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The Mirror of Religion

If god is not “up there” and heaven is not “after this,” then why would anyone get involved with religion?

One obvious answer might be to make money – speaking primarily on behalf of TV evangelists and other hucksters who exploit our fantasies of immortality and our craving for absolute answers. They hook us in by the thousands with a promise of prosperity in this life and everlasting security in the next.

Not surprisingly, the only ones getting richer are the hucksters themselves.

Once upon a time religion provided people with big stories, deep traditions, and vital connections to their communities, the larger environment of life, and to the present mystery of reality. Religion gave us grounding and orientation, identity and purpose, meaning and hope.

Then something happened.

Our mind began to open to reality in new ways. Where all that business of religion had focused our contemplation on the mysteries of life within and around us, we became increasingly aware of an impersonal objectivity to things. This has famously been called the “disenchantment of the world,” and it came as the consequence of a kind of centripetal integration of our individual personality, bringing with it a newfound ability to discriminate between external facts and internal feelings.

This evolution of consciousness didn’t necessarily mean that the sacred myths and sacramental cosmology of religion had to be abandoned. The change in awareness, however, did invite us to interpret the stories in a new light.

Whereas our mythopoeic imagination was the generative source of the myths, we could now appreciate their principal metaphors as translucent revelations of a deeper mystery.

Take this analogy …

A landscape painting can be “read outward” for its representational realism and factual accuracy. Something separate from the work of art is that by which it is recognized and evaluated. But a true appreciation of the painting as art requires that we also “read inward” to its creative source and inspiration in the artist’s personal experience. We are not thereby attempting to go back to its origin in the past; rather we are going deeper into something that is genuinely a mystery, of which the painting is a revelation in this present moment.

As we meditate on it, that same experiential in-sight is awakened in us.

The shift of consciousness mentioned earlier, where seemingly all of a sudden reality confronted our mind as an objective fact, is paradoxically when this inward path into the grounding mystery of being became available for the first time. Having established our separate center of personal self-awareness (ego), reality opened simultaneously beyond us in the objective order of existence, and within us as the subjective depths of our being.

Those sacred stories of religion could now be read inward as poetic and metaphorical revelations of our own grounding mystery. For so long they were spun almost by instinct like spider webs out of our creative imagination, captivating our attention and making life fascinating and meaningful. But whereas earlier their action and imagery had been projected around us, now for the first time we could follow that projection inward to its spiritual source.

To interpret god metaphorically, reading inward to its deeper significance and expressive potency, necessitated a shift in religion’s self-understanding. Instead of orienting us outward to some supernatural being “up there,” god’s metaphorical meaning urged upon us a newfound sense of our creative authority.

As a poetic construct of the human imagination, the character and virtue of god as played out in the myths (and read inward) turned the sacred narratives from windows into mirrors.

Our “window” on reality – that is to say, on the objective and factual realm – would become the special portal of science. And our “mirror” into the subjective and intuitive realm was now positioned to serve religion’s own progress as a system of stories, metaphors, meditative practices, and ethical commitments that could guide human evolution into a “post-theistic” future.

The prefix “post” in this term shouldn’t be mistaken as “anti” or “a” (as in atheist) since post-theism is not focused on – or even concerned with – the existence of god. Instead, it provides the structure and vocabulary for making meaning, building community, and actualizing our higher nature as human beings – “after” (post) we have learned to contemplate god as a mirror into ourselves and taken responsibility for our creation.

Our own individual development through the early years and into adulthood traces the same path as our cultural evolution.

There was a time when stories and their performance, otherwise known as imaginative play, were the world we lived in day and night. We regarded their characters, plots, and adventures as laced invisibly into the landscape of everyday life. Some characters became magnetic attractors in the shaping and orientation of our developing personality. In a way, they were more “real” to us than the flesh-and-blood members of our own house and neighborhood.

But then something happened.

Partly as a consequence of our socialization, and partly a natural stage in the development of our mind, the mapping of language onto an objective reality separate and apart from us began to demand more of our attention. This “real world” of impersonal facts would eventually become the realm of our adult everyday life.

Those childhood stories of the backyard playground needed to be left behind, put on the shelf … or read inward for new meaning.

It’s not news that most adults in advanced societies nowadays are caught on the Wheel of Suffering, in lives that have been flattened out and drained of creative imagination. We have to turn on a screen or sit in a theater for the experiences we can barely recall from childhood.

If and when we go to church, we are likely to hear about a god “up there” and a heaven “after this,” but there is little if any inward depth-experience of a mystery that cannot be named or fully known.

Our religions presume to be windows on reality, telling us what to believe about a being that no one has ever encountered. Their “windows” are not the true window of science, yet their competing (and archaic) accounts of objective reality are obligated on devotees under threat of excommunication and eternity in hell if they cannot believe.

The tragic irony is that the stories these religions take so literally are actually reflecting back to them insights into our own deeper nature, and truths with power that can set us free for the liberated life.

 

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Coming to Terms

To exist is to “stand out” (Latin existere) as an individual ego or “I,” centered in yourself and tracking on your own timeline. Of course, this timeline is not interminable, meaning that it will not continue forever. One day you will die and pass into extinction. Nothing in time is permanent; nothing is everlasting.

Now, I hear you thinking: What do you mean, nothing is everlasting? What about god? What about my soul? What about … me?!

Self-conscious human beings have suffered psychological torment for many thousands of years by the awareness of mortality, that “I” will not be around indefinitely. Most of us have lost loved ones and cherished pets along the way, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to realize that your time is also running out.

As a kind of therapeutic response to this existential realization, our species has invented many cultural variations of what we can call a “departure narrative” – stories about leave-taking, about getting out of this mortal condition, and securing your continued existence on the other side of death.

This is probably not where “god stories” got their start, since the idea of a personified intention behind the arrangement and events of our lives is historically much older than a belief in our own immortality.

In earliest religion, known as animism, humans related to their natural environment in a kind of ritual dialogue whereby nature was acknowledged and petitioned for its provident support of what they needed to live and prosper. These rituals coordinated human concerns with the seasons, cycles, and natural forces they relied on.

Even the gods at this stage were not immortal. They were not everlasting beings regarded as separate from the temporal realm of life, death, and rebirth. The purpose of religion was not departure but participation in the Great Round. Gods served the essential function of personifying the intention humans perceived (and imagined) behind the natural events impinging on their existence.

Eventually these invisible agencies were conceived as separate from the phenomena and realms they supervised.

Heaven, not just the starry firmament above Earth but the place where these superintendents resided, where they waited around and occasionally descended to take in the worship and earnest prayers of their devotees down below, was given a place in the emerging imaginarium of a new type (and stage) of religion, known as theism.

If these invisible (and now independent) personalities exist apart from the physical fields they oversee and control, then why not us? Actually it was more likely that the further development of ego formation in humans prompted this new idea of the gods as existing separate from their “body of work” (i.e., the realm of material existence).

Maybe “I” am also separate from this body. Perhaps “I” am not subject to mortality after all. When the body dies, “I” will go on to live elsewhere …

Thus was the departure narrative invented, to comfort you by dismissing death as not really happening to (“the real”) you – to this separate, independent, and immortal “I.” Since then, religions have been redirecting the focus of devotees away from time and towards eternity, away from physical reality and towards metaphysical ideals, away from this life to an imagined life-to-come.

It was all supposedly for the therapeutic benefit of dis-identifying yourself with what is impermanent and passing away. Very soon, however, it became a way of enforcing morality upon insiders as well. If you behave yourself, follow the rules, and obey those in authority, it will go well for you on the “other side.” If you don’t – well, there’s something else in store, and it’s not pleasant.

And to think how much of this was originally inspired out of human anxiety over the prospect of extinction. An independent and detachable personality that will survive death and be with god in a heaven far above and away from here – all designed to save you from the body, time, and a final extinction.

Religion’s departure narrative may bring some consolation and reassurance, but it does so by stripping away the profound (even sacred) value of your life in time and distracting you from the present mystery of being alive.

So far, we have been meditating on the axis of Time, and on your life in time. As a reminder, one day you will die and pass into extinction. But as you contemplate this fact, rather than resolving the anxiety that naturally arises by reaching for some departure narrative, there is an invitation here for you to shift awareness to a second axis, that of Being.

An experience far more exquisite and transformative than your departure for heaven is available right here and now, in this passing moment of your life. This experience is “post-ego,” meaning that it is possible only by virtue of the fact that you have already formed a separate and self-conscious “I,” and are at least capable now of dropping beneath or leaping beyond its hard-won and well-defended identity.

While the departure narrative promises a way out of Now and away from Here, this “fulfillment narrative” invites you into the fullness of life here-and-now.

Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths: let your body relax into being. There’s nothing here that needs to be clung to or pushed away. All of the identity contracts that identify you with this tribe or that party; this rank or that role; this, that, or another label of distinction defining who you are and where you belong – drop it all, at least for now.

Imagine all of those things as tie-lines anchoring you to your place in society, and now you are unhooking from them one at a time.

As you do this, it will gradually become easier to quietly drop into your body. Here, deeper below all those crisscrossing tie-lines at the surface of who you are, your awareness opens to the feeling of being alive. Down through the nervous system and beneath the biorhythms of breathing, thrumming, pulsing, and resting, you at last come to a place that is no place, a “where” that is nowhere – the Nowhere, or here-and-now as we like to call it.

Each deeper layer in the architecture of your inner life requires a letting-go of what is above.

Each successive intentional release further empties your consciousness of content – first beliefs and the “I” who believes; then thoughts and the emotions attached to thoughts – until nothing is left to think about or even to name. I call this descending-inward path to an ineffable Emptiness the “kenotic” path, from the Greek word (kenosis) for “an emptying.”

The inward descent of Being and the letting-go or self-emptying it entails is also a highly effective practice in preparing you for a second path, of outward ascent into the greater reality that includes so many others and much else besides you. I call this ascending path “ecstatic,” also from the Greek, meaning “to stand out.”

But whereas “to exist” means to stand out as an individual ego, the ecstatic path is about stepping out or going beyond your individual ego in transpersonal communion with others – and ultimately with Everything, with the All-that-is-One.

In this same timeless moment, therefore, a profound and ineffable Emptiness invites you within and beneath who you think you are, as an expansive and manifold Communion invites you out and beyond yourself. Your awakening to this present mystery is at once the fullness of time and the fulfillment of your human nature.

There’s no need to leave.

 

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The Three Stages of Consciousness

In this post I want to play with a big backgrounding idea that’s been shaping my thoughts on human nature and creative change for some time now. It’s about consciousness and how our human evolution and individual development can be understood as progressing through three distinct stages.

I’m using this term in both its temporal and spatial connotations: as a relatively stable period in the process of growth and change, and as a kind of platform from which a distinct perspective is taken on reality.

The best way I know to clarify these three stages of consciousness is by appealing to our own individual experience. Each of us is somewhere on the path to what I call human fulfillment, to a fully self-actualized expression of our human nature. And from this particular stage on the path, we engage with reality and experience life in a distinctive way.

This is the “hero’s journey” featured so prominently in world mythology, classical literature, and contemporary cinema. The “truth” of such stories is less about their basis in plain fact than the degree in which we find ourselves reflected in their grounding metaphors and archetypal events.

Our Great Work is to become fully human, and the one thing complicating this work is the requirement on each of us that we accept responsibility in making our story “come true.”

Let’s name the three stages of consciousness first, and then spend more time with each one. I call these stages Animal Faith, Ego Strength, and Creative Authority, and they appear in precisely that order over the course of our lifetime – assuming things go by design. But keeping in mind the spatial meaning of “stage,” I want to point out that each earlier stage persists as a platform in the evolving architecture of consciousness where we can go for the unique perspective on reality it offers.

Animal Faith is a stage of consciousness anchored in the nervous system and internal state of our body (i.e., our animal nature). From very early on, our brain and its nervous system was busy collecting sensory information from the environment in order to set a matching baseline internal state that would be most adaptive to our circumstances.

If the womb and family environments of our early life were sufficiently provident – meaning safe, supportive, and enriched with what we needed for healthy development – our internal state was calibrated to be calm, relaxed, open and receptive.

This ability to rest back into a provident reality is Animal Faith, where faith is to be understood according to its etymological root meaning “to trust.”

As our deepest stage of consciousness, Animal Faith is foundational to everything else in our life: our experience in the moment, our manner of connecting with others and the world around us, as well as to our personal worldview.

With an adequate Animal Faith, our personality had a stable nervous state on which to grow and develop. This stable internal foundation allowed for a healthy balance of moods and emotions, which in turn facilitated our gradual individuation into a unified sense of self, the sense of ourself as an individual ego (Latin for “I”).

When these three marks of healthy personality development are present – stable, balanced, and unified – we have reached the stage of consciousness known as Ego Strength. From this stage we are able to engage with others and the world around us with the understanding that we are one of many, and that we participate in a shared reality together.

By this time also, a lot of effort has been invested by our family and tribe in shaping our identity to the general role-play of society. We are expected to behave ourselves, wait our turn, share our toys, clean up when we’re done, and be helpful to others, just as we would want others to do for us.

Our identity in the role-play of society, the role-play itself and its collective world of meaning – all of it is a construct of human language and shared beliefs. Meaning, that is to say, is not found in reality but projected by our minds and sustained only by the stories we recite and enact.

Positive Ego Strength is intended to serve as a launch point for such transcendent experiences as selfless love, creative freedom, contemplative inner peace, joyful gratitude, and genuine community. Without it we would not have the requisite fortitude and self-confidence to leap beyond our separate identity and into the higher wholeness implied in each the experiences just mentioned.

I name this stage of consciousness Creative Authority because it is where we become aware that we have full authorial rights over the story we are telling – of the story we are living out. In Creative Authority we realize that each moment offers the opportunity to choose whether we will be fully present, mindfully engaged, and creatively involved in our life’s unfolding. If we want a meaningful life, then we need to make it meaningful by telling stories – maybe new stories – that heal, redeem, reconcile, sanctify and transform our world into the New Reality we want to see.

The liberated life thrives up here on the stage of Creative Authority, in the realization that the world is composed of stories, that our beliefs condense like raindrops out of the stories we hold and tell, and that we can tell better stories if we so choose.

Reality looks very different depending on whether we’re taking our perspective from the stage of Ego Strength where our separate identity is the fixed center around which everything turns, or if we are looking out from a vantage point “whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (quoted by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By and taken from a 12th-century meditation entitled The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers).

The shift requires a breaking-free and transcendence of who we think we are, as well as a surrender of all that is “me and mine.” It is at the heart of the Buddha’s dharma, Jesus’ gospel, King’s Dream and every other New Story about humanity’s higher calling. The essential message is that the fulfillment of what we are as human beings is beyond who we think we are as separate identities in pursuit of what will make us happy.

To rise into that resurrected space of the liberated life we have to die to the small, separate self we spend so much of our life defining and defending.

That’s the Hero’s Journey each of us is on: Learning to release our life in trust to a provident reality; coming into ourself as a unique individual on our own sacred journey; and at last breaking past this stage in the realization that All is One, everything belongs, and that this timeless moment is too holy for words.

 

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The Four Hells

The idea of the “liberated life” is a big theme in this blog on creative change. It’s my best label for what we are all seeking as human beings, and is probably one of the more easily misunderstood themes I write about. We are socially conditioned to think of “liberation” as the experience of being set free from something, which inevitably fixes our focus on what we’re moving out of or away from.

But the liberated life is much more than that. It is also about how we live, what we live for, and the joie de vivre that opens to us when we are fully present to the moment.

For the most part, most of us most of the time are probably not fully present to the moment – and for good reasons, or at least they seem legitimate to us. And yet, for a large majority these reasons aren’t all that easy to articulate, must less identify. We’ve just taken this position – or were we put in this position? – and now we aren’t sure how to get back to what’s real.

Let’s review how we manage to remove ourselves from the present moment, why we do it, and where we end up spending (really, wasting) much of our lives. As a map I will use what we can think of as “the four hells” – hell as the place we go when we’re not fully present and living the liberated life. 

In classical theistic theology, hell is understood as “separation from god.” And if god is taken as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality (or the real presence of mystery) then this definition can still be deeply relevant to a post-theistic spirituality in our day. 

Soul PeaceThe first and deepest hell is named Soul without Peace. By “soul” I simply mean our inner life, not some metaphysical entity residing in the body. In my lexicon, soul is not separate (or separable) from body but includes it – all the way “down” from our self-conscious identity (ego), through a sentient nervous system, into the metabolic urgencies and provident rhythms of organismic life, to the very edge of the dark abyss of matter itself.

Early trauma and chronic stress agitate this “inner state” of our soul. Instead of relaxing into being, we are insecure, anxious, and restless.

My diagram depicts our restless soul, a soul without peace, as a scribbling spiral that can’t stop spinning. There’s too much to worry about, too much to be on our guard against. We are neurotically unstable and emotionally imbalanced, which motivates us to reach for, lean on, and cling to whatever can pacify our fears.

Love FreedomWhen we’re like this, grabbing onto anything and anyone to help us feel secure, our relationships can’t grow. And because much early trauma and chronic stress is perpetrated on us by abusive or neglectful parents and other taller powers, our continued dependency on them despite such conditions means that our earliest relationships provided no real freedom for us to be ourselves.

Of course, Love without Freedom (the second hell) is not really love, since genuine love will always respect and accommodate the needs, the voice, and the will of each partner. When we are neurotically attached to someone who manages their insecurity (restless soul) by controlling us, we are both demanding something from each other that neither can satisfy.

Such co-dependent relationships are profoundly dysfunctional, and in our desperate quest for inner peace we end up locking ourselves inside.

Work PurposeWhen we are captives in the second hell, falling into the third hell – Work without Purpose – is inevitable. The obvious reason is that work, which can be defined as any activity that requires effort, is focused on an objective, takes time, and draws on our knowledge and skill, will involve our interaction and often our strategic collaboration with others.

So, if we don’t appreciate – and some of us actually can’t tolerate – the need for freedom in healthy human relationships, then we probably won’t be able to work well with others, either.

Purposeful work doesn’t have to be big-scale, world changing work. “Purpose” here has more to do with the creative intention and focused dedication we bring to whatever we do. When we can’t work well with others, partnerships, teams, and committees get tangled up in “second hell complications,” making it necessary at times to disengage for the sake of keeping our sanity and preventing burnout.

Life MeaningSo what happens when we lack inner peace (first hell), are trapped in dysfunctional relationships (second hell), and languish in work that is stressful and pointless (third hell)? The answer is that life itself becomes meaningless. Life without Meaning (the fourth hell) afflicts a large number of us, and its signature experience is what we know as depression.

Without higher purpose, personal freedom, or inner peace, everything around us seems absurd and insignificant.

At such times, we don’t realize that life is meaningless precisely because we are so preoccupied with managing things in the first three hells. Our anxiety (first hell) is damaging our relationships (second hell), which is making it impossible to cooperate with others and achieve meaningful goals (third hell).

4 HellsIf we step back to take in the entire map of the four hells, we get a clear view of how the anxiety of our inner life is really the deep source of the depression in which all of life seems meaningless.

It is well known – at least among research psychologists, if not the larger public where there’s money to be made on keeping it a secret – that anxiety (Soul without Peace) and depression (Life without Meaning) are two poles of a binary (comorbid) condition that could just as well be named “clinical unhappiness.”

It is the human condition which has inspired much of the brooding expressions in our art, literature, religion, and philosophy throughout history. It’s also what has pushed our species to the brink of self-destruction time and again.

Once in hell, we have a hell of a time getting out, and all our desperate efforts only manage to cast us deeper in.

What’s needed is simply that we come back to the present moment and learn how to relax into being. The really real is always and already right where we are. When we cultivate inner peace, we can enjoy freedom in our relationships, bring a mindful purpose to our work, and create a beautiful life of meaning.

The very place that our anxiety and depression are most palpable and overwhelming (the body) is sacred ground, where the liberated life begins. With each breath we can surrender ourselves to the present mystery of being alive.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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The Problem With God

A friend in the Wisdom Circle I attend asked an important question recently: “How is it that the Religious Right can stand behind Donald Trump and what he’s doing to our country?”

For an answer, let’s further ask what the Religious Right is all about. Also known as the political arm of Evangelical Christianity, the Religious Right is an ultra-conservative faction which has historically – even though its “history” is in fact quite shallow – resisted secular modernity by harking back to a fictional “New Testament Church” when the Christian religion was morally, doctrinally, and spiritually pure.

Since that time, Evangelicals claim, the institutional Church has struggled to keep itself from compromising with “the world,” which is morally, doctrinally, and spiritually impure – damned, in fact.

As Western culture grew increasingly pluralistic, the only effective way of preserving its soul was to shrink the horizon of true Christian identity, defined by just a small set of dogmatic “fundamentals.” Over time, this horizon was identified increasingly with the middle class, and even more with middle-aged true believers, particularly middle-aged white men.

Ultra-conservatism, or fundamentalism of any kind, is thus a defensive reaction to changes around us that make us feel threatened and insecure. At its base is fear. Internally, however, this deeper anxiety is converted into resentment and channeled outwardly as anger, aggression, and violence.

A critical mechanism in this conversion of anxiety into aggression is the Religious Right’s construct of god.

The god of fundamentalism is authoritarian, uncompromising, offended by our sin, and vindictive in his prescription of “redemptive violence” (René Girard, Walter Wink, William Herzog II) and vicarious death as necessary for salvation. We can find him throughout the biblical writings, in both Old and New Testaments. This god has his “chosen people,” a “faithful remnant” and “righteous few” who obediently use every means to preserve their purity against the onslaughts of religious idolatry, cultural diversity, social change, scientific progress and secular globalization.

In other words, the Religious Right didn’t just make this god up. He was ready-made in the background of Judeo-Christian mythology.

It needs to be said, however, that other constructs of god can be found in the Bible as well. A minority report, comparatively speaking, conceived of god as supremely benevolent, universally compassionate, and unconditionally forgiving. This is the god sponsored by some of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) and proclaimed by Jesus to be the one heavenly father of all nations, of the just and unjust alike.

Jesus, particularly, was intent on breaking down the walls of separation, and he denounced the Religious Right of his day (known as Pharisees) as deadly vipers and whitewashed tombs.

If we should set these two gods of the Bible side-by-side, we would have to draw one of two conclusions. Either there are (at least) two biblical gods, or else the god of the Bible is bi-polar, in the way he swings wildly between grace and aggression, forgiveness and vengeance, radical inclusion and everlasting excommunication.

The truth of the matter is probably that both conclusions are correct: there are as many constructs of god in the Bible as there are authors and communities represented in its writings. And any god that humans construct will inevitably reflect their strange tendency as a species toward wide irrational mood swings and compulsive behavior.

So, was the authoritarian angry god of the Religious Right just made up one day thousands of years ago by some insecure, embittered, and self-righteous middle-aged white guy? Or was that guy taken in by an ideology that seemed to speak directly to his worst fears, promising salvation through a renunciation of the world, a “holy war” against god’s enemies, and a final rescue to a paradise beyond the confusing grayscale of this life?

That’s a chicken-and-egg puzzle we probably can’t solve.

This entire meditation so far is really a post-theistic exercise in mythological meta-analysis. It has pushed beyond the stalemate of theism and atheism, getting past the question of god’s literal (or factual) existence in the interest of exploring his literary (and metaphorical) meaning. Even a humble theist will admit that the deepest mystery of being, which we objectify and personify under the guise of one god or another, eludes our mind’s grasp and most certainly transcends the boxes of any orthodoxy.

Coming back to my friend’s question, today’s Religious Right is standing behind Donald Trump simply because he is so much like the authoritarian god who stands behind them. His rhetoric of discrimination, his politics of inequality, and his brazenly immoral behavior are untouchable because he is their champion and only hope for an America that is safe again, pure again, and great again.

Their absolute devotion actually blinds them to his blatant violations of basic human rights and spiritual values. An aggressive, abusive, self-righteous, and glory-seeking megalomaniac is god’s man for the job.

By removing the immigrants who have infested our country, closing down every outlet of liberal democracy, and putting all enemies under our feet, we will finally fulfill our national destiny as god’s supreme City on a Hill.

When anxiety is so deep and pervasive, shrinking our horizon of membership so as to exclude everyone who is different and disagrees with us is one way – but it’s not a way through. To quote saint Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Both for ourselves and for everyone around us.

The god standing behind the Religious Right and the president they stand behind are one and the same. They are dangerous, but their power is siphoned out of our collective imagination. We can imagine better gods, better leaders, and a nation much better than what we are today.

 
 

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More Than You Think

Let’s start with an interesting scientific fact. You have 100 billion neurons in your brain, 40 thousand neurons in and around your heart, and 500 million neurons in your gut. We’re used to thinking of neurons as “brain cells,” but that’s a serious misnomer perpetuated by our brain. Neurons are not simply nerve cells, but a very special type of nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses and networks with other neurons to generate the miracle of consciousness.

We have some justification to assume, then, that consciousness resides in these three nodes: the cephalic (head) node, the cardiac (heart) node, and the enteric (gut) node. We can also assume that these three nodes communicate among themselves, supporting a highly integrated global state of consciousness in our body.

It’s likely a mistake, however, to conclude that what’s going on in our heart and gut is similar to the business transpiring in our head.

This post offers a “theory of mind” that significantly expands our common notions of where it is and what kind of experience it facilitates. My diagram depicts the internal anatomy where consciousness is generated and resides, along with the distinct way each node engages with reality.

The spinal axis or corridor along which the three nodes of consciousness are situated suggests the kundalini system of Oriental psychology, and I will adopt a similar developmental scheme according to which things first get established lower down and rise upward, with the cephalic node (brain) taking much longer – more than two decades! – to come fully online.

One more interesting observation to make is how your brain’s anatomy is a triune (three-in-one) structure, with a primitive (basal or ‘reptilian’) layer enveloped by an ancient (limbic or ‘old mammalian’) layer, and capped with a more recent (cortical or ‘new mammalian’) layer most highly developed in our own species. It’s interesting how each of these layers in brain anatomy correlates with a distinct node of consciousness.

Thus the primitive basal brain shares a strong communication link with the enteric node in your gut, as the ancient limbic brain links with the cardiac node in your heart, while the newest cortical brain constitutes its own self-involved loop.

Rather than tracking this exploration with the rise of consciousness through the three centers, it might be easier to begin where you spend almost all of your conscious time: in your head. The idea of a self-involved loop is significant because of its suggestion that cephalic consciousness might be wrapped up in its own business more than the other nodes. And this starts to make sense when we remember that the cortical brain is responsible for constructing the mental model of reality affectionately known as your ‘quality world’ (William Glasser).

As a construct, your quality world is entirely inside your mind and maintained within the logical network of language, imagination, and thought. I will designate the cephalic node of consciousness your logical mind, taken from the Greek root logos (word, thought, theory, order, reason and meaning). And because world is the objective counterpart to a subjective self, the logical mind is also where your ego identity (“I”) is housed.

In The Heart and Hope of Democracy I defined ‘separation consciousness’ as the consequence of constructing identity upon its own separate center of self-conscious awareness and casting everything else into the position of ‘not-me’ (other, object, It). The logical mind is the Storyteller whose autobiography is your personal myth, constructed around a main character (ego) and unfolding inside a narrative world of its own creation.

“I” stands apart from reality inside a personal world, just like an actor inside a theater.

If all of that sounds a little psychotic, let’s not forget that our developmental progress as individuals and our evolutionary progress as a species depend in no small way on this sophisticated production in make-believe (also called ‘meaning-making’). The entire complex of human culture exists only in our minds, yet where would we be without it?

Although meaning is arguably not ‘out there’ in reality to be found, humans have been more than willing – even eager, and devotedly so – to surrender or destroy everything for its sake.

But now I’ll ask you to allow awareness to drop down from this cephalic node of your logical mind and into your heart-center. You might even experience a sensation of being suspended in a web of – what is it, energy? Feeling? Presence? The cardiac node of consciousness is what I will call your sympathic mind. Not sympathetic, but something more basic than that: an experience of resonance with your surrounding environment, a subtle perception drawn from your participation in an invisible web of communion.

Such a drop out of the trance-state of separation consciousness and into this experience of sympathic communion is one of the critical achievements of an effective meditation practice, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions. The departure can be compelled by an apocalyptic (world-collapsing) event such as a catastrophic loss or personal trauma. Or it can be more gradually and deliberately facilitated through a method of contemplative engagement with the present mystery of reality.

Because by arriving here you have already released the self-world construct of personal identity, your experience is of a seamless continuity between and among all things. It’s no longer “I” in here and “all of that” (others, objects, its) out there, but everything together as one. This explains why the heart plays such a central role in your participation and sense of connection with what’s going on around you, as the node of consciousness registering feelings of intimacy, belonging, compassion, gratitude, and bereavement.

One more drop downward and you release your place in the vibrant web, descending into the enteric node of consciousness and what I call the grounding mystery (or ground) of your existence.

Here there is no separate self, not even a sympathic communion with everything around you. Those 500 million neurons are generating a deep and slow frequency of consciousness that manages the internal state of your living body, as a metabolic conspiracy among your visceral organs, glands, and cells. This node of consciousness is the seat of your intuitive mind.

Intuition is classically regarded a special power of clairvoyant perception, a “sixth sense” that enables one to ‘see things’ that aren’t objectively there or are still in the future.

However, rather than subscribing to some theory of metaphysical realism where these invisible and impending images are taken as actually out there somewhere, a simpler explanation is that your intuitive mind is picking up information from that deeper register of what Carl Jung named the ‘collective unconscious’, where the archetypes (“first forms”) of your animal nature, with roots deep in evolutionary history, carry the ‘racial memory’ of our species.

Similar to how the accumulation of experiences over your lifetime gives you more exposure to the variety of opportunities and challenges of being alive, and thus a larger memory store from which you can derive wisdom and anticipate the future, so your intuitive mind draws on the collective experience of countless generations stored in the visceral organs of your gut. Its images are therefore not received from some metaphysical realm beyond, but instead arise as ‘revelations and foretellings’ inspired out of this grounding mystery within.

This interpretative shift from metaphysical realism to depth psychology is a crucial part of the phase transition from theism to post-theism.


Your mind is not just what’s going on inside your head. Together with your heart and gut, your brain is engaging with reality and generating an experience far bigger than you think. If you can just drop deeper into the present mystery of reality, you will come to realize that all along you have been “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows” (Polynesian saying).

 

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In the Presence of Mystery

The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.

It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.

But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.

The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.

The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).

The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’

It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.

The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.

Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.

But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.

What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.

In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).

Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.

The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.

If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.

Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).

As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.

If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.

This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.

 

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