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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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Thinking About Religion

Recently in the Wisdom Circle I attend we engaged a discussion on the difference between “inflexible” and “flexible” knowledge. Inflexible knowledge is when our understanding of something is fused to the particular example by which it was first introduced. We are not yet able to think of it abstractly – or in other words, apart from its concrete instantiation.

Flexible knowledge is achieved when we’ve reached an understanding of the principles informing this and conceivably all examples of the same type.

Needless to say, education needs to be committed to helping people move from inflexible to flexible knowledge in any subject. Thankfully the normal progression in brain development unfolds through a “concrete operational” stage and opens a capacity for “formal operations” and abstract reasoning by the second decade.

And yet, there are plenty of us adults whose knowledge of a subject is oddly inflexible, given the direction our brains would otherwise have us go. I could pick any number of subjects, but as it is one of my favorites in this blog, let’s consider religion.

Probably most people I know hold an inflexible knowledge of religion.

  • This may be due to the fact that their only exposure to it was back in childhood, and then only on holidays and special occasions. Now as adults they still consider religion (in this case, Christianity) through the filter of what church was like for them back then.
  • Or perhaps in their younger years they were victims of religious abuse – made to feel guilty, depraved, and hell-bound unless they submitted to church authority and “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” It wasn’t possible to get out fast enough, but they left with the impression of religion – again, this religion, this particular church – as repressive, judgmental, and narrow-minded.
  • And then it’s possible that their inflexible knowledge of religion is more than anything else a symptom of our modern admiration of science and secular interests. Science set us free from superstition, magical thinking, and metaphysical nonsense. All of that is religion, and we’re better off without it. Not some early or traumatic exposure, in other words, but really a lack of exposure whatsoever: just religion in general, thrown under a categorical gloss as pre-modern and culturally irrelevant.

I don’t dispute the claim that much of religion today is irrelevant. The various examples of religion we see around us do indeed appear stuck in tradition and wedded to worldviews millennia out of date. But does this mean that religion itself is obsolete?

Let’s go back to the critical distinction made above. Could it be that the widespread negative opinion on religion held by most people I know is itself a product and feature of inflexible knowledge? Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you hold such an opinion. For you, religion is a hopeless tangle of pre-scientific notions, irrational fears, abusive authority, worn-out convictions, and otherworldly distractions – made up, let us say, of just these five threads.

Here are some questions for you to consider.

Numerous Exposures

On how many separate occasions were you confronted by all five threads of religion, as you are defining it? Maybe you think that one exposure to abusive authority was enough! I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed. But is it rational (or fair) to conclude from your one negative exposure that nothing of genuine value is to be found there?

Maybe you had numerous exposures to the same abuse in that church. Still, is it reasonable for you to transfer your indictment from that particular church to its parent religion, and from there to all religions, even to religion itself?

Different Angles

Through how many facets of religion were you confronted by all five of these threads? Examples of what I mean by an angle (or facet) would include sacred ceremony, theological instruction, moral codes, social structure, orthodox beliefs, devotional practices, and mystical experience.

Each angle of exposure renders a unique impression of what a religion is about. Has your experience of religion been multifaceted or more narrow in focus? If more narrow, is it rational of you to inflate one facet into a representation of this religion as a whole – and again, of all religions and even religion itself?

Wider Variety

How many different kinds of religion have you experienced, or even carefully studied? If you had a negative experience once, or even many times in a single religion (say the Christian church of your youth), is it logical for you to conclude that churches of other Christian denominations, or faith communities of other non-Christian religions are the same?

Exposure to a wider variety of religions forces open the conceptual frame by which you define one religion or another – unless, of course, you are ready to take just your example as “religion,” dismissing all the others as something else. But how reasonable is that?

Deeper Elements

How far under the surface features of religion have you gone, in any kind of intellectually disciplined analysis? By deeper elements I mean not only the more esoteric notions (i.e., reserved for those on the inside) and historically formative material that makes each religion unique, but (deeper still) the intuitions of presence, ground, unity, and mystery – the source-experience of religion itself.

Such intuitions may be mediated and expressed through a religion’s symbol system, but their direct experience is spontaneous and ineffable (beyond words). A disciplined analysis can break into a myth, for instance, in order to contemplate its root metaphors. But these, rather than taken literally (which by definition amounts to a denial of depth), are followed to the edge of mystery and finally released for the direct experience itself.


You can be said to possess a flexible knowledge of religion when (1) you’ve had numerous exposures to a single religion (2) from several distinct angles; when (3) you have participated across a wide variety of different religions, and successfully (4) penetrated its surface to the present mystery of reality, to the ground of your own being where all is one.

With those qualifications in place, we can now pick up our dialogue on religion.

 

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The Mandala of Four Aims

In a recent post entitled Refresh and Restart I introduced the idea of religion as having four aims, considered on the analogy of computer software applications. While every program needs to be compatible with the computer’s deeper operating system, it will also have a specific design objective in what it does – organize data, calculate numbers, generate text, create graphics, edit videos, play games, and so forth. You won’t get a spreadsheet to trim and splice segments of video; it wasn’t designed for that.

Similarly, a given religion (take your pick) needs to be compatible with and supported by the operating system of human spiritual intelligence. This is the thread of our quadratic intelligence that intuits the deeper ground and higher wholeness of existence, as well as our communion with all things.

When religion loses this thread – by that peculiar combination of ignórance, conviction, and dogmatism so common today – it ceases to be true in the sense of expressing and speaking to our spiritual quest for oneness.

Assuming fidelity to this deeper register of spirituality, a religion can also be evaluated according to how effectively it accomplishes one or more of four aims. Even though a given religion will carry all four, certain historical, social, and psychological conditions will focus its preference on one more than the others.

The danger is that these others will be pushed out of the frame altogether by a growing obsession with this one, now absolute truth. This is a second way that religion ceases to be true: when it makes one way (or aim) the only way of salvation.

The diagram above illustrates the four aims of religion arranged as a mandala or sacred design. I also want to make a case for arranging them just as I have, as a polarity of opposites on a horizontal and vertical axis. This particular arrangement shifts our contemplation from a mere two-dimensional pattern to the mandala of four aims as also a matrix of meaning.

The four aims, I am suggesting, are basic to our construction of meaning in the way they orient our quest into four major fields (or zones) of human concern.

First Zone: Tribal Solidarity

Because humans depend on social bonding not only to survive infancy but to ‘be somebody’ and live a meaningful life, the social concerns of belonging, intimacy, trust, and group loyalty continue to figure prominently throughout our lifespan. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is one of our severest punishments.

As the personality individuates a unique identity (ego), the process of differentiation must be counterbalanced by affiliation in order to keep us properly connected to our tribe. Person, personal, and personality are all forms of the basic idea of persona, referring to the ‘masks’ we put on (or roles we play) in our interactions with others.

The arc of a human career – through the changing roles of family, work, and service to our community – is profoundly affected by the nature and quality of relationships that sustain us in tribal solidarity.

Second Zone: Worldly Success

Still, the prosperity of every society depends on more than strong bonds among its members. Our young must not only be loved, supported, and encouraged in their development as individuals, but they also require the necessary education, training, resources, and opportunities to take their place in our shared economy.

As parents, we work and hope that our children will themselves grow up to work and hope the same for their children. No parent has ever dreamed of having bums and freeloaders as descendants. Instead, we want them to do their best, to accomplish the goals set before them, to one day be successful and responsible adults.

Across the cultures worldly success has been measured in terms of material prosperity, a healthy family, good reputation, and a long life.

Third Zone: Heavenly Hope

While not all religions hold the same view of what happens or where we go when we die, they all articulate visions of life that expand the frame beyond our fourscore-and-ten (if we’re lucky on that metric of worldly success). Even if we’re not believers, most of us have at least contemplated our short measure of life against a backdrop of the generations and even cosmic time.

Regardless of whether we ascribe to a doctrine of personal immortality, we all hold the hope that our lives matter, that good behavior counts for something, and that not everything about us will simply rot away to nothing after we die.

‘Heavenly’, then, implies the larger context and longer view of our life which serves to amplify (rather than extinguish) the precious value of each moment, up to and including the very last one.

Zone Four: Mystical Union

Even if many religions don’t promote it as a bona fide orientation or aim, they all – that is, the ones that are true in the two senses mentioned earlier – acknowledge a fundamental distinction between our beliefs about god and our experience of God. The case change is meant to reflect this difference, between a present mystery (‘G’) and the names, concepts, attributes, and personality we may attach to it in our mind (‘g’).

When a religion’s concept of god gets authorized and fixed in place as orthodoxy, the availability of that mystery to our present experience is closed off – or veiled – by the meaning draped over it.

That drape or veil creates the illusion of God as an object (god), separate from us as a being among beings rather than the Being of beings – that is to say, as the ground of being-itself. The aim of mystical union is to lift away the veil of separation for a present experience of the mystery.


With the four aims now in view and more fully defined, we can briefly take note of some creative tensions among them – and of the entire mandala as a matrix of meaning.

The horizontal axis sets tribal solidarity and worldly success in opposition, insofar as the process of ego formation and ‘making a name for ourselves’ involves separating from those primary bonds where our sense of security first took root.

For its part, the tribe can pull back on this process too hard with its expectations of obedience and conformity, traditionally presided over by the patron deities of theism. From the other side, an unrestrained egoism will brashly disregard tribal values for the sake of individual gain and glory, as is widespread today especially in the North Atlantic societies of the modern West.

The vertical axis between the aims of heavenly hope and mystical union carries a tension of positive and negative attitudes, respectively, as they relate to the conventional arrangement of those horizontal concerns. On the positive side, heavenly hope anticipates a final reunion (accent on community) with those heroes, saints, and loved ones who departed before us. It also holds the promised reward for our faith, virtue, and sacrifice in this life.

With our ‘treasure in heaven’, we can more easily share our time and possessions with others who need them, as well as find strength to endure hardship and loss.

Negatively, the path to mystical union is universally depicted as necessitating a retreat into solitude (apart from community) where we surrender our attachments, ambitions, and finally our personal identity (i.e., our worldly success) to the essential mystery of oneness.

It’s important to understand that ‘heavenly destiny’ and ‘ground of being’ are both operating in the matrix of meaning as metaphors which serve to open awareness beyond the limits of tribal affections (us and ours) and egoic entanglement (me and mine). A literal reading of these metaphors turns them into distant and esoteric locations, stripping them of their power to facilitate the breakthrough of consciousness that true religion makes possible.

 
 

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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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A Method of Dialogue, Step One: Preparation

A method is not like a machine, where once you get it going you can step back and leave it alone. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a method of dialogue and community formation. To step back from dialogue is to abort the process and abandon community.

Furthermore, dialogue and community simply do not happen where individuals are not invested in the work.

That’s why PREPARATION is the first step or phase in the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue that we’re exploring in this five-part series of blog posts (Introduction + each of the four steps). If individuals and would-be partners in dialogue mistakenly think that they are stepping into some kind of automatic machine for making community and cranking out creative resolutions, the process doesn’t stand a chance.

The higher consciousness represented in the spiritual phenomenon of community does not (and cannot) exist separate from the individuals whose creative intentions combine and fuse in its consilient effect.

Neither is PREPARATION for dialogue a simple routine that we do as a way of getting ready for the really important stuff. As an organic process, community awakens and unfolds out of the deeper presence that partners bring to the encounter. And although I am analyzing my method of dialogue into four steps, we shouldn’t think of these as stacking blocks or even as stepping stones where we leave one for the next in line.

It’s preferable to regard them as phases, as in the developmental transformations from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Just as the butterfly doesn’t stack on top of these earlier manifestations or leave them behind, but rather incorporates and emerges out of them, our individual PREPARATION for dialogue is the interior source out of which community grows. No egg, no butterfly. No intentional presence of individual partners, no dialogue and no genuine community.

What I’m calling intentional presence can be further analyzed into three virtues, by which I don’t mean moral qualities but actuated powers, as when we speak of the potency of medicine as its virtue. In the case of our intentional presence as individuals, the virtues in our intention to be fully present can be differentiated in terms of our being grounded in existence, centered in ourselves, and open to reality.

When we are grounded, centered, and open, we are becoming more fully present.

It’s important to understand that these virtues of intentional presence are not the result of effort, as if we must work to become grounded in being, centered in ourselves, and open to reality. The truth is that we are already these, but our mind gets distracted or lured away from this truth, tangled up and captivated inside its own designs.

Each form of existence is grounded in being; if not, it wouldn’t be. Each individual is centered in itself; if not, it wouldn’t be one. And it’s also true that we are always open to reality – to the turning cosmos (or ‘universe’) and vibrant web of life; if not, we would instantly perish.

So we require some sort of practice – a technique, a ritual, a simple meditative exercise – that can help refocus our conscious attention on this place and this moment, commonly called the here-and-now. There is no single and set way of doing this, but the counsel from our numerous wisdom traditions is pretty straightforward: Be still. Be quiet. Close your eyes and just breathe. Let yourself simply relax into being.

If a focal object in front of you helps orient your attention; if soothing music and soft light help you calm down; if counting your breath occupies your mind and keeps it from wandering away, then include these supports as needed.

The purpose of such a practice is to allow all your insecurities, all your concerns, all your judgments, and all your expectations to just fall away. What’s left is boundless presence: grounded in being, centered right where you are, and open to it all.

As we should expect, such practices of intentional presence take on the character of our local cultures and traditions. And because historically it has been the enterprise responsible for mediating our minds to the present mystery of reality, we should neither be surprised nor offended if such practices still carry some of the formal features of religion.

It is possible to ‘liberate’ intentional presence from these traditional accouterments, however; which is what we must do if our aspiration is to engage dialogue and create community across cultures in this increasingly secular and global age.

Individual PREPARATION ensures – or more accurately, makes it more likely – that the productive dialogue and consilient effect of genuine community can arise. When partners take the time to be fully present (grounded, centered, and open), the dialogical phase of consideration can begin. We’ll explore that next.

 

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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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The Last Delusion

If you ask most people “Who are you?,” after their proper name you’re likely to get a short list of roles they perform in the various social niches of their life. As I use the term, ‘niche’ refers to a particular environment of social interaction where individual members carry identities assigned and scripted by a coherent narrative which they all accept as the story of what’s going on.

Every time we step into a niche, we do so at the entry point of a role – unless we are a stranger or an intruder; but even then we will be regarded as a stranger or intruder, which is a kind of role as well. Roles can be thought of as personas (from Greek theater for the ‘masks’ worn by stage actors), and every persona comes with a script that we need to learn and personalize (or make our own). Depending on the niche, a particular role will be more or less flexible in allowing such personalization, but in some cases there is no flexibility whatsoever.

The coherent narrative mentioned above is an essential aspect of a niche; you might think of this ‘story of what’s going on’ as the temporal (time) counterpart to the contextual (space) aspect of a niche. All of the smaller interactions unfolding between and among the member roles are contained and validated by the bigger story, and it would not be a misuse of the term to call this bigger story a myth. Myths are narrative compositions that serve to construct our concepts and images of what really matters to us – or, which is more likely, myths make certain things matter to us.

A myth establishes what it means to live and act inside its niche: who we are, where we’re going, why it matters, and even what we want.

In our family niche, for example, the myth tells us that what we want is security, love, and belonging; these are values we associate with what a family should be (or ideally is). Our own family is a ‘true family’ to the degree it matches this archetype as established in the myth. In a different niche – say, the workplace – other values may attach to what it means to be a member, how we should live and act in that setting according to its primary myth. Maybe not security, but risk-taking; not love, but power; not belonging as much as standing out and getting noticed.

Another term important to understand is World, which is not a synonym for the global environment, planet Earth, or the universe at large, but designates the total set of niches where our identity is constructed and negotiated. As each niche has its primary story, or myth, we can call this total set of big stories our mythology – simply the collection of myths that orient us in reality and determine our perspective on what matters.

A mythology, in other words, is to our world as each myth is to its niche. The world is therefore a narrative complex of many stories that projects a logosphere or ‘sphere of meaning’ around us, inside of which we wear the masks and perform the roles that define who we are.

The normal course of socialization aims at our full identification with the roles we play. This is why the average person you ask will tell you “I am ______” by naming the different roles they play in life. But they’ll probably not use or even think of who they are in terms of role-play. In a simple and straightforward sense they are the personae that the niches of daily life require them to be.

This is what I call the First Delusion.

Historically our wisdom traditions – referring to the ancient heritage of mystical insights, life principles, and ethical ideals – have served to liberate individuals from this trap of mistaken identity. You are not the roles you play in life but the actor who is playing the roles. Your true self is distinct from the masks, scripts, stories, and stages on which you perform. When you realize this, you will no longer be subject to the vagaries of your ‘audience’ – all those others whose approval, praise, or criticism have been your driving motivation. From now on you can live your life not as a role-performance but in the spirit of freedom and creative authority.

The message might continue, however, telling you that just as your roles are temporal (in time), temporary (for a time), and relative to the roles of other players in the niches of your world, your true self is eternal (outside time), everlasting (for all time), and separate from all the drama. There may even be some nonsense about this true self making a ‘contract’ with destiny to incarnate in the fleshy vehicle of your mortal body, perhaps cycling through numerous such incarnations until the moment you see the truth, the truth sets you free, and you can reclaim your divine nature.

This I will call the Last Delusion.

That added twist on the message – the whole thing about your true self being metaphysically transcendent, immortal, and divine – plays well to an audience that is world-weary, chronically anxious, and self-obsessed. Just like us.

Its character as a delusion is focused in the way it diverts liberation from the First Delusion (“I am the roles I play”) by conceiving our ego (the actor) as an absolute center of personal identity, separate and separable from the body, an essentially indestructible unit of pure consciousness from an altogether different realm. The healthy and necessary deconstruction of identity encouraged by our wisdom traditions gets aborted in the interest of saving the ego from extinction.

But what’s wrong with that?

It’s not necessary to attach a moral judgment (wrong or bad) to this maneuver, but maybe a therapeutic one will make sense. Therapy is concerned with healing, health, wholeness, and well-being – values that are central to a developing spirituality as well. In the early stages of development individuals are guided by society into the First Delusion, where we are expected to carry on with our assigned roles. Thus engaged, we are most susceptible to the instructional download of cultural assumptions, priorities, and aims which are critical to social stability and cohesion.

Living by such programs is what Nietzsche lambasted as ‘morality’: getting in line, following the rules, and effectively subordinating our creative spirit to the value-orthodoxy of the tribe. For roughly the first half of life this is how it goes for most of us. The structure and sequence of incentives offered to us – hugs, stickers, trophies, awards, certificates, promotions, and titles – fuel our motivation to play along and do our best.

At some point, however, the luster starts to fade and we find ourselves having to muster the effort to keep at it. Only now we are getting a sense that it is all, indeed, a play. Granted, a very serious theatrical production in ‘let’s pretend’, but a pretense nonetheless. And those who really get caught up in it tend to be the most pretentious among us!

Lots of research correlates this disillusionment with the transition of mid-life, when all those prizes for conforming begin to feel less interesting or important. Or at least they don’t connect as much to the authentic self we more deeply aspire to be.

Regardless of when it comes about, our developing spirituality has brought us to the threshold of genuine self-discovery and liberation. This where the wisdom teachings drive home the message:


It’s not all about you. The life you have is transient, and each moment is profoundly precious. Get over yourself and invest in what really matters – not for the reward or recognition, but because in so doing you are fulfilling your reason for being, which is to give your life as a ransom for many. They need to know this shining truth as well, so be a light on their path in the time you have left.


And this is also where we might get lured into the Last Delusion, taking to believe that we are above it all, just passing through and on our way to live forever, somewhere else.

 

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