In Spiritual Direction I offered a way of understanding human development following the evolutionary map of consciousness across its generative, individuative, and unitive principles. I suggested that these three principles are what inform the narrative structure of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” throughout the world’s mythologies, using the New Testament Hero Myth of Jesus in Luke-Acts as my example. Additionally, they can be observed operating as the deeper code behind the Christian doctrine of God-as-Trinity.
Ambitious, I know.
But now that we’re on this road, I want to continue in my efforts to clarify the course of development that tracks human progress along its intended aim – which, I should just lay it out here, eventuates in our creative contribution to the higher wholeness of spiritual community.
In a sense, the entire universe is about things coming together in more complex patterns of reciprocity, cooperation and wholeness. Existence isn’t merely spinning out and falling apart. There is also this counteraction of evolution – matter coming alive, life waking up, mind reaching out to create systems of increasing freedom and higher purpose.
All of this will amount to little more than an interesting but abstract meditation on human psychology, unless we can make it personal – which is what I will do in this post (fair warning).
So let’s begin with you – actually not with you in the technical sense of an ego (“I”) who stands on its own separate center of self-conscious identity, but with what you were (and still are) before you woke up to a separate existence as somebody special. What you are is a human being, a human manifestation of being.
Around you are countless other beings: rock beings, bacteria beings, tree beings, dog beings, cloud beings, star beings, and other human beings. These, too, are distinct manifestations of being, of the power and mystery of being-itself.
I call this the body-and-soul ground of consciousness, where body correlates to “human” and soul correlates to “being.” One is the outer expression and extroverted aspect of your essential nature, while the other is its inner presence and grounding mystery. Your soul isn’t “inside” your body, like the immortal passenger or temporary hostage of popular religious conceptions. Body and soul are essentially one nature with two inflections, outward to the sensory-physical realm and inward to the esoteric-intuitive depths of being.
That’s what you are – a human being. Who you are, on the other hand, does not belong to your essential nature, but had to be constructed with extensive assistance and supervision from your tribe. The developmental function of this ego, of this separate center of self-conscious subjectivity, identity, and agency, is as an exaptation to your social group, referring to “a feature that predisposes an organism to adapt to a different environment.”
You are not just a human being, then, but a person who participates in the interactive role plays that are central to the cultural environments of your society.
In the early months and years of childhood, your tribe assumed control over much of your experience. Your taller powers fed you, kept you clean, moved you around, held you, trained you, and managed the world in which you lived. Over time, that executive control was gradually transferred over to you, with each degree of autonomy further securing the internal center of self-control that we call your “ego.”
This wasn’t a do-whatever-you-want permission slip, however, for along with your so-called autonomy came a massive download of moral instructions that compelled conformity to your tribe’s definition of a “good person” and “right action” (what I call The Frame). Some tribes are fairly strict and repressive, as far as these moral definitions are concerned, which translates into ego-identities that are correspondingly small and exclusive.
To be an acceptable insider of your tribe, for example, you may have been required to conform to an identity profile of one skin color, one sexual orientation, one gender, one set of occupational options, one party affiliation, one set of orthodox beliefs, one official worldview – the “one and only way” of salvation, as it were.
A reductive and less flexible identity profile eventually gave you control over a much smaller identity, which simplified your experience considerably since it eliminated any gray areas and made everything black and white.
Even if you successfully reached this point in development and have achieved what psychology calls “ego integrity,” managing a personality and holding together a coherent identity, there’s a lot of reality that your identity keeps out – excludes, rejects, denies, and ignores. The individuative principle of consciousness has succeeded in forming a unique identity above your essential nature as a human being, but this ego is also a captive, inevitably, of the exclusionary boundaries it calls home. This is true in your case, in mine, and for everyone who has ever lived.
The tragedy in all of this, spiritually speaking, is that nothing excluded by identity can be joined in community.
Different skin colors, sexual orientations, gender assignments, lifestyles, beliefs, and worldviews – not to mention different species and other forms of life – must remain outside your horizon of identity and “out of bounds” of what you consider good, right, and proper. And if your religion happens to enshrine ego in its doctrines of god, salvation, and a heavenly reward for being good, right, and proper, then this might be the end of the journey for you.
Take this as a lens and you will notice immediately that a vast majority of the human population is stuck precisely here: prisoners of our own convictions, throwing up one wall after another against what is different and (so we believe) threatening to our personal security.
According to the Sophia Perennis (the perennial wisdom tradition or perennial philosophy), however, your true journey as a human being is only half done at this point. The real purpose in forming a separate center of personal identity (ego in its numerous roles) is to provide you with a relatively stable platform from which consciousness can drop into deeper centers – down and away from those exclusively unique attachments that had gone into the construction of identity on the way up and out of your essential nature so many years ago.
Each deeper center opens a larger horizon, including more in your understanding of who you really are.
By thus releasing your smaller identity and dropping into increasingly larger ones, consciousness descends by an inward, contemplative, and mystical path to a place of perfect solitude, which is paradoxically also the center of all things. Only by “letting go” of what separates you from everything else can consciousness proceed to ascend by an outward, transpersonal, and ethical path into harmony with other beings.
This higher wholeness of liberated life is what is known as spiritual community. You don’t lose yourself or subject your will to spiritual community, but instead you “come together” with others in mutual respect, intentional cooperation, and higher purpose. Spiritual community flourishes only to the extent that your individual freedom is affirmed and transcended, including your ego and not suppressing or canceling it out.
The ancient metaphorical root of this word, spirit, identifies the life-sustaining dynamic of “breathing in and breathing out,” together as one in unitive consciousness.
Now the journey is complete.