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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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Getting Off

Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.

The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.

If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.

This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.

Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.

It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?

The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.

On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.

In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.

Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.

In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.

When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?

But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.

So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!

Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.

Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.

What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.

Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).

Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.

The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.

Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.

This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.

While spirituality is the art of getting off.

 

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Human and Fully Alive

The attraction of any so-called unified theory is in its claim to bring several previously disparate and unreconciled things into a single all-inclusive picture or account. One of my abiding aspirations over the years has been to clarify a unifed theory of human nature, an “anthropology” that doesn’t reduce us to dumb matter or deify us as immortal spirits. Somewhere in between those hopeless abstractions is what we really are – human manifestations of being, or human beings.

Somewhat in the spirit of existentialist philosophy, my interest is not in reductions or abstractions, but rather in the human experience of being alive and somewhere on the path to realizing the potential of what we are and still might become.

If we’re going to figure this out, we have just this one lifetime to do it – however long or short it turns out to be. Extending this project over numerous lifetimes or into infinite time may calm our insecurities to some extent, but with the urgency also suspended it becomes easier to stay in bed and only dream our life away.

In my effort toward a unified theory of human nature and its evolutionary prospects, I offer the above diagram as something of a mandala or “sacred design” to orient our meditation. Its central image is an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, ready to launch into whatever is next. For now, however, it is intended to capture the tensive character of our nature as in a state of perpetual near-release, always becoming and never finally arrived.

Positioned at the cardinal points of my mandala are four attractors, each pulling us into its unique field of possibilities and concerns, as it simulaneously pulls against those opposite to it.

This helps us to quickly appreciate the tension inherent in human nature, seeking some kind of balance between animal instinct and spiritual wisdom, between tribal conscience and personal ambition. A human being strives for survival and longs for wellbeing; seeks affiliation with others of its kind and pursues its own individual achievement.

Jumping into the details of the mandala, we will keep this overall tension in mind as we trace the developmental path that each of us follows on our “hero’s journey.” Necessarily, then, we begin our meditation where each of us begins life: as newborns supported in the rhythms, urgencies, and drives of an animal nature. Our instincts are millions of years deep in the evolutionary design of the body, compelling our searching behavior for what the life-force in us requires: air, water, nourishment, warmth, refuge and loving touch.

This is our “first nature,” referring to what comes first in development as well as what supports everything else from its primal depths.

The prehistory of our species is the long road into Eden, as living forms and nervous systems progressed through the gauntlet of chance, opportunity, catastrophe and extinction. Any theory of human nature, it seems to me, must acknowledge our first nature as essential to what we are – not as some “mortal coil” by which we are temporarily bound, but as a marvel of biological intelligence and our guest pass to the grand ball of our living planet.

Following upward now that lower angle of the bowstring, we come to what first welcomes us to our human adventure: our tribe of family and familiars, a peculiar society comprised of mother and all the others. This is where the social construction project of our “second nature” begins, with the concern of our tribe being to shape the impulses and inclinations of our first nature into something that both reflects and compliments its collective identity.

What I call the moral frame refers to a shared understanding, if not quite universal agreement, of what makes an action “right” and a person “good.” Every tribe has one, and each of us was brought up to follow this code and honor the norms of a moral life. The bonds of attachment that sustained us as newborns gradually expanded and differentiated into a network of tribal affiliations, and it is in this “second womb” of our tribe that our personal identity was forged and fashioned.

If all went reasonably well, we took on the shared wisdom (literally a con-science) of morality that would prompt, censure, and guide our interactions with others.

But it didn’t go entirely without complications. And this reminds us again of the tension in our nature as human beings – following now the shaft of my arrow rightwards to its point. Another aspect of our second nature, of our emerging personal identity, is an individual will that wants us to stand on our own and fulfill our desires.

If our prehistory as a species was a long road into Eden, then the seduction of ego-gratification represents the “fall” of separation consciousness and the loss of our nursery paradise. Many of the mythological accounts of how we got into our present predicament characterize this “tragedy” as the necessary precursor to a more mature, adult, and self-possessed mode of being in the world.

Where it left us was in the middle of two powerful and countervailing forces: a tribal conscience pulling us into conformity with the moral status quo on one side, and on the other a personal ambition to be somebody, to achieve something momentous, and to procure for ourselves the elusive elixir of happiness. This tension – or is it a contradiction? – seems to be built right into our word “ambition,” where two things (ambi) compete for the upper hand: approval and fulfillment, fear and desire, obedience or freedom.

We can get caught here, not fully on one side or the other but suspended in a sticky web of guilt for falling short of social expectations, and self-reproach for giving up on our dreams.

But let’s go back again to that second womb of our tribal identity, and this time take the upper angle of the bowstring to the top cardinal point of my mandala. This is our “higher nature,” commonly confused these days with the glorified and exalted ego, which is really just one way the tension of our second nature can snap, the other being toward a self-negating sense of depravity over never being good enough. What I mean by our higher nature is the liberated life made available to us as we are able to transcend ego and its conflicting motivations to please others and gratify ourselves.

Only as we can drop from our separate center of personal identity and identify with a larger horizon of membership – not just “my tribe” or “our people” or even the human species alone, but with everyone and life itself: the whole shebang – will we finally understand, from experience, that All is One and we are all in this together. The spiritual wisdom traditions are remarkably unanimous in their agreement concerning our place in, and responsibility to, the community of beings that is our universe.

Seeking wholeness, making peace, and promoting the wellbeing of our planetary home circles back to us in the joy of being human and fully alive.

 

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Breaking the Frame

Let’s play a game, called “Breaking the Frame.”

The Frame refers to what defines right behavior and good character for a specific group of people. For each of us, The Frame began to take shape when we were very young and the family was our original group. As we got older and more involved in the world around us, The Frame expanded to include many more group members – most of whom we don’t know by name and will never meet in person.

Our American nation is an obvious example: we all live together inside The Frame of what in America is defined as right behavior and good character.

You should be saying to yourself, “What definition? There is no consensus in the U.S. regarding what makes an action ‘right’ or what makes a person ‘good’.” And of course, you are correct.

In most traditional societies exemplary behavior and character are represented in their deities, heroes, saints, and governmental leaders. For millenniums, not in every society but in the most stable and peaceable ones, a certain lineage of virtue was acknowledged as bestowed by the gods, advanced by heroes, incarnated in saints, and finally manifested in the present day by those in national leadership whose principal charge was to convey divine beatitude to the people.

Well, not so much in America.

Our current president is not godly in any sense – unless god is a glory-seeking, vengeful, and self-righteous megalomaniac (which I think isn’t far off the mark for a lot of evangelical Christians) – and he’s far from being saintly or heroic. If there ever was a lineage of virtue in the United States, Donald Trump and his deputies have completely brought it to ruin.

So the fact that the United States of America doesn’t really have a Frame inside of which we all hold a common understanding of ‘right action’ and a ‘good person’ makes our game a bit more challenging, though not impossible.

Instead of looking around ourselves for extant models of virtue, we’ll need to imagine them for now.

Because The Frame contains a group’s shared understanding of what makes an action “right” and a person “good,” I am using it as a metaphor for morality. I’m arguing that every group, however small or large, monochromatic or multicolored, needs a morality to have any hope of securing a stable and humane fellowship among its members.

To help our game move forward, I will ask you to drop down from the national level of your identity as an American (or whatever nationality you are), to the group membership you currently hold where insiders abide by and aspire to a shared morality together. Your agreement over what makes an action ‘right’ and a person ‘good’ serves to manage your mutual engagements in the interest of genuine community.

You and your fellows are separate individuals with unique identities, and the purpose of morality (The Frame) is to correlate self and world by a common set of values so that what (or who) you identify “as” relates you meaningfully to what (or whom) you identify “with.”

In other words, in identifying yourself “as” an American, you are also identifying yourself “with” other Americans. If you identify yourself “as” white, brown, or black, you are thereby identifying yourself “with” others of the same color. If you identify yourself “as” a Christian, you are ipso facto identifying yourself with other Christians – not with Jews or Buddhists or secular humanists.

It should be clear that identifying yourself “as” something places you inside a corresponding horizon of membership which includes others like you. What may not be as obvious is how this same horizon excludes – or at least ignores, screens out, or neglects – whatever (or whomever) you don’t identify with. If you identify yourself “as” an American white evangelical Christian, then you are also separating yourself from other nationalities, other races, other religions, and even from other sects of your own religion.

These “others” do not belong to your world, and they do not share your Frame. It might even be difficult, if not impossible, for you to acknowledge them as truly good persons who are doing the right things, since good character and right behavior are defined by your morality, in the service of your group.

History provides too many examples of what tends to happen when life conditions become stressful and the insecurity of insiders escalates: psychologically their horizon of membership shrinks until it includes only those with whom they feel safe. All others – even once fellow insiders – are now excluded, condemned, or even attacked.

Conceivably your horizon of membership can be so small as to include only yourself. No one else can be trusted, and you are the only righteous person left on the planet.

This scenario sheds light on what has happened to our American Frame, and why our nation is currently so divided against itself. In better times, perhaps, a diverse group of individuals were inspired to identify themselves as more than what made them different from others. Together they sought freedom, opportunity, and a genuine community that could include different races, both genders, every class, all ages, and any background, under the rule of constitutional law and human rights.

True enough, progress has been slow on more than one of these fronts, with frequent setbacks along the way. Just now, in fact, as The Frame collapses around us, our insecurities are driving us further apart.

In such times as these, “Breaking the Frame” sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be doing. But what I mean by this has nothing to do with discarding your notions of right action and a good person. It is not about destroying The Frame but rather expanding your horizon of membership in order to include more – more others, more differences,  more possibilities, and more reality.

What we call “ethics” can be distinguished from morality in the sense we’ve been using it here, in how ethics moves our inquiry beyond merely personal interests and into transpersonal horizons.

Before you can break The Frame and engage with a larger reality, however, something needs to happen within yourself. If you are going to consciously and ethically participate in transpersonal horizons, you have to stop identifying yourself “as” a person. This doesn’t mean that you forsake your present identity, abandon your roles in society, and renounce who you are.

All you need to do is stop defining yourself by what makes you separate and unique.

This is what mystical-contemplative traditions have been encouraging for thousands of years: drop out of your self-conscious personal identity (ego) and into your deeper nature as a living, sentient being. Let go of your labels, personal ambitions, and persistent concerns. Let thoughts float above you; allow feelings to come and go.

Just give attention to your breath. Sink into your body and rest quietly in the cradle of rhythms keeping you alive in this moment.

After descending to deeper centers of your grounding mystery and coming back again to the surface, you will find that identifying yourself as a living sentient being has enabled you to identify with other living sentient beings. Not only with other Americans, but people from other nations as well. Not just with your race, but all races of humankind. And not with humans alone, but with all species and with every living thing.

The whole web of life has become your horizon of membership.

Inside this expanded horizon of identity, your understanding of right action and what it means to be a good person is radically transformed. The fellowship to which you now consciously belong transcends personal ambitions and even exclusively human concerns.

Earth is your home, life is your community, and the global wellbeing of our planet is the principle inspiring and critiquing all that you do.

Don’t expect those who have pulled inside smaller frames of identity to support your newfound vision. They won’t agree with you because they can’t understand. Your values and intentions make no sense to them.

Just remember that they too live inside your larger horizon, and they need your compassion and kindness as much as the rest – maybe even more.

 

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Living From Our Higher Nature

I would say the major reason why humans suffer so much and project their suffering onto each other is that we don’t understand ourselves. There is indeed a truth that can set us free, but it involves more than just getting our facts straight.

This truth has to do with waking up to what we are.

Let’s begin where much of our suffering is focused – in the cycle of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression we spin through as we chase after whatever society tells us should make us happy. We feel anxious that it might not work out, frustrated when it doesn’t go our way, and depressed after our hopeful expectations lie deflated at our feet. This dual motivation of desiring after something and fearing that it won’t work out or be enough is at the heart of what we call “ambition” (ambi = two or both).

But society doesn’t just say, “Go, be happy.” It provides us with roles to play, scripts to follow, and masks to wear.

Each role connects us to a social system called a role-play, where others are playing their part as well. Connecting in this choreographed way ensures that everyone belongs and has a purpose. The roles, scripts, and masks just mentioned are preserved and passed along by traditions, rituals, and customs. Altogether, these comprise the objective components of morality.

Morality isn’t only around us, however, for it also has a subjective dimension. This includes the values, preferences, aims and beliefs that society downloads to our identity, serving to direct consciousness to those things that will support and promote the ambitions of those in control.

Uh, oh. You can see where this entire illusion folds back and zips into itself, can’t you? As long as we are brainwashed (downloaded) early, we will stay in line, play our part, follow the script, and passionately defend the tribal orthodoxy.

All of what we’ve been talking about so far is what I name our “second nature.” It’s not something we’re born with, but must be constructed for us by those in charge. Our taller powers at home eventually are replaced by higher-ups in society, and for some of us by a higher power in heaven overseeing it all. These are the ones who tell us what to do, what not to do, and how we can secure the happiness we seek.

We can summarize the work of socialization – referring to the process of turning us into well-behaved members of the tribe – in the activities of blocking, shaping, guiding and inspiring. Those last two activities of socialization should, in the best of all possible worlds, help us make wise choices and discover our own creative potential as unique persons.

But sadly and too often this doesn’t happen, largely because the blocking and shaping in those early years ends up crimping down on our “first nature” and filling us with shame and self-doubt. Blocking can be repressive and shaping coercive, with the outcome being that we can’t trust the body we were born with.

Of course, if society happens to be morally puritanical and authoritarian, this is right where they want us. Seeing that we cannot trust ourselves, we have no choice but to put our faith in those who claim to have all the answers.

Our second nature is therefore all about fitting in and going along with the collective role-play currently in session. Each role gives us a place to stand, a script to follow, and a small collection of socially approved, context-appropriate masks to wear. It also connects us to others, but mostly in this more or less formalized way. To “be somebody” is to have the recognition of others in the same play, and we maintain that recognition as long as we responsibly perform our role.

It may sound a bit harsh, perhaps, to characterize our second nature – the traditions, rituals, and customs; the roles, scripts, and masks; our values, aims, and beliefs; tribal morality, personal identity, and our driving ambitions; in short, who we think we are and what the tribe expects of us – as living in a trance, but that’s actually what it is. All of it is made up, put on, and acted out on the cultural stage as if it were the way things really are.

When consciousness is fully invested in this performance, it is under a spell – and most of us don’t realize it!

Dutifully performing our roles and managing our identity, following the rules and doing our part: Sure seems like it’s where everything is supposed to end up, right? What else is there? Maybe we can just quit, fall back into our first nature and live like animals. Or we could foment a revolution by redefining some roles, changing the scripts, and replacing backdrops on the stage. Some of us crave more recognition, as others deserve to be demoted or dismissed from the cast.

But all of that drama is still … well, drama. If all our solutions to the unhappiness we feel have to do with either dropping out, getting promoted, or suing for benefits, we remain fully entranced.

This, by the way, is where many children and most adolescents live, which is why I also name our second nature our “inner child.” It’s the part of us that tries desperately to please, placate, flatter, and impress the taller powers, higher-ups, and god himself in hopes we can get things to go our way.

It’s also where a lot of adults live – not in their higher nature but stuck deep in their insecurity and attachments, caught on the wheel of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression.

The good news is that we don’t have to remain stuck here. The bad news is that our way out will require us to wake up from the trance. Depending on how deeply entangled we are, this breakthrough will come as an insightful epiphany, a troubling disillusionment, or an outright apocalypse – a complete conflagration and end of the world as we know it.

If the blocking and shaping action of our early socialization was not oppressive but provident, it is likely that we were also provided the guidance and inspiration we needed to discover our true talents and potential. We were given roles to play, rules to follow, and beliefs to hold, but they came with a message assuring us of something more beyond the role-play of tribal life.

The spell was a little weaker and the delusion less captivating. Instead of merely performing our roles we we empowered to transcend them.

When we are encouraged to contemplate the higher wholeness of things; when we are challenged to act with the wellbeing of everyone in mind; and when we are free to get over ourselves for the sake of genuine community and the greater good, we are living from our spiritual higher nature.

Fully awake, we have found liberation from suffering. Now we can be the provident taller powers that our children need.

 

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Touching Reality

The true longing of our spiritual life is to touch reality, to connect with what’s really real, and thereby to become more real ourselves: more authentically and fully human. This of course implies that to some extent we are not presently in touch with reality, and maybe not fully real.

According to the spiritual wisdom teachings, each of us suffers in separation from the really real insofar as we are deeply entangled in managing a separate personal identity, called our ego (Latin for “I”).

It might occur to us that extinguishing our separate ego, or preventing its formation in the first place, would make spiritual fulfillment more likely. Numerous philosophies, methods, and techniques have been devised with that end in mind. But they all fail, as they are destined to fail, since the discipline of eliminating the ego is dependent upon the individual’s desire, will, and persistent effort – that is, on the very thing they are setting out to abolish.

Religion is divided on the question of what to do with the ego. If it’s not to be annihilated, perhaps it needs to be rescued. If not snuffed out of existence, should we be concerned for its salvation instead – getting it safely out of this world of suffering and into some immortal paradise beyond?

It rarely occurs to those on the inside of this debate that there may be a third option, a kind of ‘middle way’. Neither destroyed nor delivered, but rather used as the means to what we’re really seeking, which is to touch reality and become more fully human. We’re not talking about using someone else for our own fulfillment, for that would just be another example of glorifying the ego and gratifying its self-centered ambitions.

To understand how and where the ego fits into our spiritual quest for the really real, it’s helpful to know what it is. My diagram is focused on this center of self-conscious awareness, stretching out from there in four directions. We’ll begin at the bottom, curve up to the left, zig to the right, and then curve up again to the top.

It’s important to keep in mind that all four directions (or dimensions of self) are correlated around the ego and only make sense from the vantage point it provides.

Let’s start with your centered sense of being a separate and unique individual. We’ll explore the contents of your identity shortly, but for now I will just ask you to let your awareness drop from that self-conscious center and into the deeper support of your experience in this moment. Underneath and supporting self-consciousness is a sentient nervous system, which is continuously picking up and processing sensory information from your environment and body.

As a sentient being, you sense, feel, and perceive what’s going on around and inside you. Beneath that, however, is the wonderful conspiracy of organic urgencies keeping your body alive. Organs and organ systems, glands and the circulatory paths by which they communicate, and down into the metabolic marvel of bones, tissues, and individual living cells.

And then there’s the physical substrate of matter, providing structure and magnetism for all of those miracles higher up. Inside of matter is the strange quantum realm of energy, which you can’t see or overtly feel, even though it suffuses everything about the physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious being that you are.

You should have noticed how each deeper drop into the grounding mystery of your existence requires that you surrender a little more of what makes you a separate and unique individual.

As your awareness lets go of all those attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that define who you are, you enter the increasingly less personal dimension of what you are. But notice, too, how with each deeper ‘layer’ in the essence of what you are, awareness opens correspondingly farther out to include more of reality. While ego awareness hovers close to your center of personal identity, sentient awareness connects you not only to other sentient beings, but to the entire sensory-physical universe.

All of what we have named so far can be placed under the category of ‘interiority’, inside and beneath the self. This withinness of your life does not belong to your ego, but rather supports it as its grounding mystery. To enter the interior dimension of your life, however, it is necessary to release all of those things that make you separate and special.

Descending by this interior path is one way you can touch reality.

Let’s think more about this “separate and special” person you are. What we summarized earlier as the attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that make you who you are do not refer to physical traits as much as personality traits. What we call ‘identity’ is not something you’re born with, but instead must be constructed in the long process called socialization. By this process your tribe shaped the behavior, implanted the values, and instructed the beliefs that aligned with its collective way of life.

Think about this: To be somebody and have an identity, you must belong to some tribe where your identity is recognized. Yes, you are a human being; but who are you? That’s something we can’t determine until we know the social context in which your identity is held. Your tribe provides you with a role to play, along with the script you’re expected to follow. Of course, there is typically some flexibility built in to allow for your particular talents, interests, and ‘performance style’.

We can distinguish this element of individuality from the social role itself by naming it a ‘mask’, as the face and outward expression in how you play the role. Interestingly, the Latin word persona refers to the mask a theater actor wore during a stage performance, and our words ‘person’, ‘personal’, and ‘personality’ derive directly from it.

Over time and through countless performances, a role begins to fuse with the sense of who you are. No longer is it something you step into for the purpose of engaging a social role-play, for it has by now fully insinuated itself into your behavior, beliefs, and worldview. At this point, the construction project achieves a critical victory, in establishing your character in the story of who you are.

You should note that all of it – mask, role, character, and story – are narrative constructs and have no true reality of their own. However difficult it may be to hear, it should be clear that moving from ego into what makes you a separate and unique person is actually taking you farther away from what’s really real.

But – and now we start our zig across my diagram to the opposite side – this very identity, constructed and ‘put on’ as it may be, is what gives you a place in the role-play and connects you to other persons.

If I remind you now about your own interiority, how deep below and detached it is from the theater stage where you and everyone else are trying to manage your personal lives, it should make sense if we call this third dimension ‘alterity’, referring to “the state of being other; otherness” (from the dictionary).

The interiority of the other is inaccessible to you, and even if they would share as much of their inner life with you as they possibly can, there will always remain something there that is ‘wholly other’ – unknown and unknowable, unspeakable and utterly ineffable. Despite all your best efforts to know them, and given the fullest confession of the other person, their otherness will continue to both confront and elude you.

Even if you were to uncover all their secrets and unravel the many strands of their personal narrative, their grounding mystery within would be absolutely transcendent to you.

This is true not only of other human persons, but of each and every existing thing there is. A grain of sand, for instance, presumably doesn’t possess a living body or sentient mind, but its simple interiority carries an otherness that still confronts you as impenetrable. Yes, you could smash the grain of sand into its component elements, but then you have only created countless more objects, each confronting you with its alterity.

As it relates to the spiritual life and our longing to touch reality, this dimension of alterity confronts us with the mystery of otherness. Reality is always other – even ‘wholly other’ than what we can experience or know, think or imagine.

Having established the fundamental duality between individuals, each hosting a profound interiority and confronted by the impenetrable alterity of the other, we can now make our final swing upward in my diagram. What is reality? It is all of it, together; a higher wholeness; the turning unity (uni-verse) of being and time. We are not speaking here of something else beyond the totality of things, but rather to the consilient (literally “leaping together”) dynamic by which all things are connected, involved, and contribute to the greater whole.

Indeed this greater whole is an emergent property of all those exchanges and transformations working together. When you are able to go beyond yourself, this time not letting go of what makes you separate and unique, but investing it and giving of yourself to the emerging unity of your life with others, you are touching reality in another way again. Not as grounding mystery or absolute otherness, but as genuine community.

Going within to the Ground, going out to the Other, and going up into Unity: these are the three ways we can touch reality and become more fully human.

In my next post we’ll take a look at how these translate into religion, and where religion commonly loses its way.

 

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A Mandala of the Spiritual Life

When you were still in the womb and for some time after you were born, you were entirely dependent on the provident support of your taller powers for the protection, nourishment, warmth, and loving attention you needed to thrive. Being helpless and defenseless, and having no sense of yourself as an “I” in relation to a reality that was “not me,” the effect of your earliest experience was to prompt your nervous system to spontaneously adapt itself to the conditions around you.

This baseline nervous state of your brain and body established your place in the order of things, registering the degree in which those early conditions evoked from you a response of trust or mistrust. A trusting nervous system is calm, open, and engaged with reality, while an untrusting one is anxious, closed, and disengaged. It’s important to realize that at this point you were not really “thinking about” anything or observing discrete “things” outside of “me.” You had no language to make such distinctions, nor a centered ego to provide perspective for rendering judgments.

In the ensuing years of early childhood, with the acquisition of language and thought, and managed increasingly by an emerging center of personal identity (ego), your web of family relationships likely perpetuated and confirmed that primordial attitude of trust or mistrust. In a truly provident environment your taller powers were securely centered in themselves, as they lovingly connected with you. They used their power to shape and influence you in positive ways, but rarely to manipulate or oppress you.

Their love supported and enabled you to get established in your own center of identity without feeling that you had to please, placate, flatter, or impress them in order to win their approval.

Relationships that feature this dynamic balance of power (integrity/autonomy/influence) and love (altruism/intimacy/compassion) possess a strong bond of trust. Without it, no relationship can be healthy or last for long. Your capacity to trust and to be a trustworthy partner is one of the most precious legacies of your infancy and early childhood. Even today as an adult, when other people try to attach themselves to you for the security they need, or try to manipulate you into serving their neurotic cravings for control and self-importance, this capacity to trust keeps you centered, or able to quickly recover when you do get pulled off your center.

My diagram offers what I’m calling a “mandala of the spiritual life,” and in the background is a compass to remind us that your human spirit is an intelligence that seeks wholeness, fulfillment, community, and wellbeing. Regardless of what your early life was like, this spiritual intelligence continues its quest for what is authentic and wholesome. And because no family is perfect and every parent has an “inner child” that is somewhat insecure as a consequence of their early experience, the collective of human cultures from the dawn of history have preserved and handed on the spiritual wisdom we all need.

We ignore this collective wisdom to our peril. Without it, the insecure “inner children” of parents cannot allow their actual children to become grounded and centered in themselves, but instead they manipulate them into serving their own neurotic insecurity. These children, effectively attachments of their parents, never learn to trust, and then proceed to pass this insecurity (and mistrust) into their children – and on it goes.

If the loss of one’s center (literally “missing the mark” in archery) is the meaning of our word “sin,” then perhaps this deep inheritance of insecurity and mistrust through the generations stems back to the “original sin” of those first self-conscious and insecure primates who started the process so many millenniums ago.

The balance of power and love as trust in healthy relationships is among those wisdom principles we can find. As partners stay centered in themselves and use their personal influence (power) to support each other and deepen their relationship (love), the bond of trust grows ever stronger. They are able to be present to one another, to be open, vulnerable, and honest with each other. This is one essential dimension of the spiritual life: living in relationship with others, moving deeper into genuine community.

A second dimension is represented in my mandala as a vertical axis rooted in the ground of inner peace. Your learned capacity for trusting others opened up a place deep within yourself where you can relax into being. A calm nervous system allows you to sink below all the agitations and ambitions of your personal life, into the cradling rhythm of your breath.

It’s likely this creative support of your breathing body is what inspired one of the most widely attested metaphors of the spiritual life (spiritus, ruach, pneuma, prana = breath). Its rhythm of taking in and letting go reveals the inner secret of life itself.

Enjoying inner peace, you can simply let things be; or you can use your creative freedom to bring about necessary change. The spiritual life is neither passive nor active, but engages reality with the understanding that “all is one” and “we’re all in this together.” Such a spiritual understanding allows you to be intentional rather than reactive, to live on purpose and by a higher purpose – higher (and larger) than your personal concerns (ego) and beyond the limited sphere of human interests alone.

With our consideration of inner peace, creative freedom, and higher purpose, we have arrived at the apex of the spiritual life. The mandala might lead you to conclude that coming into your higher purpose breaks past the plane of relationships and its dynamic balance of power and love. Perhaps a “fully self-actualized” human being is someone who possesses supernormal abilities of clairvoyance, teleportation, miraculous powers, and the like.

But in fact, the fulfillment of your spiritual life lies in a near-devotional commitment to love, and to forgive without conditions; to encourage and support others on their life journey; and to be the provident reality they can fully trust.

 

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