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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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A Provident Reality

A reader familiar with my thought stream in this blog knows how central is the concept of a “provident reality.” It also becomes obvious that I use this term in a way that’s not entirely consistent with its classical definition, where it referred to the way of god towards those who trust and believe in him (a masculine reference dominates the tradition). Over time, Providence (usually capitalized) came to be used as a substitute term for god’s benevolent provision, particularly as believers look to the future.

Rather than the notion of providence deriving from our experience of god, however, I have argued that our concept of god arises out of and reflects our (especially early) experiences of reality as provident or otherwise. As I use the term, a “provident reality” does not name a being who cares for us, but the extent in which the totality of existence supports life, community, and the evolution of consciousness. The fact that we are alive and conscious and creative and intentional means, in the very least, that our universe is all of these things – in us.

Despite all our abilities and the positive illusion of our individual autonomy, each of us is deeply dependent on the reality outside our ego for what we need. To live, to thrive, to flourish, to love, to construct meaning and awaken to our full human potential – we depend on reality to provide for us every step of the way. We need air, water, and food; we need shelter, intimacy, and connection; we need language, tools, and the skills to use them; we need guidance, exemplars, and forgiveness when we fall short.

All of us were born into some kind of family system – even if our arrival is what made it a family. We began as helpless dependents, equipped by biology only to breathe on our own, and really not much else. We needed to be fed and cleaned and cuddled and carried. Without a provident higher (taller) power to care for us, we would certainly not have survived. The relationship with our higher power(s) was formed most significantly around those needs of greatest urgency concerning our physical security and the material resources our body required. For reasons I’ll make clear shortly, I will name this providence of the first order.

Depending on how provident the higher powers were with respect to our first-order needs, a corresponding impression of reality was encoded into our nervous system. If the supply was sufficient and the care was adequate, our brain was allowed to settle into a coherent state of focused alertness and relaxed calm. The compatibility between our dependent condition and a reality that provided for our needs promoted the formation of what Erik Erikson called “basic trust” and what the religions name “faith” – faith in the provident nature of reality.

Erikson also observed plenty of cases where individuals demonstrated a compromised ability to trust reality and simply relax into being. Their deep and chronic dis-ease registered an early life where a first-order providence was lacking or perhaps inconsistent. From a neuroscientific perspective we might today diagnose their brainstates as incoherent – confused, irritable, and/or depressed. In religion, such individuals typically express a desperate demand on god’s vigilance and granting of prayers. They also tend to orient themselves to external authorities for the security and resources they require, even into adulthood.

If too much of our energy and attention gets wrapped into first-order concerns, we might never experience or benefit from providence of the second order, referring to social encouragement and creative opportunities in life. Where physical security and material resources are scarce and unreliable, it is common for family systems to fall hostage to a ravaging spiral of anxiety, resentment, and despair over matters of basic survival. Second-order providence sounds like a luxury when one’s daily existence is in question.

This is why nearly every ethical revolutionary in history has made the abolition of poverty central to their vision of a New World. Whatever its contributing factors, the fact that abject poverty destroys the human spirit and erodes the foundation of any society is beyond doubt. As these messiahs, mahatmas, prophets and reformers have insisted, our resolve as a community to provide security and resources to our weakest and most vulnerable members is ultimately what will bring salvation to the world.

When that first-order providence is in place, the social encouragement and creative opportunity that I’m calling second-order providence can work its magic. A human being not only struggles to survive, but every individual embodies the evolving spirit of our species – what the philosopher Aristotle called an “entelechy,” an inner aim, or what I also like to call our evolutionary ideal. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, when our basic needs are adequately met, the farther reaches of our human nature can be actualized.

My definition of second-order providence should make it clear that our higher nature depends for its actualization on the benevolent social support of a community. Social encouragement conveys our commitment to the individual’s emerging creative authority, and our bond of service continues in making opportunities available for the individual to learn, grow, and develop to his or her full potential. Obviously this providential responsibility begins in the family, as parental taller (higher) powers not only put food on the table but also nurture the soul-seeds in their children.

Family is the first theistic system. The dynamic relationship between providers and dependents – so critical, as I have argued, to the healthy emergence of self-responsible creative adults – ultimately plays itself out on the larger stage of culture. Deities are our “fathers” and “mothers” and we are their “children,” which makes the fellowship of believers a sibling circle of “brothers” and “sisters.” (Universalists like Jesus have used this theistic metaphor to make the point that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, friends and enemies alike, are members of one family and deserve each other’s deepest respect. But look where that got him.)Theism_Post-theismAll of this is to say that the inner aim (entelechy) of theism is the full actualization of human beings and the flourishing of a fully inclusive community. An impossible ideal, you say. And I would agree – as long as we stay on this side of god, where the concerns of first-order providence preoccupy our consciousness. On this side, there will never be enough and all we can do is await our deliverance to a better place later on.

On the other side of god, in the spirit of post-theism, we discover that it’s been in us all along to become compassionate caretakers and visionary creators of the New World. To fulfill what our god could only command.

 

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Life Without Hope

Over the years I have come across authors who decry hope as an unnecessary setup for human unhappiness. They fault it for pulling the focus of concern away from present reality and projecting it into a fantasy of the future that never quite arrives as expected. Perhaps because so much creative energy has been invested by humans in unproductive wishful thinking, which presumably includes religious pining after Paradise, these well-meaning critics of hope suggest that we’d all be better off without its distractions and disappointments.

I get their point, in one sense. Hope is a setup of sort, and what human beings hope for rarely “comes true.” And yes, hope can siphon precious energy away from the challenges of real life, sometimes even persuading us to let opportunities pass or even trash what’s real for something better later, on the other side. Because baseless, unrealistic, and otherworldly hope has been used as an accelerant of violence (in the name of future hopes) as well as a justification for emotional detachment from the pressing issues of contemporary life, the solution is to discredit it in the hope that we will live more fully, and more responsibly, in the present.

But as I have a sympathetic affection for our inherently conflicted species, I’m going to take a different slant on this matter of hope. Seeing as how depression is the malady of our modern age, could it be that living without hope – or, following the sage advice of these authors, forsaking hope in the interest of a more reality-oriented mindset – is at the root of our problem? Maybe we shouldn’t confuse hope with mere wishful thinking, with longing for something away from, different than, or after the challenge presently upon us.

As animal organisms, humans are anchored by physical needs to the living earth. When these basic needs are met – assuming that our pursuit of them hasn’t gotten tangled up in the complications of emotional insecurity (which is a generous and entirely unrealistic assumption, I know) – the satisfaction we feel is a key ingredient in the happiness we seek. Happiness is more than the satisfaction of our needs, but I’m ready to say that it isn’t possible unless our survival and health are supported in some adequate degree.

Perhaps it was to seduce us into satisfying our basic needs, that nature sprinkled the fairy dust of pleasure on the things we require to live, reproduce, and flourish as a species. This, I will say, is the second key ingredient to happiness. We don’t need pleasure to live, but the pursuit of it tends to get us involved in doing what is necessary for life to continue. If apples weren’t sweet to the taste, if sex didn’t bring convulsions of ecstasy, or if reading a good book was utterly devoid of pleasure, there’s a decent chance we wouldn’t bother with them.

If satisfaction is mostly about our physical and developmental needs, then pleasure might be the evolutionary bridge from an existence oriented on survival to one that’s virtually preoccupied with enjoyment. The pursuit of pleasure is probably at work in our tendency as sensual-emotional beings to be both gluttonous consumers (it feels so good, we just can’t stop) and wasteful stewards of resources (when we get sick or bored of it, we just leave or throw it away). Entire industries prosper on our relentless, at times reckless and imprudent, desire for pleasure, enjoyment, and indulgence in what feels good.

So is that enough? Can we close our theory of happiness on these two key ingredients – need satisfaction and the allure of pleasure? If we just put up a strong moral fence to prevent theft, murder, exploitation, and bad business – and throw in some incentives for recycling and getting out to vote – human beings should be happy, right? No, that’s not right. Why? Because humans also require hope to be happy.

I will define “hope” as Holding Open a Positive Expectation for the future (see what I did there?). Most likely it has to do with the part of the brain most distinctive to our species, the prefrontal cortex, which gives us, among other things, an ability to grasp the Big Picture and take the Long View on things. This part of our brain isn’t fully online until sometime in our early to mid twenties, but once it is online our happiness depends henceforth on our belief in a promising future. Holding open a positive expectation for the future can keep us going when we are languishing physically, scratching the ground for satisfaction, having to cope daily with chronic pain or the absence of what once brought us deep enjoyment in life.

Young children are often idealized for their spontaneous and innocent engagement with present reality. They don’t worry about tomorrow. They don’t get caught up in their plans for the future, making strategies for what they want their lives to be like in some distant future, and then worry over what they can’t control. Oh, to be like that again! Please, just lop off my prefrontal cortex and let me revel in the limbic fairyland of my freewheeling imagination.

promised landHope doesn’t have to be either the escapism of wishful thinking or palliative therapy for a life in general decline. Holding open a positive expectation for the future is an essential human activity, and is, I would argue, the third key ingredient of happiness.

By holding the future open, we add cognitive aspiration to the emotional inspiration and physical perspiration of daily life. In believing that today is even now opening up into tomorrow, that this world and our life in it are already passing into the not yet of what’s still to come, we are liberated into our responsibility as co-creators of the New World.

And if, like Moses peering into the Promised Land but unable to enter, all we can do is hold the future open for our children and their children, hope is ultimately what makes life meaningful.

 

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Unconditional Forgiveness and the Bankruptcy of Retribution

Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.

In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.

During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.

By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.

Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.

The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).

Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.

But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.

Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.

broken chain

Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?

Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.

What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.

Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.

Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.

Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.

If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.

To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.

 
 

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