Okay, so it’s time for another check-in. We need to do this every so often, just to be sure that my various thought streams are staying congruent with the big picture. Too easily, analysis can chase down the pieces and forget that all these finer distinctions are elements and features of a greater whole. We become widget specialists and lose our appreciation (if we ever had it) of how all of it seamlessly fits and flows together.
I’ll take you on a tour through the diagram above, first moving vertically up the center axis and then left-to-right. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, the symbols and terms should be familiar, though I’ll do my best to give concise summaries where I can.
Arranged along the center axis are three mental locations where human consciousness engages reality: in the body (sensory-physical realm), the ego (socio-moral realm), and the soul (mystical-intuitive realm). Notice the correlations along each side of the three mental locations, the way consciousness turns inward on the left side and outward on the right. “Inward” and “outward” take on very different connotations, however, depending on the location being considered. Internal, subjective, and existential (left side), or external, objective, and transcendent (right side) are not synonyms but fundamentally distinct orientations of consciousness.
This isn’t really a controversial idea. Just take a moment to notice how the physical environment around you now is accessible to your physical senses, but how the assigned values and meanings that incorporate parts of the environment into your personal world are not. Stepping up one more level to the mental location of soul, you should be able to appreciate the extent in which the transcendent unity of existence is not something you can detect with your senses, and neither is it a mere construct of meaning contained within the horizons of your personal world.
Again, notice how the physical organs and urgencies in your body stand in a distinct dimension from the beliefs and prejudices carried in your ego. And then contemplate the ground of your existence as it opens within you and rises in the quiet presence of being-itself. There are no organs or beliefs inside the soul, only an expansive clearing of present awareness and inner peace. Your existential ground and the transcendent unity of existence are not somewhere inside or outside of you, but instead are the mystical-intuitive dimension of reality as accessed through the mental location of soul.
Then why are we accustomed to speaking of body and soul as “mine,” and as separable from each other? Why do I live “in a body” and “have a soul”? Come to think of it, who is this “I” that presumes ownership of a body and identification with a soul?
The answer brings us to the center of my diagram, to that mental location of consciousness known as ego. While body and soul are considered primary to what you are as a human being, your identity is something that was (and still is) constructed in the interpersonal context of society. It’s helpful to distinguish between essence (what you are in your being) and identity (who you are in the world). Whereas essence (body/soul) is what makes you human, identity (ego) is how you define yourself as a person. This notion of ego as a social construct wonderfully complicates the human adventure, since every individual ego is a product to some extent of the society that shapes it.
I’ll just give a summary account of the process as it relates to the left-to-right horizontal axis of my diagram. Your identity – and I’m referring not just to the roles you play in the world, but to yourself as a performer of roles – got started in the awareness that your tribe expected certain things of you. Earliest on, these expectations were focused around the need to take control of bodily impulses, and not merely to gratify them spontaneously whenever the urge arose. The morality of your tribe at this stage was simple and binary: Do this, and Don’t do that. Your options were clear between good and bad, right and wrong, yes and no.
The challenge of membership was not settled by the mere fact of your birth or adoption into a family. To be “one of us” and a good boy or girl, some mechanism of restraint was imposed on the urgencies of the body, and in the pause or delay opened up by that restraint, a quantum of consciousness was harnessed and steadily shaped into Captain Ego. Since you were dependent on your provident taller powers for protection, nourishment, and support, this discipline of repression – literally pressing those spontaneous impulses back into the body (or what is also called “holding it”) – eventually produced the illusion of an ego as separate from the body, as well as from the rest of reality.
As we now swing over to the left side of my diagram, we see how your developing ego was conditioned from the very beginning by a need for security, represented by a triangle. I’ve positioned the triangle on an arc stretching between the internal organism of body and the existential ground of soul, making the point that your need for security has both animal and spiritual implications. Already from the time in your mother’s womb, the body’s nervous system was fulfilling one of its primary functions, which is to match your body’s internal state to the perceived conditions of its external environment. (The obvious evolutionary purpose in this rapport-building is to initiate adjustments that will maximize your survival chances.)
Though the uterine conditions of your mother’s womb may have been optimal, the situation changed dramatically once you were delivered (or expelled, depending on the myth) into the social womb of a family. There, whatever distress your nervous system took along with it was either mitigated or magnified by the relative health and attentiveness of your family system. Security, then, is the sense that reality is supportive, provident, and sufficient to your needs. It has both an animal aspect, in the relative composure of your nervous system, as well as a spiritual aspect, to the degree that you are able to rest in the grounding mystery of existence.
And wouldn’t you know it, but nobody gets through this gauntlet without some insecurity – not even you. This brings us back to the center of my diagram, to the circle that surrounds ego, a shape representing attachment. This is how you compensated for whatever lack of security you may have felt: you reached out and latched on to whatever could help calm you down. Not surprisingly, the greater your insecurity, the more desperately you gripped down and held on. Along with this behavioral holding-on came emotional identification with the objects of your attachment, as well as increasingly unrealistic expectations (and expressed demands) that your objects never let you down.
Perhaps it was a combination of this imperial claim on reality along with a vigorous dis-identification with the body, that first inspired ego to impersonate the soul and insist on its own immortality. We should note that it likely wasn’t some keen insight into the evergreen nature of soul but a consequence of its own opposition to the mortal body, that motivated ego to regard personal identity as something that must live forever. Personal immortality is quite a late development in religion, but once it took hold as a doctrine, religion (in particular, theism) became increasingly preoccupied with ego’s escape plan.
But let’s stay in the world a bit longer as we move one more step to the right in my diagram, to a square which represents the ego’s need for meaning. Actually “world” and “meaning” are deeply synonymous, since your world is a personal system of meaning that you are busy constructing and maintaining in cooperation with your tribe. I have placed the square, with its four sides for boxing up reality, on an arc stretching between body’s external environment and soul’s transcendent unity of existence. This makes the point that your world is neither a simple arrangement of empirical facts, nor an infinite horizon containing all of reality. It is a very selective, biased, and egocentric work-in-progress.
Indeed, stronger attachment to the objects (other people, things, ideas, events) that compensate for your insecurity requires a system of meaning (personal world) where all of it makes perfect sense. A way of stating the consistency across the horizontal axis we’ve been considering is this:
A primary function of your world is to justify and protect the attachments which in turn pacify your deeper insecurity.
Ego’s subjective self and objective world are thus the inside and outside of “me.” But in truth both are constructions, two sides to a complicated role play, a lifelong project of make-believe. I’m using the word “truth” here as a reference to the way things really are, to the reality beneath and beyond the illusion of meaning, which may shine through or break apart your tidy system in moments of epiphany or apocalypse. That famous line from the film A Few Good Men (1992) – “You can’t handle the truth!” – applies to most of us, most of the time.
So what’s the upshot of all this? Why hold up the mirror this way and a take an honest look at yourself? Very simply – and this is the ultimate aim of what is called “awakening” – to help you realize what you’re up to.
As the morning sun fills your curtains, perhaps this will be the first day of the rest of your life.