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Tag Archives: mental locations of consciousness

On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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Holding Up the Mirror

BES Big Picture

Okay, so it’s time for another check-in. We need to do this every so often, just to be sure that my various thought streams are staying congruent with the big picture. Too easily, analysis can chase down the pieces and forget that all these finer distinctions are elements and features of a greater whole. We become widget specialists and lose our appreciation (if we ever had it) of how all of it seamlessly fits and flows together.

I’ll take you on a tour through the diagram above, first moving vertically up the center axis and then left-to-right. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, the symbols and terms should be familiar, though I’ll do my best to give concise summaries where I can.

Arranged along the center axis are three mental locations where human consciousness engages reality: in the body (sensory-physical realm), the ego (socio-moral realm), and the soul (mystical-intuitive realm). Notice the correlations along each side of the three mental locations, the way consciousness turns inward on the left side and outward on the right. “Inward” and “outward” take on very different connotations, however, depending on the location being considered. Internal, subjective, and existential (left side), or external, objective, and transcendent (right side) are not synonyms but fundamentally distinct orientations of consciousness.

This isn’t really a controversial idea. Just take a moment to notice how the physical environment around you now is accessible to your physical senses, but how the assigned values and meanings that incorporate parts of the environment into your personal world are not. Stepping up one more level to the mental location of soul, you should be able to appreciate the extent in which the transcendent unity of existence is not something you can detect with your senses, and neither is it a mere construct of meaning contained within the horizons of your personal world.

Again, notice how the physical organs and urgencies in your body stand in a distinct dimension from the beliefs and prejudices carried in your ego. And then contemplate the ground of your existence as it opens within you and rises in the quiet presence of being-itself. There are no organs or beliefs inside the soul, only an expansive clearing of present awareness and inner peace. Your existential ground and the transcendent unity of existence are not somewhere inside or outside of you, but instead are the mystical-intuitive dimension of reality as accessed through the mental location of soul.

Then why are we accustomed to speaking of body and soul as “mine,” and as separable from each other? Why do I live “in a body” and “have a soul”? Come to think of it, who is this “I” that presumes ownership of a body and identification with a soul?

The answer brings us to the center of my diagram, to that mental location of consciousness known as ego. While body and soul are considered primary to what you are as a human being, your identity is something that was (and still is) constructed in the interpersonal context of society. It’s helpful to distinguish between essence (what you are in your being) and identity (who you are in the world). Whereas essence (body/soul) is what makes you human, identity (ego) is how you define yourself as a person. This notion of ego as a social construct wonderfully complicates the human adventure, since every individual ego is a product to some extent of the society that shapes it.

I’ll just give a summary account of the process as it relates to the left-to-right horizontal axis of my diagram. Your identity – and I’m referring not just to the roles you play in the world, but to yourself as a performer of roles – got started in the awareness that your tribe expected certain things of you. Earliest on, these expectations were focused around the need to take control of bodily impulses, and not merely to gratify them spontaneously whenever the urge arose. The morality of your tribe at this stage was simple and binary: Do this, and Don’t do that. Your options were clear between good and bad, right and wrong, yes and no.

The challenge of membership was not settled by the mere fact of your birth or adoption into a family. To be “one of us” and a good boy or girl, some mechanism of restraint was imposed on the urgencies of the body, and in the pause or delay opened up by that restraint, a quantum of consciousness was harnessed and steadily shaped into Captain Ego. Since you were dependent on your provident taller powers for protection, nourishment, and support, this discipline of repression – literally pressing those spontaneous impulses back into the body (or what is also called “holding it”) – eventually produced the illusion of an ego as separate from the body, as well as from the rest of reality.

As we now swing over to the left side of my diagram, we see how your developing ego was conditioned from the very beginning by a need for security, represented by a triangle. I’ve positioned the triangle on an arc stretching between the internal organism of body and the existential ground of soul, making the point that your need for security has both animal and spiritual implications. Already from the time in your mother’s womb, the body’s nervous system was fulfilling one of its primary functions, which is to match your body’s internal state to the perceived conditions of its external environment. (The obvious evolutionary purpose in this rapport-building is to initiate adjustments that will maximize your survival chances.)

Though the uterine conditions of your mother’s womb may have been optimal, the situation changed dramatically once you were delivered (or expelled, depending on the myth) into the social womb of a family. There, whatever distress your nervous system took along with it was either mitigated or magnified by the relative health and attentiveness of your family system. Security, then, is the sense that reality is supportive, provident, and sufficient to your needs. It has both an animal aspect, in the relative composure of your nervous system, as well as a spiritual aspect, to the degree that you are able to rest in the grounding mystery of existence.

And wouldn’t you know it, but nobody gets through this gauntlet without some insecurity – not even you. This brings us back to the center of my diagram, to the circle that surrounds ego, a shape representing attachment. This is how you compensated for whatever lack of security you may have felt: you reached out and latched on to whatever could help calm you down. Not surprisingly, the greater your insecurity, the more desperately you gripped down and held on. Along with this behavioral holding-on came emotional identification with the objects of your attachment, as well as increasingly unrealistic expectations (and expressed demands) that your objects never let you down.

Perhaps it was a combination of this imperial claim on reality along with a vigorous dis-identification with the body, that first inspired ego to impersonate the soul and insist on its own immortality. We should note that it likely wasn’t some keen insight into the evergreen nature of soul but a consequence of its own opposition to the mortal body, that motivated ego to regard personal identity as something that must live forever. Personal immortality is quite a late development in religion, but once it took hold as a doctrine, religion (in particular, theism) became increasingly preoccupied with ego’s escape plan.

But let’s stay in the world a bit longer as we move one more step to the right in my diagram, to a square which represents the ego’s need for meaning. Actually “world” and “meaning” are deeply synonymous, since your world is a personal system of meaning that you are busy constructing and maintaining in cooperation with your tribe. I have placed the square, with its four sides for boxing up reality, on an arc stretching between body’s external environment and soul’s transcendent unity of existence. This makes the point that your world is neither a simple arrangement of empirical facts, nor an infinite horizon containing all of reality. It is a very selective, biased, and egocentric work-in-progress.

Indeed, stronger attachment to the objects (other people, things, ideas, events) that compensate for your insecurity requires a system of meaning (personal world) where all of it makes perfect sense. A way of stating the consistency across the horizontal axis we’ve been considering is this:

A primary function of your world is to justify and protect the attachments which in turn pacify your deeper insecurity.

Ego’s subjective self and objective world are thus the inside and outside of “me.” But in truth both are constructions, two sides to a complicated role play, a lifelong project of make-believe. I’m using the word “truth” here as a reference to the way things really are, to the reality beneath and beyond the illusion of meaning, which may shine through or break apart your tidy system in moments of epiphany or apocalypse. That famous line from the film A Few Good Men (1992) – “You can’t handle the truth!” – applies to most of us, most of the time.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Why hold up the mirror this way and a take an honest look at yourself? Very simply – and this is the ultimate aim of what is called “awakening” – to help you realize what you’re up to.

As the morning sun fills your curtains, perhaps this will be the first day of the rest of your life.

 
 

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Second Birth

The higher religions share many things in common, even as devotees strive so desperately to promote what makes theirs distinct and superior to the others. These common elements are emphasized and celebrated in the more mystically oriented currents, while the orthodox mainstreams either downplay them or interpret them tightly around their core doctrines.

Mystics of all religions tend to resonate with the myths, symbols, and ideals of spiritual life regardless of cultural origin or theistic attachments. They seem to have an ability for seeing through the historical conditions and local inflections that make one religion so different from the others. And while this depth-vision of theirs commits them to a stance that is commonly condemned as heretical (which it is), blasphemous and atheistic (which it isn’t), mystics aren’t really so interested in challenging doctrines as they are in seeding human transformation.

An example of something you’ll find across the higher religions is the metaphor of a “second birth,” which is said to conduct the believer into a new mode of being characterized by expanded awareness, a transpersonal orientation, and a profound intuition regarding the unity of existence. Whatever it may be called – metanoia (new mind), satori (true sight), buddhi (awakening), or the more common enlightenment – this idea of breaking through to a more grounded experience of reality (the way things really are) is the central insight.First_Second Birth

In the present post I offer an interpretation of this “second birth” experience, using the terms that have become important in my ongoing explorations into human transformation: body, ego, and soul. Critical to my use of these terms is an effort to redefine them as names for distinct “mental locations” of consciousness rather than separate parts of a human being.

Body and soul, for instance, are not from two different realms and yoked for the length of an earthly lifespan, only to uncouple and go back to their separate realms. Instead, and more in line with a postmodern reading, “body” and “soul” name distinct mental locations from which consciousness engages the surrounding sensory-physical environment (as body) and its own grounding mystery within (as soul).

Ego introduces a third term, which I take as literally introduced (inserted) into the primary duality of body and soul. Indeed the popular separation of body and soul as opposing forces is actually an ego delusion. By inserting itself between the mental locations of body (outward oriented) and soul (inward oriented), ego pushes them apart (as parts) and then gets caught in its own illusion.

Interestingly enough, this illusion – and to the extent that an individual is utterly entranced by it, this delusion – is a necessary step in human development. Society (aka “the tribe”) must work to shape an animal nature into an obedient member of the group, with all its roles and rules for getting along. Some of those impulses just need a little domestication, while others require stronger sanctions. But the individual submits for the most part, since security and belonging are the coveted benefits of membership.

My diagram above illustrates this insertion of the ego in that cultural workspace of the tribe, where nature is socially conditioned and personal identity is constructed. A physical (or “first”) birth delivered the individual out of a maternal womb and into a tribal womb, in which a sense of self (ego identity) will form. The demanded constraint on animal impulses and a socially required modicum of self-control are what eventually establish an ego identity above the body (often represented as a rider atop its horse).

We can distinguish at least two levels or phases in this process of identity construction, the first taking place inside a family system into which the individual is born or adopted, and the second involving cultural influences farther out. A family is more than just a group of people who live together and share a household. It is a present manifestation of deep generational codes, prevailing moods, and social reflexes that move individuals to behave in ways they don’t fully understand or feel capable of altering.

What we call “family patterns,” then, are the deep emotional conditioning that bind members in relationships of attachment and antagonism, perpetuating various co-dependencies and dysfunctions that make every family so wonderfully complicated. This correlates directly to the fact that ego identity is emotionally based, and it also explains why family patterns are impossible to fully understand.

Even if these primary relationships are abusive, the emotional bonding they provide can hold the individual captive – just as the entire family system is captive to its patterns – and unwilling to leave. What else is there? Where might a young child go for a better life? Outside the family is an even more dreadful danger: the loss of identity. We need to remember that the family is a second womb, and that escape of a “preterm” ego would result in a kind of social extinction, which is why it hangs on.

With time the individual engages the larger culture of his or her tribe. Long-standing traditions and conventions of a society are invariably rooted in a mythology of patron deities, cultural heroes, and legendary figures who secured the present world-order. These stories, together with their anchoring images and ritual observances, are summed up in my notion of “symbol systems” (see the diagram).

A tribe’s symbol system functions as a lens on reality, but also as a filter to keep out (or keep hidden) any threat to security, identity, and meaning. The intellectual horizon of meaning itself is maintained in the cultural worldview – projected, authorized, managed, and repaired by all those with a vested interest in its maintenance, which is everyone on the inside.

But the same spell of delusion is in force at this level as what we find entrancing the family deeper down, only in this case it is more intellectual than emotional. It grips down on the mind as powerful convictions concerning ultimate things: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation. The intellectual certainty carried in orthodoxy has an anchor-line descending into the dark foundations of emotional security, which is where orthodoxy’s real authority lies.

Even when a doctrine no longer makes sense intellectually, due perhaps to a shift in worldview and a loss of specific relevance, a conviction will remain strong – indeed, becoming even stronger than ever precisely because of its opacity and sacred mystique. Since it’s so difficult to understand, it must have been revealed by god, so who are we to question it or set it aside?

By now you should be able to feel the full enclosure of this tribal womb where ego is conceived and develops. Hemmed in emotionally by family patterns (which of course the individual internalizes and will perpetuate in his or her own future family), as well as hemmed in intellectually by the symbol systems of culture, ego identity now has a fully constructed web to inhabit. With ego formation complete, the stage is finally set for a “second birth.”

But not so fast. Those deep emotional fixations and god-given intellectual convictions will not let go so easily. Let’s not forget what will need to be surrendered should the spell be broken. What could life possibly be like without security and certainty – and without the identity that these together define? This would amount to an “ego death” for sure! For many, the security of knowing the hell they are in today, along with the predictive certainty that it will be waiting for them tomorrow, becomes an inescapable contract of identity.

The tribe is also working hard to keep its construction project under control. Friendly warnings and more stern reprimands are issued to the one who asks the wrong questions, challenges the orthodox answers, or dares to look behind the curtain at what’s on the other side. The threat of condemnation and excommunication are all too frequently enough to send the ego back to its seat.

But it is here, in the throes of emptiness and disorientation, that a few (compared to the multitude that obediently fall back in place) find the grace and courage to step through the veil. Attachments and fixations are surrendered. Convictions break open and release the mind. It is finally understood that the so-called security of hell is really no security at all, and that the so-called certainty of heaven is really a distraction from something infinitely more precious and real.

New mind, true sight, awakening, enlightenment: the once-dreaded breakdown turns out to be a breakthrough to a higher mode of being. The human spirit is liberated from its cage of identity, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, ego gives way to soul. Metaphors such as these endeavor to translate the experience of a “second birth” into the static nouns and verbs of language; but the experience itself is ineffable, beyond words.

Only after dying to ego and being resurrected as soul can the individual look back to see that those same symbol systems, which seemed so categorical from inside the tribal womb, are now transparent to a universal mystery. Gods and demons, saviors and villains, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, insiders and outsiders – each of these familiar components is part of a single drama that we carry within ourselves.

Or perhaps we should say, it carries us.

This was its design all along. Produced by the mythopoetic imagination and coming out a spiritual intelligence deeper and more ancient than the little ego can fathom, this entrancing web of illusion turns out to be the necessary architecture for our creative evolution. It is a bridge spanning the separation of body and soul – which, I should remind you, doesn’t really exist.

 

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