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The Two Bank Executives Who Saw the Light: How Spiritual Activism Helped Save the Isle of Harris


April 24, 2017 By Alastair McIntosh
Spiritual Activism on Harris

First Encounter With Spiritual Activism

 

Forty-one years ago, in the early summer of 1976, I led a student outing to the Findhorn Foundation. I was then a twenty year old science student. With me, were some dozen members of the Aberdeen University Parapsychological Society. We had heard miraculous reports of garden produce and of faerie sightings. If nothing else, the day’s minibus excursion would be a fine field study of a spiritual experiment that was developing in Highland Scotland.

In those days, it should be said, many of us still wore shirts and ties, had been raised as good Scots Presbyterians, but had a feeling something had to change because the old world view no longer squared the circle of reality.

something had to change because the old world view no longer squared the circle of reality.

Spiritual Activism: early visitors to Findhorn

Findhorn, 1976

When we arrived at the caravan park, the first surprise was our guide. John Hilton was a trustee of the Foundation and  a retired London banker. Photography was expensive then. I only took two pictures, but in one John stands there with my fellow students, a man of striking presence. His demeanour was more of a sprightly Oxbridge academic than of any banking stereotype. A shock of curled white hair swept backwards from a balding brow. He had a clear, bright energy. When I picture him in my mind, it remains vibrant to this day.

Spiritual Activism: John Hilton

John Hilton, 1976

 

All around us the ground was sand dunes peppered through with tufts of grass and conifers in the background. The place was a building site, and my picture shows a heap of pipes or conduits at our feet. I remember watching bronzed young men at work. Some had long hair tied in pony tails. The sixties, you see, only got to northern Scotland in the seventies.

 

Their accents were United Nations, and they were laying the foundations for a building of impressive scale.

 

“We’re trying to get away from the stories of the giant cabbages and strawberries,” said John, his banking background bringing sober practicality to his mysticism.

 

“One day, when you come back in the future, this will be a great hall. People from all over the world will come here. They’ll come to practice the performing arts. They’ll come to study consciousness and how to change the world.”

Spiritual Activism

Saint John’s Temple, near Harris

 

Consciousness! That was the nub of it.

To change the world, even just to be our tiny part of the change, we have to deepen consciousness. In the Foundation’s bookshop that afternoon, I stumbled upon a volume called Altered States of Consciousness. I know that our visit took place on 2nd May 1976 because I have it inscribed on the cover. He re, in nearly 600 pages that cost me a princely £2.25 out of my student funds, the great consciousness researcher Charles T. Tart of the University of California laid out what has since become the classic scholarly introduction to the field. There I read for the first time of Arthur Deikman’s “blue vase” experiments with meditation. Of Pahnke’s and Richard’s famous Good Friday experiment with mysticism, where they naughtily tripped their subjects out in a church service.

And the idea that consciousness was inner space territory that might be mapped like outer space.  

 

As the Chandogya Upanishad had put it some two-and-a-half millennia earlier: “We should consider that in the inner world God is consciousness, and in the outer world God is space.”  

But to navel gaze about consciousness is not enough. Consciousness is consciousness of what?

I had started reading the Hindu scriptures just 3 months before making that visit to Findhorn. These teach sat-cit-ananda. The triune truth of being-consciousness-bliss. Underpinning all of this is love. Says the Mandukya Upanishad of the divine: “In the union with him is the supreme proof of his reality…. He is peace and love.

Love is about the togetherness of sat-cit-ananada.

In this, I found my way back to a fresh understanding of the Christian tradition. I yearned to find a guru and applied to do Voluntary Service Overseas, hoping to be sent to India. Instead, they posted me to a remote region, the Gulf Province, of Papua New Guinea. And of all places, coming from the highly Presbyterian Isle of Lewis – to a Catholic Mission. My “guru” became Virgil Copas, the retired Australian archbishop and 4 Mother Theresa Missionary of Charity nuns.

If we want to be participants in changing the world, the consciousness of love is needed.

Spiritual Activism

Roineabhal and Saint Clement’s Church, Rodel

I was already an activist for social and, increasingly, environmental justice by this time. I was still young, but dismayed to see how many good activists as they aged either burnt out or sold out.

It seemed to me that activists who engage only with the conventional levers of power – politics, economics and even ecological science – so easily become depleted in resources as time wears on.

 

That’s where life either withers on the vine, or the spiritual fermentation kicks in. That is why our activism, if it is to be sustained and refined in purity, must rest upon a loving consciousness.

 

All else can go the way of hubris as the birthright oil in the lamp of youth runs low.

I came back from the Pacific, did a financial MBA ironically to make myself more useful in the nonprofit world, and to cut a long story short, ended up inspired by what I had learned from Pacific peoples becoming one of the leaders of modern Scottish land reform. I was a founder of the trust that brought the Isle of Eigg into community ownership in 1997, and I played a part in helping to stop the “superquarry” that a multinational corporation wanted to impose upon the Hebridean isle of Harris, to turn a National Scenic Area into road stone.

 

 

Spiritual Activism Gives Us the Ability to Dig Deeper

That is what brings me full circle back to Findhorn, and its bankers. The superquarry battle was the longest running environmental campaign that Scotland had ever seen. It began in 1991, and was not resolved until 2004. My part, as one with connections to the community, had been to invoke a spiritual consciousness around the threatened mountain. I did that by bringing to the government public inquiry the First Nations warrior chief from the Mi’Kmaq people of Canada, and a Free Church professor of Presbyterian theology.

 

But the company won the inquiry. We had still not gone deep enough.

 

Spiritual Activism

Alistair by the Callanish stones, Outer Hebrides

The campaign was dragging on and on, and all of us – which included all the major Scottish environmental organisations – were weary. By then I had published the first edition of my book about the campaign – Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. The original English multinational, Redland, had been taken over by the French, Lafarge, the biggest cement and road stone company in the world. One day, in 2002, an email came out of the blue from a Thierry Groussin, the Head of Training in the French bank, Groupe Credit Mutuel. He told me that he had just been on holiday in Scotland, and had been to the Findhorn Foundation. There, in the bookshop, he bought a copy of Soil and Soul.

 

He was aghast to think that a French company that prided itself on relatively good environmental credentials would be considering violating a National Scenic Area in Scotland. Could we meet?

 

 

Spiritual Activism Works When Other Ways Fail 

To cut the story short, Thierry was less fit and slender than John Hilton had been, but we went to Harris and we managed to climb together to the top of the mountain. There, took out his mobile phone, and called his contacts in French business and the government.

 

“Arrange for McIntosh to meet the top people of Lafarge. They cannot know what they are doing.”

 

To cut it short again, I went to Paris, they came to Harris, they withdrew the project on grounds of corporate social responsibility, and as a quid-pro-quo I served for ten years (unpaid) on their Sustainability Stakeholders Panel. Amazingly, when the chips were down on the Panel, I’d pull some spiritual card about values. “Our values are our values” said Bruno Lafont, the CEO one day, and his colleagues would come up to me afterwards, and whisper, “We can’t say these things, because we’re French. But you can get away with it, because you’re Scottish.”

 

The Findhorn Foundation occupies a strange place in Scottish consciousness. It must be admitted that we sometimes see its wacky side. At other levels? Well, put it like this. When I went to Findhorn in 1976 I saw the United Nations building what became the Universal Hall.

 

These were folks from America, Australia, South Africa, wherever, and I came to realise that some of them had ancestral Scottish connections. They were our diaspora returned. Coming back from outer space to help us turn new ground in inner space. Helped along by at least two bankers on the way, that has greatly helped my work, and finds expression these days in the book that I have written on Spiritual Activism and the events where, from time to time, I am invited to speak and teach at Findhorn. 

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