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Adventures On The Way

I make the case frequently in this blog, that our development as individuals and evolution as a species has the aim of preparing us for the liberated life in community. The liberated life is not really “about” the individual set free from all constraints that might hinder his or her personal fulfillment, but rather that the individual is liberated from all neurotic self-concern and empowered with creative authority to live for the wellbeing of all.

Just as the evolution of life leads to increasingly complex ecosystems where “all is one,” we have every reason to believe the same for ourselves.

The path to getting there, however, is fraught with hangups and pitfalls. Even given an internal aim (Aristotle’s entelechy) in humans for the liberated life in community, we have managed to bungle things up to such a degree that now, after 200,000 years of “modern” human (homo sapiens sapiens) evolution, we are still a long way from its realization in any but a very few.

Tragically, as quickly as these inspiring exceptions have arisen in our collective history as a herd, the rest of us have pulled them down, cut them up, burned them at stakes or pinned them to crosses. Only afterwards do we give them honor – when honoring a memory is safer than honoring a living example and joining the cause. Where exactly they are going and how the rest of us get stuck is the topic of this post.

My diagram illustrates the path of our human adventure, where we have been busy forming stable societies, cultivating the healthy self-conscious awareness of individuals, and following the lead of those enlightened few along the Shining Way to genuine community.

Let’s take a few moments to contemplate the distinctive wisdom of this higher state of communal life.

  1. In genuine community individuals are fully self-conscious and deeply invested in the wellbeing of others.
  2. They understand that what they do to, and for, the Whole comes back on themselves, for good or ill.
  3. They are committed to a shared vision of peace, freedom, compassion, justice, and goodwill.
  4. Whether as individuals, partnerships, teams, organizations, or in larger “markets” of the human enterprise, they respect the fact that no one, no generation or other species of life, can flourish apart from the Whole.
  5. Accordingly they take responsibility, individually and as a community, for the consequences of their choices across the entire web of life and its concourse of generations.
  6. As a community, their ultimate concern is with raising up children who are spiritually grounded, well-centered, and mindfully engaged with reality and in their life with others.
  7. Each individual accepts creative authority in the co-construction of meaning and strives to create a world that is provident, welcoming, and radically inclusive.

Wouldn’t that be something? It’s encouraging that we can imagine what it would be like, since even if the path from vision to reality is long, at least it’s conceivable. The best (and truest) religions have kept vigil near this ideal, providing inspiration and guidance for whatever slow progress we have been able to manage. But even religion has largely lost its way, where instead of inspiring virtue it has fomented violence, and instead of offering guidance for a more humane and liberated life in the world, it has become an escape route for a believer’s abandonment of the world.

To understand how this happened to religion – but more importantly, since religions are only human constructions, how this happens to you and me – we need to pause our reverie on the liberated life and take a closer look at the process leading up to the point where individuals are empowered to transcend themselves and join each other in genuine community.

You and I came to life with a new generation of higher primates known as homo sapiens. We did not drop in from somewhere else, and neither is our species separate from Earth’s magnificent web of life. Evolutionary science has confirmed with overwhelming evidence and beyond all doubt that our human animal nature has descended – and ascended – from the 3.7-billion-year-old matrix of biological life on this planet.

Its tidal rhythms and ancient sea brine still pulse through our veins. The gill slits of a primordial ocean-dwelling ancestor are still visible in the human fetus.

We also carry in our animal nature powerful codes of behavior called instincts. These too have evolved for the purpose of securing survival and a chance at procreation. Our animal instincts are not interested in being polite and waiting our turn. When the urge comes, our body has evolved with a compulsive need to gratify it. We arrived on the scene thanks to the many before us, both human and pre-human, who were successful to that end.

This instinct-driven animal nature is what our tribe had the responsibility of shaping and steering into a well-behaved member of society. It did this through a process of sublimation, where the code of instinctive behavior is overwritten with a new directive that works to restrain the impulse and then redirect it into an expression which is socially acceptable. That override of social constraints is what we know as morality, with its principal goal of conditioning and downloading a set of rules (“shalts” and “shalt nots”) that would predispose our social deference to the authority of taller powers.

To close off any potential uprise of rebellion in us, we may have also gotten the message that behind the authority of our taller powers was a Higher Power, who was not to be questioned but fearfully obeyed and devoutly worshiped.

In some cases, depending on the household and tribe where we came into the light of a self-conscious identity (ego), this shaping and motivating force of morality exercised more repression than restraint. Instead of a healthy interest in the social scene, we brooded a dark self-image of insecurity, shame, depravity, guilt, distrust and resentment. What should have developed into “ego strength” under the provident influence of caring and responsible adults, deformed instead into a personality riddled by anxiety, saddled with depression, neurotically attached, and chronically discontent.

If that diagnostic profile doesn’t accurately describe you, then you can be thankful. But you should also know that none of us get through the gauntlet of early childhood without our share of insecurity and its complications. Many of those complications are caused by a craving for whatever can fill our gnawing emptiness, contending at the same time with a persistent fear that it won’t be enough. This polarity of craving and fear is at the root of our word “ambition” (ambi = two), as a drive that exhausts its own energy and undermines its fulfillment.

The wisdom teachings invite us to reframe our ambition – this insatiable craving for what cannot satisfy us – using the principle of paradox.

Also with roots in the idea of duality, paradox is a form of “both/and” thinking. Paradoxically, the emptiness we have been trying to fill is also (both/and) the grounding mystery of our existence. In the separation of self-conscious identity (ego: “I”) from the sentient life of our animal nature, the vacancy we leave behind – simply because “I” am not there – is not a void but the very ground of our being, a generative (life-giving) emptiness and not a sucking drain.

The other essential paradox we need to understand is that our hard-won identity is both the end (as in finale) of our development as separate individuals and the beginning of our liberated life in genuine community (literally “together as one”). Our ego is embraced yet transcended; we “die” to our separate self and are “resurrected” into the communal spirit of a transpersonal reality.

The metaphorical language used here has obvious roots in the mythology of world religions, where the full paradoxical nature of the human journey has been explored and celebrated for millenniums.

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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