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Virtues of the Centered Life

Western and Eastern approaches to spirituality differ in their accents on what to do with the ego – that separate center of personal identity that each of us cherishes as “I, myself.” The challenge in both cases is presented in the condition of duality, which is a consequence of separating into our own identity, known in psychology as individuation.

As long as the individuation process has been successful in forming a centered personality, ego can serve as a point of release into the grounding mystery of being within, as well as a launching point for transpersonal engagement in genuine community.

These two “options” for the well-centered individual are the Eastern and Western accents, respectively. In Western spirituality the (outward, extroverted) rise into community has been the favored way, while in Oriental spirituality it is the (inward, introverted) drop into the ground of being-itself.

In my diagram I have illustrated these two complementary paths of spirituality as they break through the duality of Ego and Other. One path takes identity up into relational unity (community) and the other releases it for a deeper experience of the grounding mystery (ground).

It’s important to see these as truly complementary and not mutually exclusive alternatives; both are equally available to the well-centered individual.

I won’t spend much time on it here, but that orange spiral is a reminder that not all of us get to this point. Instead, our chronic insecurity drives us to attachment, which in turn complicates into entanglement and ultimately a state of delusion where we are absolutely convicted in our belief that it’s all about us. All of our energy gets knotted up around (and around) these neurotic ambitions, making us anxious and frustrated, then leaving us exhausted … until it’s time to go at it all over again.

Because we are stuck on ourselves, the two spiritual paths are closed behind locked gates.

To the true believer of popular religion this will sound like esoteric code-speak, when it’s really they who have removed themselves from the simple truth at the center of their experience.

When we are properly centered, these deeper and higher dimensions of the spiritual life are open to us. We are secure enough within ourselves and consequently don’t need to latch on to others and wait for salvation. What we might call the virtues of a centered life are an inner calm and emotional¬†balance, along with personal power and creative freedom.

The first pair of balance and calm can be summarized as “equanimity,” while the second pair of power and freedom combine in “autonomy.” Together, then, equanimity and autonomy are what the centered life enjoys.

My diagram also pulls forward from a recent post Peaceful Soul, Creative Spirit the idea that human spirituality is essential to our wellbeing. Instead of seeing these as parts of us, or as the “true self” separate from our body, I have been arguing for definitions that appreciate soul and spirit as the inward-existential and outward-transpersonal aspects, respectively, of a uniquely human spiritual intelligence (SQ).

I also regard our spiritual intelligence as activated or awakened only to the degree that we have achieved ego strength, where a stable center of identity provides the point from whence we can drop into the grounding mystery or rise into genuine community.

By this definition, a human newborn does not yet possess such an access point since an ego is still in its developmental future. A human adult who is neurotically self-involved will be prevented access for a different reason. For neither one is spirituality an active force in experience.

Just as the other threads of our Quadratic Intelligence (visceral, emotional, and rational) “come online” during critical periods of development, our spiritual intelligence is not only the last to awaken, but its full awakening depends on the successful formation of a well-centered ego. Only from there can we cultivate an inner calm, manage our internal balance, develop personal power, and express our creative freedom.

It is as if a well-centered identity opens a channel for our spiritual life to flow.

Stepping back out of the details for a broader view, it should be clear by now that what I earlier called the challenge of duality is crucial to understanding the human condition, our progress or arrest in ego development, the complications that spin us in neurotic directions, and the Shining Way to a liberated life.

Whether we take the ‘Western path’ to genuine community or the ‘Eastern path’ to the grounding mystery – ascending or descending, outward or inward, ethical or mystical, transpersonal or existential – we need to be secure enough and sufficiently centered in order to get over ourselves.

And whether we choose to take one path or the other, eventually we’ll need to come back to that center again. So let’s be mindful of keeping the porch swept and trash away from the door.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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Diving Deep, Flying High

A lot has happened to get us to this point, where I have written something for you to read and think about.

Fourteen or so billion years ago a quantum singularity broke open to release a burst of infinite energy and give birth to our universe. Within seconds this highly unstable state began to collapse into the first forms of physical matter: superstrings of light, crystalline lattices, and quarkish free radicals that would soon (over the next 150 million years) cool, combine, and form into thermonuclear furnaces of the first stars.

Much, much farther into the future (only about 4 billion years ago) the conditions of organic chemistry necessary for life to emerge gave rise to the first single-celled organisms. Since that point, life has continued to evolve into microbial, plant, and animal forms, developing ever more sophisticated sensory apparatuses and nervous systems among the animals to support an awakening of consciousness.

In the primates, and particularly the hereditary line leading to our own species, this power of sentience acquired the talent of self-awareness, where the formation and management of a personal identity (ego) has now become our constant preoccupation.

So here I am and there you are.

We are just conceited enough to half-believe the rumor which says that we’ve made it to the end, that our species has finally reached self-actualization with the arrival of ego consciousness. The great universal process has been evolving all this time with the aim of achieving an intellectual comprehension of itself in us. This is what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed at any rate.

With the rise of consumerism we’ve managed to put a twist on Hegel’s idea: our special gift is not so much intellectual curiosity as an insatiable craving for what will make us happy. And nothing can make us happy (such is the open secret of our wisdom traditions) which is why we can’t seem to get over ourselves.

It’s like we’re this black hole at the finishing end of evolution, fourteen billion years after the birth of the universe from a primordial black hole. But whereas that one was a spring of creative energy, we have become a sucking drain on the resources of our planet and its fragile web of life.

As long as we continue to regard ego consciousness as the cosmic endgame we won’t be able to change course from a tragic conclusion in global intoxication and our own extinction. If we can’t shift from our present condition to something more liberated and life-affirming, the final outcome decidedly won’t be in our favor.

In other posts I have described what I call the three pernicious divisions currently compromising wellbeing and threatening our future. A psychosomatic (soul-body), interpersonal (self-other), and ecological (human-nature) division that breaks the creative polarities of our existence and sets them in opposition (soul without body, self against other, human above nature) undermines our essential wholeness.

I’ve argued as well for seeing theism as a necessary stage in the construction of personal identity (ego) and the social system around it. In its central statement concerning the nature of ultimate reality in terms of personality and will (i.e., the concept of deity), theism provides a stage for our individuation as self-conscious centers of personal identity.

Just as a healthy family system lends provident support and inspiring role models for children in the taller powers who manage the household, so in theism this same arrangement – at least by design – is projected at the societal level. In this household we (first and foremost the insiders) are siblings with one another and children of a god whose will is that we live peaceably together, contribute to the greater good, and grow in virtue.

I characterize theism this way and not as a belief system based in supernatural revelations and miraculous events – which is how it is typically spun by orthodoxy to insiders – for three reasons. First, my characterization is deeply consistent with the evidence we have from the history of religion itself. Secondly it saves theists from having to abandon their common sense, moral conscience, and modern worldview for the sake of holding to a literal reading of their myths.

And finally this model of theism allows for a more responsible and well-reasoned interpretation of a spirituality that thrives beyond the ego, after theism, and on the other side of god – what is named post-theism.

Where does this post-theistic spirituality lead? Not to a hard-line atheism or secular humanism. I’ve clarified these distinctions in other posts, so we’ll move directly to what is unique to post-theism.

Post-theism is transpersonal, which means that it engages with reality beyond ego consciousness. Rather than eliminating ego from the picture, however, this spirituality focuses on making personal identity sufficiently strong (i.e., stable, balanced, and unified) to support the breakthrough experience of a liberated life.

Personal identity continues to be important here as it was in theism. But whereas theism Рparticularly, I should qualify, in its healthy forms Рmade ego strength its primary concern, post-theistic spirituality invites us to an experience of reality below the center and beyond the horizon of ego consciousness.

These terms “center” and “horizon” are important to understanding post-theism because they serve to define membership – how we identify ourselves and where our obligations lie. We can clarify them further by saying that our center is what we identify as, while our horizon represents (or contains) what we identify with.

At the level of ego consciousness we identify ourselves as individual persons with unique histories, personalities, and interests: I am a person. Taking this identification means that we also identify with other egos: they are our companions, colleagues, rivals, opponents, and enemies inside the horizon of specifically egoic concerns.

As just mentioned, theism is a social system constructed for the purpose of forming personal identity and developing its potential. Even though it conceives a deity who brought the entire cosmos into being, theism’s primary investment is still in shaping the beliefs, values, and aims of our interpersonal life together in society. Its notion of salvation is centered on our need as persons to be accepted, recognized, forgiven, and reconciled to the tribe that holds our membership.

Below our center of personal identity (or ‘down and within’) are deeper centers corresponding to larger horizons of identity (‘out and beyond’). Whereas we are unique individuals at the egoic level, by dropping to the deeper center of our life as sentient beings who can sense and feel and suffer, we also identify with all sentient beings. The values and concerns that orient our existence now include much more than other egos.

Drop another level to a still-deeper center and we identify ourselves as organisms, or living beings that exist interdependently with countless others in a great web of life. Now our values and concerns open transpersonally to an even larger horizon where we recognize our influence, for good or ill, as well as our responsibility within the biosphere of our living planet.

From this center of our life as organisms we can only contemplate the material and quantum realms farther below (and within) as the ineffable ground of being itself. And altogether, from this dark abyss of energy and matter, focusing upward through the realms of life and sentience whose rhythms and animal intuitions support our unique center of personal identity, is what I name the grounding mystery.

With each center up or down, our awareness expands or collapses to its corresponding horizon. The capacity for diving deep and flying high in this manner is a transpersonal capacity, and it takes ego strength to make it possible.

 

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Inner Dialogue

Robinson: “Each of us, if we are in any way integrated, has a center from which our lives are lived, and our ‘world’ is what is enclosed within the circumference of that circle. Yet often we are more conscious of the edges than the centers, corresponding to the bounds of an animal’s territory which it stakes all to defend. The edges may be hard, the boundaries barricaded, while the centers are relatively unformed. The effect of dialogue is to bring to consciousness, and therefore to strengthen, our centers – so that where we stand will often in the process become clearer and firmer. But we do that by being prepared to soften our edges, to open up the frontiers, and let down our defenses.”

Human beings are world-builders. By now it should be clear that we are using this term in reference to the habitats of meaning that give humans the illusions of security, identity, significance and purpose. These are regarded as illusions simply because they are language-dependent and not found as “facts” in reality. As spiders spin webs out of their own bodies and then depend on their webs for survival, each of us spins a world around ourselves and calls it home.

At the center of my world is “me,” this self-identified maker of meaning. Underneath me are the various supports that hold me up and define who I am. Gender, family, class and tribe are the primary roles that locate me in society and give me recognition as a member. Together we inhabit a shared world called culture, which is a web that stretches across generations and geographical regions and is reinforced by sacred stories called myths. These stories anchor our common identity in a prehistory of ancestors, founders and heroes, as well as in a supernatural realm of gods, saviors and saints.

The movement of postmodernism was energized by the discovery that beneath our web-worlds is a reality much less “solid” than we thought. The foundation of divine providence, for instance, or even something as seemingly rock-bottom as matter itself, are shown to be just deeper constructs of language. The security we feel in being held up by something loving and reliable (matter and mother have a common origin) is perhaps an irresistible need of ours, stemming back not just to our individual infancies but into our existential condition as a species.

And what about the boundary of my world? What’s beyond that? If I don’t think about it too much I can persist in the illusion of a significance and a purpose that continue to infinity. God’s in control, everything happens for a reason, and all things work together for good. It’s a mark of faith not to ask questions, or so we’re told.

But eventually we bump up against … not reality, but other worlds. I am confronted with your very different way of representing reality, and if mine was merely a representation and not the way things really are, I might be worried. We can have differences, but they will have to be superficial, minor disagreements. When push comes to shove, I can’t compromise on my convictions. Not that I won’t. I can’t – there’s too much at stake.

John A.T. Robinson is perhaps best known for his 1963 book Honest to God, in which he challenged the mythological literalism of the Bible and urged his readers to consider the possibility that the divine reality is not merely something bigger than we can imagine, but might even be something other than what we can imagine. Robinson took his inspiration from the likes of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom advocated for a divine mystery beyond our religious conceptions and doctrinal convictions.

The present mystery of reality is not meaningful but beyond the meanings we construct and attach to it. Our dogmatic and aggressive defense of meaning belies an insecurity often unacknowledged – except where we readily point it out in our opponent. If we could relax a little at our edges and meet each other with more honesty, humility and faith, we might realize that our meanings are a lot less absolute and unchanging than we pretend they are.

But as Robinson explains, the condition of our boundaries – how flexible or rigid they are, how open or closed, how responsive to mystery or reactive to difference – is a function of how integrated we are inside. Internal balance, contemplative clarity, intellectual coherence and spiritual grounding are all terms that relate to our center, where each of us is rooted in the present mystery of reality. If we neglect this dimension of our life and become disconnected at our roots, the natural concerns of survival and evolutionary fitness will become combative obsessions at the edges.

Now in this book (Truth is Two-Eyed), Robinson is exploring what he calls an “inner dialogue,” where the spider in the middle of the web – our self-identified ego and the meaning we spin into our separate worlds – opens up (or down) through its own center and into the real presence of mystery.

With “one eye” we see this relationship of self to mystery in terms of communion, between an “I” and a “Thou.” Importantly, this Thou is not the personified god of mythology and doctrinal orthodoxy, but an irreducible “Other” or otherness at the heart of our human experience of reality. This is the Western Way.

And with our second “eye” we see the present mystery of reality less as an interplay of I and Thou, than as a single undifferentiated Oneness playing both parts of the relationship. We are not so much confronted by reality as immersed in it, saturated with it, and essentially the same as it. This is not the same as saying, “I am god,” for the I and Thou are both manifestations of one mystery. This is the Eastern Way.

Robinson is inviting us to consider spirituality as a dialogue of “meeting” (Western Way) and “merging” (Eastern Way), communion and absorption, as our response to the mystery and our identification with it. We can engage this dialogue outwardly, at the table with Christians and Buddhists, for instance, where different constructs of meaning (worlds) seek to understand each other.

But this outer dialogue is not likely to produce the kind of mutual respect and profound appreciation we so desperately need on this planet unless we are each engaged in the inner dialogue of a deep, contemplative  spirituality.

Just relax. It’s going to be all right.

 

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