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.


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.


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.


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.

Spiritual Direction

Spiritual formation is a process whereby the sentient life of the body rises into a center of self-conscious personal identity, or ego, which provides the individual with an elevated center of intention for taking in a larger perspective on life, connecting with others in meaningful ways, and contributing creatively to the wellbeing of community.

In that short summary I have identified three essential principles of consciousness: (1) a Generative principle, deep in the grounding mystery of our sentient and largely ‘unconscious’ body; (2) an Individuative principle, focusing this deep power upwards into a self-conscious center of personal awareness; and (3) a Unitive principle that amplifies outward and across the relational field, turning the many into One.

The direction of spiritual formation, as well as its facilitation under the caring guidance of a spiritual director, unfolds in that precise sequence: out of the Ground and into an Ego, then beyond the Ego and into Community.

It’s important to understand that these three principles of consciousness are not separate “types” of consciousness, or three “modes” masking the same phenomenon under different conditions, or even distinct “stages” in its linear transformation over time. Consciousness doesn’t leave its ground in the body in order to get centered in the ego, and it doesn’t abandon the ego for the sake of joining in community.

We can accurately say that consciousness proceeds from the body, through the ego, and into community. Each principle is coequal, if not simply identical, with the other two; and all three are of the same substance or nature (Greek homoousios), which is consciousness itself. They are three-in-one, a dynamic trinity.

My reader who is familiar enough with Christian orthodoxy will recognize in my characterization of consciousness a direct parallel to the theological doctrine of God-as-Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Simply substituting the terms – “Father” for body/ground/source (the generative principle), “Son” for personality/ego/identity (the individuative principle), and “Holy Spirit” for participation/inclusion/community (the unitive principle) – already throws some fresh light onto the mysterious origins of that central doctrine.

The trinitarian idea of God – our conventional nickname (with the uppercase ‘G’) for the ultimate reality and present mystery of Being – was itself derived from early Christian mythology, from the stories and other writings comprising the New Testament. It is, that is to say, a product of what’s called biblical theology – a “theory of God” drawing on the collection of stories which expressed and gave shape to a uniquely Christian perspective.

Outside this mythology, no one has ever encountered a divine being of “one nature in three coequal persons” for the simple reason that this concept of God was a later product of second-order reflection on the primary material of early Christian myth.

One critical mistake of this orthodox enterprise of doctrine-building was in its choice of defining God in absolute terms, as He is in Himself, outside of time and apart from everything else. Two further mistakes were in absolutizing the male gender reference, thus excluding women’s values and experience; and also characterizing the three principles of the Trinity as “persons,” which set the stage for two very popular “heresies,” of interpreting the three as personae or masks worn by the same actor (“modalism”), or as three separate personalities (gods?) of the same family (“tritheism”).

A fourth and final mistake was in treating God as something (a being) with objective existence – out there somewhere inside, behind, or above the world.

I know that my reader had hoped I would get to my point sooner, but the importance of rooting the trinitarian construct of God in the Bible (i.e., in Judeo-Christian mythology) is in the door it opens for us to the mythic imagination – not just of the early Christians, but the mythopoetic (storytelling) imagination of every human, including you and me.

In his study of myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell discerned a consistent and universal pattern, which he named, borrowing from James Joyce, the “monomyth.”

This pattern is ingeniously employed by the New Testament author who wrote the two-volume epic story of The Gospel According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles, likely composed sometime in the 80s and 90s of the first century. While Paul is commonly regarded as the architect of early Christian belief, it was “Luke,” writing 20-30 years after Paul and including him in his story, who constructed the grand myth that would serve to shape and orient Christian identity in the world more than anyone else.

In Luke’s story, Jesus (the hero) comes into the world by a virgin birth, sent from God (his Father) on a specific mission of redemption:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

To accomplish this mission, however, Jesus must confront the dark powers of Empire (Roman oppression), Orthodoxy (Jewish fundamentalism), and Ego (personal self-interest). He goes to the stronghold of Jerusalem, and there is arrested for inciting political insurrection, condemned for breaking religious law, and finally abandoned by those who sought to save themselves as the risk grew too great. Jesus is crucified and then quickly buried, just before the Sabbath begins.

On the third day, early Sunday morning, the dead hero is miraculously brought back to life, and tells his few remaining followers to meet him later on a nearby mountain. As they are gathered in waiting for the resurrected Jesus, he appears to the small crowd of disciples, and while they watch he ascends into the sky and disappears.

(Scene. The curtain closes on Volume One.)

Fifty days later, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are again gathered. Suddenly a rush of wind enters the place and tongues of fire appear over each person present, giving them the spontaneous ability to speak in other languages (in a reversal of the Jewish “Tower of Babel” myth, where the world’s one language had been fractured into the confusion of many). This “gift of the Holy Spirit” is sent to empower and equip these early Christians (followers of Christ, the messianic title given to Jesus) for the work of carrying on with his original mission.

Paul had earlier – in the temporal sequence of mythological composition – identified the community of Christians as “the body of Christ,” with his resurrected spirit living now in and through them.

As Luke concludes his epic story, the Christian mission is spreading out into the farther reaches of the known world.

(The curtain closes on Volume Two.)

The monomyth of Luke’s two-part story of Jesus and his spiritual revolution follows perfectly the pattern that Campbell found across the mythologies of the world. And now we can also see that this pattern is itself constructed on the three principles of consciousness briefly defined above.

Our hero represents the Individuative principle, or Ego (the “son”), differentiating out of (“sent by”) the Generative principle (the Ground and “father”). Having fulfilled its purpose (or “mission”) of centering the personality and constructing an identity, the Ego enables consciousness to transcend or “go beyond” this identity for a transpersonal and ultimately Unitive experience of harmony, wholeness, and genuine community.

Of course, Luke arranges lots of other interesting material upon this monomyth, but his deeper logic (a mytho-logic) is evident. It was this dynamic evolution of consciousness, personified metaphorically in the Father/Ground, Son/Ego, and Spirit/Community, that Christian theologians distilled into the orthodox doctrine of God-as-Trinity. Their logical refinement of the relationships among, and deeper nature of, the three “persons” did in fact make some valuable contributions to our understanding of consciousness, despite the interpretive “mistakes” mentioned earlier.

In the end, we come back to the beginning. Each of us carries the creative energy of our soul into the heroic adventure of becoming somebody (ego), until we are ready and willing to get over ourselves in the spirit of freedom, love, and unity.

This is our spiritual direction.

Related Posts:

By God, What Do You Mean?

The Galilean Rocket Man

Calling On Your Higher Self

You know that part of you which tends to panic, fall apart, go ballistic, or hide under the bed when things get overwhelming? Be honest, it’s there. We all have it inside us. As children it was more or less our modus operandi whenever life brought us more than we could handle. If we were fortunate to have caring and competent adults around us, we learned how to borrow on their strength, perspective, and wisdom to make it through – with less of the drama.

In order for us to deal effectively with the various situations of life, social neuroscience is discovering just how much the immature brain and nervous system depend on the frontal cortex of parents and other adults, with its executive functions of contextualization, critical reasoning, impulse inhibition, risk management, and objectivity. They are literally our taller powers, archetypes of the higher power in religion that we may continue to worship and rely on for security and meaning well into adulthood.

As we matured and our own frontal cortex came more online, we developed ways of handling the challenges of life without needing someone else to take charge, fix the problem, and calm us down.

What we were as children now lives on as our “inner child,” with our own adult “higher self” in control and calling the shots. Our higher self can see the bigger picture and take the longer view on things. It encourages us to do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do. It’s the part of us that seeks to understand others and the world around us, so we can get along and cooperate for the happiness we all want.

To get the whole picture in front of us, psychologically speaking, we need to mention a third part, besides the rational higher self and emotional inner child, which is actually what we first came into life with (or as), and this is the “animal nature” of our human biology – the genetic codes, temperamental predispositions, unconscious instincts; the sentient, sensuous, and sensual body with its primal and irrepressible will to live.

It’s where our existence is deeply rooted in the complex web of life, with its imperatives of survival, adaptation, reproduction, and keeping our species in the game.

Our animal nature provided the brain and nervous system that were gradually shaped by our emotional experiences in childhood (the inner child) and eventually fully activated in all its executive glory as we became adults (the higher self).

Each part (aspect or dimension) of our psychology has its own “real estate” in the brain’s anatomy: a brain stem and basal structures dedicated to our biological survival, a limbic system specializing in building emotional bridges and walls to the social environment, and a wrap-around cerebral cortex with its frontal talents for objective reasoning, problem solving, rational thinking, and self-control.

Millions of years of evolution in consciousness are represented in our brain’s triune architecture.

Coming back to where we began this meditation, with our inner child, we can now put the more developed picture in place. The inner child is where an emotional record of our personal history is stored, along with all those recycling habits and strategies for getting what we want. Below it lies our animal nature with its “brute” impulses and survival needs, obsessed (though not consciously) with staying alive.

And above our inner child is the higher self – and I’m careful here not to say “your” or “my” higher self, since the question remains open as to whether this more enlightened dimension of ourselves is, in fact, properly online and doing its job. We all have an animal nature and inner child, but only some of us are living by the light of a rational, reasonable, responsible, and reality-oriented wisdom of our higher self.

I am not intending to portray such illuminati as emotionally disengaged or intellectually divorced from their bodies. Science has also found an inherent dependence of rationality on emotional development, and of our emotional integrity on the deep composure of our body’s nervous state. This foundational (or better, existential) security translates upward into healthy attachment, which in turn provides emotional and interpersonal support to the social construction of meaning.

Too many of us are stuck, for whatever reason, in the antics and tantrums of our inner child. Especially in these stressful and uncertain times, it feels like the world is collapsing around us and we can’t see our way through. First it’s one thing, then another – and then another. By the time we think things might have settled down, the market crashes, the oceans rise, and the ground cracks open.

I just said that we are stuck for whatever reason, but the general cause is already well understood. A deeper insecurity has the effect of supercharging our emotional attachments with unconditional demands and unrealistic expectations: that our partners should manage our feelings, that other people are responsible for how we feel.

But of course, it is impossible for any relationship to live and grow under such demanding conditions, with the end result that our anxieties and frustrations get exponentially magnified. As a consequence, a lot of us are missing the stabilizing factor of healthy communal bonds, a shared understanding that we are all in this together, and of knowing that, together, we can make it through.

We find ourselves circling the drain into depression but refuse to take any responsibility for our role in getting there – once again.

We can’t even seem to talk respectfully and reasonably to each other, making constructive dialogue virtually impossible given our suspicions about other people – which are really outward projections of our own inner conflict, between the part of us that’s childish and self-centered, and the part of us that should know better and could do something about it.

American politics today has become a helter-skelter playground, where the inner children of what should be reasonable adults have taken over and are threatening to run democracy into the ground.

Until our higher self is able to calm our own inner child, we will keep looking for excuses that pass off responsibility for our words and actions to someone else, or to circumstances that we claim left us no choice.

If we want to live in an adult world, we need to start acting like adults.

Two Things About the World You Need to Know

In The Story That Got You Here I reviewed the developmental journey that started with your physical attachment to Mother, gave way to emotional attachment to your mother and other family members, and continued to advance with your intellectual attachment, in the form of beliefs, to the worldview of your tribe and larger culture. This step-by-step progression from the physical conditions of survival, to the emotional conditions of happiness, and gradually into the intellectual conditions of meaning reveals – or better, lays out and sets in place – the very architecture of your life as it still is today.

According to their relative values, internally speaking, the intellectual overlay of meaning is less vital than the emotional bonds of happiness, which are themselves still less so than the physical satisfactions of your need to survive. And yet, if life in the world around you should become meaningless – empty, pointless, insignificant, absurd – you will readily give up your commitments, withdraw from others, and even consider ending your own life. Why is that?

However meaningful or meaningless the world may seem to you is a function of what you are telling yourself and what others are saying about it. A critical distinction to keep in mind differentiates between the way things are (in reality) and what they mean (to you). Meaning is always “to you,” which is to say that it is a product and projection of what you think and believe about something or other, or about reality as a whole.

The meaning of the world and of your life in it is thus a global construct of the stories you are choosing to believe.

If that feels like too much responsibility, then it may help to know that you are not doing this all by yourself, but as part of an active and ongoing conversation you are having with other people. “The world,” then, should be understood as a social construction of meaning, projected out of and suspended in the unique cultural discourse of storytelling.

Again, reality is the way things really are; the world is (or technically speaking, worlds are) a mythology or web of stories that you (and others) are projecting onto reality. For lovers, the world is a garden paradise; for friends, it is an adventure land; and for enemies, the world is a battle field. This helps us see that as a construct of meaning, your world is a product and projection of the stories, conversations, and beliefs you share with others. Depending on whether your conversation partners are lovers, friends, or enemies, the world around you and your life in it will reflect the nature and quality of those relationships.

Now, I’m not sure how much of that you are ready and willing to accept.

It’s very likely that you share the widespread delusion which simply equates world and reality, the meaning of life and the mystery of being alive. Just as athletes can set aside all concerns except what are relevant and meaningful inside the competitive constructs of the game and its world (e.g., the field, track, court, rink, or pool), neither should you be expected to keep in mind a distinction that doesn’t really seem to matter in the arenas of everyday life.

But the distinction does matter, and these days more than ever.

Whereas once upon a time you could set up your world in a secluded corner of reality and carry on without ever meeting someone who tells very different stories, today the cultural real estate is shrinking and you find yourself bumping up against other worlds – in some cases worlds that are profoundly different from yours. Individuals today no longer remain inside the ethnic and mythological worlds of their ancestors, but are instead venturing out into the reality of cultural pluralism and its broad marketplace of ideas, values, lifestyles, and worldviews.

All of this growing up and moving out has primed our age for the realization that one’s world is merely a matter of perspective.

In the more distant past it took the philosophically sharp and more mystically minded among us years and decades of meditation to see this truth: that your world and reality are not the same; that one is inside your mind and the other is outside; that meaning is constructed out of the stories you tell yourself; that before the story and after the story, all around and beyond every story, is the present mystery of reality, which is perfectly meaningless.

The world is a veil of meaning suspended between your mind and reality, and it belongs to you as the product and projection of your mind. These are two things about the world you need to know. If you are interested in touching what’s really real, this insight reveals (literally pulls back the veil on) two paths for the accomplishment of your aim.

One leads beyond the tidy enclosure of your world and invites you to behold the sublime and encompassing mystery of It All – your world, my world, all worlds, the world-free zone beyond all worlds, contained and transcended by the All that is One. The “universe,” as we call it, is perfectly meaningless, transcendent of your constructions and projections: just so. It should be obvious that going beyond your world in order to engage with reality is predicated on the humble acknowledgement that your world is not the last word on what’s real.

When you die and take your world with you, reality will still be here.

The other path follows a line of descent into your mind and its library of stories, through the floor of the projection room, and farther down where nerves tingle, the breath rises and falls, and your heart beats: now * now * now. As going beyond your world puts you in touch with the universe, so going within your mind opens awareness to the ground of being.

Before we make this ground out to be some metaphysical “other realm,” beneath and essentially separate from your embodied existence, it should be said that this ground (or grounding mystery) of being is nothing other than what you are – literally “no thing” other, but rather the very power-to-be (or be-ing) that is right now manifesting as you. You are not separate from it, nor can you be.

Like a tree planted in the material ground, you have grown into yourself by that progression of attachments briefly reviewed in the first paragraph of this post: first as a physical organism seeking to survive, then as an emotional dependent and partner in relationships, and finally as an intellectual meaning-maker and world creator.

Perhaps even up to your reading of this blog post, you regarded your world as the way things really are, as the ultimate reality. You were prepared to defend your world, to die for it if necessary, to kill others on behalf of its meaning, and on darker occasions when its meaning was less obvious to you, to even kill yourself.

Now you know better, and this truth has set you free.

The Music of Your Life

Back in the late sixth century BCE, the Greek polymath Pythagoras taught that the great crystalline spheres carrying our moon, the planets, and distant stars constituted a celestial musical harmony. His was perhaps the first conception of the cosmos to envision all things as comprising a “universe,” in the sense of a single coordinated system of being and time. Since then, the idea has continued to fascinate and inspire artists, scientists, philosophers, and politicians alike.

To explore it further, let’s consider your life as composed on such a musical design by using the organic metaphor of a tree as our unifying image.

As it happens, trees also have a long history as archetypes of existence, models in their own way of the universe and our place in it. Basic to any such ancient and perennial image is an understanding that everything is connected, “all is one,” and that our own flourishing as inhabitants of this greater reality is a function of how intentionally we can live our lives in agreement, or in harmony, with the way things truly are.

We will begin our meditation by directing attention “out here,” into the complex of your life and the countless connections, interactions, and reciprocal relations that are together the participatory environment of your existence. This complex, or “complicated whole,” corresponds to the canopy of our great cosmic tree with its diversified articulation of branches and leaves.

Musically, it is where your life participates in – and at times falls out of harmony with – the higher wholeness and complementary unity of being.

In harmony, it is not that you must find your fit in what’s going on, but that in being true to yourself and listening to your life, you are unselfconsciously lifted into the greater chorus of voices.

Your life and life-story invite our descent, deeper into that harmonic structure, following a single branch with its unique phrasing of twigs and leaves. As a formal element in the “music of the spheres,” harmony exists only by the complementary melody lines that lift and support each other, conspiring to create a complicated whole (i.e., a complex) rather than a confused mess (i.e., chaos).

The relational field of your life with the many other human and non-human, living and nonliving melody lines around you is what we identify as the ethical realm. This is where your energy, spirit, agency, and behavior proceed to affect, for good or ill, the larger community in which you participate – whether or not you are ready to acknowledge that fact.

Many people – millions and millions over the course of human history – conduct themselves with very little awareness of how and in what degree their attitudes and actions impact the “commonweal” of everything around them.

The melody of your life and life-story is not something you can fully appreciate, given that you are, in this very moment, still trying to figure it out. To be sure, its shape and character are much easier to discern looking back, than they are to imagine looking ahead. Hard knots are all that remain of broken dreams, lost loves, and gambits that didn’t pay off, making you tougher and a little less flexible in places where life didn’t go the ways you thought, or hoped, it would.

And yet, these too are precious parts of the melody that have shaped you into the person you are today.

Just as harmony doesn’t exist outside the complementarity and mutual support of distinct melody lines, melody itself is a temporal sequence of individual notes, or tones. As we descend further into the music of your life, this formal element of tone invites us into the sound dynamics of loud (forte) and quiet (piano), short (staccato) and sustained (legato) – but always and necessarily now, now, now.

The longer stretch of your life in time can be appreciated as a more or less continuous flow of such single, momentary tones.

This is the present moment, and the melody of your life and life-story consists of a virtually infinite number of such fleeting yet timeless moments, since the brevity (or staccato) of its duration can be mathematically halved and halved again, ad infinitum.

Like the rest of us, you have been frequently deluded into believing that the present is a stretch (literally a “tense”) of time sandwiched between the past and the future. (Whether it comes before the past or before the future is a matter of perspective.) In anticipation, the present is still future; upon reflection, it is already past. When is it, then?

In reality, it is timeless: a moment without duration, a vanishing intersection of time and being.

Tone is what gives melody its mood – the pitch, timbre, octave, the unnatural half-steps of worry (sharp) or regret (flat), the dynamics of amplitude, volume, and length. In this very moment, you are sounding a tone that sits somewhere on the musical scale and either conserves the prevailing mood of your life-story or else may serve to shift it to a new key.

The perennial wisdom traditions remind us that you see the world not as it is, but as you are.

Another step deeper into the formal element of tone reveals it to be a cycle of sound, rising and falling, flooding the vibrational sphere and sinking away in the next instant. This is what we call rhythm – the “beat,” the resonance interval, the length of a sound-wave between the prenatal and postmortem silence. Rhythm is what carries the tones in their articulation as melody. It gives music its “measure” as it resounds from underneath and keeps the whole arrangement “in time.”

A “beat” of rhythm is only heard or felt in its compression phase; in rarefaction it falls away into silence, nothingness. We notice that the phenomenal sound (or perceptible tone) is not the opposite of silence. Sound does not exist by virtue of defeating or overcoming the quiet, but only as it gathers up and surrenders again to its essential ground – that prenatal and postmortem silence mentioned above.

As it relates to the music of your life, you might imagine the energy cycle of rhythm compressing in the production of self-conscious awareness (ego), and dissolving back again into the grounding mystery of consciousness itself – what you are before who you are arrives.

Silence, then, is the essential ground of music. It is present not only “before” and “after,” but within and throughout the entire musical composition of rhythm, tone, melody, and harmony. Again, as it pertains to your life and life-story, silence is not a mere absence or sterile abyss, but the grounding mystery of your being, here and now. It is the mystical-inner realm which underlies and informs the ethical-outer realm of your life in harmony with others and the world around you.

And precisely because it is a present mystery and not the absence of something missing, you can only find the serenity of this silence by dropping, contemplatively, through the center of your own existence.

Understanding Spiritual Frustration

One of the great ironies, which is quickly metastasizing into a tragedy of catastrophic dimensions these days, is in our certainty that taking control and pinning things down will solve the major problems that beset us. By major problems I don’t only have in mind the national and global challenges of poverty, racism, and the cascading collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Also included are the psychosomatic distress and interpersonal conflicts that undermine our day-to-day quality of life.

Since it sure feels like things are out of control, it’s easy to believe that taking control is the answer.

So maybe it will come as a surprise to learn that taking control is what’s generating many of our problems to begin with. It’s not just that our efforts are failing to address and resolve them, but that many of our problems – and probably most of our suffering – are actually the result of our dogged determination to get things under control.

In Beyond Happiness I referred to my years in pastoral ministry, during which time I would frequently witness – and find myself occasionally tangled up in – very uncharacteristic behavior of church members. Relational strife, stress related illnesses, erratic outbursts, aggressive resistance to change, even to relatively minor things like interior decorations and perfunctory routines, seemed to come out of nowhere.

These are the sorts of things that drive many pastors to leave ministry – and I did eventually leave, but for a different reason.

What I came to realize was that something deeper was going on, a kind of vertical dynamic where all these disturbances could be understood as surface symptoms of an underlying spiritual crisis. The human spirit is what in us is constantly seeking to emerge, to grow and expand, to express and fulfill (or actualize) our essential nature as human beings.

Just as the essential nature of an apple tree expresses itself in the production of apples – or as Alan Watts would often say, just as an apple tree “apples” – so the evolutionary purpose of a human being (and of the universe insofar as we are its latter-day manifestations) is to become fully human.

If we imagine the human spirit as an energy-flow from deep within us, becoming embodied as us, and moving through us to others and the world around us, then the unimpeded process of this spiritual current finds its fulfillment in the human being who is firmly grounded, fully awake, and fearlessly free.

Over the years since leaving pastoral ministry, I have continued in my contemplative study of our spiritual fulfillment as humans, and of the various ways its upward/outward flow gets blocked and diverted. It has indeed become something of an obsession in this blog of mine.

Religion happens to be a moralistic and ideological system that inevitably, it would seem, impedes, and can even extinguish, our spiritual life. Ironically, something that developed for the purpose of supporting, shaping, facilitating, and inspiring our journey to the liberated life, too frequently becomes (in the words of Jesus) a “whitewashed sepulcher” where the human spirit is held hostage. When that happens, the resulting spiritual frustration can break the surface in irrational, desperate, damaging, and destructive behavior.

Spiritually awakened religious leaders can be encouraged in knowing that, as long as such symptoms are evident, there is still some life underneath.

I’m not suggesting that a formal (i.e., name brand) religion is the best and only facilitator of our spiritual growth and fulfillment. It is my contention, nonetheless, that whatever system of beliefs, values, practices, and commitments serves to facilitate our personal construction of meaning and clarifies our purpose in life is, de facto, our religion, according to the etymology of “religare” as tying back and linking together a coherent and meaningful worldview.

The very design intention of religion is to provide a scaffolding of symbols, stories, and a guiding vision for a world developmentally suited to our spiritual progress.

My best representation of the channel of spiritual flow identifies five natural gifts that need to be nurtured and developed throughout our life – especially during the vulnerable period of early childhood when we are dependent on the “religion” of our taller powers, who are its functional (or dysfunctional) deities.

These five gifts are: (1) faith, or the release of existential trust in reality; (2) spontaneity, or a full engagement with life in each moment; (3) imagination, or the creative construction of meaning; (4) curiosity, or the searching interest to explore, discover, and learn; and (5) wonder, or radical amazement before the mystery and grandeur of being.

Obviously, a healthy and relevant religion will need to evolve and transform along with our growing spiritual capacity. When it doesn’t (and won’t), it becomes a blocking obstacle to our freedom and fulfillment.* In my experience, the one telltale sign and chief obstacle to spiritual growth is conviction, by which I mean a belief so certain, so closed and inflexible, that it effectively kills spiritual desire, creativity, and joy.

Instead of supporting us in the cultivation of faith, bad religion plants “seeds of anxiety” in the ground of consciousness, which compels our retreat from present reality, uproots our creative imagination, enervates curiosity, and arouses fear instead of wonder in the face of mystery.

If you feel that my definition of conviction doesn’t give it a fair shake, I invite you to look closer at its deeper etymology, of being “overcome and held captive” (like a convict in prison) – exactly what happens to all those natural gifts when anxiety caps off the flow of spiritual life instead of opening us inwardly, in faith, to its creative uprising.

I have acquired what could be called a “responsible vigilance” around individuals who identify themselves as persons of conviction, having learned too many times already just how truly dangerous such persons can be.

Along with that responsible vigilance, another sensitivity has evolved in me over the years as well, albeit more slowly: an almost clairvoyant ability to feel the anxiety, hostility, depression, and despair that lurk and languish beneath another’s (as well as my own) dogmatic convictions. I’m sure there must be some kind of compensatory principle in play, where the squeezing resolute certainty of our conviction is proportional to an eroding doubt and insecurity we feel deep down within ourselves.

If there is hope that these “whitewashed sepulchers” can open to release the creative energy and joy of the human spirit – in what is likely the psychospiritual origin of the Christian symbol of Easter – it won’t come by way of holding fast to what we believe and convincing others of our “truth,” but rather by altogether dropping our judgments, learning to be present, and living faithfully in the flow of life.

* For a meditation on the relationship between our repressed natural gifts and “the shadow” in our personality see Taking Back Our Light.