Alone in the Middle of Everything

Because the adventure of becoming somebody requires its own separate workspace, the entire project along with its product, a unique identity named “I” or ego, has prompted two very different judgments on the matter. Conventional religion typically regards the separate ego – conceived as estranged from its proper and original communion with god – as in need of rescue and reconciliation. More psychologically oriented spiritualities, on the other hand, often treat ego consciousness as an illusion to be dispelled on the path to enlightenment.

In this blog I try to chart a middle way between these opposites. This middle way is not about a third perspective on the problem of our self-conscious identity, but seeks rather to show how these others are on to something, but in fact misunderstand their own central insights.

Ego is a social construction and therefore not real, in the sense of having an essential nature of its own. Its construction advances by a process called sublimation, where the native consciousness and instincts of the body are trained into conformity with our tribe’s moral code. Naturally spontaneous impulses are thereby restrained (held back) and redirected into channels of behavior that are obedient to its definitions of a “good person” and “right action.”

The approved result of this social engineering is our individual persona, the identity (literally a mask) we present and carefully manage in the company of others. Prohibited, discouraged, and unacceptable aspects of ourselves, on the other hand, are suppressed (pushed down) and kept “off stage,” where they gather into our shadow.

If the split in our personality between the welcomed persona and the alienated shadow is severe enough, we can get caught in a neurotic spiral of insecurity, guilt, shame, and self-doubt. Inevitably these rejected parts of ourselves get projected outward onto others, where we feel justified in passionately condemning and attacking them without having to acknowledge their true source.

Now, that’s all a mess, or it can be, and it begins to make sense how some religions and spiritual traditions might regard ego itself as the chief problem. Either deliver it out of the body and safely to heaven, or else disqualify it as nothing more than a seductive mirage.

A middle way defends the importance of ego consciousness in the big picture of human evolution, but identifies it as a staging point on the longer course of our spiritual awakening. Without the establishment of a unique identity, separate from others and standing on its own center of self-conscious reference, consciousness itself would remain fully immersed in the web of existence (see my illustration above).

The image of a web is the perfect representation of the way things are. Science, too, has confirmed, again and again, how the universe is not merely “made up” of many parts but is itself a “whole system,” where nothing is truly separate from everything else. Our body, as a sentient, organic, and material system in its own right, is inextricably “wired into” this fabric or matrix of existence.

So, by sublimating a small portion of the body’s consciousness into a “side show” of reflexive self-conscious awareness, the resulting construct of identity (ego = “I”) comes to inhabit a delusion of its own separate existence.

Ego, therefore, is not something that can be rescued, for the simple reason that it lacks an essential nature – it isn’t real, but only a social construction. But because our self-conscious identity is to some extent a captive of its own neurotic disorders, there is some sense in which it is in need of salvation. So, conventional religion is on to something, although it makes the mistake of making ego’s salvation the main focus of concern.

On the other side, the spiritual traditions correctly see that personal identity lacks an essential nature. But they make the mistake of dismissing it as nothing but an obscuring illusion to be renounced and thrown aside.

In fact, it is from this admittedly illusory and delusional position of ego’s separate existence that consciousness has the opportunity of returning to reality, along two complementary but opposite paths. One path descends from ego’s center of identity and deeper into the grounding mystery of our embodied existence – thereby also deeper into communion with being-itself.

This is the realm of “soul,” which in many religions is confused with the ego; or perhaps it is rather that ego impersonates the soul out of envy of its peaceful repose in the ever-present (eternal-immortal) ground of being.

A second path doesn’t drop away from ego, but instead uses its position as a jumping-off point where self-consciousness can connect and join with others in transpersonal unity. This liberation beyond the confines of our delusion of separateness involves a fascinating dialectic: of leaping beyond personal identity even as it is taken up and included within a higher wholeness.

This mode of consciousness does not rest quietly in the depths of our being but is instead expressive, outgoing, relational, and creative – in a word, communal – which is why it is named “spirit,” from an ancient root meaning breath, air, and wind.

What are called “soul” and “spirit,” then, are complementary modes of consciousness: as it releases from ego and drops into a deeper communion with being (soul), or transcends ego into the higher wholeness of genuine community (spirit).

It should be obvious by now that the “farther reaches of human nature” (Abraham Maslow) depend for their realization on the construction of a personal identity and its executive ego, which paradoxically consigns us to an existential situation where we are alone in the middle of everything and confronted with our own Nothingness. Think of how much of our best art and philosophy find their inspiration in the tensions of this paradox.

It is precisely this situation that some religions have been hard at work to rescue us from, and which some spiritual teachings have advised us to provisionally regard but ultimately deny as a symptom of “fallen consciousness.”

I want to show that ego consciousness is, in fact, an advanced stage in the evolution of consciousness itself. But instead of rescue or denial, what we need is sufficient ego strength to drop away and leap beyond ourselves for an authentic engagement with reality.

As the ancient myths have been telling us for some time, our pursuit of personal identity and meaning is but a stage on a longer, much higher adventure.

Reality, Truth, and the Things We Believe

The favorite location of ego is in the silo “observatory” of our logical mind – in the head, in other words. This is the place where self-consciousness takes, or can take, its perspective on reality, engaging in the work of constructing and maintaining a world, which in this context refers to the construct of meaning that each of us, as a self-conscious individual, inhabits and defends.

I say that ego “can” take its perspective from that vantage point because, while the work of constructing a world certainly begins up there, it’s not long before we start thinking that we have all the information we need and proceed to draw our conclusions, close the windows, and lock the mind inside our convictions.

This is when our beliefs, along with the behavior they motivate and justify, can become pathological. Our logical mind is no longer taking a perspective and constructing meaning in reference to reality, but has instead been commandeered by the insecure ego and its desperate need – broadcasted outwardly as an imperious demand – that its closed-off view of things is the way things really are.

We happen to have some egregious examples of this closed-minded, trapped-in-conviction type of ego pathology featured in the U.S. national news right now.

These individuals cannot accept reality because it doesn’t match up to the world construct in their minds. They fall easily into conspiracy-thinking and become victims of delusion. And if the conspiracy they have fallen for is sufficiently extreme and apocalyptic, they will not hesitate to endorse or commit violence – which, of course, will be spun in their own minds as heroic action – for the sake of “the truth.”

What has to occur for someone to lose their perspective on reality and get caught in conspiracy-thinking? The explanation is not that they are stupid or gullible pushovers; many of them are intelligent enough to know better – but for some reason they don’t.

Perhaps we can reach some clarity on that question by first considering another, more foundational one: What makes a belief claim true? Indeed, what is truth? Popular consensus regards truth as “out there,” as just another word for objective reality, the simple facts, or the way things really are.

Truth in this sense is something to find – ferret out, dig up, bring into focus, or put our hands on. Given that a belief is not outside us in that sense but instead inside our mind, it would be erroneous to call a belief “the truth.” A belief about a fact is not the same as the fact itself.

Let’s just accept the idea that a fact simply is, that something is a fact quite apart from our attention on it or whatever we might think and believe about it. It is what it is, and our belief about it is something else – an observation, an opinion, a judgment, a story that carries some interpretation of what it means.

Truth is neither the fact by itself nor the belief in our mind, but a measure of how realistic, reality-oriented, or in touch with reality our belief happens to be. The truer a belief, the closer it gets our mind to the way things really are.

It’s possible for a belief to be meaningful but not true. A (false) belief can be very meaningful but lack any contact with or orientation to reality. Granted, a majority of the stories we love to listen to, tell to others, watch on the stage or screen, and read in books are in the category of “fictional,” referring to a narrative that is shaped, molded, and “made up” by the human mind. Such stories and the beliefs they may induce in us might be true in another sense, as expressive of the storyteller’s inner reality. Religious myths and poetry are examples of “fictional truth.”

So, we have made a critical distinction between truth as a measure of proximity, transparency, and mediation which a belief exhibits by some degree with respect to reality, the given facts, and the way things really are. A fact is not a statement, but some objective reality that the statement presumes to describe, define, or interpret. If a claim is made about something allegedly real – perhaps a conspiracy ring of Democrats, human trafficking, pedophilia, and cannibalism – then the truth of that claim is judged on the basis of evidence, of real facts that substantiate it and bear it out.

That particular bit of conspiracy-thinking has absolutely no basis in reality, no factual evidence to support it. Then why would anyone buy into it?

Typically some “evidence” is provided in the form of photographs and testimonies – not by someone the soon-to-be-true-believer personally knows and lives with, but likely conveyed on social media in the form of some viral online post. To be clear, a photograph or testimony is not really evidence but only a kind of claim that something is real. Since no one has actually met a child-trafficking cannibalistic Democrat, the supposed conspiracy ring is a pure fabrication with no basis in fact – except, perhaps, in the fact of the believer’s disgust with and animosity toward Democrats and what they represent.

A false claim would not be persuasive to a mind that isn’t already possessed by irrational fears of the dreaded thing. The fantastical and apocalyptic tenor of the claim will only be persuasive to someone who is already on the verge of feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguity and uncertainty of things.

But reality is itself ambiguous (shades of grey and not black-and-white) and beyond the certain grasp of our minds.

Any person who suffers with generalized anxiety will eagerly reach for anything that promises to break it all down into managable pieces – especially if those pieces are the elements of a conspiracy theory promising to resolve their anxiety in some dramatic, decisive – even violent and gruesome – way.

Those who invent and spread conspiracy theories of this kind can rightly be named “ideological terrorists,” for the way they seek by inception to plant a viral idea into the minds of those who are especially susceptible and “eager to believe.” A preposterous conspiracy theory like that promulgated by “QAnon” does its work by stirring the fears that some folks have over a perceived slide of American democracy into a socialist and, eventually, communist state.

Exactly what this would mean is not altogether clear to them, but at the very least it would deprive them as citizens of their civil liberties, economic opportunities, and the authority to protect and determine the future of their children. In this way, Democrats (as proponents of top-down government interventions), trafficking pedophiles (who threaten to take our children) and cannibals (in order to kill and eat them), are operating as metaphors – but which they take quite literally.

Their fears are rooted in deeper – we can even say more respectable and legitimate – concerns, but it’s the horrific imagery that mobilizes their hostility against the Democratic party.

At the very least, this is all a lesson in human credulity – of how easily we lose contact with reality and start believing things that are fantastical, delusional, outlandish, and simply not true. The combination of our own native insecurity and uncertainty over what’s farther out and up ahead is a fuse just waiting to be lit.

Dawn of a New Age

In The Progress of Wisdom and Curriculum Spiritus I offered a perspective on religion as the incubator of spiritual wisdom, discovered and clarified by our species over the millenniums of so-called higher culture.* I argued for what can be named the “originary principles” of wisdom, highlighting not only the historically original revelations by which they broke into our collective consciousness, but also to make the point that these wisdom principles have continued their transformative and evolutionary influence upon subsequent generations.

Not all generations, however, and only a relatively few individuals have been willing to download this spiritual wisdom from the “cloud” of higher consciousness.

Thinking of it that way – as mystical intuitions and ethical ideals that are discovered (or revealed) at particular historical moments by living individuals who clarify and manifest them in actual life, effectively “uploading” these principles (intuitions and ideals) into the collective consciousness of not only their contemporary generation but our entire species, and ready thereafter for subsequent “downloads” by individuals of future generations, whereupon they can continue their transforming influence on our life together in community – brings our consideration back around to the role of religion in the whole adventure.

My aim in the present post is to elucidate the full and evolving system of these originary principles of spiritual wisdom, extracted from their historical chapters (in this or that religion) and presented in such a way that their genetic and developmental logic can be clearly seen.

First, let’s get our bearings in the graphic above. The middle column contains the major advancing stages, moving upward from bottom, in the curriculum spiritus or path of spiritual wisdom, along with symbols associated with the historical religions by which its four originary principles first entered our collective consciousness (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam).

Each wisdom principle further extended but also stretched the limits of the preceding one(s), generating a creative tension among them that continues to drive human transformation.

On either side of each originary principle are arranged what I’ll call key virtues which together provide definition and practical application in our understanding of it. We will look at these eight key virtues more closely below. Zooming out a step or two will reveal the whole system as facilitating the circulation of spiritual energy, inwardly rooted by “faith” in the grounding mystery of being, and actualizing outward in “service” to the higher wholeness of genuine community.

As an important disclaimer, I want to repeat my caution against identifying the four historical religions with the originary principle each had, once upon a time, been instrumental in clarifying and conveying into the transcultural stream of spiritual wisdom. This is where it’s important to distinguish between the spiritual life-force of a religion and its historical accretions of sacred tradition: holy texts, institutional authorities, moral precepts, ritual practices, and orthodox beliefs.

Every honest and fervent quest for the “essence” of this or that historical religion has been in search of this spiritual life-force, the “originary” experience that got it all going to begin with, and which continues to inspire its more truthful and tranforming moments.

Sadly, all religions – even the four featured in the curriculum spiritus – fall out of alignment from time to time, and some might even forfeit their souls in pursuit of infallible authority, absolute truth, global supremacy, or some such delusion.

For my own tradition, I can say that Christianity has lost its soul again and again, occasionally recovering some sense of itself but perhaps never fully catching the vision and revolutionary message of Jesus for any significant length of time. Thanks to his courageous demonstration of unconditional forgiveness, however, this originary principle of spiritual wisdom was successfully uploaded and now awaits its download by any who are ready to follow his example and live, as we say, “in the spirit of Jesus.”

Fidelity as Faith and Responsibility

A sacred promise and commitment (in Jewish and Christian religions known as a covenant) that keeps partners engaged in the work of relationship requires their mutual fidelity. On one side, this fidelity, or covenant faithfulness, is rooted in the faith that each partner has in the provident nature of reality. Faith should not be confused with the collection of doctrinal tenets that one may believe, or that are shared and professed by members of a religion. Its etymology goes far below such professions of belief, reaching to that deep inner space where ego has been left behind and the soul rests in the grounding mystery of being.

Outwardly – and the circulatory flow of this entire system of originary principles and key virtues is outward/upward on the righthand side, and inward/downward on the left – convenant fidelity is fulfilled in each partner’s responsibility to their mutual benefit. They are responsible, that is to say, not exactly to each other but to the health and longevity of their relationship. As their reciprocal affections naturally ebb and flow, this responsibility to their partnership holds them together, keeping them engaged in the work of relationship.

Compassion as Empathy and Kindness

The em- in empathy invites us inward again, to a deep level of intimate self-awareness. While each of us experiences life as contextualized by a unique set of circumstances, our experiences themselves are profoundly the same. We all know (or come to know) what it is to feel lost, confused, betrayed, abandoned, bereaved, ridiculed, ashamed, injured, sick, weak, lonely and without hope; to be at our wits’ end. Our own inner acquaintance with such experience-induced feelings primes our sympathy for others who are going (or have gone) through similar things. The Latin-derived word “compassion” and the Greek-derived word “sympathy” have an identical meaning, as the sensitive understanding of someone else’s experience based on this deep acquaintance with our own.

True compassion cannot remain a bystander to another’s suffering, but further motivates us to reach out, step in, and stand with them in their experience. Kindness is the outgoing positive energy that seeks to assist, encourage, liberate, and uplift the other. In the vision of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), this compassionate energy of kindness is intended not just for those in desperate need, but for all people; and not for other humans only, but “all sentient beings.” In that respect the originary principle of compassion is universal in scope.

Forgiveness as Integrity and Freedom

Up a step and back to the left, we see that forgiveness, which in Greek literally means “to let go,” is a function of our individual integrity. Unless individuals are inwardly centered and whole, they will be susceptible to getting pulled into neurotic attachments, emotional entanglement, and codependent relationships where partners can neither live with each other nor be on their own. It’s this off-centered co-dependent dynamic of leaning into each other that keeps us locked into the “retributive reflex” of score-keeping, paying back, and getting even. Until we get re-centered in ourselves, this dysfunctional and mutually destructive back-and-forth will continue.

Jesus taught and lived by the originary principle of unconditional forgiveness. He exhorted individuals in his audience to stand on their own centers (i.e., have integrity) and respond creatively, graciously, and therefore surprisingly to the hostile intentions and hurtful behavior of others. Having “let go” of the compulsive need to get even, to repay evil with evil, such a person enjoys the freedom to choose a higher road and a better future. The unconditional nature of forgiveness means that it doesn’t wait for the other to “see the light” and repent of his sin, but instead loves him anyway, in total freedom.

Devotion as Surrender and Service

In a recent post I analyzed devotional religion into the three essential moves of surrender, sacrifice, and service – all directed, at least in conventional forms of theism, toward the deity as center and focus of worship. In early and high theism, sacrifice (making offerings to the god) was the most overt of the three, with surrender and service only implied in the sacrificial rite.

Muhammad understood that the ritual performance was actually secondary in importance to the key virtues of surrender and service. The very name Islam refers to the surrender of ego ambitions to the “will of Allah,” which intends peace, harmony, fulfillment and wellbeing. As the culminating stage of the curriculum spiritus, surrender is about the release of consciousness from the conditioned ego, passing through the center of integrity and into the inner chamber of empathic awareness, coming to rest and finding serenity in the grounding mystery of being itself.

The outward manifestation of devotion is service, the last of our key virtues and the one that provides a creative outlet of spirituality into consistent and dedicated action on behalf and for the sake of the greater good – the peace, harmony, fulfillment, and wellbeing mentioned above. The whole framework of originary principles and key virtues of spiritual wisdom – which is to say, the general intention of the curriculum spiritus itself – reveals these as the four transpersonal ideals of genuine community.

As we align our thoughts and aspirations with these ideals, committing ourselves in service to their actualization in our life together, we may at last enjoy the apotheosis of humanity and the dawning of a new age.

*This post is third in a three-part exploration of the spiritual wisdom tradition. I recommend reading them in the order as mentioned for the best grasp on what I’m trying to show.

Living From the Center

One of the more serious consequences of stress – by which I mean not our response of “stressing out,” but the sheer pressure, commotion, demands and distractions of everyday life – is in the way it causes our attention to close down on what we think we can manage. Problems come as this collapsed perspective and diminishing mental bandwidth limit our capacity for making life truly meaningful.

At times like these, we can start to feel that life itself isn’t meaningful, and even that it’s not worth living. It’s as if we’ve been given the task of building a house, but all we have to work with is a single board and one nail. If our “house” is a meaningful life, then constructing one of our own seems out of the question.

What we need are four essential things: (1) sufficient materials and tools for the project, along with (2) some basic construction skills, as well as (3) a blueprint or building plan for the house we want, and (4) a self-responsible authority for the work needing to be done.

When our focus gets riveted by the urgency of our problems and we’re standing here with our one board and nail, we’re more than willing to abandon our creative role and give the job to someone else.

There’s lots of people standing ready to tell us what our life means: Advertisers, politicians, clergy, our own friends and family members. But typically there’s an ulterior motive laced into the advice they give.

Once again, this is where our perennial philosophy of spiritual wisdom can help us out. I’m not talking about the scrolls of pithy proverbs and sage counsel we will find in its library, at any number of cultural locations around the earth. These wisdom sayings are themselves generated on a four-dimensional matrix organized around the sacred center of intentional awareness – where you are and I am, here and now.

From this center of intentional awareness we are invited to look – to direct our attention – into four dimensions: behind us and ahead of us (in time), as well as around us (in space) and within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being. I will call these, respectively, hindsight, foresight, outsight, and insight.

While the answers we come to in considering these four orientations of consciousness are expected to be fairly individualized, as each of us is traversing a unique path across a particular set of life circumstances, the questions themselves are the same no matter where or when we happen to live.

The first-order achievement in any case is to locate our center of intentional awareness – not what we’re focusing on or thinking about, nor even the mental act of attending, but that which attends, considers, and actively creates the meaning of life. It’s not who we are pretending to be in our various roles in life, nor the one (called ego) who is carrying on the charade.

We can name this center of intentional awareness our authentic self.

From this timeless location in the here-and-now we are invited to remember, to “bring back to mind,” the path that brought us here. The quest for wisdom through hindsight involves more than merely rambling through the debri field of our past, looking for a memory thread or storyline that might help us make sense of what’s going on.

Hindsight is not about recalling specific things that happened in the past, but is rather the capacity for seeing our life as an unbroken heritage of experiences that have shaped and delivered us to this present moment. Although we don’t ordinarily appreciate it as such, this heritage of experiences holds signals and reminders, persistent patterns and recurrences that reveal how we got here. Inside that tapestry design are essential clues to our life’s meaning.

Directing attention ahead of ourselves to the future, the dimension of foresight invites us to trace out the trajectory of those more persistent patterns and recurrences, but not simply in the interest of predicting what is still to come. In reality, the future (i.e., what’s ahead) doesn’t come to us already predetermined, but instead emerges out of the present, from the rich mixture of persistent patterns, current conditions, creative opportunities, and our intentional awareness.

Recurring events in our past, particularly the painful ones, can be seen from the perspective of wisdom as opportunities to pay attention and learn something, and then to apply this new understanding in a more adaptive and successful response to life. Many of us keep falling into the same opportunity to learn a crucial life lesson, but our lack of hindsight pushes it away and in a sense predestines us to have to go through the same pain, again and again.

Alternatively, as our length of hindsight increases through the discipline of contemplative remembrance, the clarity and reach of foresight increases as well.

As I mentioned earlier, one serious consequence of stress is to close down our attention to what we think we can manage and control. This lets us screen out everything except for what we are convinced is “making” us anxious, frustrated, vexed, and exhausted. Wisdom tells us, quite otherwise, that our liberation will come as we open attention with outsight to the larger context – not in riveting our focus down, but expanding outward our horizon of awareness.

Most of our neurotic disorders are actually caused by the contraction of consciousness into the insecurities, obsessions, defenses, and convictions of an isolated ego. Outsight helps us see and understand that we are not alone in our experience, that everything is connected, and All is One. Nothing, anywhere, is really separate from the whole. We come to appreciate our life as participation in this higher wholeness, but also as having creative agency in its communal wellbeing.

Perhaps the strongest association with the cultivation of wisdom in popular culture – to whatever extent anyone really thinks of it these days – is in the meditative introspection of monks, mystics, and spiritual masters across the world cultures. What they all have in common, beyond the esoteric and labyrinthine metaphysics they frequently espouse, is a quest for insight – literally to “see into” the depths of experience, the inner life of the soul, and the ground of our very being.

Getting there, however, can be an almost impossible task for those of us who are entangled in attachments and desperately trying to hold ourselves together.

In this condition, we are convinced that below this neurotic highwire act is an oblivion we are saving ourselves from by all our worry and hard work. The wisdom of insight encourages our release and surrender nonetheless, with the assurance that underneath us is not a terrifying abyss but a provident ground; and further, that the terrible depth of our so-called fall is only a delusion of ego consciousness. Ego itself doesn’t “fall,” but our contemplative awareness descends away from ego, leaving it “up there” in the tangle of self-concerns.

At the start of a New Year, this is the perfect time for us to get centered and begin (again) the creative work of making a more meaningful life. With hindsight, foresight, outsight and insight, we can build a house that is beautiful, spacious, uniquely our own, and welcoming to every guest.

Your Triune Nature

Given that truth in mythology is not a matter of factual or historical accuracy but rather the degree in which its stories express and reveal to us the reality of what we are, I’ve been reflecting lately on a persistent fascination of Christian mythology: the triune nature of God. (I’m using the uppercase ‘G’ here to acknowledge that this particular doctrine of Christian orthodoxy is more an article of theology than mythology proper.)

We don’t find the three-in-One god in the Bible, but only in the conceptual and logical meditations of scholars who are making a case for identifying that literary character with ultimate reality.

I’m wondering: If the attractor for all this trinitarian theology is not really in the Bible, then perhaps it lies within us, in the nature of those who find such reflection so deeply interesting – as if we are pondering the mystery of our own existence in a mirror. Not that we are gods – that’s not what I’m suggesting – but that our theological constructs of God are, at least in part, projections and intimations of ourselves, the deeper truth of what we are.

We’ll see if this works, but I’m going to arrange a number of ideas in a single graphic, intended to serve as the “mirror” in our contemplation of your three-in-One nature as a human being. If you can be patient, I’ll do my best to guide you through the picture in a way that minimizes your risk of getting lost in the details. As we move along, I’ll put key terms in bold text.

Starting left of the midline, your triune nature is depicted as consisting of “animal,” “personal,” and “spiritual” dimensions; what we’ll call your first nature, your second nature, and your higher nature respectively; or, by way of a shorthand summary, body, ego, and soul. I’ve arranged them in this vertical fashion to represent the developmental sequence by which they awaken and come “online,” starting at the bottom and going upwards.

Thus, your body or first nature is where your journey begins. Looking just to the right of the midline, I am tagging it as possessing basic survival drives that conspire to keep you alive and move you toward what you need to be healthy. Your first nature as a human being operates mostly below the threshold of conscious awareness, and its drives are compulsions rooted in animal instincts that are not only primal but also very ancient, reaching back many millions of years and across numerous lines of prehuman species.

Your ego or second nature comes next, as the social construction of a personal identity – of a member in good standing who performs your assigned roles in general agreement with your group’s standards of “right action” and a “good person” – in a shared understanding known as conscience. As a mechanism of social conformity, conscience serves to restrain certain impulses of your first nature and redirect their energy into behavior more aligned with group values and aims. We can also think of conscience as the cultivation of desire, in a manner that serves – or at least doesn’t undermine – the common good.

The path of your constructed identity entailed the formation of a stable center, which in turn provided your developing personality with ego integrity – a unified sense of self. Establishing an internal locus of control and agency gradually made it possible for you to depend less on others and enjoy creative freedom.

Complications early on, in the form of abuse, neglect, trauma or chronic stress, tend to make this journey to a centered identity more problematic, resulting in a personality whose center is outside of itself in neurotic attachment.

Under provident conditions the construction of a stable identity continued by the guidance and inspiration of your tribe, preparing for the awakening of your spiritual (or higher) nature. Whereas in premodern society this coordination of spiritual education by a deeper reflection on the symbols and sacred stories of faith was the province of religion, today an individual might well be on his or her own to figure things out. Carl Jung observed that “modern man” is “in search of a soul.”

The real work in any case is surrendering your ego to the higher power of transcendent virtues and ideals (exemplified in the deity) and sacrificing (literally making sacred) your time, energy, and resources in service to the will of god – i.e., to the realization of those divine virtues and ideals in your life with others. Together, these three “moves” in the traditional worship of god are the essence of devotion, making theistic religion essentially devotional in focus.

Healthy religion – and your own spiritual practice – will stir the waking of your higher nature, even to the point of encouraging you to “let go of god.”

Second-nature religion (aka theism) can forge such a strong bond between you and your deity, that breaking through to a soul-centered spirituality is frought with anxiety, guilt, and shame. To let go of god can be easily misconstrued as a rejection of god or rebellion against god, which is frequently how authoritarian theism will play it against you. Insiders will accuse you of abandoning the faith, of turning your back on god and them, and try to persuade you back into the fold.

For you, however, the surrender of devotion has deepened into a full release of ego consciousness for a profound and ineffable experience of inner peace. Descending away from your center of identity, which also entails letting go of your god, you lose yourself – some spiritual teachings refer to this as dying to the conditioned self – in an unbroken communion waiting quietly in the grounding mystery of your being.

Simultaneously another passage opens, this one inviting you to give yourself in service to the higher virtues of genuine community: chief among them compassion, goodwill, lovingkindness and generosity. Whereas the descent of a post-theistic spirituality to inner peace is possible only by the subtraction of ego consciousness, this ascent of higher purpose is only possible insofar as your separate center of identity is affirmed, transcended, and included (distilled in the term transpersonal) – not by subtraction but addition.

This in turn introduces an exponential factor, multiplying with others to produce the transformative effects of a liberated life in community.

The descending path, then, involves letting go of god and leaving god behind (i.e., “up there” at the surface of ego consciousness), while the asending path involves letting go of god in order that the divine virtues, which had earlier been attributed to god and glorified in the worship of god, can be internalized, assimilated, and embodied (from Christianity, incarnated) in your life with others.

From Wonder to Conviction

In the title of this post I have summarized the path of humanity to our final extinction as a species on planet Earth. It won’t be for a lack of convictions that our self-destruction comes, but rather due to an incapacity for wonder.

I might also have titled this post “An Apology for Wonder,” where apology is not a confession of guilt with an implied petition for forgiveness, but a reasoned argument in defense of something. But then again, what I would be attempting to defend is my belief in the important place of wonder in the mind’s engagement with reality – which in a sense commits the fatal mistake I’m hoping to expose here.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what I’m getting at is to look at your own life and take it as recapitulating the longer course of human history, in the progress and setbacks you’ve had along the way.

The embodied mind of human intelligence evolved for the purpose of facilitating your engagement with reality – with what’s really there and really real, translated as quickly as necessary into behavior that is relevant to what’s going on and adaptive in helping you manage the situations of life. This engagement is processed through a series of steps, or modes, from initial sense perceptions, through a web of mental associations, and finally to the conclusion that motivates (and to you as actor, justifies) a behavioral – or at least a physiological – response.

Considered as a process, even as an algorithm or linear sequence of steps, your mind’s engagement with reality can be understood as open to reality at the beginning and gradually closing upon its constructed beliefs about what’s going on, what it means, and what’s coming next.

When you think about it, a belief about anything is really a conclusion held by your mind, on its own or in agreement with other minds.

It’s important to know that you didn’t begin your life with beliefs about reality already fully formed in your mind. They would come with time and experience, under the tutelage of your tribe, but also only as you acquired the codes, symbols, and logical operations of language. As a construct of language, a belief is a propositional conclusion whose articulation in thought requires and depends on the tools of language.

Before language, then, your mind’s primary engagement with reality was that of wonder – an “open-minded” orientation to what is really there and really real. Such openness to reality has been vitally important to our survival and adaptation as a species, ensuring that our responses in behavior and physiology were “successful” in meeting the challenges, threats, and opportunities life brought our way.

Your mind’s attitude of wonder should not be dismissed as a gaze of baffled enchantment at things whose meaning is beyond you or “over your head.” As the Jewish mystical philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel insisted, wonder is a legitimate category of epistemology. It is your mind’s primary mode of engagement with reality, both in the sense of coming first chronologically and in the way it continues to play a key role in your construction of meaning.

The Greek philosopher Plato also claimed that wisdom begins in wonder – and must never abandon it.

But here’s the problem: We do abandon wonder and its open-minded engagement with reality. The reasons for this are legion, but the main thread can be traced in the mind’s gradual – and we must acknowledge, culturally instructed – withdrawal from a spontaneous and imaginative fascination with what’s going on, into an ever-stronger emotional commitment to our conclusions.

In one sense, this progression (or recession from the position of wonder) toward a set of beliefs that serves to orient us in society, secure our membership, identify us to one another, and make our lives meaningful is a sign of intellectual maturity. When it entails (or requires) an abandonment of wonder, however, the consequence is that our beliefs degenerate into convictions – by which I don’t merely mean stronger beliefs, but beliefs so strong, so fixed and rigid, so absolute in their certainty, that contact with reality is not only no longer necessary but passionately resisted.

Removing your mind from reality and enclosing it inside essentially windowless boxes of belief, where simply confessing them over and over again makes them feel more certain and true, does indeed convey some therapeutic relief from having to engage with what’s really going on around you.

As you were growing up, the world became increasingly complicated and confusing in its diversity. To help you manage, your family and society – with your full if not fully conscious agreement, it must be said – got to work contructing these boxes of belief. Whatever didn’t fit into a box was left out as not important, or else modified and resized so it would fit. And anything in reality that didn’t have a corresponding box was simply ignored and eventually forgotten.

If the anxiety over what you couldn’t control, contain, comprehend, or keep at a distance was severe enough, you hid inside your box and pulled down the lid. Beliefs that would normally provide a perspective on reality ended up as convictions separating you from it. And just like a convict in his cell, your mind became a prisoner of its convictions.

From then on, your attitudes and behavior would be determined by conclusions that lacked a reality orientation, which is to say they were neither very realistic nor relevant. And depending on how early in your emotional development they got set, your present convictions are neither rational, reasonable, nor responsible – by way of taking responsibility – for the behavior they produce.

Just look at all the damage and death that convicted believers in one thing or another have caused throughout human history and around the world. It’s still going on, as the population grows and our perceived (better, imagined) threats multiply around us.

Now, I need to say that in using you as a scale model for diagnosing our current predicament as a species, I do not assume that you are in fact a hostage of your convictions. Nevertheless, you do have some convictions, and so do I. Some of our beliefs – about ourselves, about others, about the world around us, about god and government – keep us out of touch with reality. More to the point, they were fashioned precisely for this purpose.

And to that extent, our convictions are a dangerous force – I would argue the most dangerous force on planet Earth, in the way they shut down wonder, separate us from what’s really real, estrange us from one another, and asphyxiate our souls.

What’s Really Going On

Each of us is rather caught up and fixated on our own personal life – making it through today, cleaning up from yesterday, and getting ready for tomorrow. There’s barely enough mental bandwidth to pay attention to all the details and passing concerns. Catching up on global events is out of the question, and thinking about what’s going on around our planet and across the universe – well, don’t get me started.

But now that we’re on the topic, let’s take just a few minutes to ponder what really is going on – not just for me or you or even just on our planet, but what’s going on everywhere, for everyone, and for everything in existence.

Such deep and far-reaching questions have been a significant preoccupation of our species for many thousands of years, and our answers have been offered up in the form of great narratives.

For the longest time, these narratives were metaphorical in nature and organized around dramatic storylines, known in Greek as myths or “plots.” More recently, which is to say during the last 2,500 years or so, our narratives have been in the form of mathematical (or rational) explanations called theories, also from the Greek referring to a way of “looking at” something – from a distance as it were.

Poets and scientists have been understandably critical of each other’s narratives, with poets accusing the scientists of disenchanting the universe, and scientists accusing the poets of enchanting the mind. It has occurred only to a relative few on both sides, that maybe each approach has a legitimate place in our human quest for understanding.

In other posts I have tried to make this very point, suggesting that while scientific theories seek to explain – literally to “lay things out” logically before the mind, religious myths have sought to reveal – or “pull back the veil” on a hidden reality which our mind cannot grasp.

In what follows we will take a step back, and down, into the creative imagination where this quest is rooted and energized. My diagram is intended to provide some orientation as we go along.

I’ll ask you to imagine yourself, perhaps in silhouette, standing at the very center, with that black vertical line serving as your axis. Integrity refers to the force or principle that enables something – you, in this case – to “hold together as one.” Each existing form is governed to some degree by this principle of integrity, centered in itself and also, by virtue of standing in its own center, separate from all others roundabout.

Your centered existence and existential center is where you are grounded in being. Ontology is the study of being, of the power-to-be (or be-ing) that sustains your existence from within. You are a physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious person: each step upwards into yourself corresponds to an evolutionary stage in the formation, and transformations, of the universe.

Scientific theories offer objective explanations of this grounding mystery as examined from outside, while religious myths serve as subjective revelations of the Mystery experienced and expressed from within.

Coming back to you at the center, we need to acknowledge a second force or principle which is acting in creative tension with that of integrity. Synergy refers to a fusion of two or more things coming together, getting engaged, “hooking up,” and combining their energies in a higher wholeness. As a force, synergy is constantly moving things into relationships where a more complex order of existence, as well as an expanded horizon of awareness and life, is possible.

The Greek term cosmology literally means the study of order, of the larger patterns that lure individuals beyond themselves into engagements and organizations of increasing complexity. Once again, scientific theory formulates an objective explanation of the cosmos, leaving out as far as possible the perspective of any human mind (i.e., the observer), while religious myth contemplates the higher wholeness from this very self-conscious perspective: what it is to be in and belong to the whole.

Because you are self-conscious and the cosmos includes you, it is perfectly logical – but more importantly, deeply insightful – to say that the universe is conscious of itself in you.

The story of your life, then, is a narrative account of your origins (where you came from and how you came to be who you are) – what is known as etiology or the study of causality. Single sperm and egg cells, each centered in its own integrity, came together and merged into a synergetic whole. This microcosm of a fertilized egg proceeded to divide, converge, differentiate and unify at ever-higher degrees of complexity, specializing according to a genetic code into the physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious human being that you are.

This story of causal unfolding flows very naturally into a complementary story of directional aims and evolutionary purposes, or teleology in Greek. Coming together, participating in, and contributing to higher orders of complexity and wholeness might lead to us expect that the ultimate aim of your existence is to endure forever inside the grand harmony of the universe.

But there is a spoiler principle yet to be accounted for, and its work is to break things down into more stable arrangements and energy states.

This is the principle of entropy, literally the tendency of all things to “turn in” on themselves and disintegrate into their more elementary components. If you’re still paying attention, then you will recognize the force of entropy – this breakdown of complex arrangements to simpler and more stable ones – as the gradual arc of your mortality. Higher-order participation is slowly released, engagement with the world relaxes, and the integrity of your own existence as a self-conscious, sentient, living, and physical being starts to loosen and degrade, one level at a time, until your time is up.

At that point, who you are will go out like a candle flame, leaving what you were to further dissolve into its elements, eventually to be taken up once again into the grounding mystery of something, or someone, else.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as we read in the Book of Common Prayer. The interval between is the miracle of your life, and here you are at the center.

Spirituality for Everyone

One of my objectives in this blog, to be perfectly honest, is to help others understand spirituality as essentially distinct from orthodox religion and esoteric spiritualism. It is not, as religions commonly are, an establishment of conservative morality and an echo chamber of archaic superstitions. But neither is it a secret tradition of metaphysical revelations and paranormal powers, protected and passed on to new generations of illuminati by obscure rituals.

As I see it, spirituality is intentional living by the activation of your spiritual intelligence (SQ). Unique to this strand within the quadratic intelligence of our species is a capacity for grounded awareness and unity consciousness, to plumb the depths of your being and participate in the higher wholeness of all things. Such intentional living is very naturally productive of health, happiness, and harmony – what we all desire as human beings.

It’s understandable if theologians and mystagogues might regard my efforts with suspicion, since the goal here is to show everyone – not just true believers and illuminati but each and every one of us – that spirituality is fundamentally a way of life, and one that is open to all.

If orthodox religion and esoteric spiritualism are concerned about membership – belonging to the right tradition, believing the right things, and behaving in the right ways – proper spirituality is interested in primarily one thing: breaking through to the liberated life.

An important feature of this particular type of spirituality, which is best labeled “post-theistic,”* has to do with its emphasis on the developed personality and its executive center of identity, called ego (from Latin for “I”). Instead of regarding the ego as “against god,” in need of rescue to heaven, or as the immortal divinity of your true self, post-theistic spirituality treats it as a healthy symptom and leading indicator in the process of your becoming a unique individual person.

An axiom of spiritual wisdom acknowledges that All is One. In its own way, Western science has confirmed this truth, registered somewhat covertly in its name for the cosmic totality of all things: Universe, literally “turning as one.”

This includes, of course, each of us and all of us together – human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, you and me, the clouds and the stars beyond.

We might call this the Fact of facts, the one sure thing, regardless of whether you contemplate it in rapturous wonder or bumble along in complete ignorance of its truth. And this is where spirituality – or at least your spiritual intelligence – comes into the picture. By virtue of its evolved capacity for grounded awareness and unity consciousness, your spiritual intelligence makes it possible for you to experience your life as both a manifestation of the oneness and as participation in the allness – in the All that is One.

So, while we can agree conceptually that “All is One,” it’s also necessary to understand that you can live your entire life without verifying this Fact of facts in your own experience. Your spiritual intelligence might remain dormant, undeveloped, or suppressed, leaving the depth and unity of existence screened outside your awareness.

Merely subscribing intellectually to these ideas, holding them religiously as doctrines, or confessing them in unison with a standing congregation of fellow believers isn’t a substitute for an awakened spirituality.

A central tenet of post-theistic spirituality affirms the ego – your separate center of self-conscious personal identity – as serving a critical function in the activation of your spiritual intelligence. The drop into a contemplative experience of oneness (what I call the grounding mystery) and the leap into a transpersonal experience of allness (or higher unity) presuppose a set location in consciousness from which the drop or leap is taken.

This location is your ego.

For a proper reading of my diagram, keep your eye on the center axis. The formation of your ego and contruction of a personal identity entail a gradual contraction of consciousness, out of the undifferentiated (and relatively speaking, unconscious) oneness, or communion, in which you are immersed, like a fish in water. With your self-center established, you are able to participate in the shared consciousness (or “togetherness”) of relationships, or what is properly named community – literally “together as one.”

The difference between community and communion is an experiential one: in community your ego is included and transcended in a higher wholeness, while in communion your separate center of identity is released for a deeper oneness where differences and distinctions begin to dissolve away.

I like to think of this duality of higher wholeness (community) and deeper oneness (communion) as the Yang and Yin of the All-as-One, the ultimate reality of Tao.

If everything went reasonably well in your early years of ego formation – with good-enough parents and a provident home environment – your emerging personality, with the executive ego at its center, achieved a sufficient degree of integrity. In this context, integrity is a measure of how stable and unified your personality is by virtue of possessing a secure center of identity. It is from this center that a contemplative release into communion is possible, leading to deeper experiences of solitude.

Ego integrity also affords your personality a necessary freedom from other people and the world around you. You no longer need to emotionally cling to or lean on something outside yourself for security, which sets you free to engage others and the world around you with intention rather than in reaction or by compulsion. Relating to others on such a non-attachment basis allows for attentive and compassionate engagement, where genuine dialogue between partners can take place.

In other posts I refer to dialogue – literally the mutual construction of meaning by partners in relationship – as the high calling of genuine community. Together-as-one, partners create a shared world based on respect, compassion, service, inclusion, and goodwill.

That’s spirituality for everyone.

*Interpreting spirituality against the backdrop of religion and its three main types (animism, theism, and post-theism) provides important context for a constructive approach to religion itself.

What Do You Want? (The Pyramid of Human Desires)

Let me start with a bold declaration. Each of us – every human being – wants to be healthy, happy, and in harmonious relationships with others and the world around us. Of course, we pursue many other things, like sex, wealth, power, status, and immortality, but these are only derivative and secondary as compared to our desire for health, happiness, and harmony.

Our desire for health is probably beyond argument. No one wants to be sick or injured, to live with chronic pain or terminal illness. True enough, we don’t always (or even very often, consistently) do those things that support and promote our health – and by this I primarily mean our physical health. We may have grown up in a household where junk food was a staple and portions were not controlled.

So even if we don’t do, or even know what and how to do what would make us healthy, we still want to be healthy.

When it comes to our desire for happiness, this too might be indisputable except for the fact that we all seem to hold different definitions and pursue it in ways that are in many instances radically divergent. And if a certain percentage of humans are unhealthy, it would seem that an even higher percentage are unhappy – by which I don’t mean just momentarily anxious, frustrated, disappointed, or grieved, but chronically (even in some cases clinically) so.

All around us is news of tension, conflicts, violence, and suffering, generating unhappiness on large scales: Bad people doing evil things to hurt other people who don’t deserve it. We have only to look into our own lives, however, to understand that this kind of consequential unhappiness – unhappiness that follows as a consequence of other things – is not the full picture. In fact, these very things are themselves clear symptoms of an underlying and antecedent unhappiness.

People hurt other people and cause unhappiness because they are already unhappy themselves, and are either trying to make themselves happy by taking control and manipulating others, or else by spreading their unhappiness to others in hopes of feeling less lonely in their own misery.

In the list of things every human being wants – health, happiness, and harmony with others and the world around us – is an implied hierarchy of value: the Pyramid of Human Desires.

Health is most basic and provides a foundation for the others. When we are healthy, our energy and attention can be turned toward things that interest and inspire us, things that excite us to learn and challenge us to grow, things that motivate us to live generously and take personal responsibility.

These are things that support and promote our happiness in life. To be clear, we don’t (and can’t) find happiness in these things. In other words, our unhappy craving will not find satisfaction in them if we pick them up and gobble them down with the expectation that they will make us happy at last, or lastingly happy.

Similarly, when we are happy, the way we engage with others and the world around us is more harmonious than when we are not happy. If instead of coming to others and the world around us with a preexisting cultivated sense of happiness, we try to find our happiness in others and in the world around us – because we don’t have it yet or know what it really is – we will cause damage and harm to others as well as to ourselves.

The harmony we seek, in other words, is dependent in many ways on our ability to cultivate happiness and share it with others.

This would suggest that large-scale and chronic conflicts among humans and human groups (races, tribes, sects, nations, and parties), along with the widespread suffering they cause, can be traced in their causality to a failure in managing our own individual happiness. We mistakenly believe that something or someone outside us will make us happy – or perhaps merely less anxious, frustrated, disappointed, or depressed – and acting on this mistaken belief is what generates (or at least perpetuates) our tensions and conflicts with others and the world around us.

Which brings us back down the Pyramid, to the desire for and commitment to our health. Each step downward confirms a second principle in play, to the one just reviewed in going up.

Just as harmony with others and the world around us provides a salutary context for happiness in life, so does the cultivation of happiness sustain in each of us a chronic mood of inner calm and centered awareness. The science of psychosomatic health verifies just how essential is our chronic mood – and by that is meant the baseline internal state and emotional energy of our nervous system – to our general physical health. Many dysfunctions and diseases of the body can be understood and best treated as signs of an underlying systemic (i.e., psychosomatic or “mind-body”) imbalance.

Before we can effectively address and resolve the conflicts among us, we need to bring to this work the gift of our own happiness and a deep commitment to the cultivation of inner peace. The wisdom traditions of the world have taught this for millenniums. If you take a second look at this shared depository of spiritual wisdom, you’ll soon begin to see the Pyramid of Human Desires (health, happiness, and harmony with others and the world around us) bringing it all into focus.

The Wisdom Code

I agree: It’s hard being you.

Your whole life you’ve been trying to figure this thing out, but still you’re left with unanswered questions and pressing concerns. It’s not clear that you’ll be able to “crack the code” before your time is up.

It sure seems that humans would have reached a deeper understanding by now, after thousands of years of suffering and searching for the answer.

Well, we have.

After taking a few minutes to review what’s been discovered and preserved in the perennial wisdom traditions of our species, we’ll need to come back for an explanation as to why, with such clear insight harbored in our collective consciousness for so long, we nevertheless persist in our pretense of ignorance.

Here’s what we know. You – or your “I” (ego) who is searching for truth – are an agent of your tribe, of the society that holds your membership. Your daily life in the world amounts to a carousel of roles that you play, as you step in and out of various role-plays.

Every one of the roles you play is a social construct.

You weren’t born a manager, a nurse, a student, a party member, or religious believer. Even among your casual acquaintances, you step into relationships by first assuming a role, however informal, which identifies you to others in the role-play and conveys your status, credibility, and reputation.

Once again, it’s important to see that you weren’t born with these roles. They are not products of nature, but constructs of culture. They were constructed for the purpose of securing your membership in society and making you an agent of its “system,” by which is meant its network, worldview, ideology, and way of life.

What’s more, you didn’t just “put on” or “step into” these various roles without first getting certain things under control. What things? Let’s summarize them as the drives and desires of your animal nature. The instinctual intelligence of your body has been evolving over generations of prehuman and hominid species, and its primary concern is with your survival, need satisfaction, and successful reproduction.

It should be no surprise that your natural drives and desires care not one bit about all those cultural conventions of identity.

But your society does care, since all those cultural conventions of identity are essential to its efficient operation. The drives and desires of your animal nature couldn’t simply be allowed instant gratification in the polite and civil company of others. Hold it, and quickly find a bathroom. Hang on and take care of it on your own time. And as for that, you better keep it to yourself and off-stage, because that will get you in trouble around here.

All these control measures were put in place in order to domesticate your animal nature, to condition you into a well-behaved member of society. Some of that primal energy was thereby redirected and refined into the roles of social identity mentioned earlier. Even though you are basically a human animal, this process of domestication slowly shaped you into a person with deep emotional investment in the role-plays of your tribe.

We should also note that your society is somewhat unique among all other societies of the world. Belonging to American society is a very different experience from belonging to, say, Bengalese or Samoan society. This is not only explained by the conditions of geography, climate, and race, but also by the fact that each society is organized around and oriented on a rather unique set of ideals.

Devotion literally means to make a vow and dedicate oneself by a sacrifice of time, effort, or some other more tangible value symbol (like a lamb or bull in archaic societies) to something regarded as having superior value and power – what we are calling an “ideal.”

These ideals exemplify and inspire what a society regards as ultimately good, true, beautiful, and eternal. Somewhere in your early education you were introduced to the ideals of your society – in the form of moral injunctions (thou shalt and thou shalt not), nursery fables, and all the stories of heroes, saints, saviors, and celebrities in your cultural mythology.

The preservation of this mythology, as well as the disciplined reflection on its meaning and personal devotion to its transcendent ideals, has been one of the primary functions of religion throughout human cultural history.

It seems inevitable, however, that every society will tend eventually to confuse its depictions of ultimate reality with the ideals that those depictions were originally intended to represent.

This is when an ideal becomes an idol. The corruption of devotion into idolatry occurs when a representation of utimate reality, which had once served as a mediating metaphor or image of what cannot be imagined, comes to obscure and then replace its transcendent referent as an object to be glorified and worshipped.

In the middle of all of this, there remains the question that individuals just like you have been struggling to answer for thousands of years: “Who am I?”

By a quick review: Your society imposed controls on the drives and desires of your animal nature, controls which you eventually internalized and took over in your ego. Besides putting restraints on your instincts, society also trained your devotion on certain idols and ideals that represent ultimate reality.

And then, in the provision of roles for your life in society, you proceeded to take on a variety of personas – performing, playing-at, and pretending to be what others expected of you.

But who are you, really?

In other words, who (or maybe better, what) is so busy playing at being somebody special on this stage or that? If you are nothing more (or other) than the personas you are playing on stage, you are – or predictably will soon become – anxious, frustrated, exhausted, and depressed. According to the perennial wisdom traditions, we all get caught in this sticky web of forgetting our true self.

It is our socially conditioned trance state, the illusion we mistake as reality. Magnified to the extent that we all submit to its spell, this condition is what Wisdom names “the human condition.”

In his important work, Parker Palmer clarifies the dynamic tension between “role” and “soul” – soul referring to your inner life and true self. When you forget and neglect the grounding mystery of your true self, in chasing after the acceptance, approval, and recognition of others, you are forsaking the deeper reality of who and what you are.

Across the many branching streams of the one River of Wisdom, this is the essential message: at once an expression of sincere empathy, a strong word of urgent warning, and some really good news about the liberated life – which is always closer than you think.