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Taking Back Our Light

We all have to negotiate a reality that isn’t always interested in our personal happiness or human fulfillment. Distracted, absent, or abusive parents, a dysfunctional family system, and a larger society that operates under the spell of what Charles Tart called a “consensus trance,” conspire to make our journey of self-actualization complicated, to say the least.

Many of us don’t make it through. Instead, we end up stuck inside a dense and sticky web of neurotic insecurities, emotional attachments, and dogmatic convictions that try to stuff the complexity of our human experience into a tight little box of absolute truths.

Shrinking our world-horizon in this way gives the illusion of having things under control, when in reality – well, we are not very much in reality at all. We are neither in touch with what’s really real, nor very real ourselves.

In this blog I aim to search out and expose the forces and conditions that hold us back from our deepest potential as human beings. And while most of these have to do with that near-and-dear center of self-conscious personal identity each of us knows as “I-myself,” I persist in my defense of ego as a developmental achievement of penultimate importance. I say “penultimate” because a well-formed ego is not our ultimate aim but rather a necessary step toward the realization of that aim, which is to become fully human.

My diagram depicts the intended path of our fulfillment as human beings, in that vertical axis extending upwards from “Ground” to “Ideal.” By ground I am referring specifically to the grounding mystery of our physical life as sentient beings. The path of our individual development, as well as of our collective evolution as a species, follows the gradual awakening of consciousness (sentience) to self-consciousness in the formation of an ego.

Even after this higher perch has been attained, of course, the deeper mystery of our animal nature continues with its business below the threshold of conscious awareness, and far below ego itself.

This process of growth, development, and maturity would very naturally unfold in the direction of our fulfillment or self-actualization, following the intrinsic aim of our nature – what I am calling our ideal. I don’t mean by this term to suggest that our destiny is to become perfect, except to become perfectly human. It’s instructive that our word “perfect” literally refers to what is finished or carried to completion, nothing at all like the air-brushed magazine model whose perfection is fake and superficial.

Just as an apple seedling develops toward its species ideal of a mature apple-bearing tree, so do human beings grow and gradually awaken as fully conscious, freely creative, self-transcending, socially responsible, and ethically engaged members in community. I regard those five qualities as the virtues of our human ideal.

Because we are a profoundly social species, the perfection of our nature requires the provident support and guiding wisdom of our tribe, earliest on from our family of origin. This support – and interference, as we’ll see – is represented by the horizontal axis in my diagram, intersecting the natural course of our self-actualization.

The major focus and shaping force of our self-conscious identity (ego) is our interactions with others.

We are given implicit and explicit instructions on how to behave in these interactions: where to sit, when to stand, how to speak, and what to do. These codes constitute our tribe’s morality, the primary concern of which is to forge group cohesion and enforce individual compliance. Depending on how liberal or strict our moral system was growing up, as to its balance of freedom and constraint, some aspects of our human nature had to be screened before they were permitted on stage.

To be approved, stroked and promoted into our social roles (remembering that ego is first of all an impersonator), we found it necessary to keep aspects of our natural self off-stage and hidden from public view. This wasn’t something we ourselves were deciding along the way, mind you. In order to receive from others what we needed to feel safe, loved, capable and worthy, we did our best to make ourselves acceptable to them.

And this meant leaving parts of ourselves – not the constructed social self (ego) but our natural-born self – out of the group picture, so to speak.

You might consider this a terrible and inhumane program of systematic brainwashing, and of course you would be correct – in a way. In fact, it’s the socializing process basic to every human family, organization, nation and culture. Aspects of our natural self, the evolutionary gifts and capacities we are born with, have to be trained and shaped to fit the moral landscape of our tribe. Psychologically it is called sublimation: pulling back on these natural propensities in order to regulate and redirect them along socially acceptable channels of expression.

Some of them simply aren’t permitted, which meant that we had to push them behind us and keep them there, where they became the shadow of our personality.

The popular concept of our shadow identifies it as the “Mr. Hyde” lurking behind the “Dr. Jekyll” of our socialized persona; as the dark, deviant, and destructive part of ourselves – the beast inside just waiting for its opportunity to break out and wreak havoc on our tidy moral arrangements. I find it more meaningful, and useful, to think of our shadow as those aspects of our natural-born self that we had to suppress in the interest of being recognized, accepted, and respected by others as “one of us.”

There are five evolutionary gifts in particular which we all bring with us at birth, but that get screened off stage to become our shadow. If we think of these “screens” according to how much of our natural light they filter out or allow through, then we might further identify various densities or degrees of opacity. A denser or more opaque screen prevents a greater portion of light from passing through and onto the social stage where ego is busy winning friends and influencing people.

The more opaque the screen, the darker our shadow becomes.

Paradoxically a darker shadow withholds more of our light. Like Lucifer of Christian mythology whose name, interestingly enough, means “light-bearer,” our shadow is where the suppressed, disowned, and forgotten light of our natural self can be recovered and reintegrated with our personal identity. By such reconciliation with our shadow we can regain our integrity and be made whole again, which means, psychologically speaking, that we need to stop running from and fighting with Lucifer, if we have any hope of taking back our light.

To the left of Shadow in my diagram I’ve illustrated how these screens block or filter the light of our evolutionary gifts, again referring to what we bring with us as our natural endowment at birth. The five gifts I propose are faith, spontaneity, imagination, curiosity, and wonder. To varying degrees these capacities are gradually modulated, or traumatically closed off, during the process of ego formation.

When Jesus counseled his disciples to be “like little children,” saying that the kingdom of god belongs to such as them (Matthew 18:2-4), he was challenging all of us to take back our light and live …

  • In an existential posture of basic trust and openness to life (Faith)

  • Fully present to the opportunity of each moment (Spontaneity)

  • With our creative mind actively engaged (Imagination)

  • Always seeking to explore, discover, and learn new things (Curiosity), and

  • In an attitude of radical amazement before the mystery of being (Wonder)

The work of taking back our light, reclaiming our evolutionary gifts, and becoming whole again starts now.

 

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Evolutionary Faith

Even though I’m an amateur blogger, I like to pay attention to which posts my readers are visiting more often. Presumably more visits indicates a greater interest in a particular topic or idea, and I like to think there’s an opportunity for advancing the dialogue together. Among the things I write about, the topics of faith, spirituality, and religion seem to be most interesting – to my readers as well as to me personally.

I know that some would prefer to drop the whole set and get on with life in the modern age, seeing how much confusion, bigotry, persecution, and suffering have been perpetrated for their sake and in their name. But I’ve argued for a long time that these three forces in human history and experience cannot simply be dismissed just because they happen to be problematic.

Indeed, they are problematic precisely because they are so critically important and essential to our continuing human story.

Back in the 1970s James Fowler, a Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, set about exploring the nature and development of faith, which he broadly defined as the act of relating to reality (“the universal”) and creating meaning. Fowler worked closely with Erik Erikson’s psychosocial model of development, which was and remains the standard theory in the field. His definition of faith cuts beneath the popular notion of it as either a more or less fixed set of religious beliefs (e.g., the Christian faith) or a willingness to believe something without evidence or logic to support it.

Fowler’s idea of faith as a basic orientation to reality and life in the world is therefore nonreligious in any formal sense, and much more experiential.

In his research, Fowler identified six stages of faith – seven including a “pre-stage” condition which he named undifferentiated or “primal” faith. Out of this undifferentiated state the developing individual’s mode of engaging reality and making meaning evolves – through childhood, into adulthood, and beyond. As in Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Fowler found numerous points where development can get arrested, delayed, or fixated, resulting in a kind of spiritual pathology that slows progress and compromises the individual’s successful transit to fulfillment or self-actualization.

My diagram correlates Fowler’s stages of faith with the historical development of religion through its three main types: animism, theism, and post-theism. A way of understanding this correlation would be to see individual faith as the prompt (inducement or drive) for changes in the character of religion at the cultural level; but also reciprocally, in terms of the way a society’s religion supports, shapes, and promotes (or stunts) the faith development of its members.

Finally, the big picture is revealed by those Yin-and-Yang poles of “communion” (mystical oneness) and “community” (ethical togetherness), which I recently explored in my post Human Progress. Once a separate center of self-conscious identity (ego) is established, reality can be engaged by going (1) deeper within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being, but also (2) by going farther beyond ourselves to the turning unity (universe) of all things.

The first path is a via negativa, releasing and subtracting all that goes into our individuation as separate individuals until only an experience of ineffable oneness remains: the mystical path. Stretching out and beyond us is a via positiva, affirming our unique existence and joining it to others in the experience of diversified togetherness: the ethical path.

Just seeing the dialectical continuum of communion (Yin) and community (Yang) there in front of us reveals the evolutionary principle working its way through Fowler’s stages of faith. From its genesis in the undifferentiated or primal experience of oneness where consciousness rests in its own grounding mystery, our engagement with reality progresses through ego formation and, finally, to the breakthrough realization that All is One – all of it together, including us. Our orientation in reality and the meaning of it all shifts, sometimes dramatically, from one paradigm to the next.

In the space remaining, I want to focus in on the three stages of faith that correlate to theism, the type of religion that is organized around the priorities of personal identity (deity and devotee), group membership, and a morality of obedience. Theism itself can be analyzed as evolving through three distinct phases: early, high, and late theism.

Early theism corresponds to the “mythic-literal” stage of faith, where the founding stories of world creation, tribal formation, heroic achievement, special revelation, and the consummation of history are taken quite literally, as setting our orientation in space and time.

In high theism, faith takes on a “synthetic-conventional” mode and the pressures of conformity motivate us to match our attitudes and outlook to the general view of our group. This is typically when the transcendence of god (the deity) is emphasized in worship and devotees are exhorted to worship god in humble submission, as they aspire to be more godly in their daily lives.

Because high theism has a tendency of getting locked into its arrangements of power and authority, it can often and actively work against the prompt of “individual-reflective” faith. As the individual awakens by a deeper curiosity and critical reason to doubts and insights that seem to challenge the tribal orthodoxy, religion can become a repressive force using guilt, along with the threat of excommunication and everlasting punishment, to bring the heretic back into its fold.

But it can happen that theism actually stimulates and encourages an individual’s quest for a relevant and secular (this-worldly) philosophy of life. The metaphorical foundations of theology (“god-talk”) are not only admitted but celebrated, and those sacred stories (myths) which had provided the incubator for our emerging identity back in childhood are now reappropriated as poetic lenses into the creative paradoxes of body and soul, self and other, humanity and nature.

Late theism need not be regarded as the “death” or “eclipse” of theism, but can rather be understood as the transition into an entirely new expression of spirituality and type of religion.

Post-theism – literally “after theism” – is about the farther reaches of human nature and the further stages in the development of faith. Fowler’s “conjunctive” faith actively brings together the heretofore disconnected and alienated aspects of our life: the shadow in our personality, the enemy we had worked so hard to keep at a distance, and the many variations on the theme of Truth that play out across the world cultures.

A “universalizing” faith beholds it All as One, seeking to live in and creatively cultivate genuine community, by such intentional practices as covenant fidelity, universal compassion, unconditional forgiveness, and absolute devotion to the wellbeing and fulfillment of all.

 

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Adventures On The Way

I make the case frequently in this blog, that our development as individuals and evolution as a species has the aim of preparing us for the liberated life in community. The liberated life is not really “about” the individual set free from all constraints that might hinder his or her personal fulfillment, but rather that the individual is liberated from all neurotic self-concern and empowered with creative authority to live for the wellbeing of all.

Just as the evolution of life leads to increasingly complex ecosystems where “all is one,” we have every reason to believe the same for ourselves.

The path to getting there, however, is fraught with hangups and pitfalls. Even given an internal aim (Aristotle’s entelechy) in humans for the liberated life in community, we have managed to bungle things up to such a degree that now, after 200,000 years of “modern” human (homo sapiens sapiens) evolution, we are still a long way from its realization in any but a very few.

Tragically, as quickly as these inspiring exceptions have arisen in our collective history as a herd, the rest of us have pulled them down, cut them up, burned them at stakes or pinned them to crosses. Only afterwards do we give them honor – when honoring a memory is safer than honoring a living example and joining the cause. Where exactly they are going and how the rest of us get stuck is the topic of this post.

My diagram illustrates the path of our human adventure, where we have been busy forming stable societies, cultivating the healthy self-conscious awareness of individuals, and following the lead of those enlightened few along the Shining Way to genuine community.

Let’s take a few moments to contemplate the distinctive wisdom of this higher state of communal life.

  1. In genuine community individuals are fully self-conscious and deeply invested in the wellbeing of others.
  2. They understand that what they do to, and for, the Whole comes back on themselves, for good or ill.
  3. They are committed to a shared vision of peace, freedom, compassion, justice, and goodwill.
  4. Whether as individuals, partnerships, teams, organizations, or in larger “markets” of the human enterprise, they respect the fact that no one, no generation or other species of life, can flourish apart from the Whole.
  5. Accordingly they take responsibility, individually and as a community, for the consequences of their choices across the entire web of life and its concourse of generations.
  6. As a community, their ultimate concern is with raising up children who are spiritually grounded, well-centered, and mindfully engaged with reality and in their life with others.
  7. Each individual accepts creative authority in the co-construction of meaning and strives to create a world that is provident, welcoming, and radically inclusive.

Wouldn’t that be something? It’s encouraging that we can imagine what it would be like, since even if the path from vision to reality is long, at least it’s conceivable. The best (and truest) religions have kept vigil near this ideal, providing inspiration and guidance for whatever slow progress we have been able to manage. But even religion has largely lost its way, where instead of inspiring virtue it has fomented violence, and instead of offering guidance for a more humane and liberated life in the world, it has become an escape route for a believer’s abandonment of the world.

To understand how this happened to religion – but more importantly, since religions are only human constructions, how this happens to you and me – we need to pause our reverie on the liberated life and take a closer look at the process leading up to the point where individuals are empowered to transcend themselves and join each other in genuine community.

You and I came to life with a new generation of higher primates known as homo sapiens. We did not drop in from somewhere else, and neither is our species separate from Earth’s magnificent web of life. Evolutionary science has confirmed with overwhelming evidence and beyond all doubt that our human animal nature has descended – and ascended – from the 3.7-billion-year-old matrix of biological life on this planet.

Its tidal rhythms and ancient sea brine still pulse through our veins. The gill slits of a primordial ocean-dwelling ancestor are still visible in the human fetus.

We also carry in our animal nature powerful codes of behavior called instincts. These too have evolved for the purpose of securing survival and a chance at procreation. Our animal instincts are not interested in being polite and waiting our turn. When the urge comes, our body has evolved with a compulsive need to gratify it. We arrived on the scene thanks to the many before us, both human and pre-human, who were successful to that end.

This instinct-driven animal nature is what our tribe had the responsibility of shaping and steering into a well-behaved member of society. It did this through a process of sublimation, where the code of instinctive behavior is overwritten with a new directive that works to restrain the impulse and then redirect it into an expression which is socially acceptable. That override of social constraints is what we know as morality, with its principal goal of conditioning and downloading a set of rules (“shalts” and “shalt nots”) that would predispose our social deference to the authority of taller powers.

To close off any potential uprise of rebellion in us, we may have also gotten the message that behind the authority of our taller powers was a Higher Power, who was not to be questioned but fearfully obeyed and devoutly worshiped.

In some cases, depending on the household and tribe where we came into the light of a self-conscious identity (ego), this shaping and motivating force of morality exercised more repression than restraint. Instead of a healthy interest in the social scene, we brooded a dark self-image of insecurity, shame, depravity, guilt, distrust and resentment. What should have developed into “ego strength” under the provident influence of caring and responsible adults, deformed instead into a personality riddled by anxiety, saddled with depression, neurotically attached, and chronically discontent.

If that diagnostic profile doesn’t accurately describe you, then you can be thankful. But you should also know that none of us get through the gauntlet of early childhood without our share of insecurity and its complications. Many of those complications are caused by a craving for whatever can fill our gnawing emptiness, contending at the same time with a persistent fear that it won’t be enough. This polarity of craving and fear is at the root of our word “ambition” (ambi = two), as a drive that exhausts its own energy and undermines its fulfillment.

The wisdom teachings invite us to reframe our ambition – this insatiable craving for what cannot satisfy us – using the principle of paradox.

Also with roots in the idea of duality, paradox is a form of “both/and” thinking. Paradoxically, the emptiness we have been trying to fill is also (both/and) the grounding mystery of our existence. In the separation of self-conscious identity (ego: “I”) from the sentient life of our animal nature, the vacancy we leave behind – simply because “I” am not there – is not a void but the very ground of our being, a generative (life-giving) emptiness and not a sucking drain.

The other essential paradox we need to understand is that our hard-won identity is both the end (as in finale) of our development as separate individuals and the beginning of our liberated life in genuine community (literally “together as one”). Our ego is embraced yet transcended; we “die” to our separate self and are “resurrected” into the communal spirit of a transpersonal reality.

The metaphorical language used here has obvious roots in the mythology of world religions, where the full paradoxical nature of the human journey has been explored and celebrated for millenniums.

 

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The View from Where You Are

The power of language as a tool for constructing meaning and making sense of things is painfully evident when we lack the words to build narratives and fashion lenses for taking our perspective on reality. One of the consequences of religion’s fall from relevance is that its historically deep toolbox of symbols and terms has also been left in the ditch.

If by chance religion’s aboriginal preoccupation is more than the metaphors and poetic fictions that have, time and again, distracted its attention into rabbit holes of literalism, fundamentalism, obscurantism, sectarianism, and terrorism, then the loss of its tools amounts to a serious – perhaps even catastrophic – setback for humanity, even as we gain a certain liberation from those pathological forms.

One of the important challenges for post-theism lies in this search-and-recovery for insights of authentic spirituality from the debris field of religious history.

It’s not necessary to revive a dying religion in order to pick its pockets for the genuine experience that may have gotten it started so long ago and infused it with life for a time. Religions are historical phenomena, and like everything else in time they will inevitably change and one day pass into extinction.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is concerned with our human experience of a timeless truth, of the present mystery of reality as it opens to us, here and now. It has more to do, then, with our perspective on reality and engagement with it – not as “something else” but as the essential nature and encompassing grandeur of being, and of our own very being.

Religion involves the subsequent task of relating this primary experience of being alive and immersed in a mystery we cannot fully grasp, to the ordinary and mundane features of everyday life. Such “linking back” (Latin religare) is the basic design and purpose of religion, constantly working against its tendency of obsessing over the linkages and losing sight of the primal mystery itself.

In this post we will try to refresh this view on and engagement with reality. We won’t talk of gods or saviors or special revelations granted to a privileged few so many millenniums ago. Religion is typically focused on the past and future, spending the present “religiously” reciting prayers, telling stories, and getting ready for the coming departure.

And yet, this very present is where the true mystery might be found, buried under the surface of all that religious business, to use one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, like a priceless treasure hidden in a dirt field.

So then, there’s no better – really, no other – place to begin than right where you are. And where is that, exactly? If you say right here and now, in this spacious center of the essential mystery, you would of course be correct – in a way. It’s true that you are always here and now (where and when else might you possibly be?), if by “you” we are referring to this individual human being that you affectionately name “I, myself.”

But the one who takes this assignment and performs the roles of your identity in the world is something other than your essential nature as a human manifestation of being.

Ego (Latin for “I”) is a separate center of self-conscious identity which was gradually split off from your essential nature through the process of socialization. Its unique location is really nothing more than the roles and scripts, instructions and feedback, preferences and beliefs that were assigned to you by your tribe. The conspiracy of these factors constructed a kind of negative space, as the soapy film separates and defines a bubble from what’s around it, into which you withdrew and slowly became conscious of yourself as “one of us.”

This process of ego formation also included a massive stage production of context, backdrop, setting and a supporting cast, for which I will use William Glasser’s term “quality world.” Your quality world, then, is equally as real – or we should say “unreal” – as your ego identity, given that both are social constructions. It all seems very real to you, this objective “world” around you and the subjective “self” who is playing on stage. But none of it really is.

This, by the way, is where religion does its work of keeping all of that daily and lifelong drama connected to the timeless mystery of being, by its choreography of symbols, sanctuaries, stories, and sacraments (ritual enactments of sacred stories).

You might live your entire life inside this elaborate construct of ego identity and its quality world, never suspecting that “something more” lies beyond its boundaries. In fact, each of its primary correlates – “self” and “world” – is delimited by a threshold that opens outward or inward to this “more.” Beyond your quality world is an external realm, not “thrown over” (ob-jective) your identity as its context of meaning, but literally and altogether outside (ex-ternal) of meaning.

Before a name is put to something, before a value is assigned, and prior to the overlay of story that decides what it shall mean, external reality simply is – unconcerned with your identity, quite apart from your mind, and transcendent to your thoughts.

A second threshold separates your “thrown-under” (sub-jective) identity from the inner mystery of your existence as a human being. At the risk of becoming instantly irrelevant, I will use the term esoteric (from Greek referring to what is within) for this inner realm far below identity and the stage of your quality world. I don’t mean to suggest that it is some kind of secret stash of erudite metaphysical doctrines, which is what “esoteric” has come to mean in religion.

It is instead deeper than words and doctrines can reach, which is to say that this inner grounding mystery of your existence is ineffable – undefinable, inexpressible, unspeakable.

The mystery unfolds each moment in rhythms of life and cycles of consciousness as they ebb and flow, rise and fall, gather up and softly relax again into the ground of your being. Descending into the esoteric realm of your inner life, and now passing through it, you enter the existential dimension where you “stand out” (Greek ex-istere) from the quantum field of pure potentiality, which in the mystic traditions is called “the abyss” since it is paradoxically source and solvent of your existence, both the generative wellspring and dark fathomless depths of No-thing.

Having plumbed the esoteric and existential registers of your inner life (or soul), we can now swing back outward and upward, through the external realm of things as they are and into the universal dimension where it all “turns as/into one” (uni-verse). But whereas your descent of the grounding mystery required you to release your makeshift identity (ego) and the theater stage of your quality world, this ascent into the cosmic environment involves not subtraction but your addition as a participant in its turning unity.

And with all the countless other additions – you’re not the only one up here, you know – the web of relationships expands infinitely outward, shifting into exponential effects where 1 + 1 = 3.

Welcome to the view from where you are.

 

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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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A Psychology of Wholeness

I’m sure that no other species of life, on Earth at least, is as obsessed with understanding itself as are we. We’ve been trying to figure out this human experience for millenniums now, but time and again we get tangled up in our own reflection. Realistically speaking, there really is no hope of ever reaching a completely objective picture since we are both the object under study and the ones conducting the examination.

Over the last 125 years or so, Western psychology has made some impressive advances in our understanding of psyche – the Greek term meaning “self.” The lack of a unified theory is largely due to the fact that the self can be defined in (at least) three distinct ways. In this post I will offer a model that incorporates these distinctions and outlines a Western psychology of wholeness – a way of understanding ourselves holistically.

These “pieces” have been floating out here for some time now, and the various schools and therapies of Western psychology have promoted their alternative visions in the marketplace. Inevitably one “piece” is made central as the others are subordinated to it, dismissed as nonessential, or entirely ignored.

As is the case in Western philosophy, science, and medicine, our penchant for analyzing reality – in this case the reality of the human psyche – into its deeper elements frequently leaves us without Ariadne’s Thread back to where we can appreciate the higher wholeness of it all.

Instead of “pieces” or even “elements,” we should regard these aspects of self as distinct loci that connect us to reality in three dimensions: to our living body, to other persons, and to the ground of being. The loci themselves are named, respectively, mind, ego, and soul. Again, these are not three pieces or parts of the self, but three modes of existence that engage us psychologically with reality and the fullness of life.

Self as Embodied Mind

In Western psychology a great deal of research has demonstrated the psychosomatic (mind-body) dimension of our experience. “Mind” here refers to the autonomic, instinctual, emotional, cognitive and sentient awareness supported by the body’s nervous system. Without the nervous system and its central ganglion (the brain) there is no mind. This is not to say that mind is “nothing more” than the brain and its nervous system, however.

A psychosomatic perspective regards the self as embodied mind, not as a mind “inside” a body but as a living organism imbued with the power to sense and desire, to feel and to think, to attend, wonder, and reflect. Thoughts in our mind activate feelings in our body. Our visceral state both prompts and reacts to the stories we tell ourselves. An anxious or agitated nervous system translates spontaneously into verbal narratives of worry, confusion, or outrage. A story of shame and self-doubt can upset our stomach and make it difficult to breathe.

Many forms of modern dysfunction and disease in the body have their origin in the mind. They are maladies of the mind-body.

As it relates to a psychology of wholeness, the balance of health in the mind-body nexus can be summarized as composure. In this state the self is internally stable and fully capable of maintaining, or quickly recovering, equilibrium. Composure allows attention to “look out” on reality through a clear lens: centered, undisturbed, and free of internal distractions. As a benefit of composure, we can also see more clearly into the experience of others and understand what they are going through.

Self as Personal Ego

The psychosocial dimension of self is about our relationships with others, along with the personal identity we struggle to manage in the social exchange. From the Latin for “I,” ego only gradually comes into itself, supervised and shaped by the family, tribe, and culture in which we are members. By a series of separations – first the physical separation of birth, followed by years of emotional and intellectual moves – we differentiate ourselves as an individual person, one who “speaks through” (Latin persona) the roles and masks we are provided.

During this rather long ordeal, ego consciousness – the sense we have of ourselves as a separate person and social actor – becomes increasingly involved in its own security schemes and strategies. Because the personal ego is by definition separate from all that is “not me,” this constant exposure often motivates us to find cover inside collective identities like cults, sects, parties, and clubs where we can blend in and feel safe.

One of the key indicators of Western cultural progress has been this rise of individual rights and personal values, occasionally snapped back into conformity by authoritarian societies but persisting in its long campaign for autonomy.

In Asia and the Orient, this rise of individualism has been restrained for the most part by strong traditions of deference to authority and by philosophies that regard the individual as a degenerate from the anonymous collective (e.g., in China) or impersonal absolute (e.g., in India).

Self as Mystical Soul

Psychospiritual interests in Western psychology have typically resulted in so-called New Age metaphysics, where the self is seen as an immortal and absolute identity – the “true Self” – utterly separate and apart from the body, time, and material existence. If things don’t go in this direction, then the interest in spirituality will often get annexed to one of the “classic” schools of twentieth-century psychology, as a set of concerns (“religious development” or “crises of faith”) a client may be working through. In either case, the focus of attention is on the personal ego and its quest for enlightenment, salvation, lasting happiness and a more meaningful existence.

Self-as-soul is distinct from self-as-ego, however, and confusing the two effectively forecloses on our human progress into wholeness.

The confusion has roots in Western (Judeo-Christian) monotheism, where the supreme being is conceived in terms of an immortal personal ego. This same principle in humans is consequently regarded as the precious thing to be saved from sin and worldly bondage. Our soul is thus the true center of our personality, the “I” (ego) that longs for deliverance – a final separation from our body, the world, and the ravages of time.

But soul is not another name for the immortal ego. Instead, it invites the self into a deeper contemplation of its own ground.

A contemplative descent of this sort drops below the personal ego and its preoccupation with identity management. In a way, it follows the stem of consciousness through the floor of mind-body composure and deeper into the present mystery of reality. Dropping from the separate ego is also dropping beneath its web of dualities, to a place that is now/here (nowhere) and All is One. This is the mystical (literally ineffable, indescribable, and unspeakable) experience of communion.


As my diagram illustrates, soul-ground communion produces mind-body composure, which in turn inspires ego-other compassion and awakens us to the spirit of genuine community. It is in genuine community that we can fully enjoy the liberated life.

 

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You, There

In the above illustration I have highlighted in orange a water droplet that has momentarily separated itself from the ocean below. On its brief arc through space-time, the water droplet exists (meaning literally to stand out) as a unique individual – if only by virtue of the fact that it occupies this exact point in space at this precise moment in time.

As a separate individual it is positioned among a cohort of other water droplets, their otherness partly a function of occupying different locations in space as they travel along distinct trajectories. Any relationship between and among them is predicated on their separate existence, on each existing apart from the others as a unique individual.

Together our cohort of water droplets inhabits a local environment of atmospheric conditions which is itself contained within a still-larger horizon that includes an unnumbered multitude of droplets arcing through space-time, along with some gliding birds overhead, drifting clouds higher still, nearby planets barely seen, distant stars and the far-flung galaxies.

Coming back to our water droplet, we know that its deeper nature is oceanic. Existentially – recalling that existence means to stand out as an individual – the droplet carries within itself something much more profound (a term whose original meaning had to do with the deep ocean). Its own identity as a separate individual in relationship with other individuals inside an infinite cosmic horizon is really a temporary enclosure of an essential mystery – from the Greek esse for being.

Our droplet of seawater has thus guided our contemplation along three distinct axes: (1) a self-other axis of separate individuals crossing, connecting, or colliding on their space-time trajectories; (2) a self-system axis, referencing the larger complexity to which it belongs; and (3) a self-essence axis dropping from the centered individual into its own deeper nature.

Each axis provides us with a lens and vocabulary by which to understand its full reality: in the encounter with others, as participating in a higher wholeness, and as a manifestation of being.


This analogy is a perfect introduction to understanding yourself as well. Just put yourself in the position of my orange droplet of water and the full picture will fall into place.

Let’s begin with your self-essence axis. Your deeper nature as a human being manifests the 14-billion-year history of our universe. The atomic structure of your physical body is composed of elements that were forged in the very beginning. The life-force in your cells is a few billion years ancient. The hum of sentience electrifying your brain, nervous system, and sense organs goes back a fraction that far (around 200 million years) and has a wide representation across the species of life on Earth.

Hovering above this grounding mystery of what you are is the separate “water droplet” of self-conscious identity – the individual ego (“I”) that looks out on reality from your unique location in space-time. Up here things can get dicey, and the management of personal identity necessarily involves the separate identities of others in your local cohort. Developmentally the formation of your ego was leveraged and shaped through encounters with others whose otherness receded further into obscurity as you became increasingly self-conscious.

While your deeper nature, following the self-essence axis, is marvelously profound and grounds your life in the evolving process of the universe itself, this self-conscious identity of yours is as complicated as it is transient. Because who you are – as distinct from what you are – was especially vulnerable in your early years to both the positive and negative influence of others, their ignorance, neuroses, and bad choices left lasting impressions on your own personality. (The same should be said of their more benevolent affections as well.)

In its suspended position of exposure, your self-conscious ego can manage to siphon the miracle of being alive into the spinning wheel of impossible cravings and unrealistic fears.

Lest you take the opinion of your own innocence in all of this, it needs to be said that you have been making choices (almost) all along the way. Many of those choices have simply repeated and reinforced the security strategies you learned as an infant and young child. Still today, you may occasionally (or frequently; maybe even chronically) “act out” these neurotic styles, which proceed to unload your childish insecurities on a cohort of innocent-enough bystanders and co-dependent dance partners.

Taking a close and honest look at the drama of your personal life will reveal why the principal obstacle to what the spiritual teachings call ‘awakening’ or ‘liberation’ is and has always been the ego.

The freedom to break past the mesh of self-obsession, codependency, and neurotic insecurity requires not the elimination of ego but its transcendence. As the grounding mystery of sentient life has become self-conscious in you, it must now reach out and go beyond your separate identity. Just as the self-system axis for our water droplet situates it within a local, regional, planetary and cosmic context, so does your own personal identity exist within and belong to a higher, transpersonal, wholeness.

As long as you remain enmeshed, however, and to the extent that your ego is locked inside its own convictions, this higher wholeness is not only beyond you, but is also outside your small horizon of self-interested awareness.

All the available evidence supports the idea that what the universe is evolving toward is ever-greater complexity, which is apparent in your own deeper nature as a physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. A natural next step in this progression is the phenomenon in which self-conscious individuals connect and cooperate in genuine community.

If we were to regard genuine community – and by that I mean authentic, compassionate, dialogical, creative and radically inclusive community – as evolution’s next step, then your self-conscious personal identity should really be seen as a progression threshold rather than a final destination.


We might imagine our water droplet, now imbued with self-consciousness, pondering its place in the sprawling scheme of things, wondering if letting go and getting over itself is a worthy risk. Playing small and safe might be the better choice. But in the end the end will come and what will be left? What will be remembered? The 14-billion-year adventure is right now on the brink of breaking through to a truly liberated life.

Maybe this is the moment everything changes.

 

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More Than You Think

Let’s start with an interesting scientific fact. You have 100 billion neurons in your brain, 40 thousand neurons in and around your heart, and 500 million neurons in your gut. We’re used to thinking of neurons as “brain cells,” but that’s a serious misnomer perpetuated by our brain. Neurons are not simply nerve cells, but a very special type of nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses and networks with other neurons to generate the miracle of consciousness.

We have some justification to assume, then, that consciousness resides in these three nodes: the cephalic (head) node, the cardiac (heart) node, and the enteric (gut) node. We can also assume that these three nodes communicate among themselves, supporting a highly integrated global state of consciousness in our body.

It’s likely a mistake, however, to conclude that what’s going on in our heart and gut is similar to the business transpiring in our head.

This post offers a “theory of mind” that significantly expands our common notions of where it is and what kind of experience it facilitates. My diagram depicts the internal anatomy where consciousness is generated and resides, along with the distinct way each node engages with reality.

The spinal axis or corridor along which the three nodes of consciousness are situated suggests the kundalini system of Oriental psychology, and I will adopt a similar developmental scheme according to which things first get established lower down and rise upward, with the cephalic node (brain) taking much longer – more than two decades! – to come fully online.

One more interesting observation to make is how your brain’s anatomy is a triune (three-in-one) structure, with a primitive (basal or ‘reptilian’) layer enveloped by an ancient (limbic or ‘old mammalian’) layer, and capped with a more recent (cortical or ‘new mammalian’) layer most highly developed in our own species. It’s interesting how each of these layers in brain anatomy correlates with a distinct node of consciousness.

Thus the primitive basal brain shares a strong communication link with the enteric node in your gut, as the ancient limbic brain links with the cardiac node in your heart, while the newest cortical brain constitutes its own self-involved loop.

Rather than tracking this exploration with the rise of consciousness through the three centers, it might be easier to begin where you spend almost all of your conscious time: in your head. The idea of a self-involved loop is significant because of its suggestion that cephalic consciousness might be wrapped up in its own business more than the other nodes. And this starts to make sense when we remember that the cortical brain is responsible for constructing the mental model of reality affectionately known as your ‘quality world’ (William Glasser).

As a construct, your quality world is entirely inside your mind and maintained within the logical network of language, imagination, and thought. I will designate the cephalic node of consciousness your logical mind, taken from the Greek root logos (word, thought, theory, order, reason and meaning). And because world is the objective counterpart to a subjective self, the logical mind is also where your ego identity (“I”) is housed.

In The Heart and Hope of Democracy I defined ‘separation consciousness’ as the consequence of constructing identity upon its own separate center of self-conscious awareness and casting everything else into the position of ‘not-me’ (other, object, It). The logical mind is the Storyteller whose autobiography is your personal myth, constructed around a main character (ego) and unfolding inside a narrative world of its own creation.

“I” stands apart from reality inside a personal world, just like an actor inside a theater.

If all of that sounds a little psychotic, let’s not forget that our developmental progress as individuals and our evolutionary progress as a species depend in no small way on this sophisticated production in make-believe (also called ‘meaning-making’). The entire complex of human culture exists only in our minds, yet where would we be without it?

Although meaning is arguably not ‘out there’ in reality to be found, humans have been more than willing – even eager, and devotedly so – to surrender or destroy everything for its sake.

But now I’ll ask you to allow awareness to drop down from this cephalic node of your logical mind and into your heart-center. You might even experience a sensation of being suspended in a web of – what is it, energy? Feeling? Presence? The cardiac node of consciousness is what I will call your sympathic mind. Not sympathetic, but something more basic than that: an experience of resonance with your surrounding environment, a subtle perception drawn from your participation in an invisible web of communion.

Such a drop out of the trance-state of separation consciousness and into this experience of sympathic communion is one of the critical achievements of an effective meditation practice, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions. The departure can be compelled by an apocalyptic (world-collapsing) event such as a catastrophic loss or personal trauma. Or it can be more gradually and deliberately facilitated through a method of contemplative engagement with the present mystery of reality.

Because by arriving here you have already released the self-world construct of personal identity, your experience is of a seamless continuity between and among all things. It’s no longer “I” in here and “all of that” (others, objects, its) out there, but everything together as one. This explains why the heart plays such a central role in your participation and sense of connection with what’s going on around you, as the node of consciousness registering feelings of intimacy, belonging, compassion, gratitude, and bereavement.

One more drop downward and you release your place in the vibrant web, descending into the enteric node of consciousness and what I call the grounding mystery (or ground) of your existence.

Here there is no separate self, not even a sympathic communion with everything around you. Those 500 million neurons are generating a deep and slow frequency of consciousness that manages the internal state of your living body, as a metabolic conspiracy among your visceral organs, glands, and cells. This node of consciousness is the seat of your intuitive mind.

Intuition is classically regarded a special power of clairvoyant perception, a “sixth sense” that enables one to ‘see things’ that aren’t objectively there or are still in the future.

However, rather than subscribing to some theory of metaphysical realism where these invisible and impending images are taken as actually out there somewhere, a simpler explanation is that your intuitive mind is picking up information from that deeper register of what Carl Jung named the ‘collective unconscious’, where the archetypes (“first forms”) of your animal nature, with roots deep in evolutionary history, carry the ‘racial memory’ of our species.

Similar to how the accumulation of experiences over your lifetime gives you more exposure to the variety of opportunities and challenges of being alive, and thus a larger memory store from which you can derive wisdom and anticipate the future, so your intuitive mind draws on the collective experience of countless generations stored in the visceral organs of your gut. Its images are therefore not received from some metaphysical realm beyond, but instead arise as ‘revelations and foretellings’ inspired out of this grounding mystery within.

This interpretative shift from metaphysical realism to depth psychology is a crucial part of the phase transition from theism to post-theism.


Your mind is not just what’s going on inside your head. Together with your heart and gut, your brain is engaging with reality and generating an experience far bigger than you think. If you can just drop deeper into the present mystery of reality, you will come to realize that all along you have been “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows” (Polynesian saying).

 

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In the Presence of Mystery

The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.

It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.

But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.

The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.

The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).

The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’

It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.

The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.

Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.

But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.

What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.

In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).

Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.

The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.

If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.

Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).

As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.

If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.

This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.

 

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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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