Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”
I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.
The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.
But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.
In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.
In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.
Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.
What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.
The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.
Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.
What else is there?