The human journey through life has only recently been a topic of psychological study. For thousands of years before that, its exploration was mythological, carried out not by objective research but subjective experience. Our modern tools of psychology have made possible a rational precision that was not available all those centuries and millenniums, but even if it had been, it’s doubtful our ancestors would have fallen for it as we have.
The objective distance and rational precision we moderns prize so highly actually produce the delusion that we can be our own detached and dispassionate observers, that what we are and are becoming can be framed in a theoretical statement and tacked to the pinboard of scientific knowledge. What is inevitably left out of such a definition is ourselves and the human experience we are presuming to explain.
It’s only by going back to mythology, having now come through it, that we can grasp and properly read the map it has provided for the human journey – our human journey.
I have rendered this map of mythology in the graphic illustration above. With our new tools of modern psychology we can interpret the map self-consciously – conscious, that is, of how its topographical features reveal the path of our own evolution and possible awakening.
When apprehended as a whole, we see that our human journey unfolds along an arc of time, our individual lifetime. It arises out of and returns again to our essential nature as a “human being,” or in a more technical sense, as a human manifestation of being. “Human” is the name of our particular species, as a rather highly evolved sentient organism. “Being,” or be-ing, acknowledges the mystery of manifestation itself, not only that we have “come to be,” but that we are in the process of be-ing, moment by moment.
These two aspects or dimensions of our nature as human (manifestations of) being are widely designated by the terms “body” (human) and “soul” (being). It should be clear that body and soul are not separate things, or separable parts of ourselves, but refer rather to the outwardly manifested and inwardly manifesting reality of what we essentially are.
There is a reason why body and soul are frequently separated, even antagonized, in popular religion, which we’ll look at shortly.
The arcing line itself, arising from the body and returning to the soul, is the intended path of our personal development, as individuals centered in our own unique ego. You’ll notice that the arc is divided into trimesters of time, with each trimester marking a stage of our personal journey: emerging from the body (1st trimester), centered in the ego (second trimester), and then breaking through ego consciousness to the mystery within and the unity beyond (third trimester).
As shown in the map, the breakthrough within (Greek esoteros) brings consciousness back to the manifesting reality of being (soul); whereas the breakthrough beyond elevates consciousness into the communion of manifested beings (spirit). The descending line proceeds by a gradual release of our separate identity, in contemplation, to a mystery that cannot be named (apophatic) and in the depths of which we can only be silent. Conversely, the ascending line invites us into a transpersonal fellowship (or kindom) that is qualitatively rich in meaning (cataphatic) and inspires our ethical commitment to its higher wholeness.
That third trimester is a stage of the human journey that many of us never reach – or I should say, we never enter. We do reach its threshold, but the forces and pressures pulling us back are often overwhelming.
Like the ancient Israelites who reached the border of a promised land, only to lose their nerve as well as their faith in the One who had promised it to them, many of us find the prospect of a breakthrough unacceptable and not a little terrifying.
Let’s go back to that earlier comment about the antagonism of body and soul in popular religion, and see if the map can help us make sense of the “forces and pressures” that conspire to drive us off course and into the wilderness.
Notice how the angled lines defining the second trimester come together at a point just above the horizontal line at the bottom. That bottom line represents the complementary aspects of body and soul in our essential nature as human (manifestations of) being. The fact that the joint of those angled lines does not touch the horizontal line illustrates the psychological fact that a personal ego is not a natural formation, which is to say we are not born with a personal identity.
Instead, “who I am” (our personal identity) is something that must be socially constructed. Our tribe had the responsibility of blocking and shaping a domesticated, well-behaved member out of an animal nature which has little if any interest in waiting our turn, standing in line, or following the rules. And upon these simple commands followed many others as time went on – prohibitions, enticements, permissions, expectations, incentives, exhortations, and injunctions – all motivated in one way or another by the “carrots” and “sticks” of conventional morality.
Now, because our animal nature needs to learn how to carry on inside a household of rules, infractions are bound to happen.
In the beginning, our tribe informs us when we misbehave, which is called objective guilt. An important goal in our domestication, however, is in translating this objective guilt, which must be externally monitored and managed, into subjective guilt, or what is also called “a guilty conscience.”
At this point, the moral commands of society are internalized and we don’t have to be supervised as closely anymore. Because acceptance, approval, recognition, and belonging are structurally necessary and built-in to our personal identity (as “one of us”), guilt, in both its forms, remains a powerful force and pressure that keeps us from breaking through and crossing over.
But there’s more. The moral instruction of our tribe, in blocking and shaping an identity for us, only has its power to the extent that it can exploit a deeper insecurity that comes along with having an ego: a self-conscious sense of our separation as an ego from the ground of our essential nature.
This condition is properly diagnosed by healthy religion as that of being off-center (Greek hamartia, the “sin” of an arrow missing its mark) and out of alignment with our true self (Sanskrit dukkha, the immobilizing pain of a dislocated joint).
This profound insecurity motivates our increasingly desperate efforts at attaching ourselves to something or someone that we expect will make us feel better. The harder we try to manipulate the outer world for our gratification, however, the more paralyzing our fear becomes, and the more urgent also our craving for what we cannot find – for what cannot be found.
And yet, what choice do we have? So we lock our mind up inside a cage of fixed beliefs, or convictions, insisting that reality deliver on our imperious and conceited demands. Soon enough, our anxiety-driven frustration consumes all our hope and energy, leaving us in abject depression.
With a little sleep and some medication, we’ll be back at it tomorrow.
This is known as the Wheel of Suffering. It’s also where many of us currently find ourselves. No imagined hell can quite match its torment, symbolized mythologically as an unquenchable fire closing in around us and an insatiable worm devouring us from inside.
One of the ways we cope and still try to manage our insecurity is by inventing or joining religions that offer a way out – not the way through, which is what our mythological map reveals, but a way of escape. And because there’s no hope in this life, we are told we have to wait for the next.
Great. Another line.