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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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Inside Terrorism

IdeologyOne approach in dealing with terrorism is to try and knock it out with even greater force. If we can just exterminate the terrorists, we can get back to normal life. The problem with this approach is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the individuals who perpetrate its horrors. Our longer term solution will come as we are able to get inside terrorism and see where (and how) it takes hold of otherwise sane and decent human beings. Launching counter-terror campaigns can quickly make terrorists of ourselves.

As soon as we can acknowledge the ease in which we slip into and are taken up by ideologies that control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, the closer we will be to a world free of terrorism. Once we understand the process as it takes hold of us, more creative, responsible, and wise solutions to the global problem of terrorism will become available. Ideology is a powerful spell that takes possession of our intelligence, radicalizes our attitudes, and compels us to act out of character with our better angels. How it does this is my topic here.

My diagram illustrates the process that produces a terrorist, but which also produces careless consumers who are currently devastating the biosphere of our planet. My challenge here is not to elucidate a particular type of terrorism (Muslim jihadism, rampant consumerism, or some other) but rather how any ideology makes us behave in ways that put living systems, and our own lives insofar as we depend on these systems, in jeopardy of extinction.

The process that slowly but inexorably leads us into the trance of ideology begins at a critical threshold where each of us manages the stress of life. By “stress” I am referring to anything in the environment – a challenge, crisis, difficulty, hazard or obstacle – that disrupts our equilibrium and must be addressed in the interest of regaining balance. Psychosomatic (mind-body) health is our capacity to identify the stressor, size it up, and work out a response that may involve some combination of overt action and mental adjustment. Success in any case will depend on an accurate appraisal of the stressor, along with a strategy for accepting it, overcoming it, reframing it, or perhaps exploiting it to our advantage.

What I’m calling a stressor (i.e., the cause of stress) is something “out there” in the external environment. The disturbance of our internal equilibrium is called distress. How we manage the threshold between stress and distress is a chief indicator of psychosomatic health. When the stress is more than we can handle, it provokes a “stress response” in the body that involves a syndrome of numerous physiological events, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased breathing rate and muscle tension, and the release of cortisol into the bloodstream which unlocks the energy stores in cells to mobilize stress-appropriate behavior. But of course, if the stress is already “more than we can handle,” something else must be done.

It is at this point that we try to separate ourselves from the internal distress we feel. An absent or ineffective behavioral response to stress leaves the distress unresolved, which further translates into chronic insecurity, flares of anxiety, growing agitation, and general unrest. When we were infants, our distress was pacified in the nurturing embrace of a caregiver. Our higher power helped us feel safe and supported, literally understood as he or she stood under us and calmed us down. When our higher power wasn’t immediately available, we probably found comfort in a transitional object like a blanket, teddy bear, or something to suck on – all of which can be called pacifiers, since they pacified us by alleviating our distress.

A pacifier is anything to which we attach ourselves for comfort. Since our first step was separating ourselves from the external stressor and fixating on how it was making us feel inside, pacifiers provided a way of reconnecting to the environment and recovering security. As adults we frequently seek security in membership, in joining groups and performing roles that help us feel accepted and valued. If our family of origin was not a strong community of support, or was maybe even dysfunctional and abusive, we might spend the rest of our lives looking for a partnership or society where we can belong. If we are desperate enough for security, we may be willing to sacrifice personal fulfillment and “sell our soul” for its sake.

Young people are especially vulnerable to the seduction of other misfits who have found identity in each other’s company. A distressed security-seeker finds consolation in knowing that others are similarly agitated, and joining a group pulls them into an identity contract where they take on obligations, are accepted as “one of us,” and may be given a special name or title. This identity contract anchors a worldview, and in turn energizes that worldview through the devotion and sacrifice it demands. For the insider such a construct of meaning offers refuge from “the rest of the world,” specifically from outsiders who lack understanding or sympathy.

Originally we needed an effective strategy for addressing the stressors of our environment and resolving the distress we felt internally. And ultimately this is what every ideology will drive us to, but now with an agenda that has divided reality into “us versus them.” If the pacifier is important enough to us, we will do anything to prevent it from being taken away. (Have you ever tried taking a security blanket from a toddler in distress?) Every attempt on the part of outsiders to destroy the society that gives our lives meaning only serves to strengthen that meaning as something to be defended at all cost.

When we have reached this point, terrorism as an ideology transcends the individuals possessed by it. Killing every terrorist will be impossible so long as the ideology of terrorism is alive, and only killing terrorists makes it stronger still. What needs to happen is for the ideology to get compromised inside its own logic. I propose that the “logic of terrorism” is a code made up of six elements.

1. Articulation of Grievance

Our distress is formulated into a complaint about the way things are.

2. Validation of Resentment

We need to feel that our distress (insecurity, anxiety, agitation, and unrest) is warranted.

3. Projection of Responsibility

Something in the external environment must be identified as the cause of our trouble.

4. Motivation of Vengeance

We are convinced that something must be done to retaliate and rectify the problem.

5. Justification of Violence

Any sacrifice, damage, or loss of life is interpreted as necessary to our cause.

6. Promise of Reward

A better life awaits, both on the other side of this conflict and in the world to come.

In our “war on terror” the rest of the world (we who are outsiders) have directed the major part of our aggression and criticism at the demonstration of this ideology, in acts of terrorism, but show little understanding of the soil where it takes root. In other words, we are trying to defeat terrorism in the theater of action when we should be disarming it farther down and far earlier in the process of its gestation.

I have argued that a terrorist ideology (as well as a consumerist ideology) is seeded by a grievance narrative, where a fundamental complaint about the way things are is articulated and takes command of our focus. This is what gets inside the minds of young people who are, even in normal development, searching for somewhere to belong that will pacify their insecurity, connect them to others who understand, and give them a meaningful outlook on reality.

But a grievance narrative will only take root in a personality that is unable to resolve internal distress. The narrative articulates what the young person only feels but can’t formulate into words. Once the grievance narrative takes hold, the individual feels supported, understood, and validated – and unwilling to give it up. With the individual’s full agreement, the grievance narrative anchors and drives all other elements of the ideology.

Rather than fighting violence with violence – or, if we must wage war on terror for the sake of our own security, then in addition to it – we would better help our young people learn how to manage that critical threshold between “out there” and “in here,” between self and world, where the stress of life can be met with composure, resilience, imagination, and responsibility. We will stop terrorism when we as parents, teachers, and other adult higher powers teach our children how to stay centered and just relax into being.

True enough, we cannot teach what we do not know. I guess the war on terror starts in me.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Timely and Random

 

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The Simple Message

“Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” What if the message of a one-world religion was as simple as that? Obviously the meaning of those words would need to be unpacked before believers scramble on board. There is no magic in merely repeating the words as you break bread, ring a bell, prostrate yourself, or whirl in circles. Religion has really never been about some special power in ritual performances, but rather how these rituals focus attention, unite members of the community in shared intention, and provide thereby a sacred entry into deep time where everything is celebrated as moving in a purposeful direction.

It’s been about connection, as the root religare implies (to tie back or link together). Just because some religions have degenerated into reactionary, separatist, and violence-prone idiocracies (a rule of spiritual idiots) isn’t a sound reason to reject religion itself out of hand as the same. The occasion of bad science or bad politics doesn’t give us good reason to cast science or politics on the cultural junk pile; instead we redouble our commitment to keep science aligned with empirical facts and politics oriented on the welfare of society.

With so many blatant examples of bad religion all around us, I want to call us back to its essential function, summarized in the simple message of “Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” All religions will find the secret to a renewed inspiration and relevance as they realign themselves once again to the vision of reality conveyed in this message. So let’s take a few minutes to unpack what it means.

Web_GroundPlug in

A human being has both an inner life and an outer life. Our inner life, called our soul, trails deep inside to the very root of consciousness. In that deep place within each of us, finally inaccessible even to our own searching mind, consciousness rises out of and recedes again into a mystery that all religions acknowledge as an elusive presence. Before they put words to it and dress it up in symbols, stories, and doctrines, this presence is intuitively known as the very Ground of Being, the creative source in which our existence finds its genesis and provident support.

Reach Out

A human being also has an outer life, called our body, which extends far outside the boundary of our skin – although for the sake of convenience we commonly regard it as a physical object. In truth, however, our body is of the same substance (homooúsios) as the earth and contains the saline of its oceans, metabolizes the light of the sun and has stardust in its cells. It is not a separate thing at all; in fact, our body belongs to a vibrant Web of Life as large as the universe itself. The very nature of our body shares in the interdependence of cosmic reality.


The inner life of our soul and the outer life of our body make human beings a fascinating duality. Outwardly we are connected to the Web of Life and dependent upon its sacred balance of energies, while inwardly we are rooted in the Ground of Being and cradled in a present mystery. These two aspects of our existence, outer and inner, are what religion has long helped us hold together. By coordinating our deeper communion with Being and our wider fellowship with Life, religion (as religare) keeps us whole.

Open Up

But there is yet another aspect of human beings, besides the inner and outer, that introduces a wonderful complication to this enterprise of unifying our experience of reality. What we call ego is our identity as members of this or that human tribe (family, community, culture). Because every social group of humans is unique according to its history, traditions, customs, concerns, values, beliefs, and aspirations, every individual ego – which, of course, carries its own unique set of inclinations, moods, and motivations – is unique as unique can possibly be.

Egos must be shaped to the aims of the group so they can take the responsibility of promoting its peculiar construction of meaning known as ideology. One problem with ideology is that it tends to codify our human insecurities into compensatory convictions of absolute truth. If our tribal existence is particularly imperiled by vanishing resources and competition with a neighboring group, for instance, an idea something like manifest destiny will soon rise in our minds, providing all the justification we need to secure what is ours by right.

It’s at this stage in the game where religion constructed the notion of a patron deity, whose role is to authorize the moral order, incentivize internal reform, justify external campaigns of war, and characterize the virtues to be cultivated in the lives of devotees. These protected memberships served, and still serve, as social incubators of identity. Members are believers, believers are aspirants, and what they aspire to is represented in their deity. Submission, devotion, and obedience train their collective energies on a common ideal which they confess together as the one and only way.

As I said, inevitably (and by design) the constructed identity of an individual ego will carry the social investment of its culture. Family patterns of abuse, neglect, or discrimination – but of healthy nurturing as well – work themselves into the operating system of our personality. I would dare say that all of us, simply because we had to find our way through this broken maze of childhood, enter our own maturity with some deep-set insecurities about ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the prospect of happiness. As a consequence, we play it safe and keep ourselves closed to the greater reality.

An insecure identity, contracted in self-defense and working itself into nervous exhaustion, is that much removed from its own inner life and Ground of Being. Indeed the mere suggestion that “I” (ego) might surrender completely and lose myself in union with the soul’s grounding mystery is contemplated with horror. But outwardly, too, the self-involved ego is ignorant of and careless about the body and its vibrant Web of Life. Reaching out too far and opening its horizon of understanding to the fragile balance of life would take focus away from its precious contract of “me and mine.”

And that’s where the real contribution of “true religion” lies: in challenging us to open up and to drop the illusion of identity. Only then can we plug in to the Ground of our being and reach out to the Web of Life. Only then will we be whole.

This is the simple message.

 

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As If

  1. God has a plan and is in control.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. You have an immortal soul, but …
  4. Don’t trust yourself.
  5. A better place awaits those who obey God.

I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions.

This is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while hiding from authorities in a boat, after he and his brother had successfully carried out their mission of bombing the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan died on his way to the hospital from gunshot wounds by pursuing police and from being dragged under their own get-away car.

We Muslims are one body: you hurt one you hurt us all. Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven. Now how can you compete with that?

Now we might spin this into an exposé of Islamic fundamentalism. But if we did, it would only be to put a buffer of dissociation between an ideology that motivated these young men to violence in God’s name, and the more respectable theism of American Christianity. Of course, in the process of pushing this ideology away and condemning it as against what God is really all about, we protect ourselves against the possibility of a revelation – also known as disillusionment.

It can be expanded and morphed into countless variations – as it is among the world’s many religions – but this ideology consists of just five beliefs. A belief is when we pretend to know something, but don’t realize that we are pretending. In our trances of conviction and in the name of our delusions, human beings commit atrocities against other people, life on earth, and future generations. It doesn’t really matter what name you attach to the delusion; the essential mechanics of the phenomenon are the same across the board.

As we look at the five statements that make up this dangerous ideology, it should be obvious that they can be turned in the interest of emotional comfort or unconscionable violence. What decides the difference? If these were diametrical opposites the answer would be easy. The purpose is to calm anxiety, promote peace, and connect us meaningfully to the world around us. But could it have another purpose as well?

An unresolvable fact of our life in time is that things come at us randomly. Kind people suffer and mean people flourish; and yes, mean people suffer as kind people flourish. Televangelists can pump the notion that God favors those who are obedient, generous, and forgiving (although that last one doesn’t get as much airtime), but actual experience and just a little honest reflection will easily pry the lid off that deception. Still, it’s comforting to know (or pretend to know) that someone is watching over us and will someday give us what we deserve.

When, exactly? There’s no telling, but you can rest assured that if it doesn’t come in this life, God will bless you richly in the next. For a lot of people, just knowing (or pretending to know) that we don’t really die but merely continue on after the eye-blink of death in everlasting perpetuity is sufficient to reconcile them to the hardship, trauma, and bereavement that are inevitable in this life. That makes this bearable. We can put up with a lot here, with the assurance that it will all be better there.

For the Tsarnaev brothers, the promise of an after-life reward provided more than enough motivation to rip off limbs and kill innocent bystanders. Even the prospect of dying for their cause wasn’t a deterrent – if anything, it was a stimulant to what they did. God’s plan involves the triumph of his religion, which will come about either by the conversion or destruction of unbelievers. God is in control and is moving human events in the direction of a preordained destiny. Whatever happens along the way, you can know (or pretend to know) that it’s all happening according to plan.

Every statement in the above set has a metaphysical anchor, except one. The existence of an external deity who has a plan and is in control, whose reasons may be inscrutable (and therefore beyond question), and who will reward our obedience and sacrifice with endless beatitude in the next life – the hook for each one of these beliefs is importantly just (or far) outside the horizon of direct experience or presentable evidence. This is frequently used as an argument for their authority, strangely enough.

Religion is about metaphysics, and metaphysics can only be known by revelation. Charismatic prophets, inerrant scriptures, and orthodox doctrines all give warrant to the validity of our faith. Don’t worry over the fact that you haven’t encountered the personal deity as he is depicted in the sacred stories. It happened, and that’s all you need to know (or pretend to know). Besides, who are you to question it? Your sinful nature, mortal ignorance, personal stupidity, or undeveloped faith (multiple choice, and “all of the above” is the best answer) preclude you from any kind of claim to authority.

So we can see that none of the other statements of this dangerous ideology would stand up or hold water if confidence in our own experience, intelligence, and insight were not disqualified beforehand. If you can be dissuaded from trusting yourself – or better yet, if distrusting yourself can be accepted as obedience to divine revelation – then you are absolutely dependent on the external authority of religion.

But as Alan Watts often asked: If you can’t trust yourself, is it really a good idea to trust this distrust of yourself? This is typically where orthodoxy warns us to stop asking questions.

When we believe something, we pretend to know – and then forget or never wake up to realize that we are acting “as if” we know. But isn’t this what we mean by faith? Don’t we need faith to believe in an external deity, his overarching plan, our own immortal souls, and a life after this one? The answer is “No.” All you need is the willingness to believe these things, but that isn’t faith.

PeaceIt is possible to question, doubt, and disbelieve almost every statement in the ideology under consideration and still have faith – a mystically deep, spiritually grounded, and truly relevant faith. Almost every one. But when you lose or give up trust in yourself, you really can’t trust anything else.

Faith is full release to the present mystery of reality, experienced as provident in this beat of your heart, this breath in your lungs, this thought in your mind, this moment of being, this passing opportunity of life. All of this rises up from within and all around you as support, grace, and real presence.

Until we are given permission to trust ourselves, or take it back from those who are withholding it from us, more and more people will suffer the consequences of our convictions. We will continue to take our gods as real, read our myths as literal accounts, claim the infallibility of our beliefs, and be ready to surrender everything – common sense, reason, peace, and life itself – for the sake of what we only pretend to know.

 

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