Wisdom’s Long Journey

The spiritual wisdom traditions teach that every human being is somewhere in the process of waking up, that we are each emerging from a long, deep sleep. We’re not yet fully awake, most of us, but a new way of being – what Paul Tillich named the New Being – is even now available, and it’s calling us, calling on us to step into the liberated life.

The main organizing plot of this good news is indeed the foundational myth of Wisdom herself, pictured frequently in feminine form, evolving across three distinct “vehicles” or modes of existence: first as an animal, then as a person, and finally as creative spirit. The larger story is an account of Wisdom’s journey, and also therefore of our own human transformation through time.

But if you think it’s all about you, that only means you haven’t gotten far enough in the story yet.

The larger story of Wisdom’s journey and human evolution is unfolding even now in your own brief lifetime. In fact, the spiritual wisdom traditions insist that until you can see your own life in the myth of Wisdom, your apprehension of its truth will only be a conditioned and veiled understanding – it won’t be anything more than a religion.

So let’s take a closer look at you – not merely your “I” who is busy playing at being somebody special, but all of you, the full reality and potential of what you are. That fullness is represented in Wisdom’s three modes of existence, her distinct manifestations, according to the larger story.

You, too, began life in animal form. As a newborn infant, your animal nature was the vehicle of consciousness, the primary facility of your experience of life and engagement with reality. Deep in your physiology are behavior codes called instincts, with ancient histories reaching back millions of years and across numerous species.

These present codes are themselves evidence of their success in securing the survival and reproduction of your pre-human and human ancestors.

Your animal intelligence – the wisdom of your body – is intuitively aware of the deep reciprocal nature and interdependence of things: of its own urgencies for food, water, oxygen and energy, and the provident supply of these by its physical environment. Rather than thinking of your body as an organism apart from its environment, science has helped us to understand it as an “energy exchange” facilitating a constant back-and-forth flow in the dynamic balance of life.

In your animal form, especially back in those early days of life, you had no sense of yourself as separate from everything else – not yet. Your experience of life and engagement with reality was energetic and spontaneous, compulsive and reactive.

Slowly, however, consciousness began to ascend into self-consciousness and you found yourself on a new plane of existence, at a different center of awareness and mode of life. You were becoming a person. While the upward thrust of this emerging sense of yourself is inherent to the process of becoming fully human, its shape and character were determined to a great extent by the influence of your tribe – first your family of origin, and then, expanding outward, of the larger society that held your membership.

This personal mode of existence is what we call your ego, which is Latin for “I” – the one referenced earlier as playing at being somebody special. Now, what I say next may come as a shock, and it typically takes a fair amount of time, reflection, and courage for someone to comprehend its implications.

But here it is: Your personal identity – not the upward thrust but its shape and character – is a social construction and entirely without substance or reality.

Think of it this way. Identity is always a function of identifying with something: “I am (a) ________.” In the early years your tribe filled in those blanks for you. “You are one of us. This is who we are as a people. This is what we believe. This is how we live. These are our values. This is what it means to be a member in good standing.” And so on. All of those identifications were gradually weaved together into a canopy of meaning that became your world.

Yes, your world is also a social construction, a construction of so many veils suspended between consciousness and reality, for the purpose of clothing your ego with identity and meaning.

Just as with your animal mode of existence, so your personal mode as an ego playing at being (pretending to be) somebody special is a polarity of two dimensions. We’ve already mentioned your world, which is the objective dimension of identity. The term objective literally means “thrown over” (like a canopy) and is commonly confused with other terms like external or factual. As we are using it here, objective only makes sense as a corollary of ego – of the one whose world it is.

Because your world is shared in large part with others (that is, with other egos), it seems to exist independently of you, as the way things really are. But that is an illusion, and believing it makes you a victim of delusion.

The other side of the polarity in personal identity is what you call your self. It is the subjective dimension, literally “thrown under” (or beneath) who you are playing on stage. As your tribe was busy shaping your identity and filling in the blanks, you were taking it all in – experiencing life and engaging with reality as the so-and-so you were pretending to be.

Earlier we referenced the myth of Wisdom as the larger story of our human transformation through time. The spiritual wisdom traditions hold our sacred aspiration, along with the necessary insights and meditative skills, of completing the journey and breaking through to the liberated life of spirit. It is precisely at this juncture of the journey, however, where you are doing your best to meet the expectations of society and be a “good _______,” that the path gets complicated.

This is also where many get stuck and might spend the rest of their lives, asleep in identity.

Let’s come back to you. Your tribe gave you both clear and confusing messages about what was accepted and expected from you. Think of how much time and effort – all the desperate and anguished effort – you invested in seeking the approval of others. You needed their validation; your very identity depended on being recognized by them as so-and-so, as somebody special. Another thing to understand, however (and this should not come as such a shock), is how unfair, unrealistic, even outright manipulative and abusive some of those demands were.

But you weren’t old enough to know better, and your need to belong was irresistible, so you agreed (though not always consciously) to be what others accepted and expected of you. And even though some of those demands were unfair and abusive, you began to withhold and pack away parts of yourself that didn’t fit your society’s templates of identity.

The result was a shadow in your personality, a side of your self that was forbidden (by society) and hidden (by you), kept off-stage and out of the play.

This is where many are stuck – and where many more have expired over the long history of our species: trying to fit in, desperate to stand out, holding themselves back, burdened by guilt and shame, just about ready to surrender the whole exhausting pursuit of being somebody special.

Here, finally, is our third revelation, which really amounts to an apocalypse – literally an insight that “blows off the cover” and pulls down the veil of your illusion. This moment, where you are ready to give up on the entire project of being somebody special, is what Jesus and other wisdom teachers have called the “narrow gate” to freedom and the liberated life. It is the breakthrough from a personal mode of existence to a spiritual (contemplative and transpersonal) one.

In the myth of Wisdom, this is often depicted as a new birth, a resurrection from death, the butterfly abandoning its cocoon, a waking from sleep, the free flight of wild gander against a blue sky.

Now, if you are especially attached to your personal identity, entangled with your shadow and a hostage to your world, the prospect of breaking free will likely seize you with terror. True enough, proceeding into the apocalypse can be profoundly disruptive, and it will undoubtedly strip off and away all your attachments. In human history, this is where ego has opted for self-inflation over self-transcendence, for everlasting life over an authentic, liberated life here and now.

But if you were to drop the charade and get over yourself, the awakening of consciousness to a soul-centered mode of existence would enable you to look back at this moment as but a blink of an eye – so light, so quick, so easy.

What you’ll find on the spiritual plane of awareness are two transformative insights, correlated according to the polarity of your soul. On one side is a realization that breaks beyond your world, and on the other a realization that breaks within your self.

Beyond your world and its canopy of meaning, All is One; this is the holistic truth of our universe, the higher wholeness of all things, which of course includes you. Within your self and its delusion of substance, is the present mystery of being-itself; this is the essential truth of your ground, deeper than words can reach but simultaneously rising in you and as you this very moment.

There is a paradox of wisdom that should be apparent in all of this: The liberated life requires you to drop the chains that tether your identity, and still you might choose the security of your chains to the wild freedom of spirit.

Spiritual Exercise

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and feel yourself relax into your body. The “drop” of consciousness into the biorhythms, life-force, and material gravity of your body begins from a place where a lot of your time and attention is invested. It’s a place of chronic anxiety and exhaustion, of curating and managing a personal identity inside a busy social arena.

We’ll come back to that place after a while, but for now just “breathe and be” in your living body. Don’t observe your body from some elevated perch; in other words, don’t make your body into an object of study. Simply breathe and be, feeling your breath come and go, rise and fall. In the background you may also hear the soft “hum” of consciousness as it idles in your nervous system.

Notice that “down here” in your body you are fully present in the here and now. All that fuss up at the surface has been left behind, as your awareness rides gently in the rhythms of life. If you rest here long enough, tuning your mind to this grounding mystery of being, you’ll begin to sense the boundary between your body and the reality around you begin to open up and dissolve away.

We know from science that your body is not separate from the physical environment in which it has evolved. Events and conditions of external reality translate near-instantly into reactions, perceptions, and changing internal states of your nervous system. Material nutriment, water, oxygen, and light “out there” is metabolized into cell structure and living tissue; into glands, organs, and organ systems; into the organism of your living body.

Organism-environment is the reciprocal dance and mutual transformation of matter and life.

One metaphor that captures this idea – this experience you are having right now of the fluid communion of your body and its environment, is a web. The descent of conscious awareness from the surface where you manage an identity on the stage of social role-plays, brings with it the revelation that everything is connected and interdependent – a web of communion.

From science again, we know that this web of communion is very ancient, with each new generation of life a contemporary manifestation of a long line reaching back millions, even billions, of years into the early history of our planet. Every speck of matter comprising your body derives from primordial stardust. The design code of your DNA and the instincts that drive your unconscious behavior are inherited from primitive ancestors, from long before the emergence of humans.

Because so much of your daily life is tied up there at the surface, an occasional descent into your body and its web of communion seems a welcome respite. Long ago, however, our human ancestors lived here all the time. Time itself didn’t stretch between a “past” and “future,” as it does for you, but instead revolved through cycles that synced with the rhythms of life in the body. Their place and participation in the web was respected by them as a sacred privilege.

Their religion, called animism, was centered in the body and focused on the ritual responsibility of honoring and renewing the bond between “human” and “nature.”

Over many thousands, even millions, of years human consciousness continued to evolve, facilitated and accelerated by the influence of language, symbolism, storytelling, technology and culture. What eventually arrived, in fact, was the very same center of self-conscious identity that you released at the beginning of this meditation, when you dropped into the “breathe and be” of your embodied experience. Well – not the exact same center, since each person’s center of identity (or ego) is unique and separate from all the others, as well as from everything else.

So let’s go back up to the surface.

Life up here is a staged affair, and interpersonal transactions follow according to certain prescriptions of identity: roles to fill, parts to play, rules to observe, and masks to wear. (Our word “person” derives from the Latin persona, referring to a stage actor’s mask through which (per) she would speak (sona) her lines.) When consciousness inhabits one of these roles, it becomes self-conscious as So-and-So in a socially prescribed role-play with other so-and-sos.

With this invention of identity and its countless roles, society was able to evolve and further facilitate the growing complexity of human populations. A virtually infinite number of social interactions was now possible – as many roles and masks as could be invented. The perception of time was no longer circular and rhythmic, but instead became linear and terminal as a projection of the individual’s sense of himself as arriving on stage and finally exiting the stage.

The more invested and involved humans got in this identity game, however – and you can attest to this from your own experience as a person – the less aware and mindful they became of the body and its web of communion. Performing roles and managing a personal identity entails a kind of disembodiment of consciousness and its individuation as an ego (Latin for “I,” the actor). So while the body continued as it had for many millions of years, the social complications and anxieties at the surface syphoned more and more consciousness into the business of trying to be somebody special.

This second great cultural shift in human evolution, from a nature-and-body-centered experience to a society-and-ego-centered one, brought with it a new type of religion as well, called theism.

Now religion wasn’t so much concerned over harmony with nature, but grew increasingly invested in the management of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that preserved and enforced the moral codes of culture. Theos, the god or deity who stood behind and above this moral order, was conceived and projected as a “superego” (the “I” in the sky) whose will directed all things and whose ordination legitimated human authorities on earth.

We don’t need to go much deeper into theism, but it should be obvious how hand-in-glove the notion of “god above” is with the separation of consciousness into a personal identity and its social role-plays. Just as your ego is separate from your body and harnesses the impulses of its animal nature for the sake of acceptance, approval, recognition, and social status, so the deity in theism ensures that the “body politic” of society is obedient to its moral mandate.

A second function of the deity in theism is to exemplify the virtues of moral character, and to motivate devotees in the imitatio Dei (the aspiration to be like god), to be more patient, gracious, faithful, compassionate, and forgiving – to name a few of the outstanding virtues of god, as depicted in myth and theology. To be “like god” in this regard is considered the highest calling in healthy theistic religions.

Throughout the history of theism, a few individuals have reported an experience of “waking up” from the spell of belief and seeing through the veil that separates personal identity from ultimate reality. They speak of a hidden wholeness, a higher Truth, and a universal Spirit beyond the fractured lens of ego consciousness.

They have also consistently challenged the conventional belief in god’s objective existence, which for obvious reasons has made them enemies of theistic orthodoxy. Their religion is properly called post-theistic.

Standing here, centered in your personal identity and unconcerned with either promoting or defending yourself to others nearby, distant, or long dead, the universe invites you back into its web of communion.

But whereas down there in your body the experience was of an undifferentiated oneness (the fluid transformations of matter and life), up here and looking out from the position of your individual ego you can see that All is One: a differentiated togetherness. The “mystical” (ineffable, intuitive) communion felt deep in the grounding mystery of your embodied life is revealed from this perspective as the “transpersonal” (consilient, integral) community of all things.

There. With that you have completed one rep of this spiritual exercise. Keep working out.

Big Picture, Long View, All of Us

I write this on the day after the close of US elections and ballots are still being counted. Each party is positioning lawyers to dispute or defend the integrity of our election process and its outcome. Americans on both sides are looking through the lens of victory or defeat, as to what it will mean for their future and general wellbeing.

Many of us are trying, but not always successfully, to negotiate the narrow ridge between nervous exhaustion, from our worry over things we can’t control, and compassion fatigue, from the deep angst we feel for the human need and suffering all around us.

So we sit in goggle-eyed paralysis, staring at our televisions and waiting to hear what our reality will be.

I’ve written numerous posts over the past four years and more, trying to put a contextual frame around the strange phenomenon of Donald Trump’s rise to power, and how he has managed to steadily dismantle the institutions that have anchored our democracy for so long. I noted, for instance, how Trump’s 2016 victory marked a decisive ascendancy of capitalism over democracy – the twin seedbed traditions of our American Experiment.

I also offered an explanation in terms of how Trump has poked our insecure Inner Child, persuading us to give up our freedoms and responsibility as citizens.

Just this morning it struck me again how much Donald Trump, the wealthy white capitalist, represents America itself. Not that he cares much about us or has our best interests in mind, but how much he exemplifies, as a kind of symptomatic projection, our national character. Other countries of the world have long regarded the United States less as a bastion and defender of liberal democracy, and more a gassy bubble of rampant consumerism, neurotic self-interest, and moral schizophrenia.

By virtue of occupying a resource-rich continent flanked by wide oceans to the east and west, and without threatening superpowers to our north or south, we’ve been able to afford a relative isolation in abundance, luxury, and excess.

We haven’t really felt the urgency of living with a bigger picture in mind, of having to look farther into the future than our own retirement plans, or taking into consideration the needs and welfare of others who are not American – or human. What’s in it for me? really does drive many of our decisions and actions in business, in politics, and in everyday life.

The historical tension in our nation between the values of conservative stability and those of progressive change, embodied and played out in the competition and debate between Republicans and Democrats, has been critical to the success of the American Experiment – so far.

When we throw into this mix the additional complication of trying to promote the values of capitalism (economic self-interest, individual prosperity, and private property) and those of democracy (engaged altruism, communal wellbeing, and equal rights), the situation starts to feel a little like that Mason Jar of fruit flies in our seventh-grade science experiment.

Then, let’s add the volatile elements of race, class, and religion – all of which tend to generate strong reactions as pluralism increases, the lid is screwed tight, and our national Mason Jar is given a shake.

So what needs to happen? I think we need to take a moment for some serious national self-reflection. Even if he wasn’t elected by the popular vote, Donald Trump as President says something about what’s been going on across our nation and deep inside our national character – and likely will for some time to come.

If we are in fact driven primarily by self-interest, and if our operative notion of self is limited to individual egos and single lifetimes, then four more years of what we’ve had will be damaging and possibly catastrophic for all of us.

Who exactly is this “all of us”? Well, that depends on how big our picture is, on how much and how many others are included in our perspective. Does our picture of America include the diverse races and religions, genders and orientations, ages and abilities, worldviews and lifestyles that share this ground and coexist under this sky?

It also depends on how long our view is, on how far into the future our vision is able to reach. Are we considering the longer-term consequences of our actions, the collateral side-effects of our choices, or the future generations that will inherit the positive benefit or negative fallout, as the case may be?

“All of us” can mean everyone like me or everyone in the room; everyone who thinks the same way, who holds the same beliefs and sees the world as I do.

But what if the “self” in self-interest includes not just beliefs, but also other minds? Not humans only, but all sentient beings as well? Not just living things, but the water, air, soil and climate that support life on our planet? The biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” should read, “love your neighbor as your self”; in other words, expand your sense of identity so as to include your neighbor in your definition and self-regard.

Expanding beyond that even, there is no absolute boundary that might finally separate “me” from the rest. All is one, and we are all in this together. That’s thinking like the universe.

How would our choices and actions be different if we considered our options with a bigger picture and longer view in mind? What if “all of us” really was ALL of us?

5 Steps to Ridding the World of Democracy

Back when I was a church pastor, I gave a sermon that offered an analysis of the strategy used by the conservative alliance of political and religious leaders to get rid of Jesus. He had been stirring up hope and excitement among the rabble, announcing the arrival of a New Reality that would break their yoke of oppression.

For obvious reasons, he had to go.

Conservatives of any persuasion are committed to maintaining the status quo – conserving or safeguarding the inherited values, beliefs, worldview and way of life enjoyed by those who are comfortably getting by. Of course, this is also in the interest of a privileged few in seats of authority and with entitled access to wealth, healthcare, education and good jobs.

Anyone who dares to criticize and challenge the moral legitimacy of such an arrangement is asking for trouble.

Jesus criticized and challenged the politico-religious axis of conversative powers, and he got the trouble he was asking for.

To them, his message of the in-breaking power of a New Reality was nothing short of apocalyptic, in the way it threatened to pull down the idols of empire and orthodoxy. Getting rid of him could not be accomplished by a single aggressive strike, since Jesus had a popular following of some considerable size and they didn’t necessarily want to incite a revolution.

So this is how they did it.

Step One: Dismiss the Message

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The New Reality that Jesus’ proclaimed was just another utopia dreamed up by a disgruntled peasant from the Galilean outback. In a sprawling empire, there’s going to be a few who just can’t seem to accept the way things are and find their place in it. They would rather daydream about an ideal world than learn how to live in the real one.

Step Two: Deride the Messenger

“He is out of his mind.” But Jesus persisted, and this made it necessary to redirect their strategy at him personally. Not only was his message unrealistic, but he was himself a self-styled prophet who wandered the hills and city streets peddling a crazy fantasy. He spoke in parables and paradoxes – riddles just provocative enough to stupify his audience and keep them curious.

He was a cross-eyed clown-magician for the simple-minded.

Step Three: Discredit the Messenger

“Isn’t this the son of a carpenter?” Laughing off Jesus and his pathetic company didn’t have its desired effect, and his following only continued to grow. So instead of painting him as a buffoon, his conservative opponents began to attack his pedigree, as someone whose family tree would not be expected to bring forth a serious leader.

Jesus came from the wrong side of the tracks, the son of someone who didn’t matter.

Step Four: Disparage the Messenger

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” If exposing Jesus’ unremarkable and average background wasn’t enough to undermine the devotion of his followers, then a more aggressive smear campaign was in order. Consistent with his “good news” (gospel) of a New Reality where divisions of race, wealth, power, and morality are transcended by a community of compassion, generosity and goodwill, Jesus spent his time with social outsiders and moral outcasts.

How can anyone with a conscience associate with someone like that?!

Step Five: Destroy the Messenger

“And they began to look for an opportunity to put Jesus away.” In a civil society, before a movement goes too far and upsets the status quo, the steps for shutting someone up and dispersing his or her fan base might be regarded as “coarse and unkind” – but still be allowed to play out in the press, from the pulpit, on the airways, and in social media.

With each step, the water in the kettle gets a little warmer – not enough to trigger the frog’s leap of escape, however – until the temperature reaches a critical point where it’s no longer tolerable but has rendered the frog incapable of doing anything about it.

One of the dichotomies inherent to a liberal democracy is its aspirational commitment to freedom and progress on one side, and on the other a natural tendency, characteristic of all human groups, to fall into routines and become increasingly protective of the status quo.

The true spirit of democracy is for that reason unwelcome in a society which has settled into its traditions and authority structures, to the extent that beliefs and value-judgments once held consciously slip into position in front of the mind as pre-judgments (aka prejudices), determining how its members perceive and respond to the world around them.

All of this came back to me over the past four years, as I observed how candidate and then president Trump regards his democratic opponents – the true proponents of democracy in America. Included in this company are both Democrats and Republicans (as well as other minor parties) who are committed to the process of creating a system of governance dedicated to the advancement of individual freedom, civic responsibility, servant leadership, and equal representation under the law.

Those who speak on behalf of these democratic principles are typically handled by Trump using the same five-step process outlined above, just as the politico-religious conservative alliance dealt with Jesus in his day.

It’s proven to be the most effective method of dictators for luring otherwise sane and decent folk under a spell, where they are finally willing to abandon their interest in freedom for the despot’s promise to protect them from “disasters” which are sure to come with the changes of progress.

Moving our focus from the lessons of history to what’s transpiring right now in our own country, we can see how Trump has been pulling large numbers of professional Republicans and American citizens under a kind of spell. Like that frog in the kettle, we have followed him step-by-step through the program, with each additional step seeming to be not such a gross departure from what we’ve already been willing to concede, casually accept, and quietly ignore.

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Finding ourselves nodding in agreement with his character smears and name-calling, we might next be content to look away as one more candle in our less-free democracy is snuffed out.

Tomorrow’s Religion

Let’s begin with a definition. Religion is a more or less systematic framework of values, beliefs, commitments, and practices that serves to orient a human being in reality, connect her with others, and inspire the lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment.

I’m taking the term on its etymological cash-value – the Latin religare means “to link together” – rather than its popular definition as believing in the existence of god or cultivating a fascination with the supernatural. Such misconceptions of religion have been invented for the surreptitious purpose of setting it apart from the realities of everyday life and ultimately dismissing it altogether as irrelevant nonsense.

But if we go with my straightforward definition of religion, then two important observations follow. The first is that religion is an essential formality of our life as human beings in the way it provides structure around and gives expression to our deeper intuitions, communal affections, and higher aspirations.

Whether or not you “believe in god” or “go to church,” you have a religion – some framework of values, beliefs, commitments and practices that serves to orient you in reality, connect you with others, and inspire your lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment. It may not be very intentional or all that effective, but you have one nonetheless.

Secondly, given that our human future hangs in the balance and depends in no small way on how mindful, compassionate, and responsible we are with respect to our planet and each other, it should be obvious that our future will be as long and prosperous as our religions are properly grounded and successful in fulfilling their mandate.

If our religions are not so grounded and successful these days, it is incumbent on us to bring them back into alignment – seeing as how they are human constructions and manifestations of our own psychospiritual condition.

The essential formality of a healthy religion can have the salutary effect of shaping consciousness and guiding our development in provident ways, but a “sick” religion will only make its adherents sicker still.

All around us these days we can see how widespread this sickness is: moral complacency and fanatical devotion, small-minded dogmatism and militant sectarianism – these are symptoms of the same underlying spiritual disease.

In this blog I give a lot of attention to the challenge of understanding where we are individually and as a species on the trajectory of evolution, and particularly to the role of religion in facilitating our progress. Regardless of the fact that many religions today are insular and regressive, my interest is in how religion itself evolves – or needs to evolve, if it is do its job and not pull the world down upon our heads.

The very busy diagram above spreads out the canvas of our big picture. Ascending along the diagonal axis are the major eras and levels in the architecture of our universe: beginning 14 billion years and 3 minutes ago with the flaring-forth of quantum energy in what we quaintly name “The Big Bang”; telescoping through the formation of matter, the emergence of life, the ignition of sentient awareness (mind), and the differentiation of self-conscious identity (ego); reaching fulfillment finally in each individual’s breakthrough awakening to the transpersonal spirit of community.

With all of that in front of us, I will devote the rest of this post to that phase transition in the upper left, where the religion of theism, which is centered on the relationship of ego and deity (superego, or the “ego above”) in the social context of group membership, transforms into the religion of post-theism.

I need to remind my reader that the post- in “post-theism” is not concerned with the debate over god’s objective existence, but is instead critically engaged with what our theological constructions of god say about us, and what hint they may provide regarding our prospect of a liberated life after, beyond, and on the other side of (post-) theism and orthodoxy.

Arranged to the left of those three major types of religion (animism, theism, and post-theism) are the “stages of faith,” as formulated by James Fowler – with a slight revision of the stage that marks, according to my scheme, the transition from theism to post-theism.

For its part, theism develops through three distinct phases. The first phase (“early”) is focused on the tribe’s founding myths (world creation, ancestral heritage, stories of heroes, saints, and saviors). A second phase (“high”) is oriented on the devotional cult, the moral code of obedience, and the ordination of earthly authorities.

Eventually it may advance into a third (“late”) phase where the individual takes up the work of constructing a personalized worldview and philosophy of life, one that is relevant to his or her experience and no longer satisfied with borrowing on the experiences (or purported experiences) of others.

Late theism can be particularly stressful and traumatic for the individual whose faith development is needing a religion suitable to his or her psychospiritual progress. In what I earlier called “sick” religion, the response of theism to the individual’s emergent aspirations is that of closing down, using shame, guilt, or the threat of excommunication to coerce him or her back into the fold.

Tragically many give in, if only because they don’t necessarily want to lose the fellowship, but also because their vision of a post-theistic spirituality is as yet unclear.

We happen to be at a point in our history, and on the trajectory of evolution itself, where an unprecedented courage is required – at least on a broad view, since a relative few have already achieved the breakthrough – for each of us to persist on our adventure into the farther reaches of human nature.

What I’m calling a “dialogical-conjunctive” faith (Fowler’s stage is named conjunctive) takes into account the wide diversity of belief systems, worldviews, and ways of life sharing the planet with us. These are brought together (“conjunctive”) for a comparative understanding and mutual exploration, in the interest of co-constructing a larger horizon of meaning (“dialogical”) that can appreciate the differences, even as it provides for their radical inclusion.

Having surrendered our idols of orthodoxy, we can now descend by a contemplative-mystical path into our own grounding mystery, as we ascend together by a transpersonal-ethical path into the liberated life of community.

Secure in Delusion

One of the charming yet potentially devastating traits of our species is in the way we lose touch with what’s real, even preferring illusions to what’s right in front of our face. And yet, the condition of fully believing our illusions – called delusion – creeps over us so gradually that we actually have no idea the extent to which our mind has been separated from reality.

The steps or stages by which our delusion progresses are not a mystery, however, and your hope for the liberated life depends on how deep your understanding of it is able to go.

Let this black dot represent reality – what’s right in front of your face. Its existence, as distinct from its appearance or your perspective on it, is independent of whether you notice it, what you might think about, or what belief you hold regarding it.

As we say: It is what it is.

Before you were even born, your nervous system was collecting data from the environment in order to regulate your body’s internal state accordingly. Once outside the womb this adaptive work ramped up, matching your internal state and behavioral response to the conditions and events around you.

If these conditions and events were “provident,” meaning that they provided what you needed to live, connect, and to grow, your nervous system was regulated to a default mode (or mood) of calm, centered attention. If they were not so provident, but instead hostile or painful, your default mood became that of anxious irritability.

Delusion got started way back there in your early hours and days of life. If your nervous system detected a less-than-provident reality around you – perhaps because your caregivers weren’t attentive, nurturing, or even all that present when you needed them – this subjective insecurity served as a filter of your perceptions.

Your anxiety screened out some sensory information, as it allowed in and amplified other information. An anxious nervous system is adaptively hyper-vigilant to any signs that confirm its default state. Already your attention was recalibrating according to this basic mood and making some things more important (i.e., more real) to you than other things – if those other things even got through the screen at all.

Your insecurity motivated you to reach out for whatever could help you feel less anxious. Not only did you stay vigilant to possible dangers, but you also grabbed on and held tight to whatever could pacify your anxiety. For this reason, I call them “pacifiers,” and your relationship to them was one of “attachment.”

This is profoundly (i.e., deeply) different from the healthy normal bonding of an infant and its mother. What we’re talking about is neurotic attachment: a compulsive attempt to feel secure by clinging to something outside yourself.

You are (more or less desperately) trying to find security in a relationship, when its proper source is “up” from your nervous system and the preconscious experience of provident support.

Neurotic attachment splits your motivation into two opposing lines: a craving for what can make you feel secure and the fear of not getting it, of losing it, or of it not delivering on your demand.

The self-defeating nature of this split motivation is at the root of our word ambition, where ambi means “both.” A fear of not getting what you want intensifies your craving for it, which only makes your expectation all the more unrealistic and irrational, amplifying your insecurity rather than resolving it.

At this point, your mind starts to close around a small set of absolute beliefs formatted along the lines of “I can’t be happy without, unless, or until” such and such is the case. It can be something as mundane as a new toy, or as abstract as an imaginary object of religious doctrine.

Just as a legal conviction throws the convict in a jail cell, so does an absolute belief incarcerate your mind – which is why we call it a “conviction.” It becomes impossible to even think outside the box of what simply must be true, since so much depends on it being so.

Notice how little of reality, represented by our black dot, is visible any longer. Almost by definition, your convictions have separated your mind from what’s real.

Since all that matters to you is what impinges on your ambitions for security, everything else must be screened from awareness. A mind that is closed inside its convictions must actively suppress or deny any facts or information deemed irrelevant to this pursuit.

The philosopher Alan Watts coined the term ignórance, where the accent makes it an act of willfully ignoring something or other. Because all that matters is what confirms and will hopefully resolve your deep insecurity, you must turn attention away from all that is by definition irrelevant.

Your carrying capacity of consciousness has been reduced to “what’s in it for me.”

By now the delusion is fully established. Trapped inside your convictions and driven by a craving for what nothing outside you can satisfy, this has become what Arthur Schopenhauer called “the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Your only hope is for some relief from the burden of existence, maybe in the next new and shiny thing, a suicidal exit, or perhaps everlasting bliss in the life to come.

So then, stop believing it.

The prison door of your convictions is not locked, but you will need to leave them behind for a truly liberated life. Not by argument, renunciation, or conversion to another belief system, however, but simply by bringing attention to the breath and warm presence of your body.

Here and now is the best place to begin again.

The Five Tribes of Donald Trump

Given what was known about Donald Trump prior to the 2016 election, one has to wonder how he managed to make his way into the highest office in the free world. True, enough of us had grown tired and disgusted with “Washington politics,” to the point where a fresh player in the game who was decidedly not a politician stirred our wishful thinking, that maybe our country could be moved out of its deep, slow ruts.

In the meantime our impressions have been confirmed – in spades. Trump is definitely not a politician, if by that term we mean someone who is a civic leader or public servant.

If we were hoping that his business acumen would apply the business principles of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and sustainability to our various national commitments, he did get busy right away with pulling us out of international trade agreements, rolling back environmental protection laws, and tearing up corporate tax regulations – all of which made Wall Street tingle and our 401Ks get erect.

Something inside us probably knew that all this mad rush for short-term gains might cost us down the road. But hey, this is how Donald Trump built his business empire, right? He knows how how to do it, he’s done it before, and he’ll bring us all together into the promised land of wealth and power. Trump would “make America great again.”

He wasn’t the first candidate and president to pull this mythic illusion of a once-perfect time over our eyes, but we were now more desperate for it than ever before.

And what did we get? Not only someone with no sense of civic leadership, but also an abject business failure who has been running his investments into the ground, taking on enormous debt, and leaving both contractors and investors without their shirts. He’s been dodging his tax obligations for decades, as well as laundering his wealth through off-shore investments, foreign banks, and by “employing” members of his own family. His very public words and behavior expose him as a racist, a bigot, a megalomaniac, and a hypocrite.

So who voted for him in 2016? Many of the same people who will be voting for him again this November. I call them the Five Tribes of Donald Trump.

Professional Republicans

I want to be careful to discriminate between professional Republicans and citizens who believe in the democratic philosophy of republican government. The latter recognize the strategic importance for a sustainable democracy of electing leaders who represent not just the will of the people, but their collective wellbeing as well. American democracy has operated by this model of a republic since its beginnings, and to be a Republican has long translated into a concern for strong, representative, and visionary leadership in government.

The tribe of Professional Republicans consists of those who were elected to their positions as representatives of their individual states, counties, and cities, but who have little or no concern for the wellbeing of our nation as a whole. They are at the table for their constituents only, and in the interest of staying in office for as long as they can. Sidling up to Donald Trump has meant a bigger piece of the pie and an opportunity to stand in the winner’s circle. As long as they kowtow to Trump, he promises to push more of the pie in their direction.

Over the past four years, the Republican Party has steadily relinquished to Trump both its philosophical vision and its spiritual soul.

Wealthy Capitalists

Trump has cultivated the image of a wealthy capitalist for years, even though his wealth was largely given to him by his father or extorted from business partners (in the form of investments) and city officials (in the form of tax abatements). Capitalism is one of the seedbed traditions of the American Experiment, the other being democracy. It plays the economic priorities of private property, financial profit, and individual prosperity in creative tension with the democratic principles of equal rights, distributed wealth, and community service.

Trump’s election signaled the ascendancy of capitalism and its associated values over the longstanding ideals of democracy.

Wealthy Capitalists admire president Trump because he also wants to make money, invest money, make more money, and bank (or hide) as much money as possible. They don’t like the idea of giving a good chunk of it back to the government, to be sunk into social welfare programs and given away to people who don’t deserve it. The democratic principle of distributed wealth is seen by them (and him) as one of the things that’s really wrong with America. Everyone should have a chance to get rich, but they need to work for it – unless, of course, they are fortunate enough to inherit their wealth.

Christian Evangelicals

Why would any Christian support and vote for Donald Trump? Wasn’t Jesus all about breaking down walls, welcoming the stranger, and loving our enemies? Isn’t the message of Christianity that god wants all people to be healthy, happy, and whole – not just insiders but all people, everywhere? How can believers in such a god, who claim to be followers of Jesus, stand behind a man who despises the poor, humiliates his opponents, antagonizes his enemies, and misleads others with empty promises and false claims? Is it because he invokes god’s name once in a while, or poses for a photo op in front of a church with a Bible in his hand?

The darker truth is that the character of Donald Trump reminds evangelical Christians a lot of their god.

Not all that nonsense of “a preferential option for the poor” or universal love and forgiveness, but of the one who stands above the world in judgment and is motivated out of a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners – unless they can satisfy the conditions of salvation by confessing their sin, converting to the one true religion, joining the fellowship of a church, and holding fast till the end, when Jesus will come through the clouds and gather them up into heaven and they shall live forever and ever, Amen. Also as part of The Deal, their enemies and all unrepentant sinners will anguish in torment for as long. Division has the last word in this worldview.

White Supremacists

The racial conflicts in America of White, Black, Red, and Brown are older than our Republic itself. Colonialists kidnapped Africans and sold them into slavery. Native Americans were decimated and banished to reservations. Latinos have long struggled to find their place in the landscape of Anglo-European cultures.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there is in each of us a preconscious reflex to be more cautious around people who are different from us. We can’t be sure just by looking, just how deep our differences might go, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

When this preconscious reflex gets taken up and coded into our morality, our institutions, our social attitudes and worldview, it plays out through an ideology known as racism. The tribe of White Supremacists who voted for Donald Trump believe deep down that America would be better off without Black, Red, or Brown people. These different colors and lifestyles are a threat to our national security and racial purity. Never mind the fact that large numbers of them suffer in poverty and crime outside our gates as a direct consequence of our historical exploitation and oppression of them as a nation. White Supremacists want them gone. Now.

Antinomian Opportunists

This fifth and last Tribe of Donald Trump is less well-defined than the others. They represent a percentage of the population in any empire, nation, or organization who feel that the system is somehow rigged against them – or at least it’s not set up in their favor. Antinomian means “against the rules,” and an opportunist is someone who suspends moral principles for the sake of making a profit, gaining an advantage, getting even, or just having a little fun. To some degree we all come into the world as opportunists, taking advantage of every opportunity to get what we want. The imposition of morality by those in authority prompted us to be on the lookout for unlocked doors or gaps in the fence.

Donald Trump is all about breaking the rules when there’s something to gain for himself.

His Tribe of Antinomian Opportunists likely saw this in him and expected that he would break the rules in their favor as well. There’s no disputing that things have gone this way for many White Supremacists, Christian Evangelicals, Wealthy Capitalists, and Professional Republicans. But for the larger majority of Antinomian Opportunists, many of whom are excluded by the other Tribes, Trump’s example gave them license and opportunity to engage in vandalism, theft, arson, and violence. They brazenly hijacked peaceful protests and turned a democratic process into domestic terrorism and anarchy.


The Five Tribes of Donald Trump can be thought of as separate populations of Americans living in different parts of our country. But in truth, two or more – even all five – Tribes might live inside a single individual, making his allure all the more irresistible to them.

With four years to observe president Trump in action and test the sincerity of his campaign promises, the American people can see much more clearly now. The Five Tribes of Donald Trump are not likely to abandon their Führer, as devotion to him is energized by a profound insecurity, and the turbulent times are only driving their insecurity deeper still.

This is the time for those who believe in democracy to vote in their defense of it.

Taking Back Our Light

We all have to negotiate a reality that isn’t always interested in our personal happiness or human fulfillment. Distracted, absent, or abusive parents, a dysfunctional family system, and a larger society that operates under the spell of what Charles Tart called a “consensus trance,” conspire to make our journey of self-actualization complicated, to say the least.

Many of us don’t make it through. Instead, we end up stuck inside a dense and sticky web of neurotic insecurities, emotional attachments, and dogmatic convictions that try to stuff the complexity of our human experience into a tight little box of absolute truths.

Shrinking our world-horizon in this way gives the illusion of having things under control, when in reality – well, we are not very much in reality at all. We are neither in touch with what’s really real, nor very real ourselves.

In this blog I aim to search out and expose the forces and conditions that hold us back from our deepest potential as human beings. And while most of these have to do with that near-and-dear center of self-conscious personal identity each of us knows as “I-myself,” I persist in my defense of ego as a developmental achievement of penultimate importance. I say “penultimate” because a well-formed ego is not our ultimate aim but rather a necessary step toward the realization of that aim, which is to become fully human.

My diagram depicts the intended path of our fulfillment as human beings, in that vertical axis extending upwards from “Ground” to “Ideal.” By ground I am referring specifically to the grounding mystery of our physical life as sentient beings. The path of our individual development, as well as of our collective evolution as a species, follows the gradual awakening of consciousness (sentience) to self-consciousness in the formation of an ego.

Even after this higher perch has been attained, of course, the deeper mystery of our animal nature continues with its business below the threshold of conscious awareness, and far below ego itself.

This process of growth, development, and maturity would very naturally unfold in the direction of our fulfillment or self-actualization, following the intrinsic aim of our nature – what I am calling our ideal. I don’t mean by this term to suggest that our destiny is to become perfect, except to become perfectly human. It’s instructive that our word “perfect” literally refers to what is finished or carried to completion, nothing at all like the air-brushed magazine model whose perfection is fake and superficial.

Just as an apple seedling develops toward its species ideal of a mature apple-bearing tree, so do human beings grow and gradually awaken as fully conscious, freely creative, self-transcending, socially responsible, and ethically engaged members in community. I regard those five qualities as the virtues of our human ideal.

Because we are a profoundly social species, the perfection of our nature requires the provident support and guiding wisdom of our tribe, earliest on from our family of origin. This support – and interference, as we’ll see – is represented by the horizontal axis in my diagram, intersecting the natural course of our self-actualization.

The major focus and shaping force of our self-conscious identity (ego) is our interactions with others.

We are given implicit and explicit instructions on how to behave in these interactions: where to sit, when to stand, how to speak, and what to do. These codes constitute our tribe’s morality, the primary concern of which is to forge group cohesion and enforce individual compliance. Depending on how liberal or strict our moral system was growing up, as to its balance of freedom and constraint, some aspects of our human nature had to be screened before they were permitted on stage.

To be approved, stroked and promoted into our social roles (remembering that ego is first of all an impersonator), we found it necessary to keep aspects of our natural self off-stage and hidden from public view. This wasn’t something we ourselves were deciding along the way, mind you. In order to receive from others what we needed to feel safe, loved, capable and worthy, we did our best to make ourselves acceptable to them.

And this meant leaving parts of ourselves – not the constructed social self (ego) but our natural-born self – out of the group picture, so to speak.

You might consider this a terrible and inhumane program of systematic brainwashing, and of course you would be correct – in a way. In fact, it’s the socializing process basic to every human family, organization, nation and culture. Aspects of our natural self, the evolutionary gifts and capacities we are born with, have to be trained and shaped to fit the moral landscape of our tribe. Psychologically it is called sublimation: pulling back on these natural propensities in order to regulate and redirect them along socially acceptable channels of expression.

Some of them simply aren’t permitted, which meant that we had to push them behind us and keep them there, where they became the shadow of our personality.

The popular concept of our shadow identifies it as the “Mr. Hyde” lurking behind the “Dr. Jekyll” of our socialized persona; as the dark, deviant, and destructive part of ourselves – the beast inside just waiting for its opportunity to break out and wreak havoc on our tidy moral arrangements. I find it more meaningful, and useful, to think of our shadow as those aspects of our natural-born self that we had to suppress in the interest of being recognized, accepted, and respected by others as “one of us.”

There are five evolutionary gifts in particular which we all bring with us at birth, but that get screened off stage to become our shadow. If we think of these “screens” according to how much of our natural light they filter out or allow through, then we might further identify various densities or degrees of opacity. A denser or more opaque screen prevents a greater portion of light from passing through and onto the social stage where ego is busy winning friends and influencing people.

The more opaque the screen, the darker our shadow becomes.

Paradoxically a darker shadow withholds more of our light. Like Lucifer of Christian mythology whose name, interestingly enough, means “light-bearer,” our shadow is where the suppressed, disowned, and forgotten light of our natural self can be recovered and reintegrated with our personal identity. By such reconciliation with our shadow we can regain our integrity and be made whole again, which means, psychologically speaking, that we need to stop running from and fighting with Lucifer, if we have any hope of taking back our light.

To the left of Shadow in my diagram I’ve illustrated how these screens block or filter the light of our evolutionary gifts, again referring to what we bring with us as our natural endowment at birth. The five gifts I propose are faith, spontaneity, imagination, curiosity, and wonder. To varying degrees these capacities are gradually modulated, or traumatically closed off, during the process of ego formation.

When Jesus counseled his disciples to be “like little children,” saying that the kingdom of god belongs to such as them (Matthew 18:2-4), he was challenging all of us to take back our light and live …

  • In an existential posture of basic trust and openness to life (Faith)

  • Fully present to the opportunity of each moment (Spontaneity)

  • With our creative mind actively engaged (Imagination)

  • Always seeking to explore, discover, and learn new things (Curiosity), and

  • In an attitude of radical amazement before the mystery of being (Wonder)

The work of taking back our light, reclaiming our evolutionary gifts, and becoming whole again starts now.

Out of Depression

The most significant accomplishment for any human being is to become fully human.

That may sound redundant to some, and like a downgrade to others, but those who are most in touch with the human adventure have long insisted that we are still a long way from the evolutionary ideal of our species. And they’ve been saying this for a few thousand years.

By evolutionary ideal they mean something akin to what the philosopher Aristotle named “entelechy,” the intrinsic aim of development which is evident in all living things. With every species of life above the microbes, an individual’s development advances to maturity through formal stages and transitional phases of growth. Reaching maturity involves more than just getting bigger, of course, as numerous capacities for survival, self-control, reproduction, intelligence, creativity, and self-awareness gradually awaken and come “online.”

Our human “growth chart” tracks four distinct kinds of intelligence:

  • a visceral intelligence (VQ) that regulates the internal state and health of our body
  • an emotional intelligence (EQ) that manages our engagement with the changing situations of life
  • a rational intelligence (RQ) that constructs and regularly refreshes our model of reality, and
  • a spiritual intelligence (SQ) that orients us within the unity of existence and grounds us in being

That last one, our spiritual intelligence, is also the last to come online in a fully conscious way – if it comes online at all. Its awakening depends on the successful development of the others, for they are needed to provide the steady platform of a self-conscious identity (ego), from which we might leap into the unity of existence or drop into the ground of being.

The tragedy of our human experience, then, is tightly bound to the question of how well-established we are as self-conscious (and self-aware) individuals.

My diagram illustrates the dual-yet-complementary trajectories of successful development, in the self-actualization of our human nature and our self-transcendence into the higher wholeness of things: fulfillment and wellbeing. According to the special “language” of our soul (SQ), this duality is paradoxical – both/and, yin and yang, not separate things coming together but an essential polarity manifesting “the Tao that cannot be named” (Lao Tzu).

Whether we are speaking of the actualization or transcendence of self, a healthy formation of ego is critical to our spiritual fulfillment and wellbeing.

Let’s follow this dual trajectory without consideration of any complications, impediments, or failures it will ordinarily confront along the way. Only with such an abstract and depersonalized picture in mind, can we see with accuracy what unfolds inevitably for all of us.

Consciousness begins life fully immersed in the visceral intelligence of our animal nature. The urgencies of survival (breathing, ingesting, excreting, sleeping) are all that matters. Even into the first months and years of life, our primary concern – although this is almost entirely unconscious – is with getting what we need to stay alive and safe. Attentive and provident caretakers enabled our nervous system to settle into a baseline default mode called security: We have what we need to live, to love, and to grow.

This baseline security served as the “solid ground,” emotionally speaking, from which we could reach out, explore, and connect to the reality outside our skin. A literally sensational realm of delights and dangers quickly synced up with our primal sensitivities to pleasure and pain, shaping our behavior along a path of general good feeling, or happiness.

At this stage of development our emotional intelligence was forming memories and making connections that supported a positive sense of self and an optimistic outlook on life.

With a neurotically stable (VQ) and emotionally balanced (EQ) identity-in-formation, we were enabled to construct a mental model of reality that would further support our intellectual need for orientation and meaning. Our rational intelligence (RQ) is free to do this all-important and uniquely human work of making meaning only by virtue of the emotional balance provided from below. And with all three of these distinct threads of intelligence fully aligned, the beliefs we hold and the world they compose can be flexible, reality-oriented, and always open to update.

A truly meaningful world is one that encourages forays into the present mystery of reality, which is by defintion beyond belief and perfectly meaningless.

Such positive and healthy development, whether aided or impeded by the temporal conditions of our unique family history and social situation, is impelled by the “entelechy” of our evolutionary ideal as a human being. Much in the way we might say that an apple tree, by its nature, intends to produce apples, there is a similar intention in our own nature towards fulfillment and wellbeing, to actualize our full potential and transcend ourselves for a higher wholeness.

Each of us should be able to put a pin on the growth chart identifying where we are along this dual trajectory of human evolution. Just before we do that, however, let’s do a reality check. I earlier acknowledged that things don’t always go so well.

To be honest, I think we need to admit that they never go without a hitch – and that’s true of anyone who has ever lived.

While our visceral intelligence drives us to seek security, where we have enough of what we need to be safe, healthy, and strong, our taller powers and family environment might have been far from provident. Instead of a default state of security, our nervous system was calibrated to these unfavorable conditions in what we know as anxiety. Relaxing into our life just wasn’t an option. A chronic vigilance, nervous tension, and a deep distrust in reality became our basic mode of consciousness.

When anxiety (VQ) is taken up with us to the level of relationships and social interactions, we try desperately to manipulate others into making us feel secure. We latch on and grip down emotionally (EQ), begging or warning them not to leave us or let us down. Whereas our emotional intelligence ought to be connecting us in healthy bonds of intimacy and affiliation, instead it gets entangled in neurotic attachment.

For all the manipulation it requires, and with the unavoidable conflict it generates, any relationship forged around insecure attachment simply cannot support the happiness we seek.

And to the degree we are locked inside dysfunctional relationships, hanging on with our last hope, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us are correspondingly small, rigid, and unrealistic. When a belief we may once have held comes instead to take our mind hostage, it becomes a conviction. It is now the “only way” of seeing something, the absolute and unquestionable truth of the matter. Our rational intelligence (RQ), which would normally build and routinely revise its model of reality, has been made a prisoner (a convict) of its own invention.

If we happen to be caught in that self-reinforcing conspiracy of anxiety, attachment, and conviction – which, if you’ve been with me so far, can rightly be named the “spiritual pathology” of our species – there is one place it will predictably lead: depression.

On the way there, we are likely to cause or contribute to all kinds of damage, suffering, and violence; but that is where we are headed. Very aptly described, depression (a condition of being “pressed down” or made low) is where the human spirit languishes and may eventually die.

In that low place we feel hapless (“this is happening to me”), helpless (“there is nothing I can do”), and hopeless (“there’s no way out or through”).

But of course there is a way through, and it begins as we get grounded again and find our center.

Talking To Ourselves

For the past 100 years or so, we’ve been coming to terms with the idea that the meaning of life, the world we inhabit, and we ourselves are constructs of language. Not long ago we believed that meaning was “out there” to be discovered in external reality, like a hidden treasure buried in the nature of things, perhaps by god himself. Then, as we came to accept our mind’s role in the assignment of meaning, we began to realize that the world we live in – that peculiar arrangement of meaning which provides us with a sense of security, identity, orientation, and significance – is really a complex system of symbols and hence also a mental construct.

Most recently, although this is only true of Western culture, as India and the Orient came to the insight long ago, we are trying to adjust ourselves to the idea that even the separate center of self-conscious personal identity – dignified with the Latin name “ego” – is nothing but an aggregate, a composition in both senses of that word.

It is “made up” of analyzable elements, each of these also a construct, which are together composed into a streaming narrative that is our personal myth. In contemporary Western philosophy and psychology this general epistemology (theory of knowledge) is known as constructivism. In the East it is called Maya: the constructed illusion of meaning, world, and self.

In this post I want to make quick work of personalizing this rather abstract theory by dismantling the box that defines our sense of self. I find it helpful to think of these elements, four of them, as fused together like lines at right angles and forming a rectangle: our box. Our individual box is meant to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs for security, identity, orientation, and significance, as already mentioned. It provides us with location and perspective, a kind of psychological shelter but also with a lookout on reality.

Let’s take those elements, or sides of our box, and examine them more closely.

Visually, and developmentally, at the base of our self construct are the anchors that secured our deepest connection to reality as infants and young children. The maternal (M) and paternal (P) archetypes manifested in degrees of clarity through the forms of our actual mother and father.

Freud built a good deal of his psychoanalytic theory around our relationships with these two principal “taller powers” of early life. But their appreciation as archetypes (literally “first forms”) goes back thousands of years into the ancient art of storytelling.

Sacred myths of every culture are rooted in the maternal and paternal archetypes, representing our most distant memories and primal experiences.

According to archetypal psychology, these two archetypes carry echoes of our first encounters with a maternal figure who enveloped us in her warm love and made us feel safe; and a paternal figure who first encountered us as “Other” and provided for us from outside the boundary of our nascent self.

Father came to us, whereas we came from Mother.

Our development would be a dramatic adventure of gradual separation from Mother and fascination with Father, as we began to take on an identity of our own. Our present capacity for intimacy as adults traces back to those early intimate bonds with Mother and Father.

This is not to say that everyone’s actual father and mother were clear epiphanies of the maternal and paternal archetypes. Some of us grew up without one or the other in our life, in which case our one active parent had to serve as our generative Ground and transcendent Other. Some of us were raised by preoccupied, distracted, neglectful, controlling or abusive parents, which made our quest for intimacy all the more complicated. Nevertheless, and whoever served as anchors in our early life – whether as biological, adoptive, or surrogate parents to us – these elementary figures negotiated the bonds of intimacy that would qualify or compromise all our relationships henceforth.

Unavoidably in contemplating the maternal and paternal archetypes, we will recognize certain stereotypes in the roles our parents might have played during those first years. We’ve already identified the maternal archetype with warmth, love, and safety; and the paternal archetype with a provident otherness that “called us out,” as it were.

The maternal and paternal archetypes are taken up by society and played out by actual mothers and fathers, in different parenting “styles.” I want to focus specifically on interactions we had with our mother or father during more stressful experiences where we were challenged beyond our ability or lost our nerve at the edge of security, and we somehow failed. How each parent acknowledged our failure, and actually talked to us about the experience and our feelings, was in the form of “resolutions” intended to help us recover and move on.

I will identify three stereotypical resolutions with each archetype.


Our mother, manifesting the maternal archetype, characteristically took us in her arms and spoke these three Resolutions of Comfort:

  1. It’s okay.
  2. Let it go.
  3. Just relax.

Essentially she was saying that our failure wasn’t such a big deal, and that our feelings mattered more. Her intention was to ease our pain, take our attention away from the negative experience, and assure us of her unconditional love.


Our father, manifesting the paternal archetype, characteristically approached and called out to us these three Resolutions of Encouragement:

  1. Brush it off.
  2. Face your fear.
  3. Try again.

In a way, he was also telling us that our failure (in effort or of nerve) was not the end of the world. His intention was to rouse our determination, turn our attention again to the challenge, and urge us back for another attempt.


Both comfort and encouragement are “strength” words. Comfort literally means “to come with strength,” as in one who joins us in our suffering and offers support. Encouragement means “to give (or put in) heart,” which is what we most need when we have lost our passion, will, hope or desire (associated in many cultures with the heart). In speaking these Resolutions of Comfort and Encouragement to us, our mother and father were, in different ways, building the foundation of our self construct.

Over time, these same resolutions were gradually internalized by us, so that, in later life experiences of failure and insecurity, we could remember them (i.e., speak them to ourselves) and move past our pain. They became habits that carried us through life, shaped our values and beliefs, and provided inspiration for our roles in relationship with others.

Our box is complete.