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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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Whole Picture, Whole Brain

I’ll start with a proposition, and then work it out in more detail below:

The meaning of life is an ongoing construction project involving two parallel processes, communion and knowledge.

Communion refers to an experience of no-separation, where your existence is felt as not just connected to but as “one with” the rest of it. The present mystery of reality rises into manifestation as you, but also as that other, which means that both (and all) of you express into form something which is itself formless.

If that sounds overly mystical, then you should at least be able to agree that anytime you touch this thing or that thing you are touching the universe, since these (along with countless other things, both nearby and far-flung) are symptoms of a single universal event.

Knowledge, on the other hand, presupposes a separation between you and the object you presume to know (or know about). Outside and all around you revolves that same universe, but now you are looking at the qualities that differentiate one thing from another, and you from the rest. Whereas your existence manifests the grounding mystery, it also participates in a turning mystery which includes you and everything else.

From your vantage point, each thing is apprehended according to what distinguishes it and sets it apart. Gathering this information and representing it in your mind, then testing your conclusions by repeated experiences (or more rigorously by repeated experiments) is what we call knowledge.

The construction of meaning involves both processes: (1) a deep sense of communion or oneness with reality, and (2) a conceptual representation of the objective qualities that distinguish things and allow for the classifications of knowledge.

If this also sounds like the difference between spirituality and science, then you’re on to me. For the past several years, I’ve been building a case for regarding spirituality and science as inherently complementary, non-competing enterprises in our construction of meaning. They both tell stories – the myths of religion and the theories of science – but they are not telling the same kind of story.

Myths are stories of communion, and theories are stories of knowledge. One constructs meaning out of a primary experience of oneness with reality, while the other constructs meaning as a system of explanations by which reality is increasingly known.

As I tried to show in The Wheel of Fortune, a scientific theory of the primordial singularity that released energy into matter, and a religious myth of the primordial dragon whose dismemberment by a god formed the cosmic order, are not competing explanations for how the universe came to be. The theory is an explanation about how it came to be (a question of causality and evolution), while the myth is a revelation of why (a question of intention and purpose).

Today’s science still doesn’t permit any serious consideration of intentionality in the universe, most likely because that’s the step which historically has put careless scientists on a slippery slope toward the necessary postulate of god’s existence.

In fact, religious myths are not better explanations, nor do they require a belief in the objective existence of god. Myths are narrative tapestries constructed from the dramatic elements of setting, character, intention, agency, and outcome. They were designed for traditional occasions of sacred performance, when this veil (i.e., the tapestry of words and images) would be pulled aside and the community suddenly found itself in a universe awaiting their response.

Scientific theories are not composed for sacred recital, and they don’t presume any kind of back-and-forth dialogue between human intelligence and the greater universe. Knowledge without communion produces something less than meaning, something meaningless, what Albert Camus in The Rebel named “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Camus’ nihilism was an understandable conclusion at a time (following the Second World War) when many had lost faith in human nature and hope for the future.

The modern West has been bereft of a sense of communion for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to a feeling of homelessness in the universe. An exponential increase in our knowledge registry over the past 500 years has coincided with a steady decline in our general report on the meaning of existence.

I’m not suggesting that while science sends us into despair, our only salvation is to believe in the objective existence of god, the immortality of the soul, or the literal realities of heaven and hell. The qualifying terms “objective” and “literal” indicate that what had begun as metaphors of sacred fiction are no longer appreciated as such, but have been pressed instead into service as referents to supernatural facts.

Those who believe and defend their religion as an infallible source of knowledge are responsible for its inevitable degradation to a catalog of superstitions. Once again, the point I’m making is that spirituality – along with the form it takes in healthy religion – seeks to cultivate an experience of communion with reality, not knowledge about reality.

The best analogue of this relationship between spirituality and science is the bicameral nature of the human brain. In fact, I will contend that our best way of overcoming the current impasse with respect to defunct religion and meaningless science is to consider what goes on in our brain on the path to maturity.

My diagram places a graphic of a brain at the center of the universe, the ultimate meaning of which is the shared project of spirituality and science (as earlier proposed). The right (peach colored) hemisphere corresponds to key terms on the left side of the picture, as the left (blue colored) hemisphere corresponds to the terms on the right – in the crossover of functions characteristic of our brain.

The right hemisphere has more downward-projecting nerve pathways into lower (more primitive) brain centers and the body’s internal state. Consequently it is more “somatically gifted” than its neighbor to the left (from the Greek soma for body). It houses the neural anatomy (nerve nuclei, circuits, and networks) that facilitates our gut feelings, intuitions, hunches, and premonitions. Since our language centers are located in the left hemisphere, such experiences facilitated by the right are essentially ineffable (beyond words, indescribable, speechless).

Developmental neuroscience discovered that from the time we’re born until about age ten our right hemisphere is dominant. This doesn’t mean that nothing’s going on to the left, but that our primary mode of engaging with reality is somatic – through our body, from our gut, more emotional than rational. As newborns our right hemisphere entrained with our mother’s right hemisphere to form the empathic bond that would serve as our secure base.

The experience of communion, and hence the inspiration of spirituality and many of the earliest, most enduring metaphors of religious mythology, has its roots in this resonance of brain and body (via the right hemisphere), of our body with our mother’s body, and still deeper into the rhythms of life, “Mother Earth” and the provident universe.

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11, the average human brain makes a dramatic shift from the right hemisphere and into the left. The talents of our left hemisphere are semantic, focused in language, logic, analysis, reasoning, and rationality. Just as the right hemisphere communicates with, by, and through our body, the left hemisphere uses the conventions of language to participate in the collective mind of our tribe and culture. In this way we acquire a knowledge of reality that builds on the theories of others as well as on our own observations.

That word “observe” helps to distinguish the strength of our left hemisphere from that of our right. Observation presupposes a critical separation between observer and object, a separation brought about by the right-to-left shift mentioned above – a shift away but not apart from the right. Our right hemisphere takes in reality from its unique position of communion with it, which is what is meant when we “behold” something. We don’t gather intel on a separate object with our five physical senses, but rather we grasp something by our sixth sense of intuition prior to its separation as an object.

Our brain’s leftward shift can be mismanaged by culture (as it has in the modern West) into more of a severance, where the values of observing, analyzing, and explaining reality not only outweigh but drive out the right-sided virtues of beholding, contemplating, and revealing its mystery.

I suspect that our Western conflict between science and spirituality – which, I need to stress, is distinct from that between reason and superstition, or between ethical responsibility and religiously motivated terrorism – is really the cultural manifestation of our failure to integrate the two hemispheres of our brain.

What could (and would) be a normal developmental process of drawing an intuitive sense of communion with reality (right hemisphere) into our empirical knowledge about reality (left hemisphere), has instead collapsed into a sense of being adrift in an indifferent and meaningless universe. Our knowledge won’t ultimately matter – that is, it won’t support and enrich the meaning of existence – unless we can recover our communion with reality.

 

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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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Time and Eternity

Time_EternityOur preferred orientation in reality is centered in the mental location called ego (‘I’), from which we look out and appraise things according to the standards of “me” and “mine.” The ego is at once insecure, defensive, possessive, and ambitious – and not a little conceited for regarding itself the center of reality. But even this is forgivable when we understand how easy it is to confuse our personal worlds with the present mystery of reality.

Before we go any farther, let’s get our bearings in the diagram above. A returning reader will recognize my color codes for the three centers of experience: black for the body, orange for the ego, and purple for the soul. It is of the utmost importance that these distinct centers, or mental locations of consciousness, not be divided into separate ‘parts’ of us, which has traditionally gone down the path of ranking them, opposing them, confusing them, and finally claiming a product of this confusion (the so-called personal soul) as “the real me.” I’ve done my best to keep them all in the picture of what makes us human, even while acknowledging ego as a late arrival and seat of our most persistent delusions.

Along the periphery of my diagram I have placed terms that can help us better appreciate the distinctions not only in ourselves (the mental locations) but in the realms of experience our three centers of consciousness open to us. Each of these realms is depicted in a double aspect, with the bolder text naming an aspect which is ‘facing away’ from us, so to speak, and the lighter text naming an aspect that we directly experience.

Let’s just step into the diagram and try to make sense of it.

At the top is a realm that corresponds to our animal body. As a physical organism, the body is an expression of and participates in a 14-billion-year process that we call the universe. In its aspect of facing away from us – by which I mean the aspect that we speak of in more general (distant and objective) terms – our universe is the universal order of all things.

From this philosophical and scientific perspective, the body’s realm has been observed, investigated, probed, classified, measured, mapped, denatured and transformed by human knowledge and technology. As the universal order, it holds together and turns through intervals of rhythmic time, the largest of which is the interval of our universe itself (universe literally means “turning as one”).

When considering this order in its aspect as facing toward us, the sensory-physical realm of the body is experienced as a provident universe. All of this has somehow conspired to bring about the emergence of life and ignition of consciousness, providing what we require to survive and flourish. Just pause to reflect on how profoundly and intimately your animal nature depends upon, participates in, and contributes to the great web of life.

This cosmic web cannot be reduced to only what transpires here on our planet, but expands outward to include the moon, the Sun, our solar system, galaxy, and far beyond even that. The ‘Goldilocks’ position of Earth relative to the Sun is not simply a matter of local ratios of gravity, light, atmospheric gases, and surface temperature. For a full account we must include The Whole Shebang, from the very beginning and stretching across the entire universe. Before any attempt was made to attribute all of this to a supreme creator, the human mind was overwhelmed by the awareness of living in a provident universe.

So there’s our first part of the picture. As our mental location that engages with the realm of matter, the body lives by virtue of participating in rhythmic time and enjoying its place in a universal order at once infinitely expansive and provident. Anytime your consciousness looks out from this location, you are doing it as an organism in communion with the vast web of life.

When we shift focus to the mental location known as ego, our point of engagement with reality moves to another realm. Here time is terminal, meaning that it follows a line with a starting point and an ending point. It doesn’t revolve through regenerating cycles like we see in the provident universe, but rather flows from beginning to end along a time sequence that is tethered to our personal identity. While the material substance of our body has recycled through countless revolutions of rhythmic time, and will continue through many more after the body expires and decomposes, our ego, that center of who (as distinct from what) we are, is confined to our biological lifetime.

From ego’s position there is a line of time leading up to it, known retrospectively as ‘the past’, and a line projected ahead of it, known as ‘the future’. The past is the sequence of events and experiences which have somehow shaped our identity to this point, while the future is how this center of continuity is anticipated to play out. I use the term ‘play’ in the sense of role-playing, which is the only way ego can stay in the game – as so-and-so who is striving to make something of myself: a respectable character, a good reputation and public image, a successful                        (whatever roles I happen to be playing).

In its less personal aspect, this is the realm of our individual lifeline, which will be summed up by a dash between the dates of our birth and death on a future headstone. Actually, because ego is a social construction that achieves self-consciousness only around the time we acquire language and start making identity contracts with our tribe, its lifeline is shorter than the body’s chronological age. And with the onset of dementia, many of us will to some extent lose our center of social identity before our body expires. We can measure an ego’s individual lifeline scientifically according to this terminal career of executive self-consciousness.

But when we consider it from your perspective as the individual in question, this line represents your personal myth. From the Greek for a narrative “plot,” myth refers to the storyline around which the meaning of your life is constructed. We are used to thinking of myths as the fabulous stories that serve to support, orient, and inspire entire cultures, but each of us has our own authorized (and aggressively defended) narrative of identity as well.

At various times this identity narrative will suffer assaults from without and within, casting ego into confusion, anxiety, frustration, or despair as its continuity of meaning is undermined. Its greatest challenge, of course, is brought on by the fact that ego’s career is correlated to the life of the body – which must one day expire.

Along with other challenges related to its place and value in society, the inevitability of death is something that ego had to work through fairly early on. A solution that we find across the cultures was arrived at by a process of dissociation whereby ego detached from the body and imagined an immortal existence for itself on the other side of death.

This is where the confusion regarding a ‘personal soul’ took root, fundamentally changing religion’s cultural function from that of coordinating life in society with the rhythms of nature, to securing the postmortem destiny of the disembodied ego/soul. Thus began ego’s impersonation of the soul, and religion’s consequent (and longstanding) betrayal of genuine spirituality.

Referring back to my diagram, you’ll notice that the individual lifeline of ego does an end-run around the small circle at the center of the picture. That circle represents the present moment, the only instant in which we can ever touch reality. It is a moment without duration, and for that reason we can legitimately speak of it as ‘timeless’.

Even though ego exists always in the present moment, a preoccupation with the past and future of its own personal myth prevents it from fully engaging with the here and now. Besides, given that the present moment has no duration, any attempt on the part of ego to grasp and hold this vanishing instant only serves to further remove ego from the present mystery of reality.

So now we come to the third mental location of consciousness, the touchpoint on reality accessed right here in the present moment. Soul is not our center of personal identity, and it really needs some serious deconstruction in order to be liberated from captivity to Captain Ego. It is neither ‘in control’ (as if ego is) nor the ‘part of me’ that survives death and lives forever.

Soul is where consciousness engages reality in the deepest depths of our existence, in what mystics have named the ground of being. This ground is neither past nor future, but always and only now.

In its objective aspect, which allows us to reflect on it and share our insights with each other, this is the ground of existence, or existential ground, the creative source that energizes, supports, and expresses itself in/as the manifest universe. In logic, the term “existential” is distinguished from “universal” as referring to ‘this one individual’ rather than to an entire class or collective. As a qualifying adjective of the ground, then, we need to be clear that we are speaking of what gives rise to each existing thing, and what can only be accessed by an inward descent of our own existence.

This reference to our own existence once again shifts focus to the intimate and experiential aspect, where present reality is felt and known as the grounding mystery of being itself. Its uplift rises as the life energy, nervous state, mental force, open focus, and creative intelligence that conspire in our awareness of this present moment.

The “narrow gate” (a metaphor from the teachings of Jesus) which ego is unable to enter for its obsession with being somebody special, is the soul’s path to union with the Really Real. Because it can only be found in the present moment and the present moment has no duration, soul and its ground are outside of time, timeless, and eternal. Mystics and spiritual masters have named it the Eternal Now.

In the process whereby ego impersonated the soul, this notion of eternity was equated with and corrupted into the idea of endless time, which was necessary to accommodate the ego’s desperate need to live forever. “Eternal life” and “everlasting life” are very different notions, however, with the latter denoting this idea of an unending quantitative extension of time, and the former (eternal) referring to the qualitative depth of a genuine, authentic, and abundant life in this moment.

The mystical undercurrents of our world religions still contemplate and practice the disciplines which allow consciousness to sink below the surface tension of personal identity in order to dwell in the present mystery, an adventure in meditation metaphorically represented as a ‘death’ or dissolution of the self-involved ego. Unfortunately as religion got commandeered and perverted by ego ambitions, this deeper and more original engagement with spiritual life was discredited by emerging orthodoxies, persecuted to the margins, and generally forgotten.

And so, here we are.

 

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Paths Into Reality

Although I spend a good amount of time defending the role of religion as the “system of utilities” that translates our spiritual intuitions into the structures of meaning in everyday life, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that intuition precedes the structures which translate it, and that meaning is secondary to the mystery at the heart of experience. My utilitarian account of religion, where its validity is determined by its usefulness in representing the mystery and supporting a way of life that promotes genuine community, offers a helpful criterion for criticism as well as one that appreciates religion’s valuable contribution.

Religion’s behavior of late has provided more grist for criticism than appreciation, however, leading many to wonder if perhaps its long career is approaching an end. As science and secularism continue to spread across the planet and pervade modern consciousness, perhaps it is time to just let religion go. The problem with letting religion go is that it isn’t going away as many hoped it would, but is instead going the way of irrelevancy and conviction (which are really flip-sides of each other), increasingly willing to condone or commit violence in defense of its idols.

So I will try again to rehabilitate religion to its proper role in personal life and society, this time not by tracing out its system of utilities but instead by looking deeper into the spirituality it intends to embody and express … at least originally. If it doesn’t do this very effectively at our cultural moment, our task should be (I would argue) to deconstruct religion back to its source – not its prehistoric origins but to the source-experience of mystery that informs all true religion, whether animistic, theistic, or post-theistic.Tao PathsI’ve chosen the symbol of Taoism as the backdrop of my illustration above, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the best visual image available for contemplating the nature of reality (or anything) as a dynamic duality of principles. An experience of the present mystery of reality takes place and unfolds along primarily one of two complementary paths, an interior path to the Grounding Mystery (or ground of being) or an exterior path into the Provident Universe (or universal order).

The interior path descends into deeper centers of solitude, progressively farther from the light of sense discrimination and “world awareness,” to the Grounding Mystery where all mental associations and even consciousness of oneself dissolves away. For this reason it is named the “dark path.” This movement apart (or away) from others, objects, and external reality generally is also called apophatic, which refers to the subtraction of words and a refusal to attach mental labels to one’s experience.

A more determined discipline of abandoning names and representations of the mystery is known as renunciation – saying “no” to something that qualifies, delimits, or otherwise interferes with one’s direct experience of the Grounding Mystery. Since the dark path proceeds by separating oneself from surface distractions, surrendering attachments and refusing to put words on the mystery, it often goes by the Latin name via negativa (way of negation). The goal ultimately is to lose (one’s sense of) oneself entirely in mystical union with the Grounding Mystery, to the point where Nothing (literally no thing) remains.

It is out of this ineffable awareness of Real Presence that the meditator will be refreshed in his or her intuition of oneness; that just as his or her deep inner life opens into the Grounding Mystery, so it can be said of all things. The existence of each thing is really a process of be-ing whereby it manifests the mystery of being-itself in its own limited form. All of existence takes on a sacramental character as the outward manifestation of this deep inner mystery.

In many early cultures, and even into the medieval period, a people’s cosmology (their mental model of the universe) was honored as a sacred picture of reality. This helps us understand why the revisions introduced by empirical science were so strongly resisted, and why even Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton initially explained their observations with adjustments, such as epicycles in planetary orbits, that could preserve the sacred cosmology to some extent.

This outward turn leads naturally to our consideration of the second path. The exterior path ascends into higher orders of communion, farther out into the light of sense discrimination and beyond world awareness, to the Provident Universe where all things “turn as one.” At this highest level, nothing is left out and all things exist together as illumined parts of a greater whole. For this reason it is named the “bright path.” This movement towards (or joining as part of) others, objects, or external reality generally is also called kataphatic, which refers to the addition of words and qualifiers in a fuller description of experience.

On this ascending path we are saying “yes” to the distinctions that qualify reality into a Provident Universe, where all things conspire together for the emergence of life and consciousness. Our ability to contemplate this is itself evidence of the fact that our universe is provident, not only in the organism of our body and highly evolved nervous system, but in Earth’s pro-life environment by virtue of its proximity to the Sun, along with the relative position of our galaxy within the expanding fabric of space-time. Theoretically every bit of it makes a contribution to the whole, suggesting that the farthest distant nebulae somehow play (or once played) a part in our present contemplation.

As we move up and out from ourselves, then, we are engaged upon the via positiva, a path where every new encounter is added to our understanding of the whole. The self is not negated but affirmed, world awareness is not renounced but transcended – surpassed and included within a larger frame of communion (literally “together as one”). Whereas the Grounding Mystery is deep within all things and accessible only by the inward via negativa, the Provident Universe is all around each thing and includes all things by the outward via positiva.

Now that we have the two paths of spiritual experience in view, I will draw my reader’s attention to the square at the center of my diagram. This is the box of identity, of the individual personality and its captain ego, which is conditioned according to its driving ambitions for security, attachment, and meaning. Each of us along the way enters into, negotiates, wakes up inside, converts to, and occasionally abandons (betrays, forsakes, releases) the identity contracts that define who we are. The rigid strength of this box is what I call conviction, which is the point where belief takes control of the mind rather than the healthy vice-versa. Just like a convict, an otherwise free and creative intelligence is “bound and determined,” and we all know where that leads.

To the box-dwelling ego, both spiritual paths present an intolerable threat for the simple reason that they require an individual to let go of “me and mine.” Security, attachment, and even the meaning locked up in one’s orthodoxy must be surrendered in the interest of touching and really seeing the present mystery of reality.

But since boxes are easier to manage (as well as mandate on others), most of us choose to stay inside.

 

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The Flow of Being

Tree MandalaThe most important discovery we can make as human beings – infinitely more important than how to win friends and influence people or think and grow rich – is that we exist. While that may sound much less interesting than the quest for wealth, status, and fame, the discovery of our existence – the full mystery and glory of being alive – makes everything else pale by comparison.

Reflect for a moment on this most obvious of facts: You are a human being.

Human names the animal species to which you belong. Your gene lines stretch back generations, even thousands and millions of years, to earlier and more primitive life forms. The theory of evolution does not say that you are descended from monkeys, but rather that your species and other primate species share a common ancestor, some prehistoric mammal that lived in trees and foraged jungle floors, and before that climbed ashore from a primal sea, and before that worked alchemy with sunlight and salt water to harness energy as life.

Human also names the peculiar way you are related to the planetary environment. The vital urgencies of your body in its need for oxygen, water, nutrition, rest, and reproduction nestle you naturally in provident time grooves of daily, monthly, and annual rhythms where resources can be found. You breathe in oxygen and exhale the carbon dioxide byproduct of respiration, which the plants and trees around you breathe in for photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen for you to breathe in again.

Your senses connect you to vibrational fields of light and sound, gradients of temperature and molecular mass, variant densities and textures of material form. Gravitational interactions of the sun, the earth, and its moon hold you gently on the planet’s surface as together they swing in great arcing orbits through space. Lunar and tidal forces tug on your bloodstream and hypnotize you as you stand at the ocean’s edge. The very weight of your body is a function of its location aboard our solar system as it flings across the cosmic arena.

Considered merely on that level, where as a human animal you participate in a Provident Universe, with everything conspiring in such a way that you are here, breathing, reading these lines and contemplating your place in it all, the fact of your existence is astonishing and marvelous beyond words. It’s important to remember that you are not a “patient” in all of this, only a passive consumer of its abundance. You are one of “the many” that together comprise our universe, an individual expression if its providence through the contributions of your body and mind, receiving from its supply and offering your unique gift.

But you are also a human being, which moves our consideration in the opposite direction – not outward to the Provident Universe, but inward to the Grounding Mystery of existence itself. The extroversion of your animal body is thus counterbalanced by the introversion of your spiritual soul, although it should be clear that neither of these, body or soul, belongs to you or exists apart from the other. Together they are what you are.

The descending path of inward contemplation pulls attention away from the sensory-physical environment (from environ, what is “around” you) and opens it to a dimension of existence paradoxically empty of content but full of presence. Your access to this inner space is not sensory but intuitive – what is sometimes called your “sixth sense,” an awareness that draws on the Grounding Mystery below individual qualities and surface distinctions, which is also why we name it mystical-intuitive.

The “myst” in mystical and mystery derives from the Greek muein, originally referring to the imperative on a novitiate of a holy order to “close the mouth” – that is, to remain silent and simply observe in an attitude of reverence. At this level of depth there is nothing that language can “stick” to, nowhere that even thought can take hold; it is ineffable, indescribable, noetically elusive, beyond words.

And yet, the Grounding Mystery is the creative power of being in you, incarnating itself as you. As Alan Watts used to say, just as your eye cannot see itself and your teeth cannot bite themselves, neither can your mind reach down and grab the Grounding Mystery since you are not separate from it but essentially of it. As we read in the Upanishads, “Thou art That!”

We use the metaphor of ground because it carries the ineffable experience of mystery into language and meaning, just as the fertile soil germinates and supports living forms at the surface. However, because the Grounding Mystery defies all attempts to make it into an object – a being among and alongside other beings rather than Being-itself – we can also appreciate why Buddhists name it sunyata: emptiness, no-thingness, the infinite capacity in all things but not itself a thing.

So, as a human being you are outwardly engaged and reciprocally involved in the Provident Universe, at the same time as you are inwardly rooted in and a manifestation of the Grounding Mystery of being. These are not two realities but two aspects of one reality, what I call the present mystery of reality. As the illustration above shows, a tree (or you, or anything else) actualizes the ineffable Ground in its own being and opens outward to a local habitat, to the vibrant community of life, to the biosphere of Earth, and to the cosmic order.

The tree in my illustration is bearing fruit as its individual contribution to the Provident Universe, but also as evidence of its “self-actualization” and existential fulfillment. Of course, inside the circle are the innumerable other forms of existence which I cannot adequately depict, each one expressing outward from its depths in the Grounding Mystery and into the cosmic community where everything “co-arises” (another important Buddhist term).

You should be able to envision the “flow of being” surging into form, expressing through the myriad gifts or contributions of the ten thousand things, putting on the glory of heaven and earth. “Singing mountains and clapping trees,” as the biblical prophet put it (Isaiah 55:12).

And here you are. What is your gift?

 

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