimistic values it upholds…  So, Caveat Emptor! Or Enjoy it! Its your choice; its your life!
Now, let me complete my thoughts today by returning to the concept of a conspiracy… And how this church or any spiritual community can foster or affirm either a paranoid or a pronoic approach to being together…
As a church consultant, and experienced minister, I find that it is clear and obvious what kinds of systemic ineffectiveness results if a church is only comprised of a bunch of self interested individuals, who were parsimonious about sharing their talents, skills, and their resources with one another…  While all too common, we need not accept this as inevitable!
What I would recommend is to discover ways that your membership can become more pronoic; that is, find ways to celebrate life and work together! Ready and willing to place common interests and shared ideals before any individual wants or needs… It becomes crucial that members give generously, and be willing to serve on committees, etc., however, we cannot lose sight of the other requirement we have as a community- to laugh with one another, to console one another, to inspire each other, and to join together to identify and then value our mission in the world.
In short, this morning, I ask you to consider how your ideas and your behavior can bless, uphold, value, and care for this community, and how best to celebrate all that it does, all that it gives, and lastly… To seriously consider how best to you can conspire together to become all that this church can be! … AMEN ; Blessed Be; So Be It!

Closing Words:
Through your active and committed participation, your church life teaches you How; How to be courageous and trusting when facing life’s uncertainties, How to conspire against our fears or worries and How to become a more open, aspiring,
Compassionate and a joyous church together! SO BE IT

From My book: Spirit, Time and The Future

Since most of us can agree to the fact that nothing in our lives is completely fail safe; without risk, and that few, if any, parts of our lives are as secure, as safe, or as easy as either we think or we hope that they might be. Life when lived fully, is lived without certainty, and since we lived in the questions of our hearts, it can compell us towards facing the the “what ifs” and the “not yets” with a greater sense of trust aor faith. We have to accept that without risk, life in its fullest sense, ceases… That within every desire, and in every decision there is a paradox we are to embrace, know, trust, and respect. There is always the potential for a hidden flaw, an unintended outcome, an unplanned event, a quirk, a boomerang, or some other experience unforeseen…. We can protest this fact but we also have to admit that it sure keeps life interesting, doesn’t it?!?

However disconcerting, or dissatisfying this admission might sound to us, I have not found that such an admission to life’s complexity and perplexity should not limit our willingness to explore, experiment, or try for new conclusions, and then to make steps inward in order to venture toward new spiritual horizons..
Borrowing from the poet, Browning, a person who seeks out a full, complete, and creative life is someone whose reach, whose vision, and whose sense of purpose extends beyond their grasp. One’s sense of heaven is always a little further from the place where it is safe and secure- and the reward is always a little sweeter because it involved the risk in overcoming some level of fear, some uncertainty, and that the goal of attaining any sense of a heavenly peace requires us to have a little more faith, a little more trust in a beneficial outcome, and not be weighed down or stifled by what the voices of unnecessary caution around us decry, or what those fearful voices of inadequacy will try to publish and declare…
An inclusive, creative, and Spirit-filled approach towards the future centers us on this two fold human truth; that we are prophetically called and that we are mystically invited to the fullness of life. We are prophetically called by our outer ethical concern and our humane principles that encourage our compassionate witness, and we are called mystically our courageous, inner, seeking aspirations to live fully inLight of God and in the face of uncertainty- for no one can know for sure how anything will turn out; none of us can be completely assured of any outcome of any action or any choice.
We live by faith; and it is often a faith that is against the odds, and forces us to live near the margins of our understanding, close to the bone when it comes to any sense of security. Only a sense of compelling guiding vision and having vital mission that that can be shared and celebrated brings any person, family, or community through to the other side of any dilemma, any risk, or trial in life.
The purpose of religion or any spiritual gathering is to unify all the broken and split parts of humanity, and to listen, as Spirit educates and moves us… when we take the time and have the fortitude to listen to our hearts, we humans can come together to build a better world.
At the last, I believe that there is planted in every human soul an urgency to live- to build character, to forge, and then to refine our relationships, to reach beyond previously held limits of comfort, and to face the asking years of our uncertainties with faith and courage. The quality and importance of our futures rests in the assurance that we have reached out, that we were willing to risk, and when looking back, we can say that we have done our best….

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