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Category Archives: The Creative Life

Seduction of the Mindless Life

The exact age at which we begin making intentional choices in life is up for debate, but there are good reasons for putting it somewhere between three and five. This is about the time when language acquisition has provided us with a lens for organizing the world around us, and with a mirror for reflecting back to us an image of ourselves. From that moment onward, life is no longer just happening to us but rather presents us with options, different doors and alternative paths that we must choose.

But to say that we must choose our life presents us with an apparent contradiction, since just as making a choice presupposes some degree of freedom, the necessity of making a choice seems to instantly cancel that freedom out.


The exact age at which we stop making intentional choices in life can also be debated, but I would put it somewhere in our early thirties. We’ve made a significant number of choices by that time, and through the years a good minority of them have settled into the habits and convictions that move us mindlessly along the cattle tracks of daily life. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that by the time we are young adults, many of us are living prescribed and automatic lives.

This would all amount to a very tragic and extraordinarily pessimistic view of life, if it weren’t for the fact that we allow it to happen. Not only do we allow it to happen, but we hasten the process which will eventually have us locked inside the cage of a mindless life.


You might like to know why we do this, and I shall give you an answer. But first I have some questions for you.

If you were to guess, what percentage of your everyday behavior conforms to routines that were set months, years, and even decades ago? These background routines got their start after you first chose to act or respond in a certain way. Then you repeated the sequence across numerous similar situations until you no longer had to think about it. They migrated to the back of your mind and took control of your behavior.

Now let’s be clear, habits are basic to human life. If you had to make a fresh choice every time and clarify the steps all over again, the skosh of random access memory in your conscious attention would be terminally preoccupied with those minutiae. You’d never be able to learn anything, at least nothing very involved or complex.

Over your lifetime you have practiced and repeated many behaviors that eventually became habits, which, by liberating your conscious attention from that more rudimentary level of control, made it possible for you to tackle and learn more sophisticated skills.

What tends to happen, though, is that even these more sophisticated skills soon become habits. And now you’re bored; or you’re restless. Maybe you are restless and bored. That, my friend, is the precondition for all kinds of interesting mental disorders, from anxiety to depression.

But let’s come back to my questions.

Here’s another one: If you were to guess, what percentage of what you think you know about anything conforms to beliefs that were fixed in place months, years, and even decades ago? By a dynamic similar to the formation of habits, you might hear a statement from someone else or in a media broadcast, and then the following week you hear it again. Randomly through the day you recall what you heard and you think about it, again. With each repetition, whether external (you hear it again) or internal (you recall it again), that sound byte gains credibility in your mind.

As it becomes more familiar and you give emotional support to its supposed truth, that bit of doctrine becomes your belief.

As before, we need to acknowledge the crucial function of beliefs in human life. They are the mental equivalent to those motor routines of habit, in this case constructing propositions that serve to arrange your thoughts on a topic and render a judgment. As prefabricated judgments, or prejudgments (aka prejudices), beliefs save you time from having to think and consider and work out what something means to you. If your mind originally constructed (or borrowed) your belief about something, the mere repetition and persistence of that belief gradually gave it control over your thoughts, at which point it became a conviction.

Just as habits serve as background routines for new skills, convictions can simply be taken as true and thence serve as foundational beliefs of your worldview.

And wouldn’t you know it, but having your mind locked in a box where you don’t really need to think anymore results, not in a more complete understanding of reality as you may have hoped, but instead in a kind of mental hall of mirrors where this belief is cross-referenced with that belief, but very little of it touches the reality of everyday life.

Now to the question of why we do it. What on Earth would motivate us as young adults to surrender our free will for the cage of a mindless (and correspondingly meaningless) life? I’ve already hinted at something else in play, beyond the gradual takeover of consciousness by the normal accumulation of habits and convictions. Is there something seductive about the cage that lures us inside?

The answer is, Yes; and what we find so alluring is the escape it affords from the freedom and responsibility of choosing our way through life, moment to moment.

Employing that same strategy of liberating energy for higher-order challenges, human consciousness has evolved over many millenniums through an ascending hierarchy of pressing needs. Our primitive survival needs for air, water, food, and shelter have about them an unmistakable urgency. Later these needs were superseded by the social needs for connection, belonging, membership, and identity.

Very much later, our shared life in society began to stretch open and transform by the energy of still higher needs, which can be named spiritual, including our need for serenity, presence, communion, and wellbeing.

This is admittedly a gross simplification of human history, but it does serve to clarify what I mean by the “pressing need” of urgency. All of those distinct registers of human need – survival, social, and spiritual – are pressing and urgent precisely because they are critical to our fulfillment as human beings. In our evolutionary ascent through those registers, the habits and convictions associated with our survival needs had to break open in order to release the creative energy that our social needs would require. We had to learn how to share our resources, how to care for others, and how to repair damaged relationships.

And now, here we are: The spiritual needs are pressing us to change, to transform yet again, this time to choose our higher selves. It is urgent that we take responsibility for our lives and start living them on purpose, with purpose, and for the purpose of becoming fully human.

The human spirit cannot live in a cage. It is time to take our leave.

 

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Beyond Ourselves

Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.

While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.

So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.

In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.

In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.

A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.

Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.

Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.

When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.

This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.

Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.

This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.

An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.

Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.

But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.

This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.

A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.

If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?

The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.

Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.

 

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Practicing Wisdom

In a recent post titled Living By Wisdom I reminded my reader of five principles that humans over many thousands of years have drawn from their experience and clarified, like pure gold from the dross of daily life, into a perennial tradition of deep insights into the nature of reality, authentic self, and genuine community. I say “reminded” because I believe we each have this same plumline of contemplative intuition whereby such wisdom is accessed, to whatever extent it may be obstructed by daily distractions, personal ambitions, and close-minded convictions.

The perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom is a shared project combining archetypes of our collective unconscious (C.G. Jung) and aspirations of a transcultural vision of our evolutionary fulfillment as one species within the great Web of Life. While the archetypes (e.g., Ground, Abyss, Self, Other, and God) drive our development from below conscious awareness and can only be brought to consciousness through the vehicles of metaphor and myth, the apirations of this transcultural wisdom (e.g., Presence, Communion, Awakening, Liberation, and Wholeness) depend for their propagation through the generations on constructive dialogue and intentional practice.

That earlier post briefly expounded on five wisdom principles in particular, perhaps the most universal and enduring insights our species has discovered over the past who knows how many thousands (maybe even millions) of years.

  1. Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

  2. Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

  3. Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

  4. Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

  5. Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

In this post I want to launch from that last one in particular, as it is really the ur-principle or “most essential truth” assumed in the other four. Simply put, we won’t appreciate or benefit from the other wisdom principles until we can manage to see beyond ourselves – both individually and as a species.

This meditation is especially timely now, as collectively we seem to be contracting into ever smaller and more defendable horizons of identity. The anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview of the last few thousand years has further collapsed to ethnocentric, nationalistic, ideological, and egocentric (self-centered) boundaries – each contraction seeking a patch of emotional real estate that feels more managable and secure.

An obvious problem with this quest for safety and control is that we have to separate ourselves from the greater communion of Life in order to find it. Nevertheless it continues to elude us. Indeed our insecurity only grows more intense and unmanageable the further into isolation we go.

If the nature of reality is communion (All is One), then separating ourselves from it will inevitably throw us into an untenable, and certainly not sustainable, situation.

In Living By Wisdom I referred to a spiritual pandemic that has been ravaging our species for some time now, described in Principle 5 as loneliness, hypertension, and early death. It may seem odd at first that hypertension and early death, which are obvious physiological maladies, should be identified as symptoms of a “spiritual” pandemic. The incongruity, however, is only in our minds, as they have been conditioned over many centuries of ideological brainwashing (conventionally called “education”) to divide “soul” and “body,” “self” and “other,” “human” and “nature.”

According to the perennial wisdom tradition, these dualisms are constructs of language and belief and have no basis in the true nature of things. Dividing and opposing them as we have, it should not surprise us if we are suffering for our “sin” (literally separating or dislocating ourselves from reality). Our suffering is not so much a punishment (ala theistic religion) as a certain consequence of our self-isolation.

Those consequences should then be read in reverse to reveal the real pathology of our spiritual pandemic: an early death is the fallout of hypertension (the internal effects of chronic frustration, anxiety, and autoimmunity), which is itself a manifestation of our profound loneliness – of feeling that we are estranged from the whole of life and utterly on our own in the world.

Despite the infinite variety of distractions at our fingertips, and even surrounded by countless others equally distracted, we are dying of loneliness.

So what can we do? Just jumping into a crowd or trying to fill our emptiness with comfort food, prescription medications, material possessions, self-improvement programs, or ‘heroic’ achievement won’t fix our problem because none of these strategies acknowledge or address the underlying cause. If you’ve fallen for any of these “sure fixes” to your existential loneliness, you can verify from personal experience the futility of the effort. With every failure, your feeling of isolation and hopelessness intensifies.

Reaching back into our collective heritage of shared wisdom, we will find the answer to our question. Here are four practices, validated by millions just like you over many thousands of years and across the world’s many cultures, both ancient and modern.

Wisdom Practice 1

Get grounded.

The metaphor of ground in the perennial wisdom tradition is used to represent the present mystery of reality as both source and support of your life. Ground is always beneath and within you, which means that it’s always and only here and now. Our loneliness is generated by the illusion of our separateness, that we are not actually in the here-and-now. But where else can we be?

When you say or think, “I feel lonely,” it is from the perspective of your self-conscious personal identity, or ego (Latin for “I”). Ego is conspicuous for its lack of reality, as it is merely a construct of personal self-reference and social agency shaped and installed by your tribe in early childhood and reinforced by society ever since. Its existence is suspended like a tightrope between “the past” and “the future,” neither of which has reality in the here-and-now. Your past and future are a highly curated selection of memories and fantasies composed into a personal myth that tells the story of who you are.

Just as the story itself is an edited compilation of what you (choose to) remember and expect, the “I” who is defined by the story is also a fictional construct.

Your ground is not in your ego for the simple reason that your ego is separated from the here-and-now by this highwire act of your personal myth. To get grounded requires that you drop out of your story and into your body, which is always present. The “you” that drops is not your ego, but rather your embodied mind, the living sentient center of present awareness. Getting grounded, then, means dropping into your living presence where the sentient life of your body is experienced as both source and support.

A simple breathing meditation – attending to your breath, counting its rhythm, feeling the gentle expansion and relaxation, the deepening calm of inner peace – is the easiest, quickest, and most common wisdom practice for getting grounded.

Wisdom Practice 2

Find your center.

This wisdom practice follows very naturally on the first one, but whereas getting grounded is about dropping out of your story and into your body, finding your center shifts the intention from letting go to gathering consciousness around a deeper locus of contemplative awareness. Now, free of all identity contracts and future projects, without beliefs to hold everything at a distance, a sense of boundless presence radiates outward from where you are.

From that deep center of boundless presence nothing is separate, everything is connected, and All is One. Consciousness is not tethered to and limited by a personal identity, nor is it domesticated and contained inside a world where you pretend to be somebody.

The center of awareness deep within you, taking in the vast reality all around you, is the universe becoming conscious of itself.

Wisdom Practice 3

Connect to what matters.

While still fully identified with your ego and its managed world, the dual drives of craving and fear magnetize everything around you as either “for me” or “against me.” Your values and choices fall in line with your ambitions in life, and anything that doesn’t fit on one side or the other is either dismissed, ignored, or goes unnoticed.

When you live in the delusion of your separateness, what ultimately matters is determined by how safe, loved, capable, or worthy something or someone makes you feel. And because ego consciousness is inherently insecure, your attachments, fantasies, and concerns only conspire to make you more anxious, motivating you to shrink your world-horizon even further so as to reduce exposure and tighten your control.

In this state you cannot see anything for what it is in itself, and anyone in relationship with you feels trapped by the snares of your selfish and unrealistic demands.

From your deeper contemplative center of boundless presence, however, your perspective is unbiased and clear-sighted. You can consider your human journey and life-arrangement and ask, “What truly matters? What do I want to cultivate from the fertile ground of what I am and what I might still become? Where are my anchors of timeless (i.e., eternal) value? What ideals shall I live my life by, and what higher virtues still call to me?”

Wisdom Practice 4

Be the change you want to see.

The four wisdom practices finally culminate in this one, which exhorts us to actualize the noble intentions and higher ideals we have just clarified. There’s no arguing against the therapeutic benefits of reciting inspirational thoughts to ourselves. By putting them in our journals, taping them to our bathroom mirrors, and sticking them on refrigerator doors, we create timely reminders of the New Reality we aspire to and hope to inhabit some day.

Here is one more example of a division generated out of the delusion of our separateness, this time between knowledge and action, theory and practice, truth (on the side of knowledge and theory) and power (in practical action). Wisdom does not recognize this division, teaching instead that an enlightened understanding of the way things really are will manifest directly – we might even say spontaneously – in how we live and what we do.

So, take anything from the list of what matters most to you and convert it into an action. If it’s kindness, then be kind. If it’s love, then be loving. If it’s peace, then become a peacemaker. If it’s inclusion, then open your life to a stranger. The world around you will start to change as you put into it the virtues you hope to find.

It may take some time, so be patient and keep practicing!

 

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A Sacred Place

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. So many twists and turns, so many ups and downs. It’s not been easy, and yet somehow you’ve managed to arrive right where you are. Your peculiar quirks and hangups, along with many endearing qualities and positive strengths, testify to an undeniable resilience through hardship, suffering, and loss. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are, along with nearly 8 billion other unique individuals – just like you.

You stand out from the rest not only by virtue of the timeline of events that have shaped you into the person you are today, but also by your nature as a self-conscious individual, as one in whom the sentient powers of consciousness have turned inward to become aware of being aware – and of being seen by others.

What we have described so far can be called the formation of your identity, as at once a product or outcome of the past, and an expression or differentiation of self-conscious awareness out of the grounding mystery of being. I don’t mean that to sound overly metaphysical, as if the pre-differentiated ground is (mis)taken as something else, other than you. That deeper mystery of physical life and sentient mind is what has become conscious of itself as you. You stand out from it but are not really separate from it.

I’m going to use the terms “character” and “existence” to name these correlated dimensions that have conspired in the formation of who you are. Character traces the path of life events and your response to those events, as they have been steadily shaping your habits of attitude, belief, judgment, and motivation. With time and experience, the habit of who you are (i.e., your character) has grown more persistent and predictable – just ask those who have known you for a while.

What we commonly call a “strong character” can refer to a habit of identity that is either inflexible in its convictions or creatively resilient, depending on whether your learned response to life has been encoded on the imperative of CONTROL or on that of GROWTH.

Existence is being used in its exact Greek meaning, referring to the act or process of standing out (existere) as an individual, both from a state of pure potentiality and from the general mass of anonymous others. The philosophy of Existentialism has a very diverse world-wide and historical representation, but its central tenet is the human individual as a unique center of experience, standing out in full exposure to the conditions of ambiguity, finitude, and extinction.

In view of such exposure, the existentialists generally forsake all departure narratives (future utopias, heavenly afterlife, or reincarnation) designed to pacify our death anxiety, and instead grapple with how the individual can live an authentic, responsible, creative, and liberated life – in the time they have left to live.

Existentialism is similar to religion in the way it refuses to merely meditate on theoretical abstractions, but rather seeks to resolve or overcome what it regards as forces presently enthralling the human spirit. And while the myths of religion depict this condition in florid metaphors of primordial, supernatural, heroic, and apocalyptic events, Existentialism (and post-theistic religion generally) interprets it psychodynamically, as complications of ego formation.

Put simply, the process of your standing out in self-conscious identity has had to negotiate or contend with certain habits developed around your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because the satisfaction of these subjective needs was occasionally (or often) challenged by less-than-provident circumstances, you had to compensate your feeling unsafe by taking control, your need for love with attachment, your impotency with coercive aggression, and your sense of unworthiness by trying to please others and amount to something in their eyes.

If this profile resembles you to any degree, it’s only because it is archetypal and reflects the early emotional landscape of every human being who has ever lived.

The compensatory strategies just outlined conspire energetically to close your identity down to where you can manage the insecurity and still get by. On the negative side, they also hold you down (and back) from fulfillment. I’m using this word not in the popular and superficial sense of a happy self-satisfaction, but rather in reference to the process of awakening, cultivating, expressing, and fully realizing the deepest potential of your human nature.

A self-conscious personal identity which might otherwise actualize this deep potential in creative and responsible ways, instead holds it hostage inside a cage of neurotic and self-defensive fear.

When you are properly centered in yourself and free to be yourself, you can choose to go beyond (or transcend) yourself in the higher experiences of communion. The truth is that all things exist together as one, as manifestations of and participants in the same reality. This Shining Truth is invisible to – or rather we should say it is obscured by – the insecure ego whose makeshift walls of security close out the light.

Right now, you can choose to step outside and join the One Song and Turning Dance (uni-verse) of it all.

Depending on how small you have made yourself, your spiritual prison break could release a thermonuclear radiance of inner peace, unconditional love, and boundless joy. As you plug into the Source and get carried away, nothing about your life prior to now will be the same. Your anxieties will vanish. Your frustrations will dissolve. Your resentments will fade, as your guilt falls away.

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are. 

This is indeed a sacred place.

 

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Becoming Homo Sapiens

When modern science organized the taxonomy of living things on Earth, it placed our own species in position with an almost religious confidence, as the “wise one” (Latin homo sapiens) among all the creatures. At the time there seemed good reason for such high regard, as we clearly possessed traits and abilities that put us above the rest. It remains an open question, however, whether self-selecting as “wise” was more of an aspirational reach than evidence-based assessment.

Wisdom is not a new interest of ours by any stretch. It can be argued that homo sapiens began its unique advance in evolution as we applied our speculative (outward-looking) and contemplative (inward-looking) intelligence to the mysteries of existence. Since prehistoric times humans have had a keen interest in understanding our place in the wonder of it all.

The so-called wisdom traditions of our separate world cultures are so many tributaries of one ancient stream, bubbling up from the same wellspring – not so much “back there” as “in here,” deep in our individual psyche.

At times along the way, this living stream of spiritual wisdom has gotten blocked by other forces which seem more pressing and urgent. It’s always tempting to temporarily suspend our consideration of interests farther out and later on, of anything that is not inside the immediate circle of “me and mine,” in order that we can address and hopefully resolve the urgency.

We possess a deep knowing, for instance, that All is OneEverything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – three wisdom principles that are not mere logical conclusions, but rather intuitive insights drawn from our direct experience of reality. We know these truths, and yet we frequently choose to ignore them in the choices we make.

Such willful disregard is what Alan Watts called ignórance, referring not to something we don’t know but to our habit of disregarding what we know so we can do what we want.

My diagram places wisdom (sapiens) in what Abraham Maslow called the “farther reaches of human nature” – as the future fulfillment of our deepest potential as a species. It stands at the higher pole of a continuum opposite to instinct, which we have in common with all the other animals. Between the two poles and serving as a kind of phase transition from instinct to wisdom is belief.

Each of these is a kind of behavior program, a distinct set of codes that motivates humans to behave and actively engage with our environment.

In Darwinian terms we can further say that our behavior will either fit us adaptively to our environment or else put us (and our environment) at risk of damage and possible extinction.

For its part, instinct is unthinking and compulsive, driven by codes deep-set in our animal nature. At the other end, wisdom is exquisitely thoughtful and visionary, lifting consciousness to transpersonal ideals, larger horizons, and longer aims.

As the transitional stage between instinct and wisdom, beliefs and belief systems have dominated the human experience for thousands of years.

Homo credulitas is probably a more fitting nomenclature, since this long historical epoch of our evolutionary rise into tribes, cities, nation-states, civilizations, and the contemporary pan-global culture is made possible by a unique ability of our mind to construct around us an envelope of meaning called a world.

A world is a more or less personal construction of language that helps us feel secure, serves as context for our identity, orients us in reality, and clarifies a meaning for life.

These four functions of our world – security, identity, orientation, and meaning – connect neatly at the corners to form a box containing everything that matters to us. We live for what’s inside the box, we obsess over what’s inside the box, and if it comes down to it, we will kill defending what’s inside the box. The American box is different in big ways from the Iranian box, and inside each of these are many more boxes – religious traditions, political parties, social classes – which further contain millions more individual worlds, each unique in lesser but still exceptional ways.

Smaller boxes contained in bigger boxes, contained in still bigger boxes, until we come to the biggest box of all where all of us are insisting to the rest of us that our world is the real world, the way things really are.

And of course, we have to believe this, since it is believing which makes it so, recalling that all of these boxes, from the small-scale individual to the large-scale global, are made of beliefs, are quite literally make-believe.

That such a claim sounds ludicrous and is itself unbelievable actually substantiates its validity, insofar as our mind cannot believe “outside the box.” We can indeed think outside our box, but it takes both practice and courage since breaking past the outer boundary of belief also requires that we move beyond the security, identity, orientation and meaning of life inside the box. If all these things are constructions of belief, then reality – not the “real world” but the really real, existence as such – is beyond belief, indescribably perfect in itself, transcendent even of meaning and therefore perfectly meaningless.

If you can’t believe this, then, in the words of Jesus, you are not far from the kingdom of God. Maybe very close, but not quite.

Recalling those wisdom principles from earlier – All is One, Everything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – we get a sense of how their truth stands beyond belief. It doesn’t matter which boxes you happen to occupy (or that hold you captive), whether you are rich or poor, white, black, brown, or green. They are not articles of belief, much in the same way that gravity is independent of whether or what you may believe about it. They don’t need validation from any source other than your own direct experience.

If you let yourself, these timeless insights into reality will resonate with your own true nature and lift your consciousness far above the ego concerns of “me and mine.”

Now ask yourself, How shall I live in light of these self-evident truths? If you’re not going to ignore them and do what you want, then what difference will they make? How will the full acceptance of their truth inspire you to leave your box and live a truly liberated life?

Welcome, “wise one.” Your higher adventure is now ready to begin.

 

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Now and Again

Sequestering at home, I was sitting with my wife under the gazebo in our backyard just the other morning as the sun was coming through the trees. The sweet smell of burning piñon wood from our chiminea and birdsong in the tree overhead made for an enchanted experience. There were other things we could be doing, like cleaning up the kitchen or straightening a closet, but those could wait. This would only be here a few moments longer.

In Greek there are two very different concepts of time. Kronos is the measured time of our clocks. It is the “again and again” of cycles by which we measure time’s elapse: clock hands, moon phases, Earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. Inside these smaller and larger cycles we track the sequence of events that make up a recipe, a work project, the history of anything, including a human lifetime.

I can schedule a time to clean up the kitchen by placing the appointment somewhere in these nested cycles of chronic time. If I miss the appointment, I’ll just reschedule it. No big deal.

Another Greek word, kairos, carries a very different concept of time. Its meaning is something like “the opportune moment,” or as we commonly say, when the time is right or at the right time. Even though the sun rises at a certain hour and minute according to the clock, we don’t normally say that the sun is rising “on time” – as if we have the earth and Sun on a schedule.

The sun rising through trees provides a fascinating intersection among physical events happening, including not just astronomical events but me getting out to the gazebo at precisely the right time.

But there’s more. I could be sitting out there with all that going on, totally absorbed in my thoughts, futzing with my chair, or still just waking up and not yet paying attention. The sunrise could happen without me even noticing. A kairotic event is actually a conspiracy of things coming together all at once: the earth turning, the sky and clouds just so, the temperature and breeze as they are, birds singing in the tree standing there, wood smoke from my chiminea – and me here, a quiet and observant witness to the wonder of it all.

If I don’t show up or pay attention as it’s happening, this conspiracy fails to fully come together.

When Jesus called out to anyone who would listen, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” he was talking about kairos. The kingdom of God coming near was his chosen metaphor of a power that lurks just below the threshold of ordinary awareness, but which, if really seen and taken in by the fully observant mind, will change everything. To repent literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction, out of the trance of conventional life and into what he also called “abundant life” – liberated, authentic, and fully awake.

While Jesus’ metaphors reflect his heritage and worldview, the invitation to wake up and break free from the mental enclosures of tradition, habit, and belief in order that we can really see the present mystery of reality, has been essential to “true religion” ever since the Axial Age (beginning in the 8th century BCE). This critical insight has frequently put those who are waking up at odds with the belief systems and departure narratives that characterize most forms of theism. To identify it with true religion, then, is admittedly a value judgment on my part.

We shouldn’t forget that orthodox theism was one of the social forces that collaborated in Jesus’ death, along with colonial politics and neurotic egoism.

But this is the essential truth: right now is the only opportunity any of us has to be fully present and awake to what’s really going on. In Jesus’ words, time is fulfilled in every Now, but if we don’t wake up and open ourselves to what has “come near,” we might end up sleeping as the mystery passes us by, and keep missing it – again and again. We might say that ordinary consciousness (or the trance state) is a condition where “again and again” (or more of the same) conceals the ever-present mystery of “here and now.”

The real tragedy is that, over time, our capacity for mindful awareness and creative response can become so buried under the habits and demands of daily life (chronos), that we may never wake up to Life in its fullness. The time is always now and we are always here, but how much of our life is deeply engaged in conscious living?

So I realized that the morning sun through trees – as an experience and not merely a physical event – is exquisitely for me in the sense that it won’t happen if I’m not here, not paying attention, or distracted with other things. I don’t mean this to sound self-centered, but if I’m not centered in myself and present to what’s going on, the morning sun through trees won’t happen either.

If I come out again tomorrow morning, the kingdom of God will once again be present at the threshold of my awareness, but only because it is always there, waiting on me to show up and be a witness. If the spiritual life is anything, it is the devoted practice of showing up and learning to be fully present.

 

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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a vale of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.

 

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