The average person is obsessed with identity. We come through childhood with all the instructions and labels that have been put on us by our tribe, and we can spend our entire adulthood trying to justify and live up to them, reverse them and prove them wrong, or we simply allow these programs to push us along without much self-awareness. It could also be said that the average person is tormented by this obsession, since there really is no way of breaking free.
Conventional culture and religion have accommodated this ego fixation. We invest more and more in protecting the security of who we are, and the whole “meaning of life” has become for many the hopeful prospect of securing immortality in heaven when they die. Theism – the belief that (an) identity stands apart from and above reality as its maker and manager – both reflects and reinforces this preference of glorifying ego as our highest concern.
As a product of “social engineering,” the ego of personal identity is shaped and directed in ways that promote the collective identity of our tribe. This is not necessarily conducted with intention, but rather insinuates itself into the more or less automatic routines of parenting, education, politics and civil law. We are told to be “good” children, “good” Americans, “good” Christians – which means compliant with the tribal structures of family, nation, and religion. To be out of compliance (naughty, criminal, heretical) is to risk the forfeiture of our identity, and by extension the culturally supported meaning of life.
To either side of this narrow ridge of personal identity (as illustrated above) are two distinct paradigms for answering a more philosophically interesting question: not who you are as a person, but what you are as a human being. These two paradigms – which we can call “science” and “spirituality” – are not necessarily competing frameworks of research and explanation, despite the fact that they are popularly regarded as such. The real tension, however, is between the cult of identity and the paradigms on either side.
According to the scientific paradigm, ego (personal identity) is not an object of study in and of itself. Because the ego cannot be dislodged from the multiple lines of social influence that define it, science treats it as a byproduct (technically an epiphenomenon) of something else rather than a separate existence in its own right. Social science has made great progress in seeing the ego as a nexus of cultural meaning and social control, interpreting personal identity as a function of its environmental (tribal) context.
In addition to expanding out into the cultural context for an understanding of what a human being is, science is also investigating the biophysical foundations of personality. Ego can be analyzed into the conflict between the instructions of society and the animal impulses of the body, as Freud did. It might also be broken down into genetic and temperamental factors determining an individual’s mental order and orientation. Drug therapy is a treatment protocol based on this notion of identity (personality, ego, and mental health) as a secondary effect of the physical conditions underlying it.
For the fun of it, I’m going to make up a word and say that science (all science) is the empirical quest for the “componence” of things. Everything that exists has a “componential” nature, which is simply to say that it is a component (part) in a larger order and is itself made up of smaller and deeper components that might be further analyzed. Because there are no egos that exist apart from bodies, science proceeds on its commitment to explain personal identity in terms of the body – its deeper componence as well as its participation as a component in the social system.
As you would expect, devotees in the cult of identity criticize science as “impersonal” (which it can be) and on an offensive campaign to undermine religion (which it isn’t). The problem, of course, is that because popular religion has taken on the immortality project of the ego as its driving mission, the scientific challenge to the belief in a metaphysical and everlasting center of identity is rightly regarded as a threat.
Just like science, spirituality seeks to understand and celebrate what it is to be human. Although there are teachers and esoteric schools that capitalize on our disillusionment with popular religion, they typically take up the immortality project and merely cast it under another set of metaphysical claims. This might amount to a return to paleolithic rituals, ancient secrets, and exotic doctrines, but it remains organized around the disguised status of the believer as divine and destined for higher planes of bliss.
My use of the term spirituality is not in reference to special revelation or the supernatural. Like science, spirituality is a quest for what is really real. If it begins this quest from the position of identity, spirituality quickly leaves behind the obsessions and ambitions that captivate the ego. Instead of proceeding in a biophysical direction, however, it moves along a psychospiritual (and transpersonal) path of investigation, exploring the threshold between individual self-consciousness and the provident reality to which it belongs.
Recent efforts in psychotherapy have managed to bring the topic of spirituality and religion back into the clinical conversation. Religious values and beliefs are recognized once again as important to the mental health of some clients. The emerging therapeutic models, though, are mostly classical theories of the mid-twentieth century with an “annex” of spiritually-oriented strategies attached – just in case.
Again, spirituality (and science) asks not “who” you are, but “what” you are. What is a human being? A characteristically “spiritual” phrasing of the question might be: What is the nature of being in its manifestation as a human. This is the question of essence (from the Greek esse, being).
Being doesn’t merely name the fact of existence, but refers to the act of existing (from the Greek existere, to stand out). The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich translated it as “the power to be” or being-itself. As a human being you stand out, just as you are. Instead of digging into your componential nature as science will do, spirituality takes you as “just this” – not something else, and nothing less than the present mystery of reality.
As a human manifestation of being, your existence isn’t a final term, however, for you share this power-to-be with other manifestations, human and nonhuman. If you are a manifestation of being in human form, and that thing over there is a manifestation of being in (horse, tree, rock, cup, cloud, ) form, then what is this power manifesting as you both? Spirituality names it “ground” or “the ground of being.”
This power is nowhere other than in its manifestations. But it is more than any single manifestation simply because it exists or “stands out” over there as well. Reality is present here in human form as you, and it is present over there in another form. I’m putting an accent on this matter of location (here and there) because existence is always situated somewhere. The ego may seek to escape here-and-now for something better elsewhere or later on, whereas the soul seeks communion with the present mystery of reality.
In contrast to ego religion and its otherworldly aspirations, spirituality engages the present situation with full attention and total freedom. It doesn’t crave to be anywhere else or hide from the accidents and conditions of mortality. Trouble, affliction, and bereavement will come, but your faith in the provident support of reality in this moment enables you to be present in the situation with generosity, compassion, and gratitude. It’s not that you do nothing, but that you bring the full force of your soul (Ghandi’s satyagraha) to the challenge at hand.
As we would expect, the cult of identity is suspicious of spirituality as well. Nothing good can come from setting aside your petty agendas, nervous attachments, and ulterior motives – can it? Life will lose its meaning if you take a deep breath and open up to the real presence of mystery – right? If the human adventure isn’t really about getting somewhere else later on, then all we’re left with is … this!