Welcome to my thoughtstream on the topic of creative change. I appreciate your visit and hope you’ll stay a while.
Tracts of Revolution explores the dynamics of human creativity as it swirls in our cells, pulses through our bodies, connects us to each other, and constructs the magnificent panoply of world cultures. You will find two distinct currents to this thoughtstream that may interest you.
“Conversations” are blog posts reflecting on the creative works of authors and artists of our present day and recent past. These creators communicated their visions of reality and the human future through words and other art-forms, partly to share them with the rest of us, but also because they finally couldn’t resist the force that seized and inspired them. I name that force “the creative spirit,” and am convinced that it inhabits all of us – while only a relatively few of us are courageous (or foolhardy) enough to “go with the flow.”
I have a lot to say about spirituality and religion, but this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that I consider the creative spirit especially religious or “spiritual” in a more narrowly religious sense. The authors I bring into conversation are both religious and nonreligious, believers and atheists, metaphysically-minded psychonauts and down-to-earth humanists. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what ideological camp you inhabit, what country you call home, what language you speak, which way you’re oriented, or whether you are charming or abrasive. You and I are creators, and it’s time we take responsibility for this incredible power with which the universe has endowed our species.
For a more practical and therapeutic approach to creativity, check out my blog Braintracts. Over the past 30 years I have developed a life-change program that helps individuals take creative control of their lives and step more intentionally into the worlds they really want to inhabit. This approach is brain-based and solution-focused, pulling from the current research of neuroscience and the best practices in human empowerment (counseling and coaching).
The Medieval art/science of metallurgy investigated the molecular secrets of changing natural ores into metals and other alloys. The process was mysterious and the research traditions of those early scientists often took on the shroud of an almost gnostic mysticism. Mentallurgy is my attempt to remove the shroud of secrecy from the question of how the power of attention is transformed into the attitudes, beliefs, moods and drives behind human behavior. If you don’t particularly like the world you presently inhabit, then create a different one! Mentallurgy can show you how. Click over to www.braintracts.wordpress.com
For a majority of religious people on Earth today, insofar as most religious people are adherents of some form of theism, God is a personal being or divine personality who watches over them, loves them preferentially (that is to say, more than other people), commands their obedience, covets their worship, and will reward them with everlasting life for being right after they die.
In other words, their God is a lot like them.
This similarity is not a coincidence. For a reason that hardly any theist can understand much less admit, their God is a projection of themselves, as they are a reflection of their God. The orthodox doctrine on the matter states that humans were made “in the image and likeness” of God, their Creator.
As you would expect, theists enthusiastically embrace the idea that they are reflections of God, although they are curiously reluctant to defend it on behalf of all humans. On the other hand, as far as the idea of God-as-projection is concerned, every true believer will passionately reject it as atheism.
The evidence for it is overwhelming nonetheless. When theists announce their condemnation of others whose identity, lifestyle, religion, or politics is different from their own, and further invoke the judgment of God to back them up, we can see a little too much of them in their image of God. And, as is probably more common, when these same believers languish in shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression because they find it impossible to please or placate God’s demands, the resemblance is undeniable.
A closer look will reveal (i.e., pull back the veil on) how much they deploy those same manipulative and abusive strategies in their own family systems.
I am proposing to coin a new term for this interesting polarity, of ego-as-God’s-reflection and God-as-ego’s-projection: Egod.
The personal God or divine personality of theism is, phenomenologically speaking (i.e., from inside the believer’s experience), a projected image – cleansed, refined, exalted and glorified – of proclivities and potentialities in the believer’s own personal life.
The projected God of righteousness and vengeance finds its reflection in the believer who is self-righteous and unforgiving. By the same dynamic, but now in reverse, one who believes in a God that is loving and generous will tend to reflect those same virtues in his or her personal life.
This is, in fact, the design intention of theism as a type of religion. Ideally it is meant to produce a kinder and more compassionately engaged believer. But the psycho-mechanism of Egod frequently gets plugged up and starts to rupture in frustration, bigotry, and spasms of social violence.
It may sound as if I’m on the way to making a case for atheism. If Egod is at the center of theistic religion but is nothing but a polarity of images – God a projection of the ego, and ego the reflection of its God – then isn’t that effectively denying the objective existence of God? Insofar as atheism denies the objective existence of God, it would seem so. It should be noted, however, that our analysis of theism above was based in the believer’s experience (phenomenology) and not on the question of God’s existence (ontology).
Atheism is actually the younger sibling of theism. For the longest time, theists didn’t even think to question God’s existence, since the entire edifice of culture was built on a foundation of sacred stories (myths), suspended by a network of religious symbols, and ritually recreated in the sacraments, ceremonies, and high festivals of community life. Even though no one had (or ever has) literally encountered God as depicted in the myths, sacred art, and theology, they felt no need to defend God’s existence outside the imaginarium of belief.
It was only as this imaginarium began to lose relevance and power, by a conspiracy of both external and internal changes, that the objective existence of God had to be decided. Science and technology were requiring significant updates to the ancient cosmology, while moral progress and creative authority were bringing about a new psychology of individual freedom and agency.
Those who could no longer breathe inside a religious culture of theism declared themselves atheist (a-theos, “no god”) and chose to leave, while many more doubled-down on their devotion to Egod – who was now not only in their myths but also at large (somewhere) in the real world.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this crisis moment opened two distinct paths of spiritual breakthrough, represented in the prophetic and mystical turns beyond the conventional orthodoxy of Egod.
The prophets spoke of, and more importantly spoke for (pro-phetes), what the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich named the “God above god,” where the case change signifies a transcendental move beyond Egod to the ultimate reality of being-itself. Unanimously, the biblical prophets railed against the idols of orthodoxy as human creations (or projections) that only served the petty and selfish interests of believers.
The God of the prophets is so far above the Egod of orthodoxy as to encompass all nations, all religions, and even to transcend existence itself. According to them, one’s devotion to God is not authenticated in ritual performances of worship, but instead in compassionate acts and ethical advocacy on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and suffering of the world. In light of their exhortation to break past the ego and ego’s god (i.e., Egod), prophetic spirituality is properly regarded as a form of post-theistic religion.
A second path of spiritual breakthrough, and therefore a second form of post-theistic religion, is represented in the Wisdom writings of the Bible. It would be centuries before these authors and visionaries were recognized as mystics, but mystics they were. If the prophets split open Egod and then transcended ego’s god to the God above god, these mystics took the ego half of the split and plunged deep into its grounding mystery, to the inner Ground of Being.
Breaking below ego means breaking past one’s social identity and personal beliefs, down through the inner reaches of subjectivity and into the generative mystery of consciousness itself. Such a descent doesn’t require the renunciation of Egod, only the release of all that makes the ego separate and special – including, of course, its god.
Not just glory and shame (feeling especially good or bad: see the halo and shadow of Egod in the illustration above), but every secret craving and private thought of self-regard that folds consciousness upon itself in self-conscious reverie, needs to be left behind on the way to perfect solitude and inner peace.
This short meditation is intended as not only a brief excursion into post-theism (prophetic and mystical religion), but also as an invitation for theists to look closely and critically at orthodoxy and the way it protects Egod from healthy criticism – and it can be such an emotionally charged defense to breach!
Too many have succumbed to the false security of conviction offered by fundamentalism (a reductionist and radicalized orthodoxy). If orthodox theism has lost (or is losing) relevance and power, the really good news (gospel) is that a higher wholeness (in God) and a deeper oneness (in the Ground) is possible.
In Spiritual Direction I offered a way of understanding human development following the evolutionary map of consciousness across its generative, individuative, and unitive principles. I suggested that these three principles are what inform the narrative structure of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” throughout the world’s mythologies, using the New Testament Hero Myth of Jesus in Luke-Acts as my example. Additionally, they can be observed operating as the deeper code behind the Christian doctrine of God-as-Trinity.
Ambitious, I know.
But now that we’re on this road, I want to continue in my efforts to clarify the course of development that tracks human progress along its intended aim – which, I should just lay it out here, eventuates in our creative contribution to the higher wholeness of spiritual community.
In a sense, the entire universe is about things coming together in more complex patterns of reciprocity, cooperation and wholeness. Existence isn’t merely spinning out and falling apart. There is also this counteraction of evolution – matter coming alive, life waking up, mind reaching out to create systems of increasing freedom and higher purpose.
All of this will amount to little more than an interesting but abstract meditation on human psychology, unless we can make it personal – which is what I will do in this post (fair warning).
So let’s begin with you – actually not with you in the technical sense of an ego (“I”) who stands on its own separate center of self-conscious identity, but with what you were (and still are) before you woke up to a separate existence as somebody special. What you are is a human being, a human manifestation of being.
Around you are countless other beings: rock beings, bacteria beings, tree beings, dog beings, cloud beings, star beings, and other human beings. These, too, are distinct manifestations of being, of the power and mystery of being-itself.
I call this the body-and-soul ground of consciousness, where body correlates to “human” and soul correlates to “being.” One is the outer expression and extroverted aspect of your essential nature, while the other is its inner presence and grounding mystery. Your soul isn’t “inside” your body, like the immortal passenger or temporary hostage of popular religious conceptions. Body and soul are essentially one nature with two inflections, outward to the sensory-physical realm and inward to the esoteric-intuitive depths of being.
That’s what you are – a human being. Who you are, on the other hand, does not belong to your essential nature, but had to be constructed with extensive assistance and supervision from your tribe. The developmental function of this ego, of this separate center of self-conscious subjectivity, identity, and agency, is as an exaptation to your social group, referring to “a feature that predisposes an organism to adapt to a different environment.”
You are not just a human being, then, but a person who participates in the interactive role plays that are central to the cultural environments of your society.
In the early months and years of childhood, your tribe assumed control over much of your experience. Your taller powers fed you, kept you clean, moved you around, held you, trained you, and managed the world in which you lived. Over time, that executive control was gradually transferred over to you, with each degree of autonomy further securing the internal center of self-control that we call your “ego.”
This wasn’t a do-whatever-you-want permission slip, however, for along with your so-called autonomy came a massive download of moral instructions that compelled conformity to your tribe’s definition of a “good person” and “right action” (what I call The Frame). Some tribes are fairly strict and repressive, as far as these moral definitions are concerned, which translates into ego-identities that are correspondingly small and exclusive.
To be an acceptable insider of your tribe, for example, you may have been required to conform to an identity profile of one skin color, one sexual orientation, one gender, one set of occupational options, one party affiliation, one set of orthodox beliefs, one official worldview – the “one and only way” of salvation, as it were.
A reductive and less flexible identity profile eventually gave you control over a much smaller identity, which simplified your experience considerably since it eliminated any gray areas and made everything black and white.
Even if you successfully reached this point in development and have achieved what psychology calls “ego integrity,” managing a personality and holding together a coherent identity, there’s a lot of reality that your identity keeps out – excludes, rejects, denies, and ignores. The individuative principle of consciousness has succeeded in forming a unique identity above your essential nature as a human being, but this ego is also a captive, inevitably, of the exclusionary boundaries it calls home. This is true in your case, in mine, and for everyone who has ever lived.
The tragedy in all of this, spiritually speaking, is that nothing excluded by identity can be joined in community.
Different skin colors, sexual orientations, gender assignments, lifestyles, beliefs, and worldviews – not to mention different species and other forms of life – must remain outside your horizon of identity and “out of bounds” of what you consider good, right, and proper. And if your religion happens to enshrine ego in its doctrines of god, salvation, and a heavenly reward for being good, right, and proper, then this might be the end of the journey for you.
Take this as a lens and you will notice immediately that a vast majority of the human population is stuck precisely here: prisoners of our own convictions, throwing up one wall after another against what is different and (so we believe) threatening to our personal security.
According to the Sophia Perennis (the perennial wisdom tradition or perennial philosophy), however, your true journey as a human being is only half done at this point. The real purpose in forming a separate center of personal identity (ego in its numerous roles) is to provide you with a relatively stable platform from which consciousness can drop into deeper centers – down and away from those exclusively unique attachments that had gone into the construction of identity on the way up and out of your essential nature so many years ago.
Each deeper center opens a larger horizon, including more in your understanding of who you really are.
By thus releasing your smaller identity and dropping into increasingly larger ones, consciousness descends by an inward, contemplative, and mystical path to a place of perfect solitude, which is paradoxically also the center of all things. Only by “letting go” of what separates you from everything else can consciousness proceed to ascend by an outward, transpersonal, and ethical path into harmony with other beings.
This higher wholeness of liberated life is what is known as spiritual community. You don’t lose yourself or subject your will to spiritual community, but instead you “come together” with others in mutual respect, intentional cooperation, and higher purpose. Spiritual community flourishes only to the extent that your individual freedom is affirmed and transcended, including your ego and not suppressing or canceling it out.
The ancient metaphorical root of this word, spirit, identifies the life-sustaining dynamic of “breathing in and breathing out,” together as one in unitive consciousness.
Spiritual formation is a process whereby the sentient life of the body rises into a center of self-conscious personal identity, or ego, which provides the individual with an elevated center of intention for taking in a larger perspective on life, connecting with others in meaningful ways, and contributing creatively to the wellbeing of community.
In that short summary I have identified three essential principles of consciousness: (1) a Generative principle, deep in the grounding mystery of our sentient and largely ‘unconscious’ body; (2) an Individuative principle, focusing this deep power upwards into a self-conscious center of personal awareness; and (3) a Unitive principle that amplifies outward and across the relational field, turning the many into One.
The direction of spiritual formation, as well as its facilitation under the caring guidance of a spiritual director, unfolds in that precise sequence: out of the Ground and into an Ego, then beyond the Ego and into Community.
It’s important to understand that these three principles of consciousness are not separate “types” of consciousness, or three “modes” masking the same phenomenon under different conditions, or even distinct “stages” in its linear transformation over time. Consciousness doesn’t leave its ground in the body in order to get centered in the ego, and it doesn’t abandon the ego for the sake of joining in community.
We can accurately say that consciousness proceeds from the body, through the ego, and into community. Each principle is coequal, if not simply identical, with the other two; and all three are of the same substance or nature (Greek homoousios), which is consciousness itself. They are three-in-one, a dynamic trinity.
My reader who is familiar enough with Christian orthodoxy will recognize in my characterization of consciousness a direct parallel to the theological doctrine of God-as-Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Simply substituting the terms – “Father” for body/ground/source (the generative principle), “Son” for personality/ego/identity (the individuative principle), and “Holy Spirit” for participation/inclusion/community (the unitive principle) – already throws some fresh light onto the mysterious origins of that central doctrine.
The trinitarian idea of God – our conventional nickname (with the uppercase ‘G’) for the ultimate reality and present mystery of Being – was itself derived from early Christian mythology, from the stories and other writings comprising the New Testament. It is, that is to say, a product of what’s called biblical theology – a “theory of God” drawing on the collection of stories which expressed and gave shape to a uniquely Christian perspective.
Outside this mythology, no one has ever encountered a divine being of “one nature in three coequal persons” for the simple reason that this concept of God was a later product of second-order reflection on the primary material of early Christian myth.
One critical mistake of this orthodox enterprise of doctrine-building was in its choice of defining God in absolute terms, as He is in Himself, outside of time and apart from everything else. Two further mistakes were in absolutizing the male gender reference, thus excluding women’s values and experience; and also characterizing the three principles of the Trinity as “persons,” which set the stage for two very popular “heresies,” of interpreting the three as personae or masks worn by the same actor (“modalism”), or as three separate personalities (gods?) of the same family (“tritheism”).
A fourth and final mistake was in treating God as something (a being) with objective existence – out there somewhere inside, behind, or above the world.
I know that my reader had hoped I would get to my point sooner, but the importance of rooting the trinitarian construct of God in the Bible (i.e., in Judeo-Christian mythology) is in the door it opens for us to the mythic imagination – not just of the early Christians, but the mythopoetic (storytelling) imagination of every human, including you and me.
In his study of myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell discerned a consistent and universal pattern, which he named, borrowing from James Joyce, the “monomyth.”
This pattern is ingeniously employed by the New Testament author who wrote the two-volume epic story of The Gospel According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles, likely composed sometime in the 80s and 90s of the first century. While Paul is commonly regarded as the architect of early Christian belief, it was “Luke,” writing 20-30 years after Paul and including him in his story, who constructed the grand myth that would serve to shape and orient Christian identity in the world more than anyone else.
In Luke’s story, Jesus (the hero) comes into the world by a virgin birth, sent from God (his Father) on a specific mission of redemption:
To accomplish this mission, however, Jesus must confront the dark powers of Empire (Roman oppression), Orthodoxy (Jewish fundamentalism), and Ego (personal self-interest). He goes to the stronghold of Jerusalem, and there is arrested for inciting political insurrection, condemned for breaking religious law, and finally abandoned by those who sought to save themselves as the risk grew too great. Jesus is crucified and then quickly buried, just before the Sabbath begins.
On the third day, early Sunday morning, the dead hero is miraculously brought back to life, and tells his few remaining followers to meet him later on a nearby mountain. As they are gathered in waiting for the resurrected Jesus, he appears to the small crowd of disciples, and while they watch he ascends into the sky and disappears.
(Scene. The curtain closes on Volume One.)
Fifty days later, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are again gathered. Suddenly a rush of wind enters the place and tongues of fire appear over each person present, giving them the spontaneous ability to speak in other languages (in a reversal of the Jewish “Tower of Babel” myth, where the world’s one language had been fractured into the confusion of many). This “gift of the Holy Spirit” is sent to empower and equip these early Christians (followers of Christ, the messianic title given to Jesus) for the work of carrying on with his original mission.
Paul had earlier – in the temporal sequence of mythological composition – identified the community of Christians as “the body of Christ,” with his resurrected spirit living now in and through them.
As Luke concludes his epic story, the Christian mission is spreading out into the farther reaches of the known world.
(The curtain closes on Volume Two.)
The monomyth of Luke’s two-part story of Jesus and his spiritual revolution follows perfectly the pattern that Campbell found across the mythologies of the world. And now we can also see that this pattern is itself constructed on the three principles of consciousness briefly defined above.
Our hero represents the Individuative principle, or Ego (the “son”), differentiating out of (“sent by”) the Generative principle (the Ground and “father”). Having fulfilled its purpose (or “mission”) of centering the personality and constructing an identity, the Ego enables consciousness to transcend or “go beyond” this identity for a transpersonal and ultimately Unitive experience of harmony, wholeness, and genuine community.
Of course, Luke arranges lots of other interesting material upon this monomyth, but his deeper logic (a mytho-logic) is evident. It was this dynamic evolution of consciousness, personified metaphorically in the Father/Ground, Son/Ego, and Spirit/Community, that Christian theologians distilled into the orthodox doctrine of God-as-Trinity. Their logical refinement of the relationships among, and deeper nature of, the three “persons” did in fact make some valuable contributions to our understanding of consciousness, despite the interpretive “mistakes” mentioned earlier.
In the end, we come back to the beginning. Each of us carries the creative energy of our soul into the heroic adventure of becoming somebody (ego), until we are ready and willing to get over ourselves in the spirit of freedom, love, and unity.
You know that part of you which tends to panic, fall apart, go ballistic, or hide under the bed when things get overwhelming? Be honest, it’s there. We all have it inside us. As children it was more or less our modus operandi whenever life brought us more than we could handle. If we were fortunate to have caring and competent adults around us, we learned how to borrow on their strength, perspective, and wisdom to make it through – with less of the drama.
In order for us to deal effectively with the various situations of life, social neuroscience is discovering just how much the immature brain and nervous system depend on the frontal cortex of parents and other adults, with its executive functions of contextualization, critical reasoning, impulse inhibition, risk management, and objectivity. They are literally our taller powers, archetypes of the higher power in religion that we may continue to worship and rely on for security and meaning well into adulthood.
As we matured and our own frontal cortex came more online, we developed ways of handling the challenges of life without needing someone else to take charge, fix the problem, and calm us down.
What we were as children now lives on as our “inner child,” with our own adult “higher self” in control and calling the shots. Our higher self can see the bigger picture and take the longer view on things. It encourages us to do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do. It’s the part of us that seeks to understand others and the world around us, so we can get along and cooperate for the happiness we all want.
To get the whole picture in front of us, psychologically speaking, we need to mention a third part, besides the rational higher self and emotional inner child, which is actually what we first came into life with (or as), and this is the “animal nature” of our human biology – the genetic codes, temperamental predispositions, unconscious instincts; the sentient, sensuous, and sensual body with its primal and irrepressible will to live.
It’s where our existence is deeply rooted in the complex web of life, with its imperatives of survival, adaptation, reproduction, and keeping our species in the game.
Our animal nature provided the brain and nervous system that were gradually shaped by our emotional experiences in childhood (the inner child) and eventually fully activated in all its executive glory as we became adults (the higher self).
Each part (aspect or dimension) of our psychology has its own “real estate” in the brain’s anatomy: a brain stem and basal structures dedicated to our biological survival, a limbic system specializing in building emotional bridges and walls to the social environment, and a wrap-around cerebral cortex with its frontal talents for objective reasoning, problem solving, rational thinking, and self-control.
Millions of years of evolution in consciousness are represented in our brain’s triune architecture.
Coming back to where we began this meditation, with our inner child, we can now put the more developed picture in place. The inner child is where an emotional record of our personal history is stored, along with all those recycling habits and strategies for getting what we want. Below it lies our animal nature with its “brute” impulses and survival needs, obsessed (though not consciously) with staying alive.
And above our inner child is the higher self – and I’m careful here not to say “your” or “my” higher self, since the question remains open as to whether this more enlightened dimension of ourselves is, in fact, properly online and doing its job. We all have an animal nature and inner child, but only some of us are living by the light of a rational, reasonable, responsible, and reality-oriented wisdom of our higher self.
I am not intending to portray such illuminati as emotionally disengaged or intellectually divorced from their bodies. Science has also found an inherent dependence of rationality on emotional development, and of our emotional integrity on the deep composure of our body’s nervous state. This foundational (or better, existential) security translates upward into healthy attachment, which in turn provides emotional and interpersonal support to the social construction of meaning.
Too many of us are stuck, for whatever reason, in the antics and tantrums of our inner child. Especially in these stressful and uncertain times, it feels like the world is collapsing around us and we can’t see our way through. First it’s one thing, then another – and then another. By the time we think things might have settled down, the market crashes, the oceans rise, and the ground cracks open.
I just said that we are stuck for whatever reason, but the general cause is already well understood. A deeper insecurity has the effect of supercharging our emotional attachments with unconditional demands and unrealistic expectations: that our partners should manage our feelings, that other people are responsible for how we feel.
But of course, it is impossible for any relationship to live and grow under such demanding conditions, with the end result that our anxieties and frustrations get exponentially magnified. As a consequence, a lot of us are missing the stabilizing factor of healthy communal bonds, a shared understanding that we are all in this together, and of knowing that, together, we can make it through.
We find ourselves circling the drain into depression but refuse to take any responsibility for our role in getting there – once again.
We can’t even seem to talk respectfully and reasonably to each other, making constructive dialogue virtually impossible given our suspicions about other people – which are really outward projections of our own inner conflict, between the part of us that’s childish and self-centered, and the part of us that should know better and could do something about it.
American politics today has become a helter-skelter playground, where the inner children of what should be reasonable adults have taken over and are threatening to run democracy into the ground.
Until our higher self is able to calm our own inner child, we will keep looking for excuses that pass off responsibility for our words and actions to someone else, or to circumstances that we claim left us no choice.
If we want to live in an adult world, we need to start acting like adults.
In The Story That Got You Here I reviewed the developmental journey that started with your physical attachment to Mother, gave way to emotional attachment to your mother and other family members, and continued to advance with your intellectual attachment, in the form of beliefs, to the worldview of your tribe and larger culture. This step-by-step progression from the physical conditions of survival, to the emotional conditions of happiness, and gradually into the intellectual conditions of meaning reveals – or better, lays out and sets in place – the very architecture of your life as it still is today.
According to their relative values, internally speaking, the intellectual overlay of meaning is less vital than the emotional bonds of happiness, which are themselves still less so than the physical satisfactions of your need to survive. And yet, if life in the world around you should become meaningless – empty, pointless, insignificant, absurd – you will readily give up your commitments, withdraw from others, and even consider ending your own life. Why is that?
However meaningful or meaningless the world may seem to you is a function of what you are telling yourself and what others are saying about it. A critical distinction to keep in mind differentiates between the way things are (in reality) and what they mean (to you). Meaning is always “to you,” which is to say that it is a product and projection of what you think and believe about something or other, or about reality as a whole.
The meaning of the world and of your life in it is thus a global construct of the stories you are choosing to believe.
If that feels like too much responsibility, then it may help to know that you are not doing this all by yourself, but as part of an active and ongoing conversation you are having with other people. “The world,” then, should be understood as a social construction of meaning, projected out of and suspended in the unique cultural discourse of storytelling.
Again, reality is the way things really are; the world is (or technically speaking, worlds are) a mythology or web of stories that you (and others) are projecting onto reality. For lovers, the world is a garden paradise; for friends, it is an adventure land; and for enemies, the world is a battle field. This helps us see that as a construct of meaning, your world is a product and projection of the stories, conversations, and beliefs you share with others. Depending on whether your conversation partners are lovers, friends, or enemies, the world around you and your life in it will reflect the nature and quality of those relationships.
Now, I’m not sure how much of that you are ready and willing to accept.
It’s very likely that you share the widespread delusion which simply equates world and reality, the meaning of life and the mystery of being alive. Just as athletes can set aside all concerns except what are relevant and meaningful inside the competitive constructs of the game and its world (e.g., the field, track, court, rink, or pool), neither should you be expected to keep in mind a distinction that doesn’t really seem to matter in the arenas of everyday life.
But the distinction does matter, and these days more than ever.
Whereas once upon a time you could set up your world in a secluded corner of reality and carry on without ever meeting someone who tells very different stories, today the cultural real estate is shrinking and you find yourself bumping up against other worlds – in some cases worlds that are profoundly different from yours. Individuals today no longer remain inside the ethnic and mythological worlds of their ancestors, but are instead venturing out into the reality of cultural pluralism and its broad marketplace of ideas, values, lifestyles, and worldviews.
All of this growing up and moving out has primed our age for the realization that one’s world is merely a matter of perspective.
In the more distant past it took the philosophically sharp and more mystically minded among us years and decades of meditation to see this truth: that your world and reality are not the same; that one is inside your mind and the other is outside; that meaning is constructed out of the stories you tell yourself; that before the story and after the story, all around and beyond every story, is the present mystery of reality, which is perfectly meaningless.
The world is a veil of meaning suspended between your mind and reality, and it belongs to you as the product and projection of your mind. These are two things about the world you need to know. If you are interested in touching what’s really real, this insight reveals (literally pulls back the veil on) two paths for the accomplishment of your aim.
One leads beyond the tidy enclosure of your world and invites you to behold the sublime and encompassing mystery of It All – your world, my world, all worlds, the world-free zone beyond all worlds, contained and transcended by the All that is One. The “universe,” as we call it, is perfectly meaningless, transcendent of your constructions and projections: just so. It should be obvious that going beyond your world in order to engage with reality is predicated on the humble acknowledgement that your world is not the last word on what’s real.
When you die and take your world with you, reality will still be here.
The other path follows a line of descent into your mind and its library of stories, through the floor of the projection room, and farther down where nerves tingle, the breath rises and falls, and your heart beats: now * now * now. As going beyond your world puts you in touch with the universe, so going within your mind opens awareness to the ground of being.
Before we make this ground out to be some metaphysical “other realm,” beneath and essentially separate from your embodied existence, it should be said that this ground (or grounding mystery) of being is nothing other than what you are – literally “no thing” other, but rather the very power-to-be (or be-ing) that is right now manifesting as you. You are not separate from it, nor can you be.
Like a tree planted in the material ground, you have grown into yourself by that progression of attachments briefly reviewed in the first paragraph of this post: first as a physical organism seeking to survive, then as an emotional dependent and partner in relationships, and finally as an intellectual meaning-maker and world creator.
Perhaps even up to your reading of this blog post, you regarded your world as the way things really are, as the ultimate reality. You were prepared to defend your world, to die for it if necessary, to kill others on behalf of its meaning, and on darker occasions when its meaning was less obvious to you, to even kill yourself.
Now you know better, and this truth has set you free.
Back in the late sixth century BCE, the Greek polymath Pythagoras taught that the great crystalline spheres carrying our moon, the planets, and distant stars constituted a celestial musical harmony. His was perhaps the first conception of the cosmos to envision all things as comprising a “universe,” in the sense of a single coordinated system of being and time. Since then, the idea has continued to fascinate and inspire artists, scientists, philosophers, and politicians alike.
To explore it further, let’s consider your life as composed on such a musical design by using the organic metaphor of a tree as our unifying image.
As it happens, trees also have a long history as archetypes of existence, models in their own way of the universe and our place in it. Basic to any such ancient and perennial image is an understanding that everything is connected, “all is one,” and that our own flourishing as inhabitants of this greater reality is a function of how intentionally we can live our lives in agreement, or in harmony, with the way things truly are.
We will begin our meditation by directing attention “out here,” into the complex of your life and the countless connections, interactions, and reciprocal relations that are together the participatory environment of your existence. This complex, or “complicated whole,” corresponds to the canopy of our great cosmic tree with its diversified articulation of branches and leaves.
Musically, it is where your life participates in – and at times falls out of harmony with – the higher wholeness and complementary unity of being.
In harmony, it is not that you must find your fit in what’s going on, but that in being true to yourself and listening to your life, you are unselfconsciously lifted into the greater chorus of voices.
Your life and life-story invite our descent, deeper into that harmonic structure, following a single branch with its unique phrasing of twigs and leaves. As a formal element in the “music of the spheres,” harmony exists only by the complementary melody lines that lift and support each other, conspiring to create a complicated whole (i.e., a complex) rather than a confused mess (i.e., chaos).
The relational field of your life with the many other human and non-human, living and nonliving melody lines around you is what we identify as the ethical realm. This is where your energy, spirit, agency, and behavior proceed to affect, for good or ill, the larger community in which you participate – whether or not you are ready to acknowledge that fact.
Many people – millions and millions over the course of human history – conduct themselves with very little awareness of how and in what degree their attitudes and actions impact the “commonweal” of everything around them.
The melody of your life and life-story is not something you can fully appreciate, given that you are, in this very moment, still trying to figure it out. To be sure, its shape and character are much easier to discern looking back, than they are to imagine looking ahead. Hard knots are all that remain of broken dreams, lost loves, and gambits that didn’t pay off, making you tougher and a little less flexible in places where life didn’t go the ways you thought, or hoped, it would.
And yet, these too are precious parts of the melody that have shaped you into the person you are today.
Just as harmony doesn’t exist outside the complementarity and mutual support of distinct melody lines, melody itself is a temporal sequence of individual notes, or tones. As we descend further into the music of your life, this formal element of tone invites us into the sound dynamics of loud (forte) and quiet (piano), short (staccato) and sustained (legato) – but always and necessarily now, now, now.
The longer stretch of your life in time can be appreciated as a more or less continuous flow of such single, momentary tones.
This is the present moment, and the melody of your life and life-story consists of a virtually infinite number of such fleeting yet timeless moments, since the brevity (or staccato) of its duration can be mathematically halved and halved again, ad infinitum.
Like the rest of us, you have been frequently deluded into believing that the present is a stretch (literally a “tense”) of time sandwiched between the past and the future. (Whether it comes before the past or before the future is a matter of perspective.) In anticipation, the present is still future; upon reflection, it is already past. When is it, then?
In reality, it is timeless: a moment without duration, a vanishing intersection of time and being.
Tone is what gives melody its mood – the pitch, timbre, octave, the unnatural half-steps of worry (sharp) or regret (flat), the dynamics of amplitude, volume, and length. In this very moment, you are sounding a tone that sits somewhere on the musical scale and either conserves the prevailing mood of your life-story or else may serve to shift it to a new key.
The perennial wisdom traditions remind us that you see the world not as it is, but as you are.
Another step deeper into the formal element of tone reveals it to be a cycle of sound, rising and falling, flooding the vibrational sphere and sinking away in the next instant. This is what we call rhythm – the “beat,” the resonance interval, the length of a sound-wave between the prenatal and postmortem silence. Rhythm is what carries the tones in their articulation as melody. It gives music its “measure” as it resounds from underneath and keeps the whole arrangement “in time.”
A “beat” of rhythm is only heard or felt in its compression phase; in rarefaction it falls away into silence, nothingness. We notice that the phenomenal sound (or perceptible tone) is not the opposite of silence. Sound does not exist by virtue of defeating or overcoming the quiet, but only as it gathers up and surrenders again to its essential ground – that prenatal and postmortem silence mentioned above.
As it relates to the music of your life, you might imagine the energy cycle of rhythm compressing in the production of self-conscious awareness (ego), and dissolving back again into the grounding mystery of consciousness itself – what you are before who you are arrives.
Silence, then, is the essential ground of music. It is present not only “before” and “after,” but within and throughout the entire musical composition of rhythm, tone, melody, and harmony. Again, as it pertains to your life and life-story, silence is not a mere absence or sterile abyss, but the grounding mystery of your being, here and now. It is the mystical-inner realm which underlies and informs the ethical-outer realm of your life in harmony with others and the world around you.
And precisely because it is a present mystery and not the absence of something missing, you can only find the serenity of this silence by dropping, contemplatively, through the center of your own existence.
One of the great ironies, which is quickly metastasizing into a tragedy of catastrophic dimensions these days, is in our certainty that taking control and pinning things down will solve the major problems that beset us. By major problems I don’t only have in mind the national and global challenges of poverty, racism, and the cascading collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Also included are the psychosomatic distress and interpersonal conflicts that undermine our day-to-day quality of life.
Since it sure feels like things are out of control, it’s easy to believe that taking control is the answer.
So maybe it will come as a surprise to learn that taking control is what’s generating many of our problems to begin with. It’s not just that our efforts are failing to address and resolve them, but that many of our problems – and probably most of our suffering – are actually the result of our dogged determination to get things under control.
In Beyond Happiness I referred to my years in pastoral ministry, during which time I would frequently witness – and find myself occasionally tangled up in – very uncharacteristic behavior of church members. Relational strife, stress related illnesses, erratic outbursts, aggressive resistance to change, even to relatively minor things like interior decorations and perfunctory routines, seemed to come out of nowhere.
These are the sorts of things that drive many pastors to leave ministry – and I did eventually leave, but for a different reason.
What I came to realize was that something deeper was going on, a kind of vertical dynamic where all these disturbances could be understood as surface symptoms of an underlying spiritual crisis. The human spirit is what in us is constantly seeking to emerge, to grow and expand, to express and fulfill (or actualize) our essential nature as human beings.
Just as the essential nature of an apple tree expresses itself in the production of apples – or as Alan Watts would often say, just as an apple tree “apples” – so the evolutionary purpose of a human being (and of the universe insofar as we are its latter-day manifestations) is to become fully human.
If we imagine the human spirit as an energy-flow from deep within us, becoming embodied as us, and moving through us to others and the world around us, then the unimpeded process of this spiritual current finds its fulfillment in the human being who is firmly grounded, fully awake, and fearlessly free.
Over the years since leaving pastoral ministry, I have continued in my contemplative study of our spiritual fulfillment as humans, and of the various ways its upward/outward flow gets blocked and diverted. It has indeed become something of an obsession in this blog of mine.
Religion happens to be a moralistic and ideological system that inevitably, it would seem, impedes, and can even extinguish, our spiritual life. Ironically, something that developed for the purpose of supporting, shaping, facilitating, and inspiring our journey to the liberated life, too frequently becomes (in the words of Jesus) a “whitewashed sepulcher” where the human spirit is held hostage. When that happens, the resulting spiritual frustration can break the surface in irrational, desperate, damaging, and destructive behavior.
Spiritually awakened religious leaders can be encouraged in knowing that, as long as such symptoms are evident, there is still some life underneath.
I’m not suggesting that a formal (i.e., name brand) religion is the best and only facilitator of our spiritual growth and fulfillment. It is my contention, nonetheless, that whatever system of beliefs, values, practices, and commitments serves to facilitate our personal construction of meaning and clarifies our purpose in life is, de facto, our religion, according to the etymology of “religare” as tying back and linking together a coherent and meaningful worldview.
The very design intention of religion is to provide a scaffolding of symbols, stories, and a guiding vision for a world developmentally suited to our spiritual progress.
My best representation of the channel of spiritual flow identifies five natural gifts that need to be nurtured and developed throughout our life – especially during the vulnerable period of early childhood when we are dependent on the “religion” of our taller powers, who are its functional (or dysfunctional) deities.
These five gifts are: (1) faith, or the release of existential trust in reality; (2) spontaneity, or a full engagement with life in each moment; (3) imagination, or the creative construction of meaning; (4) curiosity, or the searching interest to explore, discover, and learn; and (5) wonder, or radical amazement before the mystery and grandeur of being.
Obviously, a healthy and relevant religion will need to evolve and transform along with our growing spiritual capacity. When it doesn’t (and won’t), it becomes a blocking obstacle to our freedom and fulfillment.* In my experience, the one telltale sign and chief obstacle to spiritual growth is conviction, by which I mean a belief so certain, so closed and inflexible, that it effectively kills spiritual desire, creativity, and joy.
Instead of supporting us in the cultivation of faith, bad religion plants “seeds of anxiety” in the ground of consciousness, which compels our retreat from present reality, uproots our creative imagination, enervates curiosity, and arouses fear instead of wonder in the face of mystery.
If you feel that my definition of conviction doesn’t give it a fair shake, I invite you to look closer at its deeper etymology, of being “overcome and held captive” (like a convict in prison) – exactly what happens to all those natural gifts when anxiety caps off the flow of spiritual life instead of opening us inwardly, in faith, to its creative uprising.
I have acquired what could be called a “responsible vigilance” around individuals who identify themselves as persons of conviction, having learned too many times already just how truly dangerous such persons can be.
Along with that responsible vigilance, another sensitivity has evolved in me over the years as well, albeit more slowly: an almost clairvoyant ability to feel the anxiety, hostility, depression, and despair that lurk and languish beneath another’s (as well as my own) dogmatic convictions. I’m sure there must be some kind of compensatory principle in play, where the squeezing resolute certainty of our conviction is proportional to an eroding doubt and insecurity we feel deep down within ourselves.
If there is hope that these “whitewashed sepulchers” can open to release the creative energy and joy of the human spirit – in what is likely the psychospiritual origin of the Christian symbol of Easter – it won’t come by way of holding fast to what we believe and convincing others of our “truth,” but rather by altogether dropping our judgments, learning to be present, and living faithfully in the flow of life.
* For a meditation on the relationship between our repressed natural gifts and “the shadow” in our personality see Taking Back Our Light.
The fact that happiness is such a dominant theme in modern life reveals two significant things about us: (1) that the progression threshold of human evolution at this point in time is firmly stationed on the pivotal questions of personal identity, meaning, and purpose; and (2) the probability that we are stuck in this stage and might not find our way through to what’s next.
We’ve tried everything – physical austerity and intoxication, social attachment and self-isolation, new identities and otherworldly aspirations, more money and a fresh set of friends – but none of it can make us lastingly happy. Many are giving up and checking out, or else doubling down and selling our souls to some huckster with a promise to deliver on our desires – someday soon. We are ready to do anything, believe anything, in the hope it will make us happy at last.
I make a case in this blog for seeing happiness not as a hopeless pipe dream, but neither as an individual’s ultimate pursuit in life. It has its place in the larger vision of human destiny, just not as a final destination. To suggest that there is more to life than happiness does not imply that happiness is unimportant, or that its pursuit is necessarily selfish and “sinful” (as some counterfeit religions claim).
Happiness is important, even essential to human fulfillment, but there’s something beyond it that a human being desires even more.
This post is another opportunity to clarify “the larger vision of human destiny” I have in mind. While the framework is mine, the gestalt of this model itself is something that’s been developing in the Sophia Perennis (the perennial and transcultural tradition of spiritual wisdom) for thousands of years, providing the insights, principles, and ideals that have inspired and informed many of the most significant revolutions of consciousness in human history. Let’s take a walk through the illustration above and try to make sense of it.
You will notice that “happiness” is included in this larger vision, but it shares space with two other human desires: health and harmony. Each of these three human desires is color-coded to align with a key dimension of our human nature and experience. Health is most basic and aligns with the animal nature of our body, which is a physiological organism embedded in a physical environment. Happinessaligns with the personal (or “second”) nature of our ego, as a centered self inside a socially constructed world. And Harmony, which represents the something more alluded to earlier, aligns with our spiritual nature as grounded in being (soul) and one with the universe (spirit).
Now, just about everything is packed into that last paragraph, so after setting the elements in place, it will make more sense if we put it all in motion. The upper-left of my diagram illustrates the three dimensions of human nature – animal, personal, and spiritual – in a way that shows their distinctions while appreciating their dynamic unity.
Body, being most basic and first on the scene, is situated at the core. Inwardly we are rooted in the unconscious depths of instinct and metabolic urgency, while outwardly we depend continually on the provident web of life. Our animal nature desires health – to have energy, strength, and composure, with a corresponding capacity to grow, learn, and adapt to our surroundings. Our fuller definition of health, then, is psychosomatic, as a sentient (mind-body) organism.
Ego, however, is not a natural formation like the body, but a social construction that exists only in the storylines and on performance stages of interpersonal relationships where our personal identity is “owned” and managed. “I” (ego) am not my body; “I” have a body – which presupposes a differentiation of consciousness from the sentient body into a separate center of self-conscious possession and agency.
Out and around ego is the narrative construct of a world, also made of stories and symbols and symbol systems. However, just as it is more accurate to say that a tree is wood rather than “made of” wood, so we should say that our world is a narrative enclosure and not merely made of stories. It’s in this social space of shared meaning and competing interests that ego pursues personal happiness – to be seen, to belong, to be loved.
This happens to be where a large number of people today, as moderns, feel as if we are lost in a wilderness exile. Society keeps filling our screens with advertisements about what we can’t be happy without, convincing us that whatever we’ve got going on is not quite enough. Even religion, for “god’s sake,” has been reformed around this modern experience of homelessness and estrangement, promising true believers an everlasting happiness that awaits them in the next life – out of the body, away from Earth, on the other side.
Ironically, while our insecure ego is what goes for the lure of this pie-in-the-sky promise, it’s our soul, to the degree we are in the process of waking up and breaking free, that is motivating many of us these days to leave religion and its dead convictions for something more.
When serving as a church pastor I witnessed many situations where this spiritual frustration (as I only later came to understand it) would press and fracture the neat constructs of religious identity, causing doubt, anxiety, and exhaustion in those who were trying desperately to hold it together, as their higher nature was seeking to break free and shake off the chains of orthodoxy.
The shift from an ego-centered life to a spiritually oriented one entails a paradoxical dynamic, whereby consciousness drops away from the center of our separate self and into its deeper ground, as soul, as it simultaneously leaps beyond our personal identity to join (and add to) the higher wholeness of matter, life, and consciousness (the universe), as spirit. While it may seem as if the “drop” and the “leap” are moving in different directions, the paradox lies in the fact that dropping into being is what sets us free to live in harmony with everything else.
Soul and spirit are thus paradoxically identical, as the inward-contemplative-mystical and outward-transpersonal-ethical dimensions of spirituality.
They are not metaphysical “code words” for our ego or personality, nor are they parts of our human nature that we possess, own, and control. The subject-object logic inherent to the very existence of the ego as storyteller and roleplay actor can be employed only metaphorically when speaking of the “ground” and “universe” as dynamic poles of the harmony we seek.
Because we are so desperate and relentless in our pursuit of happiness, we end up only generating unhappiness and suffering instead. If we could see that happiness is not ultimately what we desire, but is merely penultimate to our truest aspiration of living in harmony with others and all things, we would simply be happy – without even trying.
Let’s see how far you are willing to go with me here.
Proposition 1: The physical universe emerged abruptly out of a singularity of quantum energy, in an event that cosmological science names the “Big Bang.”
Proposition 2: After approximately 10 billion years, on a planet thrown into orbit around a medium sized yellow star, material conditions obtained for the emergence of life.
Proposition 3: After another 3 billion years of evolution on Earth, life gave rise to consciousness, and consciousness to the uniquely self-conscious species of homo sapiens.
Proposition 4: As a member of this species, you are a human manifestation of the universe, which has evolved to the point of becoming conscious of itself in you.
Proposition 5: Looking outward (with “outsight”) you can observe the vast expanse and explore the deep complexity of this cosmic order, while looking inward (with “insight”) you can contemplate its grounding mystery in your own existence as a self-conscious living being.
If you have chosen to disregard the research evidence and reality-based theories of contemporary science, but subscribe instead to a literal reading of some religious mythology, then I likely lost you at Proposition 1. But if perchance you have not fallen under the spell of mythological literalism (in Christianity known as biblical literalism), then I might have gotten you as far as Proposition 4 – maybe even all the way to Proposition 5.
Still, that last one might be a stretch beyond your range of intellectual flexibility.
Proposition 4 – that you are a human manifestation of a universe which is conscious of itself in you – follows very logically from the preceding propositions, even if it feels like an ill-advised metaphysical leap. To insist otherwise, that you are somehow separate from the universe, that your consciousness is essentially alien to its evolutionary process, would itself be a metaphysical leap, putting you more in agreement with the mythological literalists than with sound science.
If instead, you have emerged with and are a product of this evolutionary process, then you and everything about you must be regarded as belonging to the universe – as the universe having become aware of itself (insofar as you are self-aware).
I’m going to consider it safe to assume that you are reasonably comfortable with Proposition 4, notwithstanding any leap that may have been necessary for you to get there. Your hesitancy is understandable, given that science itself might rather have you observe the universe from a more objective, detached, and impersonal standpoint. Let’s stay with this difficulty a bit longer.
As long as science can keep the question of your objective and impersonal standpoint off the table, operating somewhat dogmatically as an unimpeachable assumption at the heart of its empirical methodology, not only will Proposition 4 remain problematic, but Proposition 5 will have to be rejected almost as a matter of principle. There can be no inner depths to consciousness, no grounding mystery within, as these are not observable data.
By inventing this privileged yet utterly delusional standpoint of objective and impersonal observation, the very continuum of evolutionary existence has been arbitrarily broken. Everything up to consciousness is included, but self-consciousness – you here, pondering it all – has been preemptively suspended, or else reduced to nothing more than a surface foam agitating at the edges of consciousness itself.
By thus ignoring the one evolutionary capacity that makes you uniquely human, science can leave you out of the full picture.
And that’s why, if you could agree with the first part of Proposition 5, about your ability to observe the expanse and complexity of the universe outside yourself, the second part, about a complementary orientation inward for contemplating the grounding mystery of the universe as yourself, felt as if you were stepping off an edge and into a dark abyss.
But think about this. What happens when the universe, which has produced self-conscious persons such as yourself, is described, cataloged, and explained without any suggestion of your place in it? What kind of universe is it, really? The answer, I think you will agree, is a nonhuman universe, even an inhuman universe, a universe indifferent or hostile to your existence and that of every other human being. It is a universe that holds no recognition of you and has no place for you.
By excluding the one thing that holds it all together in self-conscious meditation, we cannot really refer to it as a universe at all. Technically speaking, the universe is not an observable datum, not a fact to be observed, and any science that seeks to establish itself on a purely objective and impersonal foundation should refrain from using the term.
That’s why the second part of Proposition 5 is so crucial. Only to the degree that you are not only capable but intentionally engaged in the inward descent of consciousness, into the grounding mystery of your existence as a (4) self-conscious, (3) sentient, (2) living, and (1) physical being, will you be able to cultivate the experience of mystical communion, where “all is one.”
With each step deeper into your essential nature, the more profound and vivid this insight becomes.
This inner experience of communion is what the myths of religion have been revealing to us all along. They are not explanations of the observable universe, true in the degree that their descriptions and predictions match up accurately to objective facts. Rather, the myths are metaphorical and poetic expressions carried up from this depth experience of oneness, true in the degree that their images (called archetypes, or “first forms”) give shape to a mystery too deep for words.
To read these images as referring to objective (though perhaps invisible) facts, as the mythological literalists do, is to reject and close down their revelatory power.
But when you are contemplatively rooted in the grounding mystery of existence, the cosmic environment outside and around you spontaneously evokes your curiosity, wonder, and awe – even your worship, understood as the reverent response of surrender, sacrifice, and service to what is greater than you but also includes you.
This higher wholeness is the creative process and provident order that began as a quantum singularity 14 billion years ago, waking up just this morning as you.
Our health, happiness, and fulfillment as human beings are based in, and therefore dependent on, how deeply we understand ourselves. By that I mean something more than what we think of ourselves, or what general theory of human nature we happen to hold.
Understanding is by definition a deep (“under”) position (“standing”) that accommodates a full or complete view of something – not a mere glimpse or even just an angle, but what in psychology is called a gestalt, a spontaneous intuition of the whole thing.
What I’ve been working with all these years is just such a spontaneous intuition of being human. Not what it means to be human or where humans fit within the great taxonomy of living things, but what the human experience is in essence, beneath all our genetic variations, cultural backgrounds, time periods, personality traits, and life conditions.
Rather than conceiving of it in terms of some foundational substance or basic “stuff” that all of us are made of, however, I have found it much more useful to regard being human (or human be-ing) in terms of the long arc of consciousness on its journey through evolutionary time.
Whereas anthropological science seeks to unearth our nature in the distant past, and supernatural religion insists that being human begins and ends in unearthly realms, I think the German philosopher of Existentialism, Martin Heidegger, was correct to observe that a genuine understanding of ourselves has only one place to start: right where we are (Dasein) as we wake up to the question of our life’s meaning, purpose, and destiny.
As we read in the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy,
In the middle of our life might refer to the developmental transition of midlife, but more likely what Dante had in mind was this “existential moment” where each of us comes to the more or less shocking realization that we are on our own (to pick up with Dante again) “in a dark wood where the straight way [is] lost.”
Even if our tribe has successfully enveloped us inside its moral conscience – referring not to the Romantic notion of an individual’s innate sense of right and wrong, but rather to the system of agreements and common assumptions that defines (or enframes: what I call the “moral frame“) what its members accept as “right behavior” and a “good person” – our existential moment can throw all of that into question.
The “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Where am I going?” and “What really matters?” questions break open all our social securities and invite us to reset our orientation in life. This is the middle of our life where we have an opportunity to really make it our own.
We got into this position of standing in our own separate center of self-conscious identity by a process of individuation, and it’s here, as we come to ourselves amid the tangled branches of a “dark wood,” that the whole arc of our life might be grasped as a single gestalt.
The above diagram is my best rendering of that gestalt, and it illustrates the wonderful irony that such a “whole picture” of being human requires us to first find ourselves out of the picture.
In a sense, it’s similar to the way that separating ourselves from Earth and standing on the Moon afforded us a position from which we could grasp the magnificent gestalt of our planet for the first time.
Personal consciousness, the offspring of tribal consciousness, gradually differentiated itself out of the herd sympathies of our group and gave us a way of participating in the society of individuals. Differentiation and participation, then, mark the critical thresholds of our individuation – the lower threshold (differentiation) serving to establish our identity as distinct from our body (in the sense that “I have a body”), and the upper threshold providing for the possibility of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
When our individuation is healthy and successful, ego consciousness can be fully present in our body (the experience of embodiment), as well as fully capable of going beyond itself (the experience of transcendence) for the sake of, and in service to, a higher wholeness.
From here we can understand ourselves as grounded in a present mystery (by our body and its visceral intelligence), on a journey of personal self-discovery (as a developing ego), all the while advancing farther into more inclusive harmonies and deeper into communion with being itself (through the spiritual intelligence of our soul).
This, then, is the long arc of consciousness alluded to earlier. The observational distance needed for a spontaneous intuition (gestalt) and true understanding of being human is made possible by the delusion of our separate self, whose function, developmentally speaking, is to provide consciousness a point from which it can drop into the ground of being (embodiment) and leap into the web of life (transcendence).
By virtue of our delusional separation, we are in a place where we can come to ourselves, take creative authority in the construction of meaning (our world), and live our lives with intention (Dante’s “straight way”).
There’s a chance, though – even a fairly high probability – that our journey of individuation didn’t go all that smoothly. For any number of reasons, our ego’s differentiation from the body was more traumatic than it might have been, perhaps complicated by abuse or a morally repressive tribal conscience. The result was that our body is not a place where we feel grounded. Its chronic anxiety, locked-up frustration, and exhausted depression is not for us a refuge of quiet solitude and inner peace.
Outwardly the situation is no better. Instead of a secure center of social identity, personal agency, and relational freedom, our insecurity motivates us into neurotic attachment and codependent entanglements. Unable to “come to ourselves,” we end up in submission to whomever and whatever promises – or we hope will provide – a safe identity to hide inside.
Whether it is a political party, a religious denomination, or some more radical and sectarian cult that holds our loyalty, we find that we cannot even think for ourselves or make our own decisions outside its control.
Too many are under the spell of an authoritarian idol or absolutist ideology, ready to kill and die on its command, or at least willing to put our one precious life on hold for the promise of a better one later on – after the revolution, or in heaven when it’s all over.
This alienated condition of somatic and relational dissociation is where a large number of us are presently stuck. We can’t even come to ourselves enough to realize that we are in a “dark wood,” and that our “straight way” is lost to us until we decide to commit ourselves to living authentically – on purpose – and for the sake of what truly matters.