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The Three Stages of Consciousness

In this post I want to play with a big backgrounding idea that’s been shaping my thoughts on human nature and creative change for some time now. It’s about consciousness and how our human evolution and individual development can be understood as progressing through three distinct stages.

I’m using this term in both its temporal and spatial connotations: as a relatively stable period in the process of growth and change, and as a kind of platform from which a distinct perspective is taken on reality.

The best way I know to clarify these three stages of consciousness is by appealing to our own individual experience. Each of us is somewhere on the path to what I call human fulfillment, to a fully self-actualized expression of our human nature. And from this particular stage on the path, we engage with reality and experience life in a distinctive way.

This is the “hero’s journey” featured so prominently in world mythology, classical literature, and contemporary cinema. The “truth” of such stories is less about their basis in plain fact than the degree in which we find ourselves reflected in their grounding metaphors and archetypal events.

Our Great Work is to become fully human, and the one thing complicating this work is the requirement on each of us that we accept responsibility in making our story “come true.”

Let’s name the three stages of consciousness first, and then spend more time with each one. I call these stages Animal Faith, Ego Strength, and Creative Authority, and they appear in precisely that order over the course of our lifetime – assuming things go by design. But keeping in mind the spatial meaning of “stage,” I want to point out that each earlier stage persists as a platform in the evolving architecture of consciousness where we can go for the unique perspective on reality it offers.

Animal Faith is a stage of consciousness anchored in the nervous system and internal state of our body (i.e., our animal nature). From very early on, our brain and its nervous system was busy collecting sensory information from the environment in order to set a matching baseline internal state that would be most adaptive to our circumstances.

If the womb and family environments of our early life were sufficiently provident – meaning safe, supportive, and enriched with what we needed for healthy development – our internal state was calibrated to be calm, relaxed, open and receptive.

This ability to rest back into a provident reality is Animal Faith, where faith is to be understood according to its etymological root meaning “to trust.”

As our deepest stage of consciousness, Animal Faith is foundational to everything else in our life: our experience in the moment, our manner of connecting with others and the world around us, as well as to our personal worldview.

With an adequate Animal Faith, our personality had a stable nervous state on which to grow and develop. This stable internal foundation allowed for a healthy balance of moods and emotions, which in turn facilitated our gradual individuation into a unified sense of self, the sense of ourself as an individual ego (Latin for “I”).

When these three marks of healthy personality development are present – stable, balanced, and unified – we have reached the stage of consciousness known as Ego Strength. From this stage we are able to engage with others and the world around us with the understanding that we are one of many, and that we participate in a shared reality together.

By this time also, a lot of effort has been invested by our family and tribe in shaping our identity to the general role-play of society. We are expected to behave ourselves, wait our turn, share our toys, clean up when we’re done, and be helpful to others, just as we would want others to do for us.

Our identity in the role-play of society, the role-play itself and its collective world of meaning – all of it is a construct of human language and shared beliefs. Meaning, that is to say, is not found in reality but projected by our minds and sustained only by the stories we recite and enact.

Positive Ego Strength is intended to serve as a launch point for such transcendent experiences as selfless love, creative freedom, contemplative inner peace, joyful gratitude, and genuine community. Without it we would not have the requisite fortitude and self-confidence to leap beyond our separate identity and into the higher wholeness implied in each the experiences just mentioned.

I name this stage of consciousness Creative Authority because it is where we become aware that we have full authorial rights over the story we are telling – of the story we are living out. In Creative Authority we realize that each moment offers the opportunity to choose whether we will be fully present, mindfully engaged, and creatively involved in our life’s unfolding. If we want a meaningful life, then we need to make it meaningful by telling stories – maybe new stories – that heal, redeem, reconcile, sanctify and transform our world into the New Reality we want to see.

The liberated life thrives up here on the stage of Creative Authority, in the realization that the world is composed of stories, that our beliefs condense like raindrops out of the stories we hold and tell, and that we can tell better stories if we so choose.

Reality looks very different depending on whether we’re taking our perspective from the stage of Ego Strength where our separate identity is the fixed center around which everything turns, or if we are looking out from a vantage point “whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (quoted by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By and taken from a 12th-century meditation entitled The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers).

The shift requires a breaking-free and transcendence of who we think we are, as well as a surrender of all that is “me and mine.” It is at the heart of the Buddha’s dharma, Jesus’ gospel, King’s Dream and every other New Story about humanity’s higher calling. The essential message is that the fulfillment of what we are as human beings is beyond who we think we are as separate identities in pursuit of what will make us happy.

To rise into that resurrected space of the liberated life we have to die to the small, separate self we spend so much of our life defining and defending.

That’s the Hero’s Journey each of us is on: Learning to release our life in trust to a provident reality; coming into ourself as a unique individual on our own sacred journey; and at last breaking past this stage in the realization that All is One, everything belongs, and that this timeless moment is too holy for words.

 

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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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Dropping Into Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Breaking the Frame

Let’s play a game, called “Breaking the Frame.”

The Frame refers to what defines right behavior and good character for a specific group of people. For each of us, The Frame began to take shape when we were very young and the family was our original group. As we got older and more involved in the world around us, The Frame expanded to include many more group members – most of whom we don’t know by name and will never meet in person.

Our American nation is an obvious example: we all live together inside The Frame of what in America is defined as right behavior and good character.

You should be saying to yourself, “What definition? There is no consensus in the U.S. regarding what makes an action ‘right’ or what makes a person ‘good’.” And of course, you are correct.

In most traditional societies exemplary behavior and character are represented in their deities, heroes, saints, and governmental leaders. For millenniums, not in every society but in the most stable and peaceable ones, a certain lineage of virtue was acknowledged as bestowed by the gods, advanced by heroes, incarnated in saints, and finally manifested in the present day by those in national leadership whose principal charge was to convey divine beatitude to the people.

Well, not so much in America.

Our current president is not godly in any sense – unless god is a glory-seeking, vengeful, and self-righteous megalomaniac (which I think isn’t far off the mark for a lot of evangelical Christians) – and he’s far from being saintly or heroic. If there ever was a lineage of virtue in the United States, Donald Trump and his deputies have completely brought it to ruin.

So the fact that the United States of America doesn’t really have a Frame inside of which we all hold a common understanding of ‘right action’ and a ‘good person’ makes our game a bit more challenging, though not impossible.

Instead of looking around ourselves for extant models of virtue, we’ll need to imagine them for now.

Because The Frame contains a group’s shared understanding of what makes an action “right” and a person “good,” I am using it as a metaphor for morality. I’m arguing that every group, however small or large, monochromatic or multicolored, needs a morality to have any hope of securing a stable and humane fellowship among its members.

To help our game move forward, I will ask you to drop down from the national level of your identity as an American (or whatever nationality you are), to the group membership you currently hold where insiders abide by and aspire to a shared morality together. Your agreement over what makes an action ‘right’ and a person ‘good’ serves to manage your mutual engagements in the interest of genuine community.

You and your fellows are separate individuals with unique identities, and the purpose of morality (The Frame) is to correlate self and world by a common set of values so that what (or who) you identify “as” relates you meaningfully to what (or whom) you identify “with.”

In other words, in identifying yourself “as” an American, you are also identifying yourself “with” other Americans. If you identify yourself “as” white, brown, or black, you are thereby identifying yourself “with” others of the same color. If you identify yourself “as” a Christian, you are ipso facto identifying yourself with other Christians – not with Jews or Buddhists or secular humanists.

It should be clear that identifying yourself “as” something places you inside a corresponding horizon of membership which includes others like you. What may not be as obvious is how this same horizon excludes – or at least ignores, screens out, or neglects – whatever (or whomever) you don’t identify with. If you identify yourself “as” an American white evangelical Christian, then you are also separating yourself from other nationalities, other races, other religions, and even from other sects of your own religion.

These “others” do not belong to your world, and they do not share your Frame. It might even be difficult, if not impossible, for you to acknowledge them as truly good persons who are doing the right things, since good character and right behavior are defined by your morality, in the service of your group.

History provides too many examples of what tends to happen when life conditions become stressful and the insecurity of insiders escalates: psychologically their horizon of membership shrinks until it includes only those with whom they feel safe. All others – even once fellow insiders – are now excluded, condemned, or even attacked.

Conceivably your horizon of membership can be so small as to include only yourself. No one else can be trusted, and you are the only righteous person left on the planet.

This scenario sheds light on what has happened to our American Frame, and why our nation is currently so divided against itself. In better times, perhaps, a diverse group of individuals were inspired to identify themselves as more than what made them different from others. Together they sought freedom, opportunity, and a genuine community that could include different races, both genders, every class, all ages, and any background, under the rule of constitutional law and human rights.

True enough, progress has been slow on more than one of these fronts, with frequent setbacks along the way. Just now, in fact, as The Frame collapses around us, our insecurities are driving us further apart.

In such times as these, “Breaking the Frame” sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be doing. But what I mean by this has nothing to do with discarding your notions of right action and a good person. It is not about destroying The Frame but rather expanding your horizon of membership in order to include more – more others, more differences,  more possibilities, and more reality.

What we call “ethics” can be distinguished from morality in the sense we’ve been using it here, in how ethics moves our inquiry beyond merely personal interests and into transpersonal horizons.

Before you can break The Frame and engage with a larger reality, however, something needs to happen within yourself. If you are going to consciously and ethically participate in transpersonal horizons, you have to stop identifying yourself “as” a person. This doesn’t mean that you forsake your present identity, abandon your roles in society, and renounce who you are.

All you need to do is stop defining yourself by what makes you separate and unique.

This is what mystical-contemplative traditions have been encouraging for thousands of years: drop out of your self-conscious personal identity (ego) and into your deeper nature as a living, sentient being. Let go of your labels, personal ambitions, and persistent concerns. Let thoughts float above you; allow feelings to come and go.

Just give attention to your breath. Sink into your body and rest quietly in the cradle of rhythms keeping you alive in this moment.

After descending to deeper centers of your grounding mystery and coming back again to the surface, you will find that identifying yourself as a living sentient being has enabled you to identify with other living sentient beings. Not only with other Americans, but people from other nations as well. Not just with your race, but all races of humankind. And not with humans alone, but with all species and with every living thing.

The whole web of life has become your horizon of membership.

Inside this expanded horizon of identity, your understanding of right action and what it means to be a good person is radically transformed. The fellowship to which you now consciously belong transcends personal ambitions and even exclusively human concerns.

Earth is your home, life is your community, and the global wellbeing of our planet is the principle inspiring and critiquing all that you do.

Don’t expect those who have pulled inside smaller frames of identity to support your newfound vision. They won’t agree with you because they can’t understand. Your values and intentions make no sense to them.

Just remember that they too live inside your larger horizon, and they need your compassion and kindness as much as the rest – maybe even more.

 

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Safe Inside Our Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Your Psychic Reading

Please, have a seat.

I am about to reveal what’s going on in your life – not just around you, but to you and within you. Many things will fall into place and the path ahead will be made clear. When I’m finished and you realize that my reading was on the money, you can send me what you owe. Otherwise, on the chance that I had it completely wrong, just keep your money and don’t bother coming back.


Let’s begin with your age. How old are you? In my “magic window” (see diagram) you will find three numbers comprising four age ranges: birth to age 10, 11 to 25 years old, 26 to 60 years, and any age 61 and above. Don’t get confused over how things are displayed in the window. For now, simply identify yourself as a Child, Youth, Adult, or Elder using the age ranges just provided.

Now I will start my reading, beginning with the earliest and moving through all four life frames in turn. As you might guess, each life frame offers a distinct lens on reality, on the world in which you live, the concerns that focus your experience, and on your unique sense of self.

If you are already some distance into your life story, feel free to compare my descriptions of earlier frames with what you remember, just as you might use later frames to anticipate what is still to come.

CHILD (birth to 10 years old)

This life frame corresponds to the Age of Faith, when basic trust in the provident support of reality is your primary concern. When this support is present, your experience is one of security – that what you need to feel safe and loved is provided to you by taller powers who care for you.

A sense of existential security will underlie – or undermine, if not sufficiently established – every challenge and opportunity of your journey ahead.

Upon this foundational impression of reality in your nervous system, your taller powers have also been busy at work shaping the attitudes, beliefs, roles and behaviors that together carry your identity in the family system. If your early years were characterized by warm regard and positive support, that foundation of security is allowing for healthy flexibility in the formation of your identity.

As a result, you are generally secure in who you are and don’t stress out when the situation needs you to adapt. Another benefit is that, as situations and relationships change, that same security in who you are enables you to hold your integrity – or as we say, to remain true to yourself.

If, on the other hand, your early reality wasn’t so provident, existential insecurity predisposed you to be less confident in who you are. In your effort to please, placate, flatter, or impress your taller powers for the love and support you still need, you have learned how to “alter your ego” to match their attitudes and expectations. Today you continue to struggle for integrity in your relationships, all too ready to surrender who you are to what others want and expect from you.

YOUTH (11 to 25 years old)

If this is your present phase of life, then you are in the Age of Passion. You have strong feelings about things that matter to you. In this life frame, working out your identity as it connects you to peer groups, vocational preparation, and romantic partners is foremost on your mind.

You share this concern over identity with your younger self (Child), but now it’s more about agency and influence than safety and belonging.

Added to this question of identity is thus one of purpose: What’s expected of you? What is required for you to pass through the various qualifying rounds on your way to securing a position (status, title, occupation) in the world? In other words, purpose is mostly about external objectives: things to accomplish, goals to achieve, social expectations to satisfy, benchmarks of success to reach.

If you carry some insecurity in your nervous system from early on, you probably try especially hard to live up to the expectations of others, or at least not to disappoint them. And because the adult world you’re moving into is one built around stereotyped roles, perfectionism may be your preferred strategy for winning the recognition you feel you deserve – or is it a craving?

If this is true of you, then there is also something in you that avoids too much spotlight and even pulls back on your own success, since the risk of being exposed as you really are is unbearable. Youth is a time of heightened self-consciousness, which doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy self-awareness but can frequently spiral into varying degrees of self-obsession. Whether you are seeking attention or trying to evade scrutiny, you may be stuck in this spiral – but there is a way out!

ADULT (26 to 60 years old)

Adulthood is the Age of Reason, and if this is your current life frame, it’s important to you that things make logical sense and fit together in a rational worldview. You have enjoyed some success in your pursuits of life partners, a career path, and social prestige. You are learning how much of adult life is really a ‘daily grind’, and have even wondered at times whether it ultimately matters.

If you are somewhere around 40 years old, this question of relevance has become especially haunting. Just fitting into the schemes of others isn’t as exciting as it once was, and you’re even starting to feel yourself disengage in parts of your life where you have less freedom. The external objectives that had gotten you up early and kept you up late now can barely hold your interest.

The so-called midlife transition (or “crisis”) marks this psychological shift where purpose becomes less about duties, assignments, and shared missions than about personal intention – not living for a purpose but rather living “on purpose” or “with purpose.” You have also started to realize that perhaps your most important intention is to create a life of meaning.

If you deny this realization and simply redouble your efforts at conforming to the world around you, you are at risk of losing your soul – so be careful!

Whether it comes early or later in the Age of Reason, you will also be confronted with the fact of mortality, as the funerals of close friends, parents, and other family members remind you. And once again, if you are carrying some insecurity inside yourself, this will be a time of significant temptations, where it’s easier to throw yourself into a job, bounce across relationships, get lost in distractions, or fall into addictions of one kind or another.

ELDER (61 years old and older)

Having lived this long means that you have a lot of experience behind you, regardless of how much time may remain. The Age of Wisdom is your opportunity to integrate that vast library of personal experiences and lessons learned along the way into a more grounded way of life. Despite the losses, disappointments, and numerous failures, and however short of the youthful ideal your actual life has turned out to be, you are beginning to understand that it really is about the journey and not the destination.

Picking up those lessons and incorporating them into the running script of your life story is what wisdom is all about.

The “meaning of life,” which you had come to appreciate in your adult years as your creative purpose and responsibility, is now opening out to include not just your individual life but all of life, not just your existence but being itself. You are coming to know “All is One” as an experiential reality and not only a conceptual idea.

Even though from a societal perspective the later years of many are characterized by retirement, withdrawal, and increasing isolation, the deep discovery of this age is that nothing stands utterly alone. The universe is one vast network of coexistence, cooperation, and communion – and you belong to it. Not only that, but each individual is a manifestation of the whole. In this moment, the universe is self-conscious and contemplating this very truth – in you!

Perhaps the most precious realization the Age of Wisdom has to offer is that your own self-actualization as a human being and unique person is what the universal process is intending. With roots anchored in the grounding mystery and branches reaching out to everything else, your individual life is – just now! – pressing outward in the full blossom of your true nature. This is what is meant by fulfillment.

A word of caution from someone who can see into your life: Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security. This is not the time to fall asleep inside your daily routine!


There you have my reading of your life so far, and of what’s still to come. Please gather your things and see your way out.

I’ll be looking for your check in the mail.

 

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Where is God?

As an advocate of post-theism I stand in an interesting space, with suspicious theists on one side and suspicious atheists on the other. As they debate the literal existence of god, I want to know what god means – not what did god mean by this commandment or that Bible story, but what the mental construct of god means.

Because theists and atheists don’t typically give this question the attention it deserves but assume they are both talking about the same thing, any hope of a resolution must be abandoned.

Theists hear the “post” in post-theism as just a clever disguise for atheism, while atheists hear “theism” and conclude that I’m playing a word trick in order to lure them into an intellectually and ethically untenable position.

As I open our topic for meditation, let me once again clarify what post-theism means, which will also serve as a starting definition of what god means.

“Post” refers to what follows or comes after something, as in “post-war times” or “post-democratic age.” It doesn’t mean that the thing on the far side of the hyphen (war, democracy) didn’t happen or no longer matters. Indeed, its reality or validity is accepted, along with a recognition that it had a place and served a role in what followed. But what followed is after, even if the influence of that earlier thing has been incorporated and transcended in the new form.

Post-theism doesn’t give any time to arguing for or against the existence of god, but rather inquires into what’s after god. How is god being incorporated and transcended in religion today?

So what does god mean? We get closer to our answer by noting the significant roles that god plays in theism. First of all, god is a personification of the creative and provident intelligence evident in the universe. Notice that we’re not saying that god is evident, but that the universe presents us with evidence of causality, intention, maybe even purpose, which we personify in our construct of god.

A second thing to note about god is his* personal development over time, as depicted in the chronological sequence of myths featuring him. God’s character grows increasingly more refined and universally appealing in the general narrative. Early stories of god represent him as jealous of competition (i.e., the gods of neighboring tribes and nations), vengeful toward his enemies (which invariably are also the enemies of his tribe), and nitpickingly scrupulous when it comes to the moral and ritual behavior of his devotees.

As the centuries roll on, however, and importantly as his biographers are confronted with a wider diversity of human needs, beliefs, and ways of life, god grows into the higher virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, and, with particular clarity in the storytelling of Jesus, preemptive and unconditional forgiveness.

As I’ve already slipped it in, I should just make explicit the causal link between a construct of god and the growing self-understanding and world awareness of his human authors. In theism this relationship isn’t merely unilateral, with god as the personified projection of human ethical progress through time. It goes the other way as well, with the narrative ideal of god’s character evoking the worship and aspirations of his people.

In glorifying god as compassionate and forgiving, these same ethical virtues are exalted by the people as worthy of pursuit in their daily lives.

When theism is healthy, this combination of a deep faith in the provident mystery of reality, along with the progress of believers in their efforts to internalize and express what had earlier been projected and glorified in the character of their god, leads very naturally to its threshold with post-theism.

When god has fulfilled his role as the existential ground of faith and the transcendent attractor of human ethical progress, one question remains: What comes after god?

Once again, this will feel a little irreverent, possibly sacrilegious, and even blatantly heretical to some on the inside of theism, who see the threshold as leading away from god and into abject atheism – or worse.

As with many progression thresholds where we cross from one paradigm, mindset, or perspective on life into something profoundly different, we can feel as if we’re being asked to renounce all that we have believed to this point. Seemingly now we need to say “No” to god, “No!” to his religion, and “No!!” to those who claim to speak on his behalf.

But remember, post-theism isn’t about saying “No” to any of that, or trying to argue it off the stage. It’s about asking, “Now what? What’s next? How can we continue our spiritual journey after the veil of mythology has come down?” In some ways, this is the question of our time.

This whole evolutionary shift forward would be much less traumatic if theism could self-consciously facilitate the spiritual growth and faith development of its members – across the full arc and through all the seasons of a modern human lifespan.

Imagine what it would be like if resident post-theists, preferably in positions of teaching and leadership, helped young or new believers step into the sacred story-world where they take on new identities as god’s beloved children. As the curriculum progresses, they would be encouraged increasingly to take responsibility for their behavior and even for their beliefs.

This would involve equipping them with the critical tools and intellectual freedom to dig into what they had so far only accepted as true. At some point someone would sit them down and say, “Look, we are playing a very elaborate game here. It’s called ‘Where is god?’

“What you’ve been given so far are not final answers, but our best questions. You’ll be expected to come up with some of your own. Think of them as maps for your quest.

“The really important thing to keep in mind is this: None of us knows what god is, so you’ll have to look everywhere.

“Search outside this sanctuary. Explore the woodlands, oceans, and deserts of Earth. Contemplate the galaxies overhead and the ground under your feet. Scout about in foreign lands and forsaken urban alleyways. Look high and low, both near and far.

“Don’t forget to look inside your neighbor, the stranger on the street, and even in your worst enemy – for god loves to hide where you least expect to find him!

“Finally, don’t forget to look inside yourself; for if god isn’t there, it’s not likely you’ll find her anywhere else.”


* We’ll stick with the preferred pronoun of biblical theism … for now.
 

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