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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Getting Back to Here and Now

Schleiermacher: “The goal and character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time, behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution of which we are forever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.”

I’ve already mentioned how Schleiermacher criticized two of the foundational doctrines of Christian orthodoxy – the providence of god and the immortality of the soul. Later on, Nietzsche would pick up this criticism with new vigor. Together they stand in a philosophical time-stream that has come to be called by several names – perspectivism, constructivism, nonrealism – and generally postmodernism.

Whereas the modern West had rested on the confidence of a fixed objective world (out there), postmodernism has realized how much of what we assume as out there is really our own projection. The modern mind had also looked “up” to a god who actually existed in a supernatural space (heaven) above and outside the world, while the postmodern mind rejects metaphysical realism. And if modern religion had regarded the individual soul as indestructible and immortal, postmodernism (if it has a place for soul at all) defines it merely as our “inner life” where individual existence emerges from and dissolves into the present mystery of reality.

So Schleiermacher was an early postmodernist, living at a time when the modern paradigm was losing energy and falling apart. His challenge wasn’t merely to reinterpret traditional religion for a new (nontraditional) audience, but rather to reconnect Christianity to its spiritual grounding. For him, this grounding is subjective and experiential – in the human experience of reality – and not objective or external to us. In his magnum opus The Christian Faith, he defined faith as “the feeling of absolute dependence” on the living presence of God.

In Christian orthodoxy the doctrine of providence refers to god’s control over world events and his predetermined purpose for the future. I shifted to a lower-case “g” to indicate that we’re talking about the god of Christian mythology, the main protagonist of the Bible who created the universe, chose a favorite nation, handed down a law code, intervened on historical events, raised Jesus from the grave, and now governs all things from a high point outside human affairs.

For Schleiermacher – and others like me – providence has to do with present existence and not future destination. In each moment, I am grounded in a reality that is creative, supportive and interdependent. To the degree that I can release my ego need for security and personal control, my life begins to relax into being. This heart-beat, this breath, this life, this passing moment are simply “provided” to me. I don’t need to grip down and worry them into effect. Indeed, my nervous effort to control them actually interferes and puts them in jeopardy.

Just as we can distinguish between the mythological god and the living presence of God, the soul can be defined as the part of me that lives forever (immortality in the temporal sense) or as that deep place in my life where I am grounded in the divine presence. This is where the distinction between “everlasting” and “eternal” becomes especially important. Immortality is about now, not later. It is about going deeper into reality (and becoming more real), not farther ahead in time; it’s authentic life, not life without end.

Of course, this process of redefining religious terms – or rather recovering their original meaning as metaphors of religious experience – is still enmeshed in words and thoughts about the mystery. The modern commitment to building systems and constructing meaning can get caught in the web of its own making. A postmodern spirituality simply regards all of this as secondary reflection on the primary process of experience itself.

We need to get back to experience, which might involve back-tracking through this construction site to the original inspiration that got it all going in the first place. This is Schleiermacher’s agenda as a late-modern clergyman and Christian theologian. But we might also just skip the project of rehabilitating doctrines and go directly to experience itself. Once there – a place we always are and only leave in our minds – we can begin to feel our absolute dependence on the greater reality beneath us (ground) and all around us (universe).

It’s not about being right, but being real. Aware of my relative position in the grandeur of it all, and cultivating my own internal access point to the present mystery of reality, I no longer feel the need to cling regretfully to the past or wait anxiously for the future. This is where I Am.

Where are you?

 

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The Truth of Symbols

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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Lost and Found

Kierkegaard: “When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul. It seems to him, according to the poets’ explanation, as if something inexpressible thrusts itself forward from his innermost being, the unspeakable, for which indeed language has no vessel of expression. Even the longing is not the unspeakable itself. It is only a hastening after it.”

It’s therapeutic to stay busy. As long as you can preoccupy your attention and thoughts with a list of tasks, you will successfully avoid falling into the silence at the center of your being. Distractions are like tie-lines that keep you hooked into the world around you, in a willing surrender of freedom for the sake of security. Eventually you become captive to your own devices, a prisoner of distraction.

But noise only masks the silence; it cannot fill it. Staying busy uses energy – uselessly. You end up exhausted, stretched, stressed – and stuck. For all the activity, you go nowhere. For all the effort, no real progress is gained. You are going out when you should be going down.

In what we might call the Western chakra system, heart, mind and will serve as the distinct “faculties” of intelligence with which we lean into life. While each of us has a preference among these – leaning first and more often with our feelings, thoughts, or actions – they are all present in us, cooperating in the construction of meaning.

This construction is ongoing throughout our lives, projecting outward and around ourselves that uniquely human habitation called my/your personal world and our collective culture. It is the system of preference, significance and motivation that keeps us chasing after, holding onto, and running from what matters.

All of it is “speakable” – that is to say, it can be identified, defined, arranged and personalized. This is where your tribal membership is maintained, where your affiliations to gender, class and party are worked out, and where your mythological god (if you have one) does his or her thing. Each piece is linked to other pieces, and the energy that loops throughout the system and keeps this whole castle in the air is your belief that it is real – the way things really are. You live for it, and perhaps you may die for it. If you’re fully entranced you might even kill for it.

Underneath all of it, however, and deep inside all that busyness is a quiet stillness where your existence is grounded. Just as our visual apprehension of reality must compensate for and fill in the tiny pinhole where the optic nerve ties into the retina, there is likewise a still-point behind and beneath your busy ego. It’s there for each of us, but only a very small percentage lives with any conscious awareness of, and disciplined attention to, this real presence of mystery.

This is where it all begins – or just before it all begins, where all is “formless and void, and darkness [is] over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1). Looking out on the world you’re creating generates the illusion that this is all there is. And as long as your energy and attention are anchored out there – and as long as you keep “forgetting” that you’re the wizard behind the curtain – it can go on for a lifetime – or several, if that’s your thing. Like the eleventy billion channels on your television that can pull you in and take you hostage, this world of yours is endlessly fascinating.

Faith lives in the here and now, in the now/here that is nowhere. Even though we are in the mystery each and every moment of our lives, we can’t speak about it. If we try to put it into words and produce a theory of what it is, we have already moved out of mystery and into meaning – out and away as far as our awareness of it is concerned.

Sadly, the frustration and exhaustion of keeping your creation together can still be preferable to the prospect of letting go and falling back into that soul-space of real presence. After all, we are very fond of our personal worlds. Compared with all that content, all that complexity, and all of those countless options, this open and formless space in the deep center of what you are can seem terrifying. Indeed, many of us work hard to stay away from it.

Conventional religion and psychotherapy are good examples of how we squander the opportunity for sinking deeper into the present mystery of reality. We may be given an insight, a key to the narrow gate, but just as quickly we are assigned a mission or treatment plan that prescribes what we should do next. Before we know it, we’re out on the path again, chasing after salvation, success and happiness – out there.

In this spiritual space, in the ground of your being, just before you pick up the masks and step into the roles that define who you are in the world, there is only this.

Relax. Breathe. Be.

 

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Faith in the Wake of Tragedy

Excursus: The senseless slaying of innocent children and faculty at a Connecticut elementary school challenges our faith in a god who cares for us.

In course of my conversations with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich, our working definition of faith has shifted away from nouns and deeper into verbs. Faith is something much more fundamental to life than the orthodox doctrines we may subscribe to, or our willingness to suspend critical judgment and honest skepticism in their defense. Faith is about letting go – but not letting go of intuition, common sense and reason for the sake of believing something passed down by religious tradition.

Instead, we release ourselves to the real presence of mystery.

But how does this translate into life – especially when a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting upsets our confidence in the security and order of things? In such times, religious people struggle to connect the horror and loss somehow to god. God is (supposed to be) in control, everything (presumably) happens for a reason, and in a moral universe (like ours) people get what they deserve. If these things are true, how can we find our way through this calamity?

Here’s how it typically spins out. Those innocent children and school faculty are now with god in heaven, and Adam Lanza is in hell where he belongs. This doesn’t answer why the innocent had to suffer and be taken prematurely from life here, but at least it restores the moral balance – or better, our need for moral balance.

The explanation continues. This senseless tragedy lacks any meaning and purpose only because we have a very limited perspective on life events. In reality, everything happens for a reason. Religious people don’t take the same angle on the puzzle as science, however. Empirical science is based on the assumption that every event has a cause, or rather many lines of causality behind it. But theological orthodoxy looks ahead rather than behind, searching for a greater purpose working itself out through the (only) apparently random events of life. Just because you can’t discern the purpose from where you stand doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

One more step. This reason or purpose moving everything along is not mere fate, but the intelligent will of a personal god. Thankfully nothing happens outside of god’s control, and the reasons behind everything that happens to us are god’s reasons, god’s purpose. God wanted those first-graders with him in heaven and not with their families on earth – so that’s why it happened.

Appalling? Yes. But again, it’s only because you can’t fully know the mind of god. All of us want to hang on to this life, to keep what is ours. On this side of things loss can be insufferable. But just think what glory awaits the faithful. Just believe, and stop asking questions.

Let’s try a different approach.

People don’t get what they deserve – either in this life or in the next. The universe isn’t moral. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with doing terrible things. What happened in Newtown was horrible, an unfathomable evil.

The mass murder of innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t happen for a reason. While the various lines of causality leading up to it will be investigated and some of them made clear, there is no higher purpose that can justify the violence and blood-shed. Not everything that happens happens for a reason. Some events are simply absurd, without inherent meaning or greater purpose. A person of faith can believe this.

And what about that god who’s in control of everything – who either caused the events to unfold as they did (the hardline stance) or allowed them to happen (the softer version)? We must remember that this god is the invention of our mythological imagination. No matter how passionate and persuasive true believers may be, no one has ever encountered or been in communication with the mythological god – ever. He lives only in our myths. He didn’t cause or allow the school shooting. He doesn’t have a greater purpose that made it necessary to end the earthly lives of eighteen first-graders. He didn’t, and doesn’t, because he isn’t.

With all of that said, and after every theological explanation has been exhausted and thrown aside, there is a real presence that awaits to be found in the midst of all the grief and anguish. The comfort will not come when the question of why god caused/allowed this to happen has been answered, but when we start asking a far better and more relevant question: Where is God in all of this? (I’ve capitalized the word to signal my use of it as a reference to the real presence of mystery at the heart of our human experience.)

God is in the pain. God is in the absence. God is in the doubts. God is broken and given to the bereaved families as consolation, solidarity, compassion and support. God is in the community that gathers around the loss, remembers the victims, and renews its faith – one day at a time.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Timely and Random

 

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The Birth of God

Schleiermacher: “Suppose there is someone who rejects the idea of a personal God. This rejection of the idea of a personal Deity does not decide against the presence of the Deity in his [or her] feeling.”

Because personality is the filter through which we humans experience reality, our long-standing assumption has been that it represents the crowning achievement of evolution. As energy condensed into rock and rocks made way for the first living organisms, so is the vibrant and self-conscious personality a miraculous leap of advancement beyond mere biology. As we move up the hierarchy of life, tree shrews are more complex and interesting than earthworms, dogs are more like us than tree shrews, but a human person – a personality – is essentially incomparable to anything else in our known universe.

I remember as a little boy how I personified things in my world. My toys had personalities, as did just about everything I encountered outside at play. Even now at midlife I find myself getting angry at inanimate objects, like a cupboard door that swings out as I bend over to empty the dishwasher. When I straighten up and hit my head on that damned door I have an urge to hit it back, to punish it for hurting me. It’s important – somehow and somewhere deep inside the more primitive part of my personality – that I teach the door a lesson. There are no accidents in the animated world of childhood simply because intention flows out of the center of each existing thing and connects it to everything thing else.

This is one theory of how religion began: our early ancestors looked out on reality and saw numerous intentional forces impinging on their survival as they settled in or migrated across the globe. Gradually these intentional forces were imbued with personality, depicted in local art and mythology, and duly worshiped for their influence in human affairs. Like the scripts I conjured up for the various genies and higher agencies of my childhood play-world, these divine (and demonic) personalities were not invented and installed by anything resembling an objective and critical self-awareness. We were primed for it and it just flowed spontaneously out of our creative imagination.

The psychological value of this theory is two-fold. First it acknowledges our human need to be in relationship with the greater environment that both supports and threatens our existence. Whether it be our mother’s womb, our family of origin, our native tribe, the patch of Earth we inhabit or the universe entire, we have a yearning inside us – Schleiermacher would locate this yearning in our intuitive intelligence, or heart – to belong. What better way of fulfilling this need of ours than to reach out to this otherness in trusting release, earnest petition, humble reverence, and devoted worship?

Secondly, and really building on this first value, the theory establishes the mythological god on more respectable ground. Rather than beginning its critical examination with the assumption of the divine personality as an actual being whose existence must be proved or disproved, it takes its start from the side of human experience. (This was the turn to phenomenology, or to the study of how consciousness apprehends, perceives and represents reality that was revolutionizing philosophy in Schleiermacher’s day.) The question is not whether or not the personal god exists, but what it means – or perhaps what it might have once meant – to be in relationship with a universe that notices you and interacts intelligently with you.

Because he started with experience and not with the objective existence of a mythological god, Schleiermacher didn’t have to defend or discredit the belief in one. Concern over the biblical legitimacy or theological orthodoxy of your representation of god is really secondary to your awareness of and encounter with “the Presence of the Deity.” In my vocabulary this is the real presence of mystery or present mystery of reality that supports, surrounds, permeates and dissolves your existence in this very moment.

Our mental representations, or models, of god are not as clear-cut and immutable as we may think. Just as your concept of god has developed and changed countless times throughout your life – do you regard “the Deity” the same today as you did when you were a child? Let’s hope not – so too even a cursory reading of the Bible observes a mythological god who develops over time. God creates and then later regrets his creation, deciding to drown but a boatload of all living things; he wants to incinerate a wicked city but then is persuaded by Abraham to change his plans; he orders ruthless violence against the enemy, but then commands us to love and do good to them. This is an obvious problem for someone who takes the Bible literally and then reads in James 1:17 that god doesn’t change.

Human beings are in a complex relationship with the universe. Out of our developing needs and expanding consciousness, the one on the “other side” of this relationship changes and evolves accordingly. It isn’t necessary – or profitable for the welfare and destiny of our species – to debate and wrangle over whose god is the true god. The “truth” of your god cannot be determined through some sort of rational calculus, comparative study, or biblical exegesis. The real question is how your concept of god – whether personal, non-personal, or transpersonal – corresponds with and meaningfully represents your experience.

If your god connects you to life and inspires the development of your higher capacities for personal responsibility, unconditional forgiveness, healthy dialogue and cooperation, and a wider outreach to the human and nonhuman inhabitants of our common planetary home, then it’s as true as anything.

Check yourself. I’ll do the same.

 

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Faith and Existence

Tillich: “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern.”

In our head-heavy, wordy and overly rationalistic traditions of the West, faith has been misrepresented as one’s assent to doctrines. Your faith is more genuine and praiseworthy if the doctrine lacks evidence to support it or contradicts logic. Both knowledge and faith have to do with the content of what you believe, but faith comes in to play where the pieces don’t seem to add up, the argument is thin on proof, or where you need to rely on the credibility of other witnesses.

We’ve already established that faith is really not about what you believe, but rather about the act of believing – or better, of releasing your need to be in control and certain of the outcome. Faith is present awareness. Whatever you may believe about what happened a long time ago, or what might happen in the future, or what’s going on right now but in another realm – of gods, angels, demons, ancestors and other spirit-beings – is not a function of faith but of your willingness to believe.

When faith is construed as primarily cognitive and propositional, doubt is a big problem. Because “the faith” has been assembled over many generations of thinking, writing, reading, interpreting and expounding on words, just one head-scratching “I’m not sure about this one” can cause the whole thing to fall apart. That’s why dogmatic fundamentalism is so rampant among religions of the word. If you feel even a hint of doubt, better start praying for an increase in faith so you don’t jeopardize your everlasting security and miss out on your reward for being right.

But we need to doubt things that don’t make sense. We need to be skeptical over claims that lack supporting evidence or logical coherence. Historically skepticism is not about withholding commitment until absolute certainty is attained, but rather conducting your own research and testing the statements of others against your own experience. Again, just because you don’t have the personal time, rational tools or motivational drive to scrutinize every religious doctrine doesn’t mean that you have a strong faith. It may turn out that your so-called faith in the validity of those doctrines results in your demise and not your salvation.

What Tillich is calling existential doubt, therefore, is not the same as scientific or methodological doubt. The latter is a servant of better (more accurate) knowledge, as when a researcher tests a theory experimentally, or a philosopher examines an argument for the reliability of its premises and how logically sound it is. Pre-Copernican astronomy simply assumed that Earth was stationary and orbited by the Sun, but when scientists began following the indications of their investigative instruments and mathematical formulations a very different universe was revealed to them. By only accepting what can be measured, demonstrated or derived from already-established claims, science has revolutionized our lives.

Schleiermacher insisted that faith is more about “feeling and intuition” than the claims of knowledge, and his shift from the mind to the heart marked a turning-point for Protestant theology. It’s important to remember that the heart does not merely refer to our sentimental intelligence, but is the place where we are first moved by experience, producing our mood and establishing the attitude from which we take our perspective on reality. Whatever we think (mind) or do (will) is a function of how we feel in the moment. Preceding our thoughts about it and our behavior in response to it, reality – or what’s really going on – is first registered in an intuitive feeling.

This is where we can make sense of Tillich’s use of the term “existential” when speaking of faith and doubt. Existential is what concerns your most basic stance in reality, how existence feels to you. When reality feels providential and supportive, you find yourself opening up to it and relaxing into it. Conversely, a reality that feels dangerous or indifferent provokes feelings of anxiety – of existential doubt.

In fact, reality is both providential and hazardous. Your life is “given” to you in each moment, even as it passes away. Like the sea-swell beneath a cresting wave, your personal existence is lifted up into self-expression only to be pulled down and dissolved into the larger mystery of being. This dual nature of reality and our experience of it is represented theologically in the two faces of god (creator/destroyer; grace and wrath). Because the mythological god is a psychological counterpart to the personal ego, however, such theological distinctions are already too far removed from the deep center of experience. By that time, we find ourselves wanting to play up to the nice god and avoid his dark side, or else split it off into a Satan we can fight against. Almost without realizing it, our ego has taken over.

Reality rises and falls, just like a great ocean, and your life comes into being and passes away. Not just on the scale of your biological birth and death, but in each and every moment of your existence. All of your achievements and possessions, the identity you struggle for and the worlds you inhabit, the meaning it all has and the little bit of security it may provide you – even now it is dissolving away. As it slips your grip and starts to slide away, you begin to doubt whether anything really matters.

So you let go, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. What has happened, what might happen, what is going on somewhere else – you just can’t say. It really is meaningless, if only because words can’t hook into it and hold it down. And yet it’s the only thing that’s real.

Welcome to the ground of your being.

 

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The Trance

Kierkegaard: “There is an ignorance about one’s own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit.”

Each of us, regardless of our ethnicity, class, sex or education level, is living a lie. Well, maybe not an intentional lie, but at least a good game of “pretend.” We were great at it as kids, dressing up and role-playing adult situations. Then we passed through a phase called adolescence, when adults suddenly became boring, stuffy and oppressive. When the time came and we stepped into our own social responsibilities and long-term relationships, pretending was in again – but now, oddly enough, it’s “the way things really are.”

If we’re not careful, this adult pretense can occupy us for at least a lifetime – some Hindu religions believe it takes several turns of the life-wheel before we even stand a chance of waking up from the trance. In the Christian West, you have one crack at it. If you don’t come to enlightenment before the lights go out, too bad for you. There are no remedial classes.

We’re talking about ego, of course – your personal identity as shaped by experience and social conditioning. You may actually believe that you are a 21st-century, white, middle-class male (oh right, that’s me) who carries a membership card for this club, this party, this denomination. To the degree that you are totally sold-out to these tribal affiliations, you are deceived. And who is deceiving you? Ah, there’s the rub: it’s you. You are being deceived by one part of yourself to believe that you are all that.

Ego links us into a social niche which provides us a role to play and a mask to wear. This is who you are in this circle, we are told, and things will go better for you if you play by the rules. And why wouldn’t we? Acceptance, approval, recognition and respect – all the forces that go into constructing a “good boy/girl,” a “good husband/wife,” a “good Christian/whatever” – seem like worthy pursuits and high standards.

Life in society for the ego is a long line of such identity contracts, each one requiring its own mask and role to play. The longer we’re in the game, the added layers and facets of who we are effectively bury and pull attention away from what we are. Eventually you are the suit you’re wearing. In his interview with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Joseph Campbell cited the Star Wars character Darth Vader as the archetype of a human being who has gotten so wrapped up in his social role, as to lose the capacity for life apart from it.

This is what Kierkegaard means by self-deceit. While the probability increases with the length of time spent in the masquerade of culture and tribal life, this loss of soul through the captivation of ego happens to young and old alike. In fact, much of conventional psychotherapy involves some type of regression work where the client is guided back into childhood when a primary role of victim (abuse), orphan (neglect) or slave (control) was forced on them by their family.

Now as adults they continue to suffer with anxiety and depression in that part of their personality called the “inner child” where issues of trust, intimacy and power are hooked. Their present relationships aren’t working and they can’t seem to break out of the looping scripts and scenarios that so defined their early life – and who they are today.

While conventional psychotherapy works on the horizontal time-line of the client’s life story, there is another axis that intersects this one: the vertical present. At any moment, the realization can dawn that “I am not the roles I have been given or that have been forced on me; right now I am free to be my authentic self.”

Variously called enlightenment, revelation, or disillusionment – depending on the degree of pain involved in dis-identifying with the suit/mask/role – such experiences are truly transforming. They are not about working with or around the developmental hang-ups of ego, but rather opening up to the deeper resource of the client’s spiritual life (soul).

In the meantime, barring any disturbances, your ego can carry on, fully entranced and sufficiently self-deceived. Kierkegaard was fairly notorious for his attempts to shock his fellow citizens out of their zombie state, as when he cut his pants at mid-calf and walked the town. Egads! Sometimes just a small change-up can be enough to make people look twice and start to wonder. He wasn’t trying to throw social fashion into an upheaval, but to creatively remind us that our social identities are chosen and put on every day.

Here’s a way of looking at it. Reality is a swirling, dynamic and ineffable mystery that supports your existence in each passing moment. Your world is a construction of meaning, spun and stretched across the abyss like a spider’s web. A good part of it – think of the radial strands that anchor this web-world and give it stability – is the work of your tribe, culture and race. These are the “big ideas” and “ultimate concerns” for which generations of your ancestors have lived and died. Now it’s your turn.

But occupying the web of meaning requires that you step in at specific “locations,” and these are your principal roles. Your roles link you to other players in the web, and communication between roles generates and sustains the shared world of society. In a particular role you have several energy-masks you are allowed to wear, each one serving as a filter for self-expression and social attachment.  The number of masks (think of these as moods or modes of interaction) defines the range of identity you are permitted in a given relationship or scenario. Playing by the rules is very important at this level, and your tribe enforces a moral code intended to keep everyone in line. So far, so good.

Now just play this whole thing in reverse – from relational masks to social roles to tribal rules and finally to the general picture we have of “the way things really are” (our shared world) – and you can get a sense for how entrancing it all is. You may believe that you have absolute freedom to be who you are (and this is part of the illusion), but each mask is ultimately tied into a cultural worldview which is generations or centuries deep.

Yes, the mythological god has a critical role to play in all of this as well. But notice, culture has given the grand architect and moral supervisor of the universe only a limited number of masks to wear. It’s all very well managed.

… until someone wakes up from the trance.

 

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