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Coming to Terms

To exist is to “stand out” (Latin existere) as an individual ego or “I,” centered in yourself and tracking on your own timeline. Of course, this timeline is not interminable, meaning that it will not continue forever. One day you will die and pass into extinction. Nothing in time is permanent; nothing is everlasting.

Now, I hear you thinking: What do you mean, nothing is everlasting? What about god? What about my soul? What about … me?!

Self-conscious human beings have suffered psychological torment for many thousands of years by the awareness of mortality, that “I” will not be around indefinitely. Most of us have lost loved ones and cherished pets along the way, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to realize that your time is also running out.

As a kind of therapeutic response to this existential realization, our species has invented many cultural variations of what we can call a “departure narrative” – stories about leave-taking, about getting out of this mortal condition, and securing your continued existence on the other side of death.

This is probably not where “god stories” got their start, since the idea of a personified intention behind the arrangement and events of our lives is historically much older than a belief in our own immortality.

In earliest religion, known as animism, humans related to their natural environment in a kind of ritual dialogue whereby nature was acknowledged and petitioned for its provident support of what they needed to live and prosper. These rituals coordinated human concerns with the seasons, cycles, and natural forces they relied on.

Even the gods at this stage were not immortal. They were not everlasting beings regarded as separate from the temporal realm of life, death, and rebirth. The purpose of religion was not departure but participation in the Great Round. Gods served the essential function of personifying the intention humans perceived (and imagined) behind the natural events impinging on their existence.

Eventually these invisible agencies were conceived as separate from the phenomena and realms they supervised.

Heaven, not just the starry firmament above Earth but the place where these superintendents resided, where they waited around and occasionally descended to take in the worship and earnest prayers of their devotees down below, was given a place in the emerging imaginarium of a new type (and stage) of religion, known as theism.

If these invisible (and now independent) personalities exist apart from the physical fields they oversee and control, then why not us? Actually it was more likely that the further development of ego formation in humans prompted this new idea of the gods as existing separate from their “body of work” (i.e., the realm of material existence).

Maybe “I” am also separate from this body. Perhaps “I” am not subject to mortality after all. When the body dies, “I” will go on to live elsewhere …

Thus was the departure narrative invented, to comfort you by dismissing death as not really happening to (“the real”) you – to this separate, independent, and immortal “I.” Since then, religions have been redirecting the focus of devotees away from time and towards eternity, away from physical reality and towards metaphysical ideals, away from this life to an imagined life-to-come.

It was all supposedly for the therapeutic benefit of dis-identifying yourself with what is impermanent and passing away. Very soon, however, it became a way of enforcing morality upon insiders as well. If you behave yourself, follow the rules, and obey those in authority, it will go well for you on the “other side.” If you don’t – well, there’s something else in store, and it’s not pleasant.

And to think how much of this was originally inspired out of human anxiety over the prospect of extinction. An independent and detachable personality that will survive death and be with god in a heaven far above and away from here – all designed to save you from the body, time, and a final extinction.

Religion’s departure narrative may bring some consolation and reassurance, but it does so by stripping away the profound (even sacred) value of your life in time and distracting you from the present mystery of being alive.

So far, we have been meditating on the axis of Time, and on your life in time. As a reminder, one day you will die and pass into extinction. But as you contemplate this fact, rather than resolving the anxiety that naturally arises by reaching for some departure narrative, there is an invitation here for you to shift awareness to a second axis, that of Being.

An experience far more exquisite and transformative than your departure for heaven is available right here and now, in this passing moment of your life. This experience is “post-ego,” meaning that it is possible only by virtue of the fact that you have already formed a separate and self-conscious “I,” and are at least capable now of dropping beneath or leaping beyond its hard-won and well-defended identity.

While the departure narrative promises a way out of Now and away from Here, this “fulfillment narrative” invites you into the fullness of life here-and-now.

Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths: let your body relax into being. There’s nothing here that needs to be clung to or pushed away. All of the identity contracts that identify you with this tribe or that party; this rank or that role; this, that, or another label of distinction defining who you are and where you belong – drop it all, at least for now.

Imagine all of those things as tie-lines anchoring you to your place in society, and now you are unhooking from them one at a time.

As you do this, it will gradually become easier to quietly drop into your body. Here, deeper below all those crisscrossing tie-lines at the surface of who you are, your awareness opens to the feeling of being alive. Down through the nervous system and beneath the biorhythms of breathing, thrumming, pulsing, and resting, you at last come to a place that is no place, a “where” that is nowhere – the Nowhere, or here-and-now as we like to call it.

Each deeper layer in the architecture of your inner life requires a letting-go of what is above.

Each successive intentional release further empties your consciousness of content – first beliefs and the “I” who believes; then thoughts and the emotions attached to thoughts – until nothing is left to think about or even to name. I call this descending-inward path to an ineffable Emptiness the “kenotic” path, from the Greek word (kenosis) for “an emptying.”

The inward descent of Being and the letting-go or self-emptying it entails is also a highly effective practice in preparing you for a second path, of outward ascent into the greater reality that includes so many others and much else besides you. I call this ascending path “ecstatic,” also from the Greek, meaning “to stand out.”

But whereas “to exist” means to stand out as an individual ego, the ecstatic path is about stepping out or going beyond your individual ego in transpersonal communion with others – and ultimately with Everything, with the All-that-is-One.

In this same timeless moment, therefore, a profound and ineffable Emptiness invites you within and beneath who you think you are, as an expansive and manifold Communion invites you out and beyond yourself. Your awakening to this present mystery is at once the fullness of time and the fulfillment of your human nature.

There’s no need to leave.

 

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Passing Through, Never Home

In The Shining Way I presented in outline the way of salvation that true religion sponsors and promotes. Not all religions, but true religion. That qualification allowed me to make a critical distinction between religion-in-essence or religion-itself, and the sometimes pathological forms it can take when it gets hijacked by that most dangerous force in all the universe – our neurotic ego.

Right now, each and every religion is either tracking with or departing from the Shining Way, which is our guiding path into deeper meaning, greater joy, and higher wholeness as human beings. Throughout its history a given religion will trace a meandering line: coming closer, trending with, crossing over, or veering away from genuine community and our higher nature.

These days, it happens that the major traditions of name-brand religion are rapidly losing relevance and credibility, sliding into complacency, bigotry or terrorism, and ramping the enthusiasm of members for a final escape – an end-time deliverance out of this world.

When we identify religion-itself with its pathological deformities, we make two very serious mistakes. First, as just mentioned, we forfeit our chance to better understand the role and function of healthy religion in our evolving spirituality as human beings. By throwing out the baby with the toxic bathwater, we lose the ability to ground our existence and orient our lives inside a system of values and aspirations that can lift us into our higher nature.

The second mistake is even more critical, since it lies at the roots of the first one: In our effort to break away from religion and leave it in the past, we miss an opportunity for honest self-examination, which is also our chance for the liberation our souls truly desire.

This is not liberation as in deliverance or escape, but liberation as in being set free to become whole again. With our adventure into a separate center of self-conscious personal identity, we fell out of the unconscious oneness of our first nature (i.e., our living body). As the myths and wisdom traditions across cultures attest, our ensuing psychospiritual journey is about dying to the self we’ve been duped into believing we are, waking up from the trance of our separateness (which also means our specialness and self-importance), and rising into the fullness of what we are as human beings.

For this to happen we must surrender our center of personal identity (aka ego or second nature) and go beyond ourselves – not negate, renounce, or cancel out the ego, but rather to leap from its stable base into a conscious wholeness where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are affirmed in their unity. The stability of this base is a key precondition of our self-transcendence, for without it the thrust of our leap will only push our feet deeper into the muck of ego neurosis.

In this post my task is to reach into the muck in order to uncover and examine what’s got us stuck, which I’m hoping will also crack the code of what makes a religion pathological.

Certainly, the early and widespread interest of primitive religion in the postmortem was a very natural extension of human curiosity and imagination. What had been a breathing, moving, and vibrant individual the day before is now lying motionless and cold before us. What happened? Where did that animating life-force go? Because it was also so intimately connected with the unique personality of that individual, it wasn’t a terrible strain on logic to assume that it may have relocated elsewhere. For millenniums ancient peoples envisioned a place where the departed spirits of their friends, relatives, and ancestors (why not their pets and other animals?) continued in some kind of existence.

With the rise of theism and ego consciousness, however, a moral obsession over the dualism of right and wrong inspired a division in this shadowland of the afterlife. Now, depending on one’s station in life (e.g., landowner or peasant), or whether they were sinner or saint, a departed spirit – which was becoming more like a ghostly version of the individual’s former identity (ego) – would be punished or rewarded accordingly.

This dualism in the very nature of reality served to orient and motivate the moral compliance of members, and thus to enforce the social order. It was also during this stage in the evolution of religion (theism) that patron deities were imagined in roles of lawgiver, supervisor, judge, advocate, or disciplinarian. In the reciprocity of obedience and worship for a deity’s blessing and protection, devotees had a ‘higher reason’ to remain dutifully in their assigned ranks.

One thing we need to remember as we consider this emergence of the self-conscious ego is how its separation from the enveloping realities of the womb, the nursing bond, and the primal family circle brings with it some degree of insecurity. The fall into greater exposure and self-conscious vulnerability prompts the individual to seek attachment, where he will early on find safety, warmth, and nourishment; and later the acceptance, recognition, and approval he needs to belong. Attachment, that is to say, compensates for and hopefully resolves the insecurity which inevitably comes along with ego formation.

Because insecurity is registered in the nervous system as restlessness and anxiety, one way of managing it – particularly if positive attachment objects are unavailable – is by dissociating from the body. It is common for victims of child abuse, for instance, to seek escape where physical flight isn’t an option, by ‘walling off’ the violated part of themselves, even engaging in a fantasy of existing apart from their bodies. This dissociated self then becomes ‘my true self’, ‘who I am’ as separate from the pain and suffering the individual is forced to endure.

A consequence of dissociation is that the personality lacks the stable support of a coherent nervous state, and stability is a foundational virtue of ego strength.

Now, before you conclude that I’m making a causal connection between pathological religion and priests who were abused as children, hold on. The fact is that each of us is insecure in our unique degree, and that, further, all of us without exception have sought refuge outside and apart from our bodies. A good number of us entertain fantasies of living on without the pain and drag of an embodied life, as bloodless souls in heaven after we die.

Perhaps a majority of us have grown so estranged from our animal nature, that we try to suppress the body’s messaging system (called ‘symptoms’) through a variety of distractions, intoxicants, and medications. And we all tend to lock ourselves up inside convictions that keep us from having to be fully present in the moment – present in our pain, present to one another, or present with whatever challenge is at hand.

As I mentioned in The Shining Way, a neurotic ego is insecure (check), defensive around that insecurity (check), insists on its special entitlement (conceited: check), and holes up dogmatically inside convictions that keep the pain and confusion of life at a distance (check). In this sense, the neurotic ego is always ‘passing through and never home’. And there is the causal connection I’m wanting to make:

The homeless ego, dissociated from our first nature, has hijacked religion and is steering it like a jetliner for the far horizon of this life, as far as possible from the mess we’re in, but tragically also away from the present mystery of reality.

 

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Live Like You Are Dying

Let me start out by saying that I have a friend who is struggling with mortality. I have several friends, actually. One thing we all have in common is that we are getting older, and as we get older we are growing more aware of the Dark Gate just over the horizon. Once you realize that your sand won’t ever go back up the hour glass, some serious reckoning is in order. This happens to be terrifying my friend at the moment.

If I can’t make new friends as I go along, my present company will slide intractably down the gradient of entropy and eventually there will be none of us left. Perhaps some day in the still more distant future someone will stroll by my gravestone, or a descendant might stumble across my name while researching our family tree. Where will I be at that time?

Long, long ago an answer to this question was that I somehow carry on in a shadowland of departed souls. Importantly, “soul” back then didn’t refer to a resident ghost that inhabited a body for a time but afterward continued to live apart from it. Soul was more like an animating force – fluid, dynamic, breath-like – than a nonphysical entity.

We can only imagine what went through the minds of primal human beings (perhaps our hominid ancestors) as they gathered around the corpse of a friend or family member. What had just hours before been breathing and talking and living like the rest of us, is now ashen and rigid. Where did that center of affect and agency – that unique personality we knew and loved – go?

paleolithic grave

The primitive practice of burial was probably motivated out of concern for sanitation, odor control, and hiding remains from scavenging animals, but there may have been an element of reverence as well. The mystery surrounding this once-living personality was not to be casually dismissed. Some kind of subterranean extension of the burial hole was envisioned, where all deceased members of the community somehow “live on.” As far as the archaeological record suggests, this seems to have been an acceptable (and widespread) belief, sufficient to allow the folks above ground to carry on with the demands of daily life.

Fast-forward many centuries, and now the postmortem status of the departed personality might be one of three possibilities depending on how important, virtuous, or depraved a person was during earthly life. Good people were taken up into heaven for their reward, bad people were condemned and thrown into hell, while the average and “undecided” cases persisted in something like the old shadowland, but understood as a transitory waiting room, not a final destination. Of course, to be “taken up,” “thrown down,” or tabled for later discussion presumes the existence of someone who executes this action, which is what we eventually find in the pantheon of deities throughout the higher cultures.

We really need to explore what could be called the “archaeology of human psychology” to understand the mechanism responsible for this rather dramatic shift in theories of postmortem existence. What we see over the intervening centuries (10,000-1,500 BCE) is the gradual but steady rise of ego consciousness – the ascent out of tribal sympathies of a separate sense of oneself as an individual. This important separation of the individual ego from the group continued on an earlier separation of the group from the earth, as the maintenance of society began to require more human energy and attention. Specifically what it did with respect to the topic at hand is encourage a notion that I (ego) am separate from my body.

Death of the body, at this later stage of development, didn’t pull a personality into the shadowland (as in primitive thought), but was increasingly regarded as a “disencumbrance” of mortality – getting rid of or being set free from the bag of meat that snags us in time and would otherwise drag us to a dreadful end.

heavenAs religion began to reconstruct itself around the death anxiety of the ego, traditional commitments of keeping communal life in rhythm with the cycles of nature were given up in favor of a program for saving the soul from the ravages of time – safe forever with god and other believers in heaven. This program not surprisingly included strong sanctions against “carnal” desire and the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake; such was the way of woman and the devil. The soul – which by now had become essentially synonymous with the ego personality – must be kept pure or “cleansed” of its attachment to the body through repression and ascetic practices.

Consequently we have inherited these two horns of my friend’s dilemma: Either we blink, wake up in heaven and are happy ever after, or we rot in the ground with the worms. Which one do you want? Religion is betting on (and abetting) your fantasy of living forever.

But this dilemma does not exhaust our choices. In actuality there is no choice. I will die, and so will you. All evidence strongly suggests that your last day on earth is your last day, period. So is this a vote for the worms? When my body starts to lose its peripheral functions, the decline has begun; when its rudimentary functions fizzle out, I’m done. Is accepting this an act of existential resignation? If my death is the end of me, does it mean that nothing matters and there’s no point in caring about anything?

My admittedly over-simplified tour through ten thousand years of religion’s changing opinion on this question of mortality and the afterlife was for the purpose of showing that the escalating anxiety around death is actually a product (or more precisely a by-product) of religion’s steady hijacking by the neurotically insecure (separate, exposed, estranged, trapped and “fallen”) ego. The seduction was slow, but over time ego became the orthodox impostor of the soul, now immortalized and destined for disembodied bliss (or perdition unless you get your act together) somewhere else.

Because it is so obvious that ego consciousness came about and was not there in the opening millenniums of our evolutionary history as a species should encourage a healthy skepticism regarding the glorious fantasies of meaning, identity, salvation and immortality that have since been spun like a web around its nervous and wonderfully conceited existence. You just have to give the assignment of creating their own religion to a group of self-conscious and inwardly tormented adolescents, and soon enough you’ll have something that looks strikingly similar to a number of world religions today.

The truth is that we are human beings, evolving creatures of this magnificent and possibly exceptional planet, outwardly oriented in the turning complexity of our physical universe and (at least potentially) oriented inwardly to the creative source of our own spiritual life. The ground of your being is provident and gracious and deeply mysterious, beyond words and much deeper than who you think you are (ego). This inward path and resting place in the present mystery of reality is named soul, and what your soul wants more than anything is to relax into being – surrender, loosen up, and unwind completely into Oneness.

Death will be our last chance to fully relax and let it all go. Now is the time to practice …

 

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The Seduction of Identity

ParadigmsThe average person is obsessed with identity. We come through childhood with all the instructions and labels that have been put on us by our tribe, and we can spend our entire adulthood trying to justify and live up to them, reverse them and prove them wrong, or we simply allow these programs to push us along without much self-awareness. It could also be said that the average person is tormented by this obsession, since there really is no way of breaking free.

Conventional culture and religion have accommodated this ego fixation. We invest more and more in protecting the security of who we are, and the whole “meaning of life” has become for many the hopeful prospect of securing immortality in heaven when they die. Theism – the belief that (an) identity stands apart from and above reality as its maker and manager – both reflects and reinforces this preference of glorifying ego as our highest concern.

As a product of “social engineering,” the ego of personal identity is shaped and directed in ways that promote the collective identity of our tribe. This is not necessarily conducted with intention, but rather insinuates itself into the more or less automatic routines of parenting, education, politics and civil law. We are told to be “good” children, “good” Americans, “good” Christians – which means compliant with the tribal structures of family, nation, and religion. To be out of compliance (naughty, criminal, heretical) is to risk the forfeiture of our identity, and by extension the culturally supported meaning of life.

To either side of this narrow ridge of personal identity (as illustrated above) are two distinct paradigms for answering a more philosophically interesting question: not who you are as a person, but what you are as a human being. These two paradigms – which we can call “science” and “spirituality” – are not necessarily competing frameworks of research and explanation, despite the fact that they are popularly regarded as such. The real tension, however, is between the cult of identity and the paradigms on either side.

Science

According to the scientific paradigm, ego (personal identity) is not an object of study in and of itself. Because the ego cannot be dislodged from the multiple lines of social influence that define it, science treats it as a byproduct (technically an epiphenomenon) of something else rather than a separate existence in its own right. Social science has made great progress in seeing the ego as a nexus of cultural meaning and social control, interpreting personal identity as a function of its environmental (tribal) context.

In addition to expanding out into the cultural context for an understanding of what a human being is, science is also investigating the biophysical foundations of personality. Ego can be analyzed into the conflict between the instructions of society and the animal impulses of the body, as Freud did. It might also be broken down into genetic and temperamental factors determining an individual’s mental order and orientation. Drug therapy is a treatment protocol based on this notion of identity (personality, ego, and mental health) as a secondary effect of the physical conditions underlying it.

For the fun of it, I’m going to make up a word and say that science (all science) is the empirical quest for the “componence” of things. Everything that exists has a “componential” nature, which is simply to say that it is a component (part) in a larger order and is itself made up of smaller and deeper components that might be further analyzed. Because there are no egos that exist apart from bodies, science proceeds on its commitment to explain personal identity in terms of the body – its deeper componence as well as its participation as a component in the social system.

As you would expect, devotees in the cult of identity criticize science as “impersonal” (which it can be) and on an offensive campaign to undermine religion (which it isn’t). The problem, of course, is that because popular religion has taken on the immortality project of the ego as its driving mission, the scientific challenge to the belief in a metaphysical and everlasting center of identity is rightly regarded as a threat.

Spirituality

Just like science, spirituality seeks to understand and celebrate what it is to be human. Although there are teachers and esoteric schools that capitalize on our disillusionment with popular religion, they typically take up the immortality project and merely cast it under another set of metaphysical claims. This might amount to a return to paleolithic rituals, ancient secrets, and exotic doctrines, but it remains organized around the disguised status of the believer as divine and destined for higher planes of bliss.

My use of the term spirituality is not in reference to special revelation or the supernatural. Like science, spirituality is a quest for what is really real. If it begins this quest from the position of identity, spirituality quickly leaves behind the obsessions and ambitions that captivate the ego. Instead of proceeding in a biophysical direction, however, it moves along a psychospiritual (and transpersonal) path of investigation, exploring the threshold between individual self-consciousness and the provident reality to which it belongs.

Recent efforts in psychotherapy have managed to bring the topic of spirituality and religion back into the clinical conversation. Religious values and beliefs are recognized once again as important to the mental health of some clients. The emerging therapeutic models, though, are mostly classical theories of the mid-twentieth century with an “annex” of spiritually-oriented strategies attached – just in case.

Again, spirituality (and science) asks not “who” you are, but “what” you are. What is a human being? A characteristically “spiritual” phrasing of the question might be: What is the nature of being in its manifestation as a human. This is the question of essence (from the Greek esse, being).

Being doesn’t merely name the fact of existence, but refers to the act of existing (from the Greek existere, to stand out). The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich translated it as “the power to be” or being-itself. As a human being you stand out, just as you are. Instead of digging into your componential nature as science will do, spirituality takes you as “just this” – not something else, and nothing less than the present mystery of reality.

As a human manifestation of being, your existence isn’t a final term, however, for you share this power-to-be with other manifestations, human and nonhuman. If you are a manifestation of being in human form, and that thing over there is a manifestation of being in (horse, tree, rock, cup, cloud,               ) form, then what is this power manifesting as you both? Spirituality names it “ground” or “the ground of being.”

This power is nowhere other than in its manifestations. But it is more than any single manifestation simply because it exists or “stands out” over there as well. Reality is present here in human form as you, and it is present over there in another form. I’m putting an accent on this matter of location (here and there) because existence is always situated somewhere. The ego may seek to escape here-and-now for something better elsewhere or later on, whereas the soul seeks communion with the present mystery of reality.

In contrast to ego religion and its otherworldly aspirations, spirituality engages the present situation with full attention and total freedom. It doesn’t crave to be anywhere else or hide from the accidents and conditions of mortality. Trouble, affliction, and bereavement will come, but your faith in the provident support of reality in this moment enables you to be present in the situation with generosity, compassion, and gratitude. It’s not that you do nothing, but that you bring the full force of your soul (Ghandi’s satyagraha) to the challenge at hand.

As we would expect, the cult of identity is suspicious of spirituality as well. Nothing good can come from setting aside your petty agendas, nervous attachments, and ulterior motives – can it? Life will lose its meaning if you take a deep breath and open up to the real presence of mystery – right? If the human adventure isn’t really about getting somewhere else later on, then all we’re left with is … this!

Breakthrough.

 

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As If

  1. God has a plan and is in control.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. You have an immortal soul, but …
  4. Don’t trust yourself.
  5. A better place awaits those who obey God.

I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions.

This is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while hiding from authorities in a boat, after he and his brother had successfully carried out their mission of bombing the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan died on his way to the hospital from gunshot wounds by pursuing police and from being dragged under their own get-away car.

We Muslims are one body: you hurt one you hurt us all. Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven. Now how can you compete with that?

Now we might spin this into an exposé of Islamic fundamentalism. But if we did, it would only be to put a buffer of dissociation between an ideology that motivated these young men to violence in God’s name, and the more respectable theism of American Christianity. Of course, in the process of pushing this ideology away and condemning it as against what God is really all about, we protect ourselves against the possibility of a revelation – also known as disillusionment.

It can be expanded and morphed into countless variations – as it is among the world’s many religions – but this ideology consists of just five beliefs. A belief is when we pretend to know something, but don’t realize that we are pretending. In our trances of conviction and in the name of our delusions, human beings commit atrocities against other people, life on earth, and future generations. It doesn’t really matter what name you attach to the delusion; the essential mechanics of the phenomenon are the same across the board.

As we look at the five statements that make up this dangerous ideology, it should be obvious that they can be turned in the interest of emotional comfort or unconscionable violence. What decides the difference? If these were diametrical opposites the answer would be easy. The purpose is to calm anxiety, promote peace, and connect us meaningfully to the world around us. But could it have another purpose as well?

An unresolvable fact of our life in time is that things come at us randomly. Kind people suffer and mean people flourish; and yes, mean people suffer as kind people flourish. Televangelists can pump the notion that God favors those who are obedient, generous, and forgiving (although that last one doesn’t get as much airtime), but actual experience and just a little honest reflection will easily pry the lid off that deception. Still, it’s comforting to know (or pretend to know) that someone is watching over us and will someday give us what we deserve.

When, exactly? There’s no telling, but you can rest assured that if it doesn’t come in this life, God will bless you richly in the next. For a lot of people, just knowing (or pretending to know) that we don’t really die but merely continue on after the eye-blink of death in everlasting perpetuity is sufficient to reconcile them to the hardship, trauma, and bereavement that are inevitable in this life. That makes this bearable. We can put up with a lot here, with the assurance that it will all be better there.

For the Tsarnaev brothers, the promise of an after-life reward provided more than enough motivation to rip off limbs and kill innocent bystanders. Even the prospect of dying for their cause wasn’t a deterrent – if anything, it was a stimulant to what they did. God’s plan involves the triumph of his religion, which will come about either by the conversion or destruction of unbelievers. God is in control and is moving human events in the direction of a preordained destiny. Whatever happens along the way, you can know (or pretend to know) that it’s all happening according to plan.

Every statement in the above set has a metaphysical anchor, except one. The existence of an external deity who has a plan and is in control, whose reasons may be inscrutable (and therefore beyond question), and who will reward our obedience and sacrifice with endless beatitude in the next life – the hook for each one of these beliefs is importantly just (or far) outside the horizon of direct experience or presentable evidence. This is frequently used as an argument for their authority, strangely enough.

Religion is about metaphysics, and metaphysics can only be known by revelation. Charismatic prophets, inerrant scriptures, and orthodox doctrines all give warrant to the validity of our faith. Don’t worry over the fact that you haven’t encountered the personal deity as he is depicted in the sacred stories. It happened, and that’s all you need to know (or pretend to know). Besides, who are you to question it? Your sinful nature, mortal ignorance, personal stupidity, or undeveloped faith (multiple choice, and “all of the above” is the best answer) preclude you from any kind of claim to authority.

So we can see that none of the other statements of this dangerous ideology would stand up or hold water if confidence in our own experience, intelligence, and insight were not disqualified beforehand. If you can be dissuaded from trusting yourself – or better yet, if distrusting yourself can be accepted as obedience to divine revelation – then you are absolutely dependent on the external authority of religion.

But as Alan Watts often asked: If you can’t trust yourself, is it really a good idea to trust this distrust of yourself? This is typically where orthodoxy warns us to stop asking questions.

When we believe something, we pretend to know – and then forget or never wake up to realize that we are acting “as if” we know. But isn’t this what we mean by faith? Don’t we need faith to believe in an external deity, his overarching plan, our own immortal souls, and a life after this one? The answer is “No.” All you need is the willingness to believe these things, but that isn’t faith.

PeaceIt is possible to question, doubt, and disbelieve almost every statement in the ideology under consideration and still have faith – a mystically deep, spiritually grounded, and truly relevant faith. Almost every one. But when you lose or give up trust in yourself, you really can’t trust anything else.

Faith is full release to the present mystery of reality, experienced as provident in this beat of your heart, this breath in your lungs, this thought in your mind, this moment of being, this passing opportunity of life. All of this rises up from within and all around you as support, grace, and real presence.

Until we are given permission to trust ourselves, or take it back from those who are withholding it from us, more and more people will suffer the consequences of our convictions. We will continue to take our gods as real, read our myths as literal accounts, claim the infallibility of our beliefs, and be ready to surrender everything – common sense, reason, peace, and life itself – for the sake of what we only pretend to know.

 

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Metaphors of Life

Metaphors operate at a level where experience first breaks over the threshold into expression, the real presence of mystery into representations of meaning. At a very deep level – just short of the very deepest – human beings orient themselves according to a guiding metaphor of life itself.

What is life, and what is your place in it?

Western culture is organized around a guiding metaphor of life that we could name circling the drain. With its accent on the individual, everything tends to be oriented according to the individual’s perspective, more specifically to the perspective of that separate identity called ego. drain

This is who I am. This is my tribe. These are the things that belong to me. Such are the ambitions I have for myself. I have a limited amount of time to realize my dreams, and finite resources to exploit before my time is done.

I do my best to hold and protect my own, to get what I need and have enough of what I want, but it’s very apparent that life is leaking away from me all the while.

This drain metaphor of life spawns other secondary metaphors, which are more enmeshed in language and hence more meaning-full. The farther out and dependent our minds become on this web of meaning, the more dogmatic we get in our beliefs, the more convicted of our certainties, and the more vulnerable we become to anxiety and depression. We worry over many things, sink into fatigue and discouragement, and get just enough rest to rush out and try it again.

Western religion has compensated for this inherent bipolarity in egoism with its invention of an afterlife fantasy where the ego will live on forever once the body expires. Physically my body is trickling down the drain with each passing minute, but I (ego) will not die. Instead I will pop out on the other side, fully intact and without the drag of a mortal frame. Over there, I will be reunited with my loved ones who went down the drain before me, and I will be everlastingly happy.

The metaphor of circling the drain, therefore, is what inspired our familiar and highly defended notion of salvation as a rescue project. What we’re looking for cannot be here, for the obvious reason that everything is going down the drain. Our only hope is to find the way out – out of this world, out of our bodies. Not really out of time, exactly, since heaven is supposed to be everlasting, but at least in time without a drain to worry about.

Outside of religion, the metaphor of life as circling the drain has stimulated a view of the individual as consumer – needing, demanding, taking, devouring, using, spending, wasting and casting aside the leftover junk. We have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as chronically empty – of what exactly, no one knows for sure. But there are countless fillers on display in the marketplace that we are encouraged to try out. Keep your credit card handy.

So we oblige by filling ourselves up with all manner of “stuff” and in the process have become discontent and possessive, malnourished and overweight, popular and lonely, renting storage and buying insurance policies to keep it all safe as we inwardly waste away.

                                                                                  

There is another metaphor of life, one that predates our Western notion of the drain by thousands of years. Its roots are in the organic intelligence of the body – the very problem from which the ego seeks escape. It is central to a grounded and mystical spirituality. Instead of circling the drain, this metaphor invites you to join the stream.

riverLife is a flowing river, and you are part of the mystery. There’s no need to throw yourself into a tightening spiral of anxiety, craving, attachment, frustration, disappointment, desperation and depression.

True enough, since the larger culture has been constructed around the drain metaphor, you will be tempted to regard this idea as something else you need to take and make your own. But that’s just ego again. 

By its nature, a stream cannot be possessed. If you should try to dam it up and turn it into a reservoir, you might achieve the illusion of ownership and control, but your entire perspective will have shifted to a vertical axis centered on leakage and loss prevention – the drain again.

Joining the stream promotes a very different outlook on reality, a different way of orienting oneself in the world. As a metaphor, it counteracts the ego’s tendency towards nervous consumption and the grip-down on me and mine. Rather than closing focus down into a spiraling anxiety around the drain hole of mortality, the stream metaphor opens our focus up to the larger reality to which we belong.

Our separation from reality and antagonism to life is only a delusion of ego consciousness. I (ego) am not really separate from everything else, but my insecurities and defenses make it seem so. And yet, this mistaken sense of separateness is what alienates me from my body and hence also from life itself.

The metaphor of life as a stream is also a gentle reminder that it’s not about me. Admittedly it can be a considerable – perhaps even traumatic – change in perspective that’s required, and one that isn’t supported by the general culture we live in. To some extent this has always been the case.

Even though their teachings were later turned into programs of escape from mortality and its complications, Siddhartha and Jesus were really speaking about the opportunity afforded in each moment of life to release the neurotic compulsions of “me” and “mine” for the sake of a larger and more participative experience. The Buddhist “no-self” (anatta) and the Christian “new mind” (metanoia) are early concepts that get at this idea of joining the stream.chart

The above chart sets in contrast these two different images, identifying the points where each guiding metaphor works its way into our worldview, our fundamental attitudes toward life and the values we uphold, as well as our approach to the mysteries of death and dying.

Everything changes as you learn to give in to the greater reality, rather than stubbornly insist that reality deliver on your demands. You are wonderfully free of convictions and the need to be right. You begin to understand that nothing belongs to you, that there is only One Thing going on here and you are part of it.

In life and death, you can be fully present and trust the process. This is the essence of faith.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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