Our preferred orientation in reality is centered in the mental location called ego (‘I’), from which we look out and appraise things according to the standards of “me” and “mine.” The ego is at once insecure, defensive, possessive, and ambitious – and not a little conceited for regarding itself the center of reality. But even this is forgivable when we understand how easy it is to confuse our personal worlds with the present mystery of reality.
Before we go any farther, let’s get our bearings in the diagram above. A returning reader will recognize my color codes for the three centers of experience: black for the body, orange for the ego, and purple for the soul. It is of the utmost importance that these distinct centers, or mental locations of consciousness, not be divided into separate ‘parts’ of us, which has traditionally gone down the path of ranking them, opposing them, confusing them, and finally claiming a product of this confusion (the so-called personal soul) as “the real me.” I’ve done my best to keep them all in the picture of what makes us human, even while acknowledging ego as a late arrival and seat of our most persistent delusions.
Along the periphery of my diagram I have placed terms that can help us better appreciate the distinctions not only in ourselves (the mental locations) but in the realms of experience our three centers of consciousness open to us. Each of these realms is depicted in a double aspect, with the bolder text naming an aspect which is ‘facing away’ from us, so to speak, and the lighter text naming an aspect that we directly experience.
Let’s just step into the diagram and try to make sense of it.
At the top is a realm that corresponds to our animal body. As a physical organism, the body is an expression of and participates in a 14-billion-year process that we call the universe. In its aspect of facing away from us – by which I mean the aspect that we speak of in more general (distant and objective) terms – our universe is the universal order of all things.
From this philosophical and scientific perspective, the body’s realm has been observed, investigated, probed, classified, measured, mapped, denatured and transformed by human knowledge and technology. As the universal order, it holds together and turns through intervals of rhythmic time, the largest of which is the interval of our universe itself (universe literally means “turning as one”).
When considering this order in its aspect as facing toward us, the sensory-physical realm of the body is experienced as a provident universe. All of this has somehow conspired to bring about the emergence of life and ignition of consciousness, providing what we require to survive and flourish. Just pause to reflect on how profoundly and intimately your animal nature depends upon, participates in, and contributes to the great web of life.
This cosmic web cannot be reduced to only what transpires here on our planet, but expands outward to include the moon, the Sun, our solar system, galaxy, and far beyond even that. The ‘Goldilocks’ position of Earth relative to the Sun is not simply a matter of local ratios of gravity, light, atmospheric gases, and surface temperature. For a full account we must include The Whole Shebang, from the very beginning and stretching across the entire universe. Before any attempt was made to attribute all of this to a supreme creator, the human mind was overwhelmed by the awareness of living in a provident universe.
So there’s our first part of the picture. As our mental location that engages with the realm of matter, the body lives by virtue of participating in rhythmic time and enjoying its place in a universal order at once infinitely expansive and provident. Anytime your consciousness looks out from this location, you are doing it as an organism in communion with the vast web of life.
When we shift focus to the mental location known as ego, our point of engagement with reality moves to another realm. Here time is terminal, meaning that it follows a line with a starting point and an ending point. It doesn’t revolve through regenerating cycles like we see in the provident universe, but rather flows from beginning to end along a time sequence that is tethered to our personal identity. While the material substance of our body has recycled through countless revolutions of rhythmic time, and will continue through many more after the body expires and decomposes, our ego, that center of who (as distinct from what) we are, is confined to our biological lifetime.
From ego’s position there is a line of time leading up to it, known retrospectively as ‘the past’, and a line projected ahead of it, known as ‘the future’. The past is the sequence of events and experiences which have somehow shaped our identity to this point, while the future is how this center of continuity is anticipated to play out. I use the term ‘play’ in the sense of role-playing, which is the only way ego can stay in the game – as so-and-so who is striving to make something of myself: a respectable character, a good reputation and public image, a successful (whatever roles I happen to be playing).
In its less personal aspect, this is the realm of our individual lifeline, which will be summed up by a dash between the dates of our birth and death on a future headstone. Actually, because ego is a social construction that achieves self-consciousness only around the time we acquire language and start making identity contracts with our tribe, its lifeline is shorter than the body’s chronological age. And with the onset of dementia, many of us will to some extent lose our center of social identity before our body expires. We can measure an ego’s individual lifeline scientifically according to this terminal career of executive self-consciousness.
But when we consider it from your perspective as the individual in question, this line represents your personal myth. From the Greek for a narrative “plot,” myth refers to the storyline around which the meaning of your life is constructed. We are used to thinking of myths as the fabulous stories that serve to support, orient, and inspire entire cultures, but each of us has our own authorized (and aggressively defended) narrative of identity as well.
At various times this identity narrative will suffer assaults from without and within, casting ego into confusion, anxiety, frustration, or despair as its continuity of meaning is undermined. Its greatest challenge, of course, is brought on by the fact that ego’s career is correlated to the life of the body – which must one day expire.
Along with other challenges related to its place and value in society, the inevitability of death is something that ego had to work through fairly early on. A solution that we find across the cultures was arrived at by a process of dissociation whereby ego detached from the body and imagined an immortal existence for itself on the other side of death.
This is where the confusion regarding a ‘personal soul’ took root, fundamentally changing religion’s cultural function from that of coordinating life in society with the rhythms of nature, to securing the postmortem destiny of the disembodied ego/soul. Thus began ego’s impersonation of the soul, and religion’s consequent (and longstanding) betrayal of genuine spirituality.
Referring back to my diagram, you’ll notice that the individual lifeline of ego does an end-run around the small circle at the center of the picture. That circle represents the present moment, the only instant in which we can ever touch reality. It is a moment without duration, and for that reason we can legitimately speak of it as ‘timeless’.
Even though ego exists always in the present moment, a preoccupation with the past and future of its own personal myth prevents it from fully engaging with the here and now. Besides, given that the present moment has no duration, any attempt on the part of ego to grasp and hold this vanishing instant only serves to further remove ego from the present mystery of reality.
So now we come to the third mental location of consciousness, the touchpoint on reality accessed right here in the present moment. Soul is not our center of personal identity, and it really needs some serious deconstruction in order to be liberated from captivity to Captain Ego. It is neither ‘in control’ (as if ego is) nor the ‘part of me’ that survives death and lives forever.
Soul is where consciousness engages reality in the deepest depths of our existence, in what mystics have named the ground of being. This ground is neither past nor future, but always and only now.
In its objective aspect, which allows us to reflect on it and share our insights with each other, this is the ground of existence, or existential ground, the creative source that energizes, supports, and expresses itself in/as the manifest universe. In logic, the term “existential” is distinguished from “universal” as referring to ‘this one individual’ rather than to an entire class or collective. As a qualifying adjective of the ground, then, we need to be clear that we are speaking of what gives rise to each existing thing, and what can only be accessed by an inward descent of our own existence.
This reference to our own existence once again shifts focus to the intimate and experiential aspect, where present reality is felt and known as the grounding mystery of being itself. Its uplift rises as the life energy, nervous state, mental force, open focus, and creative intelligence that conspire in our awareness of this present moment.
The “narrow gate” (a metaphor from the teachings of Jesus) which ego is unable to enter for its obsession with being somebody special, is the soul’s path to union with the Really Real. Because it can only be found in the present moment and the present moment has no duration, soul and its ground are outside of time, timeless, and eternal. Mystics and spiritual masters have named it the Eternal Now.
In the process whereby ego impersonated the soul, this notion of eternity was equated with and corrupted into the idea of endless time, which was necessary to accommodate the ego’s desperate need to live forever. “Eternal life” and “everlasting life” are very different notions, however, with the latter denoting this idea of an unending quantitative extension of time, and the former (eternal) referring to the qualitative depth of a genuine, authentic, and abundant life in this moment.
The mystical undercurrents of our world religions still contemplate and practice the disciplines which allow consciousness to sink below the surface tension of personal identity in order to dwell in the present mystery, an adventure in meditation metaphorically represented as a ‘death’ or dissolution of the self-involved ego. Unfortunately as religion got commandeered and perverted by ego ambitions, this deeper and more original engagement with spiritual life was discredited by emerging orthodoxies, persecuted to the margins, and generally forgotten.
And so, here we are.