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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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