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Touching Reality

The true longing of our spiritual life is to touch reality, to connect with what’s really real, and thereby to become more real ourselves: more authentically and fully human. This of course implies that to some extent we are not presently in touch with reality, and maybe not fully real.

According to the spiritual wisdom teachings, each of us suffers in separation from the really real insofar as we are deeply entangled in managing a separate personal identity, called our ego (Latin for “I”).

It might occur to us that extinguishing our separate ego, or preventing its formation in the first place, would make spiritual fulfillment more likely. Numerous philosophies, methods, and techniques have been devised with that end in mind. But they all fail, as they are destined to fail, since the discipline of eliminating the ego is dependent upon the individual’s desire, will, and persistent effort – that is, on the very thing they are setting out to abolish.

Religion is divided on the question of what to do with the ego. If it’s not to be annihilated, perhaps it needs to be rescued. If not snuffed out of existence, should we be concerned for its salvation instead – getting it safely out of this world of suffering and into some immortal paradise beyond?

It rarely occurs to those on the inside of this debate that there may be a third option, a kind of ‘middle way’. Neither destroyed nor delivered, but rather used as the means to what we’re really seeking, which is to touch reality and become more fully human. We’re not talking about using someone else for our own fulfillment, for that would just be another example of glorifying the ego and gratifying its self-centered ambitions.

To understand how and where the ego fits into our spiritual quest for the really real, it’s helpful to know what it is. My diagram is focused on this center of self-conscious awareness, stretching out from there in four directions. We’ll begin at the bottom, curve up to the left, zig to the right, and then curve up again to the top.

It’s important to keep in mind that all four directions (or dimensions of self) are correlated around the ego and only make sense from the vantage point it provides.

Let’s start with your centered sense of being a separate and unique individual. We’ll explore the contents of your identity shortly, but for now I will just ask you to let your awareness drop from that self-conscious center and into the deeper support of your experience in this moment. Underneath and supporting self-consciousness is a sentient nervous system, which is continuously picking up and processing sensory information from your environment and body.

As a sentient being, you sense, feel, and perceive what’s going on around and inside you. Beneath that, however, is the wonderful conspiracy of organic urgencies keeping your body alive. Organs and organ systems, glands and the circulatory paths by which they communicate, and down into the metabolic marvel of bones, tissues, and individual living cells.

And then there’s the physical substrate of matter, providing structure and magnetism for all of those miracles higher up. Inside of matter is the strange quantum realm of energy, which you can’t see or overtly feel, even though it suffuses everything about the physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious being that you are.

You should have noticed how each deeper drop into the grounding mystery of your existence requires that you surrender a little more of what makes you a separate and unique individual.

As your awareness lets go of all those attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that define who you are, you enter the increasingly less personal dimension of what you are. But notice, too, how with each deeper ‘layer’ in the essence of what you are, awareness opens correspondingly farther out to include more of reality. While ego awareness hovers close to your center of personal identity, sentient awareness connects you not only to other sentient beings, but to the entire sensory-physical universe.

All of what we have named so far can be placed under the category of ‘interiority’, inside and beneath the self. This withinness of your life does not belong to your ego, but rather supports it as its grounding mystery. To enter the interior dimension of your life, however, it is necessary to release all of those things that make you separate and special.

Descending by this interior path is one way you can touch reality.

Let’s think more about this “separate and special” person you are. What we summarized earlier as the attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that make you who you are do not refer to physical traits as much as personality traits. What we call ‘identity’ is not something you’re born with, but instead must be constructed in the long process called socialization. By this process your tribe shaped the behavior, implanted the values, and instructed the beliefs that aligned with its collective way of life.

Think about this: To be somebody and have an identity, you must belong to some tribe where your identity is recognized. Yes, you are a human being; but who are you? That’s something we can’t determine until we know the social context in which your identity is held. Your tribe provides you with a role to play, along with the script you’re expected to follow. Of course, there is typically some flexibility built in to allow for your particular talents, interests, and ‘performance style’.

We can distinguish this element of individuality from the social role itself by naming it a ‘mask’, as the face and outward expression in how you play the role. Interestingly, the Latin word persona refers to the mask a theater actor wore during a stage performance, and our words ‘person’, ‘personal’, and ‘personality’ derive directly from it.

Over time and through countless performances, a role begins to fuse with the sense of who you are. No longer is it something you step into for the purpose of engaging a social role-play, for it has by now fully insinuated itself into your behavior, beliefs, and worldview. At this point, the construction project achieves a critical victory, in establishing your character in the story of who you are.

You should note that all of it – mask, role, character, and story – are narrative constructs and have no true reality of their own. However difficult it may be to hear, it should be clear that moving from ego into what makes you a separate and unique person is actually taking you farther away from what’s really real.

But – and now we start our zig across my diagram to the opposite side – this very identity, constructed and ‘put on’ as it may be, is what gives you a place in the role-play and connects you to other persons.

If I remind you now about your own interiority, how deep below and detached it is from the theater stage where you and everyone else are trying to manage your personal lives, it should make sense if we call this third dimension ‘alterity’, referring to “the state of being other; otherness” (from the dictionary).

The interiority of the other is inaccessible to you, and even if they would share as much of their inner life with you as they possibly can, there will always remain something there that is ‘wholly other’ – unknown and unknowable, unspeakable and utterly ineffable. Despite all your best efforts to know them, and given the fullest confession of the other person, their otherness will continue to both confront and elude you.

Even if you were to uncover all their secrets and unravel the many strands of their personal narrative, their grounding mystery within would be absolutely transcendent to you.

This is true not only of other human persons, but of each and every existing thing there is. A grain of sand, for instance, presumably doesn’t possess a living body or sentient mind, but its simple interiority carries an otherness that still confronts you as impenetrable. Yes, you could smash the grain of sand into its component elements, but then you have only created countless more objects, each confronting you with its alterity.

As it relates to the spiritual life and our longing to touch reality, this dimension of alterity confronts us with the mystery of otherness. Reality is always other – even ‘wholly other’ than what we can experience or know, think or imagine.

Having established the fundamental duality between individuals, each hosting a profound interiority and confronted by the impenetrable alterity of the other, we can now make our final swing upward in my diagram. What is reality? It is all of it, together; a higher wholeness; the turning unity (uni-verse) of being and time. We are not speaking here of something else beyond the totality of things, but rather to the consilient (literally “leaping together”) dynamic by which all things are connected, involved, and contribute to the greater whole.

Indeed this greater whole is an emergent property of all those exchanges and transformations working together. When you are able to go beyond yourself, this time not letting go of what makes you separate and unique, but investing it and giving of yourself to the emerging unity of your life with others, you are touching reality in another way again. Not as grounding mystery or absolute otherness, but as genuine community.

Going within to the Ground, going out to the Other, and going up into Unity: these are the three ways we can touch reality and become more fully human.

In my next post we’ll take a look at how these translate into religion, and where religion commonly loses its way.

 

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Sinking into Being

If you are somewhere in your forties there’s a good chance that you are experiencing a major life-shift. You might be engaging this shift in a spirit of fully conscious participation, but more likely you have noticed it creeping outside your windows at night and scratching at your screen door. Things that once motivated you to get up early and stay up late now barely hold your interest. The compelling sense of heroic purpose that had ignited your passion to change the world is starting to feel contrived and maybe even a little sickening. You keep waking up from a disturbing dream, only to slowly realize that the dream is your life.

Or maybe you realize it all at once. Your career slides over the edge. Your marriage starts to pull apart at the seams. Your doctor finds a mass, or you unexpectedly lose a loved one. When it happens that fast, this life-shift I’m talking about can cause your entire world and sense of self to come unhinged. Something has changed, and there’s no going back to the way things were. If a way forward is even possible, you start to feel that it might not be worth it. It just might be over. There’s nothing left.

Your friends look concerned. You must be depressed, so they try to pick you up. Get some sleep. Take some pills. Have another drink. Don’t be so melancholy – you’re bringing the rest of us down! Maybe you’re thinking too much. Lighten up.

But if your friends are in a similar existential place in life, chances are really good that you’re going to sink for sure.

What’s going on? Of course it’s hard to say with any categorical certainty, but the things happening inside and around you could be very natural – even to some extent inevitable. Here’s one way of looking at it.skimmers_sinkersIn the first half of life you are busy preparing for and then enthusiastically carrying out the imperatives of your culture. Your upbringing and years of education fling you out across the surface of life in pursuit of happiness and success. If you have sufficient ambition, you are expected to get far. Along the way you are rewarded for your achievements and given recognition in the form of gold stars and lollipops, ribbons and trophies, diplomas and promotions.

The better you are at getting ahead and keeping up with your competition, the stronger and more meaningful these social reinforcements become. You are expected to get a job, find a partner and get married, raise a family and invest in the commonwealth. So you put on the suit, grab your coffee, and head out the door.

On it goes: day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

For the first forty-five years or so you are a Skimmer, arcing through the world like a skipping stone on a pond. The fantasy of worldly success, exaggerated even more by the nagging fear of failure, throws you across a long series of experiences, tracing a line that by default becomes the plot of your life story.

Then you blink and a couple of decades are gone. Your kids are stepping into their own lives and not calling you as often. The work on your desk starts to feel tedious and boring. You look in the mirror, and to your shock someone has pulled the flabby skin of an older person down over your head.

The bars on the merry-go-round are beginning to slip your grasp. Hang on! you’re told. Young ambitious career chasers (and comparatively better Skimmers) are getting interviews for your job right now. Try to keep up!

                                                                           

Now you find yourself with a few close friends, drinking wine and struggling to make sense of this heavy exhaustion you feel. Something is shifting, but what? In a way, the world has let you down. The seductive fantasy of identity, purpose, and success is flickering on the screen – a screen you had regarded a clear window on reality for so many years. It’s as if the axis of your life orientation is flipping 90° from horizontal to vertical, dropping you like a stone.

Consider this your invitation to life in its fullness. You are at the threshold of something that no one so far has been able to fully comprehend or explain. Those who risk faith in this deeper mystery have found the grace to slow down, let go, and sink into being. They are Sinkers, which according to the value system of Skimmers makes them drop-outs.

Sinkers are on the quest to live more intentionally. They seek inner fulfillment rather than outer accomplishments and social validation – another value that can sound to Skimmers like a gospel of selfish gratification, when it’s really the exact opposite of that. Life that is “filled full” has nothing missing; it is complete and whole, just as it is in this moment. There’s no need to make it count, make it meaningful, or make it yours.

Another thing about Sinkers is that all the cultural pretense of who you think you are, what other people think about you, and the persistent illusion of identity (ego) itself falls away. Up at the surface, of course, this pretense is making the world-go-round go round and round. But down here, the only way to be is real – authentic, fully present, and completely liberated from all things “me.”

So if life is starting to feel uncomfortable, if the glamor and shiny incentives are just not exciting anymore, and you’re not sure you’ve got any more “skips” in you, take heart. Nod your head and thank your friends for their sincere concern and earnest words of encouragement. Sure, you still have undiscovered talents. You’ve made a difference, and there’s more for you to accomplish out there in the world.

Don’t be afraid. What’s happening is what must happen. It is the way of things. You needed to wake up sometime. So now stay present, release your expectations, and allow yourself to gently sink into being.

Have faith and relax … all the way down.

 

 

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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.

Chakra_tree

The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-ku), proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?

 
 

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Life in Three Dimensions

A human being is intended to live in three dimensions. I’m not referring to the three dimensions of ordinary space, and by “intended” I’m not suggesting that someone out there (i.e., god) has designed us with this specifically in mind. More along the lines of the genetic entelechy (inner aim) that drives and guides a living thing toward the ideal of maturity, my theory is that the individual develops – and our species is evolving – into a three-dimensional life according to the entelechy of our human nature.

So what are the three dimensions? Let’s start with life in one dimension. One-dimensional life is driven purely by unconscious instinct and guided by the urges and reflexes that keep an organism connected to the life-supply. I’ll name this the “elementary” dimension as it concerns what the organism of our body needs to stay alive and grow. It is basic and necessary and doesn’t require us to think, choose, or make decisions. Thankfully, you don’t have to decide when to breathe or how you will digest your food. It’s all taken care of automatically by the unconscious code in your cells, glands, and organs.

A human being has an animal nature, which by definition anchors us firmly in the elementary dimension of life. Your body is constantly seeking (though unconsciously, that is, below your conscious attention or control) situations where your biological needs are satisfied. I’ll call the general condition where these needs are connected to the life-supply security (‘S’ in the diagram below).

When you were still in the womb, and especially just after you were born, your nervous system was picking up signals and forming an internal impression regarding the provident nature of your environment. To the degree that its basic needs were met, your body established an internal state of security – a visceral (gut-level) sense that reality is safe, supportive, and favorable.

Generally speaking, wombs are more secure environments than the space outside the womb, but every human being has to undergo this “fall from paradise” and hopefully reestablish connection to the life-supply. For the rest of your life, your body and nervous system will continuously monitor reality for how providently it supports your needs. Outside of Eden the supply flow from resource to your need fell short of the instantaneous satisfaction that an umbilical cord provides. So already in your first hour after birth the pang of craving and anxiety broke the spell, causing you to cry out for caring attention.3D

If your caregivers were indeed attentive and responded to your cries with the support you needed, then this twinge of insecurity was resolved and you could relax into being. But no parents are perfect, nor could they be there at the very moment when your need declared itself, which is why all of us get hooked by anxiety to some extent. If we have difficulty as adults relaxing into being (or having faith in reality), then it’s not entirely our parents’ fault because they weren’t completely off the hook themselves (double meaning intended).

The quality of attachment to your caregivers can be measured in terms of intimacy (‘I’ in the diagram to the right). This refers to how close, warm, loving and supportive these bonds were, making it an extension of security. Because humans beings have a social instinct, this pursuit of intimacy occupies the critical crossover point between the first and second dimensions of existence. These attachment bonds served as your biological environment outside the womb, and so they are strongly correlated to your sense of security …

But your parents were also the first higher powers (or taller powers) who began the process of installing in your spongy brain the cultural codes of your tribe. This is what it means to say that intimacy is a crossover point between the first and second dimensions, from the elementary to the “ethnic” (referring to a primary human group). A human being cannot survive without social support. Those early intimate relationships not only satisfied your physical needs to some extent, but they also forged the emotional and interpersonal foundations of your identity (ego, or social self).

As you continued to grow into this second dimension, your tribe gradually trained and equipped you to take on specific roles and responsibilities (‘R’ in the diagram above). To the degree that society is a role play, your occupation and performance within this interactive system was a shared investment of everyone involved. You were expected to abide by the rules that dictated exactly where in the play your part came up (what I’m calling occupation) and how you were to carry it out (performance).

Eventually, after numerous roles on a variety of social stages, you were encouraged to take up a more or less permanent occupation in the world of work. As is the case with all your roles, there was a subtle but very persistent pressure on you to identify your self with this work role. The more successful this identification is, the more you are willing to lose and sacrifice on its behalf. Obviously this makes the exit transition of retirement problematic for individuals whose self concept is completely tied to their job or career.

And this is where most of us are currently stuck: in the second dimension, struggling to keep our relationships intact as we daily go to work and trade our creativity for a paycheck. A two-dimensional human being is not a totally fulfilled human being, however, which is why so many of us are frustrated, bored, and chronically depressed. The entelechy of our nature compels us to break through to a third dimension, but our present condition has such a grip on us that the upward thrust of our inner growth slams against the ceiling of the conventional world.

The “grip” I speak of is also known as the consensus trance, the contraction on consciousness exercised by the assumptions, expectations, and concerns of society. A tribe maintains order by its success in managing the mental limits of its members. If you feel stuck in the second dimension, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of your tribe in providing the intoxicants, prescriptions, distractions, amusements, excursions (as long as you come back!) and fluffy retirement package for sticking it out.

Few people wake up from this trance. Sleep-walking through a life of mediocrity is just easy enough to postpone a breakthrough. Religious orthodoxy spritzes a little more hallucinogen into our minds to keep us from causing a disturbance: Just wait. Your reward in heaven will make it all worthwhile.

But there are a few – and you may be one of them – who do wake up. They start by asking questions such as “What’s the point?” “Who really cares?” and “Why should I give away one more day of my life to something that doesn’t really matter?” Or they come to certain conclusions like “I’ve been living inside a mass delusion my whole life!” and “Life is short, and then you die.”  The truth of this is indisputable: you will die someday, and you don’t know when.

It could be tomorrow.

If tomorrow is your last day, how does that awareness affect what you do with today? Quite often when people ask themselves this question they break into a new realm of awareness, into what I’ll name the “existential” dimension of a human being. The fleeting character of life and the role play of society inspire in them a focused quest for the really real. This is the search for authenticity (‘A’ in the diagram”) and an authentic life, for the genuine ground of reality.

Finding it around you and inside yourself does not constitute an easy answer to your quest(ion) after the really real. You will still die, and it could be tomorrow. But now – and that’s a key existential word – you have the opportunity to be spiritually grounded, deeply centered, fully awake, and completely alive. As each moment unfolds like a flower, you draw its beauty and fragrance into every cell. Even if it’s painful and more like a thorn, you can be there and touch reality with open awareness.

The existential dimension of life is therefore about being present and responding in wonder, mindfulness, and gratitude to the present mystery of reality. It doesn’t throw off responsibility, renounce intimacy, or abandon security; but it may motivate you to quit your job for something more creative and true to your soul, leave a relationship that’s abusive or dead, or take a risk for the life you really want.

There are no guarantees.

According to reports, those who have awakened to authentic life don’t often win the affections of their two-dimensional contemporaries. Sometimes they have ended up on the street, in exile, or on a cross. But if you could go back for an interview and ask them whether it was all worth it, to a person they would no doubt respond with something like, “Are you kidding?!”

 

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Mystical Faith and the Way to Peace

And now we began to drive through that narrow strait. On one side was Scylla and on the other Charybdis. Fear gripped the men when they saw Charybdis gulping down the sea. But as we drove by, the monster Scylla seized six of my company–the hardiest of the men who were with me. As they were lifted up in the mouths of her six heads they called to me in their agony. But I could do nothing to aid them. They were carried up to be devoured in the monster’s den. Of all the sights I have seen on the ways of the water, that sight was the most pitiful.

– Homer’s The Odyssey

S_CIn Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.

Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.

And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.

                                                                                                 

In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.

The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.Quad

I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.

Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.

Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.

In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.

Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.

This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.

Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.

It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.

So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.

But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.

Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.

Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.

The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.

Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.

This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.

 
 

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