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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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Metaphors of Life

Metaphors operate at a level where experience first breaks over the threshold into expression, the real presence of mystery into representations of meaning. At a very deep level – just short of the very deepest – human beings orient themselves according to a guiding metaphor of life itself.

What is life, and what is your place in it?

Western culture is organized around a guiding metaphor of life that we could name circling the drain. With its accent on the individual, everything tends to be oriented according to the individual’s perspective, more specifically to the perspective of that separate identity called ego. drain

This is who I am. This is my tribe. These are the things that belong to me. Such are the ambitions I have for myself. I have a limited amount of time to realize my dreams, and finite resources to exploit before my time is done.

I do my best to hold and protect my own, to get what I need and have enough of what I want, but it’s very apparent that life is leaking away from me all the while.

This drain metaphor of life spawns other secondary metaphors, which are more enmeshed in language and hence more meaning-full. The farther out and dependent our minds become on this web of meaning, the more dogmatic we get in our beliefs, the more convicted of our certainties, and the more vulnerable we become to anxiety and depression. We worry over many things, sink into fatigue and discouragement, and get just enough rest to rush out and try it again.

Western religion has compensated for this inherent bipolarity in egoism with its invention of an afterlife fantasy where the ego will live on forever once the body expires. Physically my body is trickling down the drain with each passing minute, but I (ego) will not die. Instead I will pop out on the other side, fully intact and without the drag of a mortal frame. Over there, I will be reunited with my loved ones who went down the drain before me, and I will be everlastingly happy.

The metaphor of circling the drain, therefore, is what inspired our familiar and highly defended notion of salvation as a rescue project. What we’re looking for cannot be here, for the obvious reason that everything is going down the drain. Our only hope is to find the way out – out of this world, out of our bodies. Not really out of time, exactly, since heaven is supposed to be everlasting, but at least in time without a drain to worry about.

Outside of religion, the metaphor of life as circling the drain has stimulated a view of the individual as consumer – needing, demanding, taking, devouring, using, spending, wasting and casting aside the leftover junk. We have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as chronically empty – of what exactly, no one knows for sure. But there are countless fillers on display in the marketplace that we are encouraged to try out. Keep your credit card handy.

So we oblige by filling ourselves up with all manner of “stuff” and in the process have become discontent and possessive, malnourished and overweight, popular and lonely, renting storage and buying insurance policies to keep it all safe as we inwardly waste away.

                                                                                  

There is another metaphor of life, one that predates our Western notion of the drain by thousands of years. Its roots are in the organic intelligence of the body – the very problem from which the ego seeks escape. It is central to a grounded and mystical spirituality. Instead of circling the drain, this metaphor invites you to join the stream.

riverLife is a flowing river, and you are part of the mystery. There’s no need to throw yourself into a tightening spiral of anxiety, craving, attachment, frustration, disappointment, desperation and depression.

True enough, since the larger culture has been constructed around the drain metaphor, you will be tempted to regard this idea as something else you need to take and make your own. But that’s just ego again. 

By its nature, a stream cannot be possessed. If you should try to dam it up and turn it into a reservoir, you might achieve the illusion of ownership and control, but your entire perspective will have shifted to a vertical axis centered on leakage and loss prevention – the drain again.

Joining the stream promotes a very different outlook on reality, a different way of orienting oneself in the world. As a metaphor, it counteracts the ego’s tendency towards nervous consumption and the grip-down on me and mine. Rather than closing focus down into a spiraling anxiety around the drain hole of mortality, the stream metaphor opens our focus up to the larger reality to which we belong.

Our separation from reality and antagonism to life is only a delusion of ego consciousness. I (ego) am not really separate from everything else, but my insecurities and defenses make it seem so. And yet, this mistaken sense of separateness is what alienates me from my body and hence also from life itself.

The metaphor of life as a stream is also a gentle reminder that it’s not about me. Admittedly it can be a considerable – perhaps even traumatic – change in perspective that’s required, and one that isn’t supported by the general culture we live in. To some extent this has always been the case.

Even though their teachings were later turned into programs of escape from mortality and its complications, Siddhartha and Jesus were really speaking about the opportunity afforded in each moment of life to release the neurotic compulsions of “me” and “mine” for the sake of a larger and more participative experience. The Buddhist “no-self” (anatta) and the Christian “new mind” (metanoia) are early concepts that get at this idea of joining the stream.chart

The above chart sets in contrast these two different images, identifying the points where each guiding metaphor works its way into our worldview, our fundamental attitudes toward life and the values we uphold, as well as our approach to the mysteries of death and dying.

Everything changes as you learn to give in to the greater reality, rather than stubbornly insist that reality deliver on your demands. You are wonderfully free of convictions and the need to be right. You begin to understand that nothing belongs to you, that there is only One Thing going on here and you are part of it.

In life and death, you can be fully present and trust the process. This is the essence of faith.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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A Grateful Life

As my mother receives guests into her home and says goodbye to old friends, some deep questions poke to the surface of my conscious thought. What is this life that I so easily take for granted, this stretch of 80 years (if I’m lucky) from cradle to grave?

Just now the morning sun glows in the curtains, dappling the floor in a play of shadows and light. In five minutes it will be different – but that’s only because my attention chunks time into snapshots for measurement and comparison. Actually, each moment opens a unique touch-point on reality, where the fluttering pattern of light and shade is continuous with yet utterly different from what it was just a moment before.morning

How wide is a moment of time? Just a flash, a dissolving threshold? Am I not always in it – however wide or impossibly narrow it may be?

This, right now, is the present because at this very moment reality presents itself to my awareness. As present, it is a gift that I can open or set aside for later.

But if I should set it aside – out of intentional avoidance, preoccupation, laziness or on the promise that I’ll get back to it, it’s no longer there when I do.

The past isn’t where the present goes. It’s only how I remember or try to recall what happened, a fixed snapshot in my album.

I also spend a lot of time looking ahead, into the future, which is not the present coming to me but merely my mind again, chasing out the trendlines, flopping assumptions from over my shoulder and onto the path ahead.

So whether I’m reaching back to recover the past or looking forward to predict the future, I’m doing all of it in the present. This won’t be here again. Yesterday I was hoping for something else, and tomorrow I’ll be wishing I could have it back.

How many presents go unopened?

What if the sun comes up tomorrow morning and plays in the curtains again – but I’m no longer here to witness it? It won’t be chunked and framed, and it won’t be around for me to remember later. What if I’m not around tomorrow? What if this day is my last? What if this moment is the final present I have a chance to open?

Truthfully we can never know, can we? And that realization will either drive you insane with anxiety or call you to present-minded wonder and appreciation. If all there is is right now, then right here is where we need to start digging. Or maybe that’s already too willful and aggressive. Close your eyes and just relax into being.

The opening of reality to me in this moment coincides with the opening of my attention to the present mystery – or perhaps they are really the same. This moment is for me in the sense that the mystery presenting itself is made present as I give my attention to it.

But what am I supposed to do with it – this precious gift of time? I can’t simply gush all over it with sentimental acknowledgment of its fleeting character, grabbing up as much as I can before it slips through my fingers. Life can’t be lived perpetually in a stoned haze, gazing in stupefied amazement as it vanishes in wispy rings above our heads.

Maybe it’s the “harsh realities” of daily life – all the deadlines, appointments, and concerns – that push me to an opposite stance, where I’m perfectly willing to squander the moment in distraction or worry.

This could be what’s behind the worldwide tendency in religion to postpone what really matters to a later time, a distant paradise, on the other side. While the soul longs for authentic life now, mystical communion here, and deep peace in this moment, my ego-in-charge is too busy trying to hold its own and make progress against the steady drain of time. Having the assurance that I’m all set for life everlasting excuses me from fully investing in life here and now.

What if this is all I have, my only “at bat,” my exclusive opportunity to open up to the Real Presence of mystery. Do you pity me?

Please (and respectfully) save it for someone else.

Today I will begin receiving guests into my life and saying goodbye to old friends, knowing that this may be our last or only chance to touch the divinity in each other.

Tomorrow morning, if I am offered a gift of the sun dancing in curtains, I will notice, open the present, and give thanks.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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Polarity and Paradox

Heschel: “There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of [humanity]. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which is devoted to the creation of the physical universe, [humanity] is described as having been created in the image and likeness of God. In the second chapter, which tells us of the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, [humanity] is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth. Together, image and dust express the polarity [in human nature].”

In the counseling clinic you will find two types of clients: those who are ashamed of themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted, and those who are conceited with themselves and regard others generally as not to be trusted. Both of them will typically have relationship issues, be chronically unhappy in life, and will either be in therapy for a long time or else jump in and out, looking for the magic trick that no counselor can provide. Fix me.

As I have already suggested, the persistent problems of middle-class mental health in America today are likely a complication of our Western fixation with ego. Instead of following a more contemplative line of research into the spiritual intelligence that grounds us in present reality, Western “psychology” has in fact abandoned the soul (psyche) in favor of personality development and its organizational center, the ego. From the vantage-point of the strained and conflicted ego, any threat to its executive control and perpetual reign is perceived as a problem.

Ironically, then, we have come to prefer experiences of ego-inflation to genuine self-transcendence; what we are has been eclipsed by who we are. Experiences of love, wonder, inspiration and faith – all of which require that we let go of “me” in release to a larger mystery – are seen as threatening and make us anxious. The divine ideal of our own higher nature (god) becomes severed as the object of our aspiration and becomes, not a force for waking and clarifying our dormant virtue, but rather a source of judgment, shame and condemnation. The “God beyond god” is inaccessible to the degree that we insist on saving ourselves.

On the other side of this existential divide – this illusion of duality generated by Captain Ego – is the body and its realm of instinct, mucus and blood (yuck). Strange urges and powerful moods take us by surprise, and much of our shame for falling short of god’s demands is hooked into our bodies. But the body is also in time, and time is passing, and passing time is mortality, and mortality means deathand who wants that?!

The cosmic force of entropy, which is constantly pulling at the heels of higher order so as to reach simpler and more stable arrangements, is also at work on our bodies. As a living composition of physical matter, the body will eventually succumb to this downward pull of mortality and return as dust to dust. In reality this is a marvelous thing, and it might be appreciated as the descending arc of our recycling universe, straining against the upward push of evolution along its ascending arc – a scientific yin and yang that strive together in the beautiful balance of all things.

But again, if ego is attached to the body, then I am going down as well – which is unacceptable. So I dress it up to look younger, take supplements to extend its life, primp, tuck and cinch up its sagging weight. I will not be dust … I will not! What is really an astonishing miracle of matter becomes instead a death sentence, a damnable anchor holding me in time. Thankfully, religion has provided me a way out of this mess, with its doctrine of immortality and the promise of everlasting life.

What would happen, what would it be like if we could embrace this polarity in our human nature? How different would our lives be if we were able – really it comes down to whether or not we are willing – to transcend the ego and move more effortlessly (less anxiously) through the frontiers of body and soul? Can we affirm the image of god in ourselves, and in each other, without becoming self-inflated? Can we embrace mortality and learn to appreciate the fleeting moments and limited time we have?

Not to separate ego from body, and not to confuse ego with soul – this is wisdom. We harbor a divine image, but we are even now passing into dust.

 

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The Divided Mind

Watts: “It is easy to see that most of the acts which, in conventional morals, are called evil can be traced to the divided mind. By far the greater part of these acts come from exaggerated desires, desires for things which are not even remotely necessary for the health of mind and body, granting that ‘health’ is a relative term. Such outlandish and insatiable desires come into being because man is exploiting his appetites to give the ‘I’ a sense of security.”

Security is an illusion. At any second an unsuspected bacterium could invade your immune system, a blood vessel in your brain could burst, a piece of space junk could fall out of the sky on your head, or a random act of violence could find you in the wrong place at the right time. Imagine what your life would become were you to make these slim probabilities your preoccupying focus.

Instead of fixating on them and driving yourself crazy, you do the responsible thing and build up a line of protection to keep any of it from happening. But now there’s a new worry over that monthly insurance payment, or a deepening sense of isolation as you keep yourself safe at home. So what can you do but see the doctor for a prescription drug that will take the edge off your anxiety or lift you off the floor of your depression. Then there’s the side-effects …

Our desperate quest for whatever can counteract or permanently transcend the inherent insecurity of existence actually creates new things to worry about. As we devote more resources to protecting our resources, eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. More is spent to keep from losing. Life becomes an exercise in circling the drain: put death off just a little longer and maybe you stand a chance of having a life. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.

We should be clear, it’s not the body that is driving this circus of absurdity. By following the rhythm of its natural life cycle, the body has evolved internal mechanisms to either heal or surrender to its inevitable fate. The ego, strapped to this eventual corpse, is the one who strives to slip the knot and live forever. We have developed all kinds of technologies and cosmetics to postpone or conceal the fact of mortality. And religion has done its part by promising everlasting security to the one who can delay gratification and remain obedient to the end.

Think of the evils that have been committed for the sake of security – or the sense of security, and the pursuit of it. The greed for “enough” can never be satisfied, simply because there can be no such thing as enough. How can you know for sure? Life conditions could change, the supply could run out, your neighbor could take more than his fair share. Insecurity produces discontent, discontent produces greed, greed motivates hoarding and theft, hoarding and theft (by others) require protection, protection requires insurance payments, insurance payments require more income, more income requires more time, and more time – oops, game over.

Let’s just agree for the moment that security is an illusion, something unreal, unrealistic, and unattainable. If we were to simply accept this fact, would we live any differently than we do now? We would worry less, there’s no doubt about that. And depression – the state of fatigue and discouragement that comes in the wake of anxiety – would be far rarer, indeed. We would certainly be more relaxed, even living on this edge of death, and probably feel more alive by virtue of its constant shadow.

Watts’ “divided mind” is another term for ego ambition, driven by the competing motivations of desire and fear. For its part, security, being an illusion, is not even something we can pursue – unless some clever advertising has attached it to a “must have” new product or service. To that end, we buy and replace, use and toss out, try and abandon one false promise after another.

The fear side of ambition is typically more concrete. While positive gains and happy progress may forever elude us, negative losses on the downward slope of mortality are inevitable. Ego ambition is about spending and stacking – or shooting – whatever is necessary to hold off the specter of death. But the more we clutch and stockpile, the greater our risk and pain in losing it, and the more we are willing to do to keep it a little longer.

Even if “Romeo and Juliet are [not] together in eternity,” in the words of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald Roeser, we don’t need to fear the reaper.

 

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