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The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego

As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.

Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.

And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.

Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.

Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.

Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.

I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.

PerinatalThe transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.

A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.

(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)

Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.

The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.

When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.

DevelopmentalFollowing our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.

“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.

Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.

There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.

Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.

This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.

EsotericThis final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.

Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.

A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)

After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”

 

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Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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