Spiritual Exercise

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and feel yourself relax into your body. The “drop” of consciousness into the biorhythms, life-force, and material gravity of your body begins from a place where a lot of your time and attention is invested. It’s a place of chronic anxiety and exhaustion, of curating and managing a personal identity inside a busy social arena.

We’ll come back to that place after a while, but for now just “breathe and be” in your living body. Don’t observe your body from some elevated perch; in other words, don’t make your body into an object of study. Simply breathe and be, feeling your breath come and go, rise and fall. In the background you may also hear the soft “hum” of consciousness as it idles in your nervous system.

Notice that “down here” in your body you are fully present in the here and now. All that fuss up at the surface has been left behind, as your awareness rides gently in the rhythms of life. If you rest here long enough, tuning your mind to this grounding mystery of being, you’ll begin to sense the boundary between your body and the reality around you begin to open up and dissolve away.

We know from science that your body is not separate from the physical environment in which it has evolved. Events and conditions of external reality translate near-instantly into reactions, perceptions, and changing internal states of your nervous system. Material nutriment, water, oxygen, and light “out there” is metabolized into cell structure and living tissue; into glands, organs, and organ systems; into the organism of your living body.

Organism-environment is the reciprocal dance and mutual transformation of matter and life.

One metaphor that captures this idea – this experience you are having right now of the fluid communion of your body and its environment, is a web. The descent of conscious awareness from the surface where you manage an identity on the stage of social role-plays, brings with it the revelation that everything is connected and interdependent – a web of communion.

From science again, we know that this web of communion is very ancient, with each new generation of life a contemporary manifestation of a long line reaching back millions, even billions, of years into the early history of our planet. Every speck of matter comprising your body derives from primordial stardust. The design code of your DNA and the instincts that drive your unconscious behavior are inherited from primitive ancestors, from long before the emergence of humans.

Because so much of your daily life is tied up there at the surface, an occasional descent into your body and its web of communion seems a welcome respite. Long ago, however, our human ancestors lived here all the time. Time itself didn’t stretch between a “past” and “future,” as it does for you, but instead revolved through cycles that synced with the rhythms of life in the body. Their place and participation in the web was respected by them as a sacred privilege.

Their religion, called animism, was centered in the body and focused on the ritual responsibility of honoring and renewing the bond between “human” and “nature.”

Over many thousands, even millions, of years human consciousness continued to evolve, facilitated and accelerated by the influence of language, symbolism, storytelling, technology and culture. What eventually arrived, in fact, was the very same center of self-conscious identity that you released at the beginning of this meditation, when you dropped into the “breathe and be” of your embodied experience. Well – not the exact same center, since each person’s center of identity (or ego) is unique and separate from all the others, as well as from everything else.

So let’s go back up to the surface.

Life up here is a staged affair, and interpersonal transactions follow according to certain prescriptions of identity: roles to fill, parts to play, rules to observe, and masks to wear. (Our word “person” derives from the Latin persona, referring to a stage actor’s mask through which (per) she would speak (sona) her lines.) When consciousness inhabits one of these roles, it becomes self-conscious as So-and-So in a socially prescribed role-play with other so-and-sos.

With this invention of identity and its countless roles, society was able to evolve and further facilitate the growing complexity of human populations. A virtually infinite number of social interactions was now possible – as many roles and masks as could be invented. The perception of time was no longer circular and rhythmic, but instead became linear and terminal as a projection of the individual’s sense of himself as arriving on stage and finally exiting the stage.

The more invested and involved humans got in this identity game, however – and you can attest to this from your own experience as a person – the less aware and mindful they became of the body and its web of communion. Performing roles and managing a personal identity entails a kind of disembodiment of consciousness and its individuation as an ego (Latin for “I,” the actor). So while the body continued as it had for many millions of years, the social complications and anxieties at the surface syphoned more and more consciousness into the business of trying to be somebody special.

This second great cultural shift in human evolution, from a nature-and-body-centered experience to a society-and-ego-centered one, brought with it a new type of religion as well, called theism.

Now religion wasn’t so much concerned over harmony with nature, but grew increasingly invested in the management of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that preserved and enforced the moral codes of culture. Theos, the god or deity who stood behind and above this moral order, was conceived and projected as a “superego” (the “I” in the sky) whose will directed all things and whose ordination legitimated human authorities on earth.

We don’t need to go much deeper into theism, but it should be obvious how hand-in-glove the notion of “god above” is with the separation of consciousness into a personal identity and its social role-plays. Just as your ego is separate from your body and harnesses the impulses of its animal nature for the sake of acceptance, approval, recognition, and social status, so the deity in theism ensures that the “body politic” of society is obedient to its moral mandate.

A second function of the deity in theism is to exemplify the virtues of moral character, and to motivate devotees in the imitatio Dei (the aspiration to be like god), to be more patient, gracious, faithful, compassionate, and forgiving – to name a few of the outstanding virtues of god, as depicted in myth and theology. To be “like god” in this regard is considered the highest calling in healthy theistic religions.

Throughout the history of theism, a few individuals have reported an experience of “waking up” from the spell of belief and seeing through the veil that separates personal identity from ultimate reality. They speak of a hidden wholeness, a higher Truth, and a universal Spirit beyond the fractured lens of ego consciousness.

They have also consistently challenged the conventional belief in god’s objective existence, which for obvious reasons has made them enemies of theistic orthodoxy. Their religion is properly called post-theistic.

Standing here, centered in your personal identity and unconcerned with either promoting or defending yourself to others nearby, distant, or long dead, the universe invites you back into its web of communion.

But whereas down there in your body the experience was of an undifferentiated oneness (the fluid transformations of matter and life), up here and looking out from the position of your individual ego you can see that All is One: a differentiated togetherness. The “mystical” (ineffable, intuitive) communion felt deep in the grounding mystery of your embodied life is revealed from this perspective as the “transpersonal” (consilient, integral) community of all things.

There. With that you have completed one rep of this spiritual exercise. Keep working out.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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