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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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The Supreme Paradox

Supreme ParadoxI’ve written before on what I call the Matrix of Meaning, referring to a deep code of primary concerns and narrative motifs that generates the very fabric of our worldview. A sense of self and reality is the central construct in our personal myth, orienting us on the pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in our journey through life. The Matrix is deceptively simple in design, but the patterns of meaning it can produce are beyond number. Your life story and personal worldview are very different from mine, but the same Matrix of concerns and motifs is behind them both.

My first-time reader needs to know that I am a constructivist and employ the term ‘myth’ in its more technical (rather than popular) sense, as a narrative plot that holds the body of a story together and drives its action. Although we may have authorial liberties regarding the style and idiosyncratic features of our personal myth, the deeper structure is determined by what the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Ananke, or Necessity. In other words, how you respond to adversity, hardship, pain and loss is unique to you as an individual, but the inevitability of suffering is universal for human beings. This was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

My diagram depicts the Four Ages of individual development, and these, too, are universal archetypes in mythology: the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. I’ve indicated the average years over a lifetime when we transition from one to the next, but these shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors. The developmental challenge of a given Age might not be successfully negotiated, in which case our neurotic hangups around its primary concern will be carried into the next challenge, compounding our difficulty in making it through. Indeed, the fact that none of us gets out of childhood without some insecurity throws light on the question of why the human journey can be so damned complicated.

Northup Frye’s four literary types are also included in my diagram, each one corresponding to an Age and its driving concern. Comedy is the up-swing to ‘happily ever after’. Romance follows the heroic quest for an ideal. Tragedy descends the plunge-line of misfortune. Irony provides a double-vision between what is said at the surface and what is meant underneath. Our personal myth will predictably move through these distinct narrative frames, forcing us to adapt our construction of meaning to the shifting focus of our life in time. Although many have tried, any attempt to impose a frame of comedy over the reality of suffering only ends up forfeiting a potentially life-changing insight behind a veil of denial and make-believe. Needless to say, otherworldly religion is especially good at this.

The multicolored arc across my diagram represents the progression of consciousness through an ‘animistic’ body-centered stage (color-coded black), through a ‘theistic’ ego-centered stage (orange), and farther into a ‘post-theistic’ soul-centered mode of life (purple). Only a small minority are willing, or even able, to release personal identity (ego) for a deeper mystical realization and larger ethical vision. The rest of us fall in line with the status quo, take refuge inside our convictions, and succumb to the consensus trance. This is when theism can become pathological and our god starts looking like a glorified version of ourselves – a moody, judgmental, and self-righteous bigot.

My purpose in touring through the diagram in such detail is to lift into view the paradoxes in play throughout. The security of early childhood is in polar tension with the suffering that comes on as we mature. Much of suffering has to do with the loss of attachments that anchor identity and meaning for us, but which also represent for us a reality that is safe and supportive. Security and suffering, as primary concerns coded into the Matrix of Meaning, are paradoxically related. It’s not security or suffering, but the tension between security and suffering that drives our construction of meaning. Similarly, freedom and fate are polar opposites, making the interplay of our control in life and the conditions outside our control a second creative opposition. Freedom and fate only seem to exclude each other, while real wisdom involves learning to live inside and with their polarity.

This consideration of the paradoxes inherent to the Matrix of Meaning, and how these concerns compel us to make meaning that is at once relevant to our situation in life and capable of orienting us successfully throughout our journey, brings me to what I’ll call the supreme paradox. I refer my reader back to the diagram, specifically to that arrow arcing across from left to right. This represents the arc of our lifespan, tracking through the Four Ages (if we live long enough) from birth to death.

Especially during the first half of life, and most critically in those early years, we experience the uplifting support of reality in our growing body, a nurturing family system, and a wide world of opportunity. Such a conspiracy of virtuous forces instills in us a deep assurance of reality as the ground of our existence. We are the living manifestations of a 14 billion year-old process, a flower of consciousness emerged from this magnificent universe, the cosmos contemplating itself in wonder. Surely this is the root inspiration of true religion: the ineffable sense of being sustained by a provident reality, coming to be and living our days under the watchful intention of a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. All the mythological gods who provide us with nourishment, protection, guidance, and solace are metaphorical personifications of this provident ground of existence.

There are other gods as well, who begin peeking in as our exposure to reality becomes more complicated and challenging. These are dark forces – tricksters, shadowy forms, and unseen solvents that slowly erode the foundations of our neat and tidy worlds. Yes, reality is the provident ground of existence, but it is also the inescapable abyss of extinction. Coming-to-be and passing-away are the paradoxical reality of our life in time. We may want only a reality that supports and promotes our rise into identity, safekeeping our existence forever and ever, but that’s not how it is.

As Carl Jung pointed out many times and Lao Tzu made the central insight of his reflections on the way (Tao), light and dark are not absolutely exclusive of each other. Rather, they swirl together, pulling and pushing, blending and separating in the dance of reality, generating the ten thousand things and dissolving them simultaneously into the ineffable secret of the Tao which cannot be named.

 

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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.

Chakra_tree

The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-ku), proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?

 
 

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