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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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The Arc of Spiritual Evolution

Times like these challenge us to examine the path that got us here, orient ourselves in the current situation, and consider our possible futures ahead. Racial tension, police brutality, the erosion of democracy, the degradation of our planet, the widening divide between rich and poor, and, just now, a coronavirus pandemic that is shaking the world economies to their foundations – all of it is conspiring in a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions.

Alarmists and dooms-day prophets want us to believe that these are the End Times, and they are urging everyone to change their ways and get on the right side.

Half of what they are saying is correct: If we don’t change our ways, things are likely to only get worse and the world as we know it will be destroyed. Our lack of understanding when it comes to the nature and dynamics of living systems has prevented us from seeing how each of those vectors mentioned above is not merely correlated with the others, but is itself a symptom of the same underlying pathology.

Where I think they have it wrong, however, is in their prognostication of these “last days” as marking the terminal end of history and our human residence on Earth. True enough, the current upheaval is perhaps unprecedented in the history of our species, in being disruptive (breaking the routines and structures of daily life), protracted (still unfolding with no definite end in sight), and chaotic (the ‘perfect storm’ outside our control) – and all at once. With all of that going on, it’s easy to conclude that its conclusion will be hopeless and final.

When you feel powerless to do anything about the situation you’re in, giving up is the easiest thing to do.

I don’t want to suggest that our times aren’t so bad, that we just need to look on the bright side of things. They are bad. Many people are suffering and dying, and our planet itself is careening through seismic and systemic shifts that are pushing entire species into extinction almost daily. If ‘bad’ means painful, harmful, difficult, and serious, then these times are bad – maybe worse than they’ve ever been.

So am I just whistling in the dark?

I’m not ready to give up just yet because of one variable in particular, one factor in play that can make the difference between a final catastrophe and a breakthrough to something new – not just in terms of a unique arrangement of catastrophic leftovers, but as a next stage in our evolution as a species. This creative element is the human spirit.

And so, in what follows I want to dig deeper and reach higher into our spiritual intelligence and imagine a possible future for us, together.

When I speak of the human spirit, I don’t mean something that is separate from our animal nature, like a metaphysical soul riding inside our mortal body. Rather, I mean to identify an evolved type of intelligence (SQ) that has emerged with our developing brain and nervous system over the millenniums of hominid evolution, along with its construction of symbol systems that are the foundation of our world cultures and their webs of meaning.

Our spiritual intelligence gives us a way of engaging with the environment, each other, and ourselves that really does set humans apart from the rest of Earth’s species. And yet, one of its astonishing virtues is in how it enables us to understand the essential interdependence of life, the unity of existence, and our communion with all things. My diagram identifies a four-dimensional vision that our spiritual intelligence makes possible.

I will suggest that a successful transit through the disruptive, protracted, and chaotic change of these times requires a full activation of the human spirit; and further, that this moment is a decisive phase in the spiritual awakening of our species.

The terms of this vision – faith, love, purpose, and hope – are familiar to us. Nevertheless, or maybe because that is so, we will have to carefully define these terms and refresh their meaning. Their overuse and abuse in religion, business, and everyday life makes it necessary, every now and then, to trace them back to their metaphorical roots.

Deeper Faith

In the West, faith is understood as a willingness to believe something that lacks evidence or seems to contradict commonsense logic. “You’ve got to have faith” has come to mean “just believe it anyway” – that something is true or will come to pass, even (or especially) if nothing presently substantiates your belief. Under this definition, faith has frequently been used as encouragement to suspend or set aside thoughtful consideration and dismiss all evidence to the contrary.

In its deeper history, however, faith has nothing directly to do with beliefs. Essentially faith is trust, a letting-go or release of our ego identity to the deeper support and generative source of being, represented in religion by the metaphor of God. From ego (the separate center of “I”) we drop into the contemplative experience of embodied mind, and from there into an open space of boundless presence.

The deeper we go, the less ego there is, and the more immediate our awareness of resting in the present mystery of Being itself.

Wider Love

When faith deepens to the point where no separate “I” remains, our communion with everything else as manifestations of the same essential reality awakens in us a compassionate regard for these others “as myself.” With the judgments and contractions of ego identity gradually relaxed and released, our own boundary opens ever wider to include more and more of what had earlier been perceived as “not me” or even “against me.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that the boundary which had formerly separated our identity from others now becomes a threshold for compassionate engagement.

Our current crisis is providing us an opportunity to reverse ego’s inclination to contract and withdraw where we seek smaller zones of safety and control, and instead to transcend those security limits in the interest of reaching out to, connecting with, and including the other.

Higher Purpose

The idea of purpose and having a purpose is used in religion as a way of personalizing “god’s plan” for one’s life. According to this conception, god is in control of everything and has predetermined (predestined according to Calvinist doctrine) all things for his glory. Our lives will make more sense, work better, and end up in the right place as we are willing to commit ourselves to god’s plan and purpose for us.

But because theistic religion is focused on the identity and destiny of individual believers – that is to say, on ego – the impulse to contract inside smaller and safer identities where our insecurity can be better managed (or so we believe) tends to hyper-individualize this notion of purpose in theism and the societies it has influenced.

As I’m using the term here, higher purpose is not another name for “god’s plan and purpose for my life.” Higher denotes larger horizons of space and time, and purpose is more about intention than objective. In other words, it’s more about living on purpose than achieving goals or accomplishing a mission. A wider love by definition includes more, and as we are enabled by a deeper faith to transcend our separate identity for a larger communion, our investment of caring attention and mindful behavior (i.e., intention) shifts into that higher and larger – transpersonal – field of concerns.

Longer Hope

Our time horizon, referring to how deep into the past and far into the future the awareness of our present situation extends, is necessarily as small as our ego insecurity will allow. When it’s “all about me,” and this “me” has contracted inside an identity that is separatist, defensive, and insatiably discontent, our time horizon is very small indeed. We don’t identify ourselves with a family, a people, a species, or with a larger community of life.

Our relevant past goes back only as far as we can remember, and only to those events and experiences that have shaped our individual (ego) sense of self. And as the retrospectus of our life is what sets the forward range of our life’s prospectus, we simply cannot see beyond our own death into the longer destinies of our family, our people, our species, and of life on Earth.

It should be clear by now that hope is not wishful thinking, a kind of closing the eyes and “hoping for the best.”

Instead, as we consider our possible futures from the elevation of a transpersonal higher purpose, taking in the full communion of our life with others and grounded faithfully in the present mystery of reality, hope is what enables us to envision a future that includes us all, one that will be an inheritance of wellbeing for future generations.


This critical moment in human history and in the history of our planet has placed us at a choice point. On one side is the option of persisting in our current way of life, continuing to push our agendas and promote our beliefs. But let’s not forget: this is precisely the path that’s brought us to this point.

On the other side is the option of breaking through and moving beyond our current mindset, into a new way of being together. When the routines and structures of daily life break down, when the stress of change seems unrelenting, and when it’s no longer possible to simply return to the world as it was, transformation is our way through.

 

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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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The Force of Character

For the longest time the debate was between Nature and Nurture as to which shaping force was greater in determining human personality, behavior, and destiny. Genetic determinism or social engineering (aka behaviorism) each argued for the larger role, with pretty much everybody agreeing that both were somehow in the mix.

Had anyone bothered to ask the therapists, counselors, or your reputable “good listening friend,” they would have learned that more than nature and nurture is in play on this question. There’s also the force of momentum as it builds through our repeated beliefs and behaviors over time. The first enactment requires focused deliberation, but with each repetition it becomes a little easier, a little more automatic, using less and less conscious effort as this momentum starts to take over.

What we’re describing can be called the force of Character, borrowing directly from the way the identity of a narrative character becomes more “solid” and predictable as the story progresses. It belongs with Nature and Nurture in our best understanding of what shapes and determines human experience.

In addition to our genetic predispositions and social conditioning, then, our cumulative habits of thought, judgment, behavior and belief – that is to say, our character – make us who we are.

The references to story are especially fitting in this discussion, since our personal identity is also a narrative construct. Who we are – as distinct from what we are as human beings – is something put together, literally composed out of numerous storylines that tie us to roles, anchor us in role plays, and shape our identity to the groups where we belong.

Inside those external storylines are others that define us internally, to ourselves. These conspire to form our self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, referring to how secure, capable, creative, and resilient we see ourselves as being. Our internal storylines are ever-present as our continuous self-talk, in the steady stream of thoughts and opinions we repeat to ourselves.

As my diagram illustrates, with repeated performances of these external and internal scripts our character becomes more solid and predictable. Our identity eventually gets so determined by our past that it can seem impossible to break the habit of who we are.

It helps me to think of this using the principle of complementarity from elementary physics. Also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it states that quantum reality will “behave” as a particle or a wave depending on how the researcher sets up the experiment. At that level, energy can either be defined by its discrete position (as a particle) or measured for its dynamic flow (as a wave) – but never both at once.

These both turn out to be true representations of quantum reality, but we must choose which way we see it.

Another analogy is the Rabbit-Duck Illusion. Looking at the image, you can see the head of a rabbit or the head of a duck, but not both at once. The image “behaves” according to what you are expecting to see.

All of this relates back to our discussion on character in the following way. Character itself – our personal identity as composed of multiple intersecting external and internal storylines – corresponds to Heisenberg’s particle: discrete, holding its position, and apparently solid.

But if we choose, we can also understand personal identity as a “wave” of countless interweaving narratives. And the dominant storyline, which I will call our “active story,” is the one we are telling ourselves and others right now. It’s also likely the one we’ve been telling ourselves for quite some time, qualifying it as our personal myth.

Back to my diagram. A correlation exists between our character (particle, rabbit) and active story (wave, duck) such that early on, when character is still getting set, our active story has a broad scope. A broader scope to our story means a wider spread of possibilities before us. When we are young and the momentum of character is still relatively undefined, the future ahead of us seems broad with many options and we frequently engage in imagining what we will one day grow up to be.

As our repeated thoughts, judgments, behaviors and beliefs take on a more solid and predictable shape (i.e., character), however, the scope of our active story begins to narrow down. Our choices effectively eliminate or close down some possibilities as we commit ourselves to our personal quality world. A benefit of this narrowing effect on the scope of our active story is that its range also starts to lengthen.

As we enter adulthood, our active story provides a longer view on the future, even as our options are reduced in number. We get a stronger sense of direction and purpose, which is another way of saying that our character becomes more set: we know who we are, where we’re going, and why it matters.

Morality at this point is less about following rules and obeying authority than behaving and believing in a way that’s consistent with who we are – being true to ourselves, as we say. Now, if our identity is one of positive belonging, social responsibility, and ethical commitment to the greater good, then being true to ourselves is a good thing indeed.

It can happen, though, that our character gets formed by negative storylines, such as abuse, insecurity, shame, resentment, and self-doubt. Once it gets set, being true to ourselves can be pathologically self-centered and socially destructive. To us it feels like righteousness and living by the strength of our convictions, when our active story is actually bringing down the Apocalypse.

My returning reader is familiar with my characterization of conviction as belief that holds the mind hostage (like a convict). Now we can see how character-formation and conviction go together. Our active story narrows down to just one line of truth (“the only way”), and our conviction prevents us from even seeing alternatives, much less considering them.

This is how we bring down the Apocalypse. The most destructive human actions in history have been driven by conviction, committed for the sake of and in devotion to some absolute truth.

The rest of my diagram shows how the construction of identity (ego) requires our separation from all that is “not me.” From this vantage-point, we can look outward at the objective world, literally “thrown over” and around us, as well as inward to our subjective ground, “thrown under” or beneath us. It’s important to understand that these two realms and our access to them are conditioned upon a stable, balanced, and unified sense of self (called ego strength).

If our character has been set by negative storylines and our convictions are righteously inflexible, we are unable to engage the objective world responsibly or cultivate our subjective ground for inner peace and wellbeing. In this case, the force of character trumps (pun intended) nature and nurture, committing us to a path of suffering and self-destruction.

Hell, we might as well bring everybody else down with us.

 

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Are You (Truly) Happy?

We’re supposed to be pursuing happiness in this liberal democracy of ours, or at least have the right to pursue it. We don’t have to, if we’d rather not. We also have the right to be unhappy. The choice is finally ours.

I think our problem is not that we don’t want to be happy, but that we’re confused over what happiness really is. What does it mean to “be happy”?

We’ve been duped by the advertising industry into equating happiness with pleasure – the buzz, the rush, the kick, the tingle. Pleasure stimulates a reward pathway in our brain that can never get enough, which means if an ad company can link their product with our craving for the buzz, rush, kick, or tingle, we’re going to buy – and keep paying until we’re either addicted or depressed, and maybe both. What could be called “consumer exhaustion” is the apocalypse for advertisers and Big Business, and they work hard to keep us in the game.

With a little reflection, however, it’s not hard discern the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness isn’t merely enduring pleasure or a steady, life-long dopamine rush. It doesn’t always come with the buzz, kick, or tingle – and quite often it’s absent these altogether.

Neuroscience has revealed that happiness flows along a different pathway than pleasure, depending more on serotonin than dopamine. Big Pharma and drug doctors have managed to turn this discovery into huge profits as well, hooking millions on the lure that more serotonin in their brains will magically make them happier. It doesn’t work that way. While pleasure is a product of our body and brain’s biochemistry, with what’s going on between nerve cells, happiness has more to do with our engagement with reality as persons.

The “synapse” of greater interest here is what presently separates us from three things: the grounding mystery deep within ourselves, the vibrant world all around us, and the evolutionary ideal of our higher human nature.

I’m going to name these dimensions of happiness contentment, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Each dimension might be considered a “type” of happiness, but I’d rather keep them together as a dynamic unit – as the three facets or faces of true happiness. We can focus on one or another of these facets, but losing sight of their unity could lead us into obsession and inevitable disappointment. Let’s spend some time on each dimension of happiness, and then bring them all together for the full picture.

Contentment

Contentment is the feeling that we have all we really need and all is well. While it may seem synonymous with satisfaction, contentment isn’t just about having our needs satisfied. It goes deeper than that. I connect it with our “grounding mystery,” referring to that deeper reality supporting our self-conscious experience from within by a physical, living, and sentient animal nature.

Our “first nature” is where the journey of life begins. In the best of all possible worlds and a perfect family, our body was able to settle into reality and relax into being. An inner clearing of peace and calm opened up inside us, allowing awareness to very naturally orient outward to the world around us. Our inner life became a place of solitude and quiet reflection, a deep center of strength and resolve, as well as a refuge of solace and surrender.

When we can simply be in this moment, without wanting for anything but resting entirely in the support of our grounding mystery, we are profoundly happy – even in the absence of emotions and the running script of our chattering thoughts.

This is nirvana, the placid and undisturbed (literally “no wind”) condition of a still pond. This is happiness as contentment.

Enjoyment

Hearing the words side-by-side – contentment and enjoyment – confirms their distinct connotations. If contentment is inner peace, enjoyment is more about our relationship to the world around us. When we are content, we want for nothing. When we are enjoying something, we tend to want more – not crave it or desperately need it like an addiction, but to stay with it because we find it amusing, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring.

Enjoyment probably comes closest to pleasure and is typically where our confusion starts. Relating to what’s around us involves our senses and sensations – how this, that, and all of it makes us feel. And aren’t our feelings encoded upon the primary dichotomy of pain and pleasure? It’s an easy mistake. And it’s just where the advertisers find their opportunity.

The difference becomes more clear when we acknowledge how many times our greatest enjoyments in life ride in the balance of pain and pleasure, of sacrifice and bliss.

Our true enjoyment is not merely in how something “makes us feel,” but in what it means to us, how precious, serendipitous, and grace-given it is.

I won’t go very deep into it here, but anyone could guess what consequences for enjoyment are brought into the picture when we lack contentment. The emptiness within is not cultivated as an inner clearing for surrender and repose, but is instead a void that must be filled. When we look to the world around us for things to devour – food and drink, possessions and relationships, titles and achievements, even religion and its god – whatever joy we may find in gulping them down will be short-lived. It will also be followed by resentment, which is the very antithesis of enjoyment in its true sense.

Some Christians speak of “a god-shaped hole” at our center, which turns god into a commodity that churches can peddle to consumer-believers. But again, we will never get enough of a god we have to swallow.

Fulfillment

The third facet and dimension of genuine happiness is named fulfillment. As with the other terms, this one has gotten lost in our contemporary pursuit of the buzz, the rush, the kick, and the tingle. In popular culture, “fulfillment” is the ultimate feel-good. If something isn’t fulfilling, we are excused for putting it aside and looking elsewhere for “the real thing” – what the ads promise in exchange for our money.

As I’m using it, however, fulfillment is associated with capacity, completion, and realizing our true potential as human beings. In this sense, fulfillment is always “above and ahead” of us, orienting us to what we are still in the process of becoming. We get tastes of it when we dig deeper into ourselves, step outside our comfort zone, and leap for the ring just out of reach.

The history of our species is the long story of latent talents, dormant powers, and “godly” virtues coming awake, driving our further progress in the direction of a more humane and self-actualized human being.

Ultimately – and fulfillment is about what is ultimate or “highest” – this facet of happiness doesn’t let us just settle for mediocrity and the half-assed life. Many of us do live this way, of course, but the fact that we possess an inner drive and aim (what Aristotle called “entelechy”) which seeks our self-actualization helps explain why we are always living just short of being truly happy.

It’s likely our existential insecurity (i.e., our lack of contentment) that motivates us to grab on and grip down on life rather than whole-heartedly enjoy it, which attachment then holds us back from the fulfilling and liberated life that could be ours.


So here we are, on this “Happy Thanksgiving” day. If we are gathering with family and friends at a table, perhaps we can take a few moments to contemplate whether we are truly happy. We can indeed be thankful if we are, since genuine happiness is not a solo project but a conspiracy involving countless others and some good luck besides.

And if we’re not so happy right now, then we have an idea about where to begin.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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