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The Three Stages of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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In the Presence of Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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Touching Reality

The true longing of our spiritual life is to touch reality, to connect with what’s really real, and thereby to become more real ourselves: more authentically and fully human. This of course implies that to some extent we are not presently in touch with reality, and maybe not fully real.

According to the spiritual wisdom teachings, each of us suffers in separation from the really real insofar as we are deeply entangled in managing a separate personal identity, called our ego (Latin for “I”).

It might occur to us that extinguishing our separate ego, or preventing its formation in the first place, would make spiritual fulfillment more likely. Numerous philosophies, methods, and techniques have been devised with that end in mind. But they all fail, as they are destined to fail, since the discipline of eliminating the ego is dependent upon the individual’s desire, will, and persistent effort – that is, on the very thing they are setting out to abolish.

Religion is divided on the question of what to do with the ego. If it’s not to be annihilated, perhaps it needs to be rescued. If not snuffed out of existence, should we be concerned for its salvation instead – getting it safely out of this world of suffering and into some immortal paradise beyond?

It rarely occurs to those on the inside of this debate that there may be a third option, a kind of ‘middle way’. Neither destroyed nor delivered, but rather used as the means to what we’re really seeking, which is to touch reality and become more fully human. We’re not talking about using someone else for our own fulfillment, for that would just be another example of glorifying the ego and gratifying its self-centered ambitions.

To understand how and where the ego fits into our spiritual quest for the really real, it’s helpful to know what it is. My diagram is focused on this center of self-conscious awareness, stretching out from there in four directions. We’ll begin at the bottom, curve up to the left, zig to the right, and then curve up again to the top.

It’s important to keep in mind that all four directions (or dimensions of self) are correlated around the ego and only make sense from the vantage point it provides.

Let’s start with your centered sense of being a separate and unique individual. We’ll explore the contents of your identity shortly, but for now I will just ask you to let your awareness drop from that self-conscious center and into the deeper support of your experience in this moment. Underneath and supporting self-consciousness is a sentient nervous system, which is continuously picking up and processing sensory information from your environment and body.

As a sentient being, you sense, feel, and perceive what’s going on around and inside you. Beneath that, however, is the wonderful conspiracy of organic urgencies keeping your body alive. Organs and organ systems, glands and the circulatory paths by which they communicate, and down into the metabolic marvel of bones, tissues, and individual living cells.

And then there’s the physical substrate of matter, providing structure and magnetism for all of those miracles higher up. Inside of matter is the strange quantum realm of energy, which you can’t see or overtly feel, even though it suffuses everything about the physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious being that you are.

You should have noticed how each deeper drop into the grounding mystery of your existence requires that you surrender a little more of what makes you a separate and unique individual.

As your awareness lets go of all those attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that define who you are, you enter the increasingly less personal dimension of what you are. But notice, too, how with each deeper ‘layer’ in the essence of what you are, awareness opens correspondingly farther out to include more of reality. While ego awareness hovers close to your center of personal identity, sentient awareness connects you not only to other sentient beings, but to the entire sensory-physical universe.

All of what we have named so far can be placed under the category of ‘interiority’, inside and beneath the self. This withinness of your life does not belong to your ego, but rather supports it as its grounding mystery. To enter the interior dimension of your life, however, it is necessary to release all of those things that make you separate and special.

Descending by this interior path is one way you can touch reality.

Let’s think more about this “separate and special” person you are. What we summarized earlier as the attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that make you who you are do not refer to physical traits as much as personality traits. What we call ‘identity’ is not something you’re born with, but instead must be constructed in the long process called socialization. By this process your tribe shaped the behavior, implanted the values, and instructed the beliefs that aligned with its collective way of life.

Think about this: To be somebody and have an identity, you must belong to some tribe where your identity is recognized. Yes, you are a human being; but who are you? That’s something we can’t determine until we know the social context in which your identity is held. Your tribe provides you with a role to play, along with the script you’re expected to follow. Of course, there is typically some flexibility built in to allow for your particular talents, interests, and ‘performance style’.

We can distinguish this element of individuality from the social role itself by naming it a ‘mask’, as the face and outward expression in how you play the role. Interestingly, the Latin word persona refers to the mask a theater actor wore during a stage performance, and our words ‘person’, ‘personal’, and ‘personality’ derive directly from it.

Over time and through countless performances, a role begins to fuse with the sense of who you are. No longer is it something you step into for the purpose of engaging a social role-play, for it has by now fully insinuated itself into your behavior, beliefs, and worldview. At this point, the construction project achieves a critical victory, in establishing your character in the story of who you are.

You should note that all of it – mask, role, character, and story – are narrative constructs and have no true reality of their own. However difficult it may be to hear, it should be clear that moving from ego into what makes you a separate and unique person is actually taking you farther away from what’s really real.

But – and now we start our zig across my diagram to the opposite side – this very identity, constructed and ‘put on’ as it may be, is what gives you a place in the role-play and connects you to other persons.

If I remind you now about your own interiority, how deep below and detached it is from the theater stage where you and everyone else are trying to manage your personal lives, it should make sense if we call this third dimension ‘alterity’, referring to “the state of being other; otherness” (from the dictionary).

The interiority of the other is inaccessible to you, and even if they would share as much of their inner life with you as they possibly can, there will always remain something there that is ‘wholly other’ – unknown and unknowable, unspeakable and utterly ineffable. Despite all your best efforts to know them, and given the fullest confession of the other person, their otherness will continue to both confront and elude you.

Even if you were to uncover all their secrets and unravel the many strands of their personal narrative, their grounding mystery within would be absolutely transcendent to you.

This is true not only of other human persons, but of each and every existing thing there is. A grain of sand, for instance, presumably doesn’t possess a living body or sentient mind, but its simple interiority carries an otherness that still confronts you as impenetrable. Yes, you could smash the grain of sand into its component elements, but then you have only created countless more objects, each confronting you with its alterity.

As it relates to the spiritual life and our longing to touch reality, this dimension of alterity confronts us with the mystery of otherness. Reality is always other – even ‘wholly other’ than what we can experience or know, think or imagine.

Having established the fundamental duality between individuals, each hosting a profound interiority and confronted by the impenetrable alterity of the other, we can now make our final swing upward in my diagram. What is reality? It is all of it, together; a higher wholeness; the turning unity (uni-verse) of being and time. We are not speaking here of something else beyond the totality of things, but rather to the consilient (literally “leaping together”) dynamic by which all things are connected, involved, and contribute to the greater whole.

Indeed this greater whole is an emergent property of all those exchanges and transformations working together. When you are able to go beyond yourself, this time not letting go of what makes you separate and unique, but investing it and giving of yourself to the emerging unity of your life with others, you are touching reality in another way again. Not as grounding mystery or absolute otherness, but as genuine community.

Going within to the Ground, going out to the Other, and going up into Unity: these are the three ways we can touch reality and become more fully human.

In my next post we’ll take a look at how these translate into religion, and where religion commonly loses its way.

 

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Homecoming

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.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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