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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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Becoming Human

The challenge for religion today – one of its many challenges – is to offer an understanding of the human being that is relevant to contemporary life, compatible with our present model of reality, prescient of where our  evolution as a species may be leading, and in deep agreement with that stream of enduring insights concerning the fundamental nature of things which Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.

In actual fact, however, religion – particularly so-called popular religion – is failing us on all four points. It is increasingly losing currency as a way of providing real guidance for today, locked in a stalemate between complacency and terrorism. In one of the supposedly more advanced societies, courts are jammed by legal efforts to throw aside scientific theory for biblical myth in deciding what our children should be taught in school.

As far as a vision for the future is concerned, popular religion is exploiting our inherent insecurity as a species by promising true believers a final escape from this corrupt world. And many of the deep discoveries of our long adventure have been all but forgotten if not rejected outright as myth, magic and New Age. Instead of discovery, which involves a process of looking deeply into things, religion today campaigns for truth as revelation from above and outside of things.

My efforts aren’t the last word, obviously. But they are dedicated to the task of continuing our human quest with these four frontiers in mind – daily life, our model of reality, the human future, and that fund of deeper insights carried across the cultures and millenniums of our collective history. Just because I challenge traditional notions of god, truth, immortality and salvation, it’s probably easy for someone to conclude that I must be an enemy of religion, when in fact I am one of its outspoken advocates. Not of this or that religion, but of religion as the system of sentiments, theories, ideals, values and practices which link us back (religare) to the present mystery of reality.B_E_SThe illustration above provides a way around our current impasse, where much of popular religion holds the human spirit hostage to outdated ideas, long-abandoned worldviews, and adolescent moralities of reward and punishment. My diagram is intended to be interpreted dynamically rather than statically; that is to say, as representing the progressive transformation of human beings over time, instead of a snapshot of what we are and always have been.

We know that individual human beings develop as they mature, but their development might not result in maturity. It often happens that development gets arrested around neurotic fixations and emotional attachments, holding back at least part of the personality in “infantile” or “adolescent” attitudes and mindsets.

We can, of course, use this same lens to appreciate where entire societies and cultural systems get hung up and held back as well. Real problems come when this arrested development degenerates into a pathology of profound insecurity and holy conviction, producing a readiness (even eagerness) to kill and die for the truth in our possession. When we are prepared to trash this world for the sake of a better one elsewhere – whether it be the suburbs, a neighboring planet, or heaven after we die – we carry the principle of destruction inside ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we turn this paradise into ashes and need to move on to the next promised land.

Across the horizontal axis of my diagram is a depiction of the sequence by which human individuals and cultures develop. Going up along the vertical axis are three centers of consciousness and the rising transcendence of distinct stages that provide different perspectives on reality. These mental locations of awareness engage peculiar sets of concerns, values and aims. As we evolve from one stage to the next, the task is to carry forward and upward our gains in development, integrating them somehow in a holistic and meaningful vision of human destiny. Let’s take these centers and stages one at a time and see where this fit-and-flow design can lead, but also where it has gone bad.

A human being is a biological organism, a complex organization of molecules, cells, tissues and organs conspiring together in a pulsing symphony of life. The deep history of this symphony stretches into a pre-human past, modifying along the way a basic template by adapting it to changing conditions of its environment. This is our animal nature, compelled by instinct and guided by reflex to seek out niches of safety, resource, and opportunity over the long course of many millions of years. As a providential arrangement of protoplasm and vital urges, our body is carnal (flesh) and incarnates the energy of magnetism, matter, and light.

The body is our mental location in the natural realm, with a set of concerns, values, and aims organized around the singular priority of survival. Our most powerful instincts are dedicated to keeping us alive, bonding us to our group, and passing our genes into the next generation. Thankfully the fulfillment of this survival mandate hasn’t required much careful consideration and deliberate choice; unconscious drives simply get it done.

Whatever number of decades brings you back to early childhood, an exponential factor of that time span suggests a distant era when our species was beginning to transcend mere survival concerns in the interest of functioning cohesively as a tribe. Successful reproduction presents us with the challenge of raising children in a social context, in such a way that our offspring eventually can assume identities compliant with the pressing needs and occupational roles of the group. Through this process of socialization, an animal nature is disciplined into a personal ego – into a person with a separate and special identity, but still “one of us.”

As the next-higher mental location of consciousness, ego provides a perspective on the landscape of cultural meaning, consisting of the artifacts, traditions, assumptions and conventions that support a sacred canopy called a worldview. Personal identity is thus a socially constructed point of reference where consciousness is shaped and bent upon itself as self-consciousness, reflecting back on the individual an image of “who we are.” The dutiful ego is expected to do its part, promote the values of the tribe, and contribute meaningfully to the commonwealth.

A culture’s sacred canopy is woven of narrative threads called stories. They are not simply reports of fact – what would the point of that be? – but imaginative representations and entertaining plots (from the Greek mythos) that serve to articulate a cross-referencing web of significance. The productive power of this web is fantasy, the very same power that pretended and animated your world as a child. Fantasy is not a weak attempt to describe reality as we see it; rather it is a literally fantastic project in meaning-making, constructing a habitat for the mind. I call the part of our personality responsible for the ongoing defense and repair of our worlds, the inner child. It is spontaneous, playful, and dependent on the support of others; but it can also be neurotic, insecure, and prone to tantrums.

Now, I would say that the form of popular religion summarized at the start is stuck exactly here – at the stage of development where humans are heavily invested in the identity project of ego. Just as your inner child operates according to a model of reality perhaps decades out of date, many present-day religions are still trying to manage meaning inside a worldview thousands of years old and equally outmoded. We need to engage the present reality of our situation, but it’s like performing brain surgery with a paleolithic flint chip.

Jesus, the Buddha, and others have tried to help us see that the source of our suffering is self-preoccupation – the emotional cravings and dogmatic convictions that disable us spiritually. We cannot really know freedom, love, and truth until we learn to let go, open up, and reconnect in more creative ways.

Transcending ego brings us to the mental location of soul, where “me and mine” no longer entrance us. I am of the opinion that this higher self of the soul is a distinguishing mark of maturity. It is not about identity or even meaning. Soul doesn’t fuss with the question “Who am I?” but rather seeks authentic life beyond the masks we wear. It is our spiritual self – the creative spirit in us that contemplates the mystery, celebrates life, and consecrates the precious value of each passing moment. Whereas ego separates us from reality by its veil of meaning, soul reaches through the veil to realize oneness with (communion) all things.

The set of concerns, values, and aims organized around this priority of communion constitutes what is meant by wisdom. Instead of the urgency of survival or the project of identity, wisdom is about living in view of the ever-expanding context of daily life. We make choices and take action, the consequences of which ripple out into our relationships, leach into the soil and water, choke the atmosphere and threaten life. These rippling rings of effects and side-effects should be evidence enough that we are not separate from anything but rather one with everything.

And so, becoming fully human is a destiny still calling to us from the other side of meaning.

 

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