Monthly Archives: September 2012

Out of the Depths

Watts: “One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To ‘know’ reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.”

Think of a wave on the ocean. Its existence (existere means “to stand out”) is defined by the rolling swell of a much larger and deeper current of energy, but from its limited perspective “this” is all there is. From its peak can be seen countless others just like itself, some in the rise and others in the fall of their own lifecycles. From this vantage-point they are all separate formations, separate beings, existing apart from each other and essentially alone in the vast ocean.

Throughout its career, this wave is occasionally involved in competition with other waves nearby. Who is more lively and charismatic, who is more interesting or successful in “waving,” whose peak is highest? And now, having passed the meridian of its own crest and on its way down, a peculiar anxiety is beginning to take over. Still far out from a shoreline that no one has even seen, will its existence be for naught? Wasn’t the purpose to reach the other side? What has been the point to all this thrashing about?

At the surface all waves seem separate. The space between them and differences among them give the impression of an astonishing diversity – exciting at first, but more overwhelming as time goes by. What the wave doesn’t realize – especially during the phase of its swelling self-involvement – is that a greater reality lies beneath. If only its axis of vision could shift from the horizontal to the vertical it would see what’s really going on: all these waves are what the ocean is doing right now.

This shift from the horizontal (out) to the vertical (down) is the critical change in orientation between a rational and a mystical view of reality. One is based on the principle of separation and the meaningful arrangement of things (objects, ideas, values), while the other is grounded in an awareness that all things are the manifestation of a single, ineffable mystery. It is tempting to judge the first as “lesser” and fundamentally mistaken, but this would itself be a mistake.

As ego, an ancient and impulsive animal nature has been shaped into a domesticated and socially well-behaved member of my tribe. Here in the societal arena, separation/attachment is the name of the game: standing out to be recognized and fitting in to belong. As I look out from the perch of my individual wave, I can see you there, working things out for yourself. Others exist apart from me, the world is all around me, and god is above me – separation.

From this vantage-point, the effort of meaning-making involves composing classifications and explanations that describe reality, make sense of it, and thereby reduce the mystery to terms and values that make sense to us. Anything and everything becomes the subject of an “ology” – a study of, a science of, a theory of a something else. We have amassed a huge library of information and a technology of mastery that has enabled us to control forces which previous cultures worshiped or knew nothing about.

But we’re missing something. All of this horizontal separation-and-control has alienated us from the soul-center of awareness and the corresponding spiritual dimension of reality. Watts says that we’re missing reality entirely. To really know it we must understand that we are part of it, manifestations of it, individual waves on its surface. In addition to looking “out,” we must also look “down.” The rational is not replaced by the mystical, but deepened, expanded, and finally transcended.

Watts’ point, that “this is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart,” encourages us to hold on loosely to our theories, our “ologies.” It’s also fair warning of what will inevitably happen if we keep insisting on being right. To temper these dogmatic and fundamentalist tendencies, it is becoming increasingly urgent that we learn to release ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of being.

To know life from the inside, to live out of the depths, to see it all as One. This is wisdom, is it not?


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Necessary Idols

Heschel: “What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

This quote from Heschel is taken from his chapter titled “Religion and Race,” which was originally an opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in January of 1963. Although well-grounded in the Jewish mystical tradition, Heschel was also a social activist and prophet. His opinions on racism and religion – as negative forces in twentieth-century American culture – were both passionate and thoughtful, as he took his inspiration from the Hebrew prophets of the Bible.

The biblical prophets were radical theologians, meaning that they cut to the “root” (radii) of our human impulse to talk about god. One may have a deeply spiritual experience, but once the process begins of interpreting it, clarifying it, and connecting it linguistically to the meaning of life, it becomes theology – and simultaneously steps out of the spontaneous flow of inspiration. Can’t we just have the experience and choose not to engage in the commentary?

Let’s not forget that meaning-making is not only a shared industry of the tribe, but is going on constantly in the “private” space of the ego as well. The fact is, ego needs meaning because it gives security and purpose to life; which is to say that ego talks incessantly.

The mystery of life, the present mystery of this moment, the mystery of presence and the ground of being are all names and metaphors of the reality available to us from the center of experience called soul. Using the term mystery is an acknowledgement that this reality is elusive and inherently unknowable – beyond the reach of thought and the qualifications of language. It simply cannot be pinned down, boxed up, or strung out in word-webs. As one of the basic building blocks of language and primary units of thought, metaphor functions to carry the mystery of experience into our worlds of meaning.

Once we have the tool of language in hand, so to speak, it is incredibly difficult to resist the impulse to cut the mystery up into pieces and hammer them into configurations that make sense to us. The problem with this – from the higher perspective of the world religions – is that the grimy fingerprints of our egos are all over the meanings we construct. An experience of divine mystery eventually becomes “my” experience “of god,” which means “my” god, the only god that matters. When the mystery has been resolved, divided up, and installed as the gods we believe in and are ready to die for, we are mentally a long, long way from the divine presence.

Heschel makes the point that “my god” is by definition an idol. Unavoidably, as the spiritual experience of mystery is taken up and packaged into meaning, our bias and perspective are reflected in the way we represent God. Of course, in our worse moments we don’t distinguish between the reality that may have inspired the portrait and the portrait itself – a confusion that has motivated more bigotry and violence than just about any other error in thinking. The god I regard as mine, different as it may be from the god you regard as yours, is – both yours and mine – an “untruth,” to use Nietzsche’s term.

So let’s do away with religion and religion’s god altogether. Why not? Won’t we cure the illness of religious dogmatism and militant fundamentalism if we just throw aside theism for good? While the equally dogmatic atheists may scream their endorsement, a more thoughtful and developmentally sensitive post-theism rejects this terminal solution. The reason: the mythological god – the god we tell stories about, the god of religion and therefore the gods of all religions – is necessary, just as the ego (in this view) is necessary in the greater process of human maturity, responsibility and fulfillment.

Humanity is on an evolutionary ascent, and over many generations and millions of years we are slowly actualizing the dormant potential of our nature as a species. (I’m not suggesting that we’ve reached the “end” or “top” of this ascent; surely we still have far to go.) Along the way – just as is the case in our individual development over a lifetime – the pursuit of identity, membership, morality and meaning becomes a powerful preoccupation.  Nevertheless, the system of the ego and its world, a god who presides over it and the mythology that provides narrative space for that god to move in and step out as needed, all works to support humanity in its upward climb.

Post-theism is psychologically paradoxical. Ego is a necessary fixation. Meaning is a necessary fiction. “My god” is a necessary idol. We need these, just as we need a ladder to get to the roof of a house. It would be stupid to kick away the ladder once the roof is reached; we will need it again to get back down. And it’s important that we teach our children how to use the ladder, or else they may mistakenly regard it as a place to hold on and hang out.

The real problem is that, on your ladder or mine, there’s only room for one.


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Frontier of the Future

Nietzsche: “Actual philosophers are commanders and law-givers: they say ‘thus it shall be!’, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of humankind, and they possess for this task the preliminary work of all the philosophical laborers, of all those who have subdued the past – they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is – will to power. Are there such philosophers today? Have there been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers?

I’ve already commented on Nietzsche’s self-appointed role as advocate of the body and its animal drives. He felt that morality and “the herd conscience” effectively block our path to a higher human actualization by condemning, censuring and repressing the life impulses that have served our evolution for millions of years. What should rather happen, as he saw it, is that these drives are channeled and guided to the fulfillment of human nature, not extinguished (which isn’t possible anyway) or domesticated (which only makes them docile, weak and skittish).

The model of self that I’ve been working with identifies three centers of experience connecting us to three distinct aspects or dimensions of reality. Physical reality is experienced by the body which has both an inward orientation (to an internal state) and an outward orientation (to the sensory environment). Social reality is experienced by the ego, and it too has an inward orientation (me-identity) and an outward orientation (other-object). Spiritual reality is experienced by the soul, also with an inward orientation (to the ground of being) and an outward orientation (to the unity of existence).

Again, we don’t have a body, ego, and soul; we are these. Our “real self” is not a metaphysical and immortal subject underneath or above them, but is rather their evolving relationships and dynamic interplay over the course of our lifetime.

Prior to the construction of ego, it seems reasonable to suppose that an individual’s experience of reality is a two-way flow: down through the internal state of the body and into the soul’s ground, and also out through the sensory pathways of the body and into the universal whole. As ego becomes more defined and established as the center of our personality, this spontaneous flow of experience is interrupted by commentary, judgment and belief – in short, by meaning-making.

Ego isn’t performing this work alone, however, but is supported, instructed and supervised by the tribe. The individual’s need for belonging (to fit in) and significance (to stand out) is manipulated by the tribe to ensure moral compliance – to make the individual into “one of us” who thinks and behaves according to the rules.

Stepping back a bit from this model of self, we begin to see the thresholds and potential conflicts of development. As our life energy gets generated in our cells and organs, the animal intelligence of instinct coordinates the urgencies, reflexes and drives that keep us alive. As a member of the tribe, however, you cannot be allowed to gratify every impulse, so the rules and expectations are gradually instructed into you (internalized) as the moral intelligence of conscience.

We might hope that the deeper life energy of the body would move freely along these channels of morality, connecting us to each other in healthy and creative ways, but this isn’t the norm – at least as Nietzsche saw it in his day. Instead, our impulses get blamed and repressed. Pushed back and driven underground by the “herd conscience,” this animal instinct doesn’t simply dissipate or timidly obey. It will break out eventually, and when it does, the tribe is likely to push even harder and pinch the channels even tighter. For Nietzsche, this is where the human evolutionary journey meets its tragic end: with everyone well-behaved but energetically constipated, stuck on the wheel of chronic frustration and neurosis, dying before we even had the chance to really live.

What ought to happen – and if that sounds too much like a moral “ought,” then what needs to happen – is that the individual lets go of morality and proceeds to live “beyond good and evil,” on the far side of obedient conformity to the herd. This free range of the higher life is where Nietzsche’s “philosophers” live – or will live one day. As the “passionate pursuit of wisdom,” philosophy for Nietzsche isn’t about symbolic logic and abstract thinking. Wisdom is the spiritual intelligence of the soul. It involves an understanding of one’s place in the greater whole, orienting by the big picture and the long view. Wisdom is not about how smart we are, but whether we have a large enough vision and sufficient courage to live creatively into this moment.

When the social system of tribal morality, the personal ego and the mythological god can be transcended, the future of humanity will begin. The webs of meaning that we have collectively and individually constructed must either support this creative transformation or be torn down. If it served us for a while, giving us security and a sense of purpose, we have now reached the point where the box is too small, the cage too limiting.

It is time to cut the lock and push open the door. Can we trust ourselves?


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Out of the Box

Watts: “There are two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not even stop to think, ‘I am happy’.”

The business of meaning-making is the chief preoccupation of our minds. Like fish in water, we are immersed in the mystery of life: it pulses inside us and swirls all around us, carrying us in its rhythms and currents. What the fish can’t do but we can, however – by virtue of this big brain of ours – is take a perspective on the “whole thing” and contemplate (really, construct) what it all means. We are constantly pulling reality through our mental gills and extracting what relevance can make life personal, meaningful and worthwhile.

Memory is an evolved capacity of an organism for tagging its environment with values that correspond to specific internal states of its body. Neuroscientists have uncovered various strata in the anatomy of the human brain, with each higher (and developmentally later) layer adding a unique “power” to the advancement of memory. From simple reflexes of behavior to the complicated life stories we make up, memory serves as a primary way humans adapt and make sense of our experience.

Somewhere in there is what researchers call “implicit memory,” which is not about conscious recall but pre-conscious recognition – as when you feel like you know that person but can’t fix a time, place or name to them. This is probably the layer where our working assumptions are located, as the value judgments and visceral reactions that we never think to question. They are the way we see reality. Before we even begin the process of consciously reflecting on our experience, these filters have already done their work: information has been sifted, selected, packaged and labeled by the time we start thinking about it.

So we should acknowledge the survival advantage for an organism that can recognize features of reality on the basis of its past experiences (and thus be prompted to take a wide arc around that rattling sound in the grass, for example). But every higher power comes at a price. As we are busy interpreting the present moment in terms of the past, sorting things out, making comparisons and boxing up the relevant data, the spontaneous mystery of life itself utterly eludes us.

It’s happened to all of us. The first time you experience something new, the portion that is unexpected (because it’s novel, inspiring or unpredictable) catches your attention and holds your interest. It’s easier during this phase to pay attention because your mind is naturally drawn to novelty – likely because paying close attention to what was strange and unusual  made it possible for your ancestors (human and pre-human) to react quickly to danger and risk.

Then what happened? Familiarity, that demonic shadow of knowledge, began to pull more of your mental focus and energy away from the present mystery and into the boxes, channels and routines of meaning-making. This is the preferred business of the ego anyway, since identity (“I”) is constructed out of your multiple identifications of/with the world.

But this flashing moment – the spontaneous mystery of being – gets disqualified and squeezed out of consciousness. What you know makes you blind to – not what you don’t know, but what can’t be known.

We’ve all been in the stream of pure experience. We are in it right now. Most of the time, however, we’re standing on the solid bank composing the commentary of our personal myths. We need meaning; without it we would probably lose our minds. But once in a while it does us some good to leave our boxes on shore and surrender to life as human beings.

Joie de vivre! Here’s to skinny-dipping existentialists.


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Always Here

Heschel: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

A sign is something that, by definition, points beyond itself. A curved arrow on a sign alongside the road indicates that the road ahead is going to curve, just as a stop sign points to an action required of a driver approaching an intersection. Fever is a sign of infection, and rising interest rates are often a sign of inflation. But what does it mean to speak of our existence as significant? Does it makes sense to think of a human being as pointing beyond itself, whose value is not self-contained but only discovered in an act of self-transcendence?

It may seems as if I’m splitting hairs here, but “meaning” and “significance” are not mere synonyms. If my life is meaningful, then it has value and importance to me. But if my life is significant, then somehow its value is no longer mine or about me but about my place within a larger system of reference. Meaning is “for me” while significance is “from me”; one is a confirmation of relevance, whereas the other is a consecration of existence.

The difference in these two words that are often used interchangeably helps to illuminate the threshold between ego and soul. The shift from personal to spiritual awareness requires a detachment from “me” and “mine,” often described metaphorically as a death followed by an outward leap of full release into a greater reality. So much of religion – all of it, Nietzsche would say – is arranged around the ego and its anxious need for security, identity and immortality. Everything is personal, and even ultimate reality is personified. The final goal is “my” salvation, the rescue of “my” soul from sin and death – a soul that is “mine” and belongs to “me.”

While in professional ministry I was chronically frustrated over the egoism of contemporary Christianity – and it isn’t merely a modern problem but has deep roots in historical Christian orthodoxy. People go to church or leave a church based on its adequacy to their needs as religious consumers. They are looking for convenient services, a fellowship of like-minded believers, and a promise of everlasting life in heaven.

Were they to come across a saying of Jesus on the necessity of dying to find real life or giving up everything for the sake of the New Reality he called God’s kingdom, a flash of insight might cross their faces. But just as quickly it would vanish and their egos would grab onto the “so that” – the reward, the prize, the payoff. What’s in it for me?

In choosing significance over meaning, Heschel is intentionally moving beyond morality and the mythological god, beyond ego and tribal orthodoxy. Heschel’s God is clearly something other than a supernatural ego, demanding worship and jealous for glory. For him, religion is not about rescue but presence, not meaning but mystery, not dogmatic certainty but wonder, gratitude and responsibility.

The very formation of ego generates the delusion that I have a body and a soul. As the center of my personal identity, ego also divides time into past and future, what happened to bring me here and what’s coming next. As is the case in all forms of dualism, the opposing pieces are inevitably distorted and misunderstood. Even more tragic, however, is that the division of consciousness between an outside (body) and an inside (soul), a before (past) and an after (future), distracts us from the only reality there is – here and now.

God is a word that points beyond itself, beyond language, and beyond the mind to the present mystery of being. Soul is a deep center of awareness that connects us to God as the ground of our being. And this moment – right now, before we try to grasp it and make it meaningful – is our jumping-off point, where we must let go and give ourselves over to the wonder of being alive.


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An Apology for What’s Next

Nietzsche: “When the highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out, carry the individual far above and beyond the average and lowlands of the herd conscience, the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, its faith in itself, its spine as it were, is broken: consequently it is precisely these drives which are most branded and calumniated.”

Nietzsche’s distrust of the social system is well known. As he saw it, our current cultural achievement as a species is merely a staging area for the next great breakthrough. What’s on the far side is creative freedom and a full understanding of our place in the universe. Where we are now, however, is caught in the collapsing frame of late-modern consciousness, what he elsewhere called “the twilight of the gods.”

Traditional society has several distinctive features. It is hierarchically arranged, with tribal authorities at the center and top of the social order who are regarded as enjoying a privileged connection to god. It is managed by an intricate network of customs (Nietzsche’s “morality”) that work to pull otherwise spontaneous, creative and potentially deviant behavior into conformity with the group. It is based in a system of stories (a mythology) that tie contemporary life to the sacred past and clarify a divine purpose for the future of the faithful.

So at the dusk of the modern era (late nineteenth century) when Nietzsche and others began to realize that mythology – not only other people’s stories, but our own as well – is a human production, the whole thing started to collapse.

If myths of revelation are actually fictional constructions, then we need to ask about the particular historical contexts that shape the storytellers’ worldview and way of life. Flipping the sacred stories of mythology on their head in this way – as coming “up” out of the human situation rather than “down” out of heaven – urged new questions about perspective, hidden agendas, and ulterior motivations of those who made up the stories in the first place, and of those who have a stake in telling them now.

Nietzsche was especially ruthless in his criticism whenever he spotted or got a whiff of moralism. He cautioned that we should always inquire into whose position in society is served as we stand together, with hands on our hearts, reciting the creed that supports the story that describes the world that humans built.

Instead of simply sweeping morality into the cultural junk bin, however, Nietzsche offers an explanation of its origins and why we (the tribe) protect it so fiercely. If we understand that mythology orients the tribe under the sovereignty of god, and that morality orients the ego under the rule of the tribe, then specific moral disciplines are how the ego manages the body – or better, how the tribe manages the body through the ego.

When you pull back on a particular urge out of fear of being caught, the “herd conscience” is controlling your behavior. For a long time such prohibitions were believed to come ultimately from god, and you don’t want to mess with god. So you do what is “right.” But why is that right? Or what’s the “wrong” that is being ruled out by your obedience?

Nietzsche’s reference to our “highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out” reveals his deep respect for the body and our animal nature. For millions of years the survival intelligence of instinct has been marvelously successful – at least as it concerns you and me – in keeping our ancestors alive, reproducing, and adapting to or overcoming the challenges of their environment. As society grew more complex and unstable, it became increasingly important to bring the body’s animal nature under control. The vital drives of instinct, which had served the advancement of human evolution so faithfully and for so long, needed to be domesticated and trained for life in the tribal role play.

I’ll take just three of what I regard as the more obvious of such survival drives to illustrate what I think Nietzsche is saying. If we soften our definition of selfishness to mean the driving desire to take what is needed to stay alive, then beneath all the social cooperation of this planet’s ecosystems, this impulse for survival is most basic. At least for long enough to make copies of your genes, which segues to the sex drive as second on my list. Any prehistoric individual who lacked one or the other of these first two drives either didn’t live long enough to reproduce, or didn’t care enough to try. Either way, the outcome was a genetic dead-end.

At a more distant third place, I would put aggression on the short list of “highest and strongest drives.” I don’t mean by this the urge to pick fights and make trouble, but rather the internal uprising of emotional energy that motivates the individual to confront a challenge(r) or persist in the determination to overcome an obstacle in the way of fulfillment. Higher organisms strive, struggle and compete to stay alive and protect their interests.

Tribal morality is uneasy with these behavioral impulses of the body. For the sake of propriety and the social order, it discourages selfishness (“Share your toys!”), regulates sexuality (“Wait till you’re married in this type of partnership”), and sublimates aggression (“Try to win, but play fair!”). And in a religiously moralistic society, as Nietzsche saw in late-modern Christianity, even the urges beneath these behaviors are “branded and calumniated” (falsely accused) as sinful.

But what happens when you try to repress the “will to power” of our animal instinct? Answer: It will get frustrated, amplified and perverted on its way back to the surface. Immorality is rarely due to a lack or ineffective use of social controls, but is rather the predictable outcome of an oppressive and puritanical morality. As the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, it works harder and turns the screw tighter on individual freedom, which only serves to further aggravate the frustration and exacerbate the problem. And so it goes.

Is there any way through it? The implied message of Nietzsche is that our future as a species will be determined by the degree to which we can relax into our bodies, listen to our deeper drives, and learn to trust the natural intelligence of our animal instinct. This also entails that we rediscover a very ancient talent which has fallen asleep under the trance of tribal morality – if it hasn’t already expired by asphyxiation: to live with respect for the body and its living ground.

If we could (re)learn this, there just may be time enough for the creative emergence of genuine freedom and community – on the far side of our present challenge.


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Giving Up Security

Watts: “To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this center and soul of our being which we call ‘I’. For this we think to be the real [self] – the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this ‘I’ does not exist.”

Insecurity is a fact of existence. When this fact breaks into our consciousness it can take us over as a feeling that nothing is certain, nothing matters, and that there’s no point in going on. Of my three conversation partners, Watts is the one who examines the psychology of insecurity to help me understand its causes and consequences.

At any given moment I can feel secure or insecure. But what is this “I” that feels one way or the other? Western psychology began as a study of the soul (psyche), but at some point it made the fateful mistake of identifying soul as the center of our individual personality, later called ego. (It’s probably more accurate to say that ego had assumed this position much earlier in history, and that modern psychology made it scientifically acceptable.) Now, what had earlier been only intimations of immortality, coming up from that spiritual center of awareness where my existence opens up to the larger mystery of reality, became a personal belief: “I (ego) am immortal.”

But ego and soul are not the same, or merely two names for the same thing. Soul (along with body) is primary, whereas ego is secondary. I am body and soul, I don’t have these. Body is my animal nature; it is informed by an intelligence called instinct, and both its internal urgencies and peripheral sense receptors resonate to the greater rhythm of Life. Soul is my spiritual nature and is informed by an intelligence called wisdom. While the drives and reflexes of body are dedicated to my survival, the insights and intuitions of soul cultivate a sense of participation in a mystery that transcends my individual needs and concerns.

The irony here is that this “I” (ego) which has assumed possession rights over body and soul, is really nothing but a social construct – something put together and given shape through countless interactions with others. As I learned the skills of language and internalized the worldview of my tribe, I gradually took on multiple facets of identity.

I belong to this group. I work hard for these things. I prefer this sort of company. I don’t trust those people. I believe in this god. All these lines of attachment correspond to facets (faces, masks or roles) of my identity. As long as the many facets fit and hold together, I have an illusion of solidity. I like that illusion. It helps me feel secure.

When I take a closer look, however, it becomes obvious that this illusion of security is not secure at all. Every one of those lines of identity is very tenuous and fragile; it’s the cumulative effect of their considerable number that gives the illusion of permanence. Just watch how annoyed, disturbed and panic-stricken (the predictable progression) I become when just one of them gets stretched out of shape. And if it should snap – watch out!

Yet every line that attaches to the social landscape of my tribe and forms a corresponding facet of my ego identity is only a construct – put together, made up, a role-play, a pretense … and inherently unreal. When I learn to hold these more loosely, I discover something rather unexpected. Life is moving and changing. Nothing is certain, maybe nothing really matters. And that’s perfectly okay.

So is there a point to going on?

As a young man, I believed that one day I would accomplish something worthwhile and lasting. I would leave a mark and make my life count. Now I’m beginning to understand that my most important work is to wake up from this trance and move deeper into life.

New motto: Be real, live fully, love well.


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Breakpoint for Religion

Heschel: “You can affect a person only if you reach his [or her] inner life, the level where every human being is insecure and feels his [or her] incompleteness, the level of awareness that lies beyond articulation.

“The soul is discovered in response, in acts of transcending the self, in the awareness of ends that surpass one’s interest and needs.”

Insecurity has two very different meanings. For Watts and Heschel (and I assume Nietzsche would concur), it describes the fact of our existence – that our survival is not guaranteed, nor are the conditions always favorable for our personal happiness and fulfillment. That’s just the way it is. The grand adventure of life and its evolutionary course in time is inherently precarious, fraught with challenges, and dependent on environmental conditions all along the way. Some environments are hospitable to living things, and some aren’t. The fact that every living organism is to an important degree at the mercy of factors outside its control makes its existence “insecure.”

Watts, especially, uses the term “insecurity” to refer to a feeling that can overwhelm the human organism. When you feel insecure, you are anxious to the point of panic over the otherwise natural limits on your ability to control what’s going on. This anxious feeling may then motivate you to take control – keeping others at a safe distance, for instance, or imposing your will on them. You might take out a stack of insurance policies against any and all possible risks.

With Heschel, insecure describes our human condition. As creatures, we are dependent on conditions of reality over which we have little authority or control. Take, for example, our need for oxygen. We can’t make oxygen, yet we need it to survive. The metabolic process that supports life in our cells, tissues and organs makes us dependent on the supply of oxygen from outside ourselves. If it isn’t there, we will die. This may sound as if we are characterizing life as internally vulnerable and weak – and in a way that is important to admit, life is (we might say) naturally deficient. None of us is “complete,” self-sufficient, or fully adequate to sustain life entirely on our own.

At the developmental level of ego where the focus shifts from  survival to identity, human existence continues to be insecure. We need belonging and recognition, but the social reality that might provide or withhold these is also outside our control. Humans that have been deliberately (or experimentally) deprived of social interaction not only end up relationally stunted as a consequence, but also fail to mature and die far earlier than normal.

Heschel refers to our “inner life” as that place where our insecurity and incompleteness are most acutely felt, which makes it sound as if the soul is something less than the transcendental center of immortality that popular religion makes it out to be. I admit, it is tempting to put the spiritual life of the soul at a level high above the temporal conditions of body and ego. While these are dependent and conditioned, soul is independent and without conditions. While they are susceptible to the complications of life in time, soul is utterly detached and immune.

Here’s the beautiful paradox: It is at the point of our deepest need, where we are absolutely dependent on what is beyond us – that is, where our insecurity is most evident and inescapable – that we are also connected to a larger reality. Our Western system of values regards dependency as weakness, as a flaw or breakdown in our intended design as self-standing and fully liberated beings. And while it does represent a limitation against our absolute freedom, need is where our presumption of self-reliance must be dropped in order to open up and receive what is needed. Dependency is where our own incompleteness may be painfully obvious, but it’s also where the larger web of life is providentially present to us.

True enough, I can simply “take” what I need and fail to respond in faith, wonder and gratitude. In all my self-preoccupation I may never become aware of my place in the grandeur of being. I need air, I need love. What’s in it for me? The rest be damned. But then, tangled up in my own insecurities and failing to respond, soul goes undiscovered.

The revolution begins tomorrow. I’ll feel better then.


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