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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Reality Shift

Reality ShiftsA somewhat naive understanding of human evolution and individual development assumes that with each advancing stage, former ones are simply outgrown and left behind. We know, however, that this is not how nature evolves. Earlier and more primitive structures are not abandoned, and neither do they merely lie inert beneath the exciting progress higher up. Instead they get incorporated into the emerging design, differently managed or re-purposed in light of a greater functional complexity.

This matters a lot when it comes to the interpretations of our own progress as individuals and a species. The naive approach has treated our mythological past, for instance, as over and done, leaving us free to face reality (finally!) as it is. Scientific theories relentlessly pursue objective truth, while the ancient myths may entertain us but in the end only obfuscate our view of what’s real. We need more facts, not superstition. The presumption is that our ancestors and other distant cultures stumbled around in ignorance, whereas we now clearly see the way things really are.

A closer look reveals that earlier versions of ourselves – whether bygone generations or former decades in our own lifetime – continue to operate underneath and behind whatever ‘executive functions’ are currently at the helm. In developmental psychology we commonly speak of our ‘inner child’ which refers to an infantile and juvenile subpersonality (Assagioli) that sometimes takes over when we’re tired, sick, hungry, stressed, or threatened. But we should also take into account a still more primal animal nature that lurks in the unconscious and is governed by instinct. These deeper and developmentally earlier versions may not determine our engagement with reality as they once did, but a mature adult must learn how to incorporate ‘gut feelings’ and playful spontaneity in a more socially responsible way of life.

Most likely our biggest limitation has to do with the fact that each advancing stage in development reconnects us with reality in a new way. Or we might say that each stage in development initiates a shift in reality itself, for the straightforward reason that our mode of engagement with reality must be included in what is meant by the term. Along the path of human evolution, then, our species has confronted a new reality at each turn. And across the arc of our evolution these developmental advances have carried forward former versions of ourselves, still operating at deeper and less conscious levels.

I propose that human beings have evolved through three major ‘reality shifts’ and that we are currently on the cusp of a fourth. This is similar to the well-known ‘paradigm shift’ concept made popular from the history of science (T. Kuhn), except that as a constructivist – maybe even a radical constructivist – I want to make it about more than a mere shift in the (mental) “framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of scientific [or other type of] community” (Paradigm in Dictionary.com). When our framework shifts, everything about our way of engaging with reality also shifts, which means that because reality necessarily includes our way of engaging it, reality itself shifts as well.

Mythopoetic Reality

The first reality shift, and the one that launched our species on its cultural trajectory, is what I’ll call the mythopoetic. Poiein is Greek for ‘to make’, and mythos translates as ‘a narrative plot’ or story; so a mythopoetic reality is one where our engagement with existence is facilitated by the narrative construction of stories. I don’t agree with a popular definition of myth which dismisses it as ‘primitive science’, our first bumbling attempts to explain what’s going on around us in the natural world. Rather, myths articulate and embellish upon foundational metaphors that represent our deepest impressions and intuitions of the grounding mystery, or what I also call the provident ground of being itself.

It’s important to understand that a story-shaped reality has no ‘outside’ – no nonfictional or purely factual realm independent of the mythic imagination. This reality is sustained in the activity of narrative performances where stories are acted out in the tasks of daily life, with the turn of seasons, on special occasions, and around the shared concerns of a community. Whatever may lie beyond the boundaries of a particular story-world is not a ‘mere fact’ but is characterized according to its proximity and potential value to what’s going on inside the story – such as the chaos acknowledged in many ancient myths, dragons lurking at the edges of medieval maps, or the boogeyman in a child’s closet.

As that last example suggests, early childhood is when each of us lived in a mythopoetic reality. We were continuously pretending – daydreaming, fantasizing, dressing up, role-playing, embarking on one adventure after another. In those years we had no interest in, let alone an understanding of, the factual reality that would later become the bedrock truth of our adult experience. That time in our lives – whatever we can remember of it – is probably our best entry to an understanding of what prehistoric story-telling culture was like.

Historical Reality

At some point in the evolutionary past, as well as in our own personal past, the sacred canopy of mythopoetic reality came down – or at least fell just far enough to expose another reality on the other side of our stories. I will call this the shift to historical reality, a shift reflecting the progress of human consciousness beyond the security, meaning, and hope we had earlier found in our myths. For a memory of what it was like, we need to recall that strange mixture of exhilaration and anxiety we felt in adolescence.

The exhilaration came as our perception of time expanded beyond the ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ frame of the story-world, into a causal stream seemingly without beginning or end. As the boundary of our mythopoetic reality blew open to reveal a limitless field of possibilities, the opportunity as well as temptation for all things exotic beckoned to us. On the other side of that exhilaration, however, was an anxiety over our sudden ‘nakedness’ – a niggling self-conscious sense of being stared at. Both of these powerful moods (exhilaration and anxiety) announced the emergence of a separate center of personal identity, or ego.

This separate self provided a new vantage point on a reality without limits (except for those repressive rules imposed on us by authorities), arranged and revolving around ego at its fixed center. It is in this reality and corresponding version of ourselves that an irresistible impulse to throw off constraints and ‘become as the gods’ – free, powerful, and beyond accountability – acquired the drag of guilt and shame for our offense. You should be able to hear a strong theistic theme here, which resolved the problem of separation by a process of atonement and reconciliation.

The dawn of historical consciousness is accompanied by a disenchantment with the mythopoetic reality of early life, which comes as a consequence of ego’s separation from its own grounding mystery. Whereas the mythic imagination continues to operate farther below, the executive ego – or what I also name Captain Ego – is having to take into account a factual realm altogether independent of it. This forces upon ego a need to decide the truth status of those stories, and a few alternatives become obvious.

One answer is that the myths are simple stories of an era when we believed such things. Now we know better and should dispense with them in the interest of progress. A second option, related to the first, might regard the myths as amusing tales that provide a fascinating look inside a less enlightened period.

Another possibility is that myths are descriptive reports of miraculous events and supernatural things revealed in the far-distant past and recorded for our benefit, but of events and things not presently accessible to our senses. This is the option that led to converting the literary (or mythological) god into a literal being, and invented the idea of a supernatural realm above and outside historical reality.

Finally, a fourth answer to the question ‘wherefore the myths?’ would be to explore them as metaphorical clues to our deeper spiritual life. Of the four options, this one is by far the least popular; ego has a hard time with metaphors and anything deeper than its own personality. The doctrine of personal immortality, another invention of this reality shift, dismisses all notions of a spirituality that threatens to swallow up, go beyond, or dissolve away the permanent self.

Secular Reality

The shift to a secular reality came about as the inherited system of supernaturally oriented beliefs rapidly lost relevance to the challenges and opportunities of daily life. This coincides with a shift in consciousness from the insecure and self-conscious ego to a more ’embodied’ and this-worldly (Latin saeculāris) orientation. Such an orientation, while portending the end of supernatural religion and biblical literalists (option 3 above) everywhere, is energetically embraced by many atheists and mystics alike.

‘Humanist’ is probably the best term for describing the emerging value system of this reality shift, as the larger cause for human rights, individual happiness, and personal well-being informs and qualifies more of what we do. The weight and promise of our current situation calls for a clear view of the facts and a more broad-based social responsibility. We don’t look outside the world to a supernatural heaven, an end-time deliverance, or even a metaphysical underground to which we might escape the task before us. The resources and solutions we’re looking for must be found inside – within ourselves, our communities, and in our shared world – this world.

As odd as it sounds, the shift from historical to secular reality makes possible a renewed appreciation for life’s sacredness and what I call the Real Presence of mystery. A reverence for the earth’s elemental forces and exquisite beauties, for the fragile yet tenacious life-force evident all around, a reverence which had been intrinsic to the enchantment of mythopoetic consciousness but was later eclipsed by the rise of the historical ego, returns now, but in a consciousness that better understands its creative responsibility within the whole. Such a heightened sensitivity to the value and promise of what’s inside awakens empathy, inspires compassion, motivates cooperation, and reconciles consciousness to a reality that is more interconnected.

Global Reality

A fourth reality shift, simultaneously ascending within us and descending upon us by a conspiracy of technologies (travel, the Internet, communications, business and trade) opens awareness to our place in a global system. We are really just starting to understand the dynamics of systems – about the interactive forces that hold things together (integrity), connect individuals in higher forms of complexity (synergy), and pull everything down toward more stable states (entropy). (For more on these, see The Consilient Leader.)

As we better understand the nature of systems and our own place in the ecosystem of planet Earth, reality invites our engagement at a new level. Of course, we’ve always belonged to systems, but as consciousness opens up to our responsibilities and creative authority within the systems we inhabit, a new set of values begins to guide our choices, goals, and commitments. Living in a global reality doesn’t allow us to make decisions and take action only around individual self-interest, or even that of our local tribes.

Consequences flow out in waves of rippling influence, not by the linear cause-and-effect of billiard balls. What’s more, the most serious consequences come back on us by intricate feedback loops, slow amplification, and long delays that we cannot predict or control. But when they come, everything in the system is affected. Perhaps the most obvious example of this seeming ‘suddenness’ of catastrophic consequences is the phenomenon of global warming. The buildup of so-called greenhouse gases has been on a slow rise for many decades. But now, all of a sudden, polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising, entire species are going extinct, and convoluted weather systems are bringing upon us one disaster after another.

In my diagram above I have positioned a human stick figure with one foot in secular reality, and the other in global reality – or almost there. This is to make the point that, for the most part, our species is only beginning to grasp the bigger picture, deeper truth, and longer view of our place in the universe. We may hold this intuition in our mythic imagination, but it remains buried beneath an obsession with identity (ego) and a chauvinistic secular humanism. Even now, any incentive for altering routines and convictions must appeal to a concern for ourselves and future generations, rather than a genuine reverence for life and responsibility to the whole.

Global reality is where the evolution of consciousness has reached a point of the universe becoming aware of itself – in us. Instead of this higher awareness setting us apart from the other species, its aim is to inspire us to care more responsibly for the planetary community of life.

 

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Opening the Present

Here_NowSpirituality is about living mindfully in the here-and-now. Of course, there is nowhere else we can be, but we all know how easy it is to live mindlessly in the present. Most of us are less quick to admit how much we prefer to live outside the present moment – rummaging through the past or chasing after the future where the meaning of our lives is anchored. We spend a lot of time and energy managing our webs of meaning which stretch across the here-and-now, but we are hardly ever really (that is, mindfully) in it.

However real our webs of meaning seem to us, they are suspended between two fictions called the past and the future. By ‘fiction’ I am referring to something that is purely a figment of imagination, a narrative construction, mythical in the strict sense of having only literary and not a literal existence. Most of our waking attention is devoted to minding and mending the many strands of meaning that support our identity (who we are), give us significance, and promote our sense of purpose in life.

A healthy spirituality shouldn’t demand that we permanently abandon our webs and give up on meaning, but it can help keep it all in perspective. Because meaning is made up in our minds and not inherent to reality itself, it is necessary every so often to drop out and consciously reconnect to the grounding mystery of our life in this moment. It’s here (and now) that we can experience the Real Presence of being – what the religions name God, Spirit, The Holy. Before we give it a name, however, and proceed to represent it as a being who is the beginning and end of all things, this Real Presence is the abiding mystery of existence itself.

My diagram above is another cross design, with the horizontal axis of time intersected by a vertical axis of here-and-now. Ego occupies the present moment, as everything does, but without any direct awareness of it, caught up – or we might say, preoccupied – in the business of managing an identity by holding together the fictions of past and future. An attentive mindful engagement with present reality would require a surrender of meaning for mystery, of belief for being, of me-and-mine for here-and-now. It’s a tough sell, given how much is invested in our personal worlds, as well as in the collective (shared) worlds of tribe and culture. No wonder that our tribal religions hold the mystical practice of dropping out with such derision and contempt.

But what is the here-and-now, and why is it widely regarded as such a threat? To answer the first part of this question would involve spinning a meaning around the mystery, pushing it into the distance as our object, and effectively removing ourselves from it. The distance created by such objectification gives us the illusion of control, where meaning can be codified inside an orthodoxy that is beyond doubt and worthy of our ultimate sacrifice – which goes to answering the second part of the question. As long as reality remains something else beneath our mental labels, no meaning can be absolute.

So, instead of defining the here-and-now, let’s ask what these terms represent. What is the mystery behind what we name ‘here’ and beneath what we name ‘now’? Where, exactly, is here? It seems obvious that here is where I am; there refers to any location outside and apart from here. There might be a distant star that I see overhead, another country halfway around the globe, the neighborhood just over the hill, or that book across the table from where I am sitting. It would seem that here, while tethered to my present position, is limited in its scope by a purely arbitrary horizon.

In other words, if my here is this room, then the book and this table are included. If my here is the county I live in, then my neighborhood and the one over the hill are both included. If my here is planet Earth, then that faraway country is included. And if the horizon of my present location is the universe itself, then that distant star is also here. While the center position of here is not arbitrary but instead permanently fixed to my present location, the scope of what’s included is as small or inconceivably large as I care to make it. (Recent blog posts of mine make a case for this virtue of ‘care’ as perhaps the most salient indicator of human self-actualization, if and when it comes about. See “Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)” and “A Spirituality of Religion”.)

To a great extent it is the work of news media, politicians, preachers, and moral bigots everywhere to contract the horizon of here so that only the right and the righteous are included. Once the line is drawn, just about any manner of violence against outsiders can be justified. The genuine mystic – referring to one who has dropped out of meaning and opens fully to the boundless mystery of being – is an insider par excellence, despite the fact that orthodoxy condemns him or her as a dangerous outsider. When Siddhartha included ‘all sentient beings’ in his ethic of universal compassion, and when Jesus included ‘the enemy’ in his ethic of unconditional forgiveness, they were inviting us to a higher life where outsiders don’t exist.

Implied in fixing the vantage point of here to my present location is an acknowledgment of now. Whereas here is relative to my horizon of awareness, now refers to that fixed point at the center which is always and only in the present. The past is no more and the future is not yet; only the present is. What ego cannot apprehend, in its shuttling back and forth on the story loom between yesterday and tomorrow, is where our soul abides: this timeless moment, the Eternal Now. It is never yesterday or tomorrow; it is always today. Always now.

Opening the present requires that we drop out of meaning and into the mystery, deeper into the center of awareness that is always now, and then allowing the horizons of here to simply dissolve away like fading ripples on a pond, until we are left with that most exquisite and essentially ineffable of insights: All is One.

 

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Inside-Out

Peace_Joy_LoveThe Great Machine of consumerism is always at work, spinning the gauzy web of illusion that enthralls much of modern consciousness. It persuades us to look outward for the secret to happiness, which today might be contained in a new-and-improved formula of this, tomorrow as an upgraded model of that, next year in some revolutionary medicine coming to market, or the new lease on life promised at retirement. Maybe it’s this sexy thing, or that job promotion.

But it never comes.

Make no mistake: we end up spending or sacrificing what we have to in order to acquire the key that will unlock our truest joy. But now it sits in the garage or on the shelf and under a pile of other keys that have let us down. The problem is, we can never know for sure if the real problem was that we tried too hard, or not hard enough; that we started too late or quit too soon; that the dosage wasn’t quite right, or that we didn’t have things in the right combination. Maybe it’s our own damned fault after all.

And that’s how it works.

It gets going very early, long before we’re old enough to have money in our pockets or sense in our heads. The first trick of the Great Machine of consumerism is to convince us that we are empty inside, that we’re ‘not enough’ and need something else to make us complete and full-filled. We can’t be happy in and of ourselves since, left to ourselves, we are lacking what it takes – whatever it takes to make us happy.

When we find our answer and place our bet, the desperate need that it be the key we’ve been looking for puts upon it an impossible expectation: “Complete me.” For a little while, the novelty and excitement seem to do the trick (this is the second trick of the Great Machine). And if our key to happiness happens to be another person, all our lavish affection is received with equal fervor – particularly if that other person is empty inside and believes she has found her key in you.

But (you know the story) our impossible expectations cannot be realized. Disappointment is inevitable, our frustration mounts, and we grow increasingly anxious as this latest secret to happiness is exposed for the counterfeit it is. The fault, contra Shakespeare’s Cassius, must be in our stars, certainly not in ourselves. So … it’s time to find the real thing.

And off we go.

In the dark wake of our programmed bereavement, many are ready to agree that this so-called ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a misguided pipe dream. Who told us that we always needed a smile on our face and a lift in our spirit? Why do we have to always be of good cheer and turn our frowns upside-down? Let’s just take happiness as it comes, if it comes, along with everything else. If we need to talk with someone or take medication to help us stay in the game, then maybe this prophylactic margin of cynicism (how about we call it ‘realism’?) will keep us from having to suffer … very much.

Of course, you see the real problem, don’t you? It’s neither in the stars (out there), nor exactly in ourselves. The joy we’re looking for cannot be found, because it’s already ours. It is a spontaneous expression of inner peace, of our spiritual release to the grounding mystery of being itself. This ability to simply relax into being and rest in the rise-and-fall of the life process is what we naturally did in our mother’s womb, and for a short time afterwards.

Then we got pulled under the spell of our own emptiness and helplessness, and of our need for a salvation from outside us. Unhooked from our inner peace in this way, the secret to happiness could only be out there. From that moment, the natural inside-out flow of our self actualization got reversed to an outside-in program of gulping consumerism; we were re-hooked, but now to the Great Machine.

The good news – the gospel, dharma, or whatever you want to call it – is that we don’t have to stay under the spell. True enough, we have a choice between a genuine joy arising from inner peace and the cheap thrills (though much of it ain’t cheap) beckoning to us from the TV screen. But when we do choose to turn off the Tube and let our focus sink into the Real Presence of mystery within, we find ourselves resting in a provident universe – from the circling stars in their galaxies overhead to the quantum oscillations of consciousness inside our cells. The still center of this turning magnitude resides right there, in you; and the other one is right here, in me.

When we live out of this center, an inner sense of wellbeing rises and fills us with joy. This is not the fleeting thrill and spasmodic cheer we often mistake for true happiness. Joy is a perennial bloom whose secret source is not outside us, but not exactly inside us, either. A better term would be ‘within’ us – with and in and deep beneath the persons we are pretending to be. Joy is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’, but is rather the lift of being and fullness of life in us, manifesting as us, and flowing through us.

Perhaps it is another name for the human spirit.

Joy, or genuine happiness, is inwardly rooted, deep in the peace of our grounding mystery. We don’t need to look for it because we already have it. Once we realize this – the moment we really get it, our understanding of love makes a radical shift. What had been our lust and longing for what will complete us and make us happy is transformed into an outflow of creative goodwill and selfless generosity.

Because we no longer need something or someone else to make us happy, the deep contentment of inner peace and our spiritually grounded joie de vivre can move us into the world without this complication. We can reach out and give of ourselves with no strings attached, no demand for reciprocity, no expectation of reward.

Love which is as joyously free as that, is a love that can save the world.

 

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God Above and The Ground of Being

It’s interesting how the evolution of life, the development of a species, and the maturation of individuals within a species all tend to proceed from simpler to more complex forms and stages of existence. The human embryo carries vestigial gills and a tail from our prehuman ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar fashion, children grow into mental abilities following the same sequence as our species over many thousands of years. What we see at one level (life, species, individual) is evident in the other levels as well.

Culture is the construction zone where the degree of advancement in our human species gets transmitted from individual-level breakthroughs, into the collective consciousness of society, and back again to the individual in the form of innovations in the traditional way of life.

In the interest of social cohesion and stability, a preferred path of change would be able to keep some of what has been (as tradition), as it moves forward into what will be. The role of institutions can be understood in this sense, as conservative and stabilizing structures in the flow of cultural change. The very definition of religion, from the Latin religare meaning “to connect or tie back,” identifies it as an institution in this sense – indeed as the conservative and stabilizing structure in culture.

When the European Enlightenment got the intelligentsia excited about the possibility of throwing off the superstitions of the past to embrace a future of science, religion was the obvious and easy target. Without a doubt, there was much about the institution of Christendom that wouldn’t listen and constructively respond to new discoveries and developments going on at the ground level of human experience.

As the official Church condemned new theories and excommunicated the brave souls who dared contradict its now-archaic orthodoxy, the best (and perhaps the only) recourse for many was to simply push the whole outfit into the ditch and move on with progress. The modern West turned its attention to factual evidence and the technical possibilities of this world, content to leave spirituality, religion, and God Above in an early chapter of its new autobiography: The Enlightened Man’s Emancipation from Ignorance and Myth.

The Christianity we all know (and fewer of us love) is a type of religion known as theism, for the way it is oriented on and organized around the belief in a supreme being who is large and in charge. Our fortunate birth and prosperity in this life, followed (hopefully, if we get it right) by beatitude in the hereafter, is our Pilgrim’s Progress supervised by God Above.

We happen to be living in the twilight of theism, during a late phase known as orthodoxy. At this point it is primarily about believing the right things, and doing whatever it takes to defend and propagate “the one true faith” around the world. By now, for a large majority of Christian true believers, the present mystery (we can even call it the real presence) of God has receded permanently behind something much more pressing and important – and manageable: the right opinion (ortho+doxa) about God.

At the end of the day it’s all a very heady enterprise and increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. People are leaving the Church in droves, with the Enlightenment campaign of atheism once again on the rise. As a counter-measure, the engines of orthodoxy are locking into gear and plowing full steam ahead, until Jesus comes again or all hell breaks loose (rumor has it these might be the same event).

Fundamentalists, ultra-conservatives, and right-wing evangelicals are certainly not helping their cause, as bright and reasonable people who continue their quest for a grounded, connected, and personally relevant spiritual life are leaving the crazies to their end-game.

I spend more time than I would like trying to explain how the impulse to cast theism out with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic and dysfunctional religion, while certainly understandable to some extent, is not the real solution to our problem. For one thing, the theistic paradigm and its role in society should not be simply identified with any of its historical incarnations.

In other words, a corrupt version of theism is not necessarily a reason to reject theism itself outright. It happens that every institution is prone to desperate measures when threatened by the natural course of change. In this way, an institution is the cultural equivalent of an individual ego – a conservative and stabilizing construct of identity that resists becoming what it isn’t used to being.

What follows is a perspective on theistic religion, exploring its development through distinct phases starting with its rise out of animism and following through its twilight into post-theistic forms of spirituality. My model for this developmental schema is not only based in the evidence of archaeology, but, just as important and even more useful, on the phases stretching from early childhood to maturity in the living individual today.

Evolution of ReligionEarliest theism, just like early childhood, was lived in a world constructed of stories. There was no obvious boundary separating “fact” from “fiction,” the given facts of reality from the make-believe of fantasy. Theism was born in mythology (from the Greek mythos referring to a narrative plot, which is the structural arch that serves as the unifying spine of a story).

Its gods began as literary figures personifying the causal agencies behind the order and change of the sensory-physical realm. Myths were not regarded as explanations of reality (as a kind of primitive science), but instead were performances of meaning that conjured the gods into being with each rendition.

It’s difficult to appreciate or understand this phenomenon as we try to grasp it with adult minds, but perhaps you can remember how it was for you back then. The fantasy world of myth doesn’t merely fade into the metaphysical background when the story concludes. Rather, that world exists only in the myth and is called into expression every time the myth is performed afresh.

We modern adults entertain a delusion which assumes the persistence of reality in the way we imagine it to be, even when our stories (at this later stage known as theories) aren’t actively spinning in our minds. The paradigm-stretching frontier of quantum physics is confirming how mistaken this assumption is, and how much we really understood (though perhaps not consciously) as children.

At some point in late childhood and early adolescence the individual recognizes that real life requires an adjustment from imaginary friends, magical time warps, and free-spirited performances of backyard fantasy, to the daily grind of household chores and lesson plans.

A more complex and complicated social experience means that opportunities for reigniting the creative imagination must be “staged,” that is, relegated to a consecrated time and location that will be relatively free of interruptions. Here, in this sacred space, the stories will be recited; but in view of limited time, only the major scenes and signature events are called to mind.

The required investment of time, attention, and energy in social responsibilities will not return the degree of enchantment and inspiration an individual needs to be happy. There needs to be a place for mythic performance and reconnecting with the grounding mystery. Besides, the mythological god can’t be left hanging in suspended narrative when it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

Theism had to adapt along with this emerging division between sacred and secular (temporal, daily) concerns. It did this by creating a special precinct where the majority could enter and observe an ordained minority dress up, recite the stories, and enact mythic events linking their broken time (divided and parsed out among countless duties) back to the deep time of an eternal (timeless) life.

Just as the holy precinct of ceremony served to connect a profane existence “outside the temple” (Latin profanus) to the sacred stories that weaved a tapestry of higher meaning, the god who originally lived in those stories was relocated to a supernatural realm overhead, standing by and watching over the business below. Even if the stories weren’t actively spinning, people could take comfort in knowing (technically believing) that he was in his place and doing his job.

On a designated day the community gathered in the temple, and at just the right moment an official would sound a bell, light a candle, unveil an icon, or recite a scripted prayer invoking (calling in) the presence of the god. At that very moment, all were in agreement (at least those paying attention) that the deity would descend from his abode in heaven and receive their worship.

A ritual enactment of sacred story would typically culminate at a point where the congregation was invited to step into deep time once again. Afterwards a signal was given bringing the ceremony to an end, and the people would depart to their workaday worlds.

With a growing population and the inevitable pluralism that comes with it, getting to the chapel on time becomes more of a challenge for a lot of people. How can theism survive when the ceremonies and sacred performances start losing attendance? What happens when god above no longer has an official invitation to condescend to the supplications of his gathered assembly of devotees?

This is what happens: former true believers give up their denominational affiliation and do their best to continue on their own. They will still look up when they speak of god, point to heaven and cross themselves when they score a goal, and perhaps bow their heads and say a prayer before breakfast.

Once in a while they might make their way back to the chapel (maybe on time) to observe a performance of one of the really big stories. As they watch, a dim memory of childhood enchantment will stir somewhere deep inside them and they will feel the magic once more.

How can theism hold on when its ceremonial system – the land and buildings, the gold-plated symbols and silken vestments, the professional staff of ordained ministers, and the hard-won market share of rapidly defecting souls – is sliding into obsolescence and bankruptcy? The answer brings us to the third and final phase in the lifespan of theism, the twilight of institutionalized religion known as orthodoxy.

The enchanted storytelling of early childhood gives way to staged ceremony in young adulthood, which in turn and with further reduction eventually gets packaged up into neat boxes of truth called doctrines. An obvious advantage of this reduction of theism to doctrines lies in its handy portability, in the way it can be carried conveniently inside the head and transferred into more heads by rote memorization and Sunday School curricula.

If the first phase of theism (storytelling) featured the bard, and the second phase (ceremony) depended on the mediation of priests, this third phase (orthodoxy) belongs to the theologians. They are the experts who tell us what to believe about god and other metaphysical things.

Since theism at this point has become a rather sophisticated set of beliefs, the best (and perhaps only) way to impress their importance on its members is to make the doctrines necessary to what more and more people are lacking and so desperately looking for: security and longevity – specifically that odd fusion of security and longevity defined in the doctrine of everlasting life.

As time goes on, this notion of a future escape from a life burdened by fatigue, boredom, and absurdity grows more attractive, until the true believer is willing to give up everything – or, if necessary, to destroy everything – for its sake.

In the Age of Orthodoxy people still speak of the god above, of the miracles of long ago, or of a coming apocalypse and future rapture of the saints, but you’ll notice that the critical point of reference is consistently outside the present world. Celebrity hucksters and pulpiteers try to fill the vacuum with staged demonstrations of “faith healing” and prophetic clairvoyance, but the inspiration is cheap and unsatisfying. Mega-churches and sports stadiums become personality cults centered on the success, charisma, theatrics, and alluring ideal of their alpha leaders.

In a sense, this transformation of old-style sermon auditions into entertaining religious theater represents a final attempt of theism to push back the coming night. There’s no getting around the fact that orthodoxy just isn’t that interesting, and as it rapidly loses currency in the marketplace of relevant concerns, more and more people are saying good-bye to church, to organized religion and its god-in-a-box.

As a cultural transition, the crossover from managed religion to something more experiential and inwardly grounded corresponds to that phase for the individual, when a deeper thirst for life in its fullness forces him or her to push back from the table of conventional orthodoxy and its bland concoction of spiritual sedatives.

In the twilight of theism, people are starting to give voice to their doubts, but also, increasingly, to their questions, their long-buried intuitions, and their rising new-world aspirations. They want more than anything to be real, to be fully present, and deeply engaged in life with creative authority.

This inward turn is the critical move of post-theism. It’s not about pulling down orthodoxy or refuting its god, but rather simply letting go and quietly sinking into being. Quietly is a reminder that words at this point are like hooks that can snag and slow one’s descent, running the risk of turning even this into another religion with its own esoteric orthodoxy.

The ego and its constructed word-world of meaning need to be left behind so that consciousness can softly settle into the still center of contemplative awareness. Here all is one. There is only this.

Here is born (or reborn) that singular insight which inspired us to tell stories in the first place. Now, perhaps, with a lifetime of experience and some wisdom in our bones, we can tell new stories.

It’s always been and will always be here and now.

 

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Lost in The Message

Present Mystery FullWhat’s your message? What philosophy of life – theories, beliefs, values, and aims – do you live by? Each of us has a message, a personalized interpretation of what life is about, what really matters. Some of us are more consistent in the way we put our philosophy of life into practice, and some philosophies of life are more thoughtfully composed than others. But we all have one – or I should say, each of us has one, which means that all of us taken together represent billions of different messages concerning the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, the meaning of life, and how we ought to live.

If we shift focus from individuals to societies, we can see that entire groups of people are characterized by the messages of their respective traditions. There’s a Christian message and a Buddhist message, and inside each we will find variations on the principal message: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical or Progressive Christian; Mahayana, Theravada, Zen or Pure Land Buddhist. These group-level distinctions are more numerous than you might first expect, and the variations on a message will multiply exponentially the deeper we look, until, once again, we find ourselves face-to-face with this individual Christian or that individual Buddhist (or whatever brand of message we happen to be considering).

Any message (at whatever level) can only speak out of the range of experiences informing it. No human being can hold everything inside his or her frame of reference, and even when we adopt someone else’s message into our own, we are unable to escape the limitations inherent to just having a perspective. Some cultural messages, like the religions mentioned a moment ago, claim that their perspective on reality was revealed to them by someone who did (or does) in fact comprehend everything in a limitless perspective, which is a contradiction supernaturally transcended in this case.

But you have only to study it in closer detail to discover that their so-called revealed message carries assumptions about the universe that are millenniums out of date, along with ethical values and directives that today many regard as barbaric at best. Even if their message once had the mystique of encompassing all of reality, it’s obvious now that it cannot – and didn’t back then, either.

So all of us carry messages that articulate a philosophy of life, conclusions and conjectures that orient us meaningfully in reality. My message is not exactly the same as yours by virtue of our different backgrounds, histories, situations and personalities (to use very broad categories). And neither of us holds the same philosophy of life today as we did, say, ten years ago. The slow process of maturity changes us, and along the way we come upon opportunities, suffer losses, and learn things that our former self could not have imagined or wished for.Present Mystery 3So many messages, so many different philosophies of life might inspire a more thoughtful exploration of meaning, if only we could get past the outer orbit where we all are promoting our messages as the best or only right one. But let’s say for now that we can. If there are so many variants in how human beings interpret reality and make sense of things, what can be said about the nature of meaning itself? If you have yours and I have mine, then at least we should be able to agree that meaning is more complex than our divergent messages would have us believe.

Indeed, the “meaning of life” that each of us is busy constructing is incapable of being reduced to a publishable message. There is just too much information, too many angles and perspectives, too many different ways of arranging and connecting the countless points of human experience, to break it all down into a single exhaustive philosophy of life. If we can step deeper into the complexity of what we might dare call THE human experience, we have to be willing to leave behind the either/or logic of competing messages and develop a tolerance for paradox.

It is possible that your message and mine are two legitimate spins on the meaning of life, constructed out of two distinct vantage points on the present mystery of reality and generated out of experiences that are deep-down unique according to the specific conditions that make us two different individuals. Our competing messages or philosophies of life may be irreconcilable, but perhaps all our efforts at negotiating a total agreement or eliminating our competition are fundamentally misguided. We are finally coming to understand that our ambition for one supreme and absolute message will most likely lead to our collective extinction.

Meaning, then, has to do with the haphazard and more intentionally systematic ways that human beings select from the moving stream of experience those sensations, impressions, and patterns that correspond to the apparatus of our nature as sentient beings. We “tune into” reality along frequencies matching our human needs for safety, nourishment, intimacy, identity, freedom, purpose and significance. It’s that last (and highest) need, for significance, which drives our incessant activity of meaning-making: constructing a “world” and composing a philosophy of life (our message) that will orient us meaningfully in reality.Present Mystery 2The construction of meaning begins in the act of reflecting on experience and forming a mental image that depicts it internally to the mind. As we would expect, the images which first ascend into consciousness are generated out of the primary experiences of being in the provident garden of our mother’s womb, falling out of union and pressed through a narrow passage into exile, thereafter compelled by the pang of need to find the sustenance, protection, and warm bonds of security that will ensure our survival.

The entire drama of birth is preserved in this way, as powerful archetypal impressions coded into our subconscious memory. These reflex images continue to serve as primal templates for what concerns us existentially as human beings; they are foundation for everything else we construct “higher up” in the configuration of meaning called our world. (I’ll refer the reader to the work of Stanislav Grof for more on that topic.)

Because they provide this bridge from direct and spontaneous experience into the organized construction site of our world, these reflex images are known as metaphors (from meta, across + phorein, to carry). Not to be confused with the similes and analogies by which we compare and make sense of things we know in other ways, metaphors operate as grounding for language, anchors that tie our otherwise free-floating world systems to the present mystery of reality. When they are engaged (typically at deep intuitive levels), these images draw consciousness down to its source. Rather than representing something (some thing) external to the mind, an archetypal metaphor is a “dark depiction” of our own essential ground.

And what is this ground exactly? We can’t say, for the simple reason that its reality as the ground of being is deeper than words can reach. Once the threshold between meaning and mystery is crossed, in the direct and spontaneous experience of reality, we leave meaning behind and enter the ineffable presence of being-in-the-moment. Not a being, but being-itself.Present Mystery 1This is where everything begins – not in the once-upon-a-time sense of begin, but as the timeless source of your existence in each moment. The present mystery of reality, which might also be named the Real Presence of Mystery, is evident all around you in its countless manifestations. As one of these manifestations of the present mystery, you also have the opportunity to descend through the interior of your own being, into deeper and deeper registers of contemplative experience until, releasing the last (which were really the first) forms of self-definition, awareness breaks through to … this.

We can review the long history of religion as the pouring-forth of mystery into meaning, and meaning into the numerous messages or philosophies of life encircling our planet today. With so many parties and denominations calling at us to join in agreement and have a seat in the sanctuary, more people than ever before are feeling lost in the message. So much of it leaves us baffled, but also slightly offended at the demand that we distrust ourselves and let someone else do our thinking for us.

More people now than ever are seeking to push through the mob of placards and pickets, ready even to drop their own heart-crossed creeds in the quest for a deeper truth. Because they are straining against the outflow of world construction that’s been going on for many generations, the effort and intention of these seekers is interpreted by the custodians of orthodoxy as defiance, disobedience, and rebellion. But they are not interested in anarchy. They aren’t promoting atheism or dabbling in New Age superstitions.

What they seek is Real Presence – in themselves, in their relationships and communities, in the way they live on the earth. For all I know, you may be one of them.

 

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Post-Theism and the Great Work of Religion

The progress of religion towards post-theism has its critics on either side, with devoted theists decrying it as just another form of atheism, and atheists voicing their suspicion that it’s taking us backwards into superstition and tribalism when we need to be moving forward into the enlightenment of science and technology. Theists are sure that the “post” in post-theism is motivated out of a desire to get rid of god, to get past our need for what god represents and provides. On the other side, atheists hear “theism” in post-theism and are convinced that it’s nothing more than a postmodern reconstruction of the same old neurosis.

But the “post” and “theism” in post-theism are misunderstood in each case. In fact, post-theism represents the direction religion must go – indeed it’s the direction that religion is already going, despite the slide at its margins into the corruptions of complacency and terrorism. You might be surprised to learn that you are a post-theist, but I make no presumptions.

Animist_TheistReligion began in the body, where the visceral urgencies of our animal life resonate with and link into (religare means to connect) the rhythms of nature. Earliest religion was animistic, preoccupied with the provident support of reality and the life-force that ebbs and flows along the rhythmic cycles of natural time. The pressing concern was to live in accord with these cycles, to flourish in the fertile grooves of dependency and to celebrate the mystery, both tremendous and fascinating (Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans), in which we exist.

There were no “gods” as yet, no external causes or agencies behind the forces impinging on us. The thunderstorm, for instance, wasn’t regarded as controlled or sent by some supervising intelligence separate from the storm. Rather the thunderstorm was itself the violent and refreshing expression of life-force. Its power manifested a vital energy and aroused sympathetic vibrations in our nervous system.

As time went on and the smaller family clans of our early human ancestors grew larger and more socially complex, this new cultural environment of the tribe gradually eclipsed a direct relationship with nature. In order for the individual to become a compliant member of the group, animal urgencies of the body had to be “trained” into morally acceptable behavior as befit the tribal order. The social construction of identity thus domesticated our animal nature and installed a deputy manager in the ego, with the authority of executive management retained by the tribe.

It was probably the question of “who’s in charge” – as key to the smooth operation of social roles and duties – that first inspired a reconsideration of nature as managed by external agencies, giving rise to the notion of deities as supervising directors behind what is happening around us. Conceiving a sovereign intelligence “on the other side” of our limiting conditions transformed the human-nature relationship into an exchange of services. As human devotees offered their prayers, worship, and sacrifices to a patron deity, it was hoped that the deity would in turn grant success in childbirth, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy, comfort in suffering, beatitude in the next life, or whatever boon was under the deity’s control and discretion.

Theist_AtheistSomewhere along the line, someone called “B.S.” and the game changed. The denial of (a) god’s existence might have been a simple refusal to accept the reality of something unavailable to direct experience. It may have come as science was starting to penetrate the veil of what’s really behind the phenomena of nature. Or perhaps it was provoked by the confrontation of a divine will and humane values, as ethical defiance of a deity’s demand for child sacrifice, for instance. Then again, our First Atheist may have simply been unable, with intellectual integrity, to accept the popular personification or orthodox theory of god.

The moment someone publicly said “No” to (this or that idea of) god, theism became an option and people had to choose between believing or not believing – that is, between taking the traditional myths and doctrines literally, or dismissing them as bunk and balderdash. Due to the morally charged nature of the tribe, and of the individual’s identity as a member of the tribe, this polarity of options quickly collapsed into a conflict of opposing views. Inevitably, it seems, theists and atheists are compelled by force of their differing convictions into dogmatic positions, each refusing to listen to the other and both fantasizing a world where the other no longer exists.

The rise of post-theism begins right here, in the tension generated between the poles of theism and atheism. It’s important to understand that post-theism is not merely a marketing makeover of theism, nor is it a postmodern restatement of atheism. And even though the dogmatists on both sides cannot (will not) acknowledge post-theism as a viable “third option,” there is a growing number of both theists and atheists who are creatively promoting its advance. This is because more contemporary thinking individuals are coming around to the realization that, one way or the other, we really just don’t know.

AgnosticBetween the dogmatic positions on either side of the theist-atheist debate, a significant population of truth-seekers around the planet and across cultures are finding space to breathe, as they acknowledge that the grounding mystery of being, which the myths and metaphors of religion attempt to name, is beyond language and the grasp of our minds. To say that it does or doesn’t exist in the guise of one deity or another is to miss the real insight of this agnostic confession. The point is that all our attempts to talk about it, as part of an effort to prove or disprove its objective existence, move us out and away from the very truth we are contemplating.

Post-theism begins, then, as theists and atheists alike humbly admit that the Real Presence of mystery (or the present mystery of reality, including, of course, the reality of our own existence) is ineffable – incapable of being described in words or reduced to meaning. Any honest thinking person cannot dismiss the awareness that language and the meaning we construct only qualifies this mystery, but will never contain it. For that reason we must renounce the tendency in ourselves towards dogmatism, and leave open a “space” in our belief systems for a deep, silent wonder.

Fighting over the existence of god is thus a contest over meaning that gets us no closer to the grounding mystery and provident uplift of life in this moment. Whether theist or atheist, each of us needs to descend through that open space and ponder the umbilical opening where meaning crystallizes and dissolves again into the mystery. Obviously this requires us to be sufficiently centered and self-aware, as well as contemplatively engaged in the moment. If you and I can both speak out of that agnostic space of not-knowing, offering our perspectives and beliefs in a spirit of humility, the Great Work of religion can proceed.

DialogicalThe theist-atheist debate is a win-lose contest (and all too quickly becomes a war). Dialogue, on the other hand, is this activity of sharing our perspective without a need to persuade or convince a dialogue partner to our position. We speak and listen with openness, curiosity, respect, and in a mutual understanding of the necessary incompleteness (and possible distortions) in our relative points of view. Through the back-and-forth of dialogue, meaning (logos) forms between (dia) the partners. It is no longer merely a reciprocal sharing but becomes a mutual co-creation of higher meaning.

Full ChartWith my illustration now complete, what I’m calling the “Great Work” of religion approaches fulfillment. With its commitment to keeping an open space of agnostic confession and enjoining other perspectives in healthy dialogue, post-theism takes up the responsibility of constructing shared meaning. This constructivist phase is where the providential uplift of the grounding mystery, experienced in the mystical depths of contemplative awareness, finally bears fruit in a paradoxical vision: The truth of both/and honors our differences as it energizes the ongoing pursuit of inclusive community.

                                                                                

Note: The color-code of text in my diagram corresponds to that in previous posts.

  • Black = Body, vitality, animal nature, carnal, instinct, urgency
  • Orange = Ego, identity, inner child, personal, fantasy, obedience
  • Purple = Soul, authenticity, higher self, spiritual, wisdom, responsibility
 

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