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Between Heaven and Hell

3-realms

The essential function of mythology is to link together individual consciousness (psyche; psychology) and the larger order of existence (cosmos; cosmology). Its collection of sacred stories provides the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that we need for success in the project of constructing meaning and living well. Because this project is profoundly (i.e., deeply) social, the myths were never ‘mere stories’ on the shelf for leisure reading, but great epic narratives to be recited and performed in the context of community life.

That is, until fairly recently.

As the advance of science inevitably altered our model of reality, the sacred myths which had draped and adorned this framework fell steadily out of relevance, and then soon afterwards, out of fashion as well. Without an alignment between our narrative constructions of mythology and our changing understanding of the universe, the sacred stories either had to be updated accordingly; discarded and forgotten; turned into allegories of hidden (metaphysical) secrets; or taken literally as journalistic accounts of supernatural revelations and miraculous events.

Another option would be to more directly engage the challenge of linking consciousness and existence in order to create a relevant mythology for our time. It likely won’t be about a literal heaven and hell, but rather about outer space and inner ground, the global neighborhood and sustainable community, planetary stewardship and a more perfect union.

To help in this effort, I offer an image for our consideration. The diagram above incorporates a medieval painting of the three realms – heaven, earth, and hell – a mental model widely held throughout the ancient world as depicting the structure of reality. The specific divine, human, or demonic personalities inhabiting these three realms, along with the sacred storylines (myths) that crisscrossed and weaved them together, differed, of course, from one culture and historical period to the next. My intention is not to explore and interpret the individual myths, but only to use this structural design of three realms in a way that might contribute meaningfully to a mythology for our secular and global age.

Just as the ancients understood, our experience unfolds in the middle realm of daily life. Our attention, energy, and effort get directed into those activities and concerns that conspire toward a general sense of meaning. Although we possess an animal nature in our body and its primal instincts, the special concern of human consciousness is with the affairs and challenges of our life together in community. This is where our identities are shaped and instructed with the tribe’s worldview and cache of wisdom for how to make it in the world.

Ego consciousness – the separate center of personal identity whose dual ambition to belong and be recognized, to fit in and stand out at the same time, generates both external and internal conflicts – is thus the principal denizen of this middle realm.

In another blog of mine, less philosophical and more therapeutic, I provide a simple yet highly useful schematic of 5 Domains for looking at life as a whole but also moving into the details for making the changes we desire. A recent post, titled Creators and Reactors, offered the image of a tree as a way of understanding the 5 Domains and their holistic integration.

treeA deep inner peace (tree: roots; domain: SPIRITUALITY)

nourishes vital strength (tree: trunk; domain: HEALTH), which in turn

supports genuine love (tree: branches; domain: RELATIONSHIPS), which

opens out in positive virtue (tree: leaves; domain: CHARACTER), and ultimately

produces a life of creative purpose (tree: fruit; domain: LIFEPLAN)

Each of the 5 Domains holds a relatively small set of basic obligations that must be fulfilled on a regular basis in order to optimize the quality of life in that domain. For example, an optimized spirituality requires that we give time to quiet reflection and finding our way to that still place at the center of our existence (which I call The Clearing) through such meditation practices as mindful breathing, contemplation, and centering prayer. A calm body and centered mind are conducive to an inner release to the grounding mystery and its ineffable intuition of oneness.

Without such practices – or worse, through the uncontrolled spin-out in frantic or mindless activity – our spirituality doesn’t get the investment it needs to be the nourishing root system of our life.

The middle realm, then, is where we either take responsibility for the variety of obligations across our 5 Domains, or otherwise neglect them, ignore them, avoid them, and put them off till ‘later’. But here we are: faced with the things that need our attention, standing at a ‘Y’ in our path. Depending on the choice we make at this point, our consciousness and quality of life will either shift upward or downward, into an upper realm or a lower realm, heaven or hell.

Once again, I am not using these terms as references to different locations in the universe, and not even as metaphysical dimensions of reality. Instead, they are meant to indicate distinct registers of consciousness – moods, motivations, attitudes, and perspectives (in short, mindsets) – that link psyche and cosmos by very different stories and contrary mythologies.

So that we can end this post on a positive note, let’s begin with the descent into hell.

Hell

When we are irresponsible with the obligations of wellbeing, not taking care of the things that elevate our quality of life across the 5 Domains, our general picture begins to degenerate into something quite unpleasant. Remember those simple practices of spirituality that deepen our sense of inner peace? When we neglect or avoid them, the opposite of inner peace takes its place: insecurity. Instead of releasing our separate identity (ego) to the grounding mystery within, we desperately struggle to keep from falling into the abyss of extinction.

Let’s play this all the way out.

Our spiritual insecurity signals the body to release stress hormones, keeping us hypervigilant and defensive, but also suspending metabolic and immunity functions in the interest of emergency action. And when we’re all neurotic and knotted up in this way, how does it go in our relationships? Not well. We tend to be reactive, suspicious, distrustful, and self-absorbed. We also pull other equally neurotic partners into our life, forming dysfunctional and codependent attachments that serve to confirm and reinforce our general anxiety over the state of things. The problem here is that our character continues to be shaped and instructed in this negative social milieu, which means that we become takers and consumers, grasping for our share and ripping into anyone who threatens our stash. Finally, as it concerns our lifeplan and vision for the future – well, there’s just no energy or time for that. Holding off the next catastrophe has become our full-time obsession.

I think that’s a pretty good description of hell, don’t you? The urgency of a life out of balance and collapsing upon itself; a hostage of our own convictions, a captive of destructive forces, bound by fear and feeling stuck in a hole that just keeps getting deeper. Hell is the deepest of all depressions.

Or … we might choose the other way.

Heaven

Taking responsibility in the obligations of wellbeing means that we don’t wait around for someone else to live our life or save us from our problems. We do what is necessary and required in order to optimize our quality of life in all 5 Domains. We cultivate inner peace, make healthy choices, love others (even those who oppose us), serve the greater good, and relentlessly pursue a more perfect union.

Heaven really isn’t that far away. Indeed it’s been right here all the time, just waiting for us to enter. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is within/among you” (Luke 17:21). All the great wisdom teachers of history are in fundamental agreement on one thing: When we know the truth, the truth will make us free.

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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Moving Into Wholeness

My last post ended with the controversial statement that a religion which is organized around the goal of getting the individual ego safely to heaven is really a delusion from which we need to be saved. It is widely assumed that religion generally is about everlasting security in the next life, including all the obligations – moral, doctrinal, and devotional – a true believer must satisfy to be worthy of its reward. “True religion” (if I can dare use the term) is actually our path out of this delusion.

It’s insufficient, of course, to define true religion exclusively in this negative fashion – as breaking the spell, escaping the trance, exposing the delusion and leaving it behind. If a system in service of the ego, by which I mean the individual human ego as well as the Absolute Ego it projects as its god, interferes with our spiritual progress as a species, liberation is only a preliminary step – however strategic and urgently needed it is. We need to further ask: “So what? To what end?”

Central to my larger argument is a perspective on personal (ego) consciousness as a critical stage in our ongoing evolution as a species (and development as individuals), but as only a stage and not the goal. When religion, which had long been dedicated to keeping our inner being (soul) and outer life (body) in holistic balance, got distracted and then utterly derailed by the rising preoccupation with social identity (ego), this shift marked a “fall” of consciousness out of communion and into a state of self-conscious estrangement.

The entire scheme of mythology was subsequently reoriented on “the hero’s journey” and final atonement with the Absolute Ego of god. Personal salvation became the whole purpose and litmus test of “true” religion. If you ask true believers to contemplate for a moment what their religion would be if the award ceremony of heaven were out of the picture, certainly a large majority of them would protest: “Then what’s the point?”

This religion of ego, ego’s god, and personal salvation is precisely what Jesus (and Buddha before him) sought to leave behind. His parables and social conduct introduced a shock to the morality of his day – as they still would in ours – and effectively shook off the trance for a few who got the message. “It’s not about you,” he said in so many words. “Get over yourself.” 

And that is exactly what the ego seeking salvation cannot do.

So if it’s not about me (or you) and we need to get over ourselves, just what will that mean? Again, getting over ourselves is a requirement if we are to see what’s beyond us. But then the program needs to advance from disillusionment (breaking the spell) to a new vision of reality. Jesus (and Buddha) had a lot to say about that as well, but it only makes sense in the way he intended when consciousness has been liberated from the tightening spiral of “What’s in it for me?”

The diagram below is my attempt to map out the major components, trajectories, and possibilities of human fulfillment – of our evolution as a species in the way it prepares for and then “leap frogs” our development as individuals. For the sake of orientation in my diagram, we’ll begin at the bottom, zig-zagging left and then right as we move upward to the intended culmination of a life lived in conscious communion with others and all things – what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

Ego Quad

Human beings have a need to know, intuitively more than intellectually, that reality can be trusted. When conditions inside and outside the womb are provident and nurturing, our nervous system settles into a baseline state of calm and spontaneous release to What Is. This ability to relax into being, to let go and rest in reality, is precipitated by the real support that reality provides and is gradually strengthened (or compromised) as new challenges arise. Security may be the way things objectively are, but the individual (fetus, infant, child, adult) needs to feel that reality can be trusted in order for it to become the foundation we call “faith.”

If all goes well, security will undergird the next developmental opportunity, which involves the internalization of control. “Autonomy” doesn’t mean complete independence from external resources or absolute control over everything going on inside. It rather refers to an established center of freedom, perspective, intention, and choice in which the individual has some creative control. Autonomy isn’t the end-goal it has become in some Western therapeutic traditions, but its developmental achievement is arguably essential for progress to maturity.

And because it doesn’t always go well, we should pause a moment to reflect on what typically happens when security is compromised and autonomy fails. A reality that in general cannot be trusted will compel a coping strategy called attachment – not the healthy attachment between infant and mother, but a neurotic attachment where the insecure individual “submits” emotionally to someone or something with the expectation that security will be found there. Inevitably submission pulls development off a healthy path (to autonomy) and takes it hostage to codependent relationships, repressive ideologies, and damaging addictions.

A personality that is held captive by its “idols of security” will tend to take on an inferiority complex where shame – the conviction of being deeply flawed, stained, depraved and unworthy – attracts a dark shadow of helplessness and hopelessness. If it gets dark enough, the individual will go to any length to justify and promote the idol’s absolute authority – and violence is never out of the question.

As you might guess, I am of the opinion that much of the “redemptive violence” committed in the name of god and religion – human sacrifice and substitutionary atonement, persecution of minorities and heretics, acts of terrorism and holy wars – has insecurity and shame at its roots.

But let’s move on.

Assuming a healthy establishment of autonomy with the executive ego in control, an individual is prepared for higher experiences beyond the self. Think about such transcendent experiences as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love, and notice how each one “gets over” the ego for the sake of a higher truth of some kind. Indeed, if an individual is only calculating the prospect of personal advantage or reward in these experiences, they will simply not be available.

However, just as before, we need to say something about what happens when security and autonomy are not in place, yet the impetus of transcendence is nevertheless lifting the ego in that direction. What results is a pathology which seems to be the inverse of an inferiority complex, where the ego becomes inflated with conceit, glory-seeking, and self-importance. This is the lesser known superiority complex, and while it seems to be caught up on issues utterly opposite to feelings of shame and inadequacy, ego inflation is really just another coping strategy for the insecure personality.

Even if grandiosity is discouraged by religion in its members, the superiority complex can still be celebrated (and justified) in the patron deity who blusters and brags about being the best and greatest, the one and only, who deserves and demands all the worship, praise, and glory. As Absolute Ego, the deity who so comports himself is serving to sublimate otherwise deplorable behavior for human beings into something they can validate and promote through their god.

The way Yahweh carries on in some Bible stories has to make you wonder.

Before we take our final step of ascent in my diagram and contemplate at last the “so what” of true religion, I want to quickly comment on the telltale marks of ego strength, along with their opposite pathologies. Ego strength is a necessary and desirable achievement of healthy development and shouldn’t be confused with egoism, which is actually a symptom of its absence. In other words, personal identity (ego) becomes stuck on itself when it is weak – insecure, manipulative, and craving attention.

A “strong” ego by contrast serves to stabilize the personality, balance its moods, and unify its numerous substreams of impulse, affect, and perspective – what Roberto Assagioli named “subpersonalities.” When these strengths are not present, the individual can be flooded by rising urgencies in the body (borderline personality), swing uncontrollably between emotional extremes (bipolar), or get overrun from within by divergent attitudes and motivations (dissociative identity). I’m doing my best to save these terms from their classification as “clinical disorders” so that we can acknowledge and deal responsibly with them in normal life.

At last we can consider where all of this might be leading, assuming that our zig-zag progress from security to autonomy has gone reasonably well – which is not a safe assumption, as I’ve tried to show. So let’s just pretend that we are not caught in the trance of personal salvation, but have seen the vision and heard the invitation to our intended fulfillment. What sort of experience is that?

My word is communion: the awareness, the participation, the commitment, and the responsibility of living together as one. Importantly, the prefix “com” when added to the base word “union” prevents the couple, several, or many from dissolving into homogeneity where individual distinctions are annihilated. The valued gains of autonomy and ego strength are not canceled out in communion but instead are connected to other centers, in those higher experiences mentioned earlier: inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love.

That is where our liberation finds its fulfillment.

Communion doesn’t need to be defined in exclusively human terms of course, even though our most pressing challenge is in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Jesus understood the challenge as especially critical and urgent in our relations with our “enemies,” which doesn’t only – or even most importantly – mean our adversaries across the ocean, the picket line, or the political aisle.

The enemies we really need to love most are the ones who daily let us down, betray our trust, exploit our insecurity, abuse our generosity, and don’t even seem to care. They are our family members, our neighbors, our former friends.

But that’s another topic – kind of. 

 

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