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The Path to Wholeness

According to the conceptual model that I’ve been developing, the familiar designations of body, ego and soul refer to distinct mental locations, or standpoints in reality. Traditionally, the dualism of body and soul has dominated the conversation, with ego sneaking into the meeting relatively recently. Soul was identified early on as the “true self,” with body its temporary container. Now ego has become another (albeit more psychological than spiritual) name for the soul.

This confusion of terms, along with the tendency in metaphysical realism to make the soul into a “separate thing,” and the tendency in scientific materialism to reduce the soul first to the ego (personality) and then to the body, leaves one to wonder whether re-definitions are even advisable at this point. Perhaps we should simply scrap the traditional vocabulary and move on.

Such frustrations as this are common in transitional periods of culture, when the vocabulary that supported an earlier (but increasingly outdated) worldview is still being pressed into the service of constructing meaning. Of course, archaeologically it is expected that by stepping back into the mind-space of ancient languages we today can reconstruct how earlier cultures saw the world. But we also need to make sense of reality for our time, and we are stepping into a decidedly postmodern period of history.

So in the interest of reinterpreting the traditional terms of body, ego and soul for a relevant postmodern conversation, I am offering this notion of standpoints in reality. Another spin through this vocabulary revision might help put things in perspective.

BESThe diagram to the right is intended to be read from the bottom-up. I’ve arranged it this way to acknowledge the organic and evolutionary nature of the topic under consideration – i.e., what is a human being? Living things tend to grow “up,” which means that human development can be understood as progressing through phases of growth, perhaps even according to specific “stages” of relative completion along the way.

If a stage can be thought of in the spatial sense, as a specific location where one can stand and take a perspective on things (as on a theater stage), then we are very close to my notion of a “standpoint in reality.” Each stage or standpoint (body, ego, soul) provides a unique mental location where a human being engages reality. The present mystery of reality is thus revealed to us as three distinct realms: sensual/nonpersonal, social/interpersonal, and spiritual/transpersonal.

Body is represented in my diagram by a circle, or more accurately a cycle. The body functions as an energy converter, taking up the vibrational oscillations of inorganic (air, water) and organic matter (food), dismantling and re-engineering it into more energetically “open” packages of living cells.

The body’s own biological clock moves through the revolutions of daily activity and nightly rest, and every level deeper into its organic interior is characterized by this same dynamic of cycles. All of this is occurring right now far below conscious awareness or direction, which is why I call it the “unconscious present.”

With an evolutionary history of millions of years, the body is animated by powerful urges and instincts. The very fact that I’m here right now is a credit to the success of these drives and reflexes in my pre-human and human ancestors. It stands to reason that I should be able to trust this animal intelligence for continued evolutionary success – if it weren’t for the additional fact that I’m involved in a tribe.

Ego is represented by a horizontal line moving left-to-right, which stands for the developmental project of constructing an identity – a “one of us.” The tribe must work with the body’s animal nature, in the interest of training and channeling its instinctual energy into behavior that supports (or at least doesn’t interfere with) social order. Sometimes this means working against its urgencies and impulses, putting restraints in place to keep it under control.

This process of imposing restraints, incentives, and permissions on an animal nature in order to shape a self-conscious identity (ego) is summarized in the term “instruction.” The most important part of constructing this “one of us” involves instructing it with the rules and values of our tribe (family, clan, club, culture). This is Nietzsche’s “morality,” and while he didn’t appreciate the way it can frustrate human freedom and stunt human creativity, some such system of constraints is necessary for a peaceful and productive coexistence.

Identity, then, is instructed. All the way from the language we are taught, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with, and the gender we express; from the family and work roles we take on, the degrees or certifications we pursue, and the destinies we chase after – who we are seems to commit us to specific ambitions in life. The judgments and preferences of our tribe gradually become internalized and situate us firmly in the mental location of “us.”

Because ego is a product of past instructions and a project of future ambitions, the present moment is nothing but a vanishing threshold between its twin obsessions. And if early socialization involved neglect, abuse, or repression, then the personality might host a significant “shadow” of insecurity, shame and resentment. The shadow tends to pull the ego into earlier configurations of itself where the personality got hooked or held back.

When the personality gets hooked in this way, ego might compensate – sometimes with considerable assistance from the tribe – by projecting the shadow forward and ahead of itself, into moral crusades against those who express outwardly what it can’t accept in itself. Since the shadow can also include talents ignored or left undiscovered, ego can become a relentless critic of those more courageous and/or successful.

As each of us is aware, the social realm of ego and tribe can be endlessly fascinating. Because dualism – past/future, shadow/mask, self/other, right/wrong, and good/bad – is woven into the very structure of identity itself, an entire lifetime can be spent sorting it all out. A spiritual consequence of this is that the individual may very rarely, if ever, become consciously present to the mystery of reality.

As I said, the present moment is inaccessible to the ego, whose identity is stretched between past (instructions) and future (ambitions). About the only way ego can add value to time is by extending it indefinitely into the future. As its developmental antagonist, the body, is time-bound and mortal, ego took to itself the virtue of everlasting life.

But everlasting life is just “more life, without end.” In order to experience true immortality, the individual must break past ego altogether. In the standpoint named soul, reality is experienced as the timeless ground and always-present universe of being.

The ground invites awareness by an inward path into the depths of being-itself, beneath and prior to the separation of ego. Mindful breathing is a widely practiced meditation technique that brings conscious attention to the softness and gentle rhythms of the body. Drop your concerns, set thoughts aside, let go of “me,” and just sink into this present moment. This is the “narrow gate” – invisible to the ego – that opens to an ineffable and unqualified mystery.

The universe elevates and expands awareness beyond the ego by a different path. Spiraling out, around, and beyond “me” is a wondrous and apparently infinite community of beings. In this moment I am connected to all things, and all things are turned into one (“uni-verse”). It is astonishing just to consider a provident universe, where conditions are just right (at least in this corner of reality) to support the emergence of life and the evolution of consciousness.

Attention itself is a miracle.

In the standpoint of soul, this present moment is all there is. Grounded and connected, ego is transcended and all personal references are left behind. Here and now, I am whole and all is one.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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The Truth of Symbols

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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