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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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On The Way

The process of becoming somebody and finding our way to genuine community, which I regard as the evolutionary directive of our species, is a hero’s journey fraught with pitfalls and dead ends. If we were driven and determined by a force entirely outside our control, we would have arrived at our apotheosis [see definition 2] long before now.

But with the introduction of self-conscious awareness our ultimate success in realizing that aim gets complicated.

Over the long course of our history, the complications attending our way to genuine community correspond to great shifts or transitions which consciousness must successfully negotiate. In this blog I have been developing a theory of religion (from the Latin religare, to tie back) as the mediating system of stories, symbols, and sacraments (ritual practices) that facilitate our construction of meaning and keeps us oriented on the journey.

My diagram identifies three relatively stable modes of consciousness and two transitional phases between them. The more stable stages represent periods when religion is confidently doing its job, while the phase transitions from one stage to the next are where things tend to go awry. In this post we will follow the path to its fulfillment, defining those stages and diagnosing the various deformations and pathologies that result when the move between them gets complicated.

Communion and community sound like they should be synonyms, but in fact their distinct meanings are critical to understanding my model. We’ll get to community eventually, but let’s define communion as the preconscious state of oneness. Historically (for our species) and developmentally (for each of us as individuals) this mode of consciousness is prior to – and importantly continues to underlie and support – the awareness of ourselves as self-conscious centers of sentiment, personality, and will.

The religion of this period is animism, and its job is to orient us inside the forces and rhythms of life. We’re not yet agents in life, managing an identity and making choices, but rather patients or ride-alongs on these mysterious currents moving through and all around us.

We can try to remember back to early childhood and what life was like before language equipped our ability to divide and isolate this moving picture into countless pieces. Or we can let awareness drop, right now in this moment, below our center of self-conscious ego and into the sentient organism of the body – not “our” body, since a conceit of ownership is just one of the ego delusions.

Even the possibility of dropping below the center of self-conscious identity presupposes an established center from which such a descent might be accomplished. This reminds us that the consideration of our topic of religion and human transformation will always take place from the particular vantage point afforded by our ego. From that vantage point the clarity of our perspective will be a function of how we got there, and what complications we suffered on the way.

Theism is the religious paradigm dedicated to the construction of personal identity, tribal membership, and a coherent moral order. Its deity warrants this moral order, serving as the final arbiter of right and wrong, of who’s in and who’s out, as well as the exemplar of what devotees regard as proper character and ethical virtue.

In a healthy and stable theism individuals are adequately centered in themselves while seeking to know and live according to god’s will. Following the commands of god ensures that members will get along, with each person playing his or her part in a role play directed from above.

Arriving at a stable center of personal identity, however, requires that our transition of separating from others and becoming somebody goes smoothly. But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Separating out of that preconscious state of communion comes at a cost of some security, and to compensate for what we’re losing we attach ourselves to others with the expectation that they make us feel safe.

The obvious problem with this compensatory strategy of attachment is that it prevents us from getting centered in ourselves. Without a stable center of our own, we can’t drop into the grounding mystery of our inner life, nor are we able to connect in healthy ways with others and devote ourselves to our mutual well-being.

I have represented this neurotic condition in my diagram with a tightening spiral, locking us inside and away from our ground, from our proper center, and from those healthy connections which are the precondition for the rise of genuine community.

I have written plenty of posts investigating the dangers of a theism organized around the insecure, grasping, and conceited ego. One place this plays out is in the representation of a god who is jealous, demanding, and vindictive; who wants all the praise and glory for himself. When religion gets hijacked this way, it becomes a serious impediment and threat to our human future.

But in order that I can put the final touches on my model and theory of religion, we will assume that things have gone reasonably well, with each of us properly grounded and centered, oriented on the greater good and inspired to bring our best to the shared work of community.

A healthy connection between two or more grounded and centered egos prepares us for the third and final stage of religion. What I’m calling genuine community is different from our original state of communion in the way it involves and depends on self-conscious persons joining together for a higher unity. For its sake, each person is invited to “go beyond” him- or herself for a transpersonal wholeness.

With our motivation sufficiently liberated from insecurity and self-concern, we can together hold a vision for the well-being of all.

Importantly, while some forms of spirituality after (“post-“) theism call for the negation of ego in pursuit of higher wholeness, the post-theism I advocate for acknowledges the necessity of having a stable center to launch from – and come back to. While it’s true that genuine community is a transpersonal experience of communal wholeness, to dissolve or subtract the ego rather than surpass and go beyond ourselves would effectively foreclose on its very possibility.

From preconscious communion, through self-conscious separation, getting over ourselves and coming together in a spirit of unity: Each of us is on the way. Let’s keep going.

 

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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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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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