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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a veil of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.

 

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You, There

In the above illustration I have highlighted in orange a water droplet that has momentarily separated itself from the ocean below. On its brief arc through space-time, the water droplet exists (meaning literally to stand out) as a unique individual – if only by virtue of the fact that it occupies this exact point in space at this precise moment in time.

As a separate individual it is positioned among a cohort of other water droplets, their otherness partly a function of occupying different locations in space as they travel along distinct trajectories. Any relationship between and among them is predicated on their separate existence, on each existing apart from the others as a unique individual.

Together our cohort of water droplets inhabits a local environment of atmospheric conditions which is itself contained within a still-larger horizon that includes an unnumbered multitude of droplets arcing through space-time, along with some gliding birds overhead, drifting clouds higher still, nearby planets barely seen, distant stars and the far-flung galaxies.

Coming back to our water droplet, we know that its deeper nature is oceanic. Existentially – recalling that existence means to stand out as an individual – the droplet carries within itself something much more profound (a term whose original meaning had to do with the deep ocean). Its own identity as a separate individual in relationship with other individuals inside an infinite cosmic horizon is really a temporary enclosure of an essential mystery – from the Greek esse for being.

Our droplet of seawater has thus guided our contemplation along three distinct axes: (1) a self-other axis of separate individuals crossing, connecting, or colliding on their space-time trajectories; (2) a self-system axis, referencing the larger complexity to which it belongs; and (3) a self-essence axis dropping from the centered individual into its own deeper nature.

Each axis provides us with a lens and vocabulary by which to understand its full reality: in the encounter with others, as participating in a higher wholeness, and as a manifestation of being.


This analogy is a perfect introduction to understanding yourself as well. Just put yourself in the position of my orange droplet of water and the full picture will fall into place.

Let’s begin with your self-essence axis. Your deeper nature as a human being manifests the 14-billion-year history of our universe. The atomic structure of your physical body is composed of elements that were forged in the very beginning. The life-force in your cells is a few billion years ancient. The hum of sentience electrifying your brain, nervous system, and sense organs goes back a fraction that far (around 200 million years) and has a wide representation across the species of life on Earth.

Hovering above this grounding mystery of what you are is the separate “water droplet” of self-conscious identity – the individual ego (“I”) that looks out on reality from your unique location in space-time. Up here things can get dicey, and the management of personal identity necessarily involves the separate identities of others in your local cohort. Developmentally the formation of your ego was leveraged and shaped through encounters with others whose otherness receded further into obscurity as you became increasingly self-conscious.

While your deeper nature, following the self-essence axis, is marvelously profound and grounds your life in the evolving process of the universe itself, this self-conscious identity of yours is as complicated as it is transient. Because who you are – as distinct from what you are – was especially vulnerable in your early years to both the positive and negative influence of others, their ignorance, neuroses, and bad choices left lasting impressions on your own personality. (The same should be said of their more benevolent affections as well.)

In its suspended position of exposure, your self-conscious ego can manage to siphon the miracle of being alive into the spinning wheel of impossible cravings and unrealistic fears.

Lest you take the opinion of your own innocence in all of this, it needs to be said that you have been making choices (almost) all along the way. Many of those choices have simply repeated and reinforced the security strategies you learned as an infant and young child. Still today, you may occasionally (or frequently; maybe even chronically) “act out” these neurotic styles, which proceed to unload your childish insecurities on a cohort of innocent-enough bystanders and co-dependent dance partners.

Taking a close and honest look at the drama of your personal life will reveal why the principal obstacle to what the spiritual teachings call ‘awakening’ or ‘liberation’ is and has always been the ego.

The freedom to break past the mesh of self-obsession, codependency, and neurotic insecurity requires not the elimination of ego but its transcendence. As the grounding mystery of sentient life has become self-conscious in you, it must now reach out and go beyond your separate identity. Just as the self-system axis for our water droplet situates it within a local, regional, planetary and cosmic context, so does your own personal identity exist within and belong to a higher, transpersonal, wholeness.

As long as you remain enmeshed, however, and to the extent that your ego is locked inside its own convictions, this higher wholeness is not only beyond you, but is also outside your small horizon of self-interested awareness.

All the available evidence supports the idea that what the universe is evolving toward is ever-greater complexity, which is apparent in your own deeper nature as a physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. A natural next step in this progression is the phenomenon in which self-conscious individuals connect and cooperate in genuine community.

If we were to regard genuine community – and by that I mean authentic, compassionate, dialogical, creative and radically inclusive community – as evolution’s next step, then your self-conscious personal identity should really be seen as a progression threshold rather than a final destination.


We might imagine our water droplet, now imbued with self-consciousness, pondering its place in the sprawling scheme of things, wondering if letting go and getting over itself is a worthy risk. Playing small and safe might be the better choice. But in the end the end will come and what will be left? What will be remembered? The 14-billion-year adventure is right now on the brink of breaking through to a truly liberated life.

Maybe this is the moment everything changes.

 

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Christian Mythology Through A Post-theistic Lens

After leaving Christian ministry as a church pastor my journey has taken me deeper into the frontier of post-theism, and it’s been my new “calling” since then to clarify the meaning of this emergent form of spirituality. I have worked hard to distinguish post-theism from its progenitor (theism), as well as from its much younger sibling (atheism) who seeks to discredit their parent and be done with the whole family affair.

Even as a church pastor I was intrigued by the mythology of early Christianity, which was inspired no doubt by the historical disturbance of Jesus himself, to be later developed by the likes of Paul and the four Evangelists into a story of world-historical and even cosmic scope. Intuitively I sensed that the story was not really about long-ago events or faraway places, despite what my denomination and its theological tradition wanted me to believe and preach to the congregations I served.

Maybe I didn’t need to get out of church in order to find the deeper truth of Christianity, but it certainly helped.

Outside the imaginarium of stained-glass windows, vestments, liturgies, rituals, and hymns, the transforming effects of its originary experience coalesced for me in a singular revelation. It was – and for now we have to speak in the past tense since both popular and orthodox Christianity have all but lost their sightlines to the source – not about being saved from hell or rescued to heaven, pleasing god and getting our reward.

All of these negative and positive incentives hook into something without which they would have no power. It’s not that we had to wait for modern science to demythologize the underworld and outer space, or for anthropological studies to expose the historical origins of religion before we could let go and move on. Their hooks are in us, quite independent of whether and to what degree we may be children of the Enlightenment.

In my investigations into the development of religion through the millenniums of human history, it struck me that its three major paradigms – classified as animism, theism, and post-theism – are each centered in a distinct dimension of our human experience.

Animism is centered in our animality with its immersion in the fluid forces of nature, life, and instinct. Theism is centered in our personality and particularly involved with the formation and maintenance of ego identity in the social context. And post-theism – that latter-day evolution of religion “after god” – is centered in our spirituality, where we begin to cultivate the grounding mystery of our existence and live in the realization that all is One.

My objective in this blog has been to show how theism prepares for the emergence of post-theism, and where alternatively it gets hung up, spinning out more heat than light. We happen to be in the throes of that dynamic right now, as the paroxysms of pathological theism – in the forms of fundamentalism, dogmatism, terrorism, and complacency – multiply around us.

With all of this in view, it’s tempting to join the chorus of atheists who are pressing to extinguish theism in all its forms, or at least to ignore it in hopes it will just go away.

But it won’t go away: another recurring theme in this blog of mine. Theism has a role to play, and pulling it down will not only destroy what core of wisdom still remains, but also foreclose on a flourishing human future on this planet by clipping the fruit of post-theism before it has a chance to ripen. This fruit is what I call genuine community.

Theism evolved for the purpose of preparing the way for genuine community, although its own inherent tendencies toward tribalism, authoritarianism, and orthodoxy have repeatedly interfered. This is just where the struggle for post-theism will make some enemies.

Returning to my autobiographical confessions, over time and with distance I came to realize where it is that Christian post-theism emerges from Christian theism, and it is precisely where Jewish post-theism emerged from Jewish theism. One place in particular where a post-theistic breakthrough in Judaism was attempted but ended up failing was in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This failure eventuated in the rise of Christian theism (or Christianity), which made Jesus the center of its orthodoxy, though not as revealer of the liberated life but rather the linchpin of its doctrinal system.

Just prior to the point when the early ‘Jesus movement’ was co-opted and effectively buried (for a second time!) beneath layers of dogmatic tradition and ecclesiastical politics, the apostle Paul and the four Evangelists had grasped the energizing nerve of Jesus’ message. Immediately – or rather I should say spontaneously, out of what I earlier called an originary experience – they translated its transforming mystery into metaphorical and mythological meaning.

Whether they borrowed from the cultural store of symbolism available at the time or brought it up from the depths of their own mythopoetic imaginations (which is really where the shared store originates), these mythmakers of earliest Christianity employed images of divine adoption, virgin birth, heroic deeds, resurrection, ascension, and apocalypse, lacing these into the Jewish-biblical epic of creation, exodus, Pentecost, promised land, and a future messianic age.

The product of their efforts was indeed vast in scope and deeply insightful into what in my ministry days I called “the first voice of Jesus.”

As briefly as I can, I will now lift out of that early mythology the kernel of Jesus’ message, focusing his intention to move Jewish theism into a post-theistic paradigm. Although it largely failed with the rise of orthodox Christianity, there’s still a chance that we can pick up his cause and work together in realizing his vision of genuine community.


Very quickly, my diagram illustrates an extremely compressed time line of cosmic history, starting with the so-called Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and progressing by stages (or eras) from matter to life, from life to mind, and in this last second of cosmic time, from sentient mind to the self-conscious center of personal identity that you name “I-myself” (Latin ego).

As the picture suggests, the story doesn’t stop there, since the formation of ego is intended to connect you with others, serving also as the executive center of self-awareness and your uniquely personal aspirations.

The formation of an individual center of personal identity creates the illusion of separateness – that you and another are separate individuals. There is truth in this illusion, of course, in that you are in fact not the same person but two different persons with your own experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. This illusion of separateness is what post-theism seeks to help you transcend by making you aware that it is an illusion, or in other words, a mere social construction of identity.

Self-transcendence, then, does not mean ripping down the veil of illusion, but rather seeing through it to the higher truth of unity beyond your apparent separateness. That is to say, your separate identity is affirmed in order that it can be used to support your leap beyond it and into relational wholeness (or at-one-ment).

It is critically important to understand, however, that in genuine community otherness is not subtracted or dissolved away, which would leave only an undifferentiated ‘mush’ and not the dynamic mutuality you are longing for (according to post-theism).

Hand in hand with this theme of atonement is another page from the teachings of Jesus and post-theism generally, which goes by the name apotheosis (literally a process of changing into [the likeness of] god). This is not about becoming a god, but expressing out of your deeper human nature – which according to the Jewish myth was created in the image of god (Genesis 1) – those virtues whereupon genuine community depends and flourishes.

Compassion, generosity, fidelity, and forgiveness: such are among the divine virtues that theism elevates in its worship of god. Apotheosis is thus the ascent of self-actualization by which these virtues attributed to god are now internalized and activated in you, to be carried to expression in a life that is compassionate, generous, faithful, and forgiving.

This is another way, then, of pulling aside the illusion of separateness in which personal identity is suspended.

My depth analysis of early Christian mythology thus revealed two profound thematic threads reaching back to the first voice of Jesus. From inside theism and beneath the picture-language of its mythology, god is apprehended as both Other and Ideal. As Other – or more precisely, as the divine principle of otherness – god represents the irreducible interplay of one and another in genuine community. And as Ideal, god is the progressive rise of those deep potentials within each of us, surfacing to realization in the higher virtues of genuine community.

In early Christian mythology (found in the extended Gospel of Luke called the Acts of the Apostles) we are presented with the symbol of Pentecost, as the transforming moment when the Holy Spirit (or the risen Jesus) comes to dwell within the new community, which Paul had already named the Body of Christ. From now on, the life of this new community would be the communal incarnation of god on earth.

Had it taken root, the ensuing adventure would have marked a new era of spirituality, on the other side of – but paradoxically not without or against – god.

Jesus himself envisioned this in his metaphor of the kingdom of god – or more relevantly, the kindom of spirit. In truth we are all kin – neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike. All is One, and we are all in this together. Good news indeed!

 

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One to Another

Now that you’ve completed the major work of becoming somebody – (I realize it’s an ongoing project and that construction may be stuck in a phase right now, but let’s pretend anyway) – the question of what’s next needs your attention.

Of course, popular culture wants you to believe in yourself as an end-game: the highest goal and most significant achievement of a human career. From this point it’s nothing more than some ongoing identity maintenance, love-and-power struggles on the field with others like you, getting the most out of the time you have left, and maybe securing a forever home in heaven when you die.

In other words, stop asking.

To the extent that it has signed a deal with popular culture, religion plays right along. The doctrines of a personal deity, personal salvation, and personal immortality have conspired to create a veritable personality cult, with ego its focal obsession. It needs to be said straightway that this was not religion’s preoccupation for the longest time, when the primary concern was about linking personal identity to a deeper, larger, more enduring, and transpersonal reality.

In other words, it’s not all about you.

In the interest of moving our conversation out of the sticky web of orthodoxy, I want to put ego and personality in proper context. The evolution of personality and its executive center of identity is a very late achievement in the history of homo sapiens. Actually its deeper prehistory charts the development of early hominid species, while the emergence of a self-conscious personal identity marks the formal beginning of our own unique line.

Our history since its emergence has been characterized by all the predictable complications that attend an experience of separation, exposure, insecurity, and alienation.

In other posts I have explored how insecurity drives neurotic attachment and unrealistic expectations, which in turn lead to inevitable disappointment, deepening resentment, and finally existential despair. Along the way we are compelled to compete for what we need, pick fights with others, and grab for ourselves whatever we hope will make us happy – which nothing can, so we’re doomed.

In order to break past this vortex of consumption, let’s try to open our frame wide enough to get all this nervous futzing in perspective. My diagram positions you (“One”) in relation to “Another,” where the other might be anyone or anything at all. As our task here is to better understand how a self-conscious personal identity fits into the bigger picture, we’ll begin our reflections at that level.


Across from you, then, stands another more-or-less centered personality, with many of the the same quirks, hangups, and ambitions as you. This is properly the interpersonal plane of engagement, with your relationship carried in and complicated by the reciprocal influence of each of you on the other, and upon both of you by the general role play of society along with your respective family inheritances.

Purely on this plane, your mutual concerns have to do with identity, recognition, agreement and belonging. If we imagine a horizon including both of you in this interaction, it would only be large enough to contain your unique and shared interests as self-conscious persons.

If your self-identification is fully represented inside this interpersonal horizon, then nothing else really matters. It’s you and another, working out the meaning of life in your mutual struggle to be somebody.

But as my diagram shows, your center of self-conscious identity (i.e., your ego) is only the surface manifestation of a much deeper process. Supporting personality from farther below is a sentient nervous system managing the flow of information from your body’s interior and the external environment. This is where the feeling of what happens is registered.

You are not only a person on a uniquely human social stage, but if you can release those concerns for a moment and become more mindful, you’ll find suddenly that your horizon of awareness opens by an exponential degree. Now included are not just human egos but all sentient beings – all other creatures that sense, desire, respond, and suffer. Notice how dropping down (or deeper within) to identify yourself as a sentient being opens your capacity to identify with other sentient beings.

This was a fundamental insight of Siddhārtha Gautama, later named the Buddha (from budh, to wake up) for his breakthrough realization.

Each subsequent drop to a deeper center, then, opens a still greater capacity of awareness, compassion, and goodwill on behalf of others like you. This inward descent corresponds to a transcendence of awareness through larger and larger horizons of identity – from interpersonal (ego), sentient (mind), and organic (life) communities, until it opens out to include the material universe itself.

Lest we leave you out there floating weightless among the galaxies, our reflections can now return to your regard for and interactions with that other person. With your enlarged sense of identity as (quite literally) a personification of the universe, you are also witness to this self-same miracle in the other. Their true identity so radically transcends the masks, roles, and role plays defining who they are, as to lie almost entirely beyond their ability to imagine or accept.

The other person’s enlightenment in this respect may seem utterly improbable to you. And yet, you managed to get over yourself and see the truth – did you not? What would happen if you both came to see the truth and started to live your lives with this higher wholeness in mind? How would it change what you care for, what you worry about, what you chase after, or what you hide from?

In realizing that you are not separate in fact but only seem so by the delusion of ego consciousness, your next thought, your next choice, and the very next thing you do might serve as a light in the darkness, illumining the path of a liberated life.

Maybe others will join you, or maybe you’ll walk alone for a while. And then again, it’s impossible to be alone when the universe is your home.

 

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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religions are losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meant to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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Two Steps Back

Just now world leaders are telling us it’s time to close our borders and load our guns. With all the loonies and radicalized nut-jobs out there, we need to make security our highest priority. Inside our own nation, subgroups are putting tribal loyalty above the common good, as political parties, religious sects, and social classes antagonize each other. The media keep streaming to our screens images and stories of police brutality, hate crimes, and seemingly random massacres, promoting the view that everything is falling apart.

Other voices such as Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress), Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow), and Hans Rosling (Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think) are trying to help us out of this fixation on the negative by presenting actual data as evidence of the fact that not only is everything not falling apart, but some very important things are coming together for a brighter picture.

Far fewer people today die from famines, epidemics, or human violence than at any time in history. Breakthroughs in science and technology, while they probably won’t save the world, are making it possible for more people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Climate change notwithstanding, most of the major concerns on our global horizon are solvable as long as we can work together for the good of all.

And yet, getting along and working together is where we often run into trouble. If we could work together for the greater good, perhaps nothing would be impossible. But certain people are intent on throwing wrenches in the gears – poking our insecurities and curating our worst fears by distorting facts, spinning stories, and making up shit to make us believe that things are really, really bad.

A few of these crazymakers are just plain crazy, while most of them do it because they stand to benefit from our emotional reactions and irrational behavior. What will they get out of it? Power, control, financial profit, real estate holdings, fifteen minutes on TV or forever in heaven. Who knows? Their challenge in any case is getting us to believe things that aren’t really true.

When the stress of daily life has us reeling off center and out of our depths, we are vulnerable to negative thinking. We are just where they want us.

Rather than closing our eyes to the very real troubles around us or falling for the doomsday scenarios of emotional terrorists (including many politicians, preachers, and self-styled prophets), I propose that we momentarily detach our focus from this or that symptom and open our frame to a much (very much!) wider horizon. Oftentimes the upheavals we experience in life cannot be understood by analyzing only the local conditions and direct causal connections among things.

Indeed, the most important factors are systemic ones – broader dynamics, delayed effects, and feedback loops that cycle over many months, years, and even (as I’ll suggest) evolutionary eras.

Our ability to take in the bigger picture and longer view on things is compromised by the sense of urgency whipped up by those emotional terrorists mentioned earlier. With the right rhetoric and charismatic flair they can incite us to act without any concern over the larger and later consequences of our action.

This is when it’s critical that we each find our center, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then open our eyes again to what might really be going on.

My diagram presents a scheme of the biggest of big pictures and longest of long views. The structure of our universe has been evolving for nearly 14 billion years: starting in a quantum flaring-forth (the so-called “big bang”), condensing into matter, stirring to life, waking as mind, and bending reflexively upon itself in the self-conscious ego.

And here we are, the universe contemplating itself. In our ego conceit we might believe that self-consciousness is the endgame, the ultimate aim of the whole shebang.

But not so.

A self-conscious personality is instead a penultimate phenomenon in the evolution of our universe, and like most things which are transitions or progression thresholds to something else (or something more), it is inherently unstable. The human personality needs to connect with other personalities in order to maintain a balance between its subjective needs and the social environment. An individual ego emerges out of this reciprocal exchange with other egos, and it continues to lean on others in the construction of identity.

Because every ego wrestles to some extent with insecurity over our subjective need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (for more on the feeling-needs see A New Hierarchy of Needs), we can lean into relationships with unrealistic expectations, which inevitably leads to disappointment, resentment, and distrust. It’s this emotional insecurity that gets exploited by those with ulterior motives.

In truth, emotional terrorists are themselves deeply insecure and are compensating for their unmet needs to feel safe, loved, capable, or worthy by manipulating us and others around them.

The big picture suggests, then, that our current global situation is on the brink of evolutionary change – literally a transformation in our very nature as human beings. For the past several millenniums we have been oriented in reality by the separate center of personal identity known as ego (my “I” and your “I”).

As new technologies in transportation, communication, and production have been steadily shrinking the distances between us, the elevated stress of this congested environment on our developing identities has made us more anxious, reactive, and increasingly aggressive with each other. We might say that while the infrastructure for supporting the next leap in our human transformation has been coming together over the centuries of progress, our neurotic insecurities and convictions keep holding us back and pulling us down.

Beyond the self-conscious ego lies a further frontier of our communal spirit – that is to say, of the inner aim in our nature to connect in creative partnerships and empathic communities. Throughout the Egoic Era this higher ideal of human nature has been represented in the virtues of deities who are exalted in worship and imitated in the moral aspirations of devotees.

In my diagram I have placed this “evolutionary ideal” inside a thought bubble, referencing the various ways it has been imagined and represented in art, myth, and theology. By definition, the ideal doesn’t have objective existence. The gods are not literal beings, but literary figures exemplifying the waking virtues of our higher self.

Our ability to make the leap where we begin to internalize and live out what we had earlier only imagined and worshiped in the ideal is dependent on our willingness to let go of beliefs, of the attachments that anchor them, and of the insecurities inside our personality that keep us so self-involved.

Dropping away from ego (illustrated in my downward arrow) we enter the grounding mystery of our existence – also named our “existential ground” or ground of being. With each descending level awareness opens to a larger horizon: from “just me” and other egos, to that of all sentient minds, to the still larger web of life and its physical foundations, and out to the ultimate horizon of the universe itself where all is one.

Coming back up from these mystical depths to our personal identity, we arrive with the realization that we are what the universe is presently doing, and that our next step is one of moving outward in self-transcendence for the sake of joining with others in celebration of our One Life together.

Life in community isn’t always easy, and conflicts will arise from time to time. But with the shared vision of its New Reality before us, we can take at least three steps forward.

 

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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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