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Welcome!

John Daniels photoWelcome 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

The Music of Your Life

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.

Understanding Spiritual Frustration

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.

Beyond Happiness

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. Happiness aligns 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.

Waking Up As You

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.

Being Human

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 the journey of our life I came to myself …”

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.

Breakpoint for Humanity

The concept of community is widely misunderstood and frequently gets misapplied to types of human groupings such as assemblies, crowds, neighborhoods, or regional populations. These others are based on a quantitative function of individuals gathered or grouped together, and might be distinguished by their specific conditions of location, setting, or occasion.

Community, on the other hand, is a qualitative phenomenon where individuals are connected to each other and united in a transcendental state of communal consciousness, mutual regard, and the harmony of wills.

Putting individuals together or enclosing them inside a boundary does not thereby make them a community. Something has to happen – a transformation in their way of being together, of how they relate to one another, in each individual’s sense of and committment to participating in a higher wholeness, in the transpersonal unity of life.

The theoretical model of cultural progress and human evolution that informs this blog sees humanity on a path leading ultimately to the fulfillment of our deeper nature, in the realization of genuine community. Similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of creation’s “Omega Point,” but without his religious-metaphysical assumptions, this model invites us to contemplate humanity’s evolutionary ideal – the epigenetic code deep inside us that’s moving (or seeking to move) our species toward the full actualization of our nature as human beings.

Needless to say, we’re not there yet, although we can certainly identify pockets in human society where signs of spiritual awakening and genuine community are evident. Nevertheless, just now vast populations of humans seem to be sliding backwards into a less civilized, more selfish and antagonistic attitude in their engagement with the world around them.

If we can’t find our way through this battlefield of races, nations, and ideologies, it’s possible we might drive ourselves to extinction.

The beliefs and behavior of a growing number are becoming increasingly irrational, confused, angry, and violent. With our trust in journalism, science, and education profoundly eroded in recent years, the general feeling is that we are caught in a whirlwind with no steady ground under our feet or clear vantage point on what’s happening.

Lacking the sense of a way through, we wonder if this is where it’s all going to end.

This is why it’s all the more important to find a lens that can help us see our current predicament in a larger context. With such a lens, I propose that much of the disorientation and upheaval we are experiencing right now can be understood as the inherently unstable conditions of transformative change.

By definition, transformation is a process characterized by a phase transition between two relatively stable states or forms. This transitional phase can be “deeply chaotic,” having left behind something familiar and predictable, but still offshore from what is yet unknown.

If humanity is in the midst of such a transformative (i.e., evolutionary) process of change, and I believe we are, then we might stand a better chance of making meaningful progress if the two shores (forms, states, or stages) are better understood.

Humans began their evolutionary journey in a “herd” state of consciousness that can also be called tribal. In this relatively stable state, the individual is not yet self-conscious – that is to say, he is not yet aware of himself as an individual, as a basic indivisible unit. His consciousness is, at it were, buried like a seed in the maternal ground of his tribe which provides for his nourishment, protection, and emotional security.

These benefits of tribal existence will continue to operate on the emerging self-conscious individual, as “lures” back into its more primitive – originally preconscious and later subconscious – mode of being.

Our epigenetic code as a species – or what I prefer to call the “human ideal,” exactly like Aristotle’s entelechy or developmental aim – did not let us stay in this buried state of herd consciousness. Inevitably individuals began to step out from the tribe; or, if the primitive myths of this period can be interpreted as psycho-evolutionary records of human transformation, then the experience was more like a falling-out or eviction from a paradisal state of existence (the metaphorical Garden of Eden).

The process of becoming an individual, called individuation, involves a gradual centering of consciousness in the self, with the goal (that inner aim again) of taking more and more control over one’s own behavior, choices, and commitments in life. This position of autonomy, literally of “self-control” (auto+nomos), is a necessary step in the formation of ego strength. Ideally – and once again speaking in evolutionary terms – the centered and autonomous individual is capable of responding to the world intentionally, out of ethical consideration and with creative freedom.

My diagram illustrates this progress into individual autonomy, ego strength, and personal responsibility, by an arrow culminating at a point where the individual is finally free to “go beyond” (or transcend) himself in the experience of community. Such transcendence does not require him to renounce or negate himself for the sake of the group, which would effectively nullify his centered self-control of autonomy. Instead it affirms his individuality as it empowers him to connect with others, expand his world horizons, and contribute to the greater wellbeing.

This higher state of consciousness is properly communal in the way it envisions, honors, and adds value to the transpersonal unity of life. Here individuals are not blended into the community, but celebrated and relied on for their unique talents, aspirations and creative effort. In their shared commitment to dialogue, they co-construct a world that is big enough to include everyone.

The diversity of individuals is not a threat but a stimulant for the generosity and goodwill essential to promoting harmony. Occasional tensions and conflicts are reconciled (upwards) in healthy compromise, literally a “promise together,” rather than resolved (downwards) by unilateral dominance and discipline.

Those last few paragraphs are my best description of what I mean by genuine community, the inner aim and ultimate goal of human evolution. It is, and will be, what secures a creative and prosperous future for our species on this planet – or on any planet we might one day colonize.

The other path, one that leads to misery and mutual destruction, fails to reach the point of the individual’s autonomy and his transpersonal leap into community. Instead of achieving a position of centered self-control and social responsibility, this break-off and collapse (rather than expansion) of consciousness happens as a consquence of neurotic insecurity, of his overwhelming feeling of existential exposure and social alienation.

To the degree that his tribe is rigidly authoritarian yet incompetent in the practices of mindful parenting, holistic education, and the politics of community formation, the individual will tend to seek social approval over self-actualization, willingly sacrificing his own human fulfillment on the altar of herd security. Rather than going beyond himself for the sake of genuine community, he submits himself to the thought-control (i.e., orthodoxy), lifeless idols, and soul-stifling refuge of his tribe.

And so, here we are. As we look out on the global situation today, it becomes clear that so many of us are struggling but falling short of our own self-control and creative freedom, lacking a center from which we might engage others and the world around us in a rational and responsible way, one that is spiritually relevant to this critical breakpoint for humanity.

Bringing Up a Racist

If you really want to raise your child to be a racist, referring to someone who regards skin colors and ethnicities other than one’s own as inferior, untrustworthy, and in more extreme cases even subhuman, then it will help to know something about how such beliefs get established. It won’t work to sit your child down with a list of propositions about “those others” and have them write out the lines – “All purple people are bad.” “All purple people are bad.” – until they come to believe.

I’m using belief here in distinction from “faith,” “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “wisdom,” in acknowledgement of its subjective bias.

Beliefs, that is to say, are judgments anchored not in objective facts or even very much in logical reasoning, but rather in our emotional commitment to their truth, of their rendering in language the way things really are, once were, or surely one day will be. A belief is skewed in favor of the ego (the personality-controlled mind) that holds them, if only for the sense of certainty it provides, and for the deeper and underyling security such certainty affords.

It’s our Western cognitive bias that would have you believe that the explicit teaching of racist beliefs to your child is the best way to ensure your desired outcome – that your child grows up to be the same bigoted racist you are. This head-heavy, logo-centric assumption has been driving Western education, philosophy, science, religion, and psychology for hundreds of years, operating by its own unquestioned belief that learning is a top-down affair.

All the while, perceptive parents and teachers have observed that youngsters learn more by imprinting and imitation (watching adults and doing what they do), than by listening and following instructions that come down from above.

So, quite contrary to our Western cultural bias, my advice to parents wanting to bring up little racists who might themselves some day strive passionately (even violently) against people of different skin color and ethnicity, is to start not with their minds but with their bodies.

To clarify what I mean, let’s picture the evolution of belief as a vertical continuum that is anchored in the ground of “behavior” and reaches up into the sky of a “worldview.”

As racism is always just one component of a larger worldview, the common mistake is thinking that the real work must be up there, in the explicit judgments, propositional logic, broad generalizations, and dogmatic convictions of what you believe as a racist parent.

But as already stated, this is not how it’s actually accomplished.

The real work must begin with behavior, for the simple reason that the mind aligns with what the body is up to – coming up with justifications, excuses, and likely stories that make sense of how it feels, what it’s doing, or what’s been done.

It’s not even necessary, therefore, to begin by telling your child what to believe (e.g., that “purple people are bad”). All you need to do is take their hand and steer them along a path of behavior that avoids all encounters with purple people. The earlier in their development you can do this the better, since any inadvertent and unsupervised encounter with an actual purple person will likely elicit your child’s natural interest, human empathy, and social engagement – and this can take some time to repeal and replace with the bigotry you are wanting to anchor in.

Be sure to be consistent with this behavioral “steering” of your child, careful to walk quickly to the other side of the street, for instance, when you see purple people up ahead. Don’t spend any time on instruction during this phase, recalling that your principal objective here is not really to teach anything, just to habituate a way of behaving that will provide your child’s mind with the routine body movements and corresponding nervous states upon which it will gradually construct its worldview.

The simple association of a quick 90-degree turn with the sight of purple people up ahead will get anchored into your child’s nervous system, prompting them with the appropriate subconscious directive in future encounters.

What you want from this operant conditioning of your child’s behavior is to anchor in place a set of action codes, or autonomic directives, that conspire together in prompting them to act without thinking. This subconscious process is a system of underlying bio-behavioral mechanisms that support the attitudes that will energize and orient your child’s mental appraisal of his or her world.

As we’re using the term, an attitude is an emotional position the mind takes with respect to its circumstances, or to specific conditions or objects embedded in these circumstances.

The subconsciously generated reaction of hesitation, fear, and vigilance that your child feels as their body makes its programmed detour around the purple people is properly considered an attitude which the youngster is taking with respect to those “bad people” up ahead. As you can see, the important progress you are making has to do with the gradual formation in consciousness of a proto-belief – not yet a formal proposition or doctrine, but rather a physiological reaction and “emotional position” that will serve as the subjective foundation of racist bigotry.

At this point it is helpful to affirm your child’s avoidant behavior, by saying something like, “That’s smart of you to cross to the other side of the street, because you can never know what those purple people might do to you. It’s better to be safe than sorry.” It’s not necessary for you to launch into a long racist diatribe of supremacist orthodoxy, since the “reason” for your child’s avoidant behavior is already anchored in their body and behavior.

It would be much more effective for you to ask your child to justify their behavior to you, asking why they are acting in such an intelligent, careful, and responsible way.

As their mind composes the reasons, stories, and broader theories that justify an attitude of suspicion and antagonism toward this or that purple person, it will steadily clarify into a perspective on purple people in general. From there, belief will broaden out into a philosophy of purpleness and all its negative connotations, eventually getting assimilated into a conceptual lens for viewing reality as a whole. This racist worldview is your ultimate goal as a diligent parent and teacher.

Having reached this point, the bigotry of racism is fully enclosed by convictions from which your child’s mind will likely never break free. Congratulations on a job well done.

Coming Together

Everybody is asking for my grand unified theory of everything. Well, actually no one is asking. Hell, hardly anyone reads this blog, to be honest. But I keep polishing my lens and clarifying a theory that brings everything inside a single frame. That’s the supreme triadic principle of wisdom after all: (1) All is one, (2) We’re all in this together, and (3) We need to wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

The risk of ignoring it is that you or I may die without ever having lived. On the larger scale, our species could pull the whole web of life on Earth down into extinction with our foolishness, stupidity, and neurotic consumerism.

So, whether or not you are one of my handful of readers interested in such things, I’m going to lay the big picture out once again, as clearly as I’m able. Perhaps someone else, with more time than what I have left, can pick it up and put on the finishing touches.

I find it helpful to orient our picture around the centerpoint of ego consciousness – exactly where you and I, standing on our own individual centers of self-conscious awareness, are engaged in this meditation. To have arrived at this point of ego consciousness, each of us had to come into ourselves by a process of differentiation. Underneath and prior to self-awareness, consciousness was (and still is, as we will see) immersed in a profound and ineffable communion with reality.

The experience here is of an underlying, essential, deeper oneness which cannot be objectively known because it is not (nor can ever be) an object of awareness. Traditions of mystical spirituality are fond of using the metaphor of Ground in speaking of this deeper, essential oneness of reality – careful to retract what they say about it out of respect for its nature as lying below the reach of our words and thoughts.

This depth dimension of our existence (yours and mine) is the domain of soul in contemplative solitude. I’m being careful not to say your soul or my soul in order to avoid the common misunderstanding of it as somehow belonging to us, like property or a piece of ourselves. Soul simply refers to our inner life, the deeper reaches of grounded awareness, mindful presence, and mystical insight (or intuition).

So even though ego consciousness had to be differentiated out of this essential oneness of communion, the soul continues to dwell in its grounding mystery.

It wasn’t enough, however, just to differentiate out of oneness. A second process, individuation, had to gradually organize consciousness around its own proper center by forming an ego – our individual capacity for self-control, self-awareness, and self-will, all critical powers of an established identity. All of this was predicated on, as well as a symptom of, the separation of consciousness from its essential communion with reality, into the remote workspace of our unique personalities.

In world mythology, this developmental journey of ego consciousness out of the Ground (differentiation) and into its own centered existence (individuation) is represented in the hero’s separation from [his] maternal origins of home and an ongoing struggle to save [himself] from falling back into its generative (though from the hero’s perspective, identity-dissolving) abyss.

Mystical spirituality, with its skillful practice of releasing all attachments of ego-identity and dissolving into the deeper oneness of being-itself, is therefore following back down along an ancient path charted by the mythological imagination.

So here we are, back at the orienting center of the big picture, where you and I stand in our separate centers of self-conscious ego identity. The whole aim of our individuation was to bring us to a point where we are in full possession of ourselves and ready to be in conscious relationship with others and the world around us. This is the process of participation, whereby individuals relate to each other out of their separate centers in order to make connections, form bonds, and create community.

By definition, participation is about taking part in some larger system of interactions, to be a part of something greater than yourself without getting lost inside it. This relational path is contingent upon our individual ego identities not being denied and thrown aside, but rather embraced and surpassed (transcended) in the interest of contributing to the harmony of differences. Far above the underlying, essential, and deeper oneness of reality (as Ground), our experience is of an overarching, integral, higher wholeness named Universe.

It’s important to recognize this term, universe, as referring to something more than a mere arrangement (or cosmos) of existing things. Literally the “turning as/into one,” Universe refers to any order of integral wholeness, from the elementary to the intergalactic, where a system interacts and evolves holistically – that is to say, as a whole. We could justifiably refer to your living body as a universe, to your whole self as a universe, to your life in community as a universe, to the larger web of life on Earth as a universe, as we already refer to our Earth in the Milky Way among all the galaxies as the universe.

In using this term, cosmological science is invoking a very spiritual notion, of the All-as-One in which we live and move and have our being.

Just as you and I (in our separate ego identities) are free to release-and-dissolve into the experience of deeper oneness (i.e., Ground), so we might otherwise choose to connect-and-transcend our separate egos for an experience of higher wholeness (i.e., Universe). This is the realm of spirit, of our breathing (Latin spiritus) in and out and all together as a community of individuals, both human and other-than-human, across the whole web of life and beyond.

An understanding of our place within the larger universes of life awakens in us an ethical intention to live with respect, compassion, responsibility and goodwill towards all.

I don’t want to bog this post down with a cautionary note, so I’ll be quick to mention that these deeper and higher experiences are available to us only in the degree that our egos are not tangled up in neurotic attachments, dogmatic convictions, or the futile ambition to cheat mortality and save ourselves. That very ambition for everlasting life is what makes many true believers into spiritual captives of their religions, chained to the wall of some orthodoxy and perpetually “not far from the kindom of spirit” – to paraphrase a warning from Jesus (Mark 12:34).

Viewing these two paths – the descending-apophatic and ineffable way of mystical insight (the via negativa), and the ascending-kataphatic and dialogical way of ethical intention (the via positiva) – as complementary principles informing our big picture or “theory of everything” is what keeps me excited and engaged in this work. Honestly, the meditative exercise of contemplating and identifying its golden threads of timeless wisdom is deeply satisfying in itself.

If I can find a few sympathetic readers, so much the better.

Arriving at Last in the Kindom of Spirit

Depending on whether you query conventional religion about the way of salvation, or ask your question of the Sophia Perennis (the transcultural tradition of spiritual wisdom), you’re likely to get very different answers. Religion will speak in dogmatic terms of what you need to believe and what you need to do in order to qualify yourself for the salvation you’re seeking. Joining a local “chapter” (church, temple, mosque, or ashram) will be strongly encouraged, since belonging to and surrounding yourself with like-minded folks offers good protection against backsliding.

The wisdom tradition, on the other hand, will respond differently to your question. Before the conversation goes too far, it will want to know what you think salvation is and why you think you need it. You may find you’re chasing after or looking for something that really isn’t relevant – or even real. Like that old saw about a ladder against the wrong wall, you don’t want to reach the top only to realize that your true longings are elsewhere.

Paradoxically the wisdom teachings will challenge you to see that looking for salvation (or wanting to “get saved”) is your deeper problem.

Do this instead – or rather, stop chasing and simply be present to your life, just as it is. Your problem is rooted in the difficulty of remaining for any significant length of time completely in this place, right where you are. So stop the chasing, drop the pursuit, release your craving for something else (the false promises of retail marketing and bad religion), and let yourself just relax into being, here and now. A few deep and slow breaths will let the tension slide away, as you hold a soft gaze in front of you or gently close your eyes.

It won’t be long before you become aware that this is all there is, and that you presently dwell at the center of all things. This is known as solitude, and it really has nothing to do with being by yourself somewhere in a remote cabin or monastery – although it can happen there as well. The key thing, the absolutely essential thing, is that you are fully present in centered awareness wherever you happen to be. It’s not yesterday or tomorrow, over there or somewhere else.

The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart named it the “Eternal Now”: not everlasting but timeless, the moment where time breaks open to being-itself and this is all there is.

Another interesting paradox is how, in this deep centered space of solitude, you are simultaneously one with all things. The Sophia Perennis names this fact-of-facts communion, referring to the undifferentiated oneness in which you and everything else are presently grounded. The deeper into yourself consciousness is able to descend, the more you see that the grounding mystery of your existence gives rise to all existence, and that everything – including, of course, you in your solitude – is rooted in this same ground.

This is where Sophia Perennis and conventional religion are most different, perhaps, in their very different perspectives on that in you which makes you most uniquely you: your ego. As your executive center of personality management, ego (Latin for “I”) is what actually generates the delusion of your separate existence – with you here and everything else flung out and away from you as “not me.”

If that earlier exercise of dropping into deeper solitude was especially challenging for you, your hang-up was likely here, in the insecurity that inevitably – and to some extent for everyone – comes along with the prize of becoming a unique “somebody.”

Your ego requires this separate workspace to exist, and yet the separation is what provokes its insecure feelings of anxiety, exposure, and alienation. Much of conventional religion is organized around the project of reducing this (what is called) existential anxiety, by giving you something to hope for and hang onto. Salvation, according to this system, is about saving you (i.e., your egoic self) from what threatens your security: pain, illness, decrepitude, death, your body (because it will die), and the sucking drain of time.

Conventional religion is intolerant of any notion suggesting that getting out is not the answer, and that dropping deeper in is. And yet, this is indeed the fundamental message of the wisdom teachings. The delusion of a separate identity (i.e., your ego) doesn’t need to be saved, but rather released and left “up here” at the shimmering surface of illusion, as consciousness drops into deeper registers of present awareness, solitude, and communion.

Those obsessed with saving the ego typically cannot comprehend why anyone should go deeper into “the problem” they’re needing to escape, and for this reason conventional religion has a long history of condemning, excommunicating, persecuting, and killing Wisdom’s children (aka mystics).

Once you have awakened to the fact of oneness, released your ego and dropped into the grounding mystery of solitude-in-communion, the true way of salvation opens itself to you. A “peace that surpasses understanding,” not merely a non-anxious presence of mind but a profound sense of inner calm and wellbeing, flows from a quiet spring deep within your soul. As this “water of eternal life” rises in you, it fills you with an uncontainable joy, which just as irresistibly flows out from you to others in gestures, expressions, and demonstrations of love.

Once again we can contrast the different attitudes of the Sophia Perennis and conventional religion, now with respect to the motivation for loving others.

Conventional religion tries to put you under the command of some divine law (“Thou shalt love your neighbor …”) or the urgency of obedience for the sake of some future reward (“… if you want to live forever in heaven someday.”). Here love needs a reason, an ultimatum, or incentive of some kind. Religion recognizes that there is little hope for society if members can’t get along and care for each other, but it also knows that self-interested egos require some pressure – both external and internal – to extend or sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

But when your love is the outflow of a joy which is sourced from a wellspring of a peace deep, deep in the solitude of your oneness with everything, it is spontaneous, generous, and indiscriminate in its generosity, for there is no self-interest to persuade or separation to overcome. You know that you and the other are mere manifestations of the same grounding mystery, participants together in the transpersonal unity of life.

This is the kindom of spirit, where the deeper oneness of communion finds expression through the diverse fellowship of beings, resolving at last in a great harmony of “peace on Earth.” Religion says you have to wait and hope for it. Wisdom says it’s already here, if you have eyes to see it.

Whitewashed

Just now, conservative and mostly Republican legislators are advancing bills into law that will prohibit the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in our public schools. Basically the theory says that racism – the prejudices, antagonism, inequality, and violence between white and black races in America – is not merely an “episode” of our history, but embedded in the political ideology, cultural institutions, economic structures, and legal system of America today.

Those seeking to block critical race theory from the public school curriculum accuse it of throwing America as a nation under the gloss of racism, of making all white people into white supremacists.

Surely there are many white folks who value diversity and want to include black people in American life – but that’s really the point.

White people are in this position of deciding whether or not to include black people precisely because they are the privileged majority, the ones by whom and for whom the grand system of American society was built. The fact that they built it upon the backs of African slaves is therefore, according to critical race theory, not a merely historical note. Those assumptions and biases were baked right into the white American way of life.

Anti-CRT legislators are only the political face of a much deeper and broader mindset in America today, one that has become entranced by superficial images and brand marketing, steadily losing its ability to think critically and reflectively about reality. As a consequence of our intellectual seduction and down-dumbing, we no longer have the vocabulary and conceptual categories for picking through the misrepresentations and “fake news” of the day in order to apprehend the complex reality beyond our veils.

Reality is, in fact, not “black and white” but ambiguous, and without the critical-reflective tools to help us grasp the paradoxes of our American experience and the human condition, we inevitably fall into (and fall for) a conflict-oriented binary logic of either-or.

According to this mindset, the grayscale reality of American society cannot be transcended as “black with white,” but must be resolved into “black against white” – preferably “white without black.” Importantly, that it cannot be transcended does not speak to a limitation of reality itself, but exposes a dangerously diminished capacity of our minds.


Another place I see this downward resolution of ambiguity (or complexity) into the dualism of either-or is in religion. As the belief system oriented on the objective existence of god, theism is trying to restrain our spiritual progress into a new system where god is assimilated and freshly incarnated in lives of generosity, compassion, and goodwill. Religious conservatives are misrepresenting this emerging spirituality of post-theism as simple atheism: godless, selfish, heretical, and immoral.

If they are forced to put post-theism either on the side of traditional theism or that of secular atheism, average believers from whom the conceptual tools of critical theology have been intentionally withheld will have no choice but to reject it out of hand. With well-developed tools, on the other hand, they might appreciate how post-theism includes and transcends important elements of both traditional theism and secular atheism, without being reducible to either.

I brought this brief account of post-theism into the discussion of critical race theory and American education for two reasons. First, race and religion are two of the dominant threads or themes that have shaped American history and character, and we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter a conservative resistance on both fronts as our inherited assumptions start breaking against a complex reality.

American race relations and religious identities are presently in the throes of deep (radical: at the roots) transformation, and those of us who hold a vision for a New Reality of spiritual awakening and genuine community need to keep its focus on this higher aim.

As we recover and sharpen our critical tools, it will be important for us to expose the systemic, institutional, and ideological prejudices that currently have us locked into an either-or debate, in both American courts and American churches.

The second reason I wanted to briefly include some remarks on religion along with these thoughts on the legislative efforts underway to “whitewash” American public education, is based in how both of these thresholds of creative change provide an opportunity for us to better understand – and more responsibly manage – what only recently has come to be acknowledged as the “construction of meaning.”

Constructivism regards meaning as something our minds assign to reality, as they construct the perspectives, philosophies, and worldviews that orient and guide us through life.

Although it sounds as if we about to slide into a hopeless nihilism, the idea that reality (the really real, being-itself) is a mystery outside our minds and beyond words – essentially ineffable, indescribably perfect, and perfectly meaningless – can be powerfully liberating. The spiritual wisdom teachings have insisted on the illusory nature of meaning for many centuries, but it’s only been in the last hundred years or so that more of us have come to appreciate the creative role our mind plays in making meaning and constructing our world.

Meaning isn’t “out there” as people once believed, but originates “in here” and is projected onto and out into reality.

For reality – any reality – to mean something, our mind must first get it in focus and place a frame around it. This frame determines what will be included (i.e., everything inside the frame) and what will be excluded, or more accurately ignored. Once the frame is set, a filter is imposed that will screen out all irrelevant data and allow through only what matters. With these “construction materials” now in hand, the mind proceeds to fit it all together, fixing the joints and finishing the edges into something meaningful – a product and reflection of the mind itself.

Now, of course, this project of making meaning isn’t all that innocent. Merely selecting the portion of reality to enframe amounts to a tacit invalidation of what we choose not to include. The filter we use is itself comprised of predilections, preferences, and prejudgments, for the most part energized by largely preconscious drives of self-interest and tribal identity. Put simply, the meaning we make and the worlds we create carry our natural and cultural biases.

This is what is meant by “systemic racism”: in the case of American society, a world-construct and way of life that reflect the values and favor the interests of white people, who first conspired together in its creation and have since accepted its definition as the way things are and should continue to be.

We need critical race theory, as well as what might be called critical religion theory, to equip us with the critical tools for deconstructing any part of our “American world” that excludes, exploits, oppresses, or debases other human beings – of whatever color, class, character, or creed. We can no longer be excused for our inability to dig into those embedded and baked-in forms of racism which continue to shape our consciousness and compel our behavior.

Critical race theory is giving us the tools and vocabulary we need for constructing a better and bigger world, for everyone. What we need now is the courage to change the things we can.