At some point along life’s way we feel an attraction, or perhaps metaphorically we hear a calling from beyond the boundary of what we know and who we are. Paradoxically, the source of this attraction or calling is not “out there” exactly, but “in here,” deeper within ourselves, a Beyond in the midst of our world, from the very Ground of our being.
It could be more of a push than a pull, more urgency than inspiration. Something inside of us is pressing forward and seemingly upward, toward a higher realization of what we might become. The Greek theologian and early Christian humanist Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130-202 CE) understood it as the process, both evolutionary and redemptive, of our becoming more “fully human and fully alive.”
Think of the complications and certain self-destruction that would follow as a consequence of a caterpillar’s refusal to cooperate with the process of metamorphosis that intends to transform it into a butterfly. Or imagine what would happen if a seed insisted on “holding it together” and desperately clamped down on the vegetal life-force pressing for release.
If they possessed a will and self-interest of their own, and used these to fight the process of transformation, the butterfly and the plant wouldn’t be realized, and what is being “saved” by their willful resistance would suffer and rot inside. In striving to save their life, they would end up losing it instead, forfeiting fulfillment for security, liberation for identity, the predictable existence of a worm or seed for the higher mystery of what their nature intends to become.
Luckily for them, caterpillars and seeds don’t possess a self-conscious will that could refuse to go with the larger and longer life-process eventuating in butterflies and trees.
We might consider it unlucky that humans do, since so many of us willfully resist the evolutionary and redemptive force that would empower us to become fully human, fully alive.
Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this tragic liability, this freedom to choose against our higher nature, that is also a glorious gift. Therewith, we possess a unique ability to feel the attraction and hear the calling, but also to participate in the process, to consciously “let go” to our uplifting transformation and actively participate in it – even steer its course to some extent.
This may be why we have religion and caterpillars or seeds don’t.
My diagram above carries forward a model of human development that I’ve been working on for some time now. The larger process follows a zig-zag pattern starting at the bottom, zigging to the left, zagging to the right, and finally reaching completion at the top. Rather than being a terminal line, however, we should think of this as a system of dynamic interactions flowing up, down, and from side to side.
I propose that we think of the four points or stages along the way as “force fields,” each with its own energy, values, actions, and concerns.
As the purpose of this post is to better understand the forces in play at that moment when we feel the antagonism between our waking transpersonal butterfly and our self-conscious caterpillar self – that may only be dreaming of becoming a butterfly, I will aim our meditation on that more imminent zone of transformation.
We all start our journey as newborns fully immersed in the force field of Primal Instinct, where the animal nature of our living body attends to what it needs to survive and grow. Most of this activity is unconscious and compulsive, neither requiring nor even allowing our conscious control and direction. Its instincts are biologically ancient, driven by energies and guided by an intelligence that cares little, if at all, about what other’s think or what other plans we may have in place for the day ahead.
It’s not long before our family and larger society begin shaping us to the Tribal Conscience – who we are, what we believe, where we belong, and how we should behave. It is inside this force field of human development that we start to become somebody: a self-conscious actor of roles that we are given and roles we fall into, which eventually, with practice and social reinforcement, define our personal identity and connect us to the role plays of life in our tribe.
Having a mind of its own, the collective consciousness of society is dedicated to keeping us inside its protected membership, as “one of us.”
Inevitably, however, and following the impetus of our human development, we start to orient ourselves more on our own pursuit of happiness – or on what we believe will make us happy – than on the norms and expectations of our tribe. We are entering the force field of Personal Ambition.
Actually, our ambitions, or better I should say ambition itself was already being engineered and exploited in early childhood, through behavioral incentives used by our taller powers to motivate proper behavior and conformity to Tribal Conscience. It would only be a matter of developmental time before the twin motives of desire and fear (the ambi- in ambition) would move beyond stickers, spankings, lollipops, and timeouts, in service to our becoming somebody, managing an identity, impressing others, and (dammit) finding happiness.
We are all a little insecure as a consequence of growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional tribe, under taller powers who had their own issues. But even if everything in our background was perfect, the developmental achievement of forming an ego and becoming somebody unique and special, separate in our own way from everybody else, brings along with it a gathering sense of our isolation, exposure, and estrangement.
It’s this anxious vulnerability that more repressive and authoritarian tribes use to lure or compel naturally self-insecure teenagers back into the fold of “true believers” where they belong.
My diagram of the four force fields in human evolution, development, and redemption has a thin dashed arrow descending from Communal Wisdom back to Tribal Conscience, to indicate a progressive influence over time of a self-actualizing humanity on the collective consciousness of a people.
I’ve done it elsewhere and don’t have the space to defend it here, but my returning reader should recognize this as the threshold in religion where its constructs of God (mythological metaphors, artistic images, theological concepts) mediate between our minds and the present Mystery of Reality.
In contemplating these constructs, devotees begin to imitate, internalize, and then actively personify the divine virtues represented to them.
It’s been a slow process, to be sure, that has gotten hung up or thrown off course time and again.
As more individuals are willing to not just “let go and let god,” but to let go of god (the religious construct) for an experience of God (the present Mystery), religion itself can advance into wiser, more liberated, generous and more inclusive versions of itself over time.
This highest force field is much ignored these days, as more and more of us are preoccupied with our individual pursuit of happiness – or, more honestly, with our failing efforts at managing the frustration, anxiety, and depression that get in our way.
We don’t understand that these are really messages, letting us know that gripping down and hanging on is not The Way.