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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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Thinking About Religion

Recently in the Wisdom Circle I attend we engaged a discussion on the difference between “inflexible” and “flexible” knowledge. Inflexible knowledge is when our understanding of something is fused to the particular example by which it was first introduced. We are not yet able to think of it abstractly – or in other words, apart from its concrete instantiation.

Flexible knowledge is achieved when we’ve reached an understanding of the principles informing this and conceivably all examples of the same type.

Needless to say, education needs to be committed to helping people move from inflexible to flexible knowledge in any subject. Thankfully the normal progression in brain development unfolds through a “concrete operational” stage and opens a capacity for “formal operations” and abstract reasoning by the second decade.

And yet, there are plenty of us adults whose knowledge of a subject is oddly inflexible, given the direction our brains would otherwise have us go. I could pick any number of subjects, but as it is one of my favorites in this blog, let’s consider religion.

Probably most people I know hold an inflexible knowledge of religion.

  • This may be due to the fact that their only exposure to it was back in childhood, and then only on holidays and special occasions. Now as adults they still consider religion (in this case, Christianity) through the filter of what church was like for them back then.
  • Or perhaps in their younger years they were victims of religious abuse – made to feel guilty, depraved, and hell-bound unless they submitted to church authority and “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” It wasn’t possible to get out fast enough, but they left with the impression of religion – again, this religion, this particular church – as repressive, judgmental, and narrow-minded.
  • And then it’s possible that their inflexible knowledge of religion is more than anything else a symptom of our modern admiration of science and secular interests. Science set us free from superstition, magical thinking, and metaphysical nonsense. All of that is religion, and we’re better off without it. Not some early or traumatic exposure, in other words, but really a lack of exposure whatsoever: just religion in general, thrown under a categorical gloss as pre-modern and culturally irrelevant.

I don’t dispute the claim that much of religion today is irrelevant. The various examples of religion we see around us do indeed appear stuck in tradition and wedded to worldviews millennia out of date. But does this mean that religion itself is obsolete?

Let’s go back to the critical distinction made above. Could it be that the widespread negative opinion on religion held by most people I know is itself a product and feature of inflexible knowledge? Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you hold such an opinion. For you, religion is a hopeless tangle of pre-scientific notions, irrational fears, abusive authority, worn-out convictions, and otherworldly distractions – made up, let us say, of just these five threads.

Here are some questions for you to consider.

Numerous Exposures

On how many separate occasions were you confronted by all five threads of religion, as you are defining it? Maybe you think that one exposure to abusive authority was enough! I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed. But is it rational (or fair) to conclude from your one negative exposure that nothing of genuine value is to be found there?

Maybe you had numerous exposures to the same abuse in that church. Still, is it reasonable for you to transfer your indictment from that particular church to its parent religion, and from there to all religions, even to religion itself?

Different Angles

Through how many facets of religion were you confronted by all five of these threads? Examples of what I mean by an angle (or facet) would include sacred ceremony, theological instruction, moral codes, social structure, orthodox beliefs, devotional practices, and mystical experience.

Each angle of exposure renders a unique impression of what a religion is about. Has your experience of religion been multifaceted or more narrow in focus? If more narrow, is it rational of you to inflate one facet into a representation of this religion as a whole – and again, of all religions and even religion itself?

Wider Variety

How many different kinds of religion have you experienced, or even carefully studied? If you had a negative experience once, or even many times in a single religion (say the Christian church of your youth), is it logical for you to conclude that churches of other Christian denominations, or faith communities of other non-Christian religions are the same?

Exposure to a wider variety of religions forces open the conceptual frame by which you define one religion or another – unless, of course, you are ready to take just your example as “religion,” dismissing all the others as something else. But how reasonable is that?

Deeper Elements

How far under the surface features of religion have you gone, in any kind of intellectually disciplined analysis? By deeper elements I mean not only the more esoteric notions (i.e., reserved for those on the inside) and historically formative material that makes each religion unique, but (deeper still) the intuitions of presence, ground, unity, and mystery – the source-experience of religion itself.

Such intuitions may be mediated and expressed through a religion’s symbol system, but their direct experience is spontaneous and ineffable (beyond words). A disciplined analysis can break into a myth, for instance, in order to contemplate its root metaphors. But these, rather than taken literally (which by definition amounts to a denial of depth), are followed to the edge of mystery and finally released for the direct experience itself.


You can be said to possess a flexible knowledge of religion when (1) you’ve had numerous exposures to a single religion (2) from several distinct angles; when (3) you have participated across a wide variety of different religions, and successfully (4) penetrated its surface to the present mystery of reality, to the ground of your own being where all is one.

With those qualifications in place, we can now pick up our dialogue on religion.

 

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The Mandala of Four Aims

In a recent post entitled Refresh and Restart I introduced the idea of religion as having four aims, considered on the analogy of computer software applications. While every program needs to be compatible with the computer’s deeper operating system, it will also have a specific design objective in what it does – organize data, calculate numbers, generate text, create graphics, edit videos, play games, and so forth. You won’t get a spreadsheet to trim and splice segments of video; it wasn’t designed for that.

Similarly, a given religion (take your pick) needs to be compatible with and supported by the operating system of human spiritual intelligence. This is the thread of our quadratic intelligence that intuits the deeper ground and higher wholeness of existence, as well as our communion with all things.

When religion loses this thread – by that peculiar combination of ignórance, conviction, and dogmatism so common today – it ceases to be true in the sense of expressing and speaking to our spiritual quest for oneness.

Assuming fidelity to this deeper register of spirituality, a religion can also be evaluated according to how effectively it accomplishes one or more of four aims. Even though a given religion will carry all four, certain historical, social, and psychological conditions will focus its preference on one more than the others.

The danger is that these others will be pushed out of the frame altogether by a growing obsession with this one, now absolute truth. This is a second way that religion ceases to be true: when it makes one way (or aim) the only way of salvation.

The diagram above illustrates the four aims of religion arranged as a mandala or sacred design. I also want to make a case for arranging them just as I have, as a polarity of opposites on a horizontal and vertical axis. This particular arrangement shifts our contemplation from a mere two-dimensional pattern to the mandala of four aims as also a matrix of meaning.

The four aims, I am suggesting, are basic to our construction of meaning in the way they orient our quest into four major fields (or zones) of human concern.

First Zone: Tribal Solidarity

Because humans depend on social bonding not only to survive infancy but to ‘be somebody’ and live a meaningful life, the social concerns of belonging, intimacy, trust, and group loyalty continue to figure prominently throughout our lifespan. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is one of our severest punishments.

As the personality individuates a unique identity (ego), the process of differentiation must be counterbalanced by affiliation in order to keep us properly connected to our tribe. Person, personal, and personality are all forms of the basic idea of persona, referring to the ‘masks’ we put on (or roles we play) in our interactions with others.

The arc of a human career – through the changing roles of family, work, and service to our community – is profoundly affected by the nature and quality of relationships that sustain us in tribal solidarity.

Second Zone: Worldly Success

Still, the prosperity of every society depends on more than strong bonds among its members. Our young must not only be loved, supported, and encouraged in their development as individuals, but they also require the necessary education, training, resources, and opportunities to take their place in our shared economy.

As parents, we work and hope that our children will themselves grow up to work and hope the same for their children. No parent has ever dreamed of having bums and freeloaders as descendants. Instead, we want them to do their best, to accomplish the goals set before them, to one day be successful and responsible adults.

Across the cultures worldly success has been measured in terms of material prosperity, a healthy family, good reputation, and a long life.

Third Zone: Heavenly Hope

While not all religions hold the same view of what happens or where we go when we die, they all articulate visions of life that expand the frame beyond our fourscore-and-ten (if we’re lucky on that metric of worldly success). Even if we’re not believers, most of us have at least contemplated our short measure of life against a backdrop of the generations and even cosmic time.

Regardless of whether we ascribe to a doctrine of personal immortality, we all hold the hope that our lives matter, that good behavior counts for something, and that not everything about us will simply rot away to nothing after we die.

‘Heavenly’, then, implies the larger context and longer view of our life which serves to amplify (rather than extinguish) the precious value of each moment, up to and including the very last one.

Zone Four: Mystical Union

Even if many religions don’t promote it as a bona fide orientation or aim, they all – that is, the ones that are true in the two senses mentioned earlier – acknowledge a fundamental distinction between our beliefs about god and our experience of God. The case change is meant to reflect this difference, between a present mystery (‘G’) and the names, concepts, attributes, and personality we may attach to it in our mind (‘g’).

When a religion’s concept of god gets authorized and fixed in place as orthodoxy, the availability of that mystery to our present experience is closed off – or veiled – by the meaning draped over it.

That drape or veil creates the illusion of God as an object (god), separate from us as a being among beings rather than the Being of beings – that is to say, as the ground of being-itself. The aim of mystical union is to lift away the veil of separation for a present experience of the mystery.


With the four aims now in view and more fully defined, we can briefly take note of some creative tensions among them – and of the entire mandala as a matrix of meaning.

The horizontal axis sets tribal solidarity and worldly success in opposition, insofar as the process of ego formation and ‘making a name for ourselves’ involves separating from those primary bonds where our sense of security first took root.

For its part, the tribe can pull back on this process too hard with its expectations of obedience and conformity, traditionally presided over by the patron deities of theism. From the other side, an unrestrained egoism will brashly disregard tribal values for the sake of individual gain and glory, as is widespread today especially in the North Atlantic societies of the modern West.

The vertical axis between the aims of heavenly hope and mystical union carries a tension of positive and negative attitudes, respectively, as they relate to the conventional arrangement of those horizontal concerns. On the positive side, heavenly hope anticipates a final reunion (accent on community) with those heroes, saints, and loved ones who departed before us. It also holds the promised reward for our faith, virtue, and sacrifice in this life.

With our ‘treasure in heaven’, we can more easily share our time and possessions with others who need them, as well as find strength to endure hardship and loss.

Negatively, the path to mystical union is universally depicted as necessitating a retreat into solitude (apart from community) where we surrender our attachments, ambitions, and finally our personal identity (i.e., our worldly success) to the essential mystery of oneness.

It’s important to understand that ‘heavenly destiny’ and ‘ground of being’ are both operating in the matrix of meaning as metaphors which serve to open awareness beyond the limits of tribal affections (us and ours) and egoic entanglement (me and mine). A literal reading of these metaphors turns them into distant and esoteric locations, stripping them of their power to facilitate the breakthrough of consciousness that true religion makes possible.

 
 

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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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A Method of Dialogue, Step One: Preparation

A method is not like a machine, where once you get it going you can step back and leave it alone. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a method of dialogue and community formation. To step back from dialogue is to abort the process and abandon community.

Furthermore, dialogue and community simply do not happen where individuals are not invested in the work.

That’s why PREPARATION is the first step or phase in the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue that we’re exploring in this five-part series of blog posts (Introduction + each of the four steps). If individuals and would-be partners in dialogue mistakenly think that they are stepping into some kind of automatic machine for making community and cranking out creative resolutions, the process doesn’t stand a chance.

The higher consciousness represented in the spiritual phenomenon of community does not (and cannot) exist separate from the individuals whose creative intentions combine and fuse in its consilient effect.

Neither is PREPARATION for dialogue a simple routine that we do as a way of getting ready for the really important stuff. As an organic process, community awakens and unfolds out of the deeper presence that partners bring to the encounter. And although I am analyzing my method of dialogue into four steps, we shouldn’t think of these as stacking blocks or even as stepping stones where we leave one for the next in line.

It’s preferable to regard them as phases, as in the developmental transformations from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Just as the butterfly doesn’t stack on top of these earlier manifestations or leave them behind, but rather incorporates and emerges out of them, our individual PREPARATION for dialogue is the interior source out of which community grows. No egg, no butterfly. No intentional presence of individual partners, no dialogue and no genuine community.

What I’m calling intentional presence can be further analyzed into three virtues, by which I don’t mean moral qualities but actuated powers, as when we speak of the potency of medicine as its virtue. In the case of our intentional presence as individuals, the virtues in our intention to be fully present can be differentiated in terms of our being grounded in existence, centered in ourselves, and open to reality.

When we are grounded, centered, and open, we are becoming more fully present.

It’s important to understand that these virtues of intentional presence are not the result of effort, as if we must work to become grounded in being, centered in ourselves, and open to reality. The truth is that we are already these, but our mind gets distracted or lured away from this truth, tangled up and captivated inside its own designs.

Each form of existence is grounded in being; if not, it wouldn’t be. Each individual is centered in itself; if not, it wouldn’t be one. And it’s also true that we are always open to reality – to the turning cosmos (or ‘universe’) and vibrant web of life; if not, we would instantly perish.

So we require some sort of practice – a technique, a ritual, a simple meditative exercise – that can help refocus our conscious attention on this place and this moment, commonly called the here-and-now. There is no single and set way of doing this, but the counsel from our numerous wisdom traditions is pretty straightforward: Be still. Be quiet. Close your eyes and just breathe. Let yourself simply relax into being.

If a focal object in front of you helps orient your attention; if soothing music and soft light help you calm down; if counting your breath occupies your mind and keeps it from wandering away, then include these supports as needed.

The purpose of such a practice is to allow all your insecurities, all your concerns, all your judgments, and all your expectations to just fall away. What’s left is boundless presence: grounded in being, centered right where you are, and open to it all.

As we should expect, such practices of intentional presence take on the character of our local cultures and traditions. And because historically it has been the enterprise responsible for mediating our minds to the present mystery of reality, we should neither be surprised nor offended if such practices still carry some of the formal features of religion.

It is possible to ‘liberate’ intentional presence from these traditional accouterments, however; which is what we must do if our aspiration is to engage dialogue and create community across cultures in this increasingly secular and global age.

Individual PREPARATION ensures – or more accurately, makes it more likely – that the productive dialogue and consilient effect of genuine community can arise. When partners take the time to be fully present (grounded, centered, and open), the dialogical phase of consideration can begin. We’ll explore that next.

 

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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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