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Category Archives: Conversations Across Time

Look into the thoughts and vision of some key philosophers, artists, and theologians.

Creative Choice

The creative life is not simply a life without limits, but is more about freely choosing the limits that define your desire. Without definition, the creative desire that Nietzsche called the human spirit splashes out and seeps away, falling short of realization. The other side of it for Nietzsche was the degree in which our limits can strangle the spirit and pull us down into mediocrity.

When I sit with a client, one of the things I’m interested in is his or her behavior. What are you doing? How are you conducting your life? Quite frequently we will discover that the individual isn’t really “conducting” it at all. Instead, the client feels pinned down under the weight of social duty and moral expectations. “I’ve been doing what I’m told, and now I feel like a fake. I’m not living my own life.”

Sometimes it becomes obvious that the individual’s behavior is on automatic pilot. Perhaps it’s not so much the obligations attaching to his or her social roles as it is the dead inertia of habit, trudging on without passion or engagement. This is really Nietzsche’s point, even though he’s most misunderstood here. The individual, moved for so long out of obedience, never truly awakens to his or her own freedom to choose life. It’s not that “morality” is bad, but that it can put us to sleep inside its neat little boxes.

Impulse

Desire originates as an impulse, rooted in the urgencies of our biological life. The natural aim of desire is to find satisfaction by gratifying this impulse. At this level consciousness is fully contained in our animal nature. A newborn baby exemplifies the impulsive life, in the way its behavior spontaneously seeks out the satisfaction of basic needs.

But a human being is also “hard wired” for relationships, not only by virtue of our early dependency on providers but also because these social bonds are necessary to the formation of identity. In the construction of ego, the tribe shapes an animal nature into an obedient and cooperative member of society – or at least that’s the intended outcome. The tribe accomplishes this through the imposition of various constraints; think of them as the “hold” and “push” that gradually train an animal nature into something more domesticated and well-behaved.

Constraint

Don’t do that. Do this instead. That’s what I mean by a “push” constraint. A “hold” constraint is when the instruction is more simply about not doing something, at least not here, not now. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it. Hold that impulse and keep it to yourself. “Hold” constraints often carry the tribe’s shadow, in the fear, condemnation, and consequent shame that get attached to certain animal impulses.

For a while this force of social constraint needs to prevail over the individual’s impulse for immediate gratification. Tribal order and the common good require that some impulses get trained into compliance, some get sublimated in more refined outlets, and some others are kept in the closet. Nietzsche had some trouble with that, as you might expect, but his real complaint was with what typically happens next.

Over time, the control system of social constraints gets internalized, in what Freud would later name the “superego.” Not to be confused with conscience, which refers to an inner sense of how we can best get along together in community, the superego is the pressure of the group on the individual to conform. The real danger is that this “inner parent” will supervene on the individual’s evolutionary need to take control and live his or her own life.

Habit

Habit is a marvelous adaptation in the way it submerges routine behaviors into “thoughtless” performance, in order to liberate conscious attention for higher pursuits. But habit is also the rut where we can curl up and fall asleep to the challenge and mystery of being alive. As social duty is pressed upon the individual and gradually insinuated as the superego, this rut of moral obligation can become the permanent “depression” of the spirit.

This is what Nietzsche (and many others) saw all around him, but it’s not merely a nineteenth-century problem. In his opinion it is the dilemma that represents a critical break-point in human evolution. We will either wake up and start living the life we really want, or we will die in the rut of our daily grind. For Nietzsche it was fulfillment or obedience. After doing what we’re told for long enough, it comes time to choose.

But you need to be awake to choose.

Restraint

The control system of tribal morality is necessary to the construction of personal identity (ego). Our animal nature with its powerful and insistent impulses needs to be domesticated and trained into a cooperative member of society. The way it should work is that these external constraints (“hold” and “push”) gradually assist the individual in developing internal restraint, where he or she is able to “pull” back on impulse and give opportunity for the consideration of options.

What I’m calling internal restraint is not repression, which is about “push” again, this time back and down into a shadow of shame. Restraint is that critical piece of self-control where the individual is able to do something with the impulse, rather than be done by it. Paradoxically restraint is the birthplace of freedom – the evolutionary threshold that Nietzsche announced and prophesied about.

Consideration

Self-restraint thus opens the field of awareness to at least two options: act now or wait til later. But almost always there is a variety of other options that present themselves as well. Maybe you don’t act on your impulse at all. Maybe instead of swinging back you choose to let go. Maybe you find a more compassionate or courageous way to move your life forward.

The point here is that restraint makes consideration possible. Once you have options, you need to weigh them against each other to figure out which one has the best feel and fit. If you are truly free to live the life you want, then your choice cannot be coerced – not by god, government, church or superego. A forced choice is not a choice.

Vision

Finally, this foreground of consideration begins to clarify some future goals – outcomes and consequences that are likely to follow upon one option or another. At this point the individual is stretched in his or her thinking to imagine a preferred future. As the picture becomes more vivid and compelling, some ideals grow in strength as priorities and illumine the path ahead.

Nietzsche’s ideal was of the fully awakened and self-responsible creator. There’s no room here to expand on it further – I have in fact explored the idea in previous posts; see http://wp.me/p2tkek-5q – but this is what I see in the mythological god. This principal figure of religious myth can be observed evolving over many centuries and across cultures, into a “fully awakened and self-responsible creator.” In other words, the mythological god is the literary representation of our human ideal, the Great Attractor of our higher potential as a species.

Unfortunately – and as Nietzsche saw it, tragically – whereas religion might have been the midwife of this spiritual birth, it too often goes the other way. The tribal control system refuses to let the child grow up and take the lead in his or her own life. The god of dogmatic orthodoxy regresses back into an authoritarian, jealous and vindictive anti-ideal. True believers strive almost neurotically to please, placate, flatter and impress their god. Just don’t piss him off, or it will surely be curtains for you.

Sun

Choice

More than ever – and this has always been true – our future as a species hangs in the balance. And as in all other times, now is the time to choose.

It’s time to step creatively into the life we really want.

 

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The Time We Have Left

The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.

But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.

Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).

This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.

Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.

We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.

All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.

The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.

And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?

This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.

One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.

Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.

Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.

We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.

So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.

There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.

 

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The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of  The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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Unqualified Mystery

De Mello: “The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it.”

Here’s a piece of calculus predicting our human future: Calculus FutureTranslated into narrative the formula states that our representation of God, divided by our identification of self, multiplied by our interaction with others equals the evolutionary future of humanity. Let’s break it down.

Our representations of God come from many sources – scripture and tradition, intuition and revelation, reason and logic, imagination and fantasy. Whatever its source, we must be careful not to confuse any representation with the reality it represents.

This is, in fact, the classical and orthodox definition of idolatry, even though much of the new orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the world’s religions fall – and fall passionately – to this temptation. Any representation of God will necessarily be less than God, an understatement, a reduction to ideas, words, and images of an ineffable mystery.

And yet, it is an irresistible impulse of our minds to mentally represent the mystery in ways that make it intelligible, relevant and useful. What we call God – the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality – must be rendered meaningful by the mind, which it does by telling stories, playing with metaphors, or simply dancing out the ecstasy.

What is produced from this creative activity is not a substitute for the mystery or some final definition, but rather a symptom of the inexpressible, a sign pointing beyond itself, a suggestion of Something More.

Still, for whatever reason, we come to settle on our preferred representations. Perhaps our religious tradition requires it, we find it convenient, or maybe it just “fits” with the general picture of reality known as our world(view).

But our representations of God must always include (whether by expression or concealment, projection or compensation) our identifications of self. Since these representations come out of us, we should expect them to reflect and bear the signature of our nature and personality.

What I call the mythological god – which refers to the narrative character at the center of the sacred stories (or myths) of religion – is at once the creative expression of an evolutionary ideal (power, goodness, love), a reflex of our insecurity as a species, and a dramatic counterpart to what we admire, despise, or fear in ourselves.

Just as a providential god compensates for our dependency on a larger order, so a judgmental god confirms the shame and guilt we try to keep to ourselves, and an all-loving god externalizes and covers everything with a caring intention. Whose god is the “true god” is a question without an answer, for the simple reason that it is based on a false assumption that our representations of God (in other words, our various “gods”) match up to the reality we generically name God.

My formula suggests that our representations of God are just as much, if not more, about us than they are accurate portraits of the divine mystery.

It might sound as if I’m building an argument for atheism, when in fact it’s “post-theism” I’m boosting here – the idea that the real presence of mystery is always and necessarily beyond (and after: post) the patron deities of religion. To the degree that we get caught up in devotion to our god (lowercase = representation), the stage is set for interreligious competition through the ordination of bigotry and violence.

As my formula shows, the package of how we identify ourselves, along with the representation of God that complements or compensates for it, gets carried out into our interactions with others. It’s here that orthodoxy – our “correct” beliefs about God – translates into ethics. Our god will tend to inspire and justify a certain regard for others, a certain way of behaving towards our neighbor – whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

It seems obvious that a religion which generalizes love, encourages compassion, and challenges us to forgive and get along would be preferable to one that excludes, condemns and justifies violence as  a means to redemption. The evolutionary future of humanity on this planet – if there’s any chance of it being a long and prosperous one – will depend on our ability to reach out and make benevolent connections with each other.

But didn’t god (the mythological god of the Bible) require the death of his son for the salvation of those who believe? Isn’t he poised (and morally obligated) to condemn to hell all unbelievers? The myth of redemptive violence is a strong current in Christian orthodoxy – one that reflects (and exposes) something about the myth-makers who invented it in the first place, as well as those who defend it today.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity is all this way, or that it is exceptional in this regard among the world religions. There are many Christians who reject the myth of redemptive violence, which of course calls for a critical, less literal reading of the Bible and a more conscientious stance on sacred authority.

As our planet continues to move into a global culture, the motivation and consequences of our interactions grow in importance.

Again, post-theism is not about a “one-world religion” – either as an outcome of interreligious competition (one wins and eliminates the others) or by blending religious differences into a generic stir-and-serve. It acknowledges a “spiritual intelligence” in all human beings, and even affirms the constructive place of religion in its development. Our representations of God are useful to the degree that they provide community support, devotional focus, and fresh inspiration along the way.

At a certain point, however, this process can get bogged down in the specialized vocabulary of a tradition’s god-talk. More and more is “known” about God – more accurately, about god (the orthodox representation) – as less and less of God is experienced. How God is represented eventually eclipses a direct (mystical) vision of, and communion with, the present mystery.

Worse, this worship of the representation can – and increasingly will – result in spiritual frustration. The progression of our continuing evolution as a species is capped off and boxed up in an ideology incapable of lifting us to the next level. A living spirituality gets strangled in the net of commentary.

Can we set our idols aside?

 

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Mystics and Prophets

Robinson: “So let us begin by looking again at the two perspectives on truth represented on the one hand by the Hebraic and on the other by the Vedantic [Hindu], contrasted as the prophetic and the mystical.”

We live and die in the round of time. Circles define life, in the rhythms that turn, pulse and spiral in our cells, in our bodies, in the earth’s seasons, in the coming-to-be and passing-away of generations, in the “Big Turn” of the universe itself.

For most of history, human beings have struggled to reconcile ourselves to the many wheels of time that move inside and around us. The so-called “nature religions” represent the early effort at putting our special concerns as a species into accord with the larger fate that holds us captive. The individual life-cycle (infancy, youth, maturity) had to be carefully nested inside the turns of a tribal career (student, householder, elder), which needed to fall into sync with the planetary rhythms of harvest and the hunt. Out and beyond all this foreground revolution were the predictable (auspicious and ominous) travel-paths of the planets and stars.

Somehow, from the tiny oscillations of nerve impulses in our brains to the circuits of stars through the sky, life is borne along inside a complex web of time intervals – nanoseconds to days to months to years to decades to generations to light-years of cosmic time. Health and prosperity were believed to be a function of how obediently and reverently we did our part. Ritual ceremony coordinated tribal life with these smaller and larger cycles. Human destiny was worked out inside the closed circles of time.

And then a revolution happened.

Almost simultaneously in India and in Israel, escape from the circle was accomplished. The Hindu and Hebraic revolutions don’t appear to have influenced each other, so it almost seems as if these two breakthroughs were separate uprisings of a common quest for liberation. Their different paths out of the closed circle became the energizing principles in two ways of engaging reality and constructing meaning.Circles_ArrowsIf you look just underneath the surface of sea waves, the rolling action is really a progression of kinetic energy moving along as each circular current spins open and passes momentum into a new circle. As it spins open to release its energy forward as the next wave, an inner spiral is pulling around the circle’s center, where it will be released to the deeper support of the ocean itself.

Try to imagine each circle as an individual “package” of energy, called consciousness. As it becomes more conscious of itself as an individual, this enclosure of self-identity reaches a point where its mortality – the fact of its very temporal existence – becomes nearly unbearable. Under the stress of this realization, the circle stands a real chance of breaking down.

But then, unexpectedly (from the circle’s vantage-point) the enclosure of its self-concern opens out to an expansive awareness. Along one axis it becomes aware of the momentum that is surging through its own limited form. What feels like a giving-up is really a giving-over to this higher purpose, to a will and direction greater than its own.

Along another axis, the inward clutch around its own center dissolves into a quiet sense of being. In letting go, a deeper essence to its own life as a wave-of-the-ocean is manifested to awareness. The “release” in each case amounts to a liberation of energy as the circle opens up to a larger reality – a higher purpose (up ahead) and a deeper essence (underneath).

This is one way of understanding the Hindu and Hebraic revolutions, and how they were related liberation movements on the advancing threshold of human spiritual evolution. The critical achievement on each front was the breakthrough of a new awareness, which would become the organizing principle in the construction of a new world(view).

Transcendental monism, where all is one beyond the apparent separateness, offers up a model of reality that sees each individual circle as a time-bound expression of a timeless mystery. To each circle it can be said, “Thou art That”; not that you are god, because even the gods are circles in their own way. They are, you are, and everything you see is a surface manifestation of the unfathomable depth of being-itself. You and they and everything around you is essentially one.

Ethical monotheism is how the revolution played out in Israel. As the circle opened up to the forward momentum of which it was but a temporary vehicle, a powerfully new interest in the future emerged. Now in addition to the conventional ties to tradition, the way of the elders, and the archetypes of the past, the question of direction and purpose provided leverage for challenging the status quo. “Thus says the Lord” became a kind of pretext for resistance and upheaval, for the sake of a new reality.

Two spiritual types were born out of the labor pains of this revolution, one springing up in India and the other in Israel. The mystic is one who feels drawn into the depths, breaking through the enclosure of self and personality, to the unqualified mystery of being-itself. A danger along the way has been a tendency to hold on too long to “me,” and thus to twist the whole contemplative path of communion into some kind of exceptional talent, a rigorous discipline and esoteric knowledge reserved for an elite few.

Playing out the other axis, the prophet is one who feels drawn to the future, inspired and compelled by a vision not only of what might be, but of what will be. The danger here is that the prophet will be reduced to a fortune-teller, a mere predictor of future events. Because we cannot control the future, there will always be business and celebrity for those who claim to know what is going to happen. The endless postponements and recalculations may help to expose the “false prophets,” but utopias and end-times are an inexhaustible market, and more will always be ready to step into the vacancy.

Mystics and prophets are really our “two eyes,” one looking into the essential reality beneath, and the other to the emergent reality beyond the fears, fixations and concerns of our ego and tribe. There is, then, in each of us a “mystical intention” and a “prophetic intention” – still susceptible to the corruptions mentioned above, but present at least as potential tracts of revolution.

The spiritual life today must continually seek deeper ground as it reaches for higher purpose. As fellow inhabitants of this planet, we are one in ways we still need to understand; and we are moving into a shared future that needs us working together for the good of all.

 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.  What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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