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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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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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Opening the Present

Here_NowSpirituality is about living mindfully in the here-and-now. Of course, there is nowhere else we can be, but we all know how easy it is to live mindlessly in the present. Most of us are less quick to admit how much we prefer to live outside the present moment – rummaging through the past or chasing after the future where the meaning of our lives is anchored. We spend a lot of time and energy managing our webs of meaning which stretch across the here-and-now, but we are hardly ever really (that is, mindfully) in it.

However real our webs of meaning seem to us, they are suspended between two fictions called the past and the future. By ‘fiction’ I am referring to something that is purely a figment of imagination, a narrative construction, mythical in the strict sense of having only literary and not a literal existence. Most of our waking attention is devoted to minding and mending the many strands of meaning that support our identity (who we are), give us significance, and promote our sense of purpose in life.

A healthy spirituality shouldn’t demand that we permanently abandon our webs and give up on meaning, but it can help keep it all in perspective. Because meaning is made up in our minds and not inherent to reality itself, it is necessary every so often to drop out and consciously reconnect to the grounding mystery of our life in this moment. It’s here (and now) that we can experience the Real Presence of being – what the religions name God, Spirit, The Holy. Before we give it a name, however, and proceed to represent it as a being who is the beginning and end of all things, this Real Presence is the abiding mystery of existence itself.

My diagram above is another cross design, with the horizontal axis of time intersected by a vertical axis of here-and-now. Ego occupies the present moment, as everything does, but without any direct awareness of it, caught up – or we might say, preoccupied – in the business of managing an identity by holding together the fictions of past and future. An attentive mindful engagement with present reality would require a surrender of meaning for mystery, of belief for being, of me-and-mine for here-and-now. It’s a tough sell, given how much is invested in our personal worlds, as well as in the collective (shared) worlds of tribe and culture. No wonder that our tribal religions hold the mystical practice of dropping out with such derision and contempt.

But what is the here-and-now, and why is it widely regarded as such a threat? To answer the first part of this question would involve spinning a meaning around the mystery, pushing it into the distance as our object, and effectively removing ourselves from it. The distance created by such objectification gives us the illusion of control, where meaning can be codified inside an orthodoxy that is beyond doubt and worthy of our ultimate sacrifice – which goes to answering the second part of the question. As long as reality remains something else beneath our mental labels, no meaning can be absolute.

So, instead of defining the here-and-now, let’s ask what these terms represent. What is the mystery behind what we name ‘here’ and beneath what we name ‘now’? Where, exactly, is here? It seems obvious that here is where I am; there refers to any location outside and apart from here. There might be a distant star that I see overhead, another country halfway around the globe, the neighborhood just over the hill, or that book across the table from where I am sitting. It would seem that here, while tethered to my present position, is limited in its scope by a purely arbitrary horizon.

In other words, if my here is this room, then the book and this table are included. If my here is the county I live in, then my neighborhood and the one over the hill are both included. If my here is planet Earth, then that faraway country is included. And if the horizon of my present location is the universe itself, then that distant star is also here. While the center position of here is not arbitrary but instead permanently fixed to my present location, the scope of what’s included is as small or inconceivably large as I care to make it. (Recent blog posts of mine make a case for this virtue of ‘care’ as perhaps the most salient indicator of human self-actualization, if and when it comes about. See “Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)” and “A Spirituality of Religion”.)

To a great extent it is the work of news media, politicians, preachers, and moral bigots everywhere to contract the horizon of here so that only the right and the righteous are included. Once the line is drawn, just about any manner of violence against outsiders can be justified. The genuine mystic – referring to one who has dropped out of meaning and opens fully to the boundless mystery of being – is an insider par excellence, despite the fact that orthodoxy condemns him or her as a dangerous outsider. When Siddhartha included ‘all sentient beings’ in his ethic of universal compassion, and when Jesus included ‘the enemy’ in his ethic of unconditional forgiveness, they were inviting us to a higher life where outsiders don’t exist.

Implied in fixing the vantage point of here to my present location is an acknowledgment of now. Whereas here is relative to my horizon of awareness, now refers to that fixed point at the center which is always and only in the present. The past is no more and the future is not yet; only the present is. What ego cannot apprehend, in its shuttling back and forth on the story loom between yesterday and tomorrow, is where our soul abides: this timeless moment, the Eternal Now. It is never yesterday or tomorrow; it is always today. Always now.

Opening the present requires that we drop out of meaning and into the mystery, deeper into the center of awareness that is always now, and then allowing the horizons of here to simply dissolve away like fading ripples on a pond, until we are left with that most exquisite and essentially ineffable of insights: All is One.

 

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Fully Present

Fully PresentIn the Wisdom Circle I’m part of, conversation flows along tangents into topics that interest us or challenge our pursuit of a relevant secular spirituality. Whatever arena we wander into, it’s not just a new perspective we’re after, but some kind of meaningful and responsible course of action. Given such-and-such, what can we do in the interest of greater honesty, integrity, and effectiveness? Our objective in every case is to clarify how a fully engaged spirituality might affect or transform the way we live in this world.

I am reminded of the diagnostic matrix used in conventional psychotherapy for identifying and treating a client’s peculiar form of suffering. Typically a strong and overwhelming feeling of unhappiness is what first motivates an individual to seek professional help, and it’s here that interpretation begins. And as such feeling will commonly exert either a suppressive or compulsive effect on behavior, sapping one’s drive or spurring conduct that only adds to the problem, any counselor who’s paying attention will also look carefully at what the client is doing.

After the linkage between feeling and behavior has been established, the task of therapy becomes one of bringing to light the associated thoughts and beliefs which have the client locked in a mindset that is perhaps irrational, unrealistic, juvenile, or delusional. As thinking provides an overlay of commentary on suffering – adding justification, self-judgment, conspiracy theories, or just more confusion to the pain – it is necessary to get this storyteller out of the closet and into the light of interrogation. It is hoped that by changing up the mental script a client will begin to feel better about things, start acting differently, and thereafter produce more positive results.

In the diagram above, a red line from feeling to doing represents that irresistible impulse to act in ways that perpetuate or amplify an individual’s suffering. The curved green line is meant to illustrate that elevation into thinking which will expose the faulty logic and distorted beliefs keeping it all in play. Higher elevation into thinking involves the individual in more rational reflection and discrimination, where the driving narrative of one’s personal myth can be analyzed, updated, and strategically modified.

In our Western psychology of mental health, these three correlates – feeling, doing, and thinking – form the ‘holy trinity’ of therapy. The better therapies work with all three in a more or less balanced way. Nevertheless, each one has also been favored over the others in the major schools of medicinal (feeling), behavioral (doing), and cognitive (thinking) therapy. Competition among these schools has prompted research into which modality is superior, or what combination of factors represents our magic door to mental health.

Interestingly enough, the research has shown all of them to be about equally effective, and maybe the results improve a little when they are combined in some way. But ‘effective’ here doesn’t mean significantly effective. In fact, they perform just slightly better than placebo and often come with side-effects no one wants. Research consistently bears out the greater influence of another factor, quite apart from the specific treatment protocol: The quality of relationship between therapist and client (called the therapeutic alliance) proves to be the real magic door. Any why is that?

In my diagram, the deeper essence of this fourth factor is identified as the individual’s sense of grounding in a reality that is supportive and provident. Obviously, a therapist (or anyone else) who is welcoming, trustworthy, empathetic, insightful, and encouraging will demonstrate such a reality to the client. The ‘alliance’ part of this involves an individual in gradually calming down, finding ground, getting centered, and opening up to the other person. The more open a client becomes, the more confirmation he or she receives that reality is provident and supportive, which in turn encourages an even deeper release and a larger horizon of faith. This is the dimension of being (be).

This factor of grounding offers a fourth correlate in a more complete picture of mental health and happiness. Changing how we think with talk therapy, how we feel with drug therapy, and/or what we do with behavior therapy is not enough. I have drawn lines from each of these three to the grounding mystery within, because it’s only as they are internally grounded that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be genuinely creative. Otherwise, insecurity will tend to hijack our faculties and generate a delusion of our separateness (isolated, exposed, defensive, critical, judgmental, etc.) – where true happiness is impossible.

You’ll notice that the line between think and be is actually an arrow, from the latter to the former. Because thinking is the mental activity by which we construct meaning and build out a worldview, it is vitally important that its product (i.e., our perspective on and orientation in reality) is properly grounded in the way things really are.

No doubt this reveals my cognitive bias, but enough of my own experience and observation of others has convinced me that until our thinking is reality-oriented and the meaning we construct is sufficiently clear-sighted to acknowledge that the grounding mystery cannot be captured in words or theories, we will tend to become prisoners of our own convictions and fall that much farther out of touch. By the time that happens, how we feel and what we do have been commandeered by a distorted, outdated, and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A human being is a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment. Ideally we live our lives as passionate and reasonable people, growing ever more proficient in the skills that help us be successful individuals, partners, parents, community members, and citizens.

The big question has to do with the degree in which we have realized our full potential, evolved our consciousness, and found our way back to the place it all begins, right here and now.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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The Flow of Being

Tree MandalaThe most important discovery we can make as human beings – infinitely more important than how to win friends and influence people or think and grow rich – is that we exist. While that may sound much less interesting than the quest for wealth, status, and fame, the discovery of our existence – the full mystery and glory of being alive – makes everything else pale by comparison.

Reflect for a moment on this most obvious of facts: You are a human being.

Human names the animal species to which you belong. Your gene lines stretch back generations, even thousands and millions of years, to earlier and more primitive life forms. The theory of evolution does not say that you are descended from monkeys, but rather that your species and other primate species share a common ancestor, some prehistoric mammal that lived in trees and foraged jungle floors, and before that climbed ashore from a primal sea, and before that worked alchemy with sunlight and salt water to harness energy as life.

Human also names the peculiar way you are related to the planetary environment. The vital urgencies of your body in its need for oxygen, water, nutrition, rest, and reproduction nestle you naturally in provident time grooves of daily, monthly, and annual rhythms where resources can be found. You breathe in oxygen and exhale the carbon dioxide byproduct of respiration, which the plants and trees around you breathe in for photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen for you to breathe in again.

Your senses connect you to vibrational fields of light and sound, gradients of temperature and molecular mass, variant densities and textures of material form. Gravitational interactions of the sun, the earth, and its moon hold you gently on the planet’s surface as together they swing in great arcing orbits through space. Lunar and tidal forces tug on your bloodstream and hypnotize you as you stand at the ocean’s edge. The very weight of your body is a function of its location aboard our solar system as it flings across the cosmic arena.

Considered merely on that level, where as a human animal you participate in a Provident Universe, with everything conspiring in such a way that you are here, breathing, reading these lines and contemplating your place in it all, the fact of your existence is astonishing and marvelous beyond words. It’s important to remember that you are not a “patient” in all of this, only a passive consumer of its abundance. You are one of “the many” that together comprise our universe, an individual expression if its providence through the contributions of your body and mind, receiving from its supply and offering your unique gift.

But you are also a human being, which moves our consideration in the opposite direction – not outward to the Provident Universe, but inward to the Grounding Mystery of existence itself. The extroversion of your animal body is thus counterbalanced by the introversion of your spiritual soul, although it should be clear that neither of these, body or soul, belongs to you or exists apart from the other. Together they are what you are.

The descending path of inward contemplation pulls attention away from the sensory-physical environment (from environ, what is “around” you) and opens it to a dimension of existence paradoxically empty of content but full of presence. Your access to this inner space is not sensory but intuitive – what is sometimes called your “sixth sense,” an awareness that draws on the Grounding Mystery below individual qualities and surface distinctions, which is also why we name it mystical-intuitive.

The “myst” in mystical and mystery derives from the Greek muein, originally referring to the imperative on a novitiate of a holy order to “close the mouth” – that is, to remain silent and simply observe in an attitude of reverence. At this level of depth there is nothing that language can “stick” to, nowhere that even thought can take hold; it is ineffable, indescribable, noetically elusive, beyond words.

And yet, the Grounding Mystery is the creative power of being in you, incarnating itself as you. As Alan Watts used to say, just as your eye cannot see itself and your teeth cannot bite themselves, neither can your mind reach down and grab the Grounding Mystery since you are not separate from it but essentially of it. As we read in the Upanishads, “Thou art That!”

We use the metaphor of ground because it carries the ineffable experience of mystery into language and meaning, just as the fertile soil germinates and supports living forms at the surface. However, because the Grounding Mystery defies all attempts to make it into an object – a being among and alongside other beings rather than Being-itself – we can also appreciate why Buddhists name it sunyata: emptiness, no-thingness, the infinite capacity in all things but not itself a thing.

So, as a human being you are outwardly engaged and reciprocally involved in the Provident Universe, at the same time as you are inwardly rooted in and a manifestation of the Grounding Mystery of being. These are not two realities but two aspects of one reality, what I call the present mystery of reality. As the illustration above shows, a tree (or you, or anything else) actualizes the ineffable Ground in its own being and opens outward to a local habitat, to the vibrant community of life, to the biosphere of Earth, and to the cosmic order.

The tree in my illustration is bearing fruit as its individual contribution to the Provident Universe, but also as evidence of its “self-actualization” and existential fulfillment. Of course, inside the circle are the innumerable other forms of existence which I cannot adequately depict, each one expressing outward from its depths in the Grounding Mystery and into the cosmic community where everything “co-arises” (another important Buddhist term).

You should be able to envision the “flow of being” surging into form, expressing through the myriad gifts or contributions of the ten thousand things, putting on the glory of heaven and earth. “Singing mountains and clapping trees,” as the biblical prophet put it (Isaiah 55:12).

And here you are. What is your gift?

 

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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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Soulful Religion

A very long time ago, way back in the dim prehistory of human cultural evolution, “primal religion” functioned to keep our run-away brain connected to the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. At that point, the tribe was still a human group organized around the necessities of sex, territory and nutritional resources. These cycles and rhythms represented the pulse of life that no primitive society could afford to fall out of sync with. Woman, more grounded and in touch with natural cycles than her male counterpart, was a figure of wonder and reverence. She was regarded a nature being, an embodiment of the generative force beneath all things.

The man, while still dependent on the cycles of need and provision, activity and rest, harvest and the hunt, was the more aggressive proponent of technological advances (invention of tools) and mastering the environment. His talent was in his powers of detachment, abstraction and control – mental progress that increasingly removed him from the wisdom of nature, woman, and his own body. This is the stage in history – no longer in the circular turns of natural time but now on the abstracted “time line” of identity and conquest – when ego became the new obsession. Not embodiment but role-play, not natural wisdom but technical reason, not cooperation but competition, no longer participation in a larger providential order but finding the way out.

What has been called “conventional religion” is where this ambition of world-escape is the prominent feature. The patron deity dwells beyond this world and condescends to the worship of the devoted in elaborate and expensive buildings, according to liturgies and traditions managed by (mostly male) custodians. Our god is great – exalted, majestic, and worthy of praise. We worship him and give him what he deserves, because one day we expect him to give us what we deserve for all our sacrifice, moral obedience, and unshaken conviction. One day we will live forever in heaven, without the drag of our bodies, singing hymns on golden streets in the perfect everlasting city.

In this post-conventional age, if it’s meaningful to talk of “soul” at all, it can no longer be as a synonym for ego. While ego is the “I” of personal identity, shaped by and reflecting the social influence of my tribe, soul is that in me which is more than “me,” that seeks a higher wholeness, fulfillment and well-being. Whereas conventional religion sanctifies the split of “I” from “it” (the body) in an afterlife envisioned as an unending celebration of disembodied egos, a religion of the soul will consecrate this quest for wholeness, communion and real presence.

Soul doesn’t look to the future for salvation. In fact, this fixation on and desperate hope for a future way out is now precisely the “problem” that soulful religion must find a way to resolve. As long as we persist in the male initiative to detach from, dominate, and finally escape the realm of nature, woman, and the body, our situation on this planet will continue to deteriorate. Unfortunately, as the conditions for life on Earth are compromised and degraded by human activity, the temptation for escape becomes all the stronger. The resurgence in conventional religion in what we know as fundamentalism can be understood as the urgency many feel to get back to the truth, take control, and secure our escape out of this doomed situation.

If soul awakening is the inevitable course of human evolution, then we should expect resistance from the ego, its tribe, and this escapist ideology. I’m reminded of the challenge in therapy, in helping a client get “incarnated” again, to come back to a body presently racked with symptoms from a lifetime of unhealthy habits, physical self-abuse, and an underlying body shame. Who wants to go back to that? What purpose could there possibly be in going into the pain, rather than medicating or distracting ourselves away from it? Our impulse is to run from “Lucifer” – a name for the devil that everybody’s looking out for these days, whose name means “light bearer” – instead of facing him and taking back our light.

The good news is that soul awakening is our evolutionary intention as a species. Just as an apple tree “apples” – as Alan Watts would often say – a human being develops according to an intrinsic ideal that attracts and guides this development towards maturity and fulfillment. With its fantasy of detachment, control and everlasting life somewhere else, ego not only makes coming back to the body unappealing, but it also stands in the way of what might be called true salvation. From the root-meaning “to heal and make whole,” salvation involves a return to this present moment, to the place where you are, to this body you are, to the earth that is our home.

This is the division in our being that must be healed – before it is too late. Soulful religion is carried out on the basis of some very simple practices, like breathing, calming down, getting grounded and expanding your awareness beyond the neurotic cluster of self-interest. A very long time ago we did these things naturally, instinctively, and for the most part unconsciously. During the “age of ego” and the escapist methodologies of conventional culture and religion, we gradually forgot how to breathe and be fully present, as we lost touch with the living wonder of our body. Now some of us are relearning how to do these things. Or if that sounds too much like the ego taking control and setting out to achieve a goal, then we are learning how to release ourselves to the natural wisdom of human be-ing.

Soulful religion doesn’t look to the future for salvation, and neither does it put faith in the truth of doctrines. The wholeness we seek at the level of soul – and the mystery that opens to us from this standpoint in reality – is not about being right or belonging to the right church. Soul understands that all our efforts at being right have divorced us from what is left, which is everything else. The real path of salvation will bring together left and right, woman and man, body and ego, them and us, for the sake of the Greater Whole.

This is where the responsibility of being human takes on new urgency.

 

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