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Time and Eternity

Time_EternityOur preferred orientation in reality is centered in the mental location called ego (‘I’), from which we look out and appraise things according to the standards of “me” and “mine.” The ego is at once insecure, defensive, possessive, and ambitious – and not a little conceited for regarding itself the center of reality. But even this is forgivable when we understand how easy it is to confuse our personal worlds with the present mystery of reality.

Before we go any farther, let’s get our bearings in the diagram above. A returning reader will recognize my color codes for the three centers of experience: black for the body, orange for the ego, and purple for the soul. It is of the utmost importance that these distinct centers, or mental locations of consciousness, not be divided into separate ‘parts’ of us, which has traditionally gone down the path of ranking them, opposing them, confusing them, and finally claiming a product of this confusion (the so-called personal soul) as “the real me.” I’ve done my best to keep them all in the picture of what makes us human, even while acknowledging ego as a late arrival and seat of our most persistent delusions.

Along the periphery of my diagram I have placed terms that can help us better appreciate the distinctions not only in ourselves (the mental locations) but in the realms of experience our three centers of consciousness open to us. Each of these realms is depicted in a double aspect, with the bolder text naming an aspect which is ‘facing away’ from us, so to speak, and the lighter text naming an aspect that we directly experience.

Let’s just step into the diagram and try to make sense of it.

At the top is a realm that corresponds to our animal body. As a physical organism, the body is an expression of and participates in a 14-billion-year process that we call the universe. In its aspect of facing away from us – by which I mean the aspect that we speak of in more general (distant and objective) terms – our universe is the universal order of all things.

From this philosophical and scientific perspective, the body’s realm has been observed, investigated, probed, classified, measured, mapped, denatured and transformed by human knowledge and technology. As the universal order, it holds together and turns through intervals of rhythmic time, the largest of which is the interval of our universe itself (universe literally means “turning as one”).

When considering this order in its aspect as facing toward us, the sensory-physical realm of the body is experienced as a provident universe. All of this has somehow conspired to bring about the emergence of life and ignition of consciousness, providing what we require to survive and flourish. Just pause to reflect on how profoundly and intimately your animal nature depends upon, participates in, and contributes to the great web of life.

This cosmic web cannot be reduced to only what transpires here on our planet, but expands outward to include the moon, the Sun, our solar system, galaxy, and far beyond even that. The ‘Goldilocks’ position of Earth relative to the Sun is not simply a matter of local ratios of gravity, light, atmospheric gases, and surface temperature. For a full account we must include The Whole Shebang, from the very beginning and stretching across the entire universe. Before any attempt was made to attribute all of this to a supreme creator, the human mind was overwhelmed by the awareness of living in a provident universe.

So there’s our first part of the picture. As our mental location that engages with the realm of matter, the body lives by virtue of participating in rhythmic time and enjoying its place in a universal order at once infinitely expansive and provident. Anytime your consciousness looks out from this location, you are doing it as an organism in communion with the vast web of life.

When we shift focus to the mental location known as ego, our point of engagement with reality moves to another realm. Here time is terminal, meaning that it follows a line with a starting point and an ending point. It doesn’t revolve through regenerating cycles like we see in the provident universe, but rather flows from beginning to end along a time sequence that is tethered to our personal identity. While the material substance of our body has recycled through countless revolutions of rhythmic time, and will continue through many more after the body expires and decomposes, our ego, that center of who (as distinct from what) we are, is confined to our biological lifetime.

From ego’s position there is a line of time leading up to it, known retrospectively as ‘the past’, and a line projected ahead of it, known as ‘the future’. The past is the sequence of events and experiences which have somehow shaped our identity to this point, while the future is how this center of continuity is anticipated to play out. I use the term ‘play’ in the sense of role-playing, which is the only way ego can stay in the game – as so-and-so who is striving to make something of myself: a respectable character, a good reputation and public image, a successful                        (whatever roles I happen to be playing).

In its less personal aspect, this is the realm of our individual lifeline, which will be summed up by a dash between the dates of our birth and death on a future headstone. Actually, because ego is a social construction that achieves self-consciousness only around the time we acquire language and start making identity contracts with our tribe, its lifeline is shorter than the body’s chronological age. And with the onset of dementia, many of us will to some extent lose our center of social identity before our body expires. We can measure an ego’s individual lifeline scientifically according to this terminal career of executive self-consciousness.

But when we consider it from your perspective as the individual in question, this line represents your personal myth. From the Greek for a narrative “plot,” myth refers to the storyline around which the meaning of your life is constructed. We are used to thinking of myths as the fabulous stories that serve to support, orient, and inspire entire cultures, but each of us has our own authorized (and aggressively defended) narrative of identity as well.

At various times this identity narrative will suffer assaults from without and within, casting ego into confusion, anxiety, frustration, or despair as its continuity of meaning is undermined. Its greatest challenge, of course, is brought on by the fact that ego’s career is correlated to the life of the body – which must one day expire.

Along with other challenges related to its place and value in society, the inevitability of death is something that ego had to work through fairly early on. A solution that we find across the cultures was arrived at by a process of dissociation whereby ego detached from the body and imagined an immortal existence for itself on the other side of death.

This is where the confusion regarding a ‘personal soul’ took root, fundamentally changing religion’s cultural function from that of coordinating life in society with the rhythms of nature, to securing the postmortem destiny of the disembodied ego/soul. Thus began ego’s impersonation of the soul, and religion’s consequent (and longstanding) betrayal of genuine spirituality.

Referring back to my diagram, you’ll notice that the individual lifeline of ego does an end-run around the small circle at the center of the picture. That circle represents the present moment, the only instant in which we can ever touch reality. It is a moment without duration, and for that reason we can legitimately speak of it as ‘timeless’.

Even though ego exists always in the present moment, a preoccupation with the past and future of its own personal myth prevents it from fully engaging with the here and now. Besides, given that the present moment has no duration, any attempt on the part of ego to grasp and hold this vanishing instant only serves to further remove ego from the present mystery of reality.

So now we come to the third mental location of consciousness, the touchpoint on reality accessed right here in the present moment. Soul is not our center of personal identity, and it really needs some serious deconstruction in order to be liberated from captivity to Captain Ego. It is neither ‘in control’ (as if ego is) nor the ‘part of me’ that survives death and lives forever.

Soul is where consciousness engages reality in the deepest depths of our existence, in what mystics have named the ground of being. This ground is neither past nor future, but always and only now.

In its objective aspect, which allows us to reflect on it and share our insights with each other, this is the ground of existence, or existential ground, the creative source that energizes, supports, and expresses itself in/as the manifest universe. In logic, the term “existential” is distinguished from “universal” as referring to ‘this one individual’ rather than to an entire class or collective. As a qualifying adjective of the ground, then, we need to be clear that we are speaking of what gives rise to each existing thing, and what can only be accessed by an inward descent of our own existence.

This reference to our own existence once again shifts focus to the intimate and experiential aspect, where present reality is felt and known as the grounding mystery of being itself. Its uplift rises as the life energy, nervous state, mental force, open focus, and creative intelligence that conspire in our awareness of this present moment.

The “narrow gate” (a metaphor from the teachings of Jesus) which ego is unable to enter for its obsession with being somebody special, is the soul’s path to union with the Really Real. Because it can only be found in the present moment and the present moment has no duration, soul and its ground are outside of time, timeless, and eternal. Mystics and spiritual masters have named it the Eternal Now.

In the process whereby ego impersonated the soul, this notion of eternity was equated with and corrupted into the idea of endless time, which was necessary to accommodate the ego’s desperate need to live forever. “Eternal life” and “everlasting life” are very different notions, however, with the latter denoting this idea of an unending quantitative extension of time, and the former (eternal) referring to the qualitative depth of a genuine, authentic, and abundant life in this moment.

The mystical undercurrents of our world religions still contemplate and practice the disciplines which allow consciousness to sink below the surface tension of personal identity in order to dwell in the present mystery, an adventure in meditation metaphorically represented as a ‘death’ or dissolution of the self-involved ego. Unfortunately as religion got commandeered and perverted by ego ambitions, this deeper and more original engagement with spiritual life was discredited by emerging orthodoxies, persecuted to the margins, and generally forgotten.

And so, here we are.

 

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God Above and The Ground of Being

It’s interesting how the evolution of life, the development of a species, and the maturation of individuals within a species all tend to proceed from simpler to more complex forms and stages of existence. The human embryo carries vestigial gills and a tail from our prehuman ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar fashion, children grow into mental abilities following the same sequence as our species over many thousands of years. What we see at one level (life, species, individual) is evident in the other levels as well.

Culture is the construction zone where the degree of advancement in our human species gets transmitted from individual-level breakthroughs, into the collective consciousness of society, and back again to the individual in the form of innovations in the traditional way of life.

In the interest of social cohesion and stability, a preferred path of change would be able to keep some of what has been (as tradition), as it moves forward into what will be. The role of institutions can be understood in this sense, as conservative and stabilizing structures in the flow of cultural change. The very definition of religion, from the Latin religare meaning “to connect or tie back,” identifies it as an institution in this sense – indeed as the conservative and stabilizing structure in culture.

When the European Enlightenment got the intelligentsia excited about the possibility of throwing off the superstitions of the past to embrace a future of science, religion was the obvious and easy target. Without a doubt, there was much about the institution of Christendom that wouldn’t listen and constructively respond to new discoveries and developments going on at the ground level of human experience.

As the official Church condemned new theories and excommunicated the brave souls who dared contradict its now-archaic orthodoxy, the best (and perhaps the only) recourse for many was to simply push the whole outfit into the ditch and move on with progress. The modern West turned its attention to factual evidence and the technical possibilities of this world, content to leave spirituality, religion, and God Above in an early chapter of its new autobiography: The Enlightened Man’s Emancipation from Ignorance and Myth.

The Christianity we all know (and fewer of us love) is a type of religion known as theism, for the way it is oriented on and organized around the belief in a supreme being who is large and in charge. Our fortunate birth and prosperity in this life, followed (hopefully, if we get it right) by beatitude in the hereafter, is our Pilgrim’s Progress supervised by God Above.

We happen to be living in the twilight of theism, during a late phase known as orthodoxy. At this point it is primarily about believing the right things, and doing whatever it takes to defend and propagate “the one true faith” around the world. By now, for a large majority of Christian true believers, the present mystery (we can even call it the real presence) of God has receded permanently behind something much more pressing and important – and manageable: the right opinion (ortho+doxa) about God.

At the end of the day it’s all a very heady enterprise and increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. People are leaving the Church in droves, with the Enlightenment campaign of atheism once again on the rise. As a counter-measure, the engines of orthodoxy are locking into gear and plowing full steam ahead, until Jesus comes again or all hell breaks loose (rumor has it these might be the same event).

Fundamentalists, ultra-conservatives, and right-wing evangelicals are certainly not helping their cause, as bright and reasonable people who continue their quest for a grounded, connected, and personally relevant spiritual life are leaving the crazies to their end-game.

I spend more time than I would like trying to explain how the impulse to cast theism out with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic and dysfunctional religion, while certainly understandable to some extent, is not the real solution to our problem. For one thing, the theistic paradigm and its role in society should not be simply identified with any of its historical incarnations.

In other words, a corrupt version of theism is not necessarily a reason to reject theism itself outright. It happens that every institution is prone to desperate measures when threatened by the natural course of change. In this way, an institution is the cultural equivalent of an individual ego – a conservative and stabilizing construct of identity that resists becoming what it isn’t used to being.

What follows is a perspective on theistic religion, exploring its development through distinct phases starting with its rise out of animism and following through its twilight into post-theistic forms of spirituality. My model for this developmental schema is not only based in the evidence of archaeology, but, just as important and even more useful, on the phases stretching from early childhood to maturity in the living individual today.

Evolution of ReligionEarliest theism, just like early childhood, was lived in a world constructed of stories. There was no obvious boundary separating “fact” from “fiction,” the given facts of reality from the make-believe of fantasy. Theism was born in mythology (from the Greek mythos referring to a narrative plot, which is the structural arch that serves as the unifying spine of a story).

Its gods began as literary figures personifying the causal agencies behind the order and change of the sensory-physical realm. Myths were not regarded as explanations of reality (as a kind of primitive science), but instead were performances of meaning that conjured the gods into being with each rendition.

It’s difficult to appreciate or understand this phenomenon as we try to grasp it with adult minds, but perhaps you can remember how it was for you back then. The fantasy world of myth doesn’t merely fade into the metaphysical background when the story concludes. Rather, that world exists only in the myth and is called into expression every time the myth is performed afresh.

We modern adults entertain a delusion which assumes the persistence of reality in the way we imagine it to be, even when our stories (at this later stage known as theories) aren’t actively spinning in our minds. The paradigm-stretching frontier of quantum physics is confirming how mistaken this assumption is, and how much we really understood (though perhaps not consciously) as children.

At some point in late childhood and early adolescence the individual recognizes that real life requires an adjustment from imaginary friends, magical time warps, and free-spirited performances of backyard fantasy, to the daily grind of household chores and lesson plans.

A more complex and complicated social experience means that opportunities for reigniting the creative imagination must be “staged,” that is, relegated to a consecrated time and location that will be relatively free of interruptions. Here, in this sacred space, the stories will be recited; but in view of limited time, only the major scenes and signature events are called to mind.

The required investment of time, attention, and energy in social responsibilities will not return the degree of enchantment and inspiration an individual needs to be happy. There needs to be a place for mythic performance and reconnecting with the grounding mystery. Besides, the mythological god can’t be left hanging in suspended narrative when it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

Theism had to adapt along with this emerging division between sacred and secular (temporal, daily) concerns. It did this by creating a special precinct where the majority could enter and observe an ordained minority dress up, recite the stories, and enact mythic events linking their broken time (divided and parsed out among countless duties) back to the deep time of an eternal (timeless) life.

Just as the holy precinct of ceremony served to connect a profane existence “outside the temple” (Latin profanus) to the sacred stories that weaved a tapestry of higher meaning, the god who originally lived in those stories was relocated to a supernatural realm overhead, standing by and watching over the business below. Even if the stories weren’t actively spinning, people could take comfort in knowing (technically believing) that he was in his place and doing his job.

On a designated day the community gathered in the temple, and at just the right moment an official would sound a bell, light a candle, unveil an icon, or recite a scripted prayer invoking (calling in) the presence of the god. At that very moment, all were in agreement (at least those paying attention) that the deity would descend from his abode in heaven and receive their worship.

A ritual enactment of sacred story would typically culminate at a point where the congregation was invited to step into deep time once again. Afterwards a signal was given bringing the ceremony to an end, and the people would depart to their workaday worlds.

With a growing population and the inevitable pluralism that comes with it, getting to the chapel on time becomes more of a challenge for a lot of people. How can theism survive when the ceremonies and sacred performances start losing attendance? What happens when god above no longer has an official invitation to condescend to the supplications of his gathered assembly of devotees?

This is what happens: former true believers give up their denominational affiliation and do their best to continue on their own. They will still look up when they speak of god, point to heaven and cross themselves when they score a goal, and perhaps bow their heads and say a prayer before breakfast.

Once in a while they might make their way back to the chapel (maybe on time) to observe a performance of one of the really big stories. As they watch, a dim memory of childhood enchantment will stir somewhere deep inside them and they will feel the magic once more.

How can theism hold on when its ceremonial system – the land and buildings, the gold-plated symbols and silken vestments, the professional staff of ordained ministers, and the hard-won market share of rapidly defecting souls – is sliding into obsolescence and bankruptcy? The answer brings us to the third and final phase in the lifespan of theism, the twilight of institutionalized religion known as orthodoxy.

The enchanted storytelling of early childhood gives way to staged ceremony in young adulthood, which in turn and with further reduction eventually gets packaged up into neat boxes of truth called doctrines. An obvious advantage of this reduction of theism to doctrines lies in its handy portability, in the way it can be carried conveniently inside the head and transferred into more heads by rote memorization and Sunday School curricula.

If the first phase of theism (storytelling) featured the bard, and the second phase (ceremony) depended on the mediation of priests, this third phase (orthodoxy) belongs to the theologians. They are the experts who tell us what to believe about god and other metaphysical things.

Since theism at this point has become a rather sophisticated set of beliefs, the best (and perhaps only) way to impress their importance on its members is to make the doctrines necessary to what more and more people are lacking and so desperately looking for: security and longevity – specifically that odd fusion of security and longevity defined in the doctrine of everlasting life.

As time goes on, this notion of a future escape from a life burdened by fatigue, boredom, and absurdity grows more attractive, until the true believer is willing to give up everything – or, if necessary, to destroy everything – for its sake.

In the Age of Orthodoxy people still speak of the god above, of the miracles of long ago, or of a coming apocalypse and future rapture of the saints, but you’ll notice that the critical point of reference is consistently outside the present world. Celebrity hucksters and pulpiteers try to fill the vacuum with staged demonstrations of “faith healing” and prophetic clairvoyance, but the inspiration is cheap and unsatisfying. Mega-churches and sports stadiums become personality cults centered on the success, charisma, theatrics, and alluring ideal of their alpha leaders.

In a sense, this transformation of old-style sermon auditions into entertaining religious theater represents a final attempt of theism to push back the coming night. There’s no getting around the fact that orthodoxy just isn’t that interesting, and as it rapidly loses currency in the marketplace of relevant concerns, more and more people are saying good-bye to church, to organized religion and its god-in-a-box.

As a cultural transition, the crossover from managed religion to something more experiential and inwardly grounded corresponds to that phase for the individual, when a deeper thirst for life in its fullness forces him or her to push back from the table of conventional orthodoxy and its bland concoction of spiritual sedatives.

In the twilight of theism, people are starting to give voice to their doubts, but also, increasingly, to their questions, their long-buried intuitions, and their rising new-world aspirations. They want more than anything to be real, to be fully present, and deeply engaged in life with creative authority.

This inward turn is the critical move of post-theism. It’s not about pulling down orthodoxy or refuting its god, but rather simply letting go and quietly sinking into being. Quietly is a reminder that words at this point are like hooks that can snag and slow one’s descent, running the risk of turning even this into another religion with its own esoteric orthodoxy.

The ego and its constructed word-world of meaning need to be left behind so that consciousness can softly settle into the still center of contemplative awareness. Here all is one. There is only this.

Here is born (or reborn) that singular insight which inspired us to tell stories in the first place. Now, perhaps, with a lifetime of experience and some wisdom in our bones, we can tell new stories.

It’s always been and will always be here and now.

 

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