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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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Touching Reality

The true longing of our spiritual life is to touch reality, to connect with what’s really real, and thereby to become more real ourselves: more authentically and fully human. This of course implies that to some extent we are not presently in touch with reality, and maybe not fully real.

According to the spiritual wisdom teachings, each of us suffers in separation from the really real insofar as we are deeply entangled in managing a separate personal identity, called our ego (Latin for “I”).

It might occur to us that extinguishing our separate ego, or preventing its formation in the first place, would make spiritual fulfillment more likely. Numerous philosophies, methods, and techniques have been devised with that end in mind. But they all fail, as they are destined to fail, since the discipline of eliminating the ego is dependent upon the individual’s desire, will, and persistent effort – that is, on the very thing they are setting out to abolish.

Religion is divided on the question of what to do with the ego. If it’s not to be annihilated, perhaps it needs to be rescued. If not snuffed out of existence, should we be concerned for its salvation instead – getting it safely out of this world of suffering and into some immortal paradise beyond?

It rarely occurs to those on the inside of this debate that there may be a third option, a kind of ‘middle way’. Neither destroyed nor delivered, but rather used as the means to what we’re really seeking, which is to touch reality and become more fully human. We’re not talking about using someone else for our own fulfillment, for that would just be another example of glorifying the ego and gratifying its self-centered ambitions.

To understand how and where the ego fits into our spiritual quest for the really real, it’s helpful to know what it is. My diagram is focused on this center of self-conscious awareness, stretching out from there in four directions. We’ll begin at the bottom, curve up to the left, zig to the right, and then curve up again to the top.

It’s important to keep in mind that all four directions (or dimensions of self) are correlated around the ego and only make sense from the vantage point it provides.

Let’s start with your centered sense of being a separate and unique individual. We’ll explore the contents of your identity shortly, but for now I will just ask you to let your awareness drop from that self-conscious center and into the deeper support of your experience in this moment. Underneath and supporting self-consciousness is a sentient nervous system, which is continuously picking up and processing sensory information from your environment and body.

As a sentient being, you sense, feel, and perceive what’s going on around and inside you. Beneath that, however, is the wonderful conspiracy of organic urgencies keeping your body alive. Organs and organ systems, glands and the circulatory paths by which they communicate, and down into the metabolic marvel of bones, tissues, and individual living cells.

And then there’s the physical substrate of matter, providing structure and magnetism for all of those miracles higher up. Inside of matter is the strange quantum realm of energy, which you can’t see or overtly feel, even though it suffuses everything about the physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious being that you are.

You should have noticed how each deeper drop into the grounding mystery of your existence requires that you surrender a little more of what makes you a separate and unique individual.

As your awareness lets go of all those attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that define who you are, you enter the increasingly less personal dimension of what you are. But notice, too, how with each deeper ‘layer’ in the essence of what you are, awareness opens correspondingly farther out to include more of reality. While ego awareness hovers close to your center of personal identity, sentient awareness connects you not only to other sentient beings, but to the entire sensory-physical universe.

All of what we have named so far can be placed under the category of ‘interiority’, inside and beneath the self. This withinness of your life does not belong to your ego, but rather supports it as its grounding mystery. To enter the interior dimension of your life, however, it is necessary to release all of those things that make you separate and special.

Descending by this interior path is one way you can touch reality.

Let’s think more about this “separate and special” person you are. What we summarized earlier as the attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that make you who you are do not refer to physical traits as much as personality traits. What we call ‘identity’ is not something you’re born with, but instead must be constructed in the long process called socialization. By this process your tribe shaped the behavior, implanted the values, and instructed the beliefs that aligned with its collective way of life.

Think about this: To be somebody and have an identity, you must belong to some tribe where your identity is recognized. Yes, you are a human being; but who are you? That’s something we can’t determine until we know the social context in which your identity is held. Your tribe provides you with a role to play, along with the script you’re expected to follow. Of course, there is typically some flexibility built in to allow for your particular talents, interests, and ‘performance style’.

We can distinguish this element of individuality from the social role itself by naming it a ‘mask’, as the face and outward expression in how you play the role. Interestingly, the Latin word persona refers to the mask a theater actor wore during a stage performance, and our words ‘person’, ‘personal’, and ‘personality’ derive directly from it.

Over time and through countless performances, a role begins to fuse with the sense of who you are. No longer is it something you step into for the purpose of engaging a social role-play, for it has by now fully insinuated itself into your behavior, beliefs, and worldview. At this point, the construction project achieves a critical victory, in establishing your character in the story of who you are.

You should note that all of it – mask, role, character, and story – are narrative constructs and have no true reality of their own. However difficult it may be to hear, it should be clear that moving from ego into what makes you a separate and unique person is actually taking you farther away from what’s really real.

But – and now we start our zig across my diagram to the opposite side – this very identity, constructed and ‘put on’ as it may be, is what gives you a place in the role-play and connects you to other persons.

If I remind you now about your own interiority, how deep below and detached it is from the theater stage where you and everyone else are trying to manage your personal lives, it should make sense if we call this third dimension ‘alterity’, referring to “the state of being other; otherness” (from the dictionary).

The interiority of the other is inaccessible to you, and even if they would share as much of their inner life with you as they possibly can, there will always remain something there that is ‘wholly other’ – unknown and unknowable, unspeakable and utterly ineffable. Despite all your best efforts to know them, and given the fullest confession of the other person, their otherness will continue to both confront and elude you.

Even if you were to uncover all their secrets and unravel the many strands of their personal narrative, their grounding mystery within would be absolutely transcendent to you.

This is true not only of other human persons, but of each and every existing thing there is. A grain of sand, for instance, presumably doesn’t possess a living body or sentient mind, but its simple interiority carries an otherness that still confronts you as impenetrable. Yes, you could smash the grain of sand into its component elements, but then you have only created countless more objects, each confronting you with its alterity.

As it relates to the spiritual life and our longing to touch reality, this dimension of alterity confronts us with the mystery of otherness. Reality is always other – even ‘wholly other’ than what we can experience or know, think or imagine.

Having established the fundamental duality between individuals, each hosting a profound interiority and confronted by the impenetrable alterity of the other, we can now make our final swing upward in my diagram. What is reality? It is all of it, together; a higher wholeness; the turning unity (uni-verse) of being and time. We are not speaking here of something else beyond the totality of things, but rather to the consilient (literally “leaping together”) dynamic by which all things are connected, involved, and contribute to the greater whole.

Indeed this greater whole is an emergent property of all those exchanges and transformations working together. When you are able to go beyond yourself, this time not letting go of what makes you separate and unique, but investing it and giving of yourself to the emerging unity of your life with others, you are touching reality in another way again. Not as grounding mystery or absolute otherness, but as genuine community.

Going within to the Ground, going out to the Other, and going up into Unity: these are the three ways we can touch reality and become more fully human.

In my next post we’ll take a look at how these translate into religion, and where religion commonly loses its way.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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