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Tag Archives: post-modernism

Dropping Into Reality

In More Than You Think I offered a theory that regards mind as more than what’s going on inside your head. Western culture, particularly, has tended to equate consciousness (or spirit) with mind, mind with the brain, and the brain with the body as the central ganglion of its physical nervous system.

Granting such exclusive privilege to the brain – what I call the cephalic node of consciousness or logical mind – reveals our preference in the West for words, labels, explanations and the push-off from reality they afford us.

In that previous post I also implicated the logical mind as where your self-world construct of identity is managed. Your separate center of self-conscious identity, or ego, does not belong to your essential nature but had to be constructed in the social laboratory of your tribe. By shaping you into “one of us,” your identity came to both reflect and carry the interests, values, beliefs, and anxieties of the group that held your membership.

I don’t treat this gradual separation of identity as a tragic accident or a regretful “fall from paradise” that must somehow be escaped or undone. Ego formation is part of healthy human development. Regarding yourself as a unique and separate center of personal identity, while not the culmination of this path, is a necessary precondition for the true fulfillment of your nature as a human being.

Problems arise and pathology sets in when you get stuck on yourself and trapped inside your logical mind. Then your separation turns into alienation and estrangement, where you are unable to touch the present mystery of reality and wake up to the truth of what you are.

It’s fair to say that all of our chronic suffering as a species, as well as the suffering of other life-forms we are causing, is a consequence of this ego pathology. What I call the “pernicious divisions” of human from nature, of self from other, and of body from soul are behind every crisis we face today. Each of these pairs is ideally a creative polarity, but our profound insecurity has motivated us instead to over-focus on one pole (i.e., human, self, and body) as we exploit or neglect the other (nature, other, and soul).

We might continue to treat this in the abstract, or else we can make it experiential. Your logical mind, centered as it is on your ego and dedicated to defending your world, would prefer to keep things safely boxed up in language. You don’t realize how much of the meaning constructed around you has been arranged as a defense against the breakthrough of mystery, defined and dismissed by your logical mind as chaos, the not-yet-known, or just plain nonsense.

If you happen to be particularly wary of what’s outside or underneath the floorboards of your meaning-full world, the beliefs you hold actually have a hold on your mind, holding it captive (like a convict) inside of fixed and absolute judgments.

This is where you suffer. These convictions not only separate you from the present mystery of reality, they also lock you away from the wellspring of eternal (i.e., timeless) life which is always just beyond belief. All of our chronic unhappiness as humans is generated out of this separation consciousness and the various ways we try to manage or mask its symptoms.

Staying inside your logical mind allows you to make up any excuse or rationalization you need in order to feel better about things. But in that small closed space there is no inner peace, no creative freedom, and no genuine wellbeing – and these are what you truly long for.

If you will, right now as you engage this meditation, just imagine your logical mind and its self-world construct as a big sphere enclosing your head – kind of like those cartoon space helmets you remember from The Jetsons. In my diagram I have placed the image of an elevator shaft with doors opening at the “head floor” and your ego looking out. This is where you have a clear and separate sense of self, inside a habitation of stories that is your world, with everything around you just as clearly “not me.”

Now remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a unique identity and managing a personal world; this is a critical achievement of your development and evolution as a human being. But the truth is that all of this is not real: your ego and its world are nothing more than narrative constructs made up of thoughts, words, stories and beliefs – all generated by your logical mind. Life is more or less meaningful up here, but its meaning is something you are putting on, like a play.

One day it all feels very meaningful, and the next not so much or not at all. The difference from one day to the next is a matter of what stories you are telling yourself and how much you believe them – or how desperately you need them to be true.

For now, though, just let the elevator doors close. Pull your attention away from all of that and allow consciousness to descend into your heart (cardiac node) where your sympathic mind resides. When the doors open again, there is no ego: no separate self, no personal world, no elaborate construct of stories. Even meaning has been left behind.

What you find instead is a web of interdependence connecting you to everything else, and everything all together as One. As best you can, try not to “think” about your experience, since that will only bring awareness back up into your logical mind.

This experience of communion is about coming back to your senses and dropping into reality – out of your stories and into the present mystery of being alive. This is where you understand, not just conceptually but experientially understand, that everything is connected and nothing stands utterly alone from the rest.

All is One, and you are a part of what’s going on.

If we use the label “modern” to name the collective mindset where separation consciousness is in control and the logical mind has constructed a meaningful world for itself, then we can appreciate how this liberative experience of releasing, descending, and communing with reality is necessarily a “post-modern” possibility and wouldn’t have been available to our ancestors of a “pre-ego” age.

In other words, dropping into reality presupposes a separate center (ego) from which the drop can be made.

But let’s not stop there. Let the elevator doors close again, and this time allow consciousness to drop past the web of communion and the All-that-is-One, into the deep presence of being here and now. This is the enteric (gut) node of your intuitive mind. The grounding mystery of your existence provides no place for words or even thoughts to stick. Your experience is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. 

Rest here for a while. Find refreshment in the wellspring of this present mystery, in the mystery of presence. When you take the elevator back up into the business of managing a world and living your life, you will be free to live with a higher purpose in mind.

 

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No Use for God

What NextReligion is to spirituality as meaning is to mystery, as god is to ground, as belief is to faith, and as body is to soul – if we can resist the old habit of making the second term of each pair into some separate and metaphysical “thing.” These pairs are paradoxical, not antagonistic or merely “coexistent.” Spirituality finds “body” and expression in religion, not inside it but as it. Faith as release to the grounding mystery of existence is translated and becomes “useful” as timely (relevant) and meaningful belief.

Misunderstanding and complications arise at the very start (or shortly thereafter), in our impulse to label and define what is essentially unnameable. When that happens, mystery becomes (is turned into) just another name for what we don’t understand – yet. Faith becomes Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith, then “the” (one true) faith, which really means the set of beliefs that is supernaturally revealed or fully enlightened.

God is a name, an idea, a representation of something that isn’t a thing. The ground does not “stand out” (ex-ist) in the field of identities and relationships, but is merely another name (a metaphor in this case) for that out of which everything else stands, and back into which it will all eventually return. That grounding mystery is experienced in those moments when you can let go of meaning, let go of thought, and let go of “me.”

Faith is yet another name, a noun that is really a verb, a way of be-ing and living in communion with the present mystery of reality.

As I have tried to explain post-theism, some have heard me advocating for a new kind of postmodern atheism. It sounds to them as if I’m rejecting god and wanting to discredit religion as so much mythological literalism and metaphysical malarkey. There is that. But at its best, religion can be a helpful servant to spirituality, and god can be a relevant representation of the grounding mystery. The problem is that religion is not very often at its best.

You can’t resolve the errors in religion by digging deeper into its scriptures and refining its doctrines. It’s not about clarifying your concept of god, or making it “big” enough to contain all the attributes that a perfect and supreme being should properly have. No matter what you might try on that side of the threshold of the paradoxes mentioned above, you are still only straightening up and rearranging boxes.

Spirituality comes before religion, though not in the temporal sense of “before.” It inspires (breathes life into) religion, but it can’t connect to your life without the “system of utilities” that religion provides. In religion god is useful for making the world, providing for our needs, giving us purpose, supervising our progress in morality and settling the score at the end. God can become so useful, in fact, that we lose sight of his/her “first use,” which was to re-present the mystery and give us a way of relating ourselves meaningfully to it.

Religious formation can be thought of as the development of a “vehicle” for the evolution of human spirituality. As life evolves through the adaptation of an organism to the conditions and challenges of its environment, so does spirituality evolve through the ability of religion to stay grounded and adapt to the changing circumstances. “True” religion – if I dare use the term – is one that is spiritually rooted in the timeless mystery and usefully current to the concerns of our time.

While religion has a thousand uses for god, spirituality has none. It should make sense by now that I am not arguing for atheism. Indeed atheism and its “opponent,” theism, are both on the religion side of things. Together they constitute a warring dualism rather than a creative paradox, as they both (at least in the context of their debate) effectively ignore the grounding mystery that cannot be named (or unnamed). I see religion and religion’s god as very useful, but they are not ultimately the concern of faith.

As the developmental vehicle of human spirituality, religion began with the question, “What will we name this mystery, and what does it mean to us?” Through the course of its long history, religion has been very busy – naming, mythologizing, coordinating, instructing, sanctioning, authorizing, proselytizing, defending, condemning, justifying abuse, violence and exploitation in the name of its god. Many, many people have left religion because of its violations of ethical sensibility, its sometimes ruthless control tactics, the way it tries to motivate conformity through fear, and its frequent dismissal of reason and rational inquiry.

Although I strongly support anyone wanting to get out of a corrupt and abusive religion, it’s not this corruption that presses me to explore the promise of post-theism. As long as identity is our preoccupation and ego is controlling the game, we will continue to see dogmatism, bigotry, and violence in our religions and across the cultures. I suppose that some of the more articulate and outspoken atheists really just want to remove the baby so we can throw out the bathwater.

Post-theism doesn’t really care about denying or defending god, however. Instead it is interested in spirituality after religion – but not temporally after, since spirituality will always need embodiment in and as religion. The “after” here is more about the intention and developmental aim of religion, in the way it directs the deeper experience of spirituality into the utilities of daily life. And then what? For what purpose?

I would say, for the purpose of providing a springboard for a leap back into mystery. Beliefs must be dropped, religion must be transcended (gone beyond), and god must be left behind. We cling to our god with the same energy that we defend our ego. Religion assists in the formation of ego by projecting its god as counterpart and ideal. At some point – and I am arguing, we are at that point right now – we need to be strong enough to leap beyond even ourselves, into the grounding mystery.

We are standing now on a vantage-point at the far end of an arc through time. Religion, tribe, ego and god have been useful in getting to the point where we can now look back – and down – through this complicated formation and discern a light shining up from below.

As paradoxical as it sounds, we must arrive at the point again where we have no use for god.

 

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The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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