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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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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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The Only Way of Salvation

Religion is an answer to the problem or dilemma that besets our human condition. Throughout its long history, the answer of religion has changed according to the nature of its problem.

Earliest religion was focused on the body and a need for the business of society to stay connected to the provident rhythms of nature. It was ceremonial, meticulously ritualized, and dedicated to synchronizing cultural activity with the urgencies, cycles and seasons of life. In its elaborate productions culture spends the energy that nature provides, requiring regular refreshment to continue.

The dilemma or problem, then, had to do with the fact that culture is not a renewable resource. Despite its impressive production output, societies continue to depend on the life energy and raw materials of the planetary environment. Living off the land and taking the life of other animals for food made our earliest ancestors keenly aware of the need to respect this balance, cooperate with nature, and repay a portion by ritual offerings and sacrifices.

In time, the focus shifted to more socially unique concerns like security, membership, identity and purpose. Thus arose a religion of the ego. If life energy is drawn up from the animal nature of the body (and from the greater “mother nature” of our planet), then ego is where a large amount of this energy is expended. Pursuits of security and recognition, property and status, quickly exhaust themselves. They are not replenishing cycles but more like straight lines losing strength and trailing off in the hopeful pursuit of “enough.”

As the personality is chronically stressed by discontentment, eventually the ego fastened on a marvelous fantasy – that one day a clean escape would be made, leaving behind the mortal burden of the body and accomplishing at last a perfect state of everlasting security. What we can call “ego religion” is focused on artificial life, not natural life; on a life that is unnaturally extended along a straight line that never ends. Its fantasy is of a disembodied and entirely metaphysical existence, reunited with a “heavenly father” after a painful and frustrating sojourn with “mother nature.”

Ego religion tends to be denominational (heavily invested in the tribe and its tradition), proselytic (focused on conversion and recruiting members), moralistic (enforcing rules on how one should live), and gnostic (upholding and defending certain doctrines as necessary to salvation). As a program for resource management, social cohesion, and mind control it can’t be beat. While it demonstrates little sacred concern for nature and the body, vestiges of earlier (nature) religion persist in its holy days (holidays) coinciding with solstices, moon phases, and seasonal transitions.

What raises the concern of many today is not so much that ego religion is all those things just mentioned, but that it pushes an agenda of escape, disassociation from the body and nature, and departing to a better place. How long can it go on, where we use up the resources of one location and abandon it for the next? How much longer can we continue to generate stress – perhaps the one renewable resource of culture – and multiply the diseases of body and mind?

How long, really, can we live as “souls inside bodies,” waiting in patient hope or hastening the day when we shall be set free from this prison house and rewarded in heaven for being good and getting it right?

So that is the problem of our human condition today. The fall-out of this divided life of ours – suppressing, craving, consuming, wasting and leaving – makes coming back not only less and less appealing, but over time less and less possible. The irony is that, while religion might offer an answer to this problem, religion is itself a major cause of the problem. The vision of a scorched and lifeless landscape contained in some of its apocalyptic myths is slowly (but less slowly) becoming our self-fulfilling prophecy.

If religion is to offer an answer to the dilemma of our human condition, then it will be a call to return. Interestingly enough, this is the literal meaning of the familiar word “repent.” In this case, it’s a call to return to what we have been trying so hard to leave behind – the earth, nature, our bodies, and the burden of mortality.

This is what I am calling “soulful religion,” which is not a religion about immortality, metaphysics and the afterlife, but rather of incarnational living, creative community, human fulfillment and planetary well-being.

In fact, it seems to me that this has been The Way of Salvation from the very beginning. During the long winding diversion into metaphysics, escapism and redemptive violence, a few brave lights did emerge from time to time. They spoke of life HERE, love NOW, and of liberty beyond the confines of tribe, tradition and orthodoxy. It didn’t go well for many of them.

Ironically (again) the very crusaders who persecuted and stamped out these light-bringers later memorialized and venerated them in their churches. But not until the story could be rewritten and the savior remade into a drop-in rescuer, a god in disguise, or a scapegoat for sin. (Jesus was made into all three.) As Bible scholarship is able to do its business outside of denominational publishing houses and unmotivated by religious convictions, the emerging picture of the “historical Jesus” is looking less and less like the Savior of Christendom.

In a time when many are asking about truth in religion and the way of salvation, we need to consider this possibility. It’s not that one religion is true while the others are not; or that all religions are true in their own way; or that religion itself is nothing but superstition and lies.

Rather, the religions are like squiggly lines moving across history, each one a meandering path through the landscape and time zones of our collective human experience. Most of the time, a given religion is busy working out its metaphysics, redefining its membership, getting back to fundamentals, or accommodating itself to the larger culture.The WayBut once in a while, the squiggle takes a turn and comes very close to the invisible guideline of fulfillment, wholeness, well-being and genuine community – to the greater wisdom and higher ideal of our own human nature. The light goes on, fear drops away, love opens out, and peace settles in. For this brief moment, as it aligns itself to The Way, a religion can be said to be true.

And in the next moment, as this truth gets defined, professed, and defended as the “only way” to god or heaven or life everlasting, it just as quickly veers away and falls off course. In some eras of history – and maybe we’re in one now – it’s possible that all religions are squiggling off in the distance, while just a few individuals around this whole planet – and maybe you’re one of them – are waking up and stepping quietly on The Way.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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