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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Whole Picture, Whole Brain

I’ll start with a proposition, and then work it out in more detail below:

The meaning of life is an ongoing construction project involving two parallel processes, communion and knowledge.

Communion refers to an experience of no-separation, where your existence is felt as not just connected to but as “one with” the rest of it. The present mystery of reality rises into manifestation as you, but also as that other, which means that both (and all) of you express into form something which is itself formless.

If that sounds overly mystical, then you should at least be able to agree that anytime you touch this thing or that thing you are touching the universe, since these (along with countless other things, both nearby and far-flung) are symptoms of a single universal event.

Knowledge, on the other hand, presupposes a separation between you and the object you presume to know (or know about). Outside and all around you revolves that same universe, but now you are looking at the qualities that differentiate one thing from another, and you from the rest. Whereas your existence manifests the grounding mystery, it also participates in a turning mystery which includes you and everything else.

From your vantage point, each thing is apprehended according to what distinguishes it and sets it apart. Gathering this information and representing it in your mind, then testing your conclusions by repeated experiences (or more rigorously by repeated experiments) is what we call knowledge.

The construction of meaning involves both processes: (1) a deep sense of communion or oneness with reality, and (2) a conceptual representation of the objective qualities that distinguish things and allow for the classifications of knowledge.

If this also sounds like the difference between spirituality and science, then you’re on to me. For the past several years, I’ve been building a case for regarding spirituality and science as inherently complementary, non-competing enterprises in our construction of meaning. They both tell stories – the myths of religion and the theories of science – but they are not telling the same kind of story.

Myths are stories of communion, and theories are stories of knowledge. One constructs meaning out of a primary experience of oneness with reality, while the other constructs meaning as a system of explanations by which reality is increasingly known.

As I tried to show in The Wheel of Fortune, a scientific theory of the primordial singularity that released energy into matter, and a religious myth of the primordial dragon whose dismemberment by a god formed the cosmic order, are not competing explanations for how the universe came to be. The theory is an explanation about how it came to be (a question of causality and evolution), while the myth is a revelation of why (a question of intention and purpose).

Today’s science still doesn’t permit any serious consideration of intentionality in the universe, most likely because that’s the step which historically has put careless scientists on a slippery slope toward the necessary postulate of god’s existence.

In fact, religious myths are not better explanations, nor do they require a belief in the objective existence of god. Myths are narrative tapestries constructed from the dramatic elements of setting, character, intention, agency, and outcome. They were designed for traditional occasions of sacred performance, when this veil (i.e., the tapestry of words and images) would be pulled aside and the community suddenly found itself in a universe awaiting their response.

Scientific theories are not composed for sacred recital, and they don’t presume any kind of back-and-forth dialogue between human intelligence and the greater universe. Knowledge without communion produces something less than meaning, something meaningless, what Albert Camus in The Rebel named “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Camus’ nihilism was an understandable conclusion at a time (following the Second World War) when many had lost faith in human nature and hope for the future.

The modern West has been bereft of a sense of communion for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to a feeling of homelessness in the universe. An exponential increase in our knowledge registry over the past 500 years has coincided with a steady decline in our general report on the meaning of existence.

I’m not suggesting that while science sends us into despair, our only salvation is to believe in the objective existence of god, the immortality of the soul, or the literal realities of heaven and hell. The qualifying terms “objective” and “literal” indicate that what had begun as metaphors of sacred fiction are no longer appreciated as such, but have been pressed instead into service as referents to supernatural facts.

Those who believe and defend their religion as an infallible source of knowledge are responsible for its inevitable degradation to a catalog of superstitions. Once again, the point I’m making is that spirituality – along with the form it takes in healthy religion – seeks to cultivate an experience of communion with reality, not knowledge about reality.

The best analogue of this relationship between spirituality and science is the bicameral nature of the human brain. In fact, I will contend that our best way of overcoming the current impasse with respect to defunct religion and meaningless science is to consider what goes on in our brain on the path to maturity.

My diagram places a graphic of a brain at the center of the universe, the ultimate meaning of which is the shared project of spirituality and science (as earlier proposed). The right (peach colored) hemisphere corresponds to key terms on the left side of the picture, as the left (blue colored) hemisphere corresponds to the terms on the right – in the crossover of functions characteristic of our brain.

The right hemisphere has more downward-projecting nerve pathways into lower (more primitive) brain centers and the body’s internal state. Consequently it is more “somatically gifted” than its neighbor to the left (from the Greek soma for body). It houses the neural anatomy (nerve nuclei, circuits, and networks) that facilitates our gut feelings, intuitions, hunches, and premonitions. Since our language centers are located in the left hemisphere, such experiences facilitated by the right are essentially ineffable (beyond words, indescribable, speechless).

Developmental neuroscience discovered that from the time we’re born until about age ten our right hemisphere is dominant. This doesn’t mean that nothing’s going on to the left, but that our primary mode of engaging with reality is somatic – through our body, from our gut, more emotional than rational. As newborns our right hemisphere entrained with our mother’s right hemisphere to form the empathic bond that would serve as our secure base.

The experience of communion, and hence the inspiration of spirituality and many of the earliest, most enduring metaphors of religious mythology, has its roots in this resonance of brain and body (via the right hemisphere), of our body with our mother’s body, and still deeper into the rhythms of life, “Mother Earth” and the provident universe.

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11, the average human brain makes a dramatic shift from the right hemisphere and into the left. The talents of our left hemisphere are semantic, focused in language, logic, analysis, reasoning, and rationality. Just as the right hemisphere communicates with, by, and through our body, the left hemisphere uses the conventions of language to participate in the collective mind of our tribe and culture. In this way we acquire a knowledge of reality that builds on the theories of others as well as on our own observations.

That word “observe” helps to distinguish the strength of our left hemisphere from that of our right. Observation presupposes a critical separation between observer and object, a separation brought about by the right-to-left shift mentioned above – a shift away but not apart from the right. Our right hemisphere takes in reality from its unique position of communion with it, which is what is meant when we “behold” something. We don’t gather intel on a separate object with our five physical senses, but rather we grasp something by our sixth sense of intuition prior to its separation as an object.

Our brain’s leftward shift can be mismanaged by culture (as it has in the modern West) into more of a severance, where the values of observing, analyzing, and explaining reality not only outweigh but drive out the right-sided virtues of beholding, contemplating, and revealing its mystery.

I suspect that our Western conflict between science and spirituality – which, I need to stress, is distinct from that between reason and superstition, or between ethical responsibility and religiously motivated terrorism – is really the cultural manifestation of our failure to integrate the two hemispheres of our brain.

What could (and would) be a normal developmental process of drawing an intuitive sense of communion with reality (right hemisphere) into our empirical knowledge about reality (left hemisphere), has instead collapsed into a sense of being adrift in an indifferent and meaningless universe. Our knowledge won’t ultimately matter – that is, it won’t support and enrich the meaning of existence – unless we can recover our communion with reality.

 

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Life Outside the Consensus Trance

QI and Trance

The psychologist Charles Tart coined the term consensus trance in reference to the shared assumptions and agreements that hold social organizations inside the rules of groupthink (Irving Janus, 1972). As an aspect of what he named a consensus reality orientation (CRO), it reflects the tendency we all have in adjusting our perspective and aspirations to what ‘the rest of us’ believe is valid or plausible.

Why do we so quickly dismiss insights and ideals that others in our relational webs don’t understand or approve? Granted, there is an obvious benefit to all involved (including us) when some of our harebrained ideas and odd inclinations are not adopted by the group. What a very strange world it would be if everything we conjured up in our daydreams and private thoughts automatically became coin of the realm.

But in this case I’m thinking more about those times when a truly winning notion dawns in our minds or a genuine discovery with transformative potential turns up in meditation – and we get punished, scolded, or shushed. It might even be something so noble as a desire to engage our relationships with greater mindfulness and honest love, but our different energy disturbs the routine and upsets expectations.

Individuals who are caught inside a consensus trance prefer the predictability of those routines. The definition of reality that everyone accepts, albeit unthinkingly, provides an enclosure where they feel secure. Even if (mind you) those routines actually perpetuate conflict and suffering, this familiarity makes them preferable to the insecurity of not knowing what to expect.

A quick review of what I presented in my most recent post will help us better understand how consensus trances get to be such compelling forces in our lives. We come into existence as infants kept alive by virtue of a visceral intelligence (VQ) operating autonomically below conscious awareness or control. This particular strand of our quadratic intelligence has but one overriding mandate: to keep our body alive. It manages the metabolic process of converting external resources (e.g., oxygen, food and water) into its own animal energy, and then converting this energy by an aerobic process into adaptive behavior. Key words in identifying our VQ’s driving preoccupation are security and control.

Our early years are really at the mercy of the family system into which we are born. Since no family or single caretaker is perfect – and can’t be expected to be, nor faulted for not being so – we all carry a bit of anxiety in our nervous system (the special province of VQ). This is simply because our survival and safety needs could not be promptly satisfied the instant their urgency declared itself. Such anxiety is another name for insecurity, registered as the default setting of our resting mood and positioned somewhere between mild apprehension and frazzled hypervigilance. In the emergence of religion, our insecurity is likely what motivated those earliest ritual petitions to a provident reality.

As emotional intelligence takes its cue and starts opening up to our surrounding conditions, this deep insecurity seeks compensation through relationship with what D.W. Winnicott called “transitional objects.” Not only cuddle blankets and pacifiers, but even our primary caregivers were pressed into service. By attaching ourselves to these things we had the inarticulate expectation that they would calm us down by making us feel safe, loved, and perfectly content. Key words in identifying our EQ’s driving preoccupation, then, are attachment and belonging. Mommy and Binky were attachments, and we belonged together.

As time went on, this EQ dynamic of attachment and belonging got translated farther out into the world of peer groups, romantic partners, social classes, political parties, and organized religions.

A bit delayed but coming to play as we acquired a code system of words (e.g., dog), schemas (dog-bone), and stories (the dog buried the bone), rational intelligence (RQ) began constructing a worldview that could orient and connect us to a more complex reality. While we learned many words and heard many stories (even made up some of our own), certain words and stories were weighted with special significance by our taller powers – who, after all, were in control and had authority to decide whether or not to deliver on our emotional need to belong.

Very naturally, our personal worldview became a constructed copy of theirs. Together we looked from inside our tribal system and out upon a reality that we could name, impose with our values, and claim to know. Key words in identifying RQ’s driving preoccupation are meaning and knowledge, making sense of it all by fitting reality into our logical boxes and mental frames. Step into any social system, from nuclear families to global cultures, and pretty soon you’ll start to get a picture of how its members construct meaning and certify knowledge – and, if you pay especially close attention, how they steer the mind away from discrepant views.

From that fairly brief description of the process whereby individuals develop their sense of self and reality, only a slight sideways step will land us deep in the tangle of a consensus trance.

Close-minded worldviews (RQ) envelop and safeguard passionate attachments (EQ), which in turn compensate for a profound and chronic insecurity in the individual nervous systems (VQ) involved. Indeed, a deeper and more severe anxiety (insecurity) corresponds to – we can confidently say it will inevitably produce – absolute convictions which members are willing to defend at all cost. (I say ‘willing’, but the psychological fact is that they lack the freedom and authority to choose otherwise.)

The upward sweeping arc of an orange arrow in my diagram traces our developing sense of self and reality as it comes to pivot around a separate center of personal identity named ego. Ego occupies a central position within the web of relationships that defines its tribe. Instead of regretting its arrival on the scene – which is actually a slow-and-steady construction process – and making ego the source of all our problems in the world today, we need to draw a critical distinction between a healthy ego (possessing the virtues of ego strength) and a neurotic ego. The latter is what conspires in the consensus trance.

A neurotic ego is profoundly insecure, codependently attached, and a fiercely defensive convict of those beliefs (aka convictions) shared in common with its equally neurotic alter (other) egos. In this condition and fully entranced, egos play out the scripts they inherited (codependency scripts are commonly transgenerational) or picked up in the urgency of staying in the game. Thankfully the trance condition that we regard as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary consciousness’ is not so neurotic and even possesses sufficient strength so as to allow for the possibility of breaking-through, or what is referred to across the wisdom traditions as ‘waking up’ or simply ‘awakening’.

In my diagram this breakthrough is represented at two points, one below (or deeper within) the self, and the other above (or farther beyond) the self. I have elsewhere distinguished these two points and the paths they open up as the ‘mystical turn’ (releasing self to the grounding mystery) and the ‘ethical turn’ (including self in the universal order), respectively. Because the mystical turn (at least as I’m characterizing it) engages in meditation practices that assist awareness in sinking into its visceral center of power, the grounding mystery can be identified as ‘the power within’. At the other end, an ethical turn elevates awareness into its rational center of truth and inspires a radical reconsideration of morality (how we should live) in view of ‘the truth beyond’ our self-serving values.

The benefits of such practice and reconsideration should be obvious. By breaking through to life outside the consensus trance we can free ourselves from the spiritual stupor of ordinary consciousness, going on to enjoy the flow of a fully functioning quadratic intelligence. In short, we can finally become fully human.

But then … we need to go back in there! My next post will be about the challenge of staying awake and living creatively inside the webs of relationship we call our individual worlds.

 

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Get Over Yourself

FlowWhile all the other creatures on this planet, so far as we know, develop their full potential and achieve ‘self-actualization’ in a single lifetime (given the opportunity and provident conditions), only we human beings have managed to undermine our own evolutionary progress. Why and how we do this has been a fascination of mine for some time, and over the years a theory has come together that offers an explanation. While many of the elements aren’t necessarily original with me, the unifying system is something that brings together and breaks through the limitations of other approaches.

Not surprisingly I have come with another diagram, and my returning reader will recognize all the component features from previous posts. What’s new here is not so much in the details as in the gestalt, in the whole picture of things apprehended all at once. You’ll find the familiar color codes associated with our four strands of quadratic intelligence – black for our visceral intelligence (VQ), red for emotional intelligence (EQ), blue for our rational intelligence (RQ), and purple for spiritual intelligence (SQ) – along with orange which signifies the dynamics of personal identity, or ego.

The four types of intelligence are arranged in a manner that reflects the developmental sequence in which they come online and start making significant contributions to our sense of self and reality. We begin at the bottom with the autonomic functions of visceral intelligence; open up very early to emotional engagement with our taller powers (caregivers, guardians, and teachers), siblings and playmates; and around age ten come into our rational faculty with its skills in logic, critical thinking, and conceptualization.

Even though it’s frequently in adulthood that individuals awaken to their spiritual intelligence, you’ll notice that I’ve positioned it in a way that transects the other three (instead of stacking on top). This is meant to suggest that while it certainly has (or can have) a profound influence on our sense of self and reality from very early on, the most important work of spiritual intelligence must await that crucial stage when our separate center of personal identity (ego) is strong enough to be transcended – not renounced, dismissed, or canceled out, but surpassed. Without sufficient ego strength, consciousness is unable to break past the neurotic self-preoccupation that compels us to grip down on ‘me and mine’.

Now that we’re on the ego, let’s take a moment to work out some of those details. I take the view which regards personal identity – this ego who is the center of self-esteem, world perspective, and moral agency – as a social construct and not an entity in the proper sense. Through discipline and instruction the tribe shapes our identity to be compatible (and compliant) with its shared beliefs and way of life. The nature of this shaping process anticipates and responds to the activation sequence of our quadratic intelligence.

Referring back to my diagram, you’ll see that I’ve placed key themes and concerns at each level corresponding to the developmental phases when they are dominant. Thus, in the earliest phase our visceral intelligence is dominant, making security, power, and control primary concerns that shape our deepest (preverbal) impressions of self and reality. Because even the most perfect family system cannot deliver instantaneously on our every need, we all carry some insecurity within ourselves, which we mitigate by attaching to whomever or whatever can calm us down. Attachment, love, and belonging come to overlay (and compensate for) those deeper concerns, continuing the process of our personification (or becoming a person).

By the time rational intelligence is ready to come online a lot has happened down below, in the calibration of our nervous system (VQ) and the adaptation of a relational style (EQ). We become better able to articulate the world that’s been forming around us and the perspective opening up from where we stand. Meaning, truth, and knowledge matter now to us as never before. It’s important to remember that the self-world construct – ‘who I am and what’s around me’ – is part of a social role-play, a cultural pretense of the highest magnitude that has been (not wrongfully) labeled by some, like the Buddha, as a delusion that holds our true nature under a spell, the so-called consensus trance.

Trances are all the more seductive according to the depth of our insecurity and the magnetism of attachment that we hope will compensate for it. In fact, the rational requirement for a coherent and reality-oriented philosophy of existence is all too quickly relinquished for the sake of maintaining membership in a club, class, or cult that promises to keep us safe inside the fold. This is when beliefs once held by the mind come to hold the mind captive (as a convict) to convictions that are placed beyond doubt, beyond question – beyond the probe of reasonable inquiry.

And there we have a picture of where most of us daily live: professing and defending a worldview (meaning) that protects the codependent relationships (attachment) which help us manage the profound (deep and ineffable) insecurity registered in our nervous system. With respect to that, spiritual intelligence stands little chance of awakening. If anything, its mystical intimations and transpersonal longings will be translated into doctrines of supernatural realities and afterlife destinies. Tragically many individuals today are trapped inside long-outdated (irrelevant) orthodoxies, for the sake of which they will sacrifice everything – rationality, property, fulfillment, and life itself – their own and that of ‘the enemy’.

But I can’t leave it there, with the majority caught in their convictions and the planet teetering on the brink of mass extinction. A few of us are fortunate enough, thanks to supportive families, open-minded and generous communities, our own dogged persistence toward an authentic life, and to the sheer grace of resources and opportunities made available in the moment, to arrive with sufficient ego strength that enables us to break through the self-world construct of personal identity. We don’t beat ourselves down as damned, helpless rejects, but simply let go of who we think we are, relaxing into the grounding mystery of being itself and rising into our creative authority among the countless beings that share (and manifest) this universe together with us.

When this happens – and I’m not one who believes it happens once and forever, but is rather a mode of experience that awaits our readiness to let go and our willingness to make the leap – an alignment of power, love, and truth opens us to the reality beyond ourselves. This is when ‘flow’ happens, when what we call the human spirit pulls deep on its faith in existence and reaches out to the wisdom of a universal order, where All is One.

Each of us is rooted in an unfathomable mystery and participates, whether aware or ignorant, in the turning unity of all things.

 

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Terminal Education and the Death of Culture

Terminal EducationYouth is being wasted on education. More and more young people are becoming victims of what can be called ‘terminal education’, which is not about lifelong learning and opening minds to the world – not anymore. Increasingly the education process is a conveyor-belt affair, where naive and optimistic youth are moved through a series of stations along the way to a long life of work.

Many of them don’t make it, and it’s not entirely their fault.

Feeling the pressure of limited resources and a fluctuating job market, college administrators are remodeling the process of education into a production-line for making graduates who are expected in turn to fill jobs and strengthen the economy. A stronger economy should mean more resources eventually coming back to the college, right? It might work that way if our colleges weren’t turning out such dismal figures when it comes to academic achievement, graduation rates, and job placement for their graduates.

There are really two systemic problems with our current education system, one of which is the terminal orientation of the process (the main focus of this blog post). Underlying this problem, however, with a history equally as deep, is the way our system over-accommodates students in their struggle to succeed in school. Rather than working to empower in students the determination, best effort, perseverance, and resilience that lead to meaningful achievement, schools already from the elementary level have been lowering the bar, so as to reduce the risk of failure.

Are they doing this because they feel badly for the struggling students? No, these accommodations are being provided so that students will produce the academic outcomes (grades, grade point averages, and standardized test scores) that increase institutional eligibility for external funding, updated technology, and higher quality teachers.

Generally the rule is that accommodations cost more the later such interventions are needed, so by putting accommodations in place early this threat can be averted. Unfortunately what happens is that students are pushed up a grade without the intellectual skills and emotional resources to succeed there.

When it’s time for college, they’re not ready – not by a long shot. But colleges need to show robust enrollments, so they end up falling in line with the accommodation train. Remedial classes, academic interventions, prerequisites for credit classes, and even special accommodation for students who can produce a diagnosis from a growing list of learning disorders – all of it necessary if the year-end report is to show an institution’s market value.

Maybe the underpreparedness of students is part of the reason that education has become terminal. If all your time and resources are tied up in simply getting them to graduation, what’s left for the work of opening minds, igniting passion, nurturing creativity, and developing human potential? Not much. And frankly, the students themselves don’t seem to want it. Never mind that they have no inkling of what ‘it’ even is, having rarely been empowered in the love of learning.

A depleted system produces deficient members, whose deficiency further depletes the health reserve of the system: this is the kind of reinforcing feedback loop that inevitably ends with extinction.

I suppose that’s one meaning of the word ‘terminal’.

But another meaning, and the one I want to focus on here, describes how education today is aimed at very specific and measurable outcomes, and ultimately on the need of students to find gainful employment.

Why are you planning to go to college? Because I need to find a job. And of course, before I can find a job I need to earn a degree. For the degree, I have to get decent grades. In order to get a grade I have to take a class. And before I can take a class, it’s necessary to choose a college and be accepted.

Why are you doing this again? To find a job. When I get a job, it will all be worth it and my education will finally be over. Done. Finis.

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many students don’t make it. In my diagram above, the likelihood of success at each step diminishes the farther along students get, as indicated by the thinning arrow. With each step the definition of success also becomes less clear, as illustrated in the fading shade of text. Additionally, the consequence of failure grows more severe as students move through the stations: withdrawing from a class is not as serious as dropping out of school, and the disillusionment that comes when your degree fails to unlock a career can be personally devastating.

‘Plan B’ is another way of saying that things didn’t work out as you hoped they would.

If all this focus is placed on the terminal outcome of finding a job, there is little inherent value acknowledged in the process of education itself. It’s not really about learning how to think and solve problems, developing talent and unleashing creativity, or opening minds to the mysteries of life and promoting the self-actualization of human beings. And yet it is these things which have been the seedbed of human culture for millenniums, not ‘getting a job’.

Terminal education is both a symptom and a warning that our culture is losing its spirit.

Thankfully it’s not too late to turn things around.

College is more than a pipeline of graduates into the workforce, and the deepest value of education is probably something that can’t even be measured. For at least four years (in the conventional scheme of things) young people are growing into their adult selves, learning how to get along in the world, pushing open boundaries, tapping the inner springs of their native intelligence, discovering passions and exploring their dreams.

A higher education – but really, at every grade along the way – needs to have one eye on the economic landscape and changing demands of the job market, with the other on its sacred stewardship of the human spirit.

 

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An Update for Religion?

One of the biggest complaints I have about much contemporary religion is that it obligates believers to accept (whole or in part) worldviews which are thousands of years old and wildly outdated. This isn’t my problem only, as modern thinkers (and thoughtful believers) have struggled with the relevance issue for several centuries now. For a short while we tried to divide reality into “natural” and “supernatural” realms, relegating the preoccupations of religion to the supernatural side and leaving the rest for science and everyday life.

This “partition effect” worked – but again, only for a very short while. People could go about their work-a-day business Monday through Saturday, and then check their common sense at the door before entering church on Sundays. Once inside, the archaic mythology underpinning their rituals, hymns, doctrines, confessions and prayers was accepted as truth. Jesus came down from heaven, paid the penalty for our sins, was raised to life again and went back to heaven. Soon he’ll be coming again. Inside the church it all made sense.

But outside the church this vocabulary became increasingly strained in its fit to the concerns and challenges of daily life. The remarkable successes of a more secular (this-worldly) orientation, with its principal values of reason and critical thinking, controlled observation and evidence, rationality and sound logic, were making religion’s defense of the supernatural, an external god, historical miracles, and an infallible tradition of truth harder and harder to accept, much less understand. True believers found it necessary to cut themselves off from mainstream culture and establish protected communities where traditional ways could be enforced.

Today, this cut-off is going on inside the personality of true believers who don’t necessarily want to give up the conveniences and opportunities of contemporary life for a backwater monastery in the woods. They are able somehow to read with enthusiasm on Thursday the latest discoveries of astronomy as they commit themselves on Sunday to the three-story cosmos of the Bible. Biblical fundamentalists around the world download the latest smartphone applications and invest in the stock market as they look into the clouds for the imminent return of Jesus.

For the sake of sanity, many are picking up their common sense on the way out of church and not going back. Some regret losing the community and occasional inspiration they enjoyed there, but the sacrifice of intellectual integrity is just not worth it anymore. The failure of their religion to stay current with evolving ideas, new discoveries, and advancing values is making it necessary to leave it behind. If at the historical threshold of modernity it was the demand for Reason that emptied churches, in our generation the search for Relevance is doing the same.

So let’s engage a conversation on the topic of relevance, which is defined as “connected to the matter at hand” – in this case, the matter of living meaningfully and productively in a world described by science, characterized by pluralism, and increasingly organized around the global values of security, sustainability, fair trade, and human rights. Where does religion fit into the picture, if it even has a place anymore? To answer that question I need to tell a story, one that helps us see what relevance religion may still have, and where it goes wrong.

Truth Systems

The beginning of religion is not in supernatural revelation. Remember, this partition effect is a peculiarly modern strategy designed to safeguard the old metaphysics (an external deity, immortal souls, heaven and hell) from the incursions of science and common sense. Even the myths are not the proper origins of religion; they come later, as secondary reflection and artistic expression of a more primal experience.

The essence of this primal experience is what we (ought to) mean by faith – the full surrender (or trust) of one’s existence to the provident support of reality. While this absolute trust might translate into a confident hope for tomorrow’s provision, the deepest truth here has to do with a present-moment uplift of what the mystics call the ground of being. This uplift is experienced in the faithful rhythms of our breath, our heartbeat, and the background hum of consciousness. Certain meditative practices assist in the centering (or contemplative) descent along an interior axis of focused attention, where the practitioner breaks into an inner space of expanded awareness, profound peace, and calm presence.

This experience of Real Presence (or present reality) transpires below the brain regions involved in language and objective thought, which makes it inherently “beyond words” or ineffable. The grounding mystery is therefore not some thing we can talk about, even though we may refer to it metaphorically as ground. At this level it is purely about the experience, not what it means. An individual “has faith” to whatever extent he or she is able to be fully present, let go of self, and sink deeply into communion with being-as-such.

Now, if this doesn’t sound anything like the religion of our churches (and temples and mosques), that’s because it isn’t. Faith and the mystical experience are the spring that brings living water to the surface of life in the world. Religion is the system of utilities that carries this spiritual refreshment and perspective into the relationships, commitments, and business of daily life. By a network of symbols, rituals, and stories, religion organizes a society and keeps it “linked back” (religare) to the provident support of the grounding mystery.

In my diagram above, a vertical line connects the faith experience and our knowledge of the universe. (Ignore for now the fact that this line is ruptured in the middle by something called belief and orthodoxy; I’ll come back to that.) An unbroken vertical connector suggests a strong link between the ineffable ground and the qualified universe – or in other words, between the silent communion of faith and the numberless distinctions (qualities) we can observe in the extended context of our environment.

This connection is the likely source of our word “universe,” which refers to the single-turning unity of everything. The very concept of universe, then, is itself an expression and representation of an insight grasped by intuition in the deep experience of faith. Its oneness isn’t evident to the senses; indeed our sense awareness is stretched across a boundless diversity of seemingly unrelated phenomena. But faith – and again, by this I mean deep and total self-surrender to communion with the present mystery of reality – confirms that all things are manifestations of the one grounding mystery. It all turns together and is essentially one.

A long time ago perhaps, the human view on reality (our sense of the universe) was like a holy picture in stained glass: the radiance of being (the grounding mystery) shone out through multiplicity of beings. Science and spirituality were the outlook and insight, respectively, of a holistic intelligence. The stories (myths) of religion were relevant narratives that nourished the communion of outer and inner life. Gods were depicted as personified agencies behind the events of nature, inviting humans into a relationship of reverence, stewardship, responsibility, wonder and celebration.

Over time and with new discoveries our understanding of the universe changed. It got bigger and more complicated, but simultaneously simpler to explain by virtue of mathematical logic and an experimental method. The inward turn of contemplative meditation continued to support our need for mystical communion and mindful balance, but advances in science placed a growing strain on the traditional stories and assumptions of religion. Religion fell behind. Under the added strain, it gripped down with stubborn insistence on the truth of its myths and consequently fell still farther behind.

Eventually, in the interest of a productive and relevant life in the world, the claims of religion were relegated to their own realm, sufficiently outside the range of evidence and practically useless to the secular concerns of society. Thus partitioned, it was left to the clerics and theologians to decide which doctrines were absolutely necessary for a successful escape from this (now fallen and sinful) world to an everlasting security in the next. These necessary doctrines were neither articles of knowledge nor genuine expressions of faith, but rather beliefs, which means that they required an emotional investment in order to carry any meaning.

To believe is to pretend that something is so, to proceed as if it is the case. Because our knowledge of the universe is and will always be incomplete and provisional, we humans frequently find ourselves in the position of having to make judgments on the basis of insufficient information.

Philosophy and science have learned the wisdom of regarding such judgments as hypotheses, explanations treated as predictions, to be tested against careful observation in the field. By checking the facts, a prediction will either be disproved or advanced for further testing. An explanation that survives such scrutiny – preferably under controlled variables and across numerous trials – is awarded the status of knowledge.

Once upon a time, the beliefs of religion did fit into our general knowledge of the universe and our place in it. But as our world-picture changed, the mythological accounts couldn’t update as quickly. Patron deities either needed to be (1) left in the past when their myths and corresponding worldview were relevant, (2) reconsidered in light of evolving knowledge and new experience, or (3) recharged by a forced allegiance to orthodoxy (“right belief,” authorized by those in control). Believe it anyway, because if you don’t, you can’t be saved.

Faith was gradually (and almost imperceptibly) redefined from the act of full surrender to the provident mystery of reality, to a set of beliefs or tenets – the “true faith” of this or that denomination. Orthodoxy became a well-defended and airtight fortress of belief. (I’ve put the word in a box above to illustrate the point.)

But whatever is airtight is also out of touch, at risk of losing currency and dying inside. What can religion do? So much has been sacrificed, so much committed for the sake of the institution and its future. To pull down the curtain and give up on the supernatural would mean “the death of god,” would it not? To re-read the myths with a sensitivity to metaphor would require us to listen deeply to the same intuitions in ourselves that first inspired our ancestors to story them forth. It might mean that we need to tell new stories, different myths, sacred narratives that are relevant to our situation today.

It might be asking too much. We shall see.

 

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