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More Than You Think

Let’s start with an interesting scientific fact. You have 100 billion neurons in your brain, 40 thousand neurons in and around your heart, and 500 million neurons in your gut. We’re used to thinking of neurons as “brain cells,” but that’s a serious misnomer perpetuated by our brain. Neurons are not simply nerve cells, but a very special type of nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses and networks with other neurons to generate the miracle of consciousness.

We have some justification to assume, then, that consciousness resides in these three nodes: the cephalic (head) node, the cardiac (heart) node, and the enteric (gut) node. We can also assume that these three nodes communicate among themselves, supporting a highly integrated global state of consciousness in our body.

It’s likely a mistake, however, to conclude that what’s going on in our heart and gut is similar to the business transpiring in our head.

This post offers a “theory of mind” that significantly expands our common notions of where it is and what kind of experience it facilitates. My diagram depicts the internal anatomy where consciousness is generated and resides, along with the distinct way each node engages with reality.

The spinal axis or corridor along which the three nodes of consciousness are situated suggests the kundalini system of Oriental psychology, and I will adopt a similar developmental scheme according to which things first get established lower down and rise upward, with the cephalic node (brain) taking much longer – more than two decades! – to come fully online.

One more interesting observation to make is how your brain’s anatomy is a triune (three-in-one) structure, with a primitive (basal or ‘reptilian’) layer enveloped by an ancient (limbic or ‘old mammalian’) layer, and capped with a more recent (cortical or ‘new mammalian’) layer most highly developed in our own species. It’s interesting how each of these layers in brain anatomy correlates with a distinct node of consciousness.

Thus the primitive basal brain shares a strong communication link with the enteric node in your gut, as the ancient limbic brain links with the cardiac node in your heart, while the newest cortical brain constitutes its own self-involved loop.

Rather than tracking this exploration with the rise of consciousness through the three centers, it might be easier to begin where you spend almost all of your conscious time: in your head. The idea of a self-involved loop is significant because of its suggestion that cephalic consciousness might be wrapped up in its own business more than the other nodes. And this starts to make sense when we remember that the cortical brain is responsible for constructing the mental model of reality affectionately known as your ‘quality world’ (William Glasser).

As a construct, your quality world is entirely inside your mind and maintained within the logical network of language, imagination, and thought. I will designate the cephalic node of consciousness your logical mind, taken from the Greek root logos (word, thought, theory, order, reason and meaning). And because world is the objective counterpart to a subjective self, the logical mind is also where your ego identity (“I”) is housed.

In The Heart and Hope of Democracy I defined ‘separation consciousness’ as the consequence of constructing identity upon its own separate center of self-conscious awareness and casting everything else into the position of ‘not-me’ (other, object, It). The logical mind is the Storyteller whose autobiography is your personal myth, constructed around a main character (ego) and unfolding inside a narrative world of its own creation.

“I” stands apart from reality inside a personal world, just like an actor inside a theater.

If all of that sounds a little psychotic, let’s not forget that our developmental progress as individuals and our evolutionary progress as a species depend in no small way on this sophisticated production in make-believe (also called ‘meaning-making’). The entire complex of human culture exists only in our minds, yet where would we be without it?

Although meaning is arguably not ‘out there’ in reality to be found, humans have been more than willing – even eager, and devotedly so – to surrender or destroy everything for its sake.

But now I’ll ask you to allow awareness to drop down from this cephalic node of your logical mind and into your heart-center. You might even experience a sensation of being suspended in a web of – what is it, energy? Feeling? Presence? The cardiac node of consciousness is what I will call your sympathic mind. Not sympathetic, but something more basic than that: an experience of resonance with your surrounding environment, a subtle perception drawn from your participation in an invisible web of communion.

Such a drop out of the trance-state of separation consciousness and into this experience of sympathic communion is one of the critical achievements of an effective meditation practice, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions. The departure can be compelled by an apocalyptic (world-collapsing) event such as a catastrophic loss or personal trauma. Or it can be more gradually and deliberately facilitated through a method of contemplative engagement with the present mystery of reality.

Because by arriving here you have already released the self-world construct of personal identity, your experience is of a seamless continuity between and among all things. It’s no longer “I” in here and “all of that” (others, objects, its) out there, but everything together as one. This explains why the heart plays such a central role in your participation and sense of connection with what’s going on around you, as the node of consciousness registering feelings of intimacy, belonging, compassion, gratitude, and bereavement.

One more drop downward and you release your place in the vibrant web, descending into the enteric node of consciousness and what I call the grounding mystery (or ground) of your existence.

Here there is no separate self, not even a sympathic communion with everything around you. Those 500 million neurons are generating a deep and slow frequency of consciousness that manages the internal state of your living body, as a metabolic conspiracy among your visceral organs, glands, and cells. This node of consciousness is the seat of your intuitive mind.

Intuition is classically regarded a special power of clairvoyant perception, a “sixth sense” that enables one to ‘see things’ that aren’t objectively there or are still in the future.

However, rather than subscribing to some theory of metaphysical realism where these invisible and impending images are taken as actually out there somewhere, a simpler explanation is that your intuitive mind is picking up information from that deeper register of what Carl Jung named the ‘collective unconscious’, where the archetypes (“first forms”) of your animal nature, with roots deep in evolutionary history, carry the ‘racial memory’ of our species.

Similar to how the accumulation of experiences over your lifetime gives you more exposure to the variety of opportunities and challenges of being alive, and thus a larger memory store from which you can derive wisdom and anticipate the future, so your intuitive mind draws on the collective experience of countless generations stored in the visceral organs of your gut. Its images are therefore not received from some metaphysical realm beyond, but instead arise as ‘revelations and foretellings’ inspired out of this grounding mystery within.

This interpretative shift from metaphysical realism to depth psychology is a crucial part of the phase transition from theism to post-theism.


Your mind is not just what’s going on inside your head. Together with your heart and gut, your brain is engaging with reality and generating an experience far bigger than you think. If you can just drop deeper into the present mystery of reality, you will come to realize that all along you have been “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows” (Polynesian saying).

 

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The Heart and Hope of Democracy

Let’s begin this meditation on the heart and hope of democracy with you identifying yourself with either the Blue or Red sphere in the diagram above. Then let’s pretend that all of your life you’ve been training to be the best Blue or Red you can be. From an early age your tribe was actively shaping and colorizing you, giving you careful instructions, applying timely discipline, and downloading all the necessary codes that would eventually get you to the point where, today, you don’t regard Blue or Red as one option among two (or many) but as who you are.

Beyond that, Blue or Red is also how you see the world around you. The meaning of things and the issues that grab your attention hold a strong correspondence to the perceptual filter of your identity. Blue or Red concerns just feel more important to you, and you make friends more easily with other Blues or Reds. Having the same values and beliefs about the world helps your conversations stay in tracks that are familiar and predictable.

If you are Blue, then those Reds are way off base. If you’re Red, then those Blues have no clue what’s going on.

Being sure of your identity as Blue or Red, you are vigilant to keep reddish or bluish tendencies in check. In fact, quite often it’s easier to determine where you stand on something by checking out the other color and then taking the opposite position. If your tribe has done its job and you remain strong in your convictions, the separation between you might as well be another feature of reality itself. You are Blue or you are Red, and they are way over there, outsiders to the one and true way of being in the world.

Democracy will always be challenged by the duality of opposites.

Blues and Reds might relish the fantasy of living out their days in a land exclusively Blue or Red, where everyone believes and behaves the same way – the right way, their way. But such a fantasy amounts to nothing more than what Joseph Campbell called a “utopiate”: a utopia or “no place” in the imagined future that sedates the mind like opium and keeps consciousness, now in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

As long as Blues and Reds see color as essential to the nature of what and who they are, ideology will continue to be mistaken for reality.

Indeed, living in a fantasy is not far from a true description of what’s going on for you as a Blue or Red. A better word perhaps might be trance, seeing as how your identity, beliefs, values and way of life were “put on you” starting at a very early age, like someone put under a spell by a hypnotist. We could justifiably call this entranced state “separation consciousness,” since its principal effect is in convincing you that you and that Red or Blue over there are entirely separate and have absolutely nothing in common.

Now, I’m not suggesting that who you are and what you believe are meaningless, for clearly they mean everything to you.

However, if we pause to consider how the meaning of anything is not found in the thing itself – Where exactly is the meaning of a flower or a star? – but is rather put on it by our mind, usually in agreement with other minds, then the notion of meaning as a spell and belief as a kind of trance might start to make more sense.

As long as Blues honor and respect only other Blues and bluish values, and as long as Reds honor and respect only other Reds and reddish values, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

We need to arrive at a place – which is no utopia but actually a step closer to reality – where Blues and Reds can listen to each other, ask questions that seek understanding, confirm this understanding by paraphrasing it back to the owner, and then join the work of constructing a world where they can coexist in peace, but even more where they can thrive in mutual honor and respect.

According to the dictionary, being worthy of honor and respect is the definition of ‘dignity’. The heart of a healthy and vibrant democracy lies in the dignity individuals recognize in each other. If we ask where this worth resides or attaches itself, it can’t be with those socially conditioned, culturally relative, autobiographical factors that define your identity as a Blue or Red.

When we assign dignity to anything at this more superficial level, we end up amplifying things that separate individuals rather than connect them.

For a healthy democracy, dignity must be acknowledged as attaching to human nature itself. Underneath all of that overlay of personal identity and far below the trance-state where Blues and Reds contend for supremacy, you are a living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. Every human being is worthy of honor and respect, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ideology, socioeconomic status, and even moral character.

If you are a human being that happens to be Blue or Red, your humanity makes you equal with everyone else. That Red or Blue over there is not your enemy but your potential partner in dialogue, referring to that disciplined process described earlier where we listen to each other, ask questions to gain a better understanding, confirm our understanding by paraphrasing each other’s perspective, and then engage in the work of constructing a world where we can live and flourish together.

When we can do this, when Blues and Reds can become partners in a process rather than enemies across an ideological divide, the trance of separation consciousness will drop from our minds like a veil. This revelation is what is meant by “awakening,” as your spiritual intelligence sees through the illusion of separateness (and of identity as well) and becomes aware of, or wakes up to, the unity of all things.

As the hope of democracy, genuine community is characterized by unity consciousness.

But community isn’t only about a change in awareness. If All is One, as unity consciousness bears witness, then there is no ‘outside’ and therefore no ‘outsiders’. This ethic of radical inclusion is the flowering manifestation of that deep realization in the heart of democracy, of each person’s dignity as a human being. At the very least it means there are absolute limits to what Blues and Reds can do to each other.

It also means that everyone, of whatever color, needs an invitation to the table if democracy is to work.

Finally, a spiritually awakened community that is radically inclusive will be thoroughly humane. In the English language our word ‘human’ was originally spelled with an ‘e’, but over time it bifurcated into ‘human’ which frequently means ‘only human’ (i.e., weak and fallible), and ‘humane’ which describes the tender virtues of grace, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and the like.

As a mark of genuine community, the commitment to a shared life that is thoroughly humane is absolutely critical to the health and longevity of democracy.

So if you are Blue or Red, remember that this not what you are most basically. The construction of your identity as Blue or Red doesn’t have to make every other color a threat and enemy. Hold your beliefs but don’t let them take your mind hostage. As best you can, try to see through the veil of who you are and of the world as you presently conceive it, to what is really real.

The heart of democracy is inside every Blue and Red, and its hope is a world that includes us all.

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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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 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 Rapture of Being Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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