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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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The Underground to Community

Today more than ever our planet needs us in community. Our species is so careless and disorderly, so thoughtless and destructive, so self-involved and unconcerned over the catastrophic impact our behavior is having on the larger web of life – upon which our own viability and well-being depend, it seems necessary to point out – that I wonder how far from the edge we currently are.

Or have we already gone over?

Human and nature, self and other, soul and body have fallen into pernicious divisions, to the point where nature is reacting violently to our longstanding disregard for her balance and capacity, individuals are committing violence against others they don’t even know, and even our bodies are destroying themselves as a consequence of our inattention to matters of the soul. Even if we can see this evidence, the truly concerning thing is that we are feeling increasingly powerless to do anything about it.

We need to come together for solutions, but we seem to have forgotten how.

Our solutions will need to heal the pernicious divisions just mentioned. Humans must awaken to their place in and responsibility to the living system of nature. Neighbors and nations must remember their common humanity.

But both of these breakthroughs depend on our success as individuals in managing a more holistic alignment of our inner (soul) and outer (body) life.

Our task, as illustrated in my diagram, is one of breaking through the meaningless noise of the crowd and engaging in the meaningful dialogue of genuine community. As I will use the term, crowd refers to a kind of herd consciousness that lets us be passive and anonymous, mindlessly conforming to the fashions of the majority. As mood and movement roll like waves through the herd, we let it take us and take us over.

In the crowd we are not responsible. When something sudden and shocking happens, we look up at each other and blink.

Obviously no creative solutions to the challenges we face will come from the crowd. The constant noise – which in communications theory is the absence of signal or useful information – interferes with our ability to speak intelligibly or think intelligently, damaging the inner ear that could tune our attention to a hidden wholeness. In the crowd we don’t have the distance and detachment to even regard our challenges with any clarity, so penned in are we by the commotion around us.

Joseph Campbell analyzed the ‘hero’s journey’ into three distinct yet continuous phases, beginning with a departure from the realm of ordinary life; proceeding to a stage of trials, ordeals, and revelations; and returning home again, but now with gifts and wisdom to share. In this post I will rename Campbell’s phases to correlate with the critical steps leading from herd consciousness (the crowd) to genuine community: solitude, silence, and serenity.

As mentioned earlier, this inner quest of the individual for a more centered and unified life is the journey each of us needs to make.

The hero’s departure, whether for a wilderness, desert waste, dark forest, the open sea, or a distant land, invariably moves him or her into a period of solitude. The revelation or discovery of what changes everything cannot be found in the crowd where the trance of familiarity and group-think dull our spiritual intuitions. It’s necessary to get away from the noise and out of the conditions in which our current assumptions were shaped.

Before attention can shift on its axis to a more inward and contemplative orientation, it must be freed of the usual fixations.

Taking leave of the crowd isn’t always easy. As Erich Fromm pointed out, it offers an “escape from freedom” that might otherwise require us to take responsibility for ourselves.

The cover of anonymity and herd consciousness gives us a sense of belonging to something larger, a place where we can go along with the group and not be individually accountable for our lives.

Even after we’ve left behind the noise of the crowd, however, we still have inner noise to resolve. This isn’t just an echo of group-think in our heads but includes the incessant and frequently judgmental self-talk that ego churns out. We can be sitting by ourselves in silence as the ‘monkey mind’ chatters away.

Much effort might be invested in the work of managing this nervous resident in our head – perhaps giving it something to play with, like a phrase to repeat or an object to fix its focus upon – when the real goal is to preoccupy the ego so that consciousness can make its way quietly to the stairwell.

By an underground passage we enter a vast inner silence, what I call boundless presence – away from herd consciousness and far below ego consciousness. Here we realize how much of all that is just an illusion, a consensus trance where identity is merely a role we’ve been playing and the world only a projection of meaning upon the present mystery of reality.

In the deep, slow rhythm of our breathing body, consciousness can rest in its proper ground. Here there is nothing to worry about and nothing to think about, for there is no “I” to worry or think.

This is serenity: centered, calm, open, and free.

Upon reaching the treasure of this realization, our hero’s next challenge is deciding whether to remain here forever or else bring something back to the herd, in hopes that others – even just one other – might wake from the spell. To our surprise and relief, however, we find that some are already enjoying the liberated life.

Although they still may not see things exactly as we do, we share a mutual appreciation of the fact that truth itself is beyond belief. And while our different beliefs are precious in the way they provide us with standpoints in reality, the crucial task before us is in constructing meaning that can include us all.

Such co-construction of meaning is known as dialogue, and it is the most important enterprise of genuine community. The resulting coherent system of shared meaning is the world that supports our identities, connects us to one another, orients us together in reality, and promotes our creative authority as agents of compassion, understanding, peace, and well-being.

 

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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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Spirituality Basics 3: The Liberated Life

As the third in my trilogy of posts on Spirituality Basics, this one will move our focus to the question of what the liberated life looks like. We grappled with the predicament of our human condition as off-center and caught in the delusion of separateness; and then spent some time on salvation as the breakthrough to unity consciousness where this veil of separation falls away and we truly understand that All is One.

We are left, then, with the challenge of trying to explain what this all is for: What kind of life is the liberated life?

Simply asking the question reveals a working assumption in my understanding of spirituality: that its ultimate value is manifested in our way of life. While the ecstasy of mystic union and the activation of higher consciousness, along with whatever special powers and abilities these might confer, are frequently highlighted as indicators of spiritual awakening, I think this leaves a still more important benefit out of the picture.

Not individual exceptionalism, but genuine community among free and creative individuals is where our evolution is leading, and community is a way of life.

The liberated life is necessarily a life with others. A solitary or hermitic existence, therefore, would deprive spirituality of its most important challenge – which is not preserving the soul for beatitude in the next life, cultivating esoteric revelations, or even joining an elite spiritual order of like-minded adepts, but rather putting wisdom into practice at home, in the office, and on the streets.

We should also extend this notion of community to include other species and the biosphere of Earth itself, since living with the big picture and long view in mind is a strong characteristic of wisdom.

For this post I will use the metric of clarity to help answer the question of what the liberated life entails, and clarity in two distinct senses. My diagram illustrates three differently colored horizontal rows transected by a vertical column, with key terms attached to each. Perspective, passion, and purpose (the rows) represent something of a complete set, and each one exemplifies some measure of clarity, as I’ll explain below.

The contribution of presence is to pull these three into alignment (as suggested by the vertical column) and thus provide an overall clarity to the set which I will call ‘superclarity’.

It should make sense as we step into it, so off we go.

The liberated life holds a perspective on reality that is informed by experience, based on evidence, and as large as the universe. Whereas the insecure ego prior to liberation is compelled to manage a very small frame around what matters – the personal horizon of “me, mine, and ours” (i.e., others like me) – a truly transpersonal perspective on reality excludes nothing from the All-that-is-One.

Clarity of perspective (or vision), therefore, can be defined simply as the degree in which our mental picture of things is an accurate representation of the way things really are.

Now, right away the point needs to be made that no representation, with even the greatest degree of clarity, is identical to the way things really are. There is an infinite qualitative difference between the present mystery of reality and the mental images, poetic metaphors, or more technical concepts we use to re-present it to ourselves. When we forget, it is like presuming to carry off the river in a bucket. Both popular religion and religious fundamentalism are notorious for this.

Whenever we take our perspective on reality from the standpoint of ego, our horizon of interest is just that small. The more neurotically insecure ego is, the smaller this horizon becomes.

A second scale of clarity is our passion for life. Passion here refers to a receptive openness to life as well as devotion to what truly matters. Clarity of passion is about having a heart-connection to people, places, and experiences that inspire in us feelings of peace, love, gratitude, and joy. Needless to say, neurotic insecurity prevents such connection because opening to life makes us vulnerable to pain, loss, and grief.

But closing ourselves to these also removes us from the happiness and wellbeing we desire. Our passion celebrates both the transient and eternal (timeless) value of being alive.

When I speak of purpose in this context, I am not referring to some objective plan or mission that we are expected to fulfill. An external assignment of this sort can be distinguished from what I mean if we name it the purpose of action, or the goal that our action is moving toward. A goal is objective and stands ahead of us in time, somewhere in the near or more distant future, and is something still to be accomplished.

The clarity of purpose which I have in mind here, however, is not anchored to something objective, nor can it be objectively measured. Purpose in action refers to the intention by which we live our life – a commitment to living ‘on purpose’, as we say. This doesn’t mean that the liberated life merely drifts along haphazardly from one moment to the next. There are still things to get done and goals to achieve!

The difference is that our action is not just a means for reaching a desired (or obligated) end, but is rather the very actualization of intention in each present moment – a sacred end in itself.

So we have three scales (perspective/vision, passion/devotion, and purpose/intention) with some measure of clarity in each. Even prior to our liberation we might demonstrate a fairly high degree of clarity in one or more of these. As a rule we can expect that highly insecure individuals (neurotically attached and lacking ego strength) will be low in clarity, and likely across all three scales.

The more anxious, frustrated, or depressed we become, our clarity plummets accordingly.

The liberated life, on the other hand, is one that has been set free from neurotic self-concern. We not only enjoy greater clarity in perspective, passion, and purpose, but we have gained freedom from the delusion of having a separate identity.

Because personal identity (ego) is what ties consciousness to the past and future – neither of which is real – this breakthrough to transpersonal awareness is the salvation in becoming fully present.

I’m suggesting that we are not more or less present, but fully present or not at all. We are either inside the delusion of separation or consciously present in communion – not somewhat or for the most part. What I call ‘superclarity’ is the conscious state where perspective, passion, and purpose are perfectly aligned in present-moment awareness.

This means, of course, that we can be in and out of superclarity numerous times a day, to the extent that we allow our attention to fall hostage to anything unreal: the past, the future, ambitions and enemies. All of these are merely extensions of ego, and ego is nothing more than a construct of our imagination, our pretending to be somebody.

At such moments we catch ourselves and come back to reality. The liberated life is a path and not a destination, leading always back and deeper into the here-and-now.

 

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Spirituality Basics 1: The Human Condition

One complaint that can legitimately be leveled against religion is over its tendency to complicate something which is really quite simple. An overlay of codes, rules, values, and beliefs quickly obscures the shining truth at its core. Tragically this accumulation of secondary material can become a religion’s primary concern, where it gets so caught up in its process that it loses sight of its purpose.

How many religions promote themselves as “the only way” when all they end up doing is getting in the way of our genuine liberation and wellbeing?

In this post and the next two I will clarify what I understand to be the basics of spirituality, without the overlays and parochial jargon. My experience and observations bear out that when a religion keeps these basics in view, all that secondary material can serve well to further interpret, amplify, situate, and apply them in a most relevant way. The basics alone are probably insufficient in themselves to provide the kind of practical support and guidance that religion can. But again, without this core in view, a religion turns into a source of spiritual injury, discouragement, and confusion.

The place to begin is always where we are, and the spiritual quest must start by taking into account our human condition.

In the very word religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) is a critical clue as to what this condition entails, which might be diagnostically summarized as isolation, alienation, estrangement, or simply separation. The Greek hamartia (off target) and Pali dukka (out of joint), central metaphors of the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively, both use the idea of suffering as the result of losing our center, struggling for balance, and lacking in functional wholeness.

This off-centered condition skews our perspective on reality and compels us to cling to whatever can provide some stability. But of course, such clinging to anything outside ourselves – what the Bible calls idolatry and Buddhism names attachment – only perpetuates and amplifies the fundamental problem, which is that we are still not centered within ourselves. Our condition only worsens the harder we try to fix it.

This desperate anxiety – a potent amalgam of craving and fear – splits our motivation between the desired object (craving) and the possibility of not getting the fix we need (fear).

These dual motives of craving and fear work against each other, as when the fear of failure distracts our focus and interferes with the achievement of our goal. The prefix ambi- in the word ambition identifies this opposition of two competing motives in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. Personal ambition, then, refers to the bipolar motivation that oscillates between craving and fear, excited for success but anxious over failure, never fully satisfied because the supposed solution is irrelevant to the real problem.

Rather than wising up to this internal contradiction, however, we invest ourselves in risk protection, giving up some of what we want now for the sake of having enough later. Or we inflate the value of the goal in our mind to justify and compensate for the anxiety that’s ripping up our insides and snapping the stem of life’s meaning.

So far, I have left unmentioned the actor in the middle of this fantastic mess – the “I” behind our cravings and fears, the one who is seeking an external resolution to an internal predicament. The word in Greek is ego, and so we use this term to designate our personal identity, the unique and separate person we regard ourselves as being. From the middle of this experience our identity seems very substantial – indeed (with Descartes) as more real than anything else.

Everything around us changes, but this center of self-consciousness is immutable, enduring, and by virtue of being separate from the body, maybe even immortal.

Despite this feeling of substantiality and permanence, our personal identity is actually a social construction, utterly insubstantial and in constant need of being reminded of who we are by telling ourselves stories. The longest running narrative might simply be called “the story of my life,” and its main plot anchors us in smaller stories about the past as it orients us in other stories about the future.

If we say that the past and the future are not real, we mean that they are not present, which is the only moment when anything can be real. The past is no longer and the future is not yet; both are dependent on the standpoint in time called Now.

“The story of my life” – or our personal myth, where mythos is Greek for the “plot” that provides continuity beneath and throughout the changing scenes of a story – is obviously not the unbroken record of every Now since we were born. Only certain events are included, just the ones that contributed major or minor threads to the narrative tapestry of our personal myth. And for those that are included, factual accuracy is less important than their thematic contribution to our overall sense of identity and meaning.

Interesting stories are about compelling characters, and the construction of identity has been a collective effort of weaving together a confabulated autobiography of “who I am.”

An essential and early part of this collective effort involved gaining some independence for the ego from the urgencies and instincts of the body. An urgency refers to an urge connected with a survival need, such as the urge to eat for the sake of nutrition, or the urge to breathe for the sake of taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

There is an immediacy about urgencies that makes them unnegotiable – or at least we can’t put them off for very long. If we should try to hold our breath too long, for instance, the autonomic urgency of breathing will take over, even if the conscious mind that is trying to pull off this stunt has to be put temporarily off-line so the rhythm can be resumed.

The body is possessed of many such urgencies working together in systems, rhythmically and reliably supporting its life as an organism. If an urgency is urgent action around a specific need of the body, then an instinct has to do with compulsive behavior of the body in pursuit of what will satisfy this need. Hunger is the urgency around our need for nutrition, but the coordinated behavior of the body in search of food is driven by instinct. Since instinct represents a higher level of coordination, there are far fewer instincts than urgencies in the body.

Because instincts are responsible for motivating us to behave outwardly, our tribe had a strong interest in shaping and directing our behavior in ways that would complement, or at least not conflict with, the norms of society.

As Freud discovered, the instincts of sex and aggression particularly pose a challenge to this project of managing social order. We needed to learn when and how it was proper to act on these instincts, and when it was necessary to restrain them. However, if the discipline of restraint on aggression was severe enough, or if our tribe coded sexuality with abuse, secrecy, and shame, the construction of our personal identity came at a cost of repressing these instincts – condemning them, denying them, pushing them behind us and into what Jung named our Shadow.

By this gradual but at times traumatic process of socialization, our ego was formed. The more severe the repression, the more pronounced was our separation from the body. If severe and pronounced enough, our sense of self might have completely dissociated from the body, turning it into an enemy of the “good boy” or “nice girl” our tribe demanded that we be. Or maybe we adopted an alter-ego, a split in our personality through which the irrepressible compulsions of the body could still be gratified.

It’s this need for separation that lies at the heart of our human condition. Once the body has been alienated – that is, pushed away as other – our project of personal identity has the one challenge left of breaking free entirely from the body’s mortal coil.

A denial of death thus becomes the driving impetus behind our ambition to gain deliverance and live forever. But let’s not forget about the intrinsic character of ambition, which is that it contains two contrary motives – a craving for something and a fear of not having it. The excessive preoccupation in some religions with the goal of everlasting life without the body inevitably carries within it a pathological denial of death.

My diagram above is meant to be read from left-to-right following the progression of development through the formation of personal identity (ego). Farthest left is the representation of our essential nature as animals (body) with a capacity for contemplation, creativity, self-transcendence, and genuine community (soul). We might be tempted to regard the imposition of ego consciousness and its delusion of separation as something regrettable, and maybe better eliminated.

But the paradox of spirituality is that self-transcendence (literally the expansion of awareness beyond the limits of personal identity) is not possible without a stable ego in place. We must first become somebody before we can get over ourselves.

It’s that question of ego stability that determines whether subsequent development goes in a healthy or pathological direction. We have already described one side of this pathology, in the repression of instinct and ego’s dissociation from the body. This is about the negotiation of our personal identity with respect to the natural inheritance of our animal body. On the other side of this divide is a less ancient but still very old cultural inheritance that carries instructions of its own, which we know as wisdom.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this cultural wisdom has much to say about our place in the universe, our connections and responsibilities inside the great Web of Life, the waking potential of the human spirit, and the aim of our existence.

Much of this wisdom is well known: How cultivating inner peace is key for making peace with others. How living for the wellbeing of the greater whole promotes health and happiness for oneself. How opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations. How letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise. How living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

These are all things we might consider obvious, as they are wisdom principles in the cultural atmosphere of our species and intuitively confirmed in our own quiet reflection.

But we don’t pay attention. Or else we print these wise sayings on wall posters and desktop calendars, but let them remain in perpetual contemplation rather than put them into action. This separation of who we are and how we live our lives from the cultural inheritance of wisdom is what I call ignórance – where the accent identifies a willful disregard rather than a mere naiveté or lack of knowing.

This, too, is a kind of denial; but instead of pushing something (i.e., instinct or mortality) behind us, we simply turn away and act as if that spiritual wisdom doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it is impractical, unrealistic, or intended for someone else. To be honest, we would have to admit that the fulfillment of our personal ambitions requires that we ignore what we deep down know to be true.

By separating ourselves thus from this historical bank of universal truths, we can continue with our pursuit – of what cannot make us happy, healthy, or whole. At least we can do it without guilt or needing to feel responsible for the consequences that fall out from our choices and actions.

There we have the basics of spirituality. Our essential nature as spiritual animals is abrupted by the imposition of a socially constructed personal identity, or ego, whose ambitions (e.g., for success, wealth, fame, supremacy, or immortality) are generated by some combination of repression and ignórance. The repression of animal instinct makes it possible for ego to achieve its delusion of escape and independence. But over time we must construct a number of defenses against the spiritual wisdom that would otherwise challenge our ambition and the stories we are telling ourselves.

When we finally “get it,” when we realize that our personal ambitions cannot be fulfilled and will not resolve our fundamental problem, which is the fact that these ambitions keep us off-center and perpetually discontent, an opportunity presents itself for our genuine liberation and wholeness.

We can at last get over ourselves and reconcile with our essential nature. The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Now our human adventure can find its true and higher path.

 

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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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Passing Through, Never Home

In The Shining Way I presented in outline the way of salvation that true religion sponsors and promotes. Not all religions, but true religion. That qualification allowed me to make a critical distinction between religion-in-essence or religion-itself, and the sometimes pathological forms it can take when it gets hijacked by that most dangerous force in all the universe – our neurotic ego.

Right now, each and every religion is either tracking with or departing from the Shining Way, which is our guiding path into deeper meaning, greater joy, and higher wholeness as human beings. Throughout its history a given religion will trace a meandering line: coming closer, trending with, crossing over, or veering away from genuine community and our higher nature.

These days, it happens that the major traditions of name-brand religion are rapidly losing relevance and credibility, sliding into complacency, bigotry or terrorism, and ramping the enthusiasm of members for a final escape – an end-time deliverance out of this world.

When we identify religion-itself with its pathological deformities, we make two very serious mistakes. First, as just mentioned, we forfeit our chance to better understand the role and function of healthy religion in our evolving spirituality as human beings. By throwing out the baby with the toxic bathwater, we lose the ability to ground our existence and orient our lives inside a system of values and aspirations that can lift us into our higher nature.

The second mistake is even more critical, since it lies at the roots of the first one: In our effort to break away from religion and leave it in the past, we miss an opportunity for honest self-examination, which is also our chance for the liberation our souls truly desire.

This is not liberation as in deliverance or escape, but liberation as in being set free to become whole again. With our adventure into a separate center of self-conscious personal identity, we fell out of the unconscious oneness of our first nature (i.e., our living body). As the myths and wisdom traditions across cultures attest, our ensuing psychospiritual journey is about dying to the self we’ve been duped into believing we are, waking up from the trance of our separateness (which also means our specialness and self-importance), and rising into the fullness of what we are as human beings.

For this to happen we must surrender our center of personal identity (aka ego or second nature) and go beyond ourselves – not negate, renounce, or cancel out the ego, but rather to leap from its stable base into a conscious wholeness where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are affirmed in their unity. The stability of this base is a key precondition of our self-transcendence, for without it the thrust of our leap will only push our feet deeper into the muck of ego neurosis.

In this post my task is to reach into the muck in order to uncover and examine what’s got us stuck, which I’m hoping will also crack the code of what makes a religion pathological.

Certainly, the early and widespread interest of primitive religion in the postmortem was a very natural extension of human curiosity and imagination. What had been a breathing, moving, and vibrant individual the day before is now lying motionless and cold before us. What happened? Where did that animating life-force go? Because it was also so intimately connected with the unique personality of that individual, it wasn’t a terrible strain on logic to assume that it may have relocated elsewhere. For millenniums ancient peoples envisioned a place where the departed spirits of their friends, relatives, and ancestors (why not their pets and other animals?) continued in some kind of existence.

With the rise of theism and ego consciousness, however, a moral obsession over the dualism of right and wrong inspired a division in this shadowland of the afterlife. Now, depending on one’s station in life (e.g., landowner or peasant), or whether they were sinner or saint, a departed spirit – which was becoming more like a ghostly version of the individual’s former identity (ego) – would be punished or rewarded accordingly.

This dualism in the very nature of reality served to orient and motivate the moral compliance of members, and thus to enforce the social order. It was also during this stage in the evolution of religion (theism) that patron deities were imagined in roles of lawgiver, supervisor, judge, advocate, or disciplinarian. In the reciprocity of obedience and worship for a deity’s blessing and protection, devotees had a ‘higher reason’ to remain dutifully in their assigned ranks.

One thing we need to remember as we consider this emergence of the self-conscious ego is how its separation from the enveloping realities of the womb, the nursing bond, and the primal family circle brings with it some degree of insecurity. The fall into greater exposure and self-conscious vulnerability prompts the individual to seek attachment, where he will early on find safety, warmth, and nourishment; and later the acceptance, recognition, and approval he needs to belong. Attachment, that is to say, compensates for and hopefully resolves the insecurity which inevitably comes along with ego formation.

Because insecurity is registered in the nervous system as restlessness and anxiety, one way of managing it – particularly if positive attachment objects are unavailable – is by dissociating from the body. It is common for victims of child abuse, for instance, to seek escape where physical flight isn’t an option, by ‘walling off’ the violated part of themselves, even engaging in a fantasy of existing apart from their bodies. This dissociated self then becomes ‘my true self’, ‘who I am’ as separate from the pain and suffering the individual is forced to endure.

A consequence of dissociation is that the personality lacks the stable support of a coherent nervous state, and stability is a foundational virtue of ego strength.

Now, before you conclude that I’m making a causal connection between pathological religion and priests who were abused as children, hold on. The fact is that each of us is insecure in our unique degree, and that, further, all of us without exception have sought refuge outside and apart from our bodies. A good number of us entertain fantasies of living on without the pain and drag of an embodied life, as bloodless souls in heaven after we die.

Perhaps a majority of us have grown so estranged from our animal nature, that we try to suppress the body’s messaging system (called ‘symptoms’) through a variety of distractions, intoxicants, and medications. And we all tend to lock ourselves up inside convictions that keep us from having to be fully present in the moment – present in our pain, present to one another, or present with whatever challenge is at hand.

As I mentioned in The Shining Way, a neurotic ego is insecure (check), defensive around that insecurity (check), insists on its special entitlement (conceited: check), and holes up dogmatically inside convictions that keep the pain and confusion of life at a distance (check). In this sense, the neurotic ego is always ‘passing through and never home’. And there is the causal connection I’m wanting to make:

The homeless ego, dissociated from our first nature, has hijacked religion and is steering it like a jetliner for the far horizon of this life, as far as possible from the mess we’re in, but tragically also away from the present mystery of reality.

 

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