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One Life

ego-estrangementEach of us lives inside a box where things make sense, we feel we belong, and the meaning of life is managed. We got here through a long process of socialization as our tribe shaped us into a proper member. Our identity may seem more substantial than that, but actually who I am and who you are is a social construction that has absolutely no validity outside our box. Identity and membership always go together.

Our experience inside the box has both an objective dimension, referred to as our world, and a subjective dimension, affectionately known as our self. Each of us has a self and a world, and our separate worlds periodically click together and overlap in places where our perspectives on reality are in agreement. We also disagree at times, and our disagreements can turn into conflicts – even violent conflicts as we strive to keep our different worlds intact. If my world should lose its credibility, my self is also in jeopardy since each is implied in the other.

Self is my centered experience of having an identity. Everything that is unique to who I am – my fantasies, insecurities, and ambitions; my personal myth (i.e., the story of who I am), secret aspirations, and the records I keep on those who owe me something or deserve a favor – is kept in this inner room of mirrors.

Objectively my world is not boundless, for that would imply it has no closure, and meaning requires closure. Meaning is contained and defined inside a world horizon, and anything beyond my horizon of meaning is meaningless – at least to me, and I’m the only one that really matters. (Of course you do, too, inside your world.)

Try to imagine your box, my box, and the almost countless number of other boxes that comprise the mosaic of culture: each of us trying desperately to defend our ‘truth space’ as we stay connected to (or try to avoid) the others. There’s no denying that we need each other, and that the great project of human culture somehow depends on our ability to get along, but managing the meaning of life is demanding work!

If we were fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family where we could develop our talents and potential and were positively assisted toward the achievement of ego strength, then the transpersonal experiences of communion (an inward mystical path to the grounding mystery) and community (an outward ethical path to the turning mystery) opened us to present reality outside our box. Such experiences are not about enlarging our box or magnifying the meaning of life, but instead they engage us with a present mystery that is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect). It very simply is.

It’s not about “my” security, identity, or significance at this point. Whether it comes to us as a rational observation or a mystical intuition, we are spontaneously aware that All is One; or as an ethical realization, that We’re All in This Together. I am grounded in being itself, a manifestation of the provident universe, and a participant in the higher wholeness of all things. Healthy religion has the purpose of bringing us to this position of centered strength (or personal integrity) so that we can drop inwardly or leap outwardly into the One Life.

I have to insert that qualifier “healthy” in acknowledgement of the fact that religion can also interfere with our progress to the transpersonal mystery of holy oneness. This happens when religion gets hijacked by leaders and other influencers who have failed to progress in their own psychospiritual development. Their insecurities, attachments, ambitions, and convictions have them locked inside a box that, for them, is the way – the one and only way of salvation. Yet it’s not a way at all, but a cul-de-sac, a spiritual death trap, a closed and rigid box.

When religion ordains and institutionalizes the arrested development of such individuals, eventually the orthodox portrait of deity gets twisted and corrupted into a projection of their neurotic personalities. Others under their leadership and influence contract this same sickness, and the entire company can spin into dogmatism, bigotry, violent aggression, or even suicide.

If this sounds like a description of the way things are in the Big Box of our global situation, then we have some insight both into how we got here and where the path of liberation leads. You should know, also, that there are many thousands of others who are presently waking up to the One Life all around our planet, and their percentage of the human population is steadily growing. Perhaps you and I can be instrumental in accelerating the process of awakening, by understanding its unfolding in ourselves and serving its advent in others around us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the current pathology, and then remind ourselves of the way out.

Paul Tillich was one of the most important Christian theologians of the twentieth century, and his one-word assessment of our human condition (in this stuck, sick, and fallen sense) was that we are estranged from ultimate reality, which he named being-itself or the ground of being. Estrangement is defined as the state of being removed or kept at a distance, as in the case where an individual is estranged from his or her family. Along with this separation, then, are attitudes and feelings of distrust, condemnation, shame, and hostility.

Tillich wasn’t implying that human beings are condemned by a god, but that our ‘fall’ into a separate ego has infected our general outlook on reality as something set apart and over-against us, menacing and unfriendly.

This anxious outlook on reality can take hold of a religion, as I mentioned above, but religion isn’t its only victim. Other cultural institutions, most crucially the family where the shaping of our personal identity begins, are also taken over. Whereas the gradual differentiation of a separate identity would normally lead to a stable, balanced, and unified personality under the executive management of a healthy ego, when this process isn’t conducted by a caring and supportive community, our insecurity overwhelms us and we shrink our box to stay safe and in control.

In my diagram above, estrangement is connected with two other terms which correspond to the self and world dimensions of personal identity. The fallen condition of estrangement (pathologically separate from reality) is felt internally as emptiness. Synonyms might be discontent, insatiable craving, and the belief that we are deficient or profoundly defective. Externally we are confronted by absurdity, by the nature of reality as ‘absolutely mute’ – indifferent to our needs, unresponsive, cold and uncaring. Tillich believed that the modern era could be characterized as suffering from a spiritual malady of meaninglessness (as earlier eras had struggled with guilt or death).

The condition of estrangement, then, signals our abrupt removal from unity consciousness – from both the grounding mystery within (instead, we are empty inside) and the turning mystery beyond (instead, the cosmos is absurd). This is when we are especially susceptible to religions that promise to save us from this world and reward us with life everlasting.

Where is our true liberation, then? Not in an other-worldly paradise of some kind – although even in this mythological image there is a kernel of insight, since what we seek is engagement with the present mystery of reality, which awaits us outside our box and on the other side of meaning.

 

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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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Inside-Out

Peace_Joy_LoveThe Great Machine of consumerism is always at work, spinning the gauzy web of illusion that enthralls much of modern consciousness. It persuades us to look outward for the secret to happiness, which today might be contained in a new-and-improved formula of this, tomorrow as an upgraded model of that, next year in some revolutionary medicine coming to market, or the new lease on life promised at retirement. Maybe it’s this sexy thing, or that job promotion.

But it never comes.

Make no mistake: we end up spending or sacrificing what we have to in order to acquire the key that will unlock our truest joy. But now it sits in the garage or on the shelf and under a pile of other keys that have let us down. The problem is, we can never know for sure if the real problem was that we tried too hard, or not hard enough; that we started too late or quit too soon; that the dosage wasn’t quite right, or that we didn’t have things in the right combination. Maybe it’s our own damned fault after all.

And that’s how it works.

It gets going very early, long before we’re old enough to have money in our pockets or sense in our heads. The first trick of the Great Machine of consumerism is to convince us that we are empty inside, that we’re ‘not enough’ and need something else to make us complete and full-filled. We can’t be happy in and of ourselves since, left to ourselves, we are lacking what it takes – whatever it takes to make us happy.

When we find our answer and place our bet, the desperate need that it be the key we’ve been looking for puts upon it an impossible expectation: “Complete me.” For a little while, the novelty and excitement seem to do the trick (this is the second trick of the Great Machine). And if our key to happiness happens to be another person, all our lavish affection is received with equal fervor – particularly if that other person is empty inside and believes she has found her key in you.

But (you know the story) our impossible expectations cannot be realized. Disappointment is inevitable, our frustration mounts, and we grow increasingly anxious as this latest secret to happiness is exposed for the counterfeit it is. The fault, contra Shakespeare’s Cassius, must be in our stars, certainly not in ourselves. So … it’s time to find the real thing.

And off we go.

In the dark wake of our programmed bereavement, many are ready to agree that this so-called ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a misguided pipe dream. Who told us that we always needed a smile on our face and a lift in our spirit? Why do we have to always be of good cheer and turn our frowns upside-down? Let’s just take happiness as it comes, if it comes, along with everything else. If we need to talk with someone or take medication to help us stay in the game, then maybe this prophylactic margin of cynicism (how about we call it ‘realism’?) will keep us from having to suffer … very much.

Of course, you see the real problem, don’t you? It’s neither in the stars (out there), nor exactly in ourselves. The joy we’re looking for cannot be found, because it’s already ours. It is a spontaneous expression of inner peace, of our spiritual release to the grounding mystery of being itself. This ability to simply relax into being and rest in the rise-and-fall of the life process is what we naturally did in our mother’s womb, and for a short time afterwards.

Then we got pulled under the spell of our own emptiness and helplessness, and of our need for a salvation from outside us. Unhooked from our inner peace in this way, the secret to happiness could only be out there. From that moment, the natural inside-out flow of our self actualization got reversed to an outside-in program of gulping consumerism; we were re-hooked, but now to the Great Machine.

The good news – the gospel, dharma, or whatever you want to call it – is that we don’t have to stay under the spell. True enough, we have a choice between a genuine joy arising from inner peace and the cheap thrills (though much of it ain’t cheap) beckoning to us from the TV screen. But when we do choose to turn off the Tube and let our focus sink into the Real Presence of mystery within, we find ourselves resting in a provident universe – from the circling stars in their galaxies overhead to the quantum oscillations of consciousness inside our cells. The still center of this turning magnitude resides right there, in you; and the other one is right here, in me.

When we live out of this center, an inner sense of wellbeing rises and fills us with joy. This is not the fleeting thrill and spasmodic cheer we often mistake for true happiness. Joy is a perennial bloom whose secret source is not outside us, but not exactly inside us, either. A better term would be ‘within’ us – with and in and deep beneath the persons we are pretending to be. Joy is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’, but is rather the lift of being and fullness of life in us, manifesting as us, and flowing through us.

Perhaps it is another name for the human spirit.

Joy, or genuine happiness, is inwardly rooted, deep in the peace of our grounding mystery. We don’t need to look for it because we already have it. Once we realize this – the moment we really get it, our understanding of love makes a radical shift. What had been our lust and longing for what will complete us and make us happy is transformed into an outflow of creative goodwill and selfless generosity.

Because we no longer need something or someone else to make us happy, the deep contentment of inner peace and our spiritually grounded joie de vivre can move us into the world without this complication. We can reach out and give of ourselves with no strings attached, no demand for reciprocity, no expectation of reward.

Love which is as joyously free as that, is a love that can save the world.

 

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The Rupture of Meaning and The Life to Come

Normal everyday operations of your computer at home or work takes into your system a slow accumulation of data in the form of user preferences, security patches and protections, new applications and saved files, internet tracking and downloads – all of which, unless periodically consolidated and cleaned up, will end up oppressing your computer’s memory capacity and slowing its processing speed. Everything gets encumbered and takes longer to respond as your poor computer is trying its best to coordinate all those bits and bytes while still following your commands.

Assuming an adequate operating system is buried somewhere under all that code, what needs to happen is a periodic adjustment where files can be discarded or compressed, programs can be updated to run more efficiently, and that accumulated weight of junk data can be scraped away like barnacles from the hull of a ship. Of course it’s always a good idea to sweep your system for malware (worms, bugs, viruses, and spyware) since that stuff can be terminal (pun noted).

As a metaphor of life, this need to regularly clean out and update your computer system translates directly to the theory of constructivism. This theory holds that human beings are meaning-makers and, further, that meaning is in our minds, not in reality. As distinct from the physical environment where we live, our “world” consists in the overlay of values, associations, and references that our minds spin like a spider’s web across and beyond the given facts of existence. The picture we get from constructivism, then, is of multiple layers (or worlds) of meaning that human beings spin around themselves as persons, partners, families, teams, organizations, tribes, societies, and cultures.

Let’s briefly explore this construction of meaning as it advances across an individual lifespan. This will prepare us to better understand the life transition that I name the “midlife reset,” when this accumulated meaning ruptures and our mental system needs attention.Life StagesThe above diagram illustrates a human lifespan, represented by a magenta-colored arrow arcing from left (past) to right (future). Consistent with a more general theory I’ve been developing, depending on where you are in the lifespan, the segment of time on your left also corresponds to deeper evolutionary layers of your “operating system,” while the segment on your right signals possibilities (and new layers) still to come online.

In the womb and following our birth, individual consciousness is completely “embodied,” which is to say that it is fully immersed in the animal urgencies essential to staying alive. It will be many months before we are capable of thinking about our experience – using words, formulating thoughts, making abstractions, and drawing conclusions. In those earliest days and months we are responding to life as it happens, intent all the while on the degree in which the provision of reality matches the urgency of our need.

The word “passion” derives from the same root as “passive” and is related to “patient,” referring to one who is in a basically receptive and reactive attitude with respect to what’s going on. Our passions (or to use the more modern term, our emotions) have evolved around the challenge of situational adaptation, giving us an ability to meet external objects and events with an attitude that befits the situation and will motivate an adaptive response from us. Desire/Hope, Despair/Sorrow, Disgust/Anger, and Distress/Fear are the four powerful emotional programs that simultaneously simplify and complicate our lives.

You’ll notice that central to my diagram and pivotal to the turning arc of time through the lifespan is what I’m calling “faith.” This shouldn’t be confused with a religion’s orthodox collection of truth statements, or doctrines. Here faith refers to something much deeper and much more important than doctrines; it is the individual’s primal mode (or mood) of being, carried in the nervous system as a resting state of basic trust and openness to reality. And since the nervous system is not digital (“on or off”) but analog (“more or less”), each of us embodies an existential mood located somewhere on the continuum between very secure (grounded, calm, trusting, composed) and very insecure (unsettled, restless, wary, anxious).

It should be obvious that an individual’s foundational mood or mode of being will be determined to a great extent by the nature of his or her early life experience. A hospitable womb and nurturing home environment will elicit more positive passions (confidence, joy, hope, optimism) and help to set a mood of resting assurance that is open and trustful. Negative events such as neglect, privation, abuse or abandonment will have the opposite effect, closing the nervous system against reality for the sake of survival. This passion-faith axis is where the individual’s general outlook on life is set, as happy, depressed, hostile, or phobic.

Farther along the arc of development brings the activation of a more cognitive (thoughtful, intellectual, rational) approach to things. Reason is about causality, relation, intention, and purpose, and with this capacity, significantly assisted by the acquisition and growing mastery of language, our mind goes to work constructing meaning. A key insight of constructivism, as already mentioned, is that meaning is a product of the mind rather than inherent to reality. What is and what happens are the givens of reality; what it means depends on a mind to ask questions and come up with answers.

We construct meaning under the supervision and guidance of our tribe, and great care is taken so that our individual worldview is congruent with the collective worldview of our primary group. The intended outcome is a deep and broad agreement between our minds, an agreement that insures a conservative advancement of the larger cultural heritage wherein our identities are mutually defined and managed.

We are expected to graduate through a series of life accomplishments, completing each assignment at the right time and in the proper order. Lollipops, gold stars, ribbons, trophies, certificates, diplomas, degrees, bonuses, promotions, licenses, property, real estate, social status, and finally dependents of our own that we will support and shape into “one of us” – all along the way we are making agreements, constructing meaning, and loading our operating system with more data. It is generally true that the first half of life is oriented outward in pursuit of accomplishments that our tribe insists are critical to our success, happiness, and good standing in the community.

And then something happens. Our system takes longer and longer to boot up. Our decisions (like key-commands) get bogged down in lag time. Even more concerning, the pursuits and accomplishments that had previously inspired our personal commitment and sacrifice feel increasingly like an exercise in futility. This is a crisis of meaning, and its principal symptoms – as reported in memoirs, case studies, and popular literature – are feelings of emptiness and disorientation: Nothing (or very little) seems to matter, and it feels like everything is reeling off course.

Welcome to the Midlife Reset.

This rupture in life’s meaning forms a fracture that typically reaches down into the foundations of security. Consequently for many this amounts to a “faith emergency” where reality no longer feels provident or trustworthy. To a once-confident theist it can seem as if god has vanished into nonexistence, leaving him or her utterly bereft and forsaken. A percentage of them will conclude (accurately) that the god they believed in never really did exist as they assumed, that he was a figment of their imagination, a mere figure of myth, a construct of the mind, a convention of orthodoxy. This realization leads some into a disenchanted atheism, others get pulled into a desperate and dogmatic fundamentalism, while a few step through the veil in search of a relevant spirituality “after god” (post-theism).

The shift or life transition pressing in at this point of the Midlife Reset was interpreted by C.G. Jung as a radical reorientation, moving through the harrowing yet necessary phase of disorientation, from an outward investment of consciousness to an inward reorientation on something more esoteric (“inner”) and reality-based. We can characterize this as a breakthrough from a life dedicated to worldly accomplishments, to a new life in quest of genuine fulfillment – for the path that will lead to a more grounded experience, a more authentic presence, greater well-being, and a deeper love for life.

Ultimately this is preparation for engaging life in a more “soulful” way, less concerned with proving ourselves and getting ahead, than simply being ourselves and sinking deeper into the grounding mystery of existence. Wisdom seeks to reconnect to the faith that may have gotten buried beneath the accumulated “junk data” of convictions, beliefs, and opinions. In taking up a practice of mindful meditation, physical discipline, or creative art we can successfully clarify attention to the degree that our practice becomes a selfless vessel of spiritual life.

If reason is involved in meaning-making, then wisdom is what we come to know about life after our assumptions, preferences, judgments, and expectations have been dropped or stripped away. It’s not that we stop thinking about or responding passionately to what’s going on around us. Putting a judgment on something (or someone) and boxing it up in meaning may be a way we can learn something about ourselves, but the neatly labeled package only separates us from what is really real and unique in each situation. Wisdom picks up essential lessons from life without having to haul along the heavy megabyte files containing countless bits of nonessential or even corrupt (exaggerated, embellished, or misremembered) information.

My diagram might suggest that a more soulful, spiritually grounded, and liberated life is only available to us in our later years. But in fact the turning-point of what I’ve called the Midlife Reset can come at just about any time. Presumably (in keeping with my theory) it coincides with an accumulated critical mass of irrelevant meaning (junk data), which would make an early incident very unlikely and much less common. It’s also possible that it never comes: the conditions are right for awakening to occur but the individual “successfully” resists, or else reverts to old certainties with a new-found devotion.

In the end, perhaps the most desirable outcome is that we are able to rest again in the provident mystery of reality.

 

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Excavating Christmas

Let’s get out our shovels. We are searching for the true meaning of Christmas – this season that rushes upon us and is as quickly gone again.  Our quest will proceed on the analogy of an archeological dig.

Christmas ExcavationBefore even breaking the surface, one layer in the meaning of Christmas is commercial. Earlier each year, it seems, retailers are pumping the music, putting out their holiday sets, and giving us fair warning that our chance at 60% off is “this weekend only.”

Christmas is a celebration of materialism. It is time to buy – before it’s too late. All the glitzy and gaudy trinkets, the Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers, are brought out of storage to get us in the mood. Our credit card balance after the holidays is the lingering reminder that we got bamboozled once again.

Just barely under the surface of this layer of Christmas commercialism is the figure of Santa Claus. He’s the one we’re waiting for, hoping he’ll bring us what we really want this year. Or maybe he’s the one we’re pretending to be as we swipe to satisfy the material cravings of our children.

“Santa Claus” is an informal rendering of Saint Nicolas, which suggests that this genius of package delivery logistics is somehow (or once was) a religious notable. His backstory in folk tale and legend tells of his charitable endeavors in bringing cheer to orphans and children whose families couldn’t afford the luxury of toys.

The giving of gifts brings us down yet another layer in our excavation of Christmas. We need to be reminded every year that it’s not the gift but the thought and love behind the gift that really matters. Back in the day, according to the Bible story, wise men from the east brought Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Narrative detail would probably be more important to us had Christianity remained anchored in its foundational myths. As it happened, story gave way to theology, and abstract doctrines took over from the concrete narratives that shaped the earliest Christian experience.

Stories are arranged in a system called a mythology; doctrines are arranged in a system known as orthodoxy. Stories appeal to the imagination, doctrines to the intellect.

At the doctrinal level, Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), the sinful condition of humanity, the “kenosis” or self-emptying of God in becoming human. The vehicle of this incarnational miracle was a virgin, whose status as “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer) made this a central doctrine not only for Roman Catholics but Protestants as well.

Inside of story and deep along its root-line is metaphor, which is a way of representing something that eludes our conceptual grasp. Once the metaphor is offered up by creative imagination, our minds get busy weaving a meaningful pattern of storylines around it.

Stories of immaculate conceptions and virgin births can be found across the cultures. Early Christian storytellers were not the first to ponder this metaphor as a kind of doorway or passage from eternity into time. It’s important to know at this point that eternity does not mean “everlasting” or “unending,” as it is popularly (mis)understood today. Instead of “without end,” eternity refers to what is “without beginning.”

Rather than thinking of eternity as an endless extension of time, or as another realm of existence separate from this one, imagine time as we (think we) know it moving like a horizontal stream in a “forward” direction. Eternity would be represented as a perpendicular line drawn straight down along the vertical axis. The place of this intersection is not itself part of the time-stream, but always NOW. It’s not that this present moment comes to us from the future, and neither does it recede into the past. It is timeless.

Contemplating Mary and the universal metaphor of the Virgin Mother, we can begin to appreciate her value to mystics everywhere, by whatever name she is called. She is a literary symbol, a mythical archetype, and – in a celebrated paradox – the spiritual embodiment of those qualities that must be nurtured if you are to be fully present to the mystery. What qualities?

Emptiness. The opposite of emptiness is not fullness, but preoccupation. Instead of relaxing the boundary of attention and expanding your capacity for awareness, your mind becomes increasingly cluttered. Real presence is available as you are able to drop assumptions (from the past), release expectations (for the future) and surrender all distractions.

Humbleness. From the root-word humus, “humble” and its cognate “humility” carry the idea of being fully grounded. Not exalted or “full of yourself,” not inflated or disengaged from what’s going on, but fully here and now. Humility is a position of greatest strength, balance, and resilience. In the present moment you are grounded in the really real.

Faithfulness. Having little or nothing to do with orthodox beliefs, faith refers to the act of entrusting yourself to the providential support of reality in this moment. Its opposite is not doubt, but conviction, which is not about opening up to mystery (as faith is) but closing down on meaning.

Creativity. The creative life is not about “making” something of yourself or accomplishing great things in the eyes of others. You give a lot of attention and time to making money, making progress, making up, and making do. Creativity doesn’t flow along the conventional channels of effort, work and accomplishment. Instead it breaks into time through the portal of this present moment.

I’m suggesting that while in the deeper layers Christmas might seem like it’s about something that happened a long time ago, the early Christian myth-makers were not writing history, doing theology, or just making stuff up. The Story is a creative composition, to be sure, but it’s more an exercise in mystical contemplation than anything else.

Christmas is an invitation to get to a place where you are empty, grounded, and open to the real presence of mystery. Only then – when you are centered, quiet and receptive within – can the creative life truly begin.

The revolutionary life of Jesus came through the contemplative preparation of Mary. It still does.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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