Can You Believe It?

It’s amazing to think that humans are the only species on Earth that will kill and die not just for territory, food, mates and offspring, but even for our beliefs. Indeed the greater proportion of damage and death caused by humans over our relatively short history has been for the sake and in the name of ideas – things that are not even real but only mental, imaginary, and conceptual “objects” of belief.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we need to purge our minds of mental, imaginary, and conceptual objects. That would amount to our intellectual and spiritual lobotomy. Because humans are a story-telling and meaning-making species, a steady production and trade in nonmaterial things is the life blood of our cultures and the soul of civilization.

Everything above the line of biology hangs in the air of our thoughts, just as every cultural artifact originated in and is a material expression of an idea, and of someone’s belief in that idea.

When Richard Dawkins proposed an evolutionary analog to our biological genes, in the cultural “memes” that seed our thoughts, engender belief, and drive human destiny along an ideological trajectory of progress or demise, he was criticized for attempting to reduce human freedom and creativity to “nothing but” a blind cultural selection of ideas.

Undoubtedly this line of thinking can be pushed in a reductionistic direction, but that’s not the value his theory has for me. It seems certain that we humans are manipulated by the beliefs (and memes) in our minds, even to the extent of being made willing to commit atrocities on their behalf. We happen to be standing now, and once again, on the brink of collective self-destruction, as opposing sides of belief muster our armies of ideological warriors and suicide terrorists.

Instead of sweeping belief aside as “nothing but” the metaphysical byproduct of errant or lazy thinking, or waiting until the war of ideologies is over and we can think rationally again, I propose that we dig into the processes behind its product and try to better understand what a belief essentially is.

Toward that end, I offer the above chart which distinguishes among different types of belief, where they sit relative to each other as well as on a spectrum of how conscious and cognitive they happen to be.

Let’s define our values. To identify a belief as “conscious” means that we are aware of holding it and can articulate it in a statement. At the opposite end of this continuum is an “unconscious” belief, one which we are not directly aware of and would have a difficult if not impossible time putting into words.

“Precognitive” beliefs come before and/or stand in front of the formal operations of thought and hold their position by deflecting or “throwing aside” criticism. Across this same spectrum are “postcognitive” beliefs, which as the term implies come at the conclusion of formal thought and make a claim to standing beyond question or doubt.

The center of my chart, then, is where cognition (or thinking) is busy in the work of constructing beliefs and weighing out their “truthiness.”

For reasons that will become clearer as we go, we will begin our exploration of belief in the lower-left quadrant of my chart, where we find our assumptions. By definition – from a root meaning “to pick up and carry along” – an assumption is both unconscious and precognitive, which means that we have little or no awareness of it as a belief, and that it enters our mind prior to the formal operations of thought.

Most of our assumptions were “picked up” on our path of development and absorbed from the social atmosphere of our family and tribe.

In its status as precognitive and unconscious, an assumption is analogous to a pair of spectacles perched on the bridge of our nose. If they are doing their job, we shouldn’t notice the lenses that are filtering and focusing our perception of reality. Our assumption is that reality is as we see it. An important difference between prescription lenses and our assumptions, however, is that our assumptions may be “out of focus” and even profoundly distorting in their effects, in ways we are completely unaware.

If a particular assumption was picked up when we were very young children, it can continue shaping our perceptions of reality and backgrounding all our other beliefs for the rest of our lives. How we presently see the world, others, and ourselves may not be true to the way they really are.

Newsflash.

This is why the work of “surfacing” assumptions and bringing them under scrutiny to be verified or falsified is so central to the cognitive approaches of psychotherapy. The exercise forces an assumption out of the dark and into the light for examination, where its truth-value as an opinion can be decided.

Is the belief based on actual experience or objective evidence? Is it logical, rational, reasonable, and realistic (i.e., reality-oriented)? Is it useful to the task of living a more responsible life?

If not, then the client needs to choose between keeping their illusion and living in reality.

A second type of belief which is also precognitive but more consciously held than an assumption is a doctrine. We usually think of doctrines as belonging in religious institutions and their orthodox systems of belief, which are frequently pressed upon adherents as necessary to their membership, identity (as believers), and final salvation. Here I am not interested in what a particular doctrine may be about, but rather in its value as a marker of belonging. I’m of the opinion that most of the doctrinal content of orthodoxy is not really the main point.

Whether we grew up in such a tradition or consider joining it later in life, there are certain things that members of this kind believe (or at least profess to believe), doctrines that we will be expected to adopt (and recite) as well. We will not likely be invited, or even allowed, to interrogate a doctrine as if it were a “mere” opinion – even though orthodoxy literally means “correct opinion” (ortho+doxa).

Often some kind of protective aura is placed around a doctrine, whether it be sacred tradition, divine revelation, or metaphysical mystery, to keep us from looking too closely and asking questions.

Now that we’re in the sphere of religion and orthodoxy, we can swing over the vertical midline to a third type of belief, conviction. In this blog I don’t have many positive things to say about conviction, in the literal sense of the term (“to be held captive”), since its value is based on a rejection of our freedom to believe otherwise. (Our word heretic refers to one who “chooses otherwise.”)

We may have thought our way into it, or maybe we’ve been holding onto it for so long that our mind is now its prisoner and we are unable to think outside its box.

Convictions are in the “postcognitive” category of beliefs in acknowledgment of the explicit and final conclusion they declare on their topic. They are nevertheless “conscious,” which means that we can recite them with hand over heart – but without having to think. If someone should question a conviction of ours, we won’t in our defense call on logical reason, objective evidence, or even common sense. Rather our strategic apology will be to trace its lineage and associations to other convictions we hold – or I should say, that are holding our mind captive.

This is why it is useless to challenge a convicted true believer of any stripe. You soon get the sense that you’re being pulled along a recurrent cross-referencing loop of proof texts and “revealed” truths – without ever touching the ground of reality!

The power of convictions in cutting off questions, closing the mind, separating us from reality, and pushing us into conclaves of absolutism helps to throw some light on that concerning proclivity of our species mentioned at the start of this post: our readiness – even our eagerness – to destroy, kill, and die for our beliefs.

Is there a solution, or at least a path that could lead us away from our mutually assured destruction? Yes.

It requires using the full capacity of our conscious cognitive mind. The type of belief that represents our careful consideration, logical analysis, rational assessment, reasonable discretion, creative thinking, responsible discernment, and evidence-based observations is called a judgment. On my chart it is positioned directly above opinion, and can be defined as a well-deliberated opinion on whatever the subject, question, or problem happens to be.

Ideally all our other beliefs – assumptions, doctrines, convictions, and provisional opinions – can be brought to the table where we can interrogate them, test them, validate or refute them on a case by case basis. Granted this is an ideal, and probably hopeless in the larger scheme of things and given the eight or so billion minds we have running around the planet today.

So let’s begin where we can: with ourselves, and work our way outward from here.

Living By What We Know

I’m going to make an argument that will likely seem strange to you, at least at first.

It applies to our current situation as a species on this planet, specifically to our apparent disorientation and confusion when it comes to knowing how to live and get along. Add to this a chronic frustration over so many things getting in the way of what we really want, and you have a very unstable and volatile situation indeed.

My argument is that we do in fact know how to get along but for some reason feel unable to access this wisdom. For that is the correct and proper name for this kind of knowledge, as the know-how we need to flourish and find fulfillment in life. Wisdom is not a mere catalog of epistemic propositions about reality but rather a set of truths that align our thoughts, feelings, and actions to reality.

Using the analogy of gravity, we disregard or “forget” the truths of wisdom to our own detriment. Because wisdom reveals to us the nature of reality, which also includes our own human nature, living by its light carries at least the implied promise that life will be easier, more enjoyable, more meaningful and fulfilling when we intentionally put ourselves in accord with the way things are.

Living in discord with reality leads inevitably to suffering.

In fact, the wisdom truths that could save us from an impending catastrophe are already known. We don’t need experts to tell us what they are because we already know them. As a species we have been carrying these truths in our collective superconscious for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Upon the original discovery of each truth, it was instantly “uploaded” to this superconscious – in another post I name it the “stream of wisdom,” coursing through history and over our heads, figuratively speaking – and henceforth available, just as instantly, for download by all humans everywhere.

When I tell you what these wisdom truths are, you are likely to have an “aha” experience, not because you are learning of them for the first time, but as if you are being reminded of something you already know. And that, of course, is what I am arguing.

Three truths of wisdom in particular have given inspiration and guidance to humans over these many centuries. Who knows, but their discovery may go back even millions of years to our prehuman ancestors, as it seems that even the “lower” animals have a robust intuition of how to live in accord with reality.

At any rate, I have organized these three truths of wisdom by a logic of the obvious, starting with an evident truth, reaching deeper to an essential truth, and then ascending outward to an encompassing truth.


Directing our attention to what is most obvious, we can see that every existing thing (including ourselves) is or occurs in a relational field, not just in proximity to other things around it but connected to them by a web of relations or network of forces. Quantum, atomic, magnetic, molecular, gravitational, barometric, thermal and other environmental forces move through, around, and between things, creating currents and lines of influence that codetermine their very character – and in the case of living things, their survival.

The evident truth of wisdom states that “Everything is connected.” The very nature of reality is such that each and every thing is connected, by both visible and invisible forces, to all other things. What this means is that our existence, as Buddhists say, “co-arises” with that of everything else – locally and globally.

The fabric of our common field not only supports us individually but is also affected by our actions, perhaps even by our emotions, attitudes, and intentions.

An only apparently empty space between us and others is in reality (or really) energized by countless outgoing, incoming, and ambient exchanges throughout a complex web of relations.

This much is, as we should all agree, evident. Even if we can’t see the web in all its frequencies and dimensions, certain strands or lines of force connecting us to others and the reality around us are too obvious to deny. We have only to consult our sciences to validate this first principle of wisdom: nothing exists in absolute isolation, but as connected and involved with other things – ultimately all other things.

Whereas Western science had once assumed reality could be analyzed into isolated particles, that curtain of illusion was decisively ripped from its rings with the discoveries of quantum mechanics (or high-energy physics).

The real challenge, however, is more psychological than strictly scientific. In our personal development, each of us gradually comes to the sense of ourselves as a separate individual, existing in our own unique “ego space.” Even though personal identity presumes a social context of roles and role-plays (persona refers to an onstage actor’s mask), we still can fall into the delusion of our independence and, as the delusion further envelops us, of our absolute transcendence as to our context, its conditions, and all the others coexisting in our relational field.

We have only opened up the evident truth of wisdom and we can already see how much of the current crisis can be pinned on this illusion of our separate ego. It’s not the illusion per se but the captivating delusion – that is, our convicted belief in the truth of this illusion – that has pushed us apart and away from reality, causing us to contract into ourselves in defense against what we are projecting as a threat to our security.

The deeper enthralled in this delusion we get, the more erroneous our judgments and destructive our behavior becomes.

Once we can break free of our prison of ignórance (willful ignorance) and conviction, and complete a fresh download of this evident truth of wisdom, its other two come along quite naturally. As all things coexist and co-arise in a web of relational forces, each thing is itself a manifestation of reality. In other words, that field is also a ground, calling our attention from the radial lines of connection between things, to the “inner being” (as distinct from the web’s “inter-being”) of each existing thing.

As a manifestation of reality, each thing is a formal expression of its quantum, material, organic, sentient, egoic, and communal nature, occupying a niche somewhere on this continuum of being. A rock, for instance, occupies the material niche, manifesting matter and energy in its form, yet is beneath the niche of organic existence. A plant is organic, with a deeper nature of matter and energy, but while it may possess some sentient capacity in its ability to sense, feel, and adapt to its environment, it is beneath the niche of egoic (self-conscious) existence.

Humans are perhaps uniquely egoic, as well as (going deeper down and within) sentient, organic, material, and energetic manifestations of reality. However, we characteristically fall beneath a fully communal (spiritual, transpersonal) existence.

Our depth-exploration of reality and the discovery of the grounding mystery in each thing that both anchors its existence and finds expression in its distinct form, introduces (or reminds us of) a second truth of wisdom. This essential truth states that “All is One” – not all of it together, which is the focus of wisdom’s third truth, but All through each and deeper into the ground of Being itself: to the One manifesting “upwards” as the rock, the plant, and as each of us.

The essential truth of wisdom is neither abstract nor esoteric, except in the literal sense of what is “deep within” (esoteros). What is more obvious, though not as much as “everything is connected,” than the fact that each and every thing, in being real, is a manifestation of reality or the power of Being (be-ing) itself? We may not be used to speaking this way, but it should be beyond dispute to say that something is real because it is grounded in The Real (or reality) and is a manifestation of Being.

So, because “Everything is connected” and “All is One,” a third and final truth logically follows, which is that “We’re all in this together.” This is wisdom’s encompassing truth. Each existing thing is a manifestation of the One reality; it co-exists with everything else in a connecting web of relations; and along with everything else, it belongs to, participates in, and is encompassed by a transcendent unity or higher wholeness.

If the web is a metaphor of our connectedness, terms that indicate an upward shift to higher wholeness include universe, integral order, ecosystem, and community.

It should be clear that while it may take some time for us to become aware of the higher wholeness encompassing all things, “we’re all in this together” whether we consciously know it (and own it) or remain stuck in our prisons of ignórance and conviction.

As long as we remain captives of our delusional separation from others and the larger reality to which we belong (partnerships, communities, and ecosystems), our choices, judgments, and actions will collide with the way things are. The predictable consequences of our foolish egoism will be the degradation of living systems, the loss of community, chronic conflict, widespread suffering, and our own miserable extinction.

Or we can choose a brighter destiny and start living by what we already know.

The Four Priorities

A theory of human psychology and development will be more valuable to the degree we can use it to make sense of our individual experience. Classical scientific objectivity must be counterbalanced by subjective truth, in not only explaining our topic dispassionately from a distance but also in helping us better understand what being human is all about. We are more than just objects to be explained – described, measured, and classified among the myriad other objects in existence.

We are self-conscious centers of experience who are struggling to figure this out before the curtain closes and our time is over.

The diagram above is the latest iteration of a model of human psychology and development that I have been working on for the past thirty years or so. It is focused on the self, referring to that ground of experience in each of us which gradually becomes conscious of itself as the Hero of its own story and creative agent in its own destiny. This self-conscious center, called ego (Latin for “I”), is not the totality of the self, of which it is only partially and dimly aware, but finds itself on a path – the “Hero Path” – of formation and eventual transcendence, as we seek our way to fulfillment.

A watermark image of a zig-zagging line in the background charts the critical stages in this progression of our development, starting at the bottom in Security, “zigging” left into Identity, “zagging” right with Maturity, and finally ascending to the peak where our Hero finds genuine Community. In this framework, community does not refer to any “thing” that is “out there,” but rather to a relational synergy clarified in the awareness that “Everything is connected, All is One, and we’re all in this together” (the three Truths of Wisdom).

These four terms – security, identity, maturity, and community – mark the major stages in our human development. Each one is focused psychologically on a specific priority which must be successfully incorporated into our developing sense of self for our Hero’s Journey to reach its completion. For this reason we can summarize the entire model as a developmental scheme of Four Priorities.

The value of this scheme, once again, is not only in its explanatory power, but also, and even more importantly, in the insight it gives into where we currently are on the path and what’s coming next.

Let’s take a walk through the model, following our psychological development through its major stages and corresponding priorities. A “priority” in this context refers to a focus of awareness, urgency, and concern, a kind of psychic attractor that pulls our energy and attention around a critical need that must be satisfied for healthy development to proceed.

Security and the Priority of Preservation

Positive ego formation depends on a body that is calm and relaxed. The countless physical events and processes that conspire in the generation and maintenance of biological health happen most efficiently in an internal environment that is free of distress. Our body arrives already “programmed” by natural selection to keep the fire of life alive by seeking what it needs to survive. The conditions of its external environment are perceived through the senses and translated into a nervous state and behavior that will optimize its chances of staying alive.

An external environment that provides what we need to live and thrive can be called “provident,” in the way its conditions complement and supply what our body requires. Safety, nourishment, warmth, and nurturing support are spontaneously internalized as the feeling of security, allowing the body to relax and rest in the assurance that all is well. The organism has what it needs and reality can be trusted.

Our emerging center of self-conscious identity (or ego) takes its reading from the body’s internal state to determine whether and to what extent others and the world around us are trustworthy. Our present opinions of others, our philosophy of life, and even our overarching worldview have their origins in the early days and months when we were getting our psychosomatic bearings in reality. To the degree it was not provident, we adopted an outlook that matched what we felt in our body.

Identity and the Priority of Integration

If the process of psychological development early on took the body’s lead in our emerging core belief regarding the provident nature of reality, it continued in the work of integrating our moods, motivations, feelings, and thoughts into a coherent personality structure. The priority of self-integration refers to a critical need of constructing and managing an identity across the different performance stages and role plays of society. “Performance stage” and “role play” are meant to reveal (or expose) identity as something we “put on” and “act out” in our relationships with others.

As an attractor of psychological development, the priority of self-integration generates an urgency around our need to fit in, to belong, and to be recognized as “somebody.” If the first priority of self-preservation failed to instill in us a sense of security, our pursuit of identity was to that extent complicated by the anxiety we carried inside ourselves. In that case, neurotic attachment and manipulation, instead of personal freedom and healthy love, took a greater part in shaping who we are and how we behave with others.

Maturity and the Priority of Actualization

By maturity I mean the developmental process whereby the deeper potential and full capacity of our human nature is gradually realized. Self-actualization, then, certainly speaks to what Abraham Maslow called “the farther reaches” of our spiritual growth and awakening, but it also includes the physical, emotional, and intellectual lines of development that both precede and underlie it. Using Aristotle’s idea of an entelechy or “inner aim” that drives the growth of an organism towards its epigenetic ideal – the full-grown, fully functioning adult – can help us appreciate self-actualization as a metric of progress rather than merely a final destination.

Ego formation advances in stair-step fashion by detaching (or differentiating) from the physical life of our body, attaching emotionally to Mother and others, detaching from these somewhat in order to attach intellectually at the level of common ideas and shared beliefs, and eventually detaching from our convictions in order to awaken spiritually to the All that is One and our place in it.

Each of those lower attachments (physical, emotional, and intellectual) were necessary in providing a stage for the next step in self-actualization to occur.

The final step of spiritual awakening and ego transcendence is only possible, however, to the extent that identity is sufficiently centered and stable to allow our detachment from the habits, beliefs, and associations that define who we are. Until we can get over ourselves – or as Jesus said, unless we willingly die to ourselves – the higher wholeness of community will remain out of reach.

Community and the Priority of Participation

According to this model of human psychology and development, genuine community is the true evolutionary intention of our nature. This term is not merely a synonym for a “group” or “society” of persons, and it isn’t limited only to the human realm. Com- (together) and unity (as one) names the threshold crossing where “everything is connected” becomes “All is One.” Two individuals regard themselves and each other as partners and join together as One – the One here referring to a higher wholeness that arises from their interactions, draws on their mutual contributions, and includes them in its holistic ecosystem of communion, compassion, and reciprocal care.

To understand that everything is connected and we are all in this together (the first and third truths of Wisdom) requires us to transcend the delusion of our separate existence, which was the intended product of ego formation.

Transcending identity, however, does not mean that we renounce it, break it down, and cast it aside. Instead, as participants, we are invited to join the higher wholeness of community from the position of our centered self and bring to it our unique contribution. Ego-transcendence, in other words, affirms but goes beyond our ego, includes yet surpasses our individual interests for the sake “a more perfect union,” where a greater harmony of wills presides.


From where we currently stand, psychologically speaking, on the Hero Path of our human development, the Four Priorities can serve as lenses for clarifying and discerning what’s brought us here and where we go next. The concerns of security, identity, maturity, and community define the landscape of our journey, and each one demands our attention – back then, now and again, and sometimes all at once! Our existential task is to avoid getting stuck and tangled up in unfinished business.

The fulfillment of our nature is always ahead, above and beyond.

A Spirituality of Leadership

A deep flaw in many models of leadership on offer these days is in their preoccupation with the benefits it holds for the leader – the one about to buy the book, pay for the program, or attend a conference. Being a leader will make you “highly effective” and elevate your social status. It will give you influence on your team and advantage over the competition. It will help you take control and start telling others what to do. In other words, it’s all – or mostly – about you.

When celebrity leaders sell us their secrets, a large number of us want to be like them – savvy, powerful, successful, and rich – not necessarily leaders in some more essential sense.

The better leadership models quickly bracket and set aside what we might call the ‘perks’ of success, and give more time and consideration to the “character of a leader” – the grind and grit behind the glory … if the glory ever comes.

Truth is, many of the most effective leaders in history are unsung heroes, men and women who commit themselves to the vision of a New Reality. Their unwillingness to simply resign to the way things are, along with their resolve to make things different and somehow better, earns the ire of those whose interests (wealth, status, power, and control) are in things staying just as they are.

Real leaders are frequently persecuted, arrested, and imprisoned – whether these prisons are literal holding cells or the blacklists of censorship that block these troublemakers from their prospective audiences. Some are killed, and then memorialized with honors after a sufficient amount of time has passed.

We tend to idolize living leaders for their accomplishments, while we honor dead leaders for their spirit, their vision, and their character.

There was a light shining through them that we are willing to acknowledge as extraordinary (even divine in origin), but only after the heat of controversy and the smoke of disinformation have had time to clear out.

In this post I will offer a “spirituality of leadership,” using a model that focuses not on the perks of leadership or even on the works of great leaders, but rather (and first) on what makes anyone a true leader. Although popular culture is endlessly fascinated with the personality, charisma, and quirky eccentricities of celebrity leaders, I’m interested here in a leader’s character.

Beneath their critical roles in society as captains of industry, engineers of change, prophets of revolution, visionaries and gadflies, there’s something in them and about them that makes leaders what they are.

My diagram positions the “character” of a leader at the center from which two arrows proceed. One arrow extends horizontally, which according to this model is “outward” and across the web of relationships, moving the leader into engagement with others. The second arrow descends vertically “inward” to the leader’s inner life, beneath their personality and life story, to the grounding mystery of consciousness within.

The logic of this model is based in my understanding of faith as the soul of spirituality, and service as the heart of leadership. The general direction of energy is from the leader’s inner life (of faith) to their action in the outer world (as service), which justifies the order of terms in my title: A spirituality of leadership. In what follows, we will explore four character virtues that facilitate this energy flow (or influence) and help us frame out a working definition of leadership.

So we begin at the source, where the inner life of a leader releases in faith to the ground of being. Faith is not something the leader does, but refers rather to the non-action of surrendering (letting go or releasing) to what is deeper, which anchors or roots consciousness in the body’s physical presence.

Western metaphysics has a long history of seeking the ground of being beyond, or beneath, material existence, traditionally denigrated as “dead stuff” and therefore unfit as the proper foundation of life, mind, personality, and all that we humans find so endlessly fascinating.

But matter isn’t dead stuff. It is energetic, magnetic, electric, and protean in its myriad transformations. And through its transformations, matter is alive, sentient, and self-conscious in the leader’s own personal ego (or “I”). In its capacity for self-transcendence, matter is also able to participate in transpersonal community, to give itself in service to the communal good – more on that in a bit.

The surrender of faith is what enables a leader to relax into being and receive into him- or herself the creative uprising of energy, like fuel channeled up the wick of a lamp to support the flame of awareness. In this light, it makes perfect sense to think of faith as the “soul” of spirituality, where its existential surrender opens the inner life to what Paul Tillich named “the power to be.” The contemplative cultivation of a vibrant inner life – tending the wellspring and nurturing its flow – is therefore the essence of spirituality.

Two character virtues of a leader that correlate with the inner life are humility and integrity. From the Latin humus for ground or soil, humility is the leader’s ability to remain grounded, internally stable and immune to the seductions of false pride, arrogance, and what in classical ethics was called vainglory.

To the rest of us, a humble leader is paradoxically unassuming and irrepressible, free of self-preoccupation yet profoundly self-confident, all-too-human (also from humus) yet, in the language of mythology, chosen, anointed, and filled with the very power of God.

Integrity derives from integer (one or whole) and is the character virtue of a leader that unifies the personality and holds it together, from within, during times of stress, change, and temptation. When we speak of a leader’s “power,” it is this inner strength, or fortitude, that we mean. Any and all outer influence is an outflow and product of the leader’s character integrity, of his or her inner composure, emotional poise, and mental focus in the face of opposition or difficulty.

From the leader’s grounded (humility) and centered (integrity) character, we shift now to the horizontal axis of my model, where all this inner work of faith and spirituality is brought to bear on the challenges of life in relationship with others. Only one who is grounded and centered in his or her own human experience can intimately understand and identify with what another person is going through.

This sympathetic capacity is the character virtue of compassion, from com (with) and passio (to undergo or bear): to stand under – to understand! – another’s burden and give support to their struggle for relief, recovery, respect, or freedom.

The fusion of inner strength (integrity) and caring outreach (compassion) is the “power of love,” a super-virtue held in such high esteem across the cultures and religions as to be identified with the divine reality itself and worshiped as a supreme power. As such, the power of love, or integrity + compassion, offers the clearest summary of a spirituality of leadership.

Courage, the last of our four character virtues, only takes on definition as we follow the outreach of compassion into the conditions and situations of life that cause others to suffer. A true leader doesn’t merely go with a message of consolation, but instead confronts the forces of complacency, prejudice, orthodoxy, and oppression that conspire as a system to forestall or withhold from some the liberated life and wellbeing they long for and deserve.

The service of a courageous leader is always for the sake of a New Reality, which the managers of this “domination system” will resist at all cost.

Managers are tasked with keeping things the way they are; leaders are called to open a way to what today may seem impossible.

Courage (from the Latin root for heart) demonstrates the leader’s wholehearted commitment and personal sacrifice on behalf of an in-breaking reality; one that is even now, in the leader’s own fearless presence and transcendent vision, shaking the foundations of the status quo.

Make Your Home a COVID Monastery

Amidst the chaotic disruption of daily life, an increasing number of us are feeling the strain on our mental health. The economic shakeup has altered the way we work, how we shop, where we go, and what company we keep. Spending more time at home, whether in quarantine or out of caution over catching and sharing the virus with those we love, introduces its own challenges.

Without the freedom to go “out there” and do what we normally did in the world, the walls close in and our joie de vivre (joy of living) starts to lose some of its joie.

Add to these pandemic conditions the political chaos in America, the global tensions among nations, and the climatic upheaval of our planet, and we begin to wonder if life is even worth living anymore, let alone whether we will ever get our joy back again. Keeping our sanity and nursing our hope are taking more and more energy, and with each passing day we can feel ourselves circling the drain.

Are we losing our minds? Is there reason to keep going? Why, and for what?

I am both an outspoken advocate and relentless critic of religion, for the way it can help us manage meaning in life, but also how it so quickly becomes a prison of our spirit. The very word religion comes from the Latin religare (“to link back” or “connect”), where its principal function is to draw order out of chaos by establishing the boundaries, rules, roles, and rituals that conspire to actualize a sanctuary in space and time.

Way back in the day of archaic religion, before building a new settlement, a location would be identified as the axis mundi (“world center”) and the people would proceed to organize their communal life around it, making sacrifices and calling on the gods to bless and protect their new home.

This religious act of making a sanctuary in the wilderness and bringing order out of chaos is the basic principle of monasticism. A monastery is not an escape from the world, but is rather about creating a world at the very center of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and apparent disorder of existence. Monks, then, shouldn’t be regarded as drop-outs and quitters, but instead as creators and facilitators of deeper meaning, higher purpose, and authentic joy.

How they do this is a matter of discipline. This post will explore a few monastic practices that we, too, might find useful in making our home a COVID monastery during these challenging times.

Axis Mundi

Our nation, global politics, and the changing planet present us with challenges and threats way beyond our personal control. In case you haven’t realized it, no one is getting out alive. Now, we can fix our focus on these conditions and let it paralyze us, outrage us, and ultimately depress us. Or else, we can choose to accept the reality of what’s outside our control and direct our attention to what we can control. What exactly?

We can control how we feel. I hear your protest: That’s my problem! Everything is falling apart and I can’t keep it together. It’s all making me feel helpless and hopeless.

Let’s begin by sitting quietly in a comfortable place, in a chair or on a cushion if you have one. Take a deep breath … and then another. Feel the tension in your muscles release. If it helps to rest a soft gaze upon something in front of you, then do that. Don’t think about the object; just let it become a gentle tether for your mind, holding you here in this present moment.

Breathe in for a count of five seconds, hold it for one second, then breathe out for four. Quietly counting through the breath cycle is another helpful way of tethering our mind. Our body is always HERE and NOW.

A breathing meditation invites our mind back to our body, and back to what’s real.

This is a proven monastic practice of preparation. For the brief interval of time that we are engaged in this practice of meditative breathing, our mind gradually stops telling stories and starts to relax into the rhythm. Stories, or the dramatic scenarios composed in our mind, attract and intensify the feelings we have. Anxiety, outrage, hopelessness, and depression don’t just happen in a vacuum, but are instead “conjured up” by the stories we recite (listen to or watch on the screen), over and over to ourselves. By calling our mind away from its storytelling, this monastic practice allows us to become fully present where we are.

This is our axis mundi.

Consecrating Space and Marking Time

After we are properly centered, our next monastic practice is to walk slowly through the rooms of our house or apartment. This is the space of our monastery. To consecrate something means to acknowledge (or declare) it as sacred, literally “set apart” and dedicated to a higher purpose. Declaring a space sacred does not magically change the space itself, but instead effects a change in our degree of attention and intention, in our capacity for being fully present.

Sacred intention is what makes our space a sanctuary.

When we speak of a “higher purpose,” we are referring to this elevated intention – not to something that has to be done or some mission to accomplish, but to the mindful and devoted way we do anything at all. Consecrating the space of our monastery helps us “set the intention” to live here on purpose and with purpose. In our monastery very little is done by accident or thoughtless habit.

Passing through the rooms of our house or apartment we say, “This space is for (e.g., cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, playing, relaxing). In consecrating this space, I create a world that is purposeful, meaningful, delightful, and welcoming.”

After consecrating the space of our monastery, our next practice is to create the schedule of activities, routines, and events that will carry our intention throughout each day. We “make time” for the things that help us feel joyful, healthy, creative, and alive. Our sacred order of time doesn’t have to be strict or rigid, but it should accommodate (literally “make room for”) the activities that interest us, inspire us, renew us, and connect us to what really matters.

The Sacred Practices of Work and Prayer

Inside a monastery, monks live by a prescribed order of time often announced by the ringing of a mindfulness bell, and in dedicated sanctuaries of higher purpose: sacred times and holy places of intentional living. Allowing for brief retreats throughout the day for rest, amusement, creativity, and quiet reflection, the schedule also holds them to the mandatory practices of work and prayer.

Mandatory does not mean forced or compelled against our will, but rather identifies a practice as essential and therefore more than merely voluntary, where we might engage in something only if we want to or feel like doing it.

Both work and prayer are about connection – as we said above, connecting to what really matters. We can think of them as two lines of intention that extend, one outward and the other inward, from the axis mundi of our centered self.

As outward intention, work connects us to the sacred space of our monastery, to others who may inhabit our sanctuary with us, and to the tasks and responsibilities that are essential to managing the sanctuary of our home. Giving our time and energy to these projects turns them from menial chores into mindful and devotional offerings for the sake of a greater good.

Monastic prayer is not the interpersonal conversation between us and god, as imagined in popular religion. More often called “centering prayer,” this monastic practice is actually about breaking below the back-and-forth traffic of conversation and descending through the silent depths of Presence and Mystery, to the very Ground of our being. In monastic and mystical theology Presence, Mystery, and Ground name the deepest reality of what we are.

Connecting with our Ground opens a wellspring of inner peace and fills us with joy. Every time? No. But that is why the practice of centering prayer needs to be anchored in our schedule, several times each day.


With the chaos and uncertainty all around us, managing our mental health and finding meaning in life is a formidable challenge. Instead of hunkering down, distracting ourselves with mindless activities, or looking for something to numb us out, however, we can make the commitment of turning our home or apartment into a monastery. Its space is our sanctuary, and time through our day proceeds according to a holy order of activity and rest, connection and solitude, sacred work and centering prayer.

There’s no need to wait for the world to change.

Idols, Pacifiers, and Demons

In a post entitled Out of Depression I proposed a kind of psychospiritual developmental map, composed on the foundational theory of human intelligence as comprised of four distinct “threads” – visceral (VQ), emotional (EQ), rational (RQ), and spiritual (SQ). This “quadratic” (fourfold or four-dimensional) intelligence is complex in nature, with each thread engaged with its own domain.

Visceral intelligence is engaged with the living organism of our body and the urgency of staying alive. Emotional intelligence manages our embodied experience across the changing circumstances and situations of life. Rational intelligence uses language to construct a world around ourselves and tell the story of who we are. Finally, in, through, and beyond these other three, spiritual intelligence grounds us in being and unites us with all things.

Altogether, this quadratic intelligence focuses our energy and attention on five principal concerns: security (VQ), happiness (EQ), meaning (RQ), wellbeing and fulfillment (SQ).

For our psychospiritual development to go well, we were especially dependent upon the provident care of a community of enlightened taller powers (parents and other adults) who took the responsibility as a sacred charge. Under their wise and loving devotion, our nervous system (VQ) was coaxed into a calm resting state of basic trust, which in turn served the formation of healthy bonds (EQ) that supported us in the shared project of constructing a world (RQ) large enough for everyone.

From this psychological position as a centered self inside a constructed world, the conditions were right for our spiritual breakthrough (SQ) – seeing at last the shining truth that All is One and We Are All In This Together. These two correlative insights are the supreme principles informing Sophia Perennis, the ancient yet ever relevant transcultural wisdom tradition of our species. By the incarnation and enactment of this wisdom in the way we live and care for one another, as I explain in Full-Circle Spirituality, our psychospiritual development reaches completion.

Or else it doesn’t.

It’s not only possible but all too common for us never to make it that far. Our spiritual awakening and its unitive vision can be delayed and even tragically foreclosed due to complications earlier on our developmental path. Instead of progressing along its various stages to the final threshold, we get pulled off course into damaging spirals of neurosis and psychosis.

These show up early and often in the great myths of religion, which all together comprise a long-running archetypal narrative (and cultural therapy) of the human psychospiritual journey.

The above diagram will serve as our map for understanding how and when progress gets hung up, sending the precious flow of psychic energy into self-destructive spirals. My chart is built on the two axes of spiritual intelligence (SQ): a vertical axis of “self-transcendence” and a horizontal axis of “self-actualization.” Respectively, these can be regarded as the expansion of identity across larger and more inclusive horizons of space, and the advancement of maturity over the longer course of our life in time. Our story begins, then, where the two axes are joined and start their separate trajectories.


When the primal holding environments of our mother’s womb and family circle are not provident, meaning that they don’t provide a safe and nurturing place for us to relax and surrender in trust to reality, our nervous system is “programmed” to be anxious – tense, over-reactive, hypervigilant, chronically “on edge.”

As the opposite (or absence) of security, anxiety is how our preconscious ego registers a profound lack of assurance, of being without a stable ground but instead dangling and about to fall headlong, as it were, into a dark bottomless abyss.

This experience of being in the grips of a self-destructive energy that is threatening to drop us into the abyss if we don’t Do Something NOW! is an apt metaphor of a panic attack. Because it seems to invade us from outside, insofar as its cues or “triggers” are in our threatening environment (or simply imagined as being there), this malevolent force is depicted in the myths (and in mythological thinking) as demonic possession.

Such profound insecurity, or what is also called existential dread, is not just about being afraid of something or other. This “demon” is the anxiety of being itself.

Most of the time, our demon of anxiety does not destroy us outright, but instead drives us to find relief in our relationships with others. We reach out with a desperate need for them to calm our nerves and make us feel secure. Being in the grips of our demon, we convert its anxiety into attempts at controlling and manipulating others, tying them up with impossible expectations of pacifying us, that they will always stay with us and never change or let us down.

When this dynamic continues long after infancy, such desperate emotional attachment is properly labeled “neurotic,” with the same infantile need for soothing from a “pacifier.” Soon enough, our craving for the pacifier becomes an addiction: the brain and blood chemistry of how we feel gets hooked on it, and we are sure we cannot function or even live without it.

But this horror story isn’t over yet.

With our demon inside us and an unhappy collection of pacifiers round about, we proceed to use our newly waking rational intelligence (RQ) to forge the beliefs out of which we construct our world. In our case, however, these beliefs are not drawn from objective evidence, logical reason, or common sense, as much as they are projected from how we feel inside and in agreement with our codependent partners (i.e., our pacifiers).

Because insecurity (existential dread) is still unresolved deep within us, our beliefs need to be fixed and inflexible, and the world we construct out of them manageably small and closed. They are technically called convictions, for the way they hold our mind captive, and the absolute truth we assign to them makes them “idols.”

The demons possessing us drive our addiction to pacifiers that soothe us, leading eventually to our captivity under the idols that obsess (“sit over”) us and demand our worship. Tragically too many of us are ready to die, and to kill, in their name.

We can close our meditation by noting where all of this neurotic, spiraling energy ultimately leaves us – in depression, which, referring one more time to my diagram, lies in inertial opposition to the wellbeing and fulfillment we long for most deeply.

If we don’t wake up before tomorrow morning, we’ll do it all over again.

Full-Circle Spirituality

The ultimate aim of human evolution is the formation of spiritual community, by which is meant nothing supernatural or esoteric, but rather a kind of “breathing” (spiritus) “together as one” (communitas). In this higher state of consciousness, individual egos act as creative agents of communal wellbeing, serving not an impersonal system or their own selfish ambitions, but cooperating with each other in transpersonal fellowship – a consilient (“leaping together”) unity.

In the longer project of human culture, it’s been the role of religion to facilitate this evolving formation of spiritual community.

Tragically, however, religions have too often and too easily gotten pulled off their true purpose by the seductions of worldly success and otherworldly escape. Its custodial leadership (pastors, priests, bishops, monarchs) get to enjoy the perks of wealth and power, claiming justification (and impunity) as god’s representatives on Earth, while common believers anticipate their reward in the next life, obediently paying their dues, following the rules, and submitting themselves to the authority of their ordained leaders in the meantime.

Every so often it becomes necessary to realign religion with its proper aim and function (i.e., its true purpose).

We should expect that any attempt to do so will be met with resistance from those who are benefiting somehow from the current arrangement. This includes its leadership whose “worldly success” depends on staying in power, as well as many common believers whose fantasies of “otherworldly escape” have lulled them into a blessed, and largely complacent, assurance.

Rather than fighting with its present leadership and structural orthodoxy, or trying to shake its true believers out of their settled convictions, those of us who are concerned over the damage being done by religion – in god’s name and for heaven’s sake – stand a better chance of restoring religion to its true purpose by clarifying exactly what it was (originally) and is (essentially) supposed to be facilitating.

What is spiritual community, and how can its evolution be facilitated most effectively?

My diagram is meant to reflect a dynamic process whereby spiritual community (defined as we go) intentionally supports the holistic life and development of its members. This spirit and intention require an organizational structure in order to engage practically with the concerns of daily life in the world – an outer network of roles, connections, routines, and behaviors that is the technical meaning of religion (from the Latin religare, “to link back”).

When religion loses its spirit and intention and gets “tied up” or entangled (religare in the pathological sense) in its own business, ambitions for worldly success and otherworldly escape take over, and the religion ceases to be true. “True religion,” then, has to do with its clarity and fidelity in facilitating the psychospiritual development of its members.

For now, we’ll just assume its benevolent influence on the individual (coming down on the left) and begin our meditation there, at the bottom of this “full-circle spirituality” which is the heart and soul of true religion.

Referring back to my diagram, the individual’s own “hero path” can be followed (going up on the right) to its apotheosis, or fulfillment, where he or she is empowered and called to join in the sacred work of spiritual community.

What I mean by “full-circle spirituality” is this full coming-around of psychospiritual development, where one who has found a provident support in spiritual community eventually becomes a devoted provider of the same to others.

Let’s take a few quick turns up the right side, dropping back to the bottom each time, in order to gain some understanding of how religion and spirituality interact throughout the process.

Our first turn begins with the individual’s physical (or first) birth as a more or less helpless dependent, and culminates in a spiritual (or “second”) birth where he or she takes a creative role in the active life of community. An infant is, dynamically speaking, a “patient” or passive recipient of the community’s care; whereas a mature adult is ready to be an “agent” or active contributor to the community’s wellbeing and sacred purpose.

Individual development turns around a center of self-conscious identity, called ego, which (or who) occupies and perpetuates a delusion of its own separate existence. From this mental location, ego is confronted with three existential threats: (1) of its own ground, in the dark abyss of the body; (2) of an unknown future beyond its control; and (3) of other egos, whose ulterior motives cannot be discerned or fully defended against.

Starting again at the bottom, then, a second turn follows psychospiritual development through three “trimesters” (divided by angled lines in my diagram) which can be summarized according to the principal achievement of each period: (1) releasing to the ground, (2) opening to the future, and (3) connecting to the other.

The goal is not to escape or evade the three existential threats, or even to overcome them, but rather to engage them in ways that can liberate consciousness from egoic delusion and restore the self to wholeness.

In what follows, I will offer a brief meditation – a third turn – that correlates this liberative engagement and restoration to wholeness with the “three Graces” of faith, hope, and love.

Faith

The psychospiritual development of an infant and young child is about gradually differentiating an ego out of the body’s animal nature. Ego’s delusion of having a separate identity cannot be sustained without the body, which is its source of life and ground of being. So the trick is in constructing the illusion of separateness, but without making the body into a “black hole” in which ego cannot rest or find renewal.

Through its provision of compassionate safekeeping and nurturing care, spiritual community coaxes the infant’s body into a relaxed and trusting state, easing ego along its path with the assurance that reality, both around and within, is provident. This internal state of a trusting surrender to reality is what is meant by faith.

Though popular religion has corrupted faith into a believer’s willingness to trust in the truth of certain doctrines – to “believe what I know ain’t so” – its original meaning derives from this inner release of (existential) trust in a provident reality.

Hope

The body (ego’s ground) is always and only in the present moment, which is why most meditation practices designed to cultivate present awareness involve a “return” to the sensations and rhythms of the body. Inside its delusion of separation from the body, ego is also cut off from the present, preferring to “spend time” in the past or in the future. The past is a traveled landscape and holds The Story of Me and How I Got Here. It frequently serves as a refuge from anxiety over what is ahead of ego and outside its control: the future.

When the caregiving work of spiritual community is effective, or “good enough,” in helping the individual release inwardly in trust to the provident ground of being (the body), an unknown future doesn’t loom menacingly over the ego as an impending catastrophe. Instead, in a mood that corresponds to the calm surrender of faith within, the future is regarded as a threshold of opportunity, anticipating that the same provident reality will open new doors of discovery, possibility, and higher purpose. In light of this, we can define hope as the attitude of holding open a positive expectation for the future.

Such creative expectancy inspires ego’s agency in choosing doors that open to greater freedom, joy, and connection.

Love

To be sure, we have been assuming a healthy course of psychospiritual development, where ego is supported on its journey by a deep faith and a resilient hope. When things don’t go so well, as sadly happens quite often, the individual suffers from psychosomatic (mind-body) disorders and anxious preoccupation with the future. Pathological religion offers solutions in its doctrines of immortality (emancipation from the body fueled by antagonism to the body) and everlasting life in heaven after we die (a shift in attitude from creative agency to passive waiting).

But we need to hold our attention on how things go when they go well, when religion is properly fulfilling its role of supporting, shaping, and inspiring our human psychospiritual development.

An ego that can release in faith to its provident ground and open with hope to a future of opportunity is also capable of connecting to others in love. At this critical stage in development, consciousness is empowered to break through its own delusion of separateness for a transpersonal communion, a higher wholeness of love rooted in the deeper oneness of faith. Ego is not renounced or discarded, but rather its stable center is used as the position from which consciousness can now “drop” into oneness and “leap” into wholeness.


At last the internally grounded, creatively optimistic, and compassionately connected individual can take his or her place among the fellowship of a spiritual community whose vision of “the human being, fully alive” (Ireneaus) inspires their communal fidelity to the up-and-coming heroes, just now setting out on their journey.

The Second Coming of Santa

The secular myth of Santa Claus has its historical roots in the life of Nicholas of Myrna (270 to 343 CE), who had become legendary for his practice of secret gift-giving, especially to children and families in poverty. His feast day on December 6 is still celebrated today by exchanging presents, and children who leave their shoes outside their doors at night can hope to find them filled with gifts in the morning.

It may have been the confluence of St. Nick’s gift-giving reputation and the story from the Gospel According to Matthew about three Oriental wise men bringing gifts to honor Jesus at his home in Bethlehem, that eventually put their celebrations on the same date of December 25. At any rate, the decision to set the birth of Jesus at the Winter Solstice, when the 24-hour cycle is just starting to break in favor of light over darkness (the “birth” of light), was on good mythological foundations.

I find it interesting how both the secular myth of Santa and the sacred myth of Jesus – myth here being used in its technical sense as the structural plot (Greek mythos) of any story – have followed a similar course over time, inspiring a childlike wonder in the beginning but ending up on the shelf with other fairytales as we resolve (or resign ourselves) to carry on with our grown-up lives in the real world of hard knocks.

The Christmas myth of Santa Claus predictably gets children excited. Who doesn’t find it magical that this jolly gift-bringer visits all the houses of children around the world in a single night? And who doesn’t thrill with anticipation over what special presents they will discover under the tree and in their stockings when they wake in the morning?

If you’ve been good all year, Santa will reward you with candy and shiny toys; but if you’ve not been so good, you might get a lump of coal or nothing at all.

The whole schtick about Nicholas of Myrna and his generosity toward children and poor families probably doesn’t make it to the ears of most children these days. The difference is stark when we set these two versions of Santa Claus side by side. One (the original version) is about helping others and giving what we have to make their lives a little better, while the other (the commercialized version) is focused on what we want and feel we deserve.

It’s not surprising how the secular myth has reinforced all the core values of consumerism: self-centered, discontent, materialistic, and possessive. Neither should we be surprised that this holiday drives so much of our capitalist economy year by year, and is the reason why so many of us spend what we don’t have and slide a little closer to bankruptcy as the years go by.

So maybe it’s a combination of a child’s normal disillusionment with magic and fairytales at a certain age, along with the parents’ holiday exhaustion and post-retail depression, that hastens the time when the Santa myth breaks and Christmas becomes just another holiday to drag out and then pack away.

Could it go differently?

Rather than dropping the magic associated with the Santa myth, what would happen if parents told their children the real story of Saint Nicholas, who felt compassion for the poor and wanted vulnerable children especially to know that someone was thinking of them and cared about their happiness? They could teach their children that the spirit of Christmas is about compassion, kindness, generosity, and charity – the four virtues built into the “unconditional love” of the Latin caritas and Greek agape.

And at that critical time of disillusionment, when their children are naturally advancing into formal operational thinking and a more reality-oriented mindset, parents could help them understand that the spirit of Christmas embodied by Santa Claus can also live in them.

Having experienced the joy in receiving gifts, they now have an opportunity to bring that same joy to others by “being Santa” in their world. This would go beyond merely exchanging presents with friends and loved ones, to intentionally looking for ways to comfort, uplift, and possibly liberate those who are struggling in life.

In this way, the myth of Santa Claus could be effectively translated from the story (about Santa), through reflective meditation (on the virtues of love), and out to others in concrete acts of empathy and goodwill. From, through, and out: We can think of this as the path of Santa’s “second coming.”


The Christmas myth of Jesus not only features a similar theme of gift-giving – the gifts of the three wise men in Matthew, the gift of light to the world, Jesus as God’s gift to humanity – but it has also taken a similar trajectory as the myth of Santa.

Very normal Bible-reading, church-going, true-believing Christians eventually reach a point where they begin to doubt the historicity of a virgin birth, harking angels in the night sky (Luke), a guiding star supposedly lightyears overhead that stops directly above the street address of the Carpenter house (Matthew); and going on from there to Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, calming a sea storm, and raising the dead to life.

If pastors and Sunday School teachers make the mistake of keeping the story exclusively about Jesus, refusing to assist these budding skeptics through their disillusionment and into a deeper meditation on what the story is really about, they will be left with the choice of ‘believing what they know ain’t so’, or else – which is more intellectually honest – closing their Bibles, leaving the church, maybe giving up on religion, and getting on with their lives as best they can.

It’s ironic and amusing how Christian leaders fault everything for the sharp decline in church attendance these days except its most likely cause, which is their own dogmatic insistence that everything in the myth of Jesus (and in the Bible) must be literally true.

Interestingly enough, reflective meditation on the story of Jesus reveals a very similar theme to what we find in the original myth of Santa. And why should that surprise us, if the historical Nicholas of Myrna was indeed a devout follower of Jesus and his Way, who sought to bring the spirit of Jesus to the poor in acts of unconditional love (agape, caritas)?

According to the larger myth of Jesus, he himself followed the light of compassion, kindness, generosity, and charity wherever it led, and that was frequently into confrontation with rules and with rulers who profited from things staying as they were.

When these defenders of empire and orthodoxy finally managed to get Jesus out of the picture, his myth continued in those who remembered him, who meditated together on the deeper meaning of his life and message, and who then committed themselves to manifesting his spirit in loving service for others – for their liberation, happiness, and wellbeing.

That is the true second coming of Jesus, happening over and over again and all around the world – maybe even in your home this Christmas.

Egod and the Future of Faith

For a majority of religious people on Earth today, insofar as most religious people are adherents of some form of theism, God is a personal being or divine personality who watches over them, loves them preferentially (that is to say, more than other people), commands their obedience, covets their worship, and will reward them with everlasting life for being right after they die.

In other words, their God is a lot like them.

This similarity is not a coincidence. For a reason that hardly any theist can understand much less admit, their God is a projection of themselves, as they are a reflection of their God. The orthodox doctrine on the matter states that humans were made “in the image and likeness” of God, their Creator.

As you would expect, theists enthusiastically embrace the idea that they are reflections of God, although they are curiously reluctant to defend it on behalf of all humans. On the other hand, as far as the idea of God-as-projection is concerned, every true believer will passionately reject it as atheism.

The evidence for it is overwhelming nonetheless. When theists announce their condemnation of others whose identity, lifestyle, religion, or politics is different from their own, and further invoke the judgment of God to back them up, we can see a little too much of them in their image of God. And, as is probably more common, when these same believers languish in shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression because they find it impossible to please or placate God’s demands, the resemblance is undeniable.

A closer look will reveal (i.e., pull back the veil on) how much they deploy those same manipulative and abusive strategies in their own family systems.

I am proposing to coin a new term for this interesting polarity, of ego-as-God’s-reflection and God-as-ego’s-projection: Egod.

The personal God or divine personality of theism is, phenomenologically speaking (i.e., from inside the believer’s experience), a projected image – cleansed, refined, exalted and glorified – of proclivities and potentialities in the believer’s own personal life.

The projected God of righteousness and vengeance finds its reflection in the believer who is self-righteous and unforgiving. By the same dynamic, but now in reverse, one who believes in a God that is loving and generous will tend to reflect those same virtues in his or her personal life.

This is, in fact, the design intention of theism as a type of religion. Ideally it is meant to produce a kinder and more compassionately engaged believer. But the psycho-mechanism of Egod frequently gets plugged up and starts to rupture in frustration, bigotry, and spasms of social violence.

It may sound as if I’m on the way to making a case for atheism. If Egod is at the center of theistic religion but is nothing but a polarity of images – God a projection of the ego, and ego the reflection of its God – then isn’t that effectively denying the objective existence of God? Insofar as atheism denies the objective existence of God, it would seem so. It should be noted, however, that our analysis of theism above was based in the believer’s experience (phenomenology) and not on the question of God’s existence (ontology).

Atheism is actually the younger sibling of theism. For the longest time, theists didn’t even think to question God’s existence, since the entire edifice of culture was built on a foundation of sacred stories (myths), suspended by a network of religious symbols, and ritually recreated in the sacraments, ceremonies, and high festivals of community life. Even though no one had (or ever has) literally encountered God as depicted in the myths, sacred art, and theology, they felt no need to defend God’s existence outside the imaginarium of belief.

It was only as this imaginarium began to lose relevance and power, by a conspiracy of both external and internal changes, that the objective existence of God had to be decided. Science and technology were requiring significant updates to the ancient cosmology, while moral progress and creative authority were bringing about a new psychology of individual freedom and agency.

Those who could no longer breathe inside a religious culture of theism declared themselves atheist (a-theos, “no god”) and chose to leave, while many more doubled-down on their devotion to Egod – who was now not only in their myths but also at large (somewhere) in the real world.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this crisis moment opened two distinct paths of spiritual breakthrough, represented in the prophetic and mystical turns beyond the conventional orthodoxy of Egod.

The prophets spoke of, and more importantly spoke for (pro-phetes), what the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich named the “God above god,” where the case change signifies a transcendental move beyond Egod to the ultimate reality of being-itself. Unanimously, the biblical prophets railed against the idols of orthodoxy as human creations (or projections) that only served the petty and selfish interests of believers.

The God of the prophets is so far above the Egod of orthodoxy as to encompass all nations, all religions, and even to transcend existence itself. According to them, one’s devotion to God is not authenticated in ritual performances of worship, but instead in compassionate acts and ethical advocacy on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and suffering of the world. In light of their exhortation to break past the ego and ego’s god (i.e., Egod), prophetic spirituality is properly regarded as a form of post-theistic religion.

A second path of spiritual breakthrough, and therefore a second form of post-theistic religion, is represented in the Wisdom writings of the Bible. It would be centuries before these authors and visionaries were recognized as mystics, but mystics they were. If the prophets split open Egod and then transcended ego’s god to the God above god, these mystics took the ego half of the split and plunged deep into its grounding mystery, to the inner Ground of Being.

Breaking below ego means breaking past one’s social identity and personal beliefs, down through the inner reaches of subjectivity and into the generative mystery of consciousness itself. Such a descent doesn’t require the renunciation of Egod, only the release of all that makes the ego separate and special – including, of course, its god.

Not just glory and shame (feeling especially good or bad: see the halo and shadow of Egod in the illustration above), but every secret craving and private thought of self-regard that folds consciousness upon itself in self-conscious reverie, needs to be left behind on the way to perfect solitude and inner peace.


This short meditation is intended as not only a brief excursion into post-theism (prophetic and mystical religion), but also as an invitation for theists to look closely and critically at orthodoxy and the way it protects Egod from healthy criticism – and it can be such an emotionally charged defense to breach!

Too many have succumbed to the false security of conviction offered by fundamentalism (a reductionist and radicalized orthodoxy). If orthodox theism has lost (or is losing) relevance and power, the really good news (gospel) is that a higher wholeness (in God) and a deeper oneness (in the Ground) is possible.

Hey, it’s in the Bible. Check it out.

Letting Go, Coming Together

In Spiritual Direction I offered a way of understanding human development following the evolutionary map of consciousness across its generative, individuative, and unitive principles. I suggested that these three principles are what inform the narrative structure of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” throughout the world’s mythologies, using the New Testament Hero Myth of Jesus in Luke-Acts as my example. Additionally, they can be observed operating as the deeper code behind the Christian doctrine of God-as-Trinity.

Ambitious, I know.

But now that we’re on this road, I want to continue in my efforts to clarify the course of development that tracks human progress along its intended aim – which, I should just lay it out here, eventuates in our creative contribution to the higher wholeness of spiritual community.

In a sense, the entire universe is about things coming together in more complex patterns of reciprocity, cooperation and wholeness. Existence isn’t merely spinning out and falling apart. There is also this counteraction of evolution – matter coming alive, life waking up, mind reaching out to create systems of increasing freedom and higher purpose.

All of this will amount to little more than an interesting but abstract meditation on human psychology, unless we can make it personal – which is what I will do in this post (fair warning).

So let’s begin with you – actually not with you in the technical sense of an ego (“I”) who stands on its own separate center of self-conscious identity, but with what you were (and still are) before you woke up to a separate existence as somebody special. What you are is a human being, a human manifestation of being.

Around you are countless other beings: rock beings, bacteria beings, tree beings, dog beings, cloud beings, star beings, and other human beings. These, too, are distinct manifestations of being, of the power and mystery of being-itself.

I call this the body-and-soul ground of consciousness, where body correlates to “human” and soul correlates to “being.” One is the outer expression and extroverted aspect of your essential nature, while the other is its inner presence and grounding mystery. Your soul isn’t “inside” your body, like the immortal passenger or temporary hostage of popular religious conceptions. Body and soul are essentially one nature with two inflections, outward to the sensory-physical realm and inward to the esoteric-intuitive depths of being.

That’s what you are – a human being. Who you are, on the other hand, does not belong to your essential nature, but had to be constructed with extensive assistance and supervision from your tribe. The developmental function of this ego, of this separate center of self-conscious subjectivity, identity, and agency, is as an exaptation to your social group, referring to “a feature that predisposes an organism to adapt to a different environment.”

You are not just a human being, then, but a person who participates in the interactive role plays that are central to the cultural environments of your society.

In the early months and years of childhood, your tribe assumed control over much of your experience. Your taller powers fed you, kept you clean, moved you around, held you, trained you, and managed the world in which you lived. Over time, that executive control was gradually transferred over to you, with each degree of autonomy further securing the internal center of self-control that we call your “ego.”

This wasn’t a do-whatever-you-want permission slip, however, for along with your so-called autonomy came a massive download of moral instructions that compelled conformity to your tribe’s definition of a “good person” and “right action” (what I call The Frame). Some tribes are fairly strict and repressive, as far as these moral definitions are concerned, which translates into ego-identities that are correspondingly small and exclusive.

To be an acceptable insider of your tribe, for example, you may have been required to conform to an identity profile of one skin color, one sexual orientation, one gender, one set of occupational options, one party affiliation, one set of orthodox beliefs, one official worldview – the “one and only way” of salvation, as it were.

A reductive and less flexible identity profile eventually gave you control over a much smaller identity, which simplified your experience considerably since it eliminated any gray areas and made everything black and white.

Even if you successfully reached this point in development and have achieved what psychology calls “ego integrity,” managing a personality and holding together a coherent identity, there’s a lot of reality that your identity keeps out – excludes, rejects, denies, and ignores. The individuative principle of consciousness has succeeded in forming a unique identity above your essential nature as a human being, but this ego is also a captive, inevitably, of the exclusionary boundaries it calls home. This is true in your case, in mine, and for everyone who has ever lived.

The tragedy in all of this, spiritually speaking, is that nothing excluded by identity can be joined in community.

Different skin colors, sexual orientations, gender assignments, lifestyles, beliefs, and worldviews – not to mention different species and other forms of life – must remain outside your horizon of identity and “out of bounds” of what you consider good, right, and proper. And if your religion happens to enshrine ego in its doctrines of god, salvation, and a heavenly reward for being good, right, and proper, then this might be the end of the journey for you.

Take this as a lens and you will notice immediately that a vast majority of the human population is stuck precisely here: prisoners of our own convictions, throwing up one wall after another against what is different and (so we believe) threatening to our personal security.

According to the Sophia Perennis (the perennial wisdom tradition or perennial philosophy), however, your true journey as a human being is only half done at this point. The real purpose in forming a separate center of personal identity (ego in its numerous roles) is to provide you with a relatively stable platform from which consciousness can drop into deeper centers – down and away from those exclusively unique attachments that had gone into the construction of identity on the way up and out of your essential nature so many years ago.

Each deeper center opens a larger horizon, including more in your understanding of who you really are.

By thus releasing your smaller identity and dropping into increasingly larger ones, consciousness descends by an inward, contemplative, and mystical path to a place of perfect solitude, which is paradoxically also the center of all things. Only by “letting go” of what separates you from everything else can consciousness proceed to ascend by an outward, transpersonal, and ethical path into harmony with other beings.

This higher wholeness of liberated life is what is known as spiritual community. You don’t lose yourself or subject your will to spiritual community, but instead you “come together” with others in mutual respect, intentional cooperation, and higher purpose. Spiritual community flourishes only to the extent that your individual freedom is affirmed and transcended, including your ego and not suppressing or canceling it out.

The ancient metaphorical root of this word, spirit, identifies the life-sustaining dynamic of “breathing in and breathing out,” together as one in unitive consciousness.

Now the journey is complete.