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Romancing the Inner Child

Jesus is said to have held up the model of a child in helping his audience appreciate what is required to “enter the kingdom of God,” by which he did not mean an afterlife in heaven but the liberated life here and now. Preachers have been exhorting their congregations to be like children ever since, which turns out not to be such good advice after all.

The misunderstanding has to do with the difference between being childlike and acting childish. Jesus was elevating the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity: engaging with life in this way keeps us present to what’s really going on. On the other hand, when we behave childishly we are decidedly not present to the mystery of the moment, but rather disengaged and spinning neurotically inside ourselves.

Our Western romance of childhood regards it as a time of enchantment, freewheeling fantasy, and simple innocence. Growing up caused our disenchantment and introduced us to the world of adult preoccupations, not to mention the moral ambiguity we often find ourselves in. (We’ll come back to that in a bit.)

In many of us there is a longing to return to that idyllic state, and perhaps not a few Christians regard our getting there a precondition of salvation itself (cf., the saying of Jesus).

To put things in perspective, my diagram illustrates three ‘dimensions’ of human psychology. Our Animal Nature is where psychology is rooted in biology and the sentient organism of our body. At the other end of the continuum is our Higher Self where psychology opens toward self-actualization and ‘unity consciousness’ (i.e., our sense of All-as-One). The development into maturity proceeds through a third dimension, where the personality individuates upon a separate center of self-conscious identity – the “I” (Latin ego) from which we take a uniquely personal perspective on things.

This third dimension of ego consciousness is strategically important to the awakening of our Higher Self, as it is from the vantage point of its center that we are enabled to look ‘down’ (or inward) to the grounding mystery of being, and ‘up’ (or outward) to the prospect of genuine community. The distinction of these two ‘poles’ of the continuum of consciousness – a ground within that simply is and a community beyond that only might be – is necessary to keep in mind, as our successful transit will depend on how well things go with ego formation.

For it to go well, each of us needs to achieve ego strength, which isn’t really an individual achievement so much as the outcome of a larger conspiracy of other social agents and forces, like our mother, father, other taller powers, siblings and peers. When this conspiracy is provident, our subjective need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy is adequately met, resulting in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under an executive center of identity (or ego).

As we continue our growth into maturity, our centered personality gradually takes for itself the responsibility of constructing its own ‘habitat of meaning’ or personal world. Now the story of who we are (i.e., our personal myth) is ours to determine, at least to some extent, and we have full authorial rights. This is what I mean by creative authority.

With a healthy individuated identity in place, possessed of ego strength and creative authority, we can choose to ‘drop’ from this center and into the grounding mystery within, or ‘leap’ from it in the interest of connecting in genuine community.

Either move depends on an ability to get over ourselves, which in turn is a function of that emotional complex in our personality that was our primary mode of engaging with reality in those early years, but which is now our Inner Child.

When things have gone well for us, the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity continue to orient and inspire our adult life. We can surrender ourselves in existential trust, behold the present mystery of reality in wide-eyed astonishment, and explore its myriad features with an insatiable desire to understand.

Such virtues are at the heart of not only healthy religion, but of our best science and art as well. We are less prone to confuse our constructs of goodness, truth, and beauty with the mystery that is beyond names and forms. Instead, they can serve as symbols and guidelines leading us deeper into that mystery where All is One.

But if our early environment as actual children did not support our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy, we devised ways of still getting at least some of what we needed in spite of the circumstances. A profound insecurity made us neurotically self-centered and motivated our manipulation of others for the sake of getting what we needed. For a while perhaps, it worked – but never entirely or for very long.

These childish stratagems of behavior: pitching tantrums, sulking under the covers, telling lies, intimidating our rivals, cheating the system – whatever it takes to get what we want (“Trumpence”) – are now tucked away in the repertoire of our Inner Child. Whenever our insecurity gets poked, triggered, or hooked, our adult Higher Self gets pushed offline and this emotional terrorist takes over.

This is the part of us that actually prevents our entrance to the kingdom of God. When we are in this childish mode, not only is our own grounding mystery inaccessible to us, but genuine community is an utter impossibility. Indeed, we have become its diabolical adversary.

Not really if, but to the degree that we have this diabolical Inner Child inside us just waiting to get poked, it is of critical importance that we give sufficient time and mindful practice to the activation of our Higher Self. Scolding, blaming, shaming, and punishing ourselves and each other will only keep us stuck in the neurotic spiral.

To make progress on the path, we need to remind ourselves – and occasionally be reminded – that it’s not all about us.

 

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The Shining Way to the Kindom of Spirit

Of all my reflections on the topics of spirituality, psychology, and community, this post represents my best effort so far. If I write nothing more from this point, I think I’ve made a meaningful contribution.

But I’ll keep at it anyway.

A few of the “big ideas” that repeatedly make an appearance include the grounding mystery, ego strength, and genuine community. These amount to so much scaffolding providing structure for the more detailed work of clarifying what’s really going on for each of us – and for all of us.

My diagram depicts this scaffolding on the image of a grapevine plant, with its deep roots, outreaching stem and leaves, and the berry cluster announcing its ‘self-actualization’ or, as we might say, its raison d’être (reason for being).

The terms arranged along the vertical axis name specific accomplishments, intentions, and virtues which are central to our own journey of self-actualization as human beings.

My returning reader knows that by ‘self-actualization’ I am not referring to some kind of elite individual attainment of miraculous powers and supernatural abilities, but rather to the process whereby our deepest nature is gradually awakened and fully expressed.

The Great Process of our universe, with the emergence of life and its increasingly complex networks of mutuality and interdependence, has brought us at last to the brink of what I call genuine community. I will even boldly designate this as its ultimate aim: sentient, self-conscious agents living in creative and inclusive fellowship.

But how can we finally get there? With the advent of self-conscious agency, evolution has given the fulfillment or frustration of this aim over to us. It’s our choice now whether or not we will connect, for good or ill.

This awareness has long been the inspiration behind the spiritual wisdom traditions of our world cultures.

In this post we will explore what I have elsewhere named the Shining Way, referring to that bright path of deeper insights and higher truths, by the light of which humans can find their way to fulfillment and genuine community. There are many places along the way where we can get snagged and hung up, and in other posts I have analyzed the causes and consequences of these common neuroses. They all tend to culminate in the formation of convictions which lock our minds inside boxes (like thought cages) that help us feel secure and certain about things.

Here, however, I will leave pathology aside and clarify instead the key elements of the Shining Way itself. Each of us can use this description as a kind of mirror on our own life experience: How true is this of me? Where am I still growing? Where am I hung up?


Faith

This term is not to be confused with the set of beliefs, values, and practices that characterize a given religion – for example, the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, or your personal religion. Its deeper etymology reaches far below such surface expressions of religious life and into the place where consciousness simultaneously descends and expands beyond our personal identity as self-conscious agents.

Underneath and supporting ego are the mind and body, or in more technical terms a sentient nervous system and its host organism. The body metabolizes matter for the energy it needs, and this energy is used in part to electrify nerve circuits and brain networks that support our conscious experience of sensing, thinking, feeling, and willing. There is an obvious dependency of ego on mind, of mind on body, of body on matter – and as quantum science confirms, of matter on energy – all of which comprises what I name the grounding mystery.

Faith is our capacity for letting go of ego preoccupations in order to center our mind, calm our body, and simply relax into being. Those preoccupations tend to tangle us up in worry, frustration, disappointment, and fatigue. In letting go of them, at least for a few moments, we can rest back upon the deeper support of existence itself.

In ancient languages faith derived from the root meaning “to trust,” in the sense of releasing control in grateful acknowledgment of the present providence (personified in many religions as a provident presence) of reality.

Integrity

When ego can develop upon a stable foundation of faith, our personality is able to organize around its own autonomous center. Integrity is a word that means “one, whole” in the way a complex system holds together in functional harmony. Certainly this has a clear moral significance, referring to consistency in judgment and behavior across dissimilar ethical situations.

As we’re using the term here, however, integrity is even more a psychological achievement indicating a well-integrated personality. Our inner life is stable and centered (by virtue of faith) in a condition called ego strength. If ego is our centered identity in engagement with the social world around us, its strength is a virtue of how effectively our internal impulses, motives, feelings, and opinions are “held together” in a coherent and harmonious sense of self.

Empathy

You will have noticed in my diagram that the three “inner” virtues of the Shining Way are not connected in a simple linear manner. This is because our third element, empathy, is a capacity made available only to the degree that a unified sense of self allows us access to our own human experience. It helps to imagine faith and integrity as providing a calm transparency to the “atmosphere” of our inner life, which mediates a clear vision of how experiences of all kinds make us feel.

As a human being you have experienced love, frustration, failure, joy, longing, confusion, loneliness, pain and loss, among many other feelings. Notice that we are not speaking exactly of external circumstances or objective events, as much as how those circumstances and events made you feel inside. Each of us has a unique threshold of sensitivity and tolerance, along with our own set of beliefs and expectations that serve to spin meaning around our experiences. Some of us may be more sensitive or tolerant than others, but nevertheless we all know what love, longing, or loss feel like.

Empathy literally refers to the inner (em) experience (pathos) of being alive. Importantly, it is not (yet) our sensitivity to the suffering of another, which is called ‘sympathy’ (sym = with or alongside) in Greek and ‘compassion’ in Latin. And while modern Western psychology defines empathy as compassion with an added component of cognitive understanding as to what another person is going through, it is actually an intuition rooted in the depths of our own human experience.

Compassion

Only one deeply in touch with her own human experience, who has contemplated his personal experiences of life, can reach out with understanding to another who is undergoing a similar experience. With compassion, the Shining Way opens to the realm of relationships and to the inviting frontier of genuine community.

Our sensitivity to what others are going through is directly a function of our own intimacy with attachment and loss, love and loneliness, success and failure, joy and sorrow. Such empathetic self-understanding will frequently motivate us to help another in distress, confusion, or bereavement. To step into their experience with them (sym+pathos, com+passio) for the sake of providing companionship, encouragement, comfort, or consolation in their need strengthens the human bond on which genuine community depends.

Just a note on the choice of the term compassion over sympathy, even though their respective etymologies mean the same thing. In ethical discourse, sympathy has over time developed more into the idea of emotional resonance – “I feel sad because you feel sad” – while compassion has evolved the aspect of motivated behavior – “I am sad with you and want to help you feel better.”

Goodwill

Compassion, then, is more than just a desire or willingness to join another person in their suffering. Its intention is to help lessen the pain, provide support, improve conditions, to somehow assist with their healing or liberation. Goodwill is very simply a matter of willing the good, of acting benevolently in the interest of another’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. Whereas compassion is the resonance of feeling we have for someone going through an experience with which we are deeply and intimately familiar, goodwill names the variety of ways that move this feeling into action.

Without the inner clarity that comes by faith, integrity, and empathy, pity instead of true compassion might motivate our charity, but this shouldn’t be confused with what we’re calling goodwill. The “good” that is willed is much more than a tax-deductible donation, or a middle-class gesture at managing a guilty conscience. When we pity another person, we are secretly relieved that we are not in their situation: “I am sad for you.”

Charity in Western capitalist societies has become a way of aiding victims of systemic injustice, without confronting the system itself. In some instances, acting for the greater good can put us into opposition with the traditions, institutions, and authorities who profit from keeping things the way they are.

Fidelity

With goodwill we have at last entered that higher zone of human self-actualization called genuine community. When we who are inwardly grounded and securely centered make compassionate connections with others around us, our benevolent acts of kindness, generosity, advocacy, encouragement, and forgiveness conspire to create what I call the kindom of spirit.

As a kindom, genuine community arises with the awareness that we are all related as sentient and self-conscious agents. Despite the fact that each of us stands in our own separate center of identity – but we should also say precisely because of this – we can see that all of us are very much the same in our deeper nature as human beings. And as a kindom of spirit, we seek the harmony, wholeness, and wellbeing of each one, one with another, and all of us together as one.

Fidelity is faithfulness to the kindom of spirit. By its virtue we dedicate ourselves to strengthening our connections, repairing ruptures, resolving conflicts, fostering creativity, transcending fear, and nurturing our shared aspirations for the liberated life.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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Who Do You Think You Are?

The modern paradigm of medical and mental health has a built-in bias for diagnosis, due in large part to its historical interest in isolating and treating pathology of various kinds in the body and mind. A consequence of this bias is that while we can zero in on what’s wrong or not working properly, our understanding of what constitutes psychic (mind) and somatic (body) wholeness is less developed.

Individual sufferers go to professionals for help, many of them privately hoping that their psychosomatic health and quality of life will be elevated as a result. Instead they find themselves subjected to ‘treatment plans’ designed to suppress symptoms of dis-ease rather than actualize genuine wellbeing.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s in counseling I was surprised – and increasingly more aggravated – by the requirement put on students to choose our guiding theory from among current orthodox protocols of diagnostic psychotherapy. As professional therapists we would need to work closely with insurance companies, with doctors who could prescribe drugs, and (of course) with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is continually inventing more categories to pigeonhole the symptoms of suffering among the general population.

Even then it was obvious to me that a concept of ‘disorder’ must presume some deeper grasp on what ‘order’ (aka health, wholeness, or wellbeing) is, but this was barely discernible in the literature and never explained in the classroom. I began to suspect that some larger conspiracy might be directing our training as students and future professionals in the field. As counselors (and not drug prescribers) we could offer short-term talk therapy for clients, but the real money lay in tying client symptoms to more serious disorders with a basis in neurobiology that could justify pharmaceutical interventions.

Now, I’m not denying that some cases can benefit from a combination of talk and drug therapy – although the trend these days is to get patients through counseling and on open-ended prescription medication plans if their symptoms persist, which in 70% of cases they do. Strong research suggests that this rather abysmal success rate of therapy (of either type or in combination) can be attributed not to the particular protocol used, but to the fact that individual sufferers don’t readily take responsibility in the salvation they seek.

And this, in my opinion, swings back around to a diagnostic paradigm that effectively ignores the person and reduces suffering to symptoms seemingly outside the individual’s choice or control.

If we are to take responsibility in our suffering as well as creative authority in our pursuit of wellbeing, we need psychotherapeutic models that envision us as actively engaged in the construction of both suffering and wellbeing. In a sense, that’s what I am working toward in this blog. So it’s in that spirit that I offer another installment on the question of identity and our human journey.

My diagram contains a lot of terminology relative to the construction of identity, but we’ll step through it in a way that simplifies things considerably. Let’s begin at the middle, where the executive center of identity known as our ego is represented. Ego is how we identify ourselves, as the starring actor in a story we’re continually telling ourselves and others – our personal myth. Every myth has a supporting cast of other actors whose importance in the narrative is a function of their proximal influence on matters concerning our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

Each of these four feeling-needs (referring not to the fact of our being safe, loved, capable, or worthy, but our need to feel we are such) presents itself at a critical period of our development, in this precise sequence, rising upon earlier ones and setting the stage for those coming later. (As is often the case with my diagrams, information should be read organically from the bottom and flowing or growing upward.)

The four feeling-needs further organize into two broader concerns connecting to ego’s need to belong (or fit in) and be recognized (or stand out) – the two polar drives in our construction of identity. Belonging answers our need to feel safe and loved; recognition satisfies our need to feel capable and worthy.

You can appreciate their polarity in the way they pull against each other: the effort to gain approval (a type of social recognition) often involves a willingness to give up some anonymity (a type of social belonging). Conversely, if our first priority is to hold a position of acceptance (another type of belonging), we will try not to draw undo attention to ourselves (another type of recognition).

In dynamical systems, something called an ‘attractor’ is a recurrent code that draws a system into persistent patterns of organization. In our consideration of the pattern known as personal identity (or the construct of who you are), two polar attractors drive development: at one end is the secure base (an attractor for safety, love, acceptance and belonging), while at the other end is the proving circle (an attractor for personal power, worth, approval and recognition).

Archetypally these correspond to our mother (or mother figure) and father (or father figure), respectively. A number of Freud’s most enduring insights can be liberated from his theory of sexuality and better understood archetypally in these terms instead.

The unique admixture of temperamental predispositions, environmental conditions, and personal life events tends to ‘lean’ our personality more toward one attractor than the other. Even within the range of so-called normal psychology this is the case. A normal well-adjusted personality can value belonging over recognition, or vice versa. The important point is that both attractors and their associated values are critical to our identity and mental health.

What this suggests is that our individual personality can be understood (not diagnosed!) as either security-seeking or esteem-seeking. Identifying more with one doesn’t mean that we have no interest in the other; healthy identity is somewhere in the balance of both. If you happen to value safety and love over power and worth, it may simply reveal that close relationships are more important to you than personal achievements, not that accomplishing things and making progress don’t matter.


You were probably waiting for me to mention this: It can happen that the balance snaps and we get stuck at one pole or the other. Security becomes everything and we end up giving all our energy to pleasing and placating the people we feel we can’t live without. (This is common among children of addicts and victims of abuse.) Or else if we’re caught at the other end, we stay busy trying to flatter and impress others so they’ll esteem us as somebody important and worthy of praise. (This is frequent among celebrities and performers of various kinds.)

The goal of development is to hold the balance and use our stable center of personal identity to leap (or drop) into a larger (or deeper) experience of wholeness and wellbeing. More about that next time …

 

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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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The Shining Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s get back to the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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