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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Boundless Presence

For a while now I’ve been working towards a unified theory of human development that doesn’t merely annex spirituality onto one of the conventional models, but rather affirms it as essential to what we are. To do this successfully I’ve had to draw clear distinctions between spirituality and religion, between healthy religion and pathological forms of religion, between religion oriented on a separate deity (theism) and its evolutionary breakthrough to the liberated life on the other side of god (post-theism).

Because deformities and perversions in religion are so common these days, we can easily get caught in the trap of analyzing the problem. Psychotherapy and the mental health industry have fallen into this trap, to the point where diagnosing disorders and designing treatment plans (talk therapy, drug therapy) around the goal of managing or eliminating symptoms leaves undefined exactly what mental order might be.

What is it to be a healthy, happy, and fully self-actualized human being, and how can we get there? As far as spirituality is concerned, the answer must go beyond tinkering with religion and trying to fix its pathologies.

What we need is a positive and comprehensive model that can shed light on where we are now, as well as show us the opportunities and challenges of the path ahead. Such a vision of the possible human should inspire each of us to dig deeper, reach higher, and give ourselves fully to what we can yet become. I believe I have such a model; see what you think.

Given that human beings came on the scene just a second before midnight in the 14-billion-year-long ‘day’ of our universe, we need to move quickly through all the important events that preceded us and made our arrival possible. The graphic on the right should be read from the bottom-up, which will guide our ascent through the distinct epochs and organizational stages of the universe.

The first and all-encompassing epoch/stage is energy, which transformed next into matter, and then provided the conditions for life (organic) to emerge. Each step in this process defined a smaller horizon of existence, so that the quantum field of energy contains everything else, the atoms and nuclear forces of matter are within that, whereas cells and living things represent a much, much smaller horizon inside matter.

It was billions of years before the organic horizon of living things on Earth incubated a further transformation, in the evolution of sentient life. Sentience refers to the capacity for sensation, awareness, perception, and suffering which is most developed in the animal kingdom. By virtue of possessing nervous systems with some form of central ganglion (leading eventually to brains), sentient creatures also have the ability (in relative degrees) to adapt their behavior in response to the environment. In short, they can learn.

Later still, the family of primates acquired an additional power as an epiphenomenon of sentience, enabling them to be self aware. In our own species this virtue of self-awareness would reach its climax in ego formation, where an individual is not only sensitive and responsive to the environment and reflexively aware of his or her subjective experience, but psychosocially occupies a separate center of personal identity.

Healthy ego development establishes the personality on a stable nervous state, in what I call positive embodiment. Here self-awareness feels ‘at home’, centered and grounded in the vital rhythms of the body. A coherent nervous state oscillates around a baseline of calm, responding appropriately and adaptively to situations as they arise while maintaining composure. A base of stability, then, provides for the emotional balance of mental health.

These are the provident conditions that give rise to a unified sense of self. Altogether the three traits of a stable state, balanced mood, and an executive center of identity comprise what is known as ego strength.

But our story isn’t finished here, even though this is where many of us stop or get stuck. Despite the fact that conventional society and religion (particularly theism) are organized around personal identity and ego needs, self-awareness is still only a stage. The question remains about a likely evolutionary intention behind the formation of a separate center of identity.

A young child impersonates her parents (taller powers), personifies reality with imaginary playmates and the characters of storyland, and is supported in the habit of personalizing her world and taking things personally – all for what? The culture might say: For no other reason or higher purpose than becoming the center of everything, a dedicated consumer looking for happiness in the next purchase or next attachment, and blessed assurance for the life to come.

As a stage, however, and not only a curious innovation of sentient life, egoic self-awareness represents a critical breakpoint – a threshold and not a final destination.

The spiritual wisdom traditions, and now increasingly some secular “fourth force” schools of psychology (after behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanist paradigms), regard ego consciousness as a new point of departure – assuming, of course, the provision of adequate ego strength.

Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughan (1993) define the transpersonal as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos.” Whereas the separate ego generates a worldview where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are divided and frequently in conflict, there is a way to reconcile such divisions and become whole again.

A healthy ego makes it possible for the individual to break from the bondage of “me and mine,” to be liberated from the consensus trance of society and religion, and to enjoy the flower and fulfillment of life. Inwardly consciousness drops away from the ego center, into the nervous system and organic processes of the body, both of which of course lie below the threshold of self-conscious personal identity.

By such a meditative descent, the individual ceases to experience him- or herself as an individual at all, but surrenders more completely to the grounding mystery of being itself.

As this transpersonal path inward and downward breaks through deeper centers, their corresponding outward horizons are transcended as well. By outward leaps, consciousness ascends past the boundary of ego concerns and farther out to include all sentient beings, all living things, the material cosmos, and the whole of reality. At this level of awareness, the turning unity that we casually name the universe is experienced – not just imagined or conceived – as our home.

Such is the breakthrough realization that has inspired an enlightened ethic in various periods and places around the planet, promoting genuine community: We’re all in this together.

Healthy ego formation, then, makes possible the experience of a new reality beyond the limiting horizon of “me and mine,” by the transpersonal breakthrough beyond ego.

The grounding mystery of no-thing and the turning unity of all things are two aspects (inner and outer) of what I call the present mystery of reality.

Spiritual intelligence (SQ) reconnects consciousness to its ground and home after a long and complicated adventure into identity. The symbols, stories, rituals, and rites of passage that facilitate this adventure to its intended fulfillment constitute the essence of religion (from the Latin religare, to link back, reconcile, or reconnect).

The present mystery of reality is now more than just a concept in the mind, and has become a transpersonal experience of boundless presence. But neither is this an end in itself, for now the real work of genuine community can begin. Now that we have gotten over ourselves, nothing more stands in the way.

 

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