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Our Quest for Identity, and What’s Beyond

ego-careerOne of the critical achievements on the long arc to human fulfillment is a capacity for getting over ourselves. Our chronic problems and pathologies are complications of a failure in this regard. We get tangled up, hooked, and held back from our true potential and end up settling for something we aren’t. Instead of focusing on the problem, however, I would rather look more closely at what fulfillment entails.

The exquisite and sought-after experience across the spiritual wisdom traditions of higher culture is a direct realization that All is One, and that, further, the self is not separate from this oneness but belongs to it – or rather, that they are two aspects of the same mystery, contemplating itself. This isn’t merely a conclusion of logical thinking, where ‘all’ is the inclusive class of everything that exists, in which the self is necessarily a member.

What is also called unitive consciousness is not a decision at the end of syllogistic argument, but rather a spontaneous intuition, an ecstasy of awareness in which the deepest center of oneself is known in perfect correlation with the infinite horizon of all things.

Great spiritual lights of our species – again, without deference to culture or religion – have been taken by this mystical realization, and a few of them attempted to communicate the kernel of its insight to their contemporaries. They apprehended the translucent nature of reality where even ordinary things are epiphanies of the Holy One, and their personalities conveyed this self-same light. Witnesses and disciples praised them as unique revelations, glorifying and elevating them to the status of saviors, angels, and gods.

Their message wasn’t from somewhere else, however; not one of them preached an ethic of separation and other-worldly escape. The ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Jesus’ teachings is nowhere but in the very midst of things, at the sacred center of life in this world.

Unitive consciousness does not require the abolition of ego, of the sense each one of us has of our personal identity as an individual. It’s not by an erasure of self that the spontaneous intuition of oneness is gained, but rather by transcending it – affirming it, finding center, and then going beyond our individual self into a deeper and larger experience of wholeness. Again, the genuine mystics have long understood this.

It is the rest of us – insecure and uncertain in our identity, entangled in neurotic attachments and stuck in our convictions – who mistake their message for one of ego annihilation, or, which is merely the opposite side of the same fundamental error, for one of ego salvation and life everlasting.

In my diagram above, the middle segment of an arcing arrow involves the process whereby our essential nature as a human being is socially conditioned to the tribal conspiracy of groupthink, also known as the consensus trance. The natural inclinations and urgencies of our animal body are gradually trained into behaviors that complement rather than disrupt the rhythms of social life. If all goes well, our personal identity (or ego) will carry forward a positive sense of embodiment, of being centered in an organism that itself rides in a stream of primal intelligence we can trust.

If it goes otherwise – and I promised that I wouldn’t focus on the problem, so it only gets a mention for now – ego lacks embodiment and we are dissociated from the body’s natural wisdom. The many symptoms of this dissociation are not appreciated as messages and revelations, but instead are medicated or simply ignored.

The responsibility of the tribe, then, is to shape our identity through the assignment of social roles and then provide us with the necessary recognition that will reflect back to us the person we are. We are validated as an insider, as one who belongs. All the perks of membership are offered to us: security, attachment, and meaning give our life orientation and purpose. And these can be enough to keep us inside, fully identified with our roles and dutifully chasing the awards and promotions that make them worthwhile.

I’ve reflected elsewhere, and many times, on this axis of security, attachment, and meaning in both our fulfillment and pathology as persons. The inherent and inescapable lack of perfect security in life – especially when we are young – motivates our attachment to those who might make up for what’s missing. We can end up locked inside a set of convictions about the way things must be, which allows us to ignore if not outright deny the fact that our shared agreements concerning the meaning of life are also a screen against the present mystery of reality, or the way things really are.

Most of us stay right here, for the rest of our lives. With enough distractions, diversions, and intoxicants – perhaps throwing in the anticipation of another, better life later on, next year or after we die – this daily round at playing the person we’re supposed to be can keep us clinging to the carousel and pretending that all of it really, truly matters. When someone comes along who seems not to take the game as seriously, who seems lighter somehow but still deeply centered in him- or herself, we might look on admiringly, feel threatened by the apparent nonchalance, or else elevate the individual as a glorious exception.

In any case, we misinterpret his or her translucence as a special possession or extraordinary gift. The light, in other words, is degraded into a unique property of the individual which sets him or her apart from the rest of us.

Actually, what we are witnessing is a capacity for transcendence, an ability in that person to go beyond him- or herself for the sake of a deeper and larger experience of life. In our quest for identity, success is measured in ego strength, in our socially supported achievement of a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under the executive management of a healthy sense of self (ego). Such individuals have it, and this virtue of ego strength allows her to drop the mask for a deeper center of identity, which in turn opens her consciousness to a larger horizon of membership. He doesn’t need to defend his beliefs or clutch at attachments, for he has nothing to lose.

These individuals are transparent to reality, like parting veils on the present mystery, glimpses into our own true nature as human manifestations of being.

It is to this critical threshold of ego-transcendence that our quest for identity is taking us. Find your center, drop your attachments, and get over yourself.

 

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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.

 

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Mental Bypass in Religion

Intuition_Understanding_ConvictionHow did something with its origins in a mystical intuition of reality’s essential oneness become such a violent force of division in the world? If religion began as a system of symbols, rites, and sacred stories with the purpose of linking the business of daily life back to the grounding mystery of being, where did it start to lose its way and become a program of separation, deliverance, and escape from this world?

Or to make it more personal, what makes an individual who believes in ‘the god of Jesus Christ’ or in Jesus as ‘my personal Lord and Savior’ act in such ways as to utterly contradict the core teachings of Jesus himself?

That last question is probably the easiest to answer. A misalignment of Christian behavior with the teachings of Jesus most likely has to do with a difference in consciousness between Jesus and the professing (but hypocritical) follower. It’s not simply a matter of imitating the actions of Jesus or parroting his words; his words and actions manifested a certain degree of enlightenment, empathy, and courage. That’s where the difference lies. It’s not that he was god and we aren’t, or that he was perfect and none of us can be.

Very simply put, Jesus was spiritually grounded and lived his life by the mystical intuition that All is One. To phrase it with more of an ethical focus: We’re all (in) this together.

And probably most of his professing followers aren’t, and don’t.

It may have been this depth of grounding and spiritual clarity that eventually got misconstrued into the metaphysical doctrines of his heavenly origins and divine nature. At any rate, the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy went in an entirely different direction. He became a virgin-born world savior, supreme object of worship, patron of generals and kings, and the one who will eventually come again to judge the quick and the dead. This is the Jesus in whose name Christians have destroyed indigenous cultures, waged war on unbelievers, drowned witches, burned heretics, and condemned homosexuals.

An entirely different direction.

Much of religion today has become identified with emotional convictions of one kind or another. This is the type of belief sponsored by orthodoxy. It’s not about articulating a profound mystical intuition into an intellectual understanding where its relevance to life in the world can be worked out. Instead it is locked inside very specific turns of phrase, tied to proof texts, cross-referenced, embedded in confessions and creeds and recited together with the standing congregation. Its lack of relevant (real-life) meaning is compensated by a fervent passion that ‘it must be so’, since a Christian’s present identity and post-mortem salvation depend on it.

A returning reader will be familiar with my low regard for conviction, as the point where a belief once held by the mind turns the table and becomes its prison. What initially may have served to frame a perspective on something eventually closes down to just ‘this way’ of seeing it. Nothing outside the frame is validated, no alternatives can be considered, no other answers to the question or solutions to the problem. Creative thinking comes to an end. When it happens in religion, wild metaphors that may have once carried an experience of mystery across the threshold into meaning now lay dead in their cages. At this point, without a lifeline remaining to its own spiritual depths, thought becomes rigid, dogmatic, and heartless.

Emotional conviction is perhaps the chief symptom of religion’s collapse. This is not to say that Jesus himself, for example, didn’t carry a great deal of passion into his teaching and way of life. Indeed, his ethical precept of ‘love your enemy’ – which is how he translated the mystical intuition of oneness into a social revolution – generates a mixture of inspiration and anxiety in any reasonable person just contemplating it.

The point is that his passion, and his passionate action, came out of an intellectual understanding of the spiritual basis and strategic purpose of unconditional forgiveness.

We can imagine two of Jesus’ disciples, soon-to-be founders of two distinct traditions of Christianity, holding a conversation after he is gone. “We must love our enemies because Jesus told us to, and we need to stay with his program,” one says to the other. “Although, we might need to qualify what he probably meant by ‘enemy’, since there are some people in this world that are simply impossible to love and frankly don’t deserve it.”

“You’re missing the point,” says the second disciple. “Jesus could love his enemy because he understood that our separation from others is a lie we impose on reality, when in truth we are all one. Forgiveness and love follow rather spontaneously upon the realization that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. We don’t do it because Jesus told us to, but because we are all in this together.”

Whereupon the first disciple proceeded home to begin the work of orthodoxy, and the second carried on with the work of converting truth into love.

 

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Our Moment of Decision

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?  – Don Cupitt, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking

This quote from Don Cupitt struck me when I read it, in the way it corresponds to my own theory of religion’s development out of primitive animism, through the egocentric period of theism, and ultimately into a fully secular (this-worldly) post-theistic spirituality. Cupitt is a proponent of post-theistic Christianity who urges us to abandon the metaphysics of classical theology (deity, devil, angels, soul and the afterlife) in favor of a fully embodied here-and-now religion of outpouring love.

One way of reading Cupitt’s words is in the mode of comparative religion, where Christianity is positioned between non-theistic Buddhism on one side and hyper-theistic Islam on the other – hyper not intended as a synonym for extreme, militant, or fundamentalist, necessarily, but in the sense that Allah is ontologically separate from his creation and very much out there. Historical Buddhism can be regarded as a post-theistic development within Hinduism which abandoned a concern with gods and metaphysics for a commitment to end human suffering.

But we might also read Cupitt relative to a tension within Christianity itself, between its own hyper-theistic and post-theistic tendencies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Jesus himself should be seen as a post-theistic Jew who sought to move his contemporaries beyond the god of vengeance, retribution, and favoritism, to outdo even god in the practice of unconditional forgiveness and love of enemies. This tradition certainly represents a minority report in Christianity, whereas its orthodoxy has been more “Muslim” than “Buddhist” – much more about the Lord god, his exalted Christ, the Second Coming and Final Judgment than Jesus’ new community of love and liberty.

In my view, post-theism is the inevitable destiny of all religion. I’ve worked hard to distinguish post-theism from the more or less dogmatic atheism that is in fashion nowadays, where god’s literal and objective existence is disputed on logical, scientific, moral, and political grounds. Post-theism does not see the point in arguing the empirical status of a literary figure. Indeed, as a figure of story rather than a fact of history, god’s place in religion is rationally defensible.

The problem arises when religion forgets that its god is a metaphorical representation of the providence all around us and of the grounding mystery within us. A literary character then becomes a literal being, the dynamic action of myth evaporates into the static atmosphere of metaphysics, and the supernatural object draws attention away from the real challenges before us. Tragically the opportunity of growing into our own creative authority is forfeited in the interest of remaining passively dependent on an executive-in-charge who is (coming back around again) a metaphor of our own making.

My own experience, along with what I observe in my friends and remember from my sixteen years in church ministry, has exposed a real “moment of decision” in spiritual development, where the healthy progression of faith would move us into a post-theistic (Cupitt’s “Buddhist”) orientation, but which is prevented by an overbearing theistic (Cupitt’s “Muslim”) orthodoxy that keeps it (in my words) “stuck on god.” The result is a combination of increasing irrelevance, deepening guilt, intellectual disorientation, and spiritual frustration – the last of which tends to come out, Freudian-style, in a spectrum of neurotic disorders and social conflicts.

Two popular ways of “managing” this inner crisis are to either suck it up and buckle down inside a meaningless religion, or else flip it off and get the hell out, bravely embracing one’s new identity as a secular atheist. From a post-theistic perspective, however, neither solution is ultimately soul-satisfying. Trying to carry on in the cramped space of a box too small for our spirit only makes us bitter and depressed, whereas trying to get along without faith in the provident mystery and in our own higher nature – what religion is most essentially about – can leave us feeling adrift in a pointless existence.

If Pope Francis as the figurehead of Catholicism can open his arms to other religions, embrace the scientific enterprise, advocate for the voiceless poor, and celebrate spiritual community wherever he finds it, then we might be encouraged to think that our “mystical and ethical” sensibilities can unite us and lead us forward. Perhaps the world’s interest in him has to do with the way his down-to-earth and inclusive manner resonates with something inside us that hasn’t felt permission to live out of our own center.

Chakra_treeWhen the mystical (our grounding in the present mystery of reality) and the ethical (our connections to one another and to life in general) fall out of focus as functions of healthy religion, the doctrinal (what we believe and accept as true) and the devotional (our worship and sacrifice on behalf of what we regard as supreme in value and power) start to take over. What is intended to be a balanced, evolving, and reality-oriented system of meaning collapses into conviction and becomes oppressive.

As our planet changes and the globe shrinks, as our economies become more intertwined and volatile, as technology is reshaping society and putting potentially catastrophic influence into the hands of more individuals, we need to come together for solutions. The old orthodoxies and their gods cannot save us. Neither terrorism nor complacency will see us through. We need wisdom now more than ever.

Yes, we are at a moment of decision.

 

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The Flow of Being

Tree MandalaThe most important discovery we can make as human beings – infinitely more important than how to win friends and influence people or think and grow rich – is that we exist. While that may sound much less interesting than the quest for wealth, status, and fame, the discovery of our existence – the full mystery and glory of being alive – makes everything else pale by comparison.

Reflect for a moment on this most obvious of facts: You are a human being.

Human names the animal species to which you belong. Your gene lines stretch back generations, even thousands and millions of years, to earlier and more primitive life forms. The theory of evolution does not say that you are descended from monkeys, but rather that your species and other primate species share a common ancestor, some prehistoric mammal that lived in trees and foraged jungle floors, and before that climbed ashore from a primal sea, and before that worked alchemy with sunlight and salt water to harness energy as life.

Human also names the peculiar way you are related to the planetary environment. The vital urgencies of your body in its need for oxygen, water, nutrition, rest, and reproduction nestle you naturally in provident time grooves of daily, monthly, and annual rhythms where resources can be found. You breathe in oxygen and exhale the carbon dioxide byproduct of respiration, which the plants and trees around you breathe in for photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen for you to breathe in again.

Your senses connect you to vibrational fields of light and sound, gradients of temperature and molecular mass, variant densities and textures of material form. Gravitational interactions of the sun, the earth, and its moon hold you gently on the planet’s surface as together they swing in great arcing orbits through space. Lunar and tidal forces tug on your bloodstream and hypnotize you as you stand at the ocean’s edge. The very weight of your body is a function of its location aboard our solar system as it flings across the cosmic arena.

Considered merely on that level, where as a human animal you participate in a Provident Universe, with everything conspiring in such a way that you are here, breathing, reading these lines and contemplating your place in it all, the fact of your existence is astonishing and marvelous beyond words. It’s important to remember that you are not a “patient” in all of this, only a passive consumer of its abundance. You are one of “the many” that together comprise our universe, an individual expression if its providence through the contributions of your body and mind, receiving from its supply and offering your unique gift.

But you are also a human being, which moves our consideration in the opposite direction – not outward to the Provident Universe, but inward to the Grounding Mystery of existence itself. The extroversion of your animal body is thus counterbalanced by the introversion of your spiritual soul, although it should be clear that neither of these, body or soul, belongs to you or exists apart from the other. Together they are what you are.

The descending path of inward contemplation pulls attention away from the sensory-physical environment (from environ, what is “around” you) and opens it to a dimension of existence paradoxically empty of content but full of presence. Your access to this inner space is not sensory but intuitive – what is sometimes called your “sixth sense,” an awareness that draws on the Grounding Mystery below individual qualities and surface distinctions, which is also why we name it mystical-intuitive.

The “myst” in mystical and mystery derives from the Greek muein, originally referring to the imperative on a novitiate of a holy order to “close the mouth” – that is, to remain silent and simply observe in an attitude of reverence. At this level of depth there is nothing that language can “stick” to, nowhere that even thought can take hold; it is ineffable, indescribable, noetically elusive, beyond words.

And yet, the Grounding Mystery is the creative power of being in you, incarnating itself as you. As Alan Watts used to say, just as your eye cannot see itself and your teeth cannot bite themselves, neither can your mind reach down and grab the Grounding Mystery since you are not separate from it but essentially of it. As we read in the Upanishads, “Thou art That!”

We use the metaphor of ground because it carries the ineffable experience of mystery into language and meaning, just as the fertile soil germinates and supports living forms at the surface. However, because the Grounding Mystery defies all attempts to make it into an object – a being among and alongside other beings rather than Being-itself – we can also appreciate why Buddhists name it sunyata: emptiness, no-thingness, the infinite capacity in all things but not itself a thing.

So, as a human being you are outwardly engaged and reciprocally involved in the Provident Universe, at the same time as you are inwardly rooted in and a manifestation of the Grounding Mystery of being. These are not two realities but two aspects of one reality, what I call the present mystery of reality. As the illustration above shows, a tree (or you, or anything else) actualizes the ineffable Ground in its own being and opens outward to a local habitat, to the vibrant community of life, to the biosphere of Earth, and to the cosmic order.

The tree in my illustration is bearing fruit as its individual contribution to the Provident Universe, but also as evidence of its “self-actualization” and existential fulfillment. Of course, inside the circle are the innumerable other forms of existence which I cannot adequately depict, each one expressing outward from its depths in the Grounding Mystery and into the cosmic community where everything “co-arises” (another important Buddhist term).

You should be able to envision the “flow of being” surging into form, expressing through the myriad gifts or contributions of the ten thousand things, putting on the glory of heaven and earth. “Singing mountains and clapping trees,” as the biblical prophet put it (Isaiah 55:12).

And here you are. What is your gift?

 

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Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Soul and Reality

In my last post, I introduced the idea of body, ego, and soul as “standpoints in reality” – not as pieces of a human being, but rather as different mental locations where we can take a perspective on things. Body is organismic and biological, providing us a standpoint in the physical realm. Ego is tribal and personal, giving us a standpoint in the social realm. And soul is psychological (from the Greek psyche, soul) and spiritual, offering us a place in the presence of mystery, in the present mystery of reality.

Instead of breaking these aspects of the self into separate and warring opposites – ego against body, body versus soul – seeing them as distinct access points in our experience of reality can help us transcend the arguments over which one is “the real self” and contemplate instead human being in its wholeness. Rather than identifying ego with the soul, and then dissociating both from the body so “I” can elude the finality of death and live forever, we can appreciate how each contributes to the marvel of what it is to be human.

I reflected on how ego develops out of a simple identification with the internal state of the body. “I am happy” or “I am sad” are among the first ways a young child is taught how to declare him- or herself to the world. This affect (pronounced with the accent on the ‘a’) is where a child’s experience of the world is registered: “The dark closet makes me afraid”; “You are making me angry.” Behavior is then the output channel of this affect, in the way it motivates the youngster to run and hide, or push and pout.

Many people get stuck at this level of development. They remain in the I-am-angry-and-can’t-help-but-push-you-down mode of life. A significant number of them seek out professional help because they are hostages to affect and can’t stop doing things that are counterproductive to happiness. A truly helpful counselor will teach the client how to reflect on these powerful affect states. Instead of simply acting out the affect in behavior and only making things worse, the client can learn how to separate identity (ego) from emotion (affect→behavior) and use this freedom to choose more desirable outcomes.

The “liberated ego” can thus become a springboard into still higher experiences, which the wisdom traditions around the planet have named Love, Communion, Being, and Bliss (among others). It’s important to understand that these are not merely synonyms for “happiness.” The ego wants to be happy, but the soul seeks after something much higher than personal happiness. To get there, ego (I, me, mine) must be transcended, gone beyond. If it stays in charge, the personal self (ego) will be in the way.

As I suggested last time, a shift from the standpoint of ego to that of soul opens the self up to a much greater experience. Engagement with reality at this higher level is not impersonal (as it is for the body) or personal (as it is for the ego), but transpersonal – again, beyond the personal. This is where affect differentiates into feeling and thought. These are the Yin and Yang, respectively, of the soul’s experience. Their “tension” is not combative but creative, like the tension in a string that produces a musical tone.

The wisdom traditions refer to these higher faculties of the soul as “heart” and “mind.” Once liberated from the urgencies of the body and the self-interest of the ego, heart and mind are free to contemplate the present mystery of reality. If I were to describe in one word what each of these faculties of soul contributes to the experience I would say that mind/thought represents reality and heart/feeling participates in reality. Let’s see how this plays out.

Ego, under the direction of the tribe, constructs a world, which is less a representation of reality than it is a projection of what is needed to help us feel safe, loved, capable and worthy. In its service as a faculty of the soul, mind represents reality apart from what I (ego) need it to be. Two favorite ways of representing reality across the wisdom traditions are as “ground” and “universe.”

Representations of Reality

Insofar as mind is dependent on language to name and describe something (the present mystery) that is ineffable, it has offered up these two metaphors for contemplation. Ground is the generative source and deep support that stands underneath all things. Existence – which literally means “to stand out” – properly refers to everything above the ground, so to speak.

The ground itself, then, does not exist in this sense. It is pure being, the internal essence of all things, the be to their ing, the creative power of being-itself. No words can describe it, because language can only qualify what exists and the ground is beneath all qualities. Even the name “ground” must finally be released. In contemplating the mystery as the ground of being, the mystics advise us to stop talking.

As a representation in thought of the real presence of mystery, ground inspires the heart to a certain exquisite kind of feeling. This is not crude emotion, where affect drives behavior. Rather, this feeling registers our participation in the mystery that cannot be named but only surrendered to in complete self-abandonment. In letting go of qualities and attachments, the self can sink into the “solvent” of being itself. The feeling of participation gives way to the bliss of unqualified union or oneness.

Another worldwide representation of reality is universe. This is not to be confused with a term such as “cosmos,” which is a more-or-less scientific name for the vast order of things (cosmos is Greek for order) that can be analyzed into galaxies, stars, planets, moons, minerals, elements, atoms and quarks. Universe is another metaphor, like ground, and not merely a designation of order. As metaphor, universe is a concept of pure thought, a representation by the mind of the mystery all around us.

Literally universe means “turned into one,” which is precisely what this concept does for the soul. It provides a way of contemplating the comprehensive unity of all things – inclusive, interdependent, balanced, turning as one. The soul seeks after wholeness, and the representation of reality as universe offers a simple – though admittedly infinitely complex – image for contemplation.

Notice how “ground” and “universe” stand at opposite ends of a vertical continuum. Ground is in and down; universe is out and up. Ground is beneath us, whereas universe is all around us. Ground is unqualified being, while universe is qualified to an infinite degree. Finally, ground cannot be said to exist, but the universe is the totality of existence.

Contemplating reality in the representation of universe inspires a different sort of experience for the heart. Participation here does not lead to a feeling of dissolving into pure being or oneness, but rather of being elevated into an expansive community. Whereas the former experience is that of sinking into no-thing, the latter is realizing your connection to everything.

In thought, then, the soul represents the present mystery of reality as ground and universe, as the underlying oneness and overarching all-ness of existence. Depending on which representation is the focus of contemplation, the feeling of participation will be distinct and complementary. This interplay of feeling and thought, of heart and mind, of Yin and Yang, is how the soul touches the mystery and finds salvation.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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