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Would Jesus Join a Church?

Christianity has become a protected membership, where insiders are separated from outsiders by a wall of orthodox beliefs and moral judgments. In this post I will argue that membership is always about purity, separation, and exclusion.

Purity may not be about ritual or dietary restrictions in most cases; at least this is generally true of Christian memberships. But insiders consistently regard themselves as more pure (what used to be called righteous) and in possession of the revealed (uncontaminated) truth upon which their salvation (and everyone else’s) depends.

In order to achieve and preserve purity, insiders see the need to separate themselves from the rest of the world, especially from “sinners and unbelievers.” These are necessarily excluded – perhaps welcomed as visitors, but soon enough urged to confess their sins, adopt the orthodoxy, join the church, and recite the creed.

For the most part, Christian insiders have the assurance of being saved from damnation (the fate of the rest of the world) by their belief in Jesus as one who took away their sins, bore their deserved punishment on his cross by dying in their place, and thereby satisfied the conditions against their forgiveness.

Christianity as a protected membership goes back to the early centuries when the mixture of world cultures under Roman rule was making imperial unification all but impossible. At first, Roman emperors tried to subjugate or exterminate their motley population of immigrants, which included a messianic movement that took its inspiration from a crucified rebel leader who had wandered the countryside with a message of human liberation by the spirit of God.

Jesus’ followers carried on with his refusal to obey traditions, institutions, and authorities that oppressed and exploited the human spirit. State persecution of this Jesus movement only managed to push it underground, however, where its antiestablishmentarian philosophy continued to spread.

With Constantine (272-337 CE) came a different tactic. Rather than trying to uproot and destroy the Christians, he enticed them into becoming a protected membership. His council at Nicaea in 325 was convened for the purpose of motivating church leaders to define their religion, agree on what Christians should believe, and enforce this orthodoxy across his empire.

By converting the Jesus movement into a religious institution, Constantine was able to bring it under control and on his side. Ever since then, Christianity has preferred to sidle up to thrones, parliaments, and political parties.

Back in the middle of the first century, before Constantine’s solution and just as Roman persecution of Christians was getting started, the apostle Paul had been busy planting Christian communities throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Even that early, the movement was trying to find a balance between the itinerant values of Jesus and the more settled life in towns and cities. Paul himself seems to have struggled somewhat with the tension of perfect freedom and proper order in the communities he helped to establish, presaging a dynamic that Constantine would later turn in his favor.

In the Christianity of Paul and Paul’s line (particularly the authors of Colossians and Ephesians) a provocative trinitarian confession was circulating. Paul himself testified to having undergone a religious conversion of sorts, when, on his way to arrest some Christians in Damascus, he was suddenly seized by a vision of blinding light and a voice claiming to be that of “Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).

Later Paul would describe the experience as the moment he died to what he had been, to become a bearer of the living spirit of Jesus. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul extended this transforming experience of “Christ in me” into a new concept of the Jesus community as the “body of Christ.” Christ wasn’t the last name of Jesus but a Hebrew term (mashiach) meaning “anointed one,” similar in many ways to the Eastern idea of buddha or “awakened one.” We can think of this as a spiritual principle that impels the transcendence of ego into unity consciousness and the liberated life. Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha are honored as individuals in whom a new, higher humanity was revealed and released in the world.

In Paul’s understanding, Jesus became the Christ in being filled and lifted up (resurrected) by the spirit of God (see Romans 1:4). This same spirit is what came to life in Paul himself, as well as in everyone who undergoes the death-and-resurrection (ego transcending) experience. All together, they now live in the world as the corporate body of Christ, sharing its joy and bringing liberation to those still held captive by fear – just as Jesus the Christ had done.

Disciples of Paul completed the trinitarian confession by taking his “Christ in me” and “body of Christ” metaphors and adding a cosmic dimension:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Rather than taking this as a confirmation of the (much later) orthodox doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and the divine Trinity, we need to appreciate the vision in its full scope. Christ (the transforming principle of higher wholeness) is not only at work in the individual Christian and present in the Christian community, but fills the entire frame of the cosmos itself.

That is to say, nothing is excluded.

If we look for the roots of this universalist vision, we will find them in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Without the filter of subsequent tradition, theological commentary, and church dogma, Jesus’ life and message can be understood as centered in one thing, to which he gave the metaphorical name kingdom – reign, or even better, reality – of God. For him this reality has no inside or outside, but is a mystery that includes everyone.

For that reason we can summarize the life and teachings of Jesus as focused on radical inclusion.

This helps explain why Jesus was so critical of human traditions, human institutions, and orthodoxies that enshrine human convictions about mysteries we really don’t understand or haven’t experienced. His message of unconditional forgiveness – letting go of vengeance, surrendering the need to get even, and responding to the enemy with lovingkindness – removes the walls separating insiders from outsiders, the righteous from the rest.

What does the vision of radical inclusion have to say to protected memberships, like what Christianity has largely become today? A good question to ask ourselves is, “Would Jesus join a church?”

 

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One to Another

Now that you’ve completed the major work of becoming somebody – (I realize it’s an ongoing project and that construction may be stuck in a phase right now, but let’s pretend anyway) – the question of what’s next needs your attention.

Of course, popular culture wants you to believe in yourself as an end-game: the highest goal and most significant achievement of a human career. From this point it’s nothing more than some ongoing identity maintenance, love-and-power struggles on the field with others like you, getting the most out of the time you have left, and maybe securing a forever home in heaven when you die.

In other words, stop asking.

To the extent that it has signed a deal with popular culture, religion plays right along. The doctrines of a personal deity, personal salvation, and personal immortality have conspired to create a veritable personality cult, with ego its focal obsession. It needs to be said straightway that this was not religion’s preoccupation for the longest time, when the primary concern was about linking personal identity to a deeper, larger, more enduring, and transpersonal reality.

In other words, it’s not all about you.

In the interest of moving our conversation out of the sticky web of orthodoxy, I want to put ego and personality in proper context. The evolution of personality and its executive center of identity is a very late achievement in the history of homo sapiens. Actually its deeper prehistory charts the development of early hominid species, while the emergence of a self-conscious personal identity marks the formal beginning of our own unique line.

Our history since its emergence has been characterized by all the predictable complications that attend an experience of separation, exposure, insecurity, and alienation.

In other posts I have explored how insecurity drives neurotic attachment and unrealistic expectations, which in turn lead to inevitable disappointment, deepening resentment, and finally existential despair. Along the way we are compelled to compete for what we need, pick fights with others, and grab for ourselves whatever we hope will make us happy – which nothing can, so we’re doomed.

In order to break past this vortex of consumption, let’s try to open our frame wide enough to get all this nervous futzing in perspective. My diagram positions you (“One”) in relation to “Another,” where the other might be anyone or anything at all. As our task here is to better understand how a self-conscious personal identity fits into the bigger picture, we’ll begin our reflections at that level.


Across from you, then, stands another more-or-less centered personality, with many of the the same quirks, hangups, and ambitions as you. This is properly the interpersonal plane of engagement, with your relationship carried in and complicated by the reciprocal influence of each of you on the other, and upon both of you by the general role play of society along with your respective family inheritances.

Purely on this plane, your mutual concerns have to do with identity, recognition, agreement and belonging. If we imagine a horizon including both of you in this interaction, it would only be large enough to contain your unique and shared interests as self-conscious persons.

If your self-identification is fully represented inside this interpersonal horizon, then nothing else really matters. It’s you and another, working out the meaning of life in your mutual struggle to be somebody.

But as my diagram shows, your center of self-conscious identity (i.e., your ego) is only the surface manifestation of a much deeper process. Supporting personality from farther below is a sentient nervous system managing the flow of information from your body’s interior and the external environment. This is where the feeling of what happens is registered.

You are not only a person on a uniquely human social stage, but if you can release those concerns for a moment and become more mindful, you’ll find suddenly that your horizon of awareness opens by an exponential degree. Now included are not just human egos but all sentient beings – all other creatures that sense, desire, respond, and suffer. Notice how dropping down (or deeper within) to identify yourself as a sentient being opens your capacity to identify with other sentient beings.

This was a fundamental insight of Siddhārtha Gautama, later named the Buddha (from budh, to wake up) for his breakthrough realization.

Each subsequent drop to a deeper center, then, opens a still greater capacity of awareness, compassion, and goodwill on behalf of others like you. This inward descent corresponds to a transcendence of awareness through larger and larger horizons of identity – from interpersonal (ego), sentient (mind), and organic (life) communities, until it opens out to include the material universe itself.

Lest we leave you out there floating weightless among the galaxies, our reflections can now return to your regard for and interactions with that other person. With your enlarged sense of identity as (quite literally) a personification of the universe, you are also witness to this self-same miracle in the other. Their true identity so radically transcends the masks, roles, and role plays defining who they are, as to lie almost entirely beyond their ability to imagine or accept.

The other person’s enlightenment in this respect may seem utterly improbable to you. And yet, you managed to get over yourself and see the truth – did you not? What would happen if you both came to see the truth and started to live your lives with this higher wholeness in mind? How would it change what you care for, what you worry about, what you chase after, or what you hide from?

In realizing that you are not separate in fact but only seem so by the delusion of ego consciousness, your next thought, your next choice, and the very next thing you do might serve as a light in the darkness, illumining the path of a liberated life.

Maybe others will join you, or maybe you’ll walk alone for a while. And then again, it’s impossible to be alone when the universe is your home.

 

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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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Creatures and Creators

nature_cultureHuman beings are creatures of nature. Our physiology and complex nervous system are products of the evolution of life on planet Earth, and the roots of our genetic code are entwined with countless other life-forms. Some mythological accounts notwithstanding, our species evolved over many millions of years and we are utterly dependent on the web of life which is our home.

Human beings are also creators of culture. Our advanced brain and nervous system have endowed us with exceptional social, cognitive, and artistic abilities by which we have erected a profoundly complex habitat of meaning – symbols, language, architecture, technology, commerce, and worldviews. Culture wasn’t here before we arrived, but emerged gradually as this creative synergy continued to evolve. As distinct from the web of life mentioned earlier, culture is the web of meaning that we humans spin out of our minds and then take up residence within.

In the long run of our evolution, then, we were first creatures (and still are) and over time became creators. The more invested and involved we became in the production of culture, the more we tended also to lose our sense of membership in, and responsibility to, the natural realm. On the big-picture scale of things, the reality of our living body and its provident environment is the grounding mystery out of which mind has emerged to construct a home and contemplate the turning mystery of the cosmos.

As beings we are expressions of being-itself; as human beings we are privileged to look out on the wonder of existence and participate in the great community of life.

In my diagram, a diagonal arrow ascends from the bottom-left signifying our evolutionary path toward self-actualization, by which I mean the activation-into-maturity of our full capacity as a species. As Alan Watts often said, just as an apple tree “apples,” so our planet (and the universe itself) “peoples.” Each of us is a late-arriving manifestation of the universal process, the cosmos both looking out on its own Great Body and looking into its own Deep Soul through the intelligence that we are.

I have elsewhere associated these two lenses of human intelligence – one looking out and the other looking within – as science and spirituality, respectively. For millenniums they have mutually confirmed our intuition that All is One and that We’re All in This Together.

This, I would say, is the prime discovery of our species, and all of our most important endeavors are in one way or another searching out, pondering on, and celebrating what it means. Instinct keeps us rooted in the life-force, Tradition conserves our identity and way of life, Innovation presses us into new possibilities, and Wisdom invites us to higher wholeness – or, as the times demand, it also warns us against damaging the whole and thereby foreclosing on our future.

The long course of our evolution stretches from survival to well-being, from self-preservation to self-actualization, and our challenge has been to hold these very different value systems in balance.

In my diagram again, “nature” and “culture” are depicted as comprising a color gradient between them. Across my many blog posts and graphics, black represents the animal nature of our body, purple represents the higher self of our soul, and the orange in between them stands for our inner child, ego consciousness, and personal identity – depending on the context of consideration. It is in this ‘orange zone’ that we get hung up, held back, pushed down or pulled apart by the various neuroses of insecurity.

All of the great spiritual teachings share a suspicion against this nervous bundle of personal identity, as somehow the culprit responsible for our chronic suffering, strained relationships, intertribal violence, and life-degrading consumerism.

It is this cult of personal identity, centered around our altar to ego, that gets us so self-involved that we forget our essential nature as fellow creatures (siblings not masters) and world creators (artisans not shoppers). In the effort of managing our insecurity we cling to what (and to whom) we expect will make us feel better, but only really manage to entangle ourselves in these attachments and magnify our misery. For that we take medications, throw ourselves into distractions, or maybe sell our soul to some form of bigoted dogmatism.

What we can’t understand – and likely couldn’t accept even if we did understand – is that ego cannot be liberated. “I” am a prisoner of what defines me, as my identity is inextricably tied to those trappings of tribe, nation, ideology and ambition that make me who I am. In order to advance along the path of self-actualization to fulfillment and genuine well-being, this neurotic little tightwad must completely unwind, dying to its own seed-form (as Jesus taught) or dropping the illusion of its separate self (as the Buddha taught) for the sake of a larger and fuller experience of life.

Oftentimes, even when this shining truth is glimpsed, it has been immediately corrupted into a program for saving the ego rather than moving beyond it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should aspire to a life without identity, devoid of ego, and utterly detached inside some metaphysical bubble of bliss. That, too, is a gross misunderstanding and corruption of the shining truth, one that often leads into a labyrinth of esoteric nonsense and kitsch religion, lacking all relevance to daily life. To repeat, our challenge is neither to glorify the ego nor to pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather to rise above and move beyond its self-centered vantage on reality; to step through the curtain and rejoin the universe, already 14 billion years underway.


In my diagram are also represented the four strands of our Quadratic Intelligence – visceral (VQ: needs), emotional (EQ: feelings), rational (RQ: thoughts), and spiritual (SQ: intuitions). Even though I don’t focus on them explicitly in this post, they are included to provide some cross-reference for my returning reader. Go here for a deeper dig into Quadratic Intelligence. You can also search “quadratic intelligence” for additional posts on the topic.

 

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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.

 

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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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