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Staying Safe, Playing Small

map-of-egoOne of the odd and wonderful things about us humans is how an extended period of juvenile dependency, which makes us impressionable to social shaping like no other species, also leaves us exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of social abuse. What could open the path for creative evolution and human progress often ends up shutting us down inside neurotic hangups and rigid convictions. Odd and wonderful, but tragic as well.

My diagram is fairly complex, but hopefully not overly complicated. Let’s take a tour by starting with that smaller break-out frame to the bottom-right. Since we were very young, each of us has been on a vigilant quest for three things: security, attachment, and meaning. I reversed their order from how they are presented in the break-out frame to acknowledge their developmental sequence in our early formation.

Our deepest and most pressing concern is for an assurance that reality is provident, that what we need to feel safe, included, and nourished is actually there for us when we need it. If it is, then our sense of security functions to open us further to reality. But if we don’t feel secure, our generalized anxiety motivates us to compensate somehow for the missing assurance, which we engineer by attaching ourselves to others with the demand that they keep us safe and satisfied.

I’m using the term attachment in a way more consistent with the Buddhist notion than how it’s used in Western developmental psychology, where it commonly refers to the close and intimate bond between infant and caregiver. But let’s keep both definitions together as representing a deep paradox we have all experienced time and again: our closest relationships are often ‘the ties that bind’ us and prevent our necessary freedom and growth.

To the degree that attachments compensate for a deeper insecurity – which they are incapable of resolving, by the way – the meaning that we construct around ourselves and those we depend on to manage our anxiety tends to be small, rigid, and closed. It’s small because we can’t risk extending our horizon beyond what we can see and control. Our meaning is rigid in that it lacks flexibility and real-time relevance. And it is closed, which is to say that our mental box excludes discrepant information and alternative views, as it inhibits healthy doubt and intellectual curiosity.

Each of us, then, lives inside a narrative construction called a world, and our world both reflects and addresses our historical quest for security, attachment, and meaning. Whether our quest went well or badly in childhood, even now as adults we inhabit a world built on those early emotional codes. Inside our world is where we came to a sense of ourselves as somebody special, with an identity of our own. Despite having reached physical maturity as an adult, this deeper and more primitive part of our personality – what is named our ‘inner child’ – still comes out and takes over whenever we get poked, hooked, or stressed.

Let’s move from the break-out frame to the center of my diagram, where a larger representation of that same box is displayed. At the top and bottom of the world frame are two important insights to keep in mind. First, every world is an exercise in make-believe. (I put the word “make” in parentheses to indicate our widespread unwillingness to admit that we are doing it.) In another post I defined belief as pretending to know something and then forgetting that we’re pretending.

In other words, we act ‘as if’ our judgments about reality are straightforward descriptions of the way it really is, when there is always an element of our need or wish that it be that way.

It’s easy to forget that reality is not made up of words, or that our words – however connected and stretched into broad fabrics of meaning – are not the reality we presume to define. Reality itself, or what I call the present mystery of reality, is just that, something that eludes our mind and its dragnet of language. Of course, so far as we have closed ourselves up inside a small, rigid, and closed frame of meaning (or world), this realization will be vigorously resisted. If meaning is relative and our world is make-believe, then perhaps our identity is a fantasy as well!

Hang on to that thought.

Those who share our world – or, more accurately, whose constructions of meaning significantly overlap and fuse with our own – are just as committed to the conviction of its truth. We are exactly the somebody special we believe we are, and each of us has our place and plays our role in the web of social interactions that contains and validates our identity. Every scenario is a role-play, every player has a role, and each role comes with a script that seems to drive our behavior without us even thinking about it.

And that’s precisely the point: this thoughtless and scripted performance of social role-plays is what keeps our world turning, as it keeps us under its spell.

Welcome to the consensus trance. The word ‘trance’ is in parentheses because no one wants to admit that much of our life in society (and even in privacy) is lived in a state of robotic stupor, enacting programs that have been installed in our brains.

Moving our attention to the center of the frame we find ego, that separate center of personal identity who’s the star of our show. One aspect of personal identity faces the other – other egos, objects, and even the whole shebang of what’s going on (so-called ‘objective reality’). Particularly in our social interactions – which, we must keep in mind, are role-plays in make-believe – ego takes on what we might call ‘modal identities’, referring to who I am in this or that social context. The Latin word persona (“to speak through”) describes the mask a stage actor would wear in personifying a character in a play, usually equipped with a small fluted mouthpiece to amplify volume and aid in voice projection.

A persona might also be thought of as a kind of socially approved deception. As long as we perform our roles according to script and in conformity with the consensus trance, we can lead others to believe that we are the roles we play. Because others who share our world are already susceptible to being duped in this socially acceptable way, we sometimes take advantage of the opportunity by leading them to believe something about us that is neither honest nor true. (As we are not typically eager to confess this, I’ve put the word ‘deceive’ in parentheses.)

While our ego’s persona (one of many) displays and projects only what we want others to know about us, there is a corresponding but opposite aspect that stays out of view – or at least we try hard to keep it hidden. This is what Carl Jung named our shadow, and its dark shade covers not only the things we don’t want others to see, but also things about ourselves we have neglected or ignored. In addition to those inclinations and tendencies in ourselves that had to be pushed down and out of sight (i.e., repressed) so we could be accepted and included – and which, as Jung insisted, are frequently projected onto others who then serve as our enemies and scapegoats – there are deeper treasures like creative intelligence, artistic talents, and dormant potential that go undiscovered.

Now it should be obvious that when we are profoundly insecure, co-dependently attached, and held hostage by our convictions, the parts of ourselves we are repressing and the social deception we have to carry on just to stay in control (or so we believe) conspire to cut us off from others and from our true self. You might think that since everyone is playing along, what’s the harm?

As it turns out, the harm of staying safe and playing small is significant indeed. According to the spiritual wisdom traditions, the serenity we’re seeking as human beings, and which conventionally gets confused with the security we can’t get enough of, is only accessible by a descending path of surrender through the self. The grounding mystery is only found within, as we are able to release our need to be somebody special and simply relax into anonymous being.

And the harmony we long for, which gets confused with a quality of attachment that is not even possible, calls us to transcend the demand that others play to our script and take the ascending path to genuine communion instead. What I like to call the turning mystery of unity is beautifully exemplified in the nature of our universe (“turning as one”), but it can be found wherever individual egos can get over themselves and join in togetherness.

If we can’t – or won’t – surrender inwardly to the grounding mystery and transcend outwardly to the turning mystery, the consequence is that we end up sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security; we forfeit community for the sake of our attachments; and we come to despair inside a world that is far too small for our spirit.

 

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Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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Paths Into Reality

Although I spend a good amount of time defending the role of religion as the “system of utilities” that translates our spiritual intuitions into the structures of meaning in everyday life, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that intuition precedes the structures which translate it, and that meaning is secondary to the mystery at the heart of experience. My utilitarian account of religion, where its validity is determined by its usefulness in representing the mystery and supporting a way of life that promotes genuine community, offers a helpful criterion for criticism as well as one that appreciates religion’s valuable contribution.

Religion’s behavior of late has provided more grist for criticism than appreciation, however, leading many to wonder if perhaps its long career is approaching an end. As science and secularism continue to spread across the planet and pervade modern consciousness, perhaps it is time to just let religion go. The problem with letting religion go is that it isn’t going away as many hoped it would, but is instead going the way of irrelevancy and conviction (which are really flip-sides of each other), increasingly willing to condone or commit violence in defense of its idols.

So I will try again to rehabilitate religion to its proper role in personal life and society, this time not by tracing out its system of utilities but instead by looking deeper into the spirituality it intends to embody and express … at least originally. If it doesn’t do this very effectively at our cultural moment, our task should be (I would argue) to deconstruct religion back to its source – not its prehistoric origins but to the source-experience of mystery that informs all true religion, whether animistic, theistic, or post-theistic.Tao PathsI’ve chosen the symbol of Taoism as the backdrop of my illustration above, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the best visual image available for contemplating the nature of reality (or anything) as a dynamic duality of principles. An experience of the present mystery of reality takes place and unfolds along primarily one of two complementary paths, an interior path to the Grounding Mystery (or ground of being) or an exterior path into the Provident Universe (or universal order).

The interior path descends into deeper centers of solitude, progressively farther from the light of sense discrimination and “world awareness,” to the Grounding Mystery where all mental associations and even consciousness of oneself dissolves away. For this reason it is named the “dark path.” This movement apart (or away) from others, objects, and external reality generally is also called apophatic, which refers to the subtraction of words and a refusal to attach mental labels to one’s experience.

A more determined discipline of abandoning names and representations of the mystery is known as renunciation – saying “no” to something that qualifies, delimits, or otherwise interferes with one’s direct experience of the Grounding Mystery. Since the dark path proceeds by separating oneself from surface distractions, surrendering attachments and refusing to put words on the mystery, it often goes by the Latin name via negativa (way of negation). The goal ultimately is to lose (one’s sense of) oneself entirely in mystical union with the Grounding Mystery, to the point where Nothing (literally no thing) remains.

It is out of this ineffable awareness of Real Presence that the meditator will be refreshed in his or her intuition of oneness; that just as his or her deep inner life opens into the Grounding Mystery, so it can be said of all things. The existence of each thing is really a process of be-ing whereby it manifests the mystery of being-itself in its own limited form. All of existence takes on a sacramental character as the outward manifestation of this deep inner mystery.

In many early cultures, and even into the medieval period, a people’s cosmology (their mental model of the universe) was honored as a sacred picture of reality. This helps us understand why the revisions introduced by empirical science were so strongly resisted, and why even Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton initially explained their observations with adjustments, such as epicycles in planetary orbits, that could preserve the sacred cosmology to some extent.

This outward turn leads naturally to our consideration of the second path. The exterior path ascends into higher orders of communion, farther out into the light of sense discrimination and beyond world awareness, to the Provident Universe where all things “turn as one.” At this highest level, nothing is left out and all things exist together as illumined parts of a greater whole. For this reason it is named the “bright path.” This movement towards (or joining as part of) others, objects, or external reality generally is also called kataphatic, which refers to the addition of words and qualifiers in a fuller description of experience.

On this ascending path we are saying “yes” to the distinctions that qualify reality into a Provident Universe, where all things conspire together for the emergence of life and consciousness. Our ability to contemplate this is itself evidence of the fact that our universe is provident, not only in the organism of our body and highly evolved nervous system, but in Earth’s pro-life environment by virtue of its proximity to the Sun, along with the relative position of our galaxy within the expanding fabric of space-time. Theoretically every bit of it makes a contribution to the whole, suggesting that the farthest distant nebulae somehow play (or once played) a part in our present contemplation.

As we move up and out from ourselves, then, we are engaged upon the via positiva, a path where every new encounter is added to our understanding of the whole. The self is not negated but affirmed, world awareness is not renounced but transcended – surpassed and included within a larger frame of communion (literally “together as one”). Whereas the Grounding Mystery is deep within all things and accessible only by the inward via negativa, the Provident Universe is all around each thing and includes all things by the outward via positiva.

Now that we have the two paths of spiritual experience in view, I will draw my reader’s attention to the square at the center of my diagram. This is the box of identity, of the individual personality and its captain ego, which is conditioned according to its driving ambitions for security, attachment, and meaning. Each of us along the way enters into, negotiates, wakes up inside, converts to, and occasionally abandons (betrays, forsakes, releases) the identity contracts that define who we are. The rigid strength of this box is what I call conviction, which is the point where belief takes control of the mind rather than the healthy vice-versa. Just like a convict, an otherwise free and creative intelligence is “bound and determined,” and we all know where that leads.

To the box-dwelling ego, both spiritual paths present an intolerable threat for the simple reason that they require an individual to let go of “me and mine.” Security, attachment, and even the meaning locked up in one’s orthodoxy must be surrendered in the interest of touching and really seeing the present mystery of reality.

But since boxes are easier to manage (as well as mandate on others), most of us choose to stay inside.

 

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By God, What Do You Mean?

Real progress in religion is hampered by the fact that its primary concern is such an enigma. What people name “God” – or better, what they mean when they use this term – is nearly impossible to pin down. This is partly due to the inherent difficulty in defining something that admittedly has no boundaries or limits. But perhaps an even stronger factor has to do with the indefinite nature of experience itself, like a moving stream in continuous change.

When these two factors (a supposedly boundless object and the dynamic subjectivity of experience) are forgotten, religion becomes a seedbed of dangerous conviction and spiritual oppression. Once orthodoxy is convinced that it has the last word on God, there is no end to what it might muster, justify, or condone in promoting and defending its truth. Well, there actually is an end, once there’s nothing left to burn.

As an outspoken critic of religious orthodoxy and its god – and now I’ve shifted to the lower case, for reasons to be explained shortly – I try to maintain a sharp distinction between our names for God and that which we are presuming to name. Our unique capacity as a species for meaning-making makes us susceptible to falling under our own spell, where we start to believe that reality is as we imagine it to be. (Of course, crucial to this trance-state is forgetting that we have imagined it!)

In this post I will offer an understanding of religion’s primary concern, specifically exploring how experience, meaning, and truth come together (or fall apart) in this often baffling enterprise. An operating assumption throughout is that our names and representations of God – in other words, our various gods – can never fully or finally capture the reality under consideration. If we can agree on this (and not forget it), then perhaps some constructive dialogue is possible.

Even if our depictions of God are different, and significantly so, at least we can learn to appreciate our different depictions as depth-soundings into the marvelous complexity of human experience. Why do we have to put our depictions (as art, story, or doctrine) up against each other for competition and superior standing? Why not celebrate this diversity, claiming it as proof that God is more (and other) than any of us can imagine?

I think I know why.God Spectrum

God as Divine Absolute

It’s interesting how, at the higher levels of theological reflection, God is depicted in such abstract terms and extrapolated to such infinite degrees, that most (if not all) of our differences are logically eliminated. It no longer matters whether we’re talking about the ultimate reality according to Jews, Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists. Once you bracket out the traditional names for the Absolute (referring to what is utterly independent and unconditioned), the reality under consideration is identical.

The reason for this remarkable similarity has to do with the inevitable effect of pushing definitions into infinity (e.g., the Divine Absolute as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent), which is to erase them or stretch them so far that they no long define anything. By definition, so to speak, the Absolute is beyond definition. Whatever qualities are attributed to it are necessarily amplified to an infinite degree – exploded into everything and beyond.

As the Divine Absolute, God is everywhere. If God isn’t in this tree or that cloud, or even in my enemy; if God is only in heaven or on earth, but not in hell – then there is a location where God isn’t, which logically means that God is not everywhere after all. If we are going to reflect on the logical perfection of the Divine Absolute, then anything that is in the nature of God will be without limits, that is to say, infinite. That’s why, at this level of reflection, the differences among our traditional gods dissolve away, leaving only The Unlimited which includes everything but is not dependent on anything for its existence.

This capacity for higher-order thinking is a fairly late development in our individual maturation, coming only after we have gained the cognitive functions and language skills to support what Piaget named formal operations, the ability for symbolic and abstract thought. I like to think of this as the “logical refinery” where concepts drawn from experience are stripped of their situational “dross” and changed into pure ideas, or ideals. God, at this level of abstraction, is not a being belonging to this or that tradition, but absolute and limitless Being, that which transcends yet includes existence itself.

Now obviously that’s not where most people are interested in spending their time and intellectual energy. Besides, a logical abstraction like the Divine Absolute is not something that does much to stir devotion or confirm the validity of your creed. Even worse, if it doesn’t produce religious apathy (who can love an abstraction?), there is a danger that serious theological reflection will lead to heresy. (The omnipresent God is in hell? Unacceptable!)

God as Patron Deity

That’s perhaps why more of us stay in the groove of our religious tradition – belonging to a faith community, going to worship and bringing up our children in the “right way,” studying the scriptures and denominational confessions, believing and behaving as we ought, doing our best to please, flatter, and placate our Patron Deity. The down-shift from a Divine Absolute to a Patron Deity is a step into full engagement with a personified representation of God who has had a long history with “our people” – the insiders, the elect, the chosen ones, the saved.

Patron Deity is a more or less technical term taken from the kind of relationship said to exist between the deity and devotee. This relationship is transactional and supported by the mutual exchange of submission for protection, obedience for reward, worship for blessing. Where exactly is the Patron Deity encountered? The answer is difficult for many believers to accept: In the myths, or sacred stories, in which the deity’s character is first introduced and subsequently developed. In other words, the Patron Deity is a narrative construct – the central construct – of a tradition’s mythopoetic (myth-making or storytelling) imagination.

Our modern Western loss of this mythopoetic imagination, which was the tragic cost that attended our “gain” in a reductive, objectifying, hard-facts-oriented worldview, required that we “interpret” (rather than recite, embody, and perform) our sacred stories as factual eye-witness reports of supernatural realities and miraculous events of long ago. Yahweh, the resident Patron Deity of the Bible, now must be regarded as existing outside the stories (since story has lost its power), somewhere “out there” or “up there” – in any case, no longer exactly here.

In the opinion of many, it is a blatant statement of atheism to even suggest that no one (anywhere, ever) has encountered the Yahweh depicted in our Bible. But in making the statement I am not denying the existence of God, only insisting that the personified representation of righteousness, potency, judgment and mercy – this particular Patron Deity, Yahweh – lives only in the Bible. If it sounds like I’m saying that God is nothing but a fictional figure stuck in the pages of a book, this only exposes how far the modern mind has fallen out of mythopoetic consciousness.

Most of us need to go back to early childhood to recapture a dim memory of when stories weren’t just leisure-time entertainment but our full-time occupation. The world we lived in wasn’t made of objective facts. Instead it was suffused with invisible creatures, heroic challenges, time travel, and numerous branching storylines that we might spontaneously follow into our next adventure. Our world was a narrative construct spun out of stories. The characters we encountered, while not literally existing, were real to us – more real than any dead-heavy fact could ever be.

Yahweh started his career in the imaginarium of the ancient Near East, among a few tribes of habiru that had settled in the Sinai peninsula. The sacred stories they told brought Yahweh to life, and Yahweh in turn brought their world into existence.

God as Holy Presence

So far, then, we have distinguished two very different meanings of God: the theological abstraction of the Divine Absolute, and the mythopoetic character of the Patron Deity. One more step closer to the ground brings us into special settings where God is encountered as a Holy Presence. The sacred precincts of institutional religion (temples, churches, mosques, and cathedrals) are artificial constructions where worshipers gather to call on the Patron Deity and join themselves once again to the timeless realm of sacred story. Typically some kind of ritual performance mediates this crossover from the broken time of ordinary life into the deep time of sacramental experience.

Before temple buildings and architectural sanctuaries, people were likely to have such experiences in natural zones like groves, meadows, grottos, seashores, riversides and mountaintops – places where “something more” seemed to come through, activating their sense of wonder, amazement, awe, or even trepidation. This something more should not be confused with something else. The particular name for God at this level – Holy Presence – is often and too quickly reduced to a being (the Patron Deity?) who adds the something more by coming in from elsewhere. As a spiritual intuition, however, this Presence is not added but “unveiled” (or revealed) as always and already there.

In my diagram above I leave open the question (with curving arrows) of whether the experience of Holy Presence precedes and inspires the mythopoetic imagination, giving rise to the Patron Deity as a personification of the something more; or if established stories of God are engaged in ritual performances that successfully conduct the worshiper into the sacred time and Holy Presence of the Patron Deity. In all likelihood, the answer is “both.”

This dynamic reciprocal support between the Patron Deity and Holy Presence is where conventional religion settles into orbit. Ordinary members are neither interested in, nor do they have the patience (and time) for abstract theological reflection. It’s sufficient to give agreement to doctrines of God’s infinite nature and power and love (etc.) without bothering to chase such statements to their logical (and heretical) conclusions.

Indeed your average believer will likely harbor some suspicion towards the “scholars and academicians” who stretch the concept of God beyond what our minds can comprehend. Their preference is for a theology that maintains allegiance to the Patron Deity of their tradition and demonstrates the prestige of their orthodoxy over others. More important than an intellectual exploration into God is the security of knowing that God is here when they need him, and will reward them for their faith and obedience in the life to come.

God as Grounding Mystery

Another direction that conventional believers won’t typically go is downward – which is actually a decisive step inward, to the Grounding Mystery of being-itself. This is where mystical spirituality lives, and its signature experience is essentially the same across (really underneath) all the world religions. It’s similar to theology in the way it pushes language to its limits, but instead of pushing out, mysticism pulls language in to its metaphorical foundations. Rather than an infinite being, God is being-itself, the power-to-be in everything that exists.

God as Grounding Mystery is the source and support of all things (as suggested in the metaphor of ground). You will not find this Ground by looking outside yourself, however. As the generative wellspring of existence, the only path into the Grounding Mystery is within: inward and away from outward attachments, beneath and past the center of your personal identity (ego), down into the place which is no place, where your being rests in and is released to the provident mystery of reality. If language is useful in labeling, classifying, qualifying, and explaining the outer realm, it is gradually surrendered to a silent wonder and profound tranquility, as there is nothing (no thing) for it to grab onto.

                                                                               

While my explanation of the distinct levels of meaning for God began in the abstractions of theology and stepped down from there, essential to my theory is the claim that it all really begins in the ineffable (wordless, indescribable) experience of the Grounding Mystery. This is, after all, where our existence is rooted and anchored, where each of us takes in our life and lets it go again, where I am and you are: the only place we can ever be.

This is the only place we can ever really be.

 

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Do You Know Anyone Like That?

Mythic Quest CycleIn “The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego” I offered a model that helps us track individual identity through a gauntlet of developmental challenges that both shape the ego and continue to influence it throughout the lifespan by way of deep patterns called archetypes. These archetypes belong to larger clusters that correspond to the formative phases of birth (the perinatal cluster), early childhood (the developmental cluster), and a critical passage that is unlocked only to the degree that these earlier challenges were relatively successful, opening into an experience of the grounding mystery of being itself (esoteric cluster).

It is at this threshold, in fact, where ego (identity) is surrendered to soul (communion), that theism as a paradigm of religion gives way to post-theism. Indeed, if we can better understand how it goes (or gets blocked) for the ego, we will have in hand a key insight into the evolutionary purpose (and common pathologies) of theism as well. This is because theism and ego are coeval (of the same age and equal duration). How it goes with ego, so it goes with theism – and vice versa. In this post I will explore the healthy and dysfunctional forms of both.

Before I begin, however, perhaps that last statement – about ego and theism developing together – needs to be explained. The essential idea is that ego, as the executive center of the personality, has its counterpart in the deity who is executive-in-charge of the tribe and its world. “Tribe” is here playing a mediating role, shaping the individual’s identity as “one of us” according to the moral ideal represented in the patron deity. At this stage (in theism) the game is all about clear roles and rule-bound relationships, as the arena where the social constructs of identity, membership, and obligation are set in place.

The patron deity serves a dual function as the sovereign authority behind the tribe’s moral code, and as the focus of worship and aspiration in its members. In obeying their god, individuals are cooperating for the common good, while in glorifying the divine virtues of grace, mercy, compassion, patience, wisdom, forgiveness (etc.) – and seeking all the while to be like the deity in these ways – they are gradually growing toward that ideal. Along the way, what had been addressed as outside the self (i.e., the patron deity) is slowly internalized, as it were, until the individual is able to drop the identifier of “me and mine” altogether and simply be one with everything.

It happens, and all too frequently, that ego development gets hung up (or blocked), which, if the hang-up is fairly widespread across the tribe, can have a distortion-effect on the deity as represented in art, story, theory and doctrine. As a people regress, so does their patron deity. Just as in positive development the deity contains dormant or newborn virtues of a morally advanced community, when its official custodians (the priests and theologians) slip or get pulled into degenerate vices such as dogmatism, bigotry, vengeance and cruelty, the deity undergoes a similar makeover and soon the tribe as a whole falls into its gravity.

Ego StrengthSo what is a healthy ego and deity, and what are their contrasting pathologies? First we should recall that ego-formation comes about, initially at least, through a process of restraint-and-redirection, as the impulsive drives and animal urgencies of the body are trained into socially appropriate behavior. Of course, the underlying urgency of biology and instinct doesn’t just stop doing what nature requires, which means that ego is first gained and thereafter suspended just above the borderline separating the personality from this primordial (deeper, darker) animality.

Added to this responsibility of managing the animal impulses of the body – at least the small percentage of milder inclinations that can be controlled – is the task of establishing a center in the personality where moods can be kept in balance. As distinct from urges and impulses, moods are global and sustained internal states that work to match an organism to its environment and motivate behavior that is adaptive to the challenge at hand. Because circumstances change and new challenges are always presenting themselves, particularly in the social arena where ego is at home, the personality needs to adjust quickly.

A third factor of ego strength is its ability to hold the personality together as a whole. Various and sometimes divergent streams of affect (feeling), motivation, thought, and disposition need to be supervised, coordinated, or reconciled for the sake of maintaining a unified self. There are times when a certain stream comes close to breaching the ego’s hold, which, if successful, could result in guilt, embarrassment, or personal injury. As the executive center, ego serves the important function of self-integrity.

In summary, then, healthy ego development – and let’s remember that this will be true of the divine ego of the patron deity as well – is demonstrated in a stable, balanced, and unified identity. The personality is kept from falling through the floor into animal urgency, it is able to maintain a center of emotional composure, and it is held together under a governing director who monitors all things “me and mine” (our Captain Ego). From this stable, balanced, and unified platform, an individual is capable of leaping out into a larger reality, transcend the self entirely, and consciously join the present communion of all things – which is the mystical experience of spirituality.

Against this profile of healthy identity we can more easily describe the different types of pathology that afflict both ego and the patron deity.

You should probably know that I am deeply skeptical over the modern confidence in naming and classifying so-called mental disorders. Biological psychiatry and diagnostic psychotherapy have invented a complicated web of clinical disorders without a clear definition of mental order. Critics of this enterprise – and it is a wonderful conspiracy of inventors, drug manufacturers, and insurance companies, served by a cadre of well-compensated physicians and therapists – are highly doubtful that health and suffering can be so cleanly divided into “normal” and “abnormal.”

With that said, my description of pathology in the ego and theism’s deity is not intended to deny the legitimate cases where something is really, and deeply, wrong with the brain (in ego’s case). While I have chosen the names of a few outstanding and “popular” pathologies for my purpose, I readily concede that there are times when biology has “gone wrong” and a patient needs medical (drug and/or surgical) intervention. But such cases are much rarer than is commonly believed, which is part of the delusion that the conspiracy is intent on perpetuating.Ego PathologySo here we go. When the boundary separating ego from the lower animal urgencies is not very strong, the personality is not able to control the border and keep spontaneous impulses in check. Consequently the identity system will unpredictably collapse and be overtaken by sudden urges or reactions, making the person behave in socially inappropriate ways that end up damaging relationships. Do you know anyone like this?

What I’m calling borderline personality, then, is not so much a clinical disorder as an extreme variance in identity formation where ego strength is insufficient to keep the personality above the surface of animal urgencies. Individuals who lack a stable ego often suffer from loneliness from having offended their former friends, and a chronic restlessness in never knowing when the floor might fall out from beneath them.

What happens when the missing part of ego strength is the center that would otherwise hold a person’s moods in balance? Wide and erratic swings, and not only of the familiar “manic” to “depressive” poles. Wild fluctuations in mood inevitably land the individual in situations where the body’s internal state is completely incompatible with his or her present circumstances. Because moods are more global and enduring than the momentary feeling responses that naturally occur in the course of normal experience, a bipolar person can be so totally possessed by a mood that he or she is insensitive to the surrounding cues.

The bipolar personality is also socially disruptive, but in a different way from the borderline personality. While the borderline issue puts everyone on the edge of not knowing when the next outburst or collapse is going to happen, bipolarity trains those around the individual to withhold confidences and responsibilities from him or her out of concern that they won’t be followed through to completion. Do you know anyone like that?

Finally, when ego strength is unable to hold the personality together as a unified system, the numerous undercurrents of identity, attitude, motivation and behavior that might normally be allowed expression by Captain Ego in appropriate social environments and situations, can simply and unexpectedly “show up.” Roberto Assagioli, the Italian founder of psychosynthesis – stressing the necessary work of constructing a healthy self, as opposed to Freud’s strategy of taking apart the sick self with psychoanalysis – referred to these relatively self-contained minor identities within the dominant personality as “subpersonalities.” They are normal components in the normally complex personality system.

But when the ego is too weak to maintain a unified self, the personality “dissociates,” giving way to any one or a number of these subpersonalities. Observers of this phenomenon are often perplexed at how so-and-so is suddenly “an entirely different person” than he or she was just moments before. This isn’t about impulses breaking through the floor, but rather coherent substreams of alter-identity that take over in a social situation.

(At one point, this was named “multiple personality disorder” by psychiatry, but it later got relabeled as “dissociative identity disorder.” I’m suggesting that it is far more normal (or better, common) than the clinical designation will admit.)

Now that we have a model of ego strength before us, along with an understanding of the major pathologies that compromise it, I will return to my original suggestion. Just as there is a developmental partnership between the healthy ego and its patron deity, where the external causality and higher virtues represented in the deity are gradually internalized by the caring and self-responsible ego, so we should expect to find instances where ego pathology (borderline, bipolar, dissociative) is reflected in depictions of God – for example as temperamental, capricious, and internally divided (think of the subpersonalities of Yahweh in the Bible as threatening and wrathful, or as compassionate and forgiving).

Do you know a religion like that?

 

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Philosophy of Tears

Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.

Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).

His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.

Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.

The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.

A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.

The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Dynamics of LoveLong before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.

So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.

To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.

When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.

Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.

But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.

Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.

Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.

If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.

A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.

For now, however, we have an important choice to make.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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Human Being

If language had developed along a slightly different track, in addition to speaking of human beings we might today have acquired the habit of referring to “dog beings” and “tree beings,” even “rock beings” and “cup beings.” This fascinating word, being, is mistakenly regarded as a noun when it’s really more a verb: be-ing, the act or process of existing.

Being is the dynamic and particular demonstration of existence, manifesting here as human, there as tree, and as a cup on the table (table being) before me. It’s interesting to ponder why language has retained this formal reference to ourselves as human beings – as the manifestation of existence in human form.

If we had come to regard this wonderful diversity of beings more explicitly in our language, would we today have a different shared understanding of and appreciation for the way all things are grounded, connected and involved in this one magnificent act of being called the universe? As cohabitants of this universal order, would our tribal values, personal choices, and individual lifestyles have taken a different course, landing us in a very different cultural space from where we are today?

Culture itself is a complex system of uniquely human creativity whereby the organic energy (life) of our animal nature (body) is harnessed, redirected, and converted into the social currency of identity (ego), collective meaning, and shared purpose. The organic energy that animates your body is not your personal property, but merely a cresting wave of life as it has emerged on this planet.

In its peculiar form, this animal manifestation of life has a deep heritage of instincts. You can think of them as impulses, reflexes and drives that have evolved over many millions of years to protect and promote the vital urgencies of life as it rises in the organism you are. This “urgency” represents the place where your life is absolutely dependent on the support and resources of the natural environment.

The part of your brain responsible for regulating the syndrome of urgencies that is your biological life does its business far below your conscious awareness or direction. It lives in the unconscious present.

If life itself is not your personal property, the tribe works on you to cultivate an identity and mindset – equipped with a distinctive vocabulary of “I, me, mine” – that regards this body as “my body, belonging to me.” As you occupy this standpoint in reality, it makes sense to speak in personal terms. Although your personality is rooted in genetics and a deeper animal temperament, its fuller development is a social construction.

Your personal preferences, interests, values and concerns are unsurprisingly similar to those of other tribal members. As the tribe instructs your language and language structures thought, your worldview and way of life will tend to be compatible with membership. It feels as “natural” as using your dominant hand for daily tasks. Your tribe’s way of leaning into reality was instructed into you from an early age; it just seems “right.”

Human societies tend to favor “insiders” over “outsiders” as bearers of value and meaning. This insider preference not only translates into a politics of “us” and (versus) “them” on the personal level, but it has also forced a somewhat pathological separation between identity and embodiment, ego and body, technical control and the natural order, human beings and “only” dogs, trees, and rocks.

Most religions construe salvation as a rescue mission – getting ego out of the body and safely to heaven. But from the standpoint of the soul, this only magnifies the real problem, which is that we are divided within ourselves. Of course, “I” (ego) want to live without pain, without stress, and without the burden of mortality … forever and ever.

When ego (the social construct of personal identity) took on this role of a lifetime as impersonator of the soul, the wholeness that is the true meaning of salvation (salvus = to heal, make whole) and the higher quest of our spiritual life was forfeited, or at least postponed. As long as the principal goal of religion continues to be rescuing “me” from my body and this sinful world, the soul’s quest will be frustrated.

I am suggesting that the evolutionary goal of “true religion” is actually the opposite of what it has become in conventional religion. Rather than accomplishing a rescue mission – whether it is permanent (everlasting) or only temporary (as in the hopelessly confusing orthodox Christian notion of resurrection, where the already-saved ego is reunited with its body for final judgment) – salvation for the soul is about coming back to the body.

In a kind of “reincarnation,” the once-split and internally conflicted human being is reconciled and made whole – in this life.

A human being is a distinct expression or manifestation of being-itself. Over there, being is expressing as a dog, as a tree, and as a cup on this table. Each manifestation of being (human, dog, tree, etc.) carries this deeper ground into the nature, form, properties and attributes of its unique expression. From the standpoint of ego, where personal identity (as “me”) is a socially supported preoccupation, this talk of a ground of being threatens to dissolve away what makes me special.

And yet, the experience of absolute release to the present mystery of reality is a celebrated moment of realization for mystics everywhere. This is where you understand intuitively (not by logical argument) that “it’s not about me.” There is an intention to your existence, an evolutionary aim in what you are, which is to become fully human.

As long as captain ego is gripping down on “me and mine,” this otherwise very natural flow of human energy will be cut short of fulfillment. Let’s not be surprised any longer that frustration and stress, anxiety and depression, conflict and violence are destroying our health, international community, and the biosphere of this planet. We should expect more of the same if nothing changes within ourselves.

So come back to the present moment. Your body has been here all along. Breathe in. Breathe out. Reach in to the ground and touch the source. Reach out to the universe and be at home.

You are a human being, so be fully human.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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