There are just a handful of ideas from the collective wisdom tradition (Sophia Perennis) of the human race that truly transcend the historical conditions of time and place. The tradition itself is a massive undertaking, free of committees and bureaucratic management, to conserve and further develop groundbreaking insights into evolutionary advances for our species and the planet.
As a counter-offensive to the destructive impulses and shortsightedness of our species, Sophia Perennis has helped perhaps more than anything else to keep us together and work things out.
This post will bring the handful of ideas into a system, making a case for regarding this system as a useful framework in understanding the human journey. While the historical conditions of time and place have an undeniable influence on our individual development and wellbeing, these more general dynamics can help us appreciate the essential (deep) and universal (broad) principles in play, when or wherever we happen to be.
My diagram lays out these ideas using a graphing tool of ‘X’ and ‘Y’ axes, where the horizontal (‘X’) axis corresponds to eras of time in the human journey, and the vertical (‘Y’) axis intersects three distinct planes of consciousness – the subpersonal (“below” ego), the interpersonal (“between” egos), and the transpersonal (“beyond” ego). The human journey is divided into three eras, which I will provocatively designate as trimesters of human transformation, with each trimester correlated to the ascent of consciousness through its three planes.
I could keep trying to explain my approach, but let’s just jump into it.
The first trimester of our human journey begins in an extremely dependent and vulnerable condition. A human newborn is utterly incapable of feeding, cleaning, moving, or defending itself. This absolute dependency on external circumstances and the infant’s taller powers activates an inherent capacity of its nervous system, calibrating the body’s internal state according to how provident, or otherwise, reality is perceived to be.
When the liberal Protestant philosopher-theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) defined faith as the experience of “absolute dependency” on the provident reality of God, it was this most basic human experience he was referencing. Back then, no one knew much about brains, nervous systems, and the subpersonal intelligence of the body in matching and meeting the conditions of life with a nervous state and behavior that are maximally adaptive.
Schleiermacher was sufficiently self-aware to realize how foundational this capacity is to a human being’s general outlook, attitude, and wellbeing. Yet, because Christian orthodoxy was already deeply committed to a definition of faith as a set of beliefs rather than the inner release of trust to the present and provident Mystery of reality, his insight was brushed aside as too subjective and psychological – too “liberal.”
Nevertheless, it is his understanding of faith as existential trust that is more consistent with the larger wisdom tradition.
In the above illustration, faith (the virtue of the first trimester of our human journey) is connected by a slanting line to peace, drawing an essential equivalence between the adaptive response of existential trust and the experience, on the subpersonal plane, of a deep inner calm. Faith and peace are dynamic correlates, then, in the early stages of human transformation.
We must acknowledge the fact that not everyone’s nervous system matches up to a provident reality of caring taller powers and a nurturing early environment. Some are born into situations of neglect, scarcity, abandonment, or abuse – which activate a very different adaptive response in the body: not the trusting release of faith, but instead a nervous contraction away from a dangerous, unpredictable, and hostile reality. Their internal state is one of chronic anxiety and fearful vigilance, not a calm and composed inner peace.
For now, however, our meditation will stay focused on the optimal achievements along our journey, using these as contextual guidelines for appropriate therapy and support when things don’t go perfectly – which, as a widely acknowledged fact of our human condition, they never do.
So we follow the next arrow up from the subpersonal (i.e., the body’s internal state) to the interpersonal, where experience opens out to relationships with other persons. This is the plane of consciousness centered in the self-conscious experience of ego – the “I” who wears masks of identity, takes on roles and joins in the role plays of society, and more or less obsesses over becoming somebody special.
The wisdom teachings don’t denigrate the ego for being a mere construct of social engineering. They regard it rather as a means to something more, a mechanism of sorts for centering personal identity and making connections with other persons across the various scales of belonging, association, and membership.
When the individual is grounded in a state of inner peace, the primal response of existential trust can be directed outward to others, where it serves as the dynamic core of loving relationships.
Both visually and dynamically, the entire system of virtues turns on this hub of interpersonal love. It is the crucial second trimester of our life journey and occupies – we could rightly say it preoccupies – the central plane of interpersonal consciousness, where we are confronted with the challenge of getting along and loving each other.
Wisdom teachers all around the world and throughout history have preached and practiced the critical importance of love – for oneself, for our neighbor, and even for the enemy – to the wellbeing and final salvation of humanity.
When individuals are connected in healthy bonds of love, mutual goodwill, and ethical responsibility, the resulting community (literally “together as one”) has the effect of generating within and among them a Spirit of joy.
This communal Spirit, frequently written using the uppercase ‘S’ to honor the mystery of its being not merely a sum but the product of individuals transcending their personal identities and interpersonal agreements for a transpersonal experience of higher wholeness, is celebrated across the cultures as a kind of divine ecstasy, the flourishing and fulfillment of our true nature as human beings.
As the metaphorical roots of the word suggest, Spirit (ruach, pneuma, spiritus) is the “breath” that animates us, the “wind” that moves among us, and the “air” that surrounds, uplifts, and unites us together as one.
The last arrow in my diagram follows the flow from joy to hope, bringing us into the third and final trimester of our human journey. Notice, too, that we are dropping back down to the interpersonal plane of consciousness. This is consistent with the teachings of spiritual wisdom, which declares that the cultivation of love in the joy of genuine community is the secret to humanity’s ultimate hope.
Human destiny is bright so long as our vision includes everyone and everything, as we hold open a positive expectation for a world where love can only grow.