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A Sacred Place

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. So many twists and turns, so many ups and downs. It’s not been easy, and yet somehow you’ve managed to arrive right where you are. Your peculiar quirks and hangups, along with many endearing qualities and positive strengths, testify to an undeniable resilience through hardship, suffering, and loss. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are, along with nearly 8 billion other unique individuals – just like you.

You stand out from the rest not only by virtue of the timeline of events that have shaped you into the person you are today, but also by your nature as a self-conscious individual, as one in whom the sentient powers of consciousness have turned inward to become aware of being aware – and of being seen by others.

What we have described so far can be called the formation of your identity, as at once a product or outcome of the past, and an expression or differentiation of self-conscious awareness out of the grounding mystery of being. I don’t mean that to sound overly metaphysical, as if the pre-differentiated ground is (mis)taken as something else, other than you. That deeper mystery of physical life and sentient mind is what has become conscious of itself as you. You stand out from it but are not really separate from it.

I’m going to use the terms “character” and “existence” to name these correlated dimensions that have conspired in the formation of who you are. Character traces the path of life events and your response to those events, as they have been steadily shaping your habits of attitude, belief, judgment, and motivation. With time and experience, the habit of who you are (i.e., your character) has grown more persistent and predictable – just ask those who have known you for a while.

What we commonly call a “strong character” can refer to a habit of identity that is either inflexible in its convictions or creatively resilient, depending on whether your learned response to life has been encoded on the imperative of CONTROL or on that of GROWTH.

Existence is being used in its exact Greek meaning, referring to the act or process of standing out (existere) as an individual, both from a state of pure potentiality and from the general mass of anonymous others. The philosophy of Existentialism has a very diverse world-wide and historical representation, but its central tenet is the human individual as a unique center of experience, standing out in full exposure to the conditions of ambiguity, finitude, and extinction.

In view of such exposure, the existentialists generally forsake all departure narratives (future utopias, heavenly afterlife, or reincarnation) designed to pacify our death anxiety, and instead grapple with how the individual can live an authentic, responsible, creative, and liberated life – in the time they have left to live.

Existentialism is similar to religion in the way it refuses to merely meditate on theoretical abstractions, but rather seeks to resolve or overcome what it regards as forces presently enthralling the human spirit. And while the myths of religion depict this condition in florid metaphors of primordial, supernatural, heroic, and apocalyptic events, Existentialism (and post-theistic religion generally) interprets it psychodynamically, as complications of ego formation.

Put simply, the process of your standing out in self-conscious identity has had to negotiate or contend with certain habits developed around your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because the satisfaction of these subjective needs was occasionally (or often) challenged by less-than-provident circumstances, you had to compensate your feeling unsafe by taking control, your need for love with attachment, your impotency with coercive aggression, and your sense of unworthiness by trying to please others and amount to something in their eyes.

If this profile resembles you to any degree, it’s only because it is archetypal and reflects the early emotional landscape of every human being who has ever lived.

The compensatory strategies just outlined conspire energetically to close your identity down to where you can manage the insecurity and still get by. On the negative side, they also hold you down (and back) from fulfillment. I’m using this word not in the popular and superficial sense of a happy self-satisfaction, but rather in reference to the process of awakening, cultivating, expressing, and fully realizing the deepest potential of your human nature.

A self-conscious personal identity which might otherwise actualize this deep potential in creative and responsible ways, instead holds it hostage inside a cage of neurotic and self-defensive fear.

When you are properly centered in yourself and free to be yourself, you can choose to go beyond (or transcend) yourself in the higher experiences of communion. The truth is that all things exist together as one, as manifestations of and participants in the same reality. This Shining Truth is invisible to – or rather we should say it is obscured by – the insecure ego whose makeshift walls of security close out the light.

Right now, you can choose to step outside and join the One Song and Turning Dance (uni-verse) of it all.

Depending on how small you have made yourself, your spiritual prison break could release a thermonuclear radiance of inner peace, unconditional love, and boundless joy. As you plug into the Source and get carried away, nothing about your life prior to now will be the same. Your anxieties will vanish. Your frustrations will dissolve. Your resentments will fade, as your guilt falls away.

Take a moment to reflect on the long journey that’s brought you here. No one else in the history of humanity has traveled your exact path, and yet here you are. 

This is indeed a sacred place.

 

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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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You, There

In the above illustration I have highlighted in orange a water droplet that has momentarily separated itself from the ocean below. On its brief arc through space-time, the water droplet exists (meaning literally to stand out) as a unique individual – if only by virtue of the fact that it occupies this exact point in space at this precise moment in time.

As a separate individual it is positioned among a cohort of other water droplets, their otherness partly a function of occupying different locations in space as they travel along distinct trajectories. Any relationship between and among them is predicated on their separate existence, on each existing apart from the others as a unique individual.

Together our cohort of water droplets inhabits a local environment of atmospheric conditions which is itself contained within a still-larger horizon that includes an unnumbered multitude of droplets arcing through space-time, along with some gliding birds overhead, drifting clouds higher still, nearby planets barely seen, distant stars and the far-flung galaxies.

Coming back to our water droplet, we know that its deeper nature is oceanic. Existentially – recalling that existence means to stand out as an individual – the droplet carries within itself something much more profound (a term whose original meaning had to do with the deep ocean). Its own identity as a separate individual in relationship with other individuals inside an infinite cosmic horizon is really a temporary enclosure of an essential mystery – from the Greek esse for being.

Our droplet of seawater has thus guided our contemplation along three distinct axes: (1) a self-other axis of separate individuals crossing, connecting, or colliding on their space-time trajectories; (2) a self-system axis, referencing the larger complexity to which it belongs; and (3) a self-essence axis dropping from the centered individual into its own deeper nature.

Each axis provides us with a lens and vocabulary by which to understand its full reality: in the encounter with others, as participating in a higher wholeness, and as a manifestation of being.


This analogy is a perfect introduction to understanding yourself as well. Just put yourself in the position of my orange droplet of water and the full picture will fall into place.

Let’s begin with your self-essence axis. Your deeper nature as a human being manifests the 14-billion-year history of our universe. The atomic structure of your physical body is composed of elements that were forged in the very beginning. The life-force in your cells is a few billion years ancient. The hum of sentience electrifying your brain, nervous system, and sense organs goes back a fraction that far (around 200 million years) and has a wide representation across the species of life on Earth.

Hovering above this grounding mystery of what you are is the separate “water droplet” of self-conscious identity – the individual ego (“I”) that looks out on reality from your unique location in space-time. Up here things can get dicey, and the management of personal identity necessarily involves the separate identities of others in your local cohort. Developmentally the formation of your ego was leveraged and shaped through encounters with others whose otherness receded further into obscurity as you became increasingly self-conscious.

While your deeper nature, following the self-essence axis, is marvelously profound and grounds your life in the evolving process of the universe itself, this self-conscious identity of yours is as complicated as it is transient. Because who you are – as distinct from what you are – was especially vulnerable in your early years to both the positive and negative influence of others, their ignorance, neuroses, and bad choices left lasting impressions on your own personality. (The same should be said of their more benevolent affections as well.)

In its suspended position of exposure, your self-conscious ego can manage to siphon the miracle of being alive into the spinning wheel of impossible cravings and unrealistic fears.

Lest you take the opinion of your own innocence in all of this, it needs to be said that you have been making choices (almost) all along the way. Many of those choices have simply repeated and reinforced the security strategies you learned as an infant and young child. Still today, you may occasionally (or frequently; maybe even chronically) “act out” these neurotic styles, which proceed to unload your childish insecurities on a cohort of innocent-enough bystanders and co-dependent dance partners.

Taking a close and honest look at the drama of your personal life will reveal why the principal obstacle to what the spiritual teachings call ‘awakening’ or ‘liberation’ is and has always been the ego.

The freedom to break past the mesh of self-obsession, codependency, and neurotic insecurity requires not the elimination of ego but its transcendence. As the grounding mystery of sentient life has become self-conscious in you, it must now reach out and go beyond your separate identity. Just as the self-system axis for our water droplet situates it within a local, regional, planetary and cosmic context, so does your own personal identity exist within and belong to a higher, transpersonal, wholeness.

As long as you remain enmeshed, however, and to the extent that your ego is locked inside its own convictions, this higher wholeness is not only beyond you, but is also outside your small horizon of self-interested awareness.

All the available evidence supports the idea that what the universe is evolving toward is ever-greater complexity, which is apparent in your own deeper nature as a physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. A natural next step in this progression is the phenomenon in which self-conscious individuals connect and cooperate in genuine community.

If we were to regard genuine community – and by that I mean authentic, compassionate, dialogical, creative and radically inclusive community – as evolution’s next step, then your self-conscious personal identity should really be seen as a progression threshold rather than a final destination.


We might imagine our water droplet, now imbued with self-consciousness, pondering its place in the sprawling scheme of things, wondering if letting go and getting over itself is a worthy risk. Playing small and safe might be the better choice. But in the end the end will come and what will be left? What will be remembered? The 14-billion-year adventure is right now on the brink of breaking through to a truly liberated life.

Maybe this is the moment everything changes.

 

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The Force of Character

For the longest time the debate was between Nature and Nurture as to which shaping force was greater in determining human personality, behavior, and destiny. Genetic determinism or social engineering (aka behaviorism) each argued for the larger role, with pretty much everybody agreeing that both were somehow in the mix.

Had anyone bothered to ask the therapists, counselors, or your reputable “good listening friend,” they would have learned that more than nature and nurture is in play on this question. There’s also the force of momentum as it builds through our repeated beliefs and behaviors over time. The first enactment requires focused deliberation, but with each repetition it becomes a little easier, a little more automatic, using less and less conscious effort as this momentum starts to take over.

What we’re describing can be called the force of Character, borrowing directly from the way the identity of a narrative character becomes more “solid” and predictable as the story progresses. It belongs with Nature and Nurture in our best understanding of what shapes and determines human experience.

In addition to our genetic predispositions and social conditioning, then, our cumulative habits of thought, judgment, behavior and belief – that is to say, our character – make us who we are.

The references to story are especially fitting in this discussion, since our personal identity is also a narrative construct. Who we are – as distinct from what we are as human beings – is something put together, literally composed out of numerous storylines that tie us to roles, anchor us in role plays, and shape our identity to the groups where we belong.

Inside those external storylines are others that define us internally, to ourselves. These conspire to form our self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, referring to how secure, capable, creative, and resilient we see ourselves as being. Our internal storylines are ever-present as our continuous self-talk, in the steady stream of thoughts and opinions we repeat to ourselves.

As my diagram illustrates, with repeated performances of these external and internal scripts our character becomes more solid and predictable. Our identity eventually gets so determined by our past that it can seem impossible to break the habit of who we are.

It helps me to think of this using the principle of complementarity from elementary physics. Also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it states that quantum reality will “behave” as a particle or a wave depending on how the researcher sets up the experiment. At that level, energy can either be defined by its discrete position (as a particle) or measured for its dynamic flow (as a wave) – but never both at once.

These both turn out to be true representations of quantum reality, but we must choose which way we see it.

Another analogy is the Rabbit-Duck Illusion. Looking at the image, you can see the head of a rabbit or the head of a duck, but not both at once. The image “behaves” according to what you are expecting to see.

All of this relates back to our discussion on character in the following way. Character itself – our personal identity as composed of multiple intersecting external and internal storylines – corresponds to Heisenberg’s particle: discrete, holding its position, and apparently solid.

But if we choose, we can also understand personal identity as a “wave” of countless interweaving narratives. And the dominant storyline, which I will call our “active story,” is the one we are telling ourselves and others right now. It’s also likely the one we’ve been telling ourselves for quite some time, qualifying it as our personal myth.

Back to my diagram. A correlation exists between our character (particle, rabbit) and active story (wave, duck) such that early on, when character is still getting set, our active story has a broad scope. A broader scope to our story means a wider spread of possibilities before us. When we are young and the momentum of character is still relatively undefined, the future ahead of us seems broad with many options and we frequently engage in imagining what we will one day grow up to be.

As our repeated thoughts, judgments, behaviors and beliefs take on a more solid and predictable shape (i.e., character), however, the scope of our active story begins to narrow down. Our choices effectively eliminate or close down some possibilities as we commit ourselves to our personal quality world. A benefit of this narrowing effect on the scope of our active story is that its range also starts to lengthen.

As we enter adulthood, our active story provides a longer view on the future, even as our options are reduced in number. We get a stronger sense of direction and purpose, which is another way of saying that our character becomes more set: we know who we are, where we’re going, and why it matters.

Morality at this point is less about following rules and obeying authority than behaving and believing in a way that’s consistent with who we are – being true to ourselves, as we say. Now, if our identity is one of positive belonging, social responsibility, and ethical commitment to the greater good, then being true to ourselves is a good thing indeed.

It can happen, though, that our character gets formed by negative storylines, such as abuse, insecurity, shame, resentment, and self-doubt. Once it gets set, being true to ourselves can be pathologically self-centered and socially destructive. To us it feels like righteousness and living by the strength of our convictions, when our active story is actually bringing down the Apocalypse.

My returning reader is familiar with my characterization of conviction as belief that holds the mind hostage (like a convict). Now we can see how character-formation and conviction go together. Our active story narrows down to just one line of truth (“the only way”), and our conviction prevents us from even seeing alternatives, much less considering them.

This is how we bring down the Apocalypse. The most destructive human actions in history have been driven by conviction, committed for the sake of and in devotion to some absolute truth.

The rest of my diagram shows how the construction of identity (ego) requires our separation from all that is “not me.” From this vantage-point, we can look outward at the objective world, literally “thrown over” and around us, as well as inward to our subjective ground, “thrown under” or beneath us. It’s important to understand that these two realms and our access to them are conditioned upon a stable, balanced, and unified sense of self (called ego strength).

If our character has been set by negative storylines and our convictions are righteously inflexible, we are unable to engage the objective world responsibly or cultivate our subjective ground for inner peace and wellbeing. In this case, the force of character trumps (pun intended) nature and nurture, committing us to a path of suffering and self-destruction.

Hell, we might as well bring everybody else down with us.

 

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The Mirror of Religion

If god is not “up there” and heaven is not “after this,” then why would anyone get involved with religion?

One obvious answer might be to make money – speaking primarily on behalf of TV evangelists and other hucksters who exploit our fantasies of immortality and our craving for absolute answers. They hook us in by the thousands with a promise of prosperity in this life and everlasting security in the next.

Not surprisingly, the only ones getting richer are the hucksters themselves.

Once upon a time religion provided people with big stories, deep traditions, and vital connections to their communities, the larger environment of life, and to the present mystery of reality. Religion gave us grounding and orientation, identity and purpose, meaning and hope.

Then something happened.

Our mind began to open to reality in new ways. Where all that business of religion had focused our contemplation on the mysteries of life within and around us, we became increasingly aware of an impersonal objectivity to things. This has famously been called the “disenchantment of the world,” and it came as the consequence of a kind of centripetal integration of our individual personality, bringing with it a newfound ability to discriminate between external facts and internal feelings.

This evolution of consciousness didn’t necessarily mean that the sacred myths and sacramental cosmology of religion had to be abandoned. The change in awareness, however, did invite us to interpret the stories in a new light.

Whereas our mythopoeic imagination was the generative source of the myths, we could now appreciate their principal metaphors as translucent revelations of a deeper mystery.

Take this analogy …

A landscape painting can be “read outward” for its representational realism and factual accuracy. Something separate from the work of art is that by which it is recognized and evaluated. But a true appreciation of the painting as art requires that we also “read inward” to its creative source and inspiration in the artist’s personal experience. We are not thereby attempting to go back to its origin in the past; rather we are going deeper into something that is genuinely a mystery, of which the painting is a revelation in this present moment.

As we meditate on it, that same experiential in-sight is awakened in us.

The shift of consciousness mentioned earlier, where seemingly all of a sudden reality confronted our mind as an objective fact, is paradoxically when this inward path into the grounding mystery of being became available for the first time. Having established our separate center of personal self-awareness (ego), reality opened simultaneously beyond us in the objective order of existence, and within us as the subjective depths of our being.

Those sacred stories of religion could now be read inward as poetic and metaphorical revelations of our own grounding mystery. For so long they were spun almost by instinct like spider webs out of our creative imagination, captivating our attention and making life fascinating and meaningful. But whereas earlier their action and imagery had been projected around us, now for the first time we could follow that projection inward to its spiritual source.

To interpret god metaphorically, reading inward to its deeper significance and expressive potency, necessitated a shift in religion’s self-understanding. Instead of orienting us outward to some supernatural being “up there,” god’s metaphorical meaning urged upon us a newfound sense of our creative authority.

As a poetic construct of the human imagination, the character and virtue of god as played out in the myths (and read inward) turned the sacred narratives from windows into mirrors.

Our “window” on reality – that is to say, on the objective and factual realm – would become the special portal of science. And our “mirror” into the subjective and intuitive realm was now positioned to serve religion’s own progress as a system of stories, metaphors, meditative practices, and ethical commitments that could guide human evolution into a “post-theistic” future.

The prefix “post” in this term shouldn’t be mistaken as “anti” or “a” (as in atheist) since post-theism is not focused on – or even concerned with – the existence of god. Instead, it provides the structure and vocabulary for making meaning, building community, and actualizing our higher nature as human beings – “after” (post) we have learned to contemplate god as a mirror into ourselves and taken responsibility for our creation.

Our own individual development through the early years and into adulthood traces the same path as our cultural evolution.

There was a time when stories and their performance, otherwise known as imaginative play, were the world we lived in day and night. We regarded their characters, plots, and adventures as laced invisibly into the landscape of everyday life. Some characters became magnetic attractors in the shaping and orientation of our developing personality. In a way, they were more “real” to us than the flesh-and-blood members of our own house and neighborhood.

But then something happened.

Partly as a consequence of our socialization, and partly a natural stage in the development of our mind, the mapping of language onto an objective reality separate and apart from us began to demand more of our attention. This “real world” of impersonal facts would eventually become the realm of our adult everyday life.

Those childhood stories of the backyard playground needed to be left behind, put on the shelf … or read inward for new meaning.

It’s not news that most adults in advanced societies nowadays are caught on the Wheel of Suffering, in lives that have been flattened out and drained of creative imagination. We have to turn on a screen or sit in a theater for the experiences we can barely recall from childhood.

If and when we go to church, we are likely to hear about a god “up there” and a heaven “after this,” but there is little if any inward depth-experience of a mystery that cannot be named or fully known.

Our religions presume to be windows on reality, telling us what to believe about a being that no one has ever encountered. Their “windows” are not the true window of science, yet their competing (and archaic) accounts of objective reality are obligated on devotees under threat of excommunication and eternity in hell if they cannot believe.

The tragic irony is that the stories these religions take so literally are actually reflecting back to them insights into our own deeper nature, and truths with power that can set us free for the liberated life.

 

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Coming to Terms

To exist is to “stand out” (Latin existere) as an individual ego or “I,” centered in yourself and tracking on your own timeline. Of course, this timeline is not interminable, meaning that it will not continue forever. One day you will die and pass into extinction. Nothing in time is permanent; nothing is everlasting.

Now, I hear you thinking: What do you mean, nothing is everlasting? What about god? What about my soul? What about … me?!

Self-conscious human beings have suffered psychological torment for many thousands of years by the awareness of mortality, that “I” will not be around indefinitely. Most of us have lost loved ones and cherished pets along the way, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to realize that your time is also running out.

As a kind of therapeutic response to this existential realization, our species has invented many cultural variations of what we can call a “departure narrative” – stories about leave-taking, about getting out of this mortal condition, and securing your continued existence on the other side of death.

This is probably not where “god stories” got their start, since the idea of a personified intention behind the arrangement and events of our lives is historically much older than a belief in our own immortality.

In earliest religion, known as animism, humans related to their natural environment in a kind of ritual dialogue whereby nature was acknowledged and petitioned for its provident support of what they needed to live and prosper. These rituals coordinated human concerns with the seasons, cycles, and natural forces they relied on.

Even the gods at this stage were not immortal. They were not everlasting beings regarded as separate from the temporal realm of life, death, and rebirth. The purpose of religion was not departure but participation in the Great Round. Gods served the essential function of personifying the intention humans perceived (and imagined) behind the natural events impinging on their existence.

Eventually these invisible agencies were conceived as separate from the phenomena and realms they supervised.

Heaven, not just the starry firmament above Earth but the place where these superintendents resided, where they waited around and occasionally descended to take in the worship and earnest prayers of their devotees down below, was given a place in the emerging imaginarium of a new type (and stage) of religion, known as theism.

If these invisible (and now independent) personalities exist apart from the physical fields they oversee and control, then why not us? Actually it was more likely that the further development of ego formation in humans prompted this new idea of the gods as existing separate from their “body of work” (i.e., the realm of material existence).

Maybe “I” am also separate from this body. Perhaps “I” am not subject to mortality after all. When the body dies, “I” will go on to live elsewhere …

Thus was the departure narrative invented, to comfort you by dismissing death as not really happening to (“the real”) you – to this separate, independent, and immortal “I.” Since then, religions have been redirecting the focus of devotees away from time and towards eternity, away from physical reality and towards metaphysical ideals, away from this life to an imagined life-to-come.

It was all supposedly for the therapeutic benefit of dis-identifying yourself with what is impermanent and passing away. Very soon, however, it became a way of enforcing morality upon insiders as well. If you behave yourself, follow the rules, and obey those in authority, it will go well for you on the “other side.” If you don’t – well, there’s something else in store, and it’s not pleasant.

And to think how much of this was originally inspired out of human anxiety over the prospect of extinction. An independent and detachable personality that will survive death and be with god in a heaven far above and away from here – all designed to save you from the body, time, and a final extinction.

Religion’s departure narrative may bring some consolation and reassurance, but it does so by stripping away the profound (even sacred) value of your life in time and distracting you from the present mystery of being alive.

So far, we have been meditating on the axis of Time, and on your life in time. As a reminder, one day you will die and pass into extinction. But as you contemplate this fact, rather than resolving the anxiety that naturally arises by reaching for some departure narrative, there is an invitation here for you to shift awareness to a second axis, that of Being.

An experience far more exquisite and transformative than your departure for heaven is available right here and now, in this passing moment of your life. This experience is “post-ego,” meaning that it is possible only by virtue of the fact that you have already formed a separate and self-conscious “I,” and are at least capable now of dropping beneath or leaping beyond its hard-won and well-defended identity.

While the departure narrative promises a way out of Now and away from Here, this “fulfillment narrative” invites you into the fullness of life here-and-now.

Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths: let your body relax into being. There’s nothing here that needs to be clung to or pushed away. All of the identity contracts that identify you with this tribe or that party; this rank or that role; this, that, or another label of distinction defining who you are and where you belong – drop it all, at least for now.

Imagine all of those things as tie-lines anchoring you to your place in society, and now you are unhooking from them one at a time.

As you do this, it will gradually become easier to quietly drop into your body. Here, deeper below all those crisscrossing tie-lines at the surface of who you are, your awareness opens to the feeling of being alive. Down through the nervous system and beneath the biorhythms of breathing, thrumming, pulsing, and resting, you at last come to a place that is no place, a “where” that is nowhere – the Nowhere, or here-and-now as we like to call it.

Each deeper layer in the architecture of your inner life requires a letting-go of what is above.

Each successive intentional release further empties your consciousness of content – first beliefs and the “I” who believes; then thoughts and the emotions attached to thoughts – until nothing is left to think about or even to name. I call this descending-inward path to an ineffable Emptiness the “kenotic” path, from the Greek word (kenosis) for “an emptying.”

The inward descent of Being and the letting-go or self-emptying it entails is also a highly effective practice in preparing you for a second path, of outward ascent into the greater reality that includes so many others and much else besides you. I call this ascending path “ecstatic,” also from the Greek, meaning “to stand out.”

But whereas “to exist” means to stand out as an individual ego, the ecstatic path is about stepping out or going beyond your individual ego in transpersonal communion with others – and ultimately with Everything, with the All-that-is-One.

In this same timeless moment, therefore, a profound and ineffable Emptiness invites you within and beneath who you think you are, as an expansive and manifold Communion invites you out and beyond yourself. Your awakening to this present mystery is at once the fullness of time and the fulfillment of your human nature.

There’s no need to leave.

 

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In the Presence of Mystery

The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.

It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.

But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.

The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.

The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).

The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’

It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.

The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.

Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.

But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.

What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.

In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).

Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.

The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.

If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.

Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).

As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.

If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.

This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.

 

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