The spiritual wisdom traditions teach that every human being is somewhere in the process of waking up, that we are each emerging from a long, deep sleep. We’re not yet fully awake, most of us, but a new way of being – what Paul Tillich named the New Being – is even now available, and it’s calling us, calling on us to step into the liberated life.
The main organizing plot of this good news is indeed the foundational myth of Wisdom herself, pictured frequently in feminine form, evolving across three distinct “vehicles” or modes of existence: first as an animal, then as a person, and finally as creative spirit. The larger story is an account of Wisdom’s journey, and also therefore of our own human transformation through time.
But if you think it’s all about you, that only means you haven’t gotten far enough in the story yet.
The larger story of Wisdom’s journey and human evolution is unfolding even now in your own brief lifetime. In fact, the spiritual wisdom traditions insist that until you can see your own life in the myth of Wisdom, your apprehension of its truth will only be a conditioned and veiled understanding – it won’t be anything more than a religion.
So let’s take a closer look at you – not merely your “I” who is busy playing at being somebody special, but all of you, the full reality and potential of what you are. That fullness is represented in Wisdom’s three modes of existence, her distinct manifestations, according to the larger story.
You, too, began life in animal form. As a newborn infant, your animal nature was the vehicle of consciousness, the primary facility of your experience of life and engagement with reality. Deep in your physiology are behavior codes called instincts, with ancient histories reaching back millions of years and across numerous species.
These present codes are themselves evidence of their success in securing the survival and reproduction of your pre-human and human ancestors.
Your animal intelligence – the wisdom of your body – is intuitively aware of the deep reciprocal nature and interdependence of things: of its own urgencies for food, water, oxygen and energy, and the provident supply of these by its physical environment. Rather than thinking of your body as an organism apart from its environment, science has helped us to understand it as an “energy exchange” facilitating a constant back-and-forth flow in the dynamic balance of life.
In your animal form, especially back in those early days of life, you had no sense of yourself as separate from everything else – not yet. Your experience of life and engagement with reality was energetic and spontaneous, compulsive and reactive.
Slowly, however, consciousness began to ascend into self-consciousness and you found yourself on a new plane of existence, at a different center of awareness and mode of life. You were becoming a person. While the upward thrust of this emerging sense of yourself is inherent to the process of becoming fully human, its shape and character were determined to a great extent by the influence of your tribe – first your family of origin, and then, expanding outward, of the larger society that held your membership.
This personal mode of existence is what we call your ego, which is Latin for “I” – the one referenced earlier as playing at being somebody special. Now, what I say next may come as a shock, and it typically takes a fair amount of time, reflection, and courage for someone to comprehend its implications.
But here it is: Your personal identity – not the upward thrust but its shape and character – is a social construction and entirely without substance or reality.
Think of it this way. Identity is always a function of identifying with something: “I am (a) ________.” In the early years your tribe filled in those blanks for you. “You are one of us. This is who we are as a people. This is what we believe. This is how we live. These are our values. This is what it means to be a member in good standing.” And so on. All of those identifications were gradually weaved together into a canopy of meaning that became your world.
Yes, your world is also a social construction, a construction of so many veils suspended between consciousness and reality, for the purpose of clothing your ego with identity and meaning.
Just as with your animal mode of existence, so your personal mode as an ego playing at being (pretending to be) somebody special is a polarity of two dimensions. We’ve already mentioned your world, which is the objective dimension of identity. The term objective literally means “thrown over” (like a canopy) and is commonly confused with other terms like external or factual. As we are using it here, objective only makes sense as a corollary of ego – of the one whose world it is.
Because your world is shared in large part with others (that is, with other egos), it seems to exist independently of you, as the way things really are. But that is an illusion, and believing it makes you a victim of delusion.
The other side of the polarity in personal identity is what you call your self. It is the subjective dimension, literally “thrown under” (or beneath) who you are playing on stage. As your tribe was busy shaping your identity and filling in the blanks, you were taking it all in – experiencing life and engaging with reality as the so-and-so you were pretending to be.
Earlier we referenced the myth of Wisdom as the larger story of our human transformation through time. The spiritual wisdom traditions hold our sacred aspiration, along with the necessary insights and meditative skills, of completing the journey and breaking through to the liberated life of spirit. It is precisely at this juncture of the journey, however, where you are doing your best to meet the expectations of society and be a “good _______,” that the path gets complicated.
This is also where many get stuck and might spend the rest of their lives, asleep in identity.
Let’s come back to you. Your tribe gave you both clear and confusing messages about what was accepted and expected from you. Think of how much time and effort – all the desperate and anguished effort – you invested in seeking the approval of others. You needed their validation; your very identity depended on being recognized by them as so-and-so, as somebody special. Another thing to understand, however (and this should not come as such a shock), is how unfair, unrealistic, even outright manipulative and abusive some of those demands were.
But you weren’t old enough to know better, and your need to belong was irresistible, so you agreed (though not always consciously) to be what others accepted and expected of you. And even though some of those demands were unfair and abusive, you began to withhold and pack away parts of yourself that didn’t fit your society’s templates of identity.
The result was a shadow in your personality, a side of your self that was forbidden (by society) and hidden (by you), kept off-stage and out of the play.
This is where many are stuck – and where many more have expired over the long history of our species: trying to fit in, desperate to stand out, holding themselves back, burdened by guilt and shame, just about ready to surrender the whole exhausting pursuit of being somebody special.
Here, finally, is our third revelation, which really amounts to an apocalypse – literally an insight that “blows off the cover” and pulls down the veil of your illusion. This moment, where you are ready to give up on the entire project of being somebody special, is what Jesus and other wisdom teachers have called the “narrow gate” to freedom and the liberated life. It is the breakthrough from a personal mode of existence to a spiritual (contemplative and transpersonal) one.
In the myth of Wisdom, this is often depicted as a new birth, a resurrection from death, the butterfly abandoning its cocoon, a waking from sleep, the free flight of wild gander against a blue sky.
Now, if you are especially attached to your personal identity, entangled with your shadow and a hostage to your world, the prospect of breaking free will likely seize you with terror. True enough, proceeding into the apocalypse can be profoundly disruptive, and it will undoubtedly strip off and away all your attachments. In human history, this is where ego has opted for self-inflation over self-transcendence, for everlasting life over an authentic, liberated life here and now.
But if you were to drop the charade and get over yourself, the awakening of consciousness to a soul-centered mode of existence would enable you to look back at this moment as but a blink of an eye – so light, so quick, so easy.
What you’ll find on the spiritual plane of awareness are two transformative insights, correlated according to the polarity of your soul. On one side is a realization that breaks beyond your world, and on the other a realization that breaks within your self.
Beyond your world and its canopy of meaning, All is One; this is the holistic truth of our universe, the higher wholeness of all things, which of course includes you. Within your self and its delusion of substance, is the present mystery of being-itself; this is the essential truth of your ground, deeper than words can reach but simultaneously rising in you and as you this very moment.
There is a paradox of wisdom that should be apparent in all of this: The liberated life requires you to drop the chains that tether your identity, and still you might choose the security of your chains to the wild freedom of spirit.