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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religion is losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meaning to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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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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