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Christian Mythology Through A Post-theistic Lens

After leaving Christian ministry as a church pastor my journey has taken me deeper into the frontier of post-theism, and it’s been my new “calling” since then to clarify the meaning of this emergent form of spirituality. I have worked hard to distinguish post-theism from its progenitor (theism), as well as from its much younger sibling (atheism) who seeks to discredit their parent and be done with the whole family affair.

Even as a church pastor I was intrigued by the mythology of early Christianity, which was inspired no doubt by the historical disturbance of Jesus himself, to be later developed by the likes of Paul and the four Evangelists into a story of world-historical and even cosmic scope. Intuitively I sensed that the story was not really about long-ago events or faraway places, despite what my denomination and its theological tradition wanted me to believe and preach to the congregations I served.

Maybe I didn’t need to get out of church in order to find the deeper truth of Christianity, but it certainly helped.

Outside the imaginarium of stained-glass windows, vestments, liturgies, rituals, and hymns, the transforming effects of its originary experience coalesced for me in a singular revelation. It was – and for now we have to speak in the past tense since both popular and orthodox Christianity have all but lost their sightlines to the source – not about being saved from hell or rescued to heaven, pleasing god and getting our reward.

All of these negative and positive incentives hook into something without which they would have no power. It’s not that we had to wait for modern science to demythologize the underworld and outer space, or for anthropological studies to expose the historical origins of religion before we could let go and move on. Their hooks are in us, quite independent of whether and to what degree we may be children of the Enlightenment.

In my investigations into the development of religion through the millenniums of human history, it struck me that its three major paradigms – classified as animism, theism, and post-theism – are each centered in a distinct dimension of our human experience.

Animism is centered in our animality with its immersion in the fluid forces of nature, life, and instinct. Theism is centered in our personality and particularly involved with the formation and maintenance of ego identity in the social context. And post-theism – that latter-day evolution of religion “after god” – is centered in our spirituality, where we begin to cultivate the grounding mystery of our existence and live in the realization that all is One.

My objective in this blog has been to show how theism prepares for the emergence of post-theism, and where alternatively it gets hung up, spinning out more heat than light. We happen to be in the throes of that dynamic right now, as the paroxysms of pathological theism – in the forms of fundamentalism, dogmatism, terrorism, and complacency – multiply around us.

With all of this in view, it’s tempting to join the chorus of atheists who are pressing to extinguish theism in all its forms, or at least to ignore it in hopes it will just go away.

But it won’t go away: another recurring theme in this blog of mine. Theism has a role to play, and pulling it down will not only destroy what core of wisdom still remains, but also foreclose on a flourishing human future on this planet by clipping the fruit of post-theism before it has a chance to ripen. This fruit is what I call genuine community.

Theism evolved for the purpose of preparing the way for genuine community, although its own inherent tendencies toward tribalism, authoritarianism, and orthodoxy have repeatedly interfered. This is just where the struggle for post-theism will make some enemies.

Returning to my autobiographical confessions, over time and with distance I came to realize where it is that Christian post-theism emerges from Christian theism, and it is precisely where Jewish post-theism emerged from Jewish theism. One place in particular where a post-theistic breakthrough in Judaism was attempted but ended up failing was in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This failure eventuated in the rise of Christian theism (or Christianity), which made Jesus the center of its orthodoxy, though not as revealer of the liberated life but rather the linchpin of its doctrinal system.

Just prior to the point when the early ‘Jesus movement’ was co-opted and effectively buried (for a second time!) beneath layers of dogmatic tradition and ecclesiastical politics, the apostle Paul and the four Evangelists had grasped the energizing nerve of Jesus’ message. Immediately – or rather I should say spontaneously, out of what I earlier called an originary experience – they translated its transforming mystery into metaphorical and mythological meaning.

Whether they borrowed from the cultural store of symbolism available at the time or brought it up from the depths of their own mythopoetic imaginations (which is really where the shared store originates), these mythmakers of earliest Christianity employed images of divine adoption, virgin birth, heroic deeds, resurrection, ascension, and apocalypse, lacing these into the Jewish-biblical epic of creation, exodus, Pentecost, promised land, and a future messianic age.

The product of their efforts was indeed vast in scope and deeply insightful into what in my ministry days I called “the first voice of Jesus.”

As briefly as I can, I will now lift out of that early mythology the kernel of Jesus’ message, focusing his intention to move Jewish theism into a post-theistic paradigm. Although it largely failed with the rise of orthodox Christianity, there’s still a chance that we can pick up his cause and work together in realizing his vision of genuine community.


Very quickly, my diagram illustrates an extremely compressed time line of cosmic history, starting with the so-called Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and progressing by stages (or eras) from matter to life, from life to mind, and in this last second of cosmic time, from sentient mind to the self-conscious center of personal identity that you name “I-myself” (Latin ego).

As the picture suggests, the story doesn’t stop there, since the formation of ego is intended to connect you with others, serving also as the executive center of self-awareness and your uniquely personal aspirations.

The formation of an individual center of personal identity creates the illusion of separateness – that you and another are separate individuals. There is truth in this illusion, of course, in that you are in fact not the same person but two different persons with your own experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. This illusion of separateness is what post-theism seeks to help you transcend by making you aware that it is an illusion, or in other words, a mere social construction of identity.

Self-transcendence, then, does not mean ripping down the veil of illusion, but rather seeing through it to the higher truth of unity beyond your apparent separateness. That is to say, your separate identity is affirmed in order that it can be used to support your leap beyond it and into relational wholeness (or at-one-ment).

It is critically important to understand, however, that in genuine community otherness is not subtracted or dissolved away, which would leave only an undifferentiated ‘mush’ and not the dynamic mutuality you are longing for (according to post-theism).

Hand in hand with this theme of atonement is another page from the teachings of Jesus and post-theism generally, which goes by the name apotheosis (literally a process of changing into [the likeness of] god). This is not about becoming a god, but expressing out of your deeper human nature – which according to the Jewish myth was created in the image of god (Genesis 1) – those virtues whereupon genuine community depends and flourishes.

Compassion, generosity, fidelity, and forgiveness: such are among the divine virtues that theism elevates in its worship of god. Apotheosis is thus the ascent of self-actualization by which these virtues attributed to god are now internalized and activated in you, to be carried to expression in a life that is compassionate, generous, faithful, and forgiving.

This is another way, then, of pulling aside the illusion of separateness in which personal identity is suspended.

My depth analysis of early Christian mythology thus revealed two profound thematic threads reaching back to the first voice of Jesus. From inside theism and beneath the picture-language of its mythology, god is apprehended as both Other and Ideal. As Other – or more precisely, as the divine principle of otherness – god represents the irreducible interplay of one and another in genuine community. And as Ideal, god is the progressive rise of those deep potentials within each of us, surfacing to realization in the higher virtues of genuine community.

In early Christian mythology (found in the extended Gospel of Luke called the Acts of the Apostles) we are presented with the symbol of Pentecost, as the transforming moment when the Holy Spirit (or the risen Jesus) comes to dwell within the new community, which Paul had already named the Body of Christ. From now on, the life of this new community would be the communal incarnation of god on earth.

Had it taken root, the ensuing adventure would have marked a new era of spirituality, on the other side of – but paradoxically not without or against – god.

Jesus himself envisioned this in his metaphor of the kingdom of god – or more relevantly, the kindom of spirit. In truth we are all kin – neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike. All is One, and we are all in this together. Good news indeed!

 

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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 religions are 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 meant 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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Deconstructing Yourself

One important application of the idea that meaning is constructed by our minds and not discovered in reality is in the way it forces us to see ourselves in our constructions. The meaning we put together and project onto things is itself a symptom of our deeper insights, aspirations, ignorance, and insecurities. Our product reveals (and exposes) us as its creator: as Jesus said, You will know the tree by its fruit.

For each of us, the most pressing and significant construction project is the construct of who we are.

A constructivist psychology regards personal identity as something we piece together and put on, and it’s not a coincidence that our very word person derives from the Greek name for the mask an actor wore on stage in characterizing a role. We get our start as sentient animals, and over time we, by the instruction, support, and occasional interference of our tribe, construct a personal identity which allows us to participate in the various role plays of society.

So, as with every other artifact of meaning we construct, it stands to reason that we should be able to deconstruct the person we’ve been playing on stage and mulling over in the privacy of our dressing room.

Because we have pieced it together over time – or to use a different metaphor, since we have weaved this sense of who we are from threads provided to us or spun ourselves – we can also (if we so choose) delineate the pieces and unravel the strands in pursuit of a radical self-understanding.

Such an endeavor is not for everyone. Many of us have installed a system of secrets, defenses, and illusions in order to maintain our identity as singular individuals, a kind of absolute and immortal unit impervious to analysis. To a person, as we might say, these individuals are working hard to hold it together, and they are afraid of learning what they’re really made of, as they are of coming apart to nothing.

But as the spiritual wisdom traditions attest, coming apart to nothing is actually the path of liberation to life in its fullness.

My diagram should be seen at the broadest level as a ‘T’ design, with a vertical line joined to a horizontal line at its bisected point. The horizontal line represents time, while the vertical line is structure. In what follows we will commence a deconstruction of personal identity, and you can take it as personally as you dare.


At the joint of time and structure is the executive center of personality known intimately as ego, or “I-myself.” To the left, corresponding to the past, are the multiple strands going into the weave of this narrative construct of identity, the persisting form of which is called character. The farther back in time you might try to follow this narrative braid, the looser its weave becomes until the strands separate and trail off into the mists of amnesia.

It’s important to understand that this fixed number of threads – think of them as minor storylines – does not exhaust the possibilities but only comprises a selection of memories and imaginings used in the construction of “my past.” The longer weave of these minor storylines constitutes your personal myth (Greek for “plot”) – the grand story and heroic adventure defining who you are.

A familiar anecdote implicates character with destiny, acknowledging how your view of the future as well as the choices that co-determine your fate are in large part projections through this persistent habit of personal identity. Just as with the past, then, the future is really just “my future,” or the view of what’s ahead (so to speak) as determined by your past experiences and present beliefs.

With that we will turn 90° and make our descent along the vertical line in my diagram.


The first layer in the structure of identity – not first or earliest in the sequence of time, but most recent and closest to the surface – consists of those core beliefs by which you apprehend yourself, other people, life in general, and existence itself. A belief is more or less rational, even if not always or very often reasonable or realistic.

In addition to its rational element, a belief carries an emotional commitment – a will and passion to take as true something that isn’t obviously so.

Radical constructivism regards any and all beliefs as closures around a mystery too fluid and elusive to fully define. Words are only labels, propositions mere mental buckets you dip into the living stream, and the conclusions you draw out are curiously bucket-shaped, though you rarely give it a second thought. When it comes to your core beliefs, referring to those judgments by which you lock and stitch together the storylines of personal identity, the conclusions are so close to you, so much a part of who you are, that you can’t see the difference.

Every one of your core beliefs – about “my self,” other people, and everything else – represents an emotional investment in a judgment about the way it is; or better, about the way you need it to be.

The question of why you need it to be that way brings us to a deeper layer in the structure of identity. Those beliefs, remember, are only conclusions to a process transpiring farther below (and back in time). With each deeper layer you engage a more primitive, older and more basic, set of forces in the construct of self.

What I name neurotic styles are six adaptive strategies by which every young child negotiates the landscape of family dysfunction in order to satisfy four subjective needs. Later in life as an adult you continue to carry your personal favorites in that complex of emotional intelligence called your Inner Child. When you get poked or hooked, or when you become stressed and exhausted, your adult controls on behavior can fall offline and your neurotic styles take over.

A quick review of those subjective needs will help you, in coming back up, better understand your personal neurotic styles.

Every child has a need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – arising developmentally in that order. In identifying the satisfaction of these needs as a feeling, quite independent of whether it is a fact, I am qualifying what I mean by calling them subjective needs. Your reality was that the early environment of life was not perfectly safe or unconditionally loving, for no family circle is or can be. As a consequence you did your best to find satisfaction for each subjective need in the one higher up and next in line.

Thus your need to feel loved was complicated by an unmet need to feel safe, and so you attached yourself to others with the expectation that they make you feel both.

It is at this threshold, between your need to feel safe and loved (the security needs) and your need to feel capable and worthy (the esteem needs), that your neurotic styles were formed. As an adaptive strategy, each neurotic style is a power stratagem (a kind of ruse or trick) employed for the purpose of getting what you want; most basically, to feel safe and loved.

Even when you applied your will to achievements beyond the immediate goal of feeling loved (and presumably safe), the validation of your worth in accomplishment still depended on being recognized, praised, and admired (i.e., loved) by others.

The six neurotic styles that play out these power stratagems for security are listed and briefly defined below.

  1. The Worrywart (phobic-avoidant): running away or staying clear of risk and danger
  2. The Fixator (obsessive-compulsive): spending nervous energy in trivial repetitive tasks
  3. The Recluse (passive-depressive): giving up, withdrawing, and waiting for help
  4. The Hothead (explosive-aggressive): intimidating others by angry outbursts
  5. The Fanatic (manic-obsessive): glorifying one thing as the answer to everything
  6. The Saboteur (passive-aggressive): working indirectly to undermine another’s success

One last step down into the structure of identity brings us to the registry of your nervous system, where the feelings of being un/safe, un/loved, in/capable, and un/worthy either allow you to relax in faith and trust, or else cause you to clutch up in anxiety and distrust.

From here your body’s internal state will either invite or impede a deeper descent of awareness into what I name the grounding mystery.

Passing into this deep grounding mystery is only possible to the degree you have released the construct of identity, getting over yourself and dropping the drama of being somebody for the sake of resting quietly, and anonymously, in Being itself.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2018 in Philosophical Underpinnings

 

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A New Hierarchy of Needs

Back when Abraham Maslow formulated his hierarchy of human needs, the science of psychology hadn’t yet clarified what I have come to name our subjective or “feeling-needs.” At that time the concept of need was still equated with a dependency on something external to the individual which is required for healthy development.

As we move up his hierarchy we advance across physiological, safety, relational and self-esteem needs, until we come to the threshold of self-actualization and realizing our highest potential.

My ‘new hierarchy of needs’ includes much of Maslow’s model but rearranges elements according to a stage theory of human development that I’ve been working to clarify in this blog. It also adds what I’m calling our spiritual needs, which isn’t suggesting that we have a need for heaven, immortality, or even god as most religions claim. Our spiritual needs are very real, but not at all metaphysical or supernatural in orientation.

I agree with Maslow that the entire scheme culminates in self-actualization, or what I name ‘fulfillment’ in the sense of realizing our full capacity as human beings.

To appreciate how my rearrangement and new category of needs matters to our self-understanding, as well as to an ethics of engagement with other human beings, let’s take a tour through my diagram. We’ll begin at the base of the hierarchy and work our way upward, taking a little more time on those elements that Maslow didn’t include but which determine to a great extent how high into what he called “the farther reaches of human nature” any of us are capable of going.

Our survival needs are what we require in our animal nature to stay alive: clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and protective refuge where we can rest in safety. Of course, we are more than a mere body and its organic urgencies, and there are some higher needs such as social connection, and I would even argue spiritual peace, deprived of which a human animal will suffer and prematurely die.

While Maslow’s model proceeds from our physical (physiological and safety) needs into needs of love and belonging, I have inserted between these the category of our subjective needs. I actually prefer to call them our “feeling-needs,” referring specifically to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To understand their place in the hierarchy of needs, just think about how your survival need for refuge, for example, translates subjectively into the felt sense of being safe (or not). Or consider how your social need for connection translates subjectively into the felt sense of being loved (or not). In each case, that felt sense is a crucial reference in your self-appraisal and of what’s going on.

Subjective needs are not survival needs, but they register the degree in which your material environment provides for your animal life. And neither are subjective needs the same as your social needs, but they register the internal impression of how supportive your social web is to your developing personality.

The subjective needs – your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – is where your experiences of reality as provident or otherwise are translated into deep impressions regarding your existential security.

In other words, it’s not enough that you are in fact safe, loved, capable, and/or worthy; if you don’t feel safe (etc.), then that unsatisfied need to feel safe will dominate your attention and drive your behavior. Anxiety is our name for the feeling of threat or danger, and if you are taken over by anxiety it doesn’t matter if your actual circumstances happen to be perfectly safe.

You are constantly checking in on this register of subjective needs and how secure you feel.

Calling the feeling-needs subjective rather than internal emphasizes the point that they are “thrown under” the center of personal identity known as ego. A construct of identity is the highest of your social needs, and regarding it as a construct – something that is not a fact of natural formation but instead a cultural fiction composed out of numerous “I am ______” storylines – is a breakthrough discovery of social psychology in the last 100 years.

Think of the social needs as correlated around your emerging identity as a member of your tribe. Outwardly you perform this identity across countless role plays, while inwardly – or better yet, subjectively – you carry a felt sense of how safe, loved, capable, and worthy you are. When your feeling-needs have been adequately met, the construct of personal identity is said to possess “ego strength.”

The virtues of ego strength are that personality is stably grounded in your animal nature (i.e., the body), is emotionally balanced, and is unified under the executive management of self-control.

My returning reader will anticipate what I say next, which is that ego strength in this ideal sense is vanishingly rare. Because we were born to imperfect parents, raised in uniquely dysfunctional families, and had to find our way in a chronically mess-up world, each of us carries some insecurity associated with our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To whatever degree we fall short of the ideal, just about everything in life will be caught up in our schemes to find what we feel we don’t have enough of. We have a compulsion to fill the emptiness within ourselves. And what do you know, there are all kinds of ideologies, agencies, products, and services out there that promise just what we crave.

So we bite, buy, and believe – but nothing can make our insecurity go away.

As you contemplate the Hierarchy of Needs, it should be easy to imagine how the frustration of subjective needs and the various compensations, substitutes, and distractions you employ to feel better (i.e., happier and more secure) end up interfering with your social needs as well.

Instead of healthy connection, you’re caught in attachment and codependency. Instead of belonging, you struggle desperately for acceptance and approval. Instead of enjoying the benefits of membership, you have to fight for what you feel is yours. And all of that together conspires to make you more confused than ever about who you are.

The resulting identity confusion, with its source in your subjective insecurity, presses you urgently into the chase, the quest, and the hope for salvation – for something, someone, somewhere else. 

Deepest down there is no peace, just this inner void and restless craving. Tangled up in the storylines of your confused identity, stuck in the past and striving for a way out, you can’t be fully present to the here and now. Instead of lifted into an awareness of your communion with all things, you feel isolated and lonely.

But the great evolutionary tragedy is that the priceless treasure of your true nature is locked behind a heavy door of fear and neurotic self-interest. Your spiritual wealth is left undiscovered and your unique contribution to the commonwealth of beings cannot be released.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

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It’s Not All About You

The holiday season affords fresh opportunities for us to get poked, when others get to see sides of us that, in normal and less stressful times, we manage to keep off-stage. A combination of spending money we don’t really have, fighting traffic on the streets and in stores, and gathering with family members who know best where to poke, puts us in that peculiar holiday mood of excitement, fatigue, annoyance, and regret.

Of course, things would probably go better for us (and for those around us) if we understood what it is inside us that gets triggered, causing us (at least that’s how it feels) to act out in ways we later wish we hadn’t. But this would require some serious and honest self-reflection, when our habit is not to look too closely at what’s going on inside.

To what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living, we could add, with the Buddha, that it also perpetuates needless suffering.

In this post I will guide you on a tour of your personality’s interior – yes, it’s true, of mine as well, along with everyone else’s. My constructivist approach to psychology takes the view that our personality, including its executive center of identity (ego, Latin for “I”), is an illusory architecture of social codes, reflexes, attitudes, and defenses that seems very real but is utterly lacking in substance. Who you are, as distinct from what you are as a human being, is purely a construct, a configuration held together by the pretense of being somebody.

The part of your personality that ego presents to the world, also called your ‘on-stage’ self or mask (Latin persona), is confronted with the challenge of negotiating the satisfaction of your needs in an environment of limited resources and the competing interests of other actors. As long as there are no major surprises, emergencies, or unknowns you can manage this negotiation from day to day without much trouble. But when conditions change unexpectedly or you’re forced into situations where you feel threatened, this ‘thin skin’ of who you’re pretending to be can tear open under the stress.

At this point, still deeper and heretofore hidden vulnerabilities are exposed, and these activate more severe defenses – what Wilhelm Reich named ‘character armor’.

My diagram has taken an illustration of Earth’s interior and adapted it to represent the interior of your personality, with its distinct layers of character armor and the vulnerabilities they are meant to protect. The general idea is that deeper pokes (i.e., assaults or threats that penetrate the surface pretense of who you are), provoke more aggressive and extreme defense reactions, presumably because what’s being defended is closer to the core of who you (believe you) are. My guided tour will begin at the very core and then move out from there into layers higher up and closer to the surface of your managed identity.

I’ve made the point numerous times in this blog that all of us without exception have some degree of insecurity at the core. This is inevitable, given our imperfect parents and the unavoidable mis-timing between the urgency and satisfaction of our basic needs in infancy. So it’s not whether we are insecure, but to what extent our deeper insecurity wreaks neurotic havoc in our personality.

We can think of insecurity – although importantly it insinuates itself into the personality before we have acquired language to name or think about it – as an ineffable (unspeakable) sense of risk attached to existence itself. To some extent we all hold a lingering doubt regarding the provident nature of reality.

When external conditions and events make you feel at risk, it’s this character armor around your core insecurity that gets poked. While in most situations of this kind your very existence is not in question, the effect of such surface signals is to arouse a suspicion against reality and its full support. Perhaps there is a memory of an actual past trauma that your present situation is evoking, or it might simply be pressing upon your general anxiety over the prospect of falling into The Abyss.

For mystics, meditation amounts to an intentional descent (what ego fears as a fall) past the personality and deeper into the grounding mystery of being (ego’s Abyss). In popular religion this release of surrender is called faith – commonly confused with belief, and consequently corrupted.

You need to remember that your personality was formed partly by a conspiracy of taller powers (parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults), but also by the strategies you used to get what you needed. Some of these strategies worked marvelously, while others failed miserably. A complicating factor was the insecurity you carried into each new challenge or opportunity.

Even though the challenge or opportunity was directly about your ability to resolve, overcome, or move through it successfully, a sense that reality might not provide the support you needed undermined your self-confidence. The next layer up from the core of insecurity, then, is all about inadequacy: not being enough or having what it takes.

When you feel inadequate, you are willing to let opportunities slip by. This is because you don’t regard them as genuine opportunities – doors opening to possibility, growth, or improvement – but instead as challenges, in the sense that they require something from you and carry a risk of failure.

Your sense of inadequacy, with its roots in insecurity, quickly re-frames such challenges as problems, which you want less of, not more. You trick yourself into believing that you are avoiding a problem when you are actually turning down an opportunity.

One more layer and our picture is complete. Personalities that lack faith in reality and confidence in themselves commonly employ strategies whereby they compare themselves to others – but also to the ideals of perfection they have in mind – and consistently see themselves as not measuring up. In this way, inadequacy translates into inferiority.

The French psychologist Alfred Adler believed that a sense of inferiority is an early driving factor in human development, as youngsters measure themselves against their taller powers (literally superior, as in above them) who seem so omnipotent.

According to Adler’s theory we can come to adopt an inferiority complex where not only are our efforts never good enough, but we ourselves aren’t good enough as compared with others or our mental ideal. As compensation we may insist on our own self-importance, or push others down so we can feel better about ourselves.

With this stratified model of the personality in front of us you can better understand how identity is constructed, at least in part to sustain the illusion that you are somebody. You have it all together, and you show others only what you want them to see. But be ready. As you gather at the table or around the tree this holiday season, you just might get poked.

It will be a good time to remember that it’s not all about you.

 

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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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Spirituality Basics 1: The Human Condition

One complaint that can legitimately be leveled against religion is over its tendency to complicate something which is really quite simple. An overlay of codes, rules, values, and beliefs quickly obscures the shining truth at its core. Tragically this accumulation of secondary material can become a religion’s primary concern, where it gets so caught up in its process that it loses sight of its purpose.

How many religions promote themselves as “the only way” when all they end up doing is getting in the way of our genuine liberation and wellbeing?

In this post and the next two I will clarify what I understand to be the basics of spirituality, without the overlays and parochial jargon. My experience and observations bear out that when a religion keeps these basics in view, all that secondary material can serve well to further interpret, amplify, situate, and apply them in a most relevant way. The basics alone are probably insufficient in themselves to provide the kind of practical support and guidance that religion can. But again, without this core in view, a religion turns into a source of spiritual injury, discouragement, and confusion.

The place to begin is always where we are, and the spiritual quest must start by taking into account our human condition.

In the very word religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) is a critical clue as to what this condition entails, which might be diagnostically summarized as isolation, alienation, estrangement, or simply separation. The Greek hamartia (off target) and Pali dukka (out of joint), central metaphors of the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively, both use the idea of suffering as the result of losing our center, struggling for balance, and lacking in functional wholeness.

This off-centered condition skews our perspective on reality and compels us to cling to whatever can provide some stability. But of course, such clinging to anything outside ourselves – what the Bible calls idolatry and Buddhism names attachment – only perpetuates and amplifies the fundamental problem, which is that we are still not centered within ourselves. Our condition only worsens the harder we try to fix it.

This desperate anxiety – a potent amalgam of craving and fear – splits our motivation between the desired object (craving) and the possibility of not getting the fix we need (fear).

These dual motives of craving and fear work against each other, as when the fear of failure distracts our focus and interferes with the achievement of our goal. The prefix ambi- in the word ambition identifies this opposition of two competing motives in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. Personal ambition, then, refers to the bipolar motivation that oscillates between craving and fear, excited for success but anxious over failure, never fully satisfied because the supposed solution is irrelevant to the real problem.

Rather than wising up to this internal contradiction, however, we invest ourselves in risk protection, giving up some of what we want now for the sake of having enough later. Or we inflate the value of the goal in our mind to justify and compensate for the anxiety that’s ripping up our insides and snapping the stem of life’s meaning.

So far, I have left unmentioned the actor in the middle of this fantastic mess – the “I” behind our cravings and fears, the one who is seeking an external resolution to an internal predicament. The word in Greek is ego, and so we use this term to designate our personal identity, the unique and separate person we regard ourselves as being. From the middle of this experience our identity seems very substantial – indeed (with Descartes) as more real than anything else.

Everything around us changes, but this center of self-consciousness is immutable, enduring, and by virtue of being separate from the body, maybe even immortal.

Despite this feeling of substantiality and permanence, our personal identity is actually a social construction, utterly insubstantial and in constant need of being reminded of who we are by telling ourselves stories. The longest running narrative might simply be called “the story of my life,” and its main plot anchors us in smaller stories about the past as it orients us in other stories about the future.

If we say that the past and the future are not real, we mean that they are not present, which is the only moment when anything can be real. The past is no longer and the future is not yet; both are dependent on the standpoint in time called Now.

“The story of my life” – or our personal myth, where mythos is Greek for the “plot” that provides continuity beneath and throughout the changing scenes of a story – is obviously not the unbroken record of every Now since we were born. Only certain events are included, just the ones that contributed major or minor threads to the narrative tapestry of our personal myth. And for those that are included, factual accuracy is less important than their thematic contribution to our overall sense of identity and meaning.

Interesting stories are about compelling characters, and the construction of identity has been a collective effort of weaving together a confabulated autobiography of “who I am.”

An essential and early part of this collective effort involved gaining some independence for the ego from the urgencies and instincts of the body. An urgency refers to an urge connected with a survival need, such as the urge to eat for the sake of nutrition, or the urge to breathe for the sake of taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

There is an immediacy about urgencies that makes them unnegotiable – or at least we can’t put them off for very long. If we should try to hold our breath too long, for instance, the autonomic urgency of breathing will take over, even if the conscious mind that is trying to pull off this stunt has to be put temporarily off-line so the rhythm can be resumed.

The body is possessed of many such urgencies working together in systems, rhythmically and reliably supporting its life as an organism. If an urgency is urgent action around a specific need of the body, then an instinct has to do with compulsive behavior of the body in pursuit of what will satisfy this need. Hunger is the urgency around our need for nutrition, but the coordinated behavior of the body in search of food is driven by instinct. Since instinct represents a higher level of coordination, there are far fewer instincts than urgencies in the body.

Because instincts are responsible for motivating us to behave outwardly, our tribe had a strong interest in shaping and directing our behavior in ways that would complement, or at least not conflict with, the norms of society.

As Freud discovered, the instincts of sex and aggression particularly pose a challenge to this project of managing social order. We needed to learn when and how it was proper to act on these instincts, and when it was necessary to restrain them. However, if the discipline of restraint on aggression was severe enough, or if our tribe coded sexuality with abuse, secrecy, and shame, the construction of our personal identity came at a cost of repressing these instincts – condemning them, denying them, pushing them behind us and into what Jung named our Shadow.

By this gradual but at times traumatic process of socialization, our ego was formed. The more severe the repression, the more pronounced was our separation from the body. If severe and pronounced enough, our sense of self might have completely dissociated from the body, turning it into an enemy of the “good boy” or “nice girl” our tribe demanded that we be. Or maybe we adopted an alter-ego, a split in our personality through which the irrepressible compulsions of the body could still be gratified.

It’s this need for separation that lies at the heart of our human condition. Once the body has been alienated – that is, pushed away as other – our project of personal identity has the one challenge left of breaking free entirely from the body’s mortal coil.

A denial of death thus becomes the driving impetus behind our ambition to gain deliverance and live forever. But let’s not forget about the intrinsic character of ambition, which is that it contains two contrary motives – a craving for something and a fear of not having it. The excessive preoccupation in some religions with the goal of everlasting life without the body inevitably carries within it a pathological denial of death.

My diagram above is meant to be read from left-to-right following the progression of development through the formation of personal identity (ego). Farthest left is the representation of our essential nature as animals (body) with a capacity for contemplation, creativity, self-transcendence, and genuine community (soul). We might be tempted to regard the imposition of ego consciousness and its delusion of separation as something regrettable, and maybe better eliminated.

But the paradox of spirituality is that self-transcendence (literally the expansion of awareness beyond the limits of personal identity) is not possible without a stable ego in place. We must first become somebody before we can get over ourselves.

It’s that question of ego stability that determines whether subsequent development goes in a healthy or pathological direction. We have already described one side of this pathology, in the repression of instinct and ego’s dissociation from the body. This is about the negotiation of our personal identity with respect to the natural inheritance of our animal body. On the other side of this divide is a less ancient but still very old cultural inheritance that carries instructions of its own, which we know as wisdom.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this cultural wisdom has much to say about our place in the universe, our connections and responsibilities inside the great Web of Life, the waking potential of the human spirit, and the aim of our existence.

Much of this wisdom is well known: How cultivating inner peace is key for making peace with others. How living for the wellbeing of the greater whole promotes health and happiness for oneself. How opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations. How letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise. How living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

These are all things we might consider obvious, as they are wisdom principles in the cultural atmosphere of our species and intuitively confirmed in our own quiet reflection.

But we don’t pay attention. Or else we print these wise sayings on wall posters and desktop calendars, but let them remain in perpetual contemplation rather than put them into action. This separation of who we are and how we live our lives from the cultural inheritance of wisdom is what I call ignórance – where the accent identifies a willful disregard rather than a mere naiveté or lack of knowing.

This, too, is a kind of denial; but instead of pushing something (i.e., instinct or mortality) behind us, we simply turn away and act as if that spiritual wisdom doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it is impractical, unrealistic, or intended for someone else. To be honest, we would have to admit that the fulfillment of our personal ambitions requires that we ignore what we deep down know to be true.

By separating ourselves thus from this historical bank of universal truths, we can continue with our pursuit – of what cannot make us happy, healthy, or whole. At least we can do it without guilt or needing to feel responsible for the consequences that fall out from our choices and actions.

There we have the basics of spirituality. Our essential nature as spiritual animals is abrupted by the imposition of a socially constructed personal identity, or ego, whose ambitions (e.g., for success, wealth, fame, supremacy, or immortality) are generated by some combination of repression and ignórance. The repression of animal instinct makes it possible for ego to achieve its delusion of escape and independence. But over time we must construct a number of defenses against the spiritual wisdom that would otherwise challenge our ambition and the stories we are telling ourselves.

When we finally “get it,” when we realize that our personal ambitions cannot be fulfilled and will not resolve our fundamental problem, which is the fact that these ambitions keep us off-center and perpetually discontent, an opportunity presents itself for our genuine liberation and wholeness.

We can at last get over ourselves and reconcile with our essential nature. The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Now our human adventure can find its true and higher path.

 

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