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Talking To Ourselves

For the past 100 years or so, we’ve been coming to terms with the idea that the meaning of life, the world we inhabit, and we ourselves are constructs of language. Not long ago we believed that meaning was “out there” to be discovered in external reality, like a hidden treasure buried in the nature of things, perhaps by god himself. Then, as we came to accept our mind’s role in the assignment of meaning, we began to realize that the world we live in – that peculiar arrangement of meaning which provides us with a sense of security, identity, orientation, and significance – is really a complex system of symbols and hence also a mental construct.

Most recently, although this is only true of Western culture, as India and the Orient came to the insight long ago, we are trying to adjust ourselves to the idea that even the separate center of self-conscious personal identity – dignified with the Latin name “ego” – is nothing but an aggregate, a composition in both senses of that word.

It is “made up” of analyzable elements, each of these also a construct, which are together composed into a streaming narrative that is our personal myth. In contemporary Western philosophy and psychology this general epistemology (theory of knowledge) is known as constructivism. In the East it is called Maya: the constructed illusion of meaning, world, and self.

In this post I want to make quick work of personalizing this rather abstract theory by dismantling the box that defines our sense of self. I find it helpful to think of these elements, four of them, as fused together like lines at right angles and forming a rectangle: our box. Our individual box is meant to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs for security, identity, orientation, and significance, as already mentioned. It provides us with location and perspective, a kind of psychological shelter but also with a lookout on reality.

Let’s take those elements, or sides of our box, and examine them more closely.

Visually, and developmentally, at the base of our self construct are the anchors that secured our deepest connection to reality as infants and young children. The maternal (M) and paternal (P) archetypes manifested in degrees of clarity through the forms of our actual mother and father.

Freud built a good deal of his psychoanalytic theory around our relationships with these two principal “taller powers” of early life. But their appreciation as archetypes (literally “first forms”) goes back thousands of years into the ancient art of storytelling.

Sacred myths of every culture are rooted in the maternal and paternal archetypes, representing our most distant memories and primal experiences.

According to archetypal psychology, these two archetypes carry echoes of our first encounters with a maternal figure who enveloped us in her warm love and made us feel safe; and a paternal figure who first encountered us as “Other” and provided for us from outside the boundary of our nascent self.

Father came to us, whereas we came from Mother.

Our development would be a dramatic adventure of gradual separation from Mother and fascination with Father, as we began to take on an identity of our own. Our present capacity for intimacy as adults traces back to those early intimate bonds with Mother and Father.

This is not to say that everyone’s actual father and mother were clear epiphanies of the maternal and paternal archetypes. Some of us grew up without one or the other in our life, in which case our one active parent had to serve as our generative Ground and transcendent Other. Some of us were raised by preoccupied, distracted, neglectful, controlling or abusive parents, which made our quest for intimacy all the more complicated. Nevertheless, and whoever served as anchors in our early life – whether as biological, adoptive, or surrogate parents to us – these elementary figures negotiated the bonds of intimacy that would qualify or compromise all our relationships henceforth.

Unavoidably in contemplating the maternal and paternal archetypes, we will recognize certain stereotypes in the roles our parents might have played during those first years. We’ve already identified the maternal archetype with warmth, love, and safety; and the paternal archetype with a provident otherness that “called us out,” as it were.

The maternal and paternal archetypes are taken up by society and played out by actual mothers and fathers, in different parenting “styles.” I want to focus specifically on interactions we had with our mother or father during more stressful experiences where we were challenged beyond our ability or lost our nerve at the edge of security, and we somehow failed. How each parent acknowledged our failure, and actually talked to us about the experience and our feelings, was in the form of “resolutions” intended to help us recover and move on.

I will identify three stereotypical resolutions with each archetype.


Our mother, manifesting the maternal archetype, characteristically took us in her arms and spoke these three Resolutions of Comfort:

  1. It’s okay.
  2. Let it go.
  3. Just relax.

Essentially she was saying that our failure wasn’t such a big deal, and that our feelings mattered more. Her intention was to ease our pain, take our attention away from the negative experience, and assure us of her unconditional love.


Our father, manifesting the paternal archetype, characteristically approached and called out to us these three Resolutions of Encouragement:

  1. Brush it off.
  2. Face your fear.
  3. Try again.

In a way, he was also telling us that our failure (in effort or of nerve) was not the end of the world. His intention was to rouse our determination, turn our attention again to the challenge, and urge us back for another attempt.


Both comfort and encouragement are “strength” words. Comfort literally means “to come with strength,” as in one who joins us in our suffering and offers support. Encouragement means “to give (or put in) heart,” which is what we most need when we have lost our passion, will, hope or desire (associated in many cultures with the heart). In speaking these Resolutions of Comfort and Encouragement to us, our mother and father were, in different ways, building the foundation of our self construct.

Over time, these same resolutions were gradually internalized by us, so that, in later life experiences of failure and insecurity, we could remember them (i.e., speak them to ourselves) and move past our pain. They became habits that carried us through life, shaped our values and beliefs, and provided inspiration for our roles in relationship with others.

Our box is complete.

 

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Getting Off

Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.

The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.

If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.

This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.

Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.

It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?

The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.

On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.

In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.

Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.

In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.

When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?

But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.

So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!

Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.

Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.

What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.

Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).

Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.

The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.

Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.

This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.

While spirituality is the art of getting off.

 

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The Time We Have Left

The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.

But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.

Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).

This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.

Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.

We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.

All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.

The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.

And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?

This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.

One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.

Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.

Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.

We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.

So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.

There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.

 

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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.

 

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Lost and Found

Kierkegaard: “When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul. It seems to him, according to the poets’ explanation, as if something inexpressible thrusts itself forward from his innermost being, the unspeakable, for which indeed language has no vessel of expression. Even the longing is not the unspeakable itself. It is only a hastening after it.”

It’s therapeutic to stay busy. As long as you can preoccupy your attention and thoughts with a list of tasks, you will successfully avoid falling into the silence at the center of your being. Distractions are like tie-lines that keep you hooked into the world around you, in a willing surrender of freedom for the sake of security. Eventually you become captive to your own devices, a prisoner of distraction.

But noise only masks the silence; it cannot fill it. Staying busy uses energy – uselessly. You end up exhausted, stretched, stressed – and stuck. For all the activity, you go nowhere. For all the effort, no real progress is gained. You are going out when you should be going down.

In what we might call the Western chakra system, heart, mind and will serve as the distinct “faculties” of intelligence with which we lean into life. While each of us has a preference among these – leaning first and more often with our feelings, thoughts, or actions – they are all present in us, cooperating in the construction of meaning.

This construction is ongoing throughout our lives, projecting outward and around ourselves that uniquely human habitation called my/your personal world and our collective culture. It is the system of preference, significance and motivation that keeps us chasing after, holding onto, and running from what matters.

All of it is “speakable” – that is to say, it can be identified, defined, arranged and personalized. This is where your tribal membership is maintained, where your affiliations to gender, class and party are worked out, and where your mythological god (if you have one) does his or her thing. Each piece is linked to other pieces, and the energy that loops throughout the system and keeps this whole castle in the air is your belief that it is real – the way things really are. You live for it, and perhaps you may die for it. If you’re fully entranced you might even kill for it.

Underneath all of it, however, and deep inside all that busyness is a quiet stillness where your existence is grounded. Just as our visual apprehension of reality must compensate for and fill in the tiny pinhole where the optic nerve ties into the retina, there is likewise a still-point behind and beneath your busy ego. It’s there for each of us, but only a very small percentage lives with any conscious awareness of, and disciplined attention to, this real presence of mystery.

This is where it all begins – or just before it all begins, where all is “formless and void, and darkness [is] over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1). Looking out on the world you’re creating generates the illusion that this is all there is. And as long as your energy and attention are anchored out there – and as long as you keep “forgetting” that you’re the wizard behind the curtain – it can go on for a lifetime – or several, if that’s your thing. Like the eleventy billion channels on your television that can pull you in and take you hostage, this world of yours is endlessly fascinating.

Faith lives in the here and now, in the now/here that is nowhere. Even though we are in the mystery each and every moment of our lives, we can’t speak about it. If we try to put it into words and produce a theory of what it is, we have already moved out of mystery and into meaning – out and away as far as our awareness of it is concerned.

Sadly, the frustration and exhaustion of keeping your creation together can still be preferable to the prospect of letting go and falling back into that soul-space of real presence. After all, we are very fond of our personal worlds. Compared with all that content, all that complexity, and all of those countless options, this open and formless space in the deep center of what you are can seem terrifying. Indeed, many of us work hard to stay away from it.

Conventional religion and psychotherapy are good examples of how we squander the opportunity for sinking deeper into the present mystery of reality. We may be given an insight, a key to the narrow gate, but just as quickly we are assigned a mission or treatment plan that prescribes what we should do next. Before we know it, we’re out on the path again, chasing after salvation, success and happiness – out there.

In this spiritual space, in the ground of your being, just before you pick up the masks and step into the roles that define who you are in the world, there is only this.

Relax. Breathe. Be.

 

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Faith and Existence

Tillich: “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern.”

In our head-heavy, wordy and overly rationalistic traditions of the West, faith has been misrepresented as one’s assent to doctrines. Your faith is more genuine and praiseworthy if the doctrine lacks evidence to support it or contradicts logic. Both knowledge and faith have to do with the content of what you believe, but faith comes in to play where the pieces don’t seem to add up, the argument is thin on proof, or where you need to rely on the credibility of other witnesses.

We’ve already established that faith is really not about what you believe, but rather about the act of believing – or better, of releasing your need to be in control and certain of the outcome. Faith is present awareness. Whatever you may believe about what happened a long time ago, or what might happen in the future, or what’s going on right now but in another realm – of gods, angels, demons, ancestors and other spirit-beings – is not a function of faith but of your willingness to believe.

When faith is construed as primarily cognitive and propositional, doubt is a big problem. Because “the faith” has been assembled over many generations of thinking, writing, reading, interpreting and expounding on words, just one head-scratching “I’m not sure about this one” can cause the whole thing to fall apart. That’s why dogmatic fundamentalism is so rampant among religions of the word. If you feel even a hint of doubt, better start praying for an increase in faith so you don’t jeopardize your everlasting security and miss out on your reward for being right.

But we need to doubt things that don’t make sense. We need to be skeptical over claims that lack supporting evidence or logical coherence. Historically skepticism is not about withholding commitment until absolute certainty is attained, but rather conducting your own research and testing the statements of others against your own experience. Again, just because you don’t have the personal time, rational tools or motivational drive to scrutinize every religious doctrine doesn’t mean that you have a strong faith. It may turn out that your so-called faith in the validity of those doctrines results in your demise and not your salvation.

What Tillich is calling existential doubt, therefore, is not the same as scientific or methodological doubt. The latter is a servant of better (more accurate) knowledge, as when a researcher tests a theory experimentally, or a philosopher examines an argument for the reliability of its premises and how logically sound it is. Pre-Copernican astronomy simply assumed that Earth was stationary and orbited by the Sun, but when scientists began following the indications of their investigative instruments and mathematical formulations a very different universe was revealed to them. By only accepting what can be measured, demonstrated or derived from already-established claims, science has revolutionized our lives.

Schleiermacher insisted that faith is more about “feeling and intuition” than the claims of knowledge, and his shift from the mind to the heart marked a turning-point for Protestant theology. It’s important to remember that the heart does not merely refer to our sentimental intelligence, but is the place where we are first moved by experience, producing our mood and establishing the attitude from which we take our perspective on reality. Whatever we think (mind) or do (will) is a function of how we feel in the moment. Preceding our thoughts about it and our behavior in response to it, reality – or what’s really going on – is first registered in an intuitive feeling.

This is where we can make sense of Tillich’s use of the term “existential” when speaking of faith and doubt. Existential is what concerns your most basic stance in reality, how existence feels to you. When reality feels providential and supportive, you find yourself opening up to it and relaxing into it. Conversely, a reality that feels dangerous or indifferent provokes feelings of anxiety – of existential doubt.

In fact, reality is both providential and hazardous. Your life is “given” to you in each moment, even as it passes away. Like the sea-swell beneath a cresting wave, your personal existence is lifted up into self-expression only to be pulled down and dissolved into the larger mystery of being. This dual nature of reality and our experience of it is represented theologically in the two faces of god (creator/destroyer; grace and wrath). Because the mythological god is a psychological counterpart to the personal ego, however, such theological distinctions are already too far removed from the deep center of experience. By that time, we find ourselves wanting to play up to the nice god and avoid his dark side, or else split it off into a Satan we can fight against. Almost without realizing it, our ego has taken over.

Reality rises and falls, just like a great ocean, and your life comes into being and passes away. Not just on the scale of your biological birth and death, but in each and every moment of your existence. All of your achievements and possessions, the identity you struggle for and the worlds you inhabit, the meaning it all has and the little bit of security it may provide you – even now it is dissolving away. As it slips your grip and starts to slide away, you begin to doubt whether anything really matters.

So you let go, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. What has happened, what might happen, what is going on somewhere else – you just can’t say. It really is meaningless, if only because words can’t hook into it and hold it down. And yet it’s the only thing that’s real.

Welcome to the ground of your being.

 

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A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?

 

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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.

 

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Giving Up Security

Watts: “To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this center and soul of our being which we call ‘I’. For this we think to be the real [self] – the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this ‘I’ does not exist.”

Insecurity is a fact of existence. When this fact breaks into our consciousness it can take us over as a feeling that nothing is certain, nothing matters, and that there’s no point in going on. Of my three conversation partners, Watts is the one who examines the psychology of insecurity to help me understand its causes and consequences.

At any given moment I can feel secure or insecure. But what is this “I” that feels one way or the other? Western psychology began as a study of the soul (psyche), but at some point it made the fateful mistake of identifying soul as the center of our individual personality, later called ego. (It’s probably more accurate to say that ego had assumed this position much earlier in history, and that modern psychology made it scientifically acceptable.) Now, what had earlier been only intimations of immortality, coming up from that spiritual center of awareness where my existence opens up to the larger mystery of reality, became a personal belief: “I (ego) am immortal.”

But ego and soul are not the same, or merely two names for the same thing. Soul (along with body) is primary, whereas ego is secondary. I am body and soul, I don’t have these. Body is my animal nature; it is informed by an intelligence called instinct, and both its internal urgencies and peripheral sense receptors resonate to the greater rhythm of Life. Soul is my spiritual nature and is informed by an intelligence called wisdom. While the drives and reflexes of body are dedicated to my survival, the insights and intuitions of soul cultivate a sense of participation in a mystery that transcends my individual needs and concerns.

The irony here is that this “I” (ego) which has assumed possession rights over body and soul, is really nothing but a social construct – something put together and given shape through countless interactions with others. As I learned the skills of language and internalized the worldview of my tribe, I gradually took on multiple facets of identity.

I belong to this group. I work hard for these things. I prefer this sort of company. I don’t trust those people. I believe in this god. All these lines of attachment correspond to facets (faces, masks or roles) of my identity. As long as the many facets fit and hold together, I have an illusion of solidity. I like that illusion. It helps me feel secure.

When I take a closer look, however, it becomes obvious that this illusion of security is not secure at all. Every one of those lines of identity is very tenuous and fragile; it’s the cumulative effect of their considerable number that gives the illusion of permanence. Just watch how annoyed, disturbed and panic-stricken (the predictable progression) I become when just one of them gets stretched out of shape. And if it should snap – watch out!

Yet every line that attaches to the social landscape of my tribe and forms a corresponding facet of my ego identity is only a construct – put together, made up, a role-play, a pretense … and inherently unreal. When I learn to hold these more loosely, I discover something rather unexpected. Life is moving and changing. Nothing is certain, maybe nothing really matters. And that’s perfectly okay.

So is there a point to going on?

As a young man, I believed that one day I would accomplish something worthwhile and lasting. I would leave a mark and make my life count. Now I’m beginning to understand that my most important work is to wake up from this trance and move deeper into life.

New motto: Be real, live fully, love well.

 

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Faith For Today

Heschel: “Faith in the sense of being involved in the mystery of God and [humanity] is not the same as acceptance of definitive formulations of articles of belief. Even [one] who merely strives for faith in the living God is on the threshold of faith. The test is honesty and stillness.

“Our error is in the failure to understand that creed without faith is like a body without a heart. Just as faith may become blind, cruel, and fierce, creed may become shoddy, sterile, and deaf. Let us insist that alienation from dogma does not necessarily mean the loss of faith.”

I know that there are many more like me, for whom the traditional doctrines are not only uninteresting but irrelevant; not only unrelated to our daily lives but frequently offensive to our intelligence and ethical sensibilities. I know because I’ve met them, many thousands of them along the way. There are millions more all around the planet.

Doctrines – including the Big Ones, called dogmas – are derived from myths, sacred stories of gods and heroes, saviors and saints, revelations and miracles. The myths, in turn, are dramatic narratives that take place against a backdrop of cultural assumptions called a worldview. Such stories may explain how this world came into being or where it’s all going. As long as they are compatible with our mental model of the universe they can be said to make sense.

For millenniums religion was the official storyteller of culture. Ancient myths oriented human life in a universe conducted by hidden agencies whose intentions weren’t altogether apparent, and often required ritual supplication or appeasement in order to move in our favor. To the degree that human action was maintained in accordance with these hidden powers, the cultural order was preserved.

At some point, the objective of religious observance shifted from world maintenance to individual salvation – gaining escape from time and the body and living forever with God, who had by this time withdrawn from the world (escaped his own body) into a separate realm of pure spirit.

This “recession of God” from the world coincided with a growing human fascination over the composition and mechanics of the universe – giving birth to science. Without a fall-back explanation that invoked supernatural agencies making and moving the universe, science began telling very different stories. It also had its priests (researchers) and storytellers (theorists), its rituals (the experimental method) and temples (laboratories).

For a while, the older mental model would have to be periodically modified to accommodate the new discoveries. But eventually the three-story floor plan had to be abandoned. Then the division in history between an age of revelation and “these last days” had to be scrapped. And now the dualism of God and world, soul and body, “us” (the saved) and “them” (the lost) is becoming meaningless – except when a raving prophet or raging politician succeeds in agitating the insecurity of our freedom. Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, we can be suddenly willing to throw our support behind “whatever it takes” to feel secure again.

How is a person of today supposed to “hold faith” in a religion whose worldview is obsolete? If a god “up there” has relinquished the earth to human industry and its toxic by-products; if a soul “in here” has pulled attention and care away from our bodies and the physical environment; and if a preoccupation with a life after this one has justified our indifference to the pressing concerns of today – what are we to do?

When a cultural worldview, its mythology, and the dogmatic beliefs that have anchored it in our minds and hearts no longer “work” to orient us meaningfully in the universe, are we forced to believe it anyway (fundamentalism) or else scrap the whole business?

Heschel reminds us that faith – an existential stance of basic trust in life – is not reducible to the orthodoxy of any generation. Our task is to find creative and relevant ways of cultivating faith for today. We live in the same mystery as did those before us. There has always been, and will forever be, a holy presence at the heart of reality.

 

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