The process of becoming somebody – someone with a separate center of personal identity – is a long and complicated affair involving many others who are also undergoing their own individuation. We are busy trying to figure out the game as the game is shaping who we are.
Actually, the process of becoming somebody has been going on for nearly 14 billion years. The Great Process of our universe burst forth from a point of pure energy, cooled and crystallized into matter, stirred to life many millions of years later, awakened eventually in sentient minds, and then, just this morning in the grand scheme of things, became self-conscious in human beings – who are now frantically wondering what the hell is going on.
A good part of the anxiety has to do with the fact that ego (self-) consciousness is so different from everything else. Other sentient creatures – referring to organisms in possession of nervous systems equipped with sense organs open to their environment and therefore capable of what we call experience – are centered in their bodies and clearly at home in the universe.
Only the human ego has struggled to find where it belongs, evincing a peculiar longing for fantastic utopias far away in time and place.
The difference, then, is one of nested centers versus a separate center. Nested centers, as the term implies, are supported by a deeper ground and cradled inside provident horizons where what they need to thrive is available to them. Nested organisms feel at home (“in the nest”) and belong just where they are.
Even your ego is supported by a sentient nervous system, which is supported by the living organism of your body, which is supported by the deeper organic chemistry of matter, which is supported in the quantum field of energy. Notice that with each deeper center the provident horizon of existence expands exponentially: from your self, to all sentient beings, to the web of life, to the physical universe.
In this way, deeper centers correspond to larger horizons. As it stands, we belong to (i.e., are a part and manifestation of) the cosmos itself. So why don’t we feel like it? What has interrupted this unbroken continuum of being from quantum energy to self-conscious minds, leaving us on the outside (so to speak) alienated, exiled and homeless?
We should note that most world cultures have myths giving account of how we ended up in this estranged state. If salvation is anything, it is the accomplished or anticipated resolution to our felt displacement as a species.
For people in the twenty-first century the answer to this question cannot be mythological in form, featuring deities, paradisal gardens, primordial transgressions, divine punishments, falls from grace, etc. Rather it will need to be congruent with contemporary psychology, which is the science of nervous systems, embodied minds, the developing self-conscious personality, and the nexus of social relations.
It’s here that we find our clue, in that process of individuation whereby consciousness differentiates from the animal foundations of the body and into its own separate center of self-conscious personal identity (the ego). This separation process is necessary to the work of socialization, in order that an animal nature can be gradually domesticated for life in moral society.
Ego, then, is not simply another step up along the axis of nested centers described earlier. Establishing a center of personal identity actually entails a detachment from the grounding mystery of mind, life, matter, and energy that underlies and supports it.
It’s from this vantage point of a separate center that we can speak of having an ‘inner life’ (a soul) and an ‘outer life’ (our body and the world around us).
Properly understood, ego is neither the soul nor the body but a socially constructed center of personal identity, where consciousness becomes self-conscious through a densely filtered lens of cultural codes, tribal instructions, and identity contracts.
Because personal identity is a social construct, the degree in which we feel at home in the universe is largely a reflection of how effective society is in connecting our separate center back to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and to our larger cosmic context.
All of these connections or linkages have been the distinct purview of religion for millenniums (from the Latin religare, to link back) – although for the past several thousand years it has been more intent on fomenting divisions than forging unity.
Indeed we can precisely synchronize the onset of our profound feeling of homelessness with the corruption and historical breakdown of religion. If we were to scale the history of our species to the length of an individual lifespan, this breakdown and subsequent alienation of human self-consciousness occurred precisely at the phase transition of our adolescence.
No longer were we able to simply trust the rhythms and impulses of our animal nature, but instead had to sublimate or repress some of them in the interest of taking our place and becoming somebody.
Our profound insecurity motivated us to latch on to anything (objects, property, people, beliefs, personas, social status) that could make us feel special, exceptional, and immortal.
And just as in our own adolescence, this was the time when human beings under the misguidance of corrupt religion began to use our gods to condemn, discredit, and justify the destruction of anyone or anything that threatened our security. But as you might recall from your own experience, that only intensified our feelings of alienation.
Instead of helping us through to the other side of egoism, religion wrapped us back into ourselves and made the problem worse – much worse.
Thankfully it’s not too late for us to get back with the longer plan of our evolution as a species. But, contrary to what many critics of religion and professed atheists believe, this realignment won’t happen without religion.
I don’t mean to suggest that one of the existing name-brand religions will be our salvation, but that our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will only come as we are able to successfully reconnect to the grounding mystery within, to each other in caring communities, and to the sacred diversity of life on Earth.
However we manage to link our self-conscious identities back to the contemplative, communal, and cosmic mysteries of being, that will be our religion, confirming once again that the universe is our true home and that we’re all in this together.