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Getting Off

Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.

The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.

If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.

This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.

Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.

It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?

The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.

On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.

In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.

Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.

In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.

When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?

But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.

So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!

Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.

Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.

What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.

Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).

Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.

The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.

Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.

This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.

While spirituality is the art of getting off.

 

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Dropping Into Reality

In More Than You Think I offered a theory that regards mind as more than what’s going on inside your head. Western culture, particularly, has tended to equate consciousness (or spirit) with mind, mind with the brain, and the brain with the body as the central ganglion of its physical nervous system.

Granting such exclusive privilege to the brain – what I call the cephalic node of consciousness or logical mind – reveals our preference in the West for words, labels, explanations and the push-off from reality they afford us.

In that previous post I also implicated the logical mind as where your self-world construct of identity is managed. Your separate center of self-conscious identity, or ego, does not belong to your essential nature but had to be constructed in the social laboratory of your tribe. By shaping you into “one of us,” your identity came to both reflect and carry the interests, values, beliefs, and anxieties of the group that held your membership.

I don’t treat this gradual separation of identity as a tragic accident or a regretful “fall from paradise” that must somehow be escaped or undone. Ego formation is part of healthy human development. Regarding yourself as a unique and separate center of personal identity, while not the culmination of this path, is a necessary precondition for the true fulfillment of your nature as a human being.

Problems arise and pathology sets in when you get stuck on yourself and trapped inside your logical mind. Then your separation turns into alienation and estrangement, where you are unable to touch the present mystery of reality and wake up to the truth of what you are.

It’s fair to say that all of our chronic suffering as a species, as well as the suffering of other life-forms we are causing, is a consequence of this ego pathology. What I call the “pernicious divisions” of human from nature, of self from other, and of body from soul are behind every crisis we face today. Each of these pairs is ideally a creative polarity, but our profound insecurity has motivated us instead to over-focus on one pole (i.e., human, self, and body) as we exploit or neglect the other (nature, other, and soul).

We might continue to treat this in the abstract, or else we can make it experiential. Your logical mind, centered as it is on your ego and dedicated to defending your world, would prefer to keep things safely boxed up in language. You don’t realize how much of the meaning constructed around you has been arranged as a defense against the breakthrough of mystery, defined and dismissed by your logical mind as chaos, the not-yet-known, or just plain nonsense.

If you happen to be particularly wary of what’s outside or underneath the floorboards of your meaning-full world, the beliefs you hold actually have a hold on your mind, holding it captive (like a convict) inside of fixed and absolute judgments.

This is where you suffer. These convictions not only separate you from the present mystery of reality, they also lock you away from the wellspring of eternal (i.e., timeless) life which is always just beyond belief. All of our chronic unhappiness as humans is generated out of this separation consciousness and the various ways we try to manage or mask its symptoms.

Staying inside your logical mind allows you to make up any excuse or rationalization you need in order to feel better about things. But in that small closed space there is no inner peace, no creative freedom, and no genuine wellbeing – and these are what you truly long for.

If you will, right now as you engage this meditation, just imagine your logical mind and its self-world construct as a big sphere enclosing your head – kind of like those cartoon space helmets you remember from The Jetsons. In my diagram I have placed the image of an elevator shaft with doors opening at the “head floor” and your ego looking out. This is where you have a clear and separate sense of self, inside a habitation of stories that is your world, with everything around you just as clearly “not me.”

Now remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a unique identity and managing a personal world; this is a critical achievement of your development and evolution as a human being. But the truth is that all of this is not real: your ego and its world are nothing more than narrative constructs made up of thoughts, words, stories and beliefs – all generated by your logical mind. Life is more or less meaningful up here, but its meaning is something you are putting on, like a play.

One day it all feels very meaningful, and the next not so much or not at all. The difference from one day to the next is a matter of what stories you are telling yourself and how much you believe them – or how desperately you need them to be true.

For now, though, just let the elevator doors close. Pull your attention away from all of that and allow consciousness to descend into your heart (cardiac node) where your sympathic mind resides. When the doors open again, there is no ego: no separate self, no personal world, no elaborate construct of stories. Even meaning has been left behind.

What you find instead is a web of interdependence connecting you to everything else, and everything all together as One. As best you can, try not to “think” about your experience, since that will only bring awareness back up into your logical mind.

This experience of communion is about coming back to your senses and dropping into reality – out of your stories and into the present mystery of being alive. This is where you understand, not just conceptually but experientially understand, that everything is connected and nothing stands utterly alone from the rest.

All is One, and you are a part of what’s going on.

If we use the label “modern” to name the collective mindset where separation consciousness is in control and the logical mind has constructed a meaningful world for itself, then we can appreciate how this liberative experience of releasing, descending, and communing with reality is necessarily a “post-modern” possibility and wouldn’t have been available to our ancestors of a “pre-ego” age.

In other words, dropping into reality presupposes a separate center (ego) from which the drop can be made.

But let’s not stop there. Let the elevator doors close again, and this time allow consciousness to drop past the web of communion and the All-that-is-One, into the deep presence of being here and now. This is the enteric (gut) node of your intuitive mind. The grounding mystery of your existence provides no place for words or even thoughts to stick. Your experience is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. 

Rest here for a while. Find refreshment in the wellspring of this present mystery, in the mystery of presence. When you take the elevator back up into the business of managing a world and living your life, you will be free to live with a higher purpose in mind.

 

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Living From Our Higher Nature

I would say the major reason why humans suffer so much and project their suffering onto each other is that we don’t understand ourselves. There is indeed a truth that can set us free, but it involves more than just getting our facts straight.

This truth has to do with waking up to what we are.

Let’s begin where much of our suffering is focused – in the cycle of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression we spin through as we chase after whatever society tells us should make us happy. We feel anxious that it might not work out, frustrated when it doesn’t go our way, and depressed after our hopeful expectations lie deflated at our feet. This dual motivation of desiring after something and fearing that it won’t work out or be enough is at the heart of what we call “ambition” (ambi = two or both).

But society doesn’t just say, “Go, be happy.” It provides us with roles to play, scripts to follow, and masks to wear.

Each role connects us to a social system called a role-play, where others are playing their part as well. Connecting in this choreographed way ensures that everyone belongs and has a purpose. The roles, scripts, and masks just mentioned are preserved and passed along by traditions, rituals, and customs. Altogether, these comprise the objective components of morality.

Morality isn’t only around us, however, for it also has a subjective dimension. This includes the values, preferences, aims and beliefs that society downloads to our identity, serving to direct consciousness to those things that will support and promote the ambitions of those in control.

Uh, oh. You can see where this entire illusion folds back and zips into itself, can’t you? As long as we are brainwashed (downloaded) early, we will stay in line, play our part, follow the script, and passionately defend the tribal orthodoxy.

All of what we’ve been talking about so far is what I name our “second nature.” It’s not something we’re born with, but must be constructed for us by those in charge. Our taller powers at home eventually are replaced by higher-ups in society, and for some of us by a higher power in heaven overseeing it all. These are the ones who tell us what to do, what not to do, and how we can secure the happiness we seek.

We can summarize the work of socialization – referring to the process of turning us into well-behaved members of the tribe – in the activities of blocking, shaping, guiding and inspiring. Those last two activities of socialization should, in the best of all possible worlds, help us make wise choices and discover our own creative potential as unique persons.

But sadly and too often this doesn’t happen, largely because the blocking and shaping in those early years ends up crimping down on our “first nature” and filling us with shame and self-doubt. Blocking can be repressive and shaping coercive, with the outcome being that we can’t trust the body we were born with.

Of course, if society happens to be morally puritanical and authoritarian, this is right where they want us. Seeing that we cannot trust ourselves, we have no choice but to put our faith in those who claim to have all the answers.

Our second nature is therefore all about fitting in and going along with the collective role-play currently in session. Each role gives us a place to stand, a script to follow, and a small collection of socially approved, context-appropriate masks to wear. It also connects us to others, but mostly in this more or less formalized way. To “be somebody” is to have the recognition of others in the same play, and we maintain that recognition as long as we responsibly perform our role.

It may sound a bit harsh, perhaps, to characterize our second nature – the traditions, rituals, and customs; the roles, scripts, and masks; our values, aims, and beliefs; tribal morality, personal identity, and our driving ambitions; in short, who we think we are and what the tribe expects of us – as living in a trance, but that’s actually what it is. All of it is made up, put on, and acted out on the cultural stage as if it were the way things really are.

When consciousness is fully invested in this performance, it is under a spell – and most of us don’t realize it!

Dutifully performing our roles and managing our identity, following the rules and doing our part: Sure seems like it’s where everything is supposed to end up, right? What else is there? Maybe we can just quit, fall back into our first nature and live like animals. Or we could foment a revolution by redefining some roles, changing the scripts, and replacing backdrops on the stage. Some of us crave more recognition, as others deserve to be demoted or dismissed from the cast.

But all of that drama is still … well, drama. If all our solutions to the unhappiness we feel have to do with either dropping out, getting promoted, or suing for benefits, we remain fully entranced.

This, by the way, is where many children and most adolescents live, which is why I also name our second nature our “inner child.” It’s the part of us that tries desperately to please, placate, flatter, and impress the taller powers, higher-ups, and god himself in hopes we can get things to go our way.

It’s also where a lot of adults live – not in their higher nature but stuck deep in their insecurity and attachments, caught on the wheel of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression.

The good news is that we don’t have to remain stuck here. The bad news is that our way out will require us to wake up from the trance. Depending on how deeply entangled we are, this breakthrough will come as an insightful epiphany, a troubling disillusionment, or an outright apocalypse – a complete conflagration and end of the world as we know it.

If the blocking and shaping action of our early socialization was not oppressive but provident, it is likely that we were also provided the guidance and inspiration we needed to discover our true talents and potential. We were given roles to play, rules to follow, and beliefs to hold, but they came with a message assuring us of something more beyond the role-play of tribal life.

The spell was a little weaker and the delusion less captivating. Instead of merely performing our roles we we empowered to transcend them.

When we are encouraged to contemplate the higher wholeness of things; when we are challenged to act with the wellbeing of everyone in mind; and when we are free to get over ourselves for the sake of genuine community and the greater good, we are living from our spiritual higher nature.

Fully awake, we have found liberation from suffering. Now we can be the provident taller powers that our children need.

 

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A Mandala of the Spiritual Life

When you were still in the womb and for some time after you were born, you were entirely dependent on the provident support of your taller powers for the protection, nourishment, warmth, and loving attention you needed to thrive. Being helpless and defenseless, and having no sense of yourself as an “I” in relation to a reality that was “not me,” the effect of your earliest experience was to prompt your nervous system to spontaneously adapt itself to the conditions around you.

This baseline nervous state of your brain and body established your place in the order of things, registering the degree in which those early conditions evoked from you a response of trust or mistrust. A trusting nervous system is calm, open, and engaged with reality, while an untrusting one is anxious, closed, and disengaged. It’s important to realize that at this point you were not really “thinking about” anything or observing discrete “things” outside of “me.” You had no language to make such distinctions, nor a centered ego to provide perspective for rendering judgments.

In the ensuing years of early childhood, with the acquisition of language and thought, and managed increasingly by an emerging center of personal identity (ego), your web of family relationships likely perpetuated and confirmed that primordial attitude of trust or mistrust. In a truly provident environment your taller powers were securely centered in themselves, as they lovingly connected with you. They used their power to shape and influence you in positive ways, but rarely to manipulate or oppress you.

Their love supported and enabled you to get established in your own center of identity without feeling that you had to please, placate, flatter, or impress them in order to win their approval.

Relationships that feature this dynamic balance of power (integrity/autonomy/influence) and love (altruism/intimacy/compassion) possess a strong bond of trust. Without it, no relationship can be healthy or last for long. Your capacity to trust and to be a trustworthy partner is one of the most precious legacies of your infancy and early childhood. Even today as an adult, when other people try to attach themselves to you for the security they need, or try to manipulate you into serving their neurotic cravings for control and self-importance, this capacity to trust keeps you centered, or able to quickly recover when you do get pulled off your center.

My diagram offers what I’m calling a “mandala of the spiritual life,” and in the background is a compass to remind us that your human spirit is an intelligence that seeks wholeness, fulfillment, community, and wellbeing. Regardless of what your early life was like, this spiritual intelligence continues its quest for what is authentic and wholesome. And because no family is perfect and every parent has an “inner child” that is somewhat insecure as a consequence of their early experience, the collective of human cultures from the dawn of history have preserved and handed on the spiritual wisdom we all need.

We ignore this collective wisdom to our peril. Without it, the insecure “inner children” of parents cannot allow their actual children to become grounded and centered in themselves, but instead they manipulate them into serving their own neurotic insecurity. These children, effectively attachments of their parents, never learn to trust, and then proceed to pass this insecurity (and mistrust) into their children – and on it goes.

If the loss of one’s center (literally “missing the mark” in archery) is the meaning of our word “sin,” then perhaps this deep inheritance of insecurity and mistrust through the generations stems back to the “original sin” of those first self-conscious and insecure primates who started the process so many millenniums ago.

The balance of power and love as trust in healthy relationships is among those wisdom principles we can find. As partners stay centered in themselves and use their personal influence (power) to support each other and deepen their relationship (love), the bond of trust grows ever stronger. They are able to be present to one another, to be open, vulnerable, and honest with each other. This is one essential dimension of the spiritual life: living in relationship with others, moving deeper into genuine community.

A second dimension is represented in my mandala as a vertical axis rooted in the ground of inner peace. Your learned capacity for trusting others opened up a place deep within yourself where you can relax into being. A calm nervous system allows you to sink below all the agitations and ambitions of your personal life, into the cradling rhythm of your breath.

It’s likely this creative support of your breathing body is what inspired one of the most widely attested metaphors of the spiritual life (spiritus, ruach, pneuma, prana = breath). Its rhythm of taking in and letting go reveals the inner secret of life itself.

Enjoying inner peace, you can simply let things be; or you can use your creative freedom to bring about necessary change. The spiritual life is neither passive nor active, but engages reality with the understanding that “all is one” and “we’re all in this together.” Such a spiritual understanding allows you to be intentional rather than reactive, to live on purpose and by a higher purpose – higher (and larger) than your personal concerns (ego) and beyond the limited sphere of human interests alone.

With our consideration of inner peace, creative freedom, and higher purpose, we have arrived at the apex of the spiritual life. The mandala might lead you to conclude that coming into your higher purpose breaks past the plane of relationships and its dynamic balance of power and love. Perhaps a “fully self-actualized” human being is someone who possesses supernormal abilities of clairvoyance, teleportation, miraculous powers, and the like.

But in fact, the fulfillment of your spiritual life lies in a near-devotional commitment to love, and to forgive without conditions; to encourage and support others on their life journey; and to be the provident reality they can fully trust.

 

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Homecoming

The process of becoming somebody – someone with a separate center of personal identity – is a long and complicated affair involving many others who are also undergoing their own individuation. We are busy trying to figure out the game as the game is shaping who we are.

Actually, the process of becoming somebody has been going on for nearly 14 billion years. The Great Process of our universe burst forth from a point of pure energy, cooled and crystallized into matter, stirred to life many millions of years later, awakened eventually in sentient minds, and then, just this morning in the grand scheme of things, became self-conscious in human beings – who are now frantically wondering what the hell is going on.

A good part of the anxiety has to do with the fact that ego (self-) consciousness is so different from everything else. Other sentient creatures – referring to organisms in possession of nervous systems equipped with sense organs open to their environment and therefore capable of what we call experience – are centered in their bodies and clearly at home in the universe.

Only the human ego has struggled to find where it belongs, evincing a peculiar longing for fantastic utopias far away in time and place.

The difference, then, is one of nested centers versus a separate center. Nested centers, as the term implies, are supported by a deeper ground and cradled inside provident horizons where what they need to thrive is available to them. Nested organisms feel at home (“in the nest”) and belong just where they are.

Even your ego is supported by a sentient nervous system, which is supported by the living organism of your body, which is supported by the deeper organic chemistry of matter, which is supported in the quantum field of energy. Notice that with each deeper center the provident horizon of existence expands exponentially: from your self, to all sentient beings, to the web of life, to the physical universe.

In this way, deeper centers correspond to larger horizons. As it stands, we belong to (i.e., are a part and manifestation of) the cosmos itself. So why don’t we feel like it? What has interrupted this unbroken continuum of being from quantum energy to self-conscious minds, leaving us on the outside (so to speak) alienated, exiled and homeless?

We should note that most world cultures have myths giving account of how we ended up in this estranged state. If salvation is anything, it is the accomplished or anticipated resolution to our felt displacement as a species.

For people in the twenty-first century the answer to this question cannot be mythological in form, featuring deities, paradisal gardens, primordial transgressions, divine punishments, falls from grace, etc. Rather it will need to be congruent with contemporary psychology, which is the science of nervous systems, embodied minds, the developing self-conscious personality, and the nexus of social relations.

It’s here that we find our clue, in that process of individuation whereby consciousness differentiates from the animal foundations of the body and into its own separate center of self-conscious personal identity (the ego). This separation process is necessary to the work of socialization, in order that an animal nature can be gradually domesticated for life in moral society.

Ego, then, is not simply another step up along the axis of nested centers described earlier. Establishing a center of personal identity actually entails a detachment from the grounding mystery of mind, life, matter, and energy that underlies and supports it.

It’s from this vantage point of a separate center that we can speak of having an ‘inner life’ (a soul) and an ‘outer life’ (our body and the world around us).

Properly understood, ego is neither the soul nor the body but a socially constructed center of personal identity, where consciousness becomes self-conscious through a densely filtered lens of cultural codes, tribal instructions, and identity contracts.

Because personal identity is a social construct, the degree in which we feel at home in the universe is largely a reflection of how effective society is in connecting our separate center back to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and to our larger cosmic context.

All of these connections or linkages have been the distinct purview of religion for millenniums (from the Latin religare, to link back) – although for the past several thousand years it has been more intent on fomenting divisions than forging unity.

Indeed we can precisely synchronize the onset of our profound feeling of homelessness with the corruption and historical breakdown of religion. If we were to scale the history of our species to the length of an individual lifespan, this breakdown and subsequent alienation of human self-consciousness occurred precisely at the phase transition of our adolescence.

No longer were we able to simply trust the rhythms and impulses of our animal nature, but instead had to sublimate or repress some of them in the interest of taking our place and becoming somebody.

Our profound insecurity motivated us to latch on to anything (objects, property, people, beliefs, personas, social status) that could make us feel special, exceptional, and immortal.

And just as in our own adolescence, this was the time when human beings under the misguidance of corrupt religion began to use our gods to condemn, discredit, and justify the destruction of anyone or anything that threatened our security. But as you might recall from your own experience, that only intensified our feelings of alienation.

Instead of helping us through to the other side of egoism, religion wrapped us back into ourselves and made the problem worse – much worse.

Thankfully it’s not too late for us to get back with the longer plan of our evolution as a species. But, contrary to what many critics of religion and professed atheists believe, this realignment won’t happen without religion.

I don’t mean to suggest that one of the existing name-brand religions will be our salvation, but that our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will only come as we are able to successfully reconnect to the grounding mystery within, to each other in caring communities, and to the sacred diversity of life on Earth.

However we manage to link our self-conscious identities back to the contemplative, communal, and cosmic mysteries of being, that will be our religion, confirming once again that the universe is our true home and that we’re all in this together.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.

 

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