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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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A Prayerful Life

In What About Prayer I responded to a question from a new blog follower, about whether prayer has any continued relevance after (post-) theism, at least in the version of post-theism I have been advocating for. He understands that post-theism is not hung up in the debate over god’s objective existence but is more interested in what our concepts of god say about us and where they may be leading.

It is not to be reduced to atheism, in other words.

In our personal correspondence, my friend referred to another post from nearly a year ago, entitled More Than You Think. It explores a new theory of mind based on the scientific fact that we possess consciousness-conducting cells, called neurons, not only in our brain, but in our heart and gut as well.

If that is the case, then it’s reasonable to at least consider expanding our definition of “mind” beyond what’s transpiring in our heads only, and to ask whether there might be distinct types of mind that engage us with reality in ways very different from the logical, rational, and discursive thinking we so revere in the (“heady”) modern West.

In this post I want to revisit that model of plural minds, but now with the explicit question on the table of what it could mean to our understanding of prayer. As we’ll see, the model provides a useful frame for appreciating both the ascendancy of theism and its necessary transcendence by a post-theistic spirituality.

My present interest is the continuing relevance of living a prayerful life after theism.

To get started, let’s begin with the etymology of our word “prayer,” which refers to the outreach of supplication to what is beyond us for something we need or desire – protection, provision, wisdom, guidance, comfort, healing, forgiveness, liberation, etc. To seek it outside ourselves is at least an implicit acknowledgment that we don’t possess it already, or at least believe that we don’t.

Both the spiritual wisdom traditions and contemporary science – and what the heck, let’s also throw in common sense – confirm the fact that we are not entirely self-sufficient and absolutely independent beings, but rather that we and every other life form are chronically deficient and profoundly dependent on relationships, resources, and ecosystems for our existence. By “chronically deficient” I simply mean that we need things, like oxygen to breathe, and that this need recurs as an urgency of life itself.

So then, there is a very natural inclination in us to reach out for (or open up to receive) what we need but don’t (simply because we can’t) possess.

Could this be the experiential origins of supplication? Is there already an implicit, maybe even an instinctual acknowledgment here that we rely on something beyond ourselves for what we seek as human beings? If it is rooted in instinct and the life process itself, is it not reasonable to expect that this inclination might find expression in the form of invocation, petition, thanksgiving, and even devotion as it rises into our more evolved human capacities for language, self-consciousness, and meaning?

So goes my theory.

Our logical mind is where the business of language, self-consciousness, and making meaning unfolds. It is what most clearly distinguishes our species from all the others, and it’s also where the illusion of our separateness is generated. By definition, ego is our separate center of self-conscious identity which divides reality – but actually only our perception of reality – between “me and mine” and “not me: other.”

Furthermore, the “I” at the center of this worldview is itself a social construct, a kind of negative space created by the gradual separation of “me” from “not me.” Into this negative space our tribe installs all kinds of codes, roles, values, and beliefs that conspire in shaping this animal nature into “one of us” – a well-behaved and conscientious member of society.

Historically a big part of this project has involved putting the developing ego into relationship with a Supreme Ego who is regarded as the higher intelligence behind the world, an absolute will above our tribe’s moral codes and ordained authorities, as well as the exemplar of virtues towards which we and our fellow devotees aspire. Just as our own separate ego-identity is a construct of language and entirely imaginary, the same is true of this Supreme Ego who stands in the role of patron deity: bestowing blessings and protection, providing for our atonement when we step off the moral path, giving us a longer and higher vision for our lives.

It’s important to understand – though virtually impossible for true believers to even consider much less accept – that this god is imaginary and not real, a literary figure (in sacred stories) and not a literal being (outside the stories), a theological construct and not an actual personality. The roots of this construct are metaphorical and grounded in that deep inclination to reach out for what we need, which at the level of our logical mind is security, identity, meaning, and purpose.

As it relates to my topic, this is where prayer is conversational, imagined as a kind of dialogue between “god and me” (and “us”).

As post-theism begins with the realization that god lacks objective existence, proceeding into meditation on what god means, those deeper roots of metaphor and the experience of deficiency, dependency, and supplication it images-forth lead us through the floor, as it were, of our logical mind. As we enter the sympathic mind of our heart, the separation of ego and other dissolves away and our world construct is left behind.

Here it becomes immediately evident that all things are connected, interdependent, and, as the Buddhists say, mutually co-arising. There is no “separate self,” no “alien other,” but rather a vibrant web in which self and other are “together as one,” partners in a larger reality.

“Heart-centered” prayer, then, is very different from the “head-centered” imaginary conversation where ego petitions god for what we need. Deeper into the web of life and our sympathic mind we send our intentions along the axons of communion, receiving and releasing, perhaps redirecting the flow to where in the web it is most needed. As a spider can feel the vibration of activity from far across its web, we also participate in a visible and invisible field of energy, matter, life, and mind.

Prayer is as spontaneous as taking a breath and giving it back, holding one another with gracious intention, living carefully and responsively on the earth, lifting our cup from the communion of life and offering our thanks in return.

We still have one more deeper level to go in our reflections on prayer as supplication. Far below our wordy world of identity (logical mind) and beneath even the vibrant web where all is one (sympathic mind), each of us is a living manifestation of being, of the ineffable mystery of be-ing itself. Here our intuitive mind (centered in the gut) lives silently in the cycling rhythms of our autonomic nervous system, metabolic activity, and physical existence.

This “grounding mystery” (as I call it) is not found by digging into other things, but only through engaging a contemplative descent within ourselves.

Each descending step of awareness entails a surrender of something we may be hanging onto – my tribe, my beliefs, my ego, my thoughts, this thought, thinking itself, the one who thinks he is thinking – until we enter a clearing of boundless presence. Such surrender is a third type of supplication, then, having now dropped below conversational prayer and even communal prayer, into contemplative prayer, where we are content to dwell, silently and with open attention, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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God and COVID-19

Times like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in religion. On the “worse” side are declarations to the effect that the challenge we face is an instrument of god’s will. It has been sent for the divine purpose of punishing sinners, testing the righteous, or maybe just as a demonstration of god’s awesome power.

Just now, some conservative Christians are spinning stories classifying the coronavirus pandemic as god’s judgment on globalism, with its tendency toward moral promiscuity and contaminating his revealed truth (given to us, not them) with worldly deceptions. That’s frequently how children, as well as full-grown adults who are stuck inside an an obedience-based morality, try to justify their taller/higher Power’s presumed omnipotence in the face of tragic experience. They screwed up, or somebody else did, and now they are paying the price.

Of course, it’s not the conservative Christians themselves who have sinned. Or maybe they did, by making too many compromises. Now their faith is being tested and purified. Hopefully they will learn their lesson and get it together, which means tightening the orthodoxy, strengthening defenses, and protecting their membership against future lapses.

You see? It’s possible to spin the narrative any which way – “the narrative” referring to how human beings try to find meaning in the midst or in the wake of undeserved pain and catastrophic loss.

Our big brain pitches experience into the future, in the form of expectations and predictions of what’s next. So when the unexpected and unpredictable tragic thing happens, we are compelled to find – or else spontaneously create – a story that connects it to the past or present we think we know, or to a future we believe is coming.

One problem with trying to put a theological (god-narrative) spin around our suffering is in the way it pulls us out of the present experience itself and into our heads, where this and every kind of story is spun. You might think that the therapeutic benefit of escaping raw suffering for a story that explains it, justifies it, downplays it, or even takes it personally would outweigh any value there might be in simply taking it as it comes.

When human beings become clinically unhappy, it’s either because we are stuck inside a story that’s preventing us from a realistic engagement with and healthy adaptation to the world, or because we are lacking a coherent story to make sense of our suffering. The Jungian psychologist James Hillman believed that a client in therapy is really seeking a case history, a narrative account that gives their suffering a context and assigns it a meaning.

And then there are those who can’t seem to break out of a story that is contextually irrelevant or maladaptive to the changes and challenges of real life. When the mind is so locked inside its beliefs, we call it “conviction,” and this is the true source of our suffering.

Once upon a time – a very long time ago – religion provided people with stories that engaged them imaginatively with reality and helped them adapt creatively to the vicissitudes of actual life. Although many of its “classical” stories, called myths, seem quaint now and out of touch with our modern sensibilities, back then at least – when a culture’s model of reality (cosmology), guiding stories (mythology), and way of life (morality) were fully aligned – people were enabled by religion to find grounding and orientation amidst suffering and in the wake of tragedy.

But no longer today.

The devastation and hardship brought on by COVID-19 cannot be reconciled with a god up in heaven. Where is that anyway, in a universe which has no “up”? To declare that “god has a plan” and “everything happens for a reason” (meaning to serve some objective) may calm our anxiety for a moment by the presumption of someone “out there” who has it all under control.

But such reassurances no longer work to give us grounding in life, center us emotionally in our experience, connect us compassionately to the suffering of others, and inspire us to act responsibly for the greater good.

One thing we can learn from the coronavirus is how deeply involved we are in the web of life, how connected we all are to each other, and how much we need each other’s company, kind hospitality, and warm loving touch to be healthy, happy, and whole.

If you have the virus right now, it’s not because you are a sinner. God is not putting you through this to test your faith. It’s not even part of some larger plan or higher purpose.

In the West especially we tend to confuse the use of god as an explanation of why we suffer with the gracious Presence, or grace-to-be-present, that we long for most deeply in life.

But it is possible for you to be present to your experience, to simply and fully be in this moment.

Every true religion cautions against using your god as a mechanism for denying mortality, escaping suffering, or otherwise explaining it away. Rather than tying your pain or loss to something external to it, try to relax more deeply into it. Instead of allowing yourself to be overtaken by suffering, open your awareness so as to include it within the present mystery of being alive.

God isn’t an explanation, but a metaphor of the present mystery that eludes every explanation. The coronavirus may be happening to you, but this profound mystery is the deeper truth of what you are.

Take care of yourself, and let others care for you. Sometimes the way through is just letting it be.

 

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The Mirror of Religion

If god is not “up there” and heaven is not “after this,” then why would anyone get involved with religion?

One obvious answer might be to make money – speaking primarily on behalf of TV evangelists and other hucksters who exploit our fantasies of immortality and our craving for absolute answers. They hook us in by the thousands with a promise of prosperity in this life and everlasting security in the next.

Not surprisingly, the only ones getting richer are the hucksters themselves.

Once upon a time religion provided people with big stories, deep traditions, and vital connections to their communities, the larger environment of life, and to the present mystery of reality. Religion gave us grounding and orientation, identity and purpose, meaning and hope.

Then something happened.

Our mind began to open to reality in new ways. Where all that business of religion had focused our contemplation on the mysteries of life within and around us, we became increasingly aware of an impersonal objectivity to things. This has famously been called the “disenchantment of the world,” and it came as the consequence of a kind of centripetal integration of our individual personality, bringing with it a newfound ability to discriminate between external facts and internal feelings.

This evolution of consciousness didn’t necessarily mean that the sacred myths and sacramental cosmology of religion had to be abandoned. The change in awareness, however, did invite us to interpret the stories in a new light.

Whereas our mythopoeic imagination was the generative source of the myths, we could now appreciate their principal metaphors as translucent revelations of a deeper mystery.

Take this analogy …

A landscape painting can be “read outward” for its representational realism and factual accuracy. Something separate from the work of art is that by which it is recognized and evaluated. But a true appreciation of the painting as art requires that we also “read inward” to its creative source and inspiration in the artist’s personal experience. We are not thereby attempting to go back to its origin in the past; rather we are going deeper into something that is genuinely a mystery, of which the painting is a revelation in this present moment.

As we meditate on it, that same experiential in-sight is awakened in us.

The shift of consciousness mentioned earlier, where seemingly all of a sudden reality confronted our mind as an objective fact, is paradoxically when this inward path into the grounding mystery of being became available for the first time. Having established our separate center of personal self-awareness (ego), reality opened simultaneously beyond us in the objective order of existence, and within us as the subjective depths of our being.

Those sacred stories of religion could now be read inward as poetic and metaphorical revelations of our own grounding mystery. For so long they were spun almost by instinct like spider webs out of our creative imagination, captivating our attention and making life fascinating and meaningful. But whereas earlier their action and imagery had been projected around us, now for the first time we could follow that projection inward to its spiritual source.

To interpret god metaphorically, reading inward to its deeper significance and expressive potency, necessitated a shift in religion’s self-understanding. Instead of orienting us outward to some supernatural being “up there,” god’s metaphorical meaning urged upon us a newfound sense of our creative authority.

As a poetic construct of the human imagination, the character and virtue of god as played out in the myths (and read inward) turned the sacred narratives from windows into mirrors.

Our “window” on reality – that is to say, on the objective and factual realm – would become the special portal of science. And our “mirror” into the subjective and intuitive realm was now positioned to serve religion’s own progress as a system of stories, metaphors, meditative practices, and ethical commitments that could guide human evolution into a “post-theistic” future.

The prefix “post” in this term shouldn’t be mistaken as “anti” or “a” (as in atheist) since post-theism is not focused on – or even concerned with – the existence of god. Instead, it provides the structure and vocabulary for making meaning, building community, and actualizing our higher nature as human beings – “after” (post) we have learned to contemplate god as a mirror into ourselves and taken responsibility for our creation.

Our own individual development through the early years and into adulthood traces the same path as our cultural evolution.

There was a time when stories and their performance, otherwise known as imaginative play, were the world we lived in day and night. We regarded their characters, plots, and adventures as laced invisibly into the landscape of everyday life. Some characters became magnetic attractors in the shaping and orientation of our developing personality. In a way, they were more “real” to us than the flesh-and-blood members of our own house and neighborhood.

But then something happened.

Partly as a consequence of our socialization, and partly a natural stage in the development of our mind, the mapping of language onto an objective reality separate and apart from us began to demand more of our attention. This “real world” of impersonal facts would eventually become the realm of our adult everyday life.

Those childhood stories of the backyard playground needed to be left behind, put on the shelf … or read inward for new meaning.

It’s not news that most adults in advanced societies nowadays are caught on the Wheel of Suffering, in lives that have been flattened out and drained of creative imagination. We have to turn on a screen or sit in a theater for the experiences we can barely recall from childhood.

If and when we go to church, we are likely to hear about a god “up there” and a heaven “after this,” but there is little if any inward depth-experience of a mystery that cannot be named or fully known.

Our religions presume to be windows on reality, telling us what to believe about a being that no one has ever encountered. Their “windows” are not the true window of science, yet their competing (and archaic) accounts of objective reality are obligated on devotees under threat of excommunication and eternity in hell if they cannot believe.

The tragic irony is that the stories these religions take so literally are actually reflecting back to them insights into our own deeper nature, and truths with power that can set us free for the liberated life.

 

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Coming to Terms

To exist is to “stand out” (Latin existere) as an individual ego or “I,” centered in yourself and tracking on your own timeline. Of course, this timeline is not interminable, meaning that it will not continue forever. One day you will die and pass into extinction. Nothing in time is permanent; nothing is everlasting.

Now, I hear you thinking: What do you mean, nothing is everlasting? What about god? What about my soul? What about … me?!

Self-conscious human beings have suffered psychological torment for many thousands of years by the awareness of mortality, that “I” will not be around indefinitely. Most of us have lost loved ones and cherished pets along the way, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to realize that your time is also running out.

As a kind of therapeutic response to this existential realization, our species has invented many cultural variations of what we can call a “departure narrative” – stories about leave-taking, about getting out of this mortal condition, and securing your continued existence on the other side of death.

This is probably not where “god stories” got their start, since the idea of a personified intention behind the arrangement and events of our lives is historically much older than a belief in our own immortality.

In earliest religion, known as animism, humans related to their natural environment in a kind of ritual dialogue whereby nature was acknowledged and petitioned for its provident support of what they needed to live and prosper. These rituals coordinated human concerns with the seasons, cycles, and natural forces they relied on.

Even the gods at this stage were not immortal. They were not everlasting beings regarded as separate from the temporal realm of life, death, and rebirth. The purpose of religion was not departure but participation in the Great Round. Gods served the essential function of personifying the intention humans perceived (and imagined) behind the natural events impinging on their existence.

Eventually these invisible agencies were conceived as separate from the phenomena and realms they supervised.

Heaven, not just the starry firmament above Earth but the place where these superintendents resided, where they waited around and occasionally descended to take in the worship and earnest prayers of their devotees down below, was given a place in the emerging imaginarium of a new type (and stage) of religion, known as theism.

If these invisible (and now independent) personalities exist apart from the physical fields they oversee and control, then why not us? Actually it was more likely that the further development of ego formation in humans prompted this new idea of the gods as existing separate from their “body of work” (i.e., the realm of material existence).

Maybe “I” am also separate from this body. Perhaps “I” am not subject to mortality after all. When the body dies, “I” will go on to live elsewhere …

Thus was the departure narrative invented, to comfort you by dismissing death as not really happening to (“the real”) you – to this separate, independent, and immortal “I.” Since then, religions have been redirecting the focus of devotees away from time and towards eternity, away from physical reality and towards metaphysical ideals, away from this life to an imagined life-to-come.

It was all supposedly for the therapeutic benefit of dis-identifying yourself with what is impermanent and passing away. Very soon, however, it became a way of enforcing morality upon insiders as well. If you behave yourself, follow the rules, and obey those in authority, it will go well for you on the “other side.” If you don’t – well, there’s something else in store, and it’s not pleasant.

And to think how much of this was originally inspired out of human anxiety over the prospect of extinction. An independent and detachable personality that will survive death and be with god in a heaven far above and away from here – all designed to save you from the body, time, and a final extinction.

Religion’s departure narrative may bring some consolation and reassurance, but it does so by stripping away the profound (even sacred) value of your life in time and distracting you from the present mystery of being alive.

So far, we have been meditating on the axis of Time, and on your life in time. As a reminder, one day you will die and pass into extinction. But as you contemplate this fact, rather than resolving the anxiety that naturally arises by reaching for some departure narrative, there is an invitation here for you to shift awareness to a second axis, that of Being.

An experience far more exquisite and transformative than your departure for heaven is available right here and now, in this passing moment of your life. This experience is “post-ego,” meaning that it is possible only by virtue of the fact that you have already formed a separate and self-conscious “I,” and are at least capable now of dropping beneath or leaping beyond its hard-won and well-defended identity.

While the departure narrative promises a way out of Now and away from Here, this “fulfillment narrative” invites you into the fullness of life here-and-now.

Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths: let your body relax into being. There’s nothing here that needs to be clung to or pushed away. All of the identity contracts that identify you with this tribe or that party; this rank or that role; this, that, or another label of distinction defining who you are and where you belong – drop it all, at least for now.

Imagine all of those things as tie-lines anchoring you to your place in society, and now you are unhooking from them one at a time.

As you do this, it will gradually become easier to quietly drop into your body. Here, deeper below all those crisscrossing tie-lines at the surface of who you are, your awareness opens to the feeling of being alive. Down through the nervous system and beneath the biorhythms of breathing, thrumming, pulsing, and resting, you at last come to a place that is no place, a “where” that is nowhere – the Nowhere, or here-and-now as we like to call it.

Each deeper layer in the architecture of your inner life requires a letting-go of what is above.

Each successive intentional release further empties your consciousness of content – first beliefs and the “I” who believes; then thoughts and the emotions attached to thoughts – until nothing is left to think about or even to name. I call this descending-inward path to an ineffable Emptiness the “kenotic” path, from the Greek word (kenosis) for “an emptying.”

The inward descent of Being and the letting-go or self-emptying it entails is also a highly effective practice in preparing you for a second path, of outward ascent into the greater reality that includes so many others and much else besides you. I call this ascending path “ecstatic,” also from the Greek, meaning “to stand out.”

But whereas “to exist” means to stand out as an individual ego, the ecstatic path is about stepping out or going beyond your individual ego in transpersonal communion with others – and ultimately with Everything, with the All-that-is-One.

In this same timeless moment, therefore, a profound and ineffable Emptiness invites you within and beneath who you think you are, as an expansive and manifold Communion invites you out and beyond yourself. Your awakening to this present mystery is at once the fullness of time and the fulfillment of your human nature.

There’s no need to leave.

 

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The Four Hells

The idea of the “liberated life” is a big theme in this blog on creative change. It’s my best label for what we are all seeking as human beings, and is probably one of the more easily misunderstood themes I write about. We are socially conditioned to think of “liberation” as the experience of being set free from something, which inevitably fixes our focus on what we’re moving out of or away from.

But the liberated life is much more than that. It is also about how we live, what we live for, and the joie de vivre that opens to us when we are fully present to the moment.

For the most part, most of us most of the time are probably not fully present to the moment – and for good reasons, or at least they seem legitimate to us. And yet, for a large majority these reasons aren’t all that easy to articulate, must less identify. We’ve just taken this position – or were we put in this position? – and now we aren’t sure how to get back to what’s real.

Let’s review how we manage to remove ourselves from the present moment, why we do it, and where we end up spending (really, wasting) much of our lives. As a map I will use what we can think of as “the four hells” – hell as the place we go when we’re not fully present and living the liberated life. 

In classical theistic theology, hell is understood as “separation from god.” And if god is taken as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality (or the real presence of mystery) then this definition can still be deeply relevant to a post-theistic spirituality in our day. 

Soul PeaceThe first and deepest hell is named Soul without Peace. By “soul” I simply mean our inner life, not some metaphysical entity residing in the body. In my lexicon, soul is not separate (or separable) from body but includes it – all the way “down” from our self-conscious identity (ego), through a sentient nervous system, into the metabolic urgencies and provident rhythms of organismic life, to the very edge of the dark abyss of matter itself.

Early trauma and chronic stress agitate this “inner state” of our soul. Instead of relaxing into being, we are insecure, anxious, and restless.

My diagram depicts our restless soul, a soul without peace, as a scribbling spiral that can’t stop spinning. There’s too much to worry about, too much to be on our guard against. We are neurotically unstable and emotionally imbalanced, which motivates us to reach for, lean on, and cling to whatever can pacify our fears.

Love FreedomWhen we’re like this, grabbing onto anything and anyone to help us feel secure, our relationships can’t grow. And because much early trauma and chronic stress is perpetrated on us by abusive or neglectful parents and other taller powers, our continued dependency on them despite such conditions means that our earliest relationships provided no real freedom for us to be ourselves.

Of course, Love without Freedom (the second hell) is not really love, since genuine love will always respect and accommodate the needs, the voice, and the will of each partner. When we are neurotically attached to someone who manages their insecurity (restless soul) by controlling us, we are both demanding something from each other that neither can satisfy.

Such co-dependent relationships are profoundly dysfunctional, and in our desperate quest for inner peace we end up locking ourselves inside.

Work PurposeWhen we are captives in the second hell, falling into the third hell – Work without Purpose – is inevitable. The obvious reason is that work, which can be defined as any activity that requires effort, is focused on an objective, takes time, and draws on our knowledge and skill, will involve our interaction and often our strategic collaboration with others.

So, if we don’t appreciate – and some of us actually can’t tolerate – the need for freedom in healthy human relationships, then we probably won’t be able to work well with others, either.

Purposeful work doesn’t have to be big-scale, world changing work. “Purpose” here has more to do with the creative intention and focused dedication we bring to whatever we do. When we can’t work well with others, partnerships, teams, and committees get tangled up in “second hell complications,” making it necessary at times to disengage for the sake of keeping our sanity and preventing burnout.

Life MeaningSo what happens when we lack inner peace (first hell), are trapped in dysfunctional relationships (second hell), and languish in work that is stressful and pointless (third hell)? The answer is that life itself becomes meaningless. Life without Meaning (the fourth hell) afflicts a large number of us, and its signature experience is what we know as depression.

Without higher purpose, personal freedom, or inner peace, everything around us seems absurd and insignificant.

At such times, we don’t realize that life is meaningless precisely because we are so preoccupied with managing things in the first three hells. Our anxiety (first hell) is damaging our relationships (second hell), which is making it impossible to cooperate with others and achieve meaningful goals (third hell).

4 HellsIf we step back to take in the entire map of the four hells, we get a clear view of how the anxiety of our inner life is really the deep source of the depression in which all of life seems meaningless.

It is well known – at least among research psychologists, if not the larger public where there’s money to be made on keeping it a secret – that anxiety (Soul without Peace) and depression (Life without Meaning) are two poles of a binary (comorbid) condition that could just as well be named “clinical unhappiness.”

It is the human condition which has inspired much of the brooding expressions in our art, literature, religion, and philosophy throughout history. It’s also what has pushed our species to the brink of self-destruction time and again.

Once in hell, we have a hell of a time getting out, and all our desperate efforts only manage to cast us deeper in.

What’s needed is simply that we come back to the present moment and learn how to relax into being. The really real is always and already right where we are. When we cultivate inner peace, we can enjoy freedom in our relationships, bring a mindful purpose to our work, and create a beautiful life of meaning.

The very place that our anxiety and depression are most palpable and overwhelming (the body) is sacred ground, where the liberated life begins. With each breath we can surrender ourselves to the present mystery of being alive.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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