Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.
While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.
So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.
In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.
In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.
A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.
Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.
Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.
When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.
This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.
Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.
This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.
An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.
Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.
But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.
This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.
A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.
If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?
The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.
Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.