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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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The Wheel of Fortune

Our noses are pressed so far into the business of everyday life, that we rarely push our chair away from the desk far enough to take in the bigger picture. The demands on our time and attention leave us too exhausted at the end of the day to contemplate anything “bigger” than a glass of wine, online distractions, or the prospect of a decent night’s sleep.

We might diagnose our times as suffering from “commotion fatigue,” referring not just to the disturbances happening around us, but even more to the agitation and upheavals going on within. If you were to spin a raw chicken egg on the table, stop it momentarily with your finger and then pull away, the still-spinning insides will get it moving again without your assistance. It’s like that. The inner vortex of frustration, irritation, and anxiety has us spinning even when to all outward appearances we are sitting quietly alone. Eventually all this inner commotion wears us out and leaves us depleted.

Popular forms of therapy include sedation, either self-administered by the glass or in the form of prescription medication, mental distraction, entertainment, or saying “no” to some of the things crowding in on us. Less often do we consider the benefits of opening the window of perception to a reality larger than the set of concerns we are trying to manage.

If asked What’s going on? our answer will likely be limited to the stuff that’s on our personal plate. But, of course, there is much, much more going on than only that.

Getting a sense of our place in the grand scheme of things could provide us with the perspective we need to distinguish between what really deserves our attention and what matters less. If you don’t know where you are, anything might offer the clue you’re looking for; and without a sense of the whole, any clue is as good as another.

Most cultures have – or at least had at some point in the past – a grand-scheme picture of being and time which serves to situate human existence and the individual’s life journey. While this picture is not identical across the cultures and historical periods, for the most part its major components form a constant pattern – something like a transcultural mandala of our species. In this post I’ll adopt a name commonly used for it: The Wheel of Fortune.

Religious myths represent our first efforts at contemplating the Wheel of Fortune. Much later, scientific theories worked out the picture in a more impersonal and abstract language. Myth and theory are really just two ways of approaching the same mystery, one looking through the screen of personality, and the other with this screen methodologically removed. One sees intentionality behind and throughout reality, while the other is committed to regarding it all as a marvelous accident, devoid of purpose or final goal.

Religion positions intelligent volition at the start, center, and end; science lets mindless chance evolve over inconceivable intervals of time and space. The plain fact, which neither one can ignore, is that conditions have indeed provided for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-awareness in the universe. By intention or by accident?

Is it legitimate for human beings to ask why we are here – to search out our purpose, deciphering clues to our possible fulfillment and responsibility to the whole? Or are we limited only to asking how we got here – the random causality leading up to our arrival over countless eons of time? Religious myths offer revelations into the provident intelligence behind everything. Scientific theories offer explanations that make reality intelligible, but only to us.

It’s helpful to remember that these two storytelling enterprises, religion and science, are contemplating the same reality. Whether it uses metaphorical archetypes or metalogical algorithms in its preferred narrative, one doesn’t have to be right and the other wrong. They can both be right (or wrong), but from different angles of approach.

That is to say, the Wheel of Fortune is a shared fascination of both religion and science, and both historically have been interested in understanding the big picture and our place in the universe. Each component of the Wheel can be represented mythologically or theoretically, as we’ll see.

The cosmic order issued from the preconditions of chaos, personified in myth as a monster (e.g., the serpent Tiamat or the dragon Leviathan) whose body enveloped the primordial stuff of existence. By the sword or command of a god its body was opened up to release this energy and then subsequently dissected into the sky, earth, sea, and underworld.

According to scientific theory, this primordial state was a singularity of infinite potential that exploded outward in expanding waves of energy that quickly crystallized into the elements of matter. Hydrogen and helium fused first to become the center of nascent stars, where stellar nucleosynthesis proceeded to form the heavier elements of outlying matter and solar systems.

According to both narratives, the energy of chaos is paradoxically the ground of existence. While both myth and theory depict the decisive event as having occurred at the beginning of all things, the chaos, whether divided and portioned, or expanding and transformed, continues even now to fuel the creative process. In fact, the creation or ‘big bang’ of our universe wasn’t just an event in the distant past, but is presently ongoing.

Cosmic order continuously arises by the dismemberment of the dragon, by the out-pouring differentiation of chaos into the relatively stable forms of matter.

What we are calling the ground of existence, then, refers to the spontaneous uprising of energy into matter, of matter into organism, of organic life into sentience, and of awareness into egoic self-awareness. The ground is not outside of these, but deeply internal to each existing thing.

For a self-aware human being, the grounding mystery is accessed by descending within, through the centers of personal identity (ego) and a sentient nervous system, from which threshold consciousness releases to the organic rhythms of the animal body. Unconscious matter and (deeper still) quantum chaos support everything from still farther down/within, but awareness can only contemplate these ineffable depths from the drop-off of its own center.

The Wheel of Fortune’s upward swing follows the rise of cosmos (order) out of chaos, a coming-into-existence (genesis) of all things. To exist is to ‘stand out’ of this purely potential state, taking form and finding a place in the grand scheme. It is happening all the time; or we might also say, its happening is the very definition of time.

Religious myth and scientific theory are both narrative constructions by which human minds have contemplated the mystery of a provident universe. Whether we ask why we are here (an inquiry into purpose and destiny) or how we got here (exploring causality and evolution), we are seeking to understand our place in the whole.

But the Wheel continues to turn, and as it swings downward this cosmic complexity begins to come loose at the seams. In the myths we hear of the breakdown of order, a worldwide deluge, the fall into mortality and the collapse of virtue, an apocalyptic catastrophe – all archetypes, once again, of what we can perceive going on around us in countless small and larger ways.

Because it looks through the veil of personality, religion sees intention, purpose, and will operating behind things. If gods and heroes are the agents in the Wheel’s upturn, on its downturn the myths feature devils and anti-heroes who conspire in the universe’s unraveling.

Science names this demonic intention toward disorder entropy, which refers to the tendency or “law” that pulls complexity down toward more stable arrangements. Complex systems require more energy to hold together and they function relatively far from equilibrium.

Our brains, for instance, are made of material nerve cells capable of conducting electrical impulses, forming circuits and networks of interaction that give rise to consciousness. Consciousness itself is a highly complex process and inherently unstable; it is dynamic and not static. Entropy is experienced as mental fatigue, and as the brain loses energy its functions collapse to lower, slower, and more stable states.

From a vantage-point higher up in the organizational complexity such as a personal ego, this downward pull toward stability threatens existence and will eventually bring about its end. On the Wheel of Fortune this is where reality is perceived not as the supportive ground of existence but rather as the abyss of extinction – the dragon once again, but now in its aspect as world-devourer and ultimate solvent of forms. The pouring-forth of genesis has its counterbalance on the Wheel in kenosis (from Greek, to empty out).

In the language of science, chaos is not only the quantum field that gives rise to the physical universe. It is also a dark sea of probability and indeterminate fluctuations that is quite literally nothing, in that it has no objective existence of its own. The very act of measuring these fluctuations determines whether they show up as particles or waves, but their behavior is intrinsically unpredictable. A methodological detachment of our research intention from the supposed object of study, which is how science proceeds above the quantum level, is just not possible down here.

Not only do all the qualifications of the Newtonian universe dissolve into nothingness as we approach the quantum field, but even the sacrosanct division of mind and reality folds in upon itself.

Thus the Wheel of Fortune turns – not one time only, but again and again in unceasing revolution. And not only at the highest level, either, where the whole thing turns as the mystery of our universe, but in every quarter, niche, and speck. The great uprising of matter into life, of life into sentience, and of sentience into the self-conscious ego reading these words right now, is circling back around to begin again.

 

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Spiritual Intelligence

Spiritual intelligence (SQ) has nothing to do with religious orthodoxy, how much you know about metaphysics, or whether you possess super-normal abilities like yogic flying, seeing into the future, or bending spoons with your mind. Maybe it’s because I can’t do any of those things, that I define spiritual intelligence without appealing to special gifts. As I use the term, spiritual intelligence refers to our largely uncultivated virtue of consciousness which enables us to experience the depth and unity of existence.

This mode of consciousness is uncultivated not because it is buried in esoteric metaphysics or requires years of intensive meditation to develop, but rather for the comparatively more simple reason that our attention is tied up with other things. Specifically with things having to do with the construction, maintenance, and promotion of our personal identity, also known as ego.

But lest we think that any hope of awaking spiritual intelligence depends on our success in beating down, cancelling out, or otherwise eliminating ego consciousness, it’s imperative to understand that our spiritual awakening requires ego strength, not its diminishment.

A healthy ego is energetically stable and emotionally balanced, serving to unify the personality under an executive center of self-control. Because so many things can compromise the achievement of ego strength – early trauma, childhood abuse, a dysfunctional home environment, chronic illness – many of us end up somewhere on the spectrum of ego pathology, as what is generally called a neurotic ego.

Characteristics of this condition include insecurity, anxiousness, compensatory attachments, binary (either/or) thinking, inflexible beliefs (convictions), and difficulty trusting oneself, others, or reality as a whole. Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals who struggle in this way are often attracted to religions that insist on our sinful condition, our need to be cleansed or changed, and that promise a future glory for the faithful.

As I said, while only a small percentage of us are completely incapacitated by ego pathology, all of us are faced with the challenge of working through our hangups and getting over ourselves. In what follows, I will assume a sufficient degree of ego strength, enough to provide a stable point from which we, by virtue of an activated spiritual intelligence, are able to drop beneath and leap beyond the person we think we are.

My diagram presents a map of reality, along with the different ways that consciousness engages with it. The nested concentric circles represent the various horizons corresponding to distinct evolutionary stages in the formation of our universe. Thus the largest horizon, that of energy, was earliest and also includes all the others, as they represent its further (and later) transformations.

Energy crystallized in material form, physical complexity gave rise to life (organic), the life process gradually evolved abilities of detection, reaction, perception, and feeling (sentience), which after a long journey eventually developed the faculty of self-conscious awareness (egoic). This is the transformation which is heavily managed by our tribe, in the construction of personal identity and moral agency.

Identity is a function of what we identify as, and what, or whom, we identify with. Personal identity will always be located inside a social membership of some sort, where the individual identifies as “one of us,” and in turn identifies with other insiders and their common interests. The tribe shaped our emerging self-conscious awareness so that we would fit in, share our toys, wait our turn, and not rock the boat.

Our life has meaning by virtue of the stories that form our character and weave personal experience into the larger patterns of social tradition and cultural mythology. If we assume that the construction of a secure identity is the end-game of human development, then this is where we will stay.

Things can get complicated here because some tribes need their members to fervently believe that this way is the one and only way. Everything from religious orthodoxy to consumer marketing is dedicated to making sure that individuals are fully invested in “me” (identify-as) and “mine” (identify-with). As long as they can stand convinced that the tradition holds their key to security, happiness, and immortality, members who are under the spell of a consensus trance will be ready to sacrifice (or destroy) everything for its truth.

The global situation today is compelling many a tradition to pull in its horizon of membership, so as to include only those who possess certain traits or have surrendered totally to its ideology.

And yet, because human beings do harbor the potential for spiritual awakening, any effort to cap off the impetus of their full development will end up generating a spiritual frustration in the individual, which will ripple out from there into the membership as discontent, suspicions, and conflicts arise.

My diagram illustrates personal identity (ego) as occupying the center of everything and sitting at the apex of evolution, where consciousness bends back on itself in self-conscious awareness. As long as the individual is fully wrapped up in the adventures of Captain Ego, the rest of reality – that vast depth and expanse which are essential to what (rather than who) we are – goes unnoticed.

Underneath and roundabout our self-absorbed condition is the present mystery of reality. As the Polynesian proverb goes: Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.

In reality, our existence is the manifestation of a grounding mystery (or Ground) which plunges deep and far below that little outpost of self-conscious awareness at the surface. This ground of being will not be found outside the self but only within, for the deep structure of reality itself is present also in us. Underneath and supporting ego consciousness is a sentient nervous system. Beneath and upholding that is the living organism of this body, rising gently in waves of vital rhythm. Still farther down – and, remember, deeper into – the life process are the crystalline lattices of matter. They in turn bind up and dissolve again into the vibrant cloud of quantum energy.

You’ll notice how the ever-deeper release of our meditation opens to us an experience of ever-greater capacity, the essential depths and fullness of what we are as human beings. Notice, too, that we don’t have to exert a vigorous discipline on the ego in order to get it out of the way. We simply need to let go, so that consciousness can be released from its surface conceit of personal identity and drop into the ineffable (wordless and indescribable) mystery of being-itself.

This is one aspect of an awakened spirituality: We experience the internal depths of all things by descending into our own. Everything below that magenta horizontal line, then, is deep, down, and within – not just of our own existence but of existence itself.

Above the line is out, around, and beyond the center of ego consciousness – beyond who we think we are. As we go down, then, awareness is simultaneously opening out to the turning unity of all things. The horizon of personal concerns gives way to a more inclusive sphere of sentient beings. As we identify as a sentient being, we also identify with all sentient beings.

This down (within) and out (beyond) shift of consciousness is what awakened Siddhartha’s universal compassion; he understood directly that suffering (pain, striving, frustration, and loss) is the shared condition of sentient beings everywhere.

Continuing in this down-and-out fashion, the descent of awareness into the organic rhythms of our body takes us to the still-farther horizon of all living things. And within/beyond that is the horizon of matter in motion, the revolving cosmos itself, which finally surrenders to the quantum energy cloud where this whole spectacle is suspended. So at the same time as consciousness is descending into the ground of being, it is also ascending through the system of all things, the turning-together-as-one (literally ‘universe’). Inwardly we come to experience the full capacity of our being, as outwardly we transcend to the awareness that All is One.

These are not logical deductions, mind you, but spontaneous intuitions of our spiritual intelligence. It sleeps in each of us, waiting for its opportunity to awaken and set us free.

 

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Stepping Back For the Big Picture

beyond-egoFrom time to time it’s important to take a step back from the detail work of theory-building in order to catch hold of the big picture of what you’re doing. I’ve offered up some wide-ranging ideas on such topics as consciousness, spirituality, post-theism, and human self-actualization, and now I’ll try to bring together the major sight lines of a larger vision.

Backing up conceptually as far as we can brings us to the origins of our present universe. Contemporary cosmology (study of the cosmos) is coming ever closer to a grand unified theory (GUT) that can account for the flaring-forth of energy into the most basic constituents of matter – in an event (or ‘singularity’) popularly known as the Big Bang. Since the fabric of space-time is thought to have emerged at this point, there is no way for scientists to determine when (i.e., at what moment in the past) this occurred, but they have calculated the age of our universe to be somewhere around 14 billion years old.

In my diagram I have represented this primordial transformation of energy crystallizing into the subatomic latticework of matter as the elementary stage of the universal process (or ‘universe’ for short). As I will continue to use this convention of stages, it’s important to understand that I don’t regard a stage as merely a formative period in the historical past that has been left behind. In addition to thinking of it as a previous era in the course of change, I’m using ‘stage’ in its spatial connotation as well, as a supporting platform for ongoing progress. In other words – and this should not come as a surprise – the elementary stage in the rise of our present universe is still very active, providing the energetic and material support to what we’ll look at next.

Stage 2 of the process (comprised of levels 3 and 4) is named the evolutionary stage, since this is when (and where) life first emerges. Technically speaking, the term ‘evolution’ should be reserved for the adventure of life (on our planet and possibly elsewhere) and not for the quantum dynamics at work in the energetic transformations of matter. Life introduces something unique and unprecedented in the way it ‘rolls out’ (or evolves) into more adaptive and complex organisms over time. Organic names the basic life-force, while sentient is how the evolution of life has gradually produced organisms that are more aware, responsive, and engaged with their environment.

At Stage 3 is where a uniquely human form of consciousness makes its appearance. Ego is Latin for ‘I’, referring to that separate center of personal identity which is both a construct of social engineering and the agent of social development. Our animal nature as human beings tracks downward into the instincts and urgencies of survival, while ego ‘sets the stage’ for a transpersonal breakthrough to spirituality and higher wisdom.

A critical condition of this breakthrough experience is provided in the developmental achievement of ego strength, evident in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified. This threshold (at level 5, egoic) is where a lot of my blog posts focus in, since a lack of ego strength – presenting in a neurotic tangle of insecurity, attachment, and inflexible convictions – is at the root of much of our suffering. I’ve frequently pointed out how some forms of religion, particularly of the theistic type, use this neurotic tangle to promote dogmatism, bigotry, redemptive violence, and otherworldly escapism.

Let’s assume for now that ego strength is achieved. What’s next? The transpersonal level opens in two distinct paths of spirituality, one leading inward to what I call the grounding mystery, and the other outward to the turning mystery. The grounding mystery (or more philosophically, the ground of being) is not something else underneath it all, but the creative source of consciousness within us. In other words, you don’t go looking for it out in the world – or rather, you might try to find it in the world but your quest will come to frustration. This is why the mystical turn utilizes a variety of practices and methods for conducting an inward descent of ego release to the mystery within.

A second transpersonal path takes an ethical turn, beyond ego but this time in the direction of an ascending involvement in ever-larger horizons of participation. In this case, personal identity does not drop away, as on the mystical path, but instead serves our upward leap into genuine community where ego doesn’t dissolve but connects in relationship with others. Historically, the quality of this connection proceeds in correlation with our cultural representations of the divine ideal (summarized in such virtues as creativity, benevolence, equanimity, and wisdom), which it has been the responsibility of organized religion to depict in myth, art, liturgy, and theology. (For the reasons given earlier, this responsibility of religion hasn’t been fully understood or consistently fulfilled.)

As it follows these two distinct transpersonal paths, spirituality advances our quest for a deeper center and a higher purpose. Just as our center in sentience is deeper than our center in personal identity, progress in this direction also opens our ethical considerations to a correspondingly larger horizon – beyond just ‘me and my own’ to all sentient life. The higher purpose in this case is not a set of orders legislated from above (we have already moved into post-theism at this point), but the more far-reaching principles that concern our life together with all living things on this planet. What is our responsibility to the greater community of life?

My general theory regards the cultural stage of human evolution as trending inevitably into transpersonal realms of awareness and action. While still only a relative few have achieved this breakthrough – whether held back by their own neurotic entanglement or by social institutions (e.g., family, class, religion) that are getting in the way – all the signs are indicating a planet-wide spiritual awakening. The counterforces will not likely fade away gently, however, but can be expected to redouble their efforts in holding us captive.

Insecurity, selfishness, hatred, and terror cannot be overcome by violence. We must transcend them, which we do by acknowledging them, understanding them, and then simply letting them go.

 

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Fuel, Food, and Faith: A Meditation on Our Human Future

fuel_food_faithAs our presidential candidates lay out their visions and identify what they believe are the major issues on our national and global horizons, I thought I would publish a short list of my own. Obviously there are many, many things we could be doing differently – and many different things we probably should be doing – as we look to the future and contemplate the big picture of where we are headed. My list holds just three, but I think that together they constitute an axis for a revolution of creative change.

Fuel

The vast majority of us who enjoy the convenience of flipping switches or turning keys and having power delivered instantly where we need it, don’t typically worry about the source, supply, purity, and sustainability of the energy we use – that is, until something interrupts on our demand. It’s one of those things that make it possible for just about everything else to operate, and it’s these many things (devices, tools, machines, vehicles) that get our attention when they stop working. But where the power comes from (source), how much of it is available (supply), to what degree its production and use generates pollutants (purity), and how long its supply can be expected to last (sustainability) – such questions only rarely cross our mind.

Most of the machines we have come to depend on around the globe are powered by fossil fuels, combustible material derived from the remains of former living things. Fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) are typically deep underground, which means that they are subject to property and access rights, and require expensive equipment to reach them. And who owns the land? Not the homeless poor or working classes. Governments and wealthy corporations – those who make the laws and lobby for special exceptions – coexist as a system and conspire together in shaping the economy in service to their interests.

Inevitably, the governing and wealthy classes prefer things to stay the same (hence they are conservative as a rule), since the way things are supports their privilege and control. Despite the fact that fossil fuels are a limited fuel source and highly toxic to the atmosphere and environment, production continues unabated. In fact, new stores are being drilled and mined to meet the growing worldwide demand. What are we supposed to do, stop driving our cars, lighting our homes, or pull the plug on manufacturing? The current energy grid is designed to power our many machines, and more machines are being manufactured every day, and these depend on the grid to work.

Alternative fuels – e.g., solar, wind, wave, and hydrogen – represent a virtually infinite source, widely available, perfectly clean, and sustainable far into the future. Already today, the technology exists for harnessing energy from the sun and powering our homes, neighborhoods, even entire cities. There is no more plentiful energy supply, available from nearly every location on Earth. Thankfully this technology is making it to the market, however slowly, partly through the efforts of fossil-fuel corporations that are expanding their production portfolios, and partly despite the best effort of others to stop it. A reduction in consumer use (driving less, using public transportation, biking and walking when we can), along with a commitment to purchase cleaner technologies and invest in the companies developing them, is critical to our big-picture and long-term future.

Food

Earth is an incredibly fertile and fruitful planet, and life has been able to adapt and evolve in its oceans, forests, deserts, tundra, prairies, mountains, marshes, lakes and streams. Even at our present population size of 7 billion, the earth’s bounty is more than sufficient to feed all of us. The problem, once again, is not really in the short supply of what we need, but in the political and commercial systems that prevent nutritious food (and clean water) from getting to those who need it.

The privileged classes (and the government their money buys) exploit and exhaust Earth’s food resources, supercharging the soil with fertilizers as they sterilize it with pesticides and herbicides. As a consequence of such practices, the mass yield at harvest increases dramatically while its nutritional value plummets. As huge amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) are released into the atmosphere from livestock, these chemical toxins leech into the groundwater and lace our fruits, grains, and vegetables, slowly sickening us with cancers and other so-called auto-immune diseases.

The poor quality of highly processed and modified foods means that we have to eat more as we continue to fall below our nutritional needs. Eating more, of course, involves taking in more calories, and excessive calorie intake leads to weight gain, metabolic fatigue and dysfunction, and ultimately to diabetes and other disease processes. A growing interest in organic farming and whole foods is a promising trend, but a simultaneous return (think of it as a homecoming) to the natural intelligence of our body and its deep preference for nutritious and energy-rich foods will be necessary as well.

Faith

Other members in my weekly Wisdom Circle gathering are reasonably suspicious of the term ‘faith’, and they guard against what they anticipate will be my attempts to pull them back into the religions they left behind. It’s critically important to distinguish the doctrinal orthodoxy or belief system of a religion from the question of whether and to what degree an individual is able to relax into being and trust in the provident nature of reality.

I’m not speaking of Providence in the old-style Puritan sense, referring to the watchful protection and abundant provision of a god above or ahead of us. Instead, the provident nature of reality is based on the straightforward and obvious perception that our life, consciousness, creativity, and aspirations are not separate from the universe but manifestations of it. You and I are living expressions of a provident reality, as evidenced in the fact that its 14-billion-year process has brought about the conditions (on this planet, at least) for us to evolve and flourish, as part of a great community of life.

The faith I’m speaking of is not the property of any religion and has nothing to do with belief in god. As an inner release to the grounding mystery of being, faith opens us to existence and is our surrender to the deeper and larger process moving through us. Other words, such as oneness, communion, presence, grace, and peace, serve equally well – or poorly, insofar as the mystery they name is ineffable. When faith is active, we enjoy an inner peace and can reach out without a need to grasp, control, or manipulate others and the world around us. We can instead be present, attentive, mindful, caring, and generous.

When faith is inactive or missing, however, a profound dis-ease troubles us. We feel unsupported by reality, which in turn compels us to attach ourselves to anyone and anything (including ideologies) that promises some reassurance, relief, or escape. Of course, nothing outside us can compensate for inner insecurity. When we were infants, the intimate connection between safety and nourishment that we experienced in the nursing embrace perhaps encouraged a strong correlation in our minds between faith and food. This cross-wiring of our nervous system explains why we often seek comfort more than real nourishment in what we eat, and why the marketing of ‘comfort food’ is so wildly successful in our Age of Anxiety.


My axis of terms – Fuel, Food, and Faith – is arranged in that order to confirm what should be obvious to us all. If we can’t move to cleaner energy sources and break free of our dependency on fossil fuels, our planet’s warming climate will turn soil to sand, shrinking the area of tillable land worldwide. If we can’t farm food that is wholesome and nutritious, we will need to eat more and more of it, compromising the global supply and bringing upon ourselves a growing number of health complications. But if we can’t transform the politics that drive the decisions and divide us along lines of wealth, race, gender, and creed, the brighter future we hope for may be out of reach.

Our politics will change as people change, as we learn how to cultivate inner peace. The future of humanity starts now, with you and me.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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A Spirituality of Religion

Spirituality of Essence_Religion of IdentityThe separation of spirituality from religion is a best-selling topic these days, particularly as religion continues to impress us with its tendencies toward conviction, bigotry, and violence – and complacency. More and more people are either dropping out or quietly declaring themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

In previous posts I have tried to make a case against such a clean separation of spirituality and religion. I’m not suggesting that a religion devoid of an active and deep spirituality is an impossibility; we see enough of that all around us. Certainly religion can lose its inspiration, its creativity, its compassion and ethical vision. At that point it becomes a perfunctory framework of rituals and stilted phrases. In my view, it is no longer really a religion. We may put that label on it, but we do so by mistake.

From the Latin religare, religion is a system by which the various domains and concerns of daily life are coordinated and anchored to the grounding mystery of being. Spirituality refers to the inner experience of this grounding mystery, as well as to an awakened intention in the way it is lived out. Spirituality, then, is the living intention of a dynamic religion, while religion is the relevant extension of a vibrant spirituality. A religion can lose its spirituality and die, but spirituality requires the structural support of religion if it is to engage the concerns of daily life.

My spin on religion challenges us to break out of the conventional definition, where we commonly speak of ‘the world religions’ as historical institutions organized on the cultural level. If the word merely refers to a system that coordinates and anchors our human concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, then you have a religion, and so do I. Whether or not we affiliate ourselves with one of the institutional religions is of secondary importance to the question of how we individually (as well as communally) connect our lives to the grounding mystery and carry it consciously into all that we do.

This gives me a chance to illumine the relationship between two big ideas in my Tracts blog: the grounding mystery and creative authority. Very quickly (as if that will help), the grounding mystery is a metaphorical reference to the present mystery of reality, to the Real Presence manifesting to (and as) our awareness in this moment. Our deepest engagement with it is far below the reach of words, and this, along with the fact that it surpasses any definition our minds might attempt to throw around it, makes it universally recognized across the mystical traditions as ineffable, beyond name and form.

Our only direct access to the grounding mystery is by an inward path of quiet contemplation. Outwardly we can observe its countless manifestations, its many masks; inwardly we know it as mystery, disguised as our self. This may sound very “Eastern,” but Western mysticism carries the identical realization. Simply stated, you are a human being, a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment.

In my diagram above, I have placed identity (ego: my self: “I”) inside a list of terms that together represent a spectrum of existence ranging from the interior depths of being to the extended outreach of our individual lives in the world. Below – or rather, underneath and supporting – identity is consciousness, life, matter, and energy in descending order. Identity has its ground in consciousness, consciousness has its ground in life, life has its ground in matter, and matter has its ground in energy. The deeper we go, the more ineffable the ground becomes. We can say a lot about identity, less about consciousness, still less about life or matter, and really nothing about energy that makes any sense (even the scientists talk about its ‘spookiness’, indeterminacy, and quantum unpredictability).

Despite the fact that we can’t say much about the present mystery of reality that underlies and supports identity, this is precisely where spirituality lives. We have an intuitive sense that this deeper support is ‘more real’, and when we allow our center of attention to sink to these deeper registers, we feel more present and authentic within ourselves. Still, such an inward descent requires that we let go of all those attachments and hangups that keep ego intact – and this is what makes a vibrant spirituality such a threat to religions that have lost their soul. Its communion with a mystery that cannot be named, represented, or even precisely located must be heretical because it is incomprehensible.

Moving up my list from identity, we don’t release ego but rather assume it in all that follows. This is where religion comes into play. Our connections outward into daily life and relationships are necessarily personal, which is to say they involve who we are in the world (as distinct from what we are). Ultimately our individual development into maturity means that we start choosing (or willing, volition) the life we want, enacting our intentions (agency), taking responsibility in what happens, and fully investing ourselves in the process (care). This outward flow from identity to care is what I mean by ‘creative authority’.

Because it is all about shaping and coordinating the adventure of identity, from the awakening of self-consciousness in infancy, through the complicated role-plays of adulthood, and into the retirement of old age, religion should support our progress to creative authority (also known as self-actualization). Too often, however, its influence attempts to move us in the opposite direction where we are pushed back into a more dependent, submissive, and obedient state. This is when our religion, now outgrown and losing relevance, begins to strangle our spirituality. While the force of our spiritual growth is oriented on the higher ideal of human fulfillment, the dead weight of our religion pulls us into frustration and futility.

That’s when it is time to break through yesterday’s religion and create a new system, one that can coordinate and anchor our daily concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, and in a way that expresses our true spirit. One way or another, it will lead beyond ego and to the other side of god.

 

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The Structure of Reality

Energy_Information_MeaningWhen you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.

Nuclear physics reveals the basic structure of reality as vibrational currents of quantum energy – nothing so much ‘here’ or ‘there’ but a reality inherently chaotic and unstable, predictable only in terms of probability. These ‘strings’ flash in and out of existence and somehow constitute a matrix out of which subatomic matter crystallizes, only to dissolve back again into mystery. We need to be reminded that we’re not only talking about the ‘first three seconds’ of our present universe, way back in the very beginning. Even now, below the apparent foundation of things as we know them, existence is vibrant, indeterminate, and weird.

This is also the dimension of reality where your body lives, by the way. A living body is an organic system with the ability to surf the waves of energy twining and unraveling all around you. And let’s not forget that the physical makeup of your body is only apparently solid, with its fixed and stationary disposition concealing an oscillating undercurrent of genesis and extinction.

As an energy system, the ‘economy’ of your body is measured in calories to determine how much metabolic work is required in keeping you alive. The metabolism transpiring in your cells right now is how an organic system breaks apart the bonds of solid matter in order to acquire the energy locked inside, which is then used to power its living processes, or else bundled and stored away for later.

Now that we have moved our attention from the current of energy to its manifestation as the universe, let’s meditate briefly on its more or less solid and stable forms. A form, whether static or dynamic, is a channel of information. Its architecture provides a path (or channel) for energy to flow. The two types of channels are open and closed, where open channels allow energy to flow through and closed channels are energetic cul-de-sacs.

Open channels are dynamic and exemplified in all living systems, like your body. Conversely, closed channels are static: they keep their form constant until either more energy surges into them than they can hold and they burst apart, or their internal energy bonds weaken and they crumble into more stable states (a process known as entropy, or the Second Law of thermodynamics).

Whether dynamic or static, information channels are how energy takes shape. It might seem odd at first to speak of a plant or a rock as information, rather than as a “thing” or “object,” but that’s really all it is: a code of instructions for converting energy into form, and thus in-forming it. Your body, again, is an immensely complex system of bio-architecture produced by the conversion of energy into mass according to a deeper genetic code.

As a dynamic form, your body is not fixed and closed, but is rather in constant communication with the environment (what’s around you, in the air you breathe, in the food and water you ingest) which turns ‘on’ and ‘off’ certain genes. As a consequence, dynamic and open channels are more vulnerable to environmental assaults and mutations in their code than are rocks, for instance. But they are also capable of new adaptations and ‘self improvements’ that no rock has a chance at.

With a simple thought, such as anxious fixation on the prospect of failure and social embarrassment, your body switches ‘on’ the genes that synthesize stress hormones, and when these are released into your bloodstream major changes will ensue in the function and structure of your cells and organs. Unchecked, this process can lead to hypertension, mitochondrial exhaustion, inflammation, gastric ulcers, and even cancer. Of course, let’s not forget that you can produce a very different result by taking a more realistic and responsible approach to that imagined future event.

This last step, as we consider what’s going on inside your mind as you look out on reality, shifts our perspective up one more level, to the construction of meaning. What something means is not merely a matter of how it channels energy into form. Information is only data (codes, mathematical ratios, signals and instructions) while meaning adds interpretation. Human beings are unique (though not alone) in their ability to construct a mental model of reality that assigns it identity, value, and significance. Whereas information consists in a pattern of data, meaning must be extracted from, or ‘read into’, what’s there in the code. This is why we say that meaning is “constructed,” and that the world of human beings is a social construction.

We need to spend a little more time with this idea, if only because it represents a rather radical departure from our common sense view of things. We are accustomed to thinking of meaning as something we find, discover, or search for in reality. But what we actually find is nothing but facts, energy flowing into form and manifesting as the universe we can sense and measure. If we find meaning, it’s because someone else (or we ourselves, previously) put it there. (And this is one of the reasons why it’s been so important in our religions to conceive of the universe as a creation of an intentional being, whose meaning is now already there for us to search out and understand.)

The theory of constructivism holds that meaning is made in our minds and then used as an interpretive lens for making sense of reality. We perceive or imagine patterns of information, and then we sift, spin, and embellish those patterns in an effort to make them mean something. A radical version of constructivism (to which I happen to subscribe) regards the reality outside our minds as inherently meaningless, as simply ‘what is’. The meaning (or meanings) we project onto it serves as a sacred canopy (Peter Berger) inside of which we find orientation and purpose for our lives.

Our constructions of meaning fall into two general types, adaptive or absolute, corresponding to the channels of information deeper in the structure of reality. Adaptive meaning refers to mental models that are regularly updated for maximal relevance. As reality changes and our human situation shifts accordingly, our interpretation of how it all works together, where it’s going, and what it means needs to keep up. An adaptive worldview is responsive and flexible, capable of adjusting to the dynamic nature of reality.

Absolute constructions of meaning, on the other hand, are by definition unchanging, which is to say unresponsive to reality and inflexible in their interpretation. Indeed, absolute mental models protect themselves by insisting that they are not interpretations at all, but straightforward presentations of the way things really are. Characteristically they get to this point by a longer history of falling out of touch with reality, losing their ability to adapt, and eventually becoming so set in a script of cross-referencing self-validation that no criticism from outside is even allowed. (And again we can find ready examples in religion today, where once-relevant narrative constructions of reality, or myths, have become a system of frozen metaphysical ‘truths’ beyond all doubt.)

We are at a point in history when absolute constructions of meaning are threatening global security and our human future. This is certainly true in the case of sectarian religion. But even more devastating is the worldview associated with rampant consumerism and its utter lack of regard for the living systems that make up the consilient biosphere of our planet. The same grasping-and-gulping, tossing-and-trashing mode of life that was sustained on the promise of breakthrough technology and unlimited resources has been exposed for the fallacy it really was.

Yet the construction of meaning that inspired our consumer ambitions is still driving much of our behavior today. If it were truly adaptive, the consumeristic worldview and its myth of salvation through material prosperity would be willing to acknowledge the catastrophic effect it is having on our planet, our communities, our health and well-being, and proceed to update itself so as to be more grounded, realistic, and ethically responsible.

But we don’t have to keep our reflections safely preoccupied on the level of social criticism. Just consider how much of your personal behavior (choices, actions, and reactions) is driven and justified by a construction of meaning out of touch with reality. How much of what you obsess over, chase after, and hold onto today as an adult is working out ambitions that were constructed in early childhood when your security and self-esteem were developmentally appropriate concerns? Your needs weren’t fulfilled then, and you’re still trying to satisfy them now. There’s your example of an absolute construction of meaning.

So, when you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.

What are you looking for?

 
 

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