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The Human Journey

In my previous post The Four Ages of Life I offered a model for understanding spirituality as a deeply interior experience that evolves through the lifespan. The entire arc progresses – or more commonly, meanders – through Four Ages, different in duration but organized in such a way that each one builds on those before it, carrying forward also their shortfalls and incorporating them into the developing whole. A stage model is nothing new, but as far as I know the specific themes that I associate with the Four Ages comprise a unique theoretical arrangement.

By following the progress of spirituality – instead of, say, physical maturity, emotional, intellectual, or ethical development – I am also hoping that this scheme of Four Ages of Life will open a constructive dialogue on the topic of religion. I’ve made a case elsewhere, and many times, that religion should not be identified only with the organized brands evident around us (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.).

As a system of utilities (stories, values, practices and beliefs) which connects us to the grounding mystery within, to others in community, and to the turning mystery of our universe, religion is everywhere. But most importantly it’s how you put it all together. You may borrow from the tradition, mythology, and symbols of a name-brand world religion (or more than one), but however you keep the concerns of existence, meaning, and daily life aligned together in a working system is your religion.

Another application of my Four Ages model has to do with that gold standard of transpersonal psychology known as self-actualization (A. Maslow). The conventional understanding of self-actualization regards it as a rather distant goal of psychological development, where the fulfillment of lower needs (survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem) provide conditions for a breakthrough beyond the limited experience and perspective of ego.

The fact that self-actualization is defined as the salient marker of transpersonal consciousness restricts its meaningful application to that point (and beyond) where an ego is securely in place, since ‘going beyond’ (trans) the personal presupposes a separate center of identity as the person we are.

Instead of a later-in-life achievement, self-actualization could be measured as the degree in which an individual is realizing his or her human capacity at each Age of Life. In addition to a transpersonal variety, then, we can also give attention to pre-personal self-actualization – achievements in the progress of spirituality that precede the formation of a personal identity. In that case, a young child might be self-actualized not in terms of wisdom but of faith.

And not only pre-personal, but even personal modes of consciousness could be interpreted according to whether and what degree one’s ego facilitates the realization of his or her human capacity at that time in life.

The above diagram pulls forward the lifespan arc model of my previous post, but with an important change. Besides conceiving the different Ages of Life in terms of chronological periods of time, each Age is depicted as a circle (or cycle) turning continuously in its own phase space. In other words, even after you have become an adult and are building out the meaning of your life, the dynamic of Faith continues to turn deeper below. Just because the critical period for a trusting release to reality is behind you doesn’t mean that the primary concern of that Age of Life isn’t continuing to affect everything about your adult engagement with reality now.

In the same way, each previous Age of Life continues to shape the development of spirituality over the lifespan.

You should notice a purple meandering line coursing across the Four Ages, making for a less schematic trajectory than the arc in the background. If you follow the meandering line, you’ll notice that its forward progress moves through alternating clockwise and counterclockwise revolutions of the Ages themselves. This is meant to suggest that, while progress is propelled by a gearing-together of our four themes (faith, passion, reason, and wisdom), it is possible for us to lose forward momentum and get ‘stuck’ inside the centripetal spin of one or another.

We’re back to the example where insufficient faith in reality keeps us obsessing over concerns around security and trust. So, even though our chronological age indicates where we perhaps ought to be in terms of our developing spirituality, complications and difficulties earlier in life can persist in holding us captive.

This allows the model to be individualized according to our unique path through life. More free-moving here, a little hung up there. Advancing toward self-actualization in this aspect, but somewhat impeded in another. If we use a simple value metric such as 1=low, 2=moderate, and 3=high to identify our degree of self-actualization in each of the Four Ages, we end up with a series of numbers (e.g., 2-3-2-1) that represents our “self-actualization profile.” The purpose would not be to compare ourselves with others, but rather to bring to light where our human journey to fulfillment needs creative attention.

It could be that traumatic events or inhospitable conditions of life early on got us hung up with anxiety over whether reality is resourceful, responsive, or reliable in any profound sense. A low value here would likely interfere with our self-actualization in subsequent Ages of Life. An insecure and defensive juvenile ego might completely eclipse a transpersonal intuition of oneness beyond the construct of identity in our later years (Age of Wisdom).

I’ve argued that the obsession in some forms of theism with glorifying the (divine) ego and saving the (human) ego from extinction actually prevents the progress of spirituality in those religions from our soul’s true destiny, which is to release ourselves to the present mystery of reality. Despite such teachings in the tradition regarding the necessity of dropping the illusion of a separate self or dying to our seed-form so that the fullness of life can spring forth, a persistent concern with personal identity and what we deserve only intensifies the conceit and strengthens the illusion.

Obviously it’s rather shortsighted to lay all the blame for our ego fixations at the doorstep of dysfunctional theism. An entire society, from religion to politics, from art to morality, from commercial interests to domestic initiatives, from its management of resources and consumption of goods to its disposal of toxins and waste, can be caught in the delusion of ego-grandiosity.

The human journey begins in the uplift of a provident mystery, comes to unique expression in our personal aspirations, and finally passes through the veil of meaning where All is One.

Where are you on the path?

 

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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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What’s Holding You Back?

security_self-esteem_fulfillmentIn recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of self-esteem. Our children will grow into unhappy adults unless we can build up their sense of specialness and unique importance. Young people should believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and that nobody has a right to get in their way. What this self-esteem campaign has produced is a generation of entitled and self-absorbed consumers. Whining, deserving, litigious little brats.

Okay, not all young people are this way, and it’s not just young people who are stuck on themselves. To some degree I am stuck as well, and so are you.

What might be an unimpeded path to the actualization of our true potential as human beings becomes instead an obstacle course where our time and energy are tied up with something much smaller, and much, much less important. As with all living things that develop according to a genetic ideal encoded in their DNA, human beings are destined to grow into maturity and express the essential nature of our species.

This developmental achievement is what I call fulfillment, which is not exactly the same as happiness or positive self-esteem, although these are highly correlated. When our progress to maturity is frustrated – blocked, undermined, or snagged – a fixation on being happy (or less unhappy) and admired (or at least respected) can drive us deeper into suffering. Critics of the term fulfillment tend to confuse it with a self-focused aim in life where the only outcome that matters is personal pleasure, success, and glory. But that’s not how I’m using it.

Again, our fulfillment as human beings is what comes about when our individual talents, creative intelligence, and deeper potential are actualized – discovered, expressed, and allowed to flourish.

To understand why so many of us don’t make it there, and what might be personally holding us back, we need to move our attention to where it all starts. At the other end of this developmental and evolutionary time-line is our primal need to know that reality is provident. This knowledge is not a conceptual understanding but instead plants itself in the basic workings of our nervous system.

From even before we were born, our brain and nervous system were picking up critical information from the environment and matching these with our body’s internal state. Survival was the primary concern, which meant that our baseline internal state needed to match those conditions so as to optimize our chances to live.

An impoverished, unstable, or hostile environment triggered our nervous system to assume a more vigilant baseline state, which turned up our sensitivity and decreased our reaction time to any sign of threat or danger. For some of us, this sensitivity was set so high as to keep us in a chronic state of anxiety. Most of us, however, were fortunate enough to have gotten what we needed not only to survive but to be fairly healthy and well-adjusted. But none of us came through the gauntlet of those prenatal, neonatal, and early childhood stages of life without some insecurity – not one of us.

It was this universal human anxiety that motivated our attachment: first to mother and other caregivers, then to pacifiers and favorite toys; later to friends, romantic interests, material possessions and titles of social influence. 

These attachments served to calm us down by giving us something to cling to, and we identified with them so closely that they became part of who we are. As we grew older, we simply ‘traded up’ from infantile attachments to juvenile attachments to adolescent attachments to adult attachments, but their value as anchors of security and extensions of our identity remained functionally unchanged.

The process of ego development, then, is deeply entangled with this dynamic of insecurity pacified by attachment, and the gradual construction of identity through our identification with whatever helps us feel better about ourselves. The self-esteem movement arose at a time when cultural change and uncertainty compelled many parents, teachers, coaches, and therapists to pacify us with whatever toys, accommodations, trophies, or pharmaceuticals we needed. We were the center of their attention, the consumer of all their best efforts.

We didn’t mind at all having these treasures laid at our feet, and it wasn’t long before we came to feel that we deserved it – and more!

As I said, attachment is inherent to the process of identity-formation. All of us have some insecurity over whether reality is sufficient to our needs. Is there enough of this? Will there be enough of that? Am I good enough to be loved? Will you leave me if I’m not enough for you? What if this new partner isn’t a perfect match, the next prize is less satisfying, or your promise to me doesn’t come true?

Our obsession with security, self-esteem, and looking for happiness in something, someone, or somewhere else, has us trapped in the rocks of our own altar. Each stone in our altar is an attachment we feel we can’t live without. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are. Worse yet, without this or that attachment in the construct of our identity we would succumb to meaninglessness and anxiety.

Because identity is the product of identifying with something or someone else, and because the ego looking out from this unique composition of attachments is so idolized in society and popular religion, we are entombed inside the altar of self-esteem.

Ego is everything. Or at least it’s the only thing that really matters.

Breaking free is a matter of getting over ourselves, finally realizing that our identity is nothing more than a confabulation of attachments and the outlook on reality we have from here. Everything is reduced to the frame of our convictions, filtered according to the prejudices and ambitions that define us. Once we see that, the moment when our disillusionment really sets in, is the breaking of a spell, the apocalyptic end of our world as we knew it.

Inevitably we find ourselves on the near edge of a depression, a deep hole that threatens to pull us in. If we should struggle to throw the covers back over our head and return to the trance of who we were, we likely will fall into profound anhedonia – the inability to find any pleasure, happiness, or meaning in life. We are hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it.

Wait! Maybe ______ can save me. I deserve to be saved, don’t I?

The spiritual wisdom teachings across higher cultures invite us to take a second look at this dreaded depression, whereupon we will notice that it is actually filled with water. We don’t have to fall helplessly to the bottom of a hole, for this water will bear us up and deliver us to the far shore. All we need to do is let go of who we think we are, release all attachments, and simply trust the process – or as we say, go with the flow.

In that instant we will be on the farther shore, now the starting point of a new beginning – apocalypse, resurrection, and genesis all in one.

Finally free of attachments, our relationships can become healthy; or maybe we accept the fact that we need to leave some of them behind. We take creative authority and start making choices with a much bigger picture in mind. We become more fully human as we relax into being. The deeper truth of what we are comes through, and we live it out with honesty, courage, and loving-kindness.

“The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus, “is a human being, fully alive.”

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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Stepping Back For the Big Picture

beyond-egoFrom time to time it’s important to take a step back from the detail work of theory-building in order to catch hold of the big picture of what you’re doing. I’ve offered up some wide-ranging ideas on such topics as consciousness, spirituality, post-theism, and human self-actualization, and now I’ll try to bring together the major sight lines of a larger vision.

Backing up conceptually as far as we can brings us to the origins of our present universe. Contemporary cosmology (study of the cosmos) is coming ever closer to a grand unified theory (GUT) that can account for the flaring-forth of energy into the most basic constituents of matter – in an event (or ‘singularity’) popularly known as the Big Bang. Since the fabric of space-time is thought to have emerged at this point, there is no way for scientists to determine when (i.e., at what moment in the past) this occurred, but they have calculated the age of our universe to be somewhere around 14 billion years old.

In my diagram I have represented this primordial transformation of energy crystallizing into the subatomic latticework of matter as the elementary stage of the universal process (or ‘universe’ for short). As I will continue to use this convention of stages, it’s important to understand that I don’t regard a stage as merely a formative period in the historical past that has been left behind. In addition to thinking of it as a previous era in the course of change, I’m using ‘stage’ in its spatial connotation as well, as a supporting platform for ongoing progress. In other words – and this should not come as a surprise – the elementary stage in the rise of our present universe is still very active, providing the energetic and material support to what we’ll look at next.

Stage 2 of the process (comprised of levels 3 and 4) is named the evolutionary stage, since this is when (and where) life first emerges. Technically speaking, the term ‘evolution’ should be reserved for the adventure of life (on our planet and possibly elsewhere) and not for the quantum dynamics at work in the energetic transformations of matter. Life introduces something unique and unprecedented in the way it ‘rolls out’ (or evolves) into more adaptive and complex organisms over time. Organic names the basic life-force, while sentient is how the evolution of life has gradually produced organisms that are more aware, responsive, and engaged with their environment.

At Stage 3 is where a uniquely human form of consciousness makes its appearance. Ego is Latin for ‘I’, referring to that separate center of personal identity which is both a construct of social engineering and the agent of social development. Our animal nature as human beings tracks downward into the instincts and urgencies of survival, while ego ‘sets the stage’ for a transpersonal breakthrough to spirituality and higher wisdom.

A critical condition of this breakthrough experience is provided in the developmental achievement of ego strength, evident in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified. This threshold (at level 5, egoic) is where a lot of my blog posts focus in, since a lack of ego strength – presenting in a neurotic tangle of insecurity, attachment, and inflexible convictions – is at the root of much of our suffering. I’ve frequently pointed out how some forms of religion, particularly of the theistic type, use this neurotic tangle to promote dogmatism, bigotry, redemptive violence, and otherworldly escapism.

Let’s assume for now that ego strength is achieved. What’s next? The transpersonal level opens in two distinct paths of spirituality, one leading inward to what I call the grounding mystery, and the other outward to the turning mystery. The grounding mystery (or more philosophically, the ground of being) is not something else underneath it all, but the creative source of consciousness within us. In other words, you don’t go looking for it out in the world – or rather, you might try to find it in the world but your quest will come to frustration. This is why the mystical turn utilizes a variety of practices and methods for conducting an inward descent of ego release to the mystery within.

A second transpersonal path takes an ethical turn, beyond ego but this time in the direction of an ascending involvement in ever-larger horizons of participation. In this case, personal identity does not drop away, as on the mystical path, but instead serves our upward leap into genuine community where ego doesn’t dissolve but connects in relationship with others. Historically, the quality of this connection proceeds in correlation with our cultural representations of the divine ideal (summarized in such virtues as creativity, benevolence, equanimity, and wisdom), which it has been the responsibility of organized religion to depict in myth, art, liturgy, and theology. (For the reasons given earlier, this responsibility of religion hasn’t been fully understood or consistently fulfilled.)

As it follows these two distinct transpersonal paths, spirituality advances our quest for a deeper center and a higher purpose. Just as our center in sentience is deeper than our center in personal identity, progress in this direction also opens our ethical considerations to a correspondingly larger horizon – beyond just ‘me and my own’ to all sentient life. The higher purpose in this case is not a set of orders legislated from above (we have already moved into post-theism at this point), but the more far-reaching principles that concern our life together with all living things on this planet. What is our responsibility to the greater community of life?

My general theory regards the cultural stage of human evolution as trending inevitably into transpersonal realms of awareness and action. While still only a relative few have achieved this breakthrough – whether held back by their own neurotic entanglement or by social institutions (e.g., family, class, religion) that are getting in the way – all the signs are indicating a planet-wide spiritual awakening. The counterforces will not likely fade away gently, however, but can be expected to redouble their efforts in holding us captive.

Insecurity, selfishness, hatred, and terror cannot be overcome by violence. We must transcend them, which we do by acknowledging them, understanding them, and then simply letting them go.

 

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Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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Opening the Present

Here_NowSpirituality is about living mindfully in the here-and-now. Of course, there is nowhere else we can be, but we all know how easy it is to live mindlessly in the present. Most of us are less quick to admit how much we prefer to live outside the present moment – rummaging through the past or chasing after the future where the meaning of our lives is anchored. We spend a lot of time and energy managing our webs of meaning which stretch across the here-and-now, but we are hardly ever really (that is, mindfully) in it.

However real our webs of meaning seem to us, they are suspended between two fictions called the past and the future. By ‘fiction’ I am referring to something that is purely a figment of imagination, a narrative construction, mythical in the strict sense of having only literary and not a literal existence. Most of our waking attention is devoted to minding and mending the many strands of meaning that support our identity (who we are), give us significance, and promote our sense of purpose in life.

A healthy spirituality shouldn’t demand that we permanently abandon our webs and give up on meaning, but it can help keep it all in perspective. Because meaning is made up in our minds and not inherent to reality itself, it is necessary every so often to drop out and consciously reconnect to the grounding mystery of our life in this moment. It’s here (and now) that we can experience the Real Presence of being – what the religions name God, Spirit, The Holy. Before we give it a name, however, and proceed to represent it as a being who is the beginning and end of all things, this Real Presence is the abiding mystery of existence itself.

My diagram above is another cross design, with the horizontal axis of time intersected by a vertical axis of here-and-now. Ego occupies the present moment, as everything does, but without any direct awareness of it, caught up – or we might say, preoccupied – in the business of managing an identity by holding together the fictions of past and future. An attentive mindful engagement with present reality would require a surrender of meaning for mystery, of belief for being, of me-and-mine for here-and-now. It’s a tough sell, given how much is invested in our personal worlds, as well as in the collective (shared) worlds of tribe and culture. No wonder that our tribal religions hold the mystical practice of dropping out with such derision and contempt.

But what is the here-and-now, and why is it widely regarded as such a threat? To answer the first part of this question would involve spinning a meaning around the mystery, pushing it into the distance as our object, and effectively removing ourselves from it. The distance created by such objectification gives us the illusion of control, where meaning can be codified inside an orthodoxy that is beyond doubt and worthy of our ultimate sacrifice – which goes to answering the second part of the question. As long as reality remains something else beneath our mental labels, no meaning can be absolute.

So, instead of defining the here-and-now, let’s ask what these terms represent. What is the mystery behind what we name ‘here’ and beneath what we name ‘now’? Where, exactly, is here? It seems obvious that here is where I am; there refers to any location outside and apart from here. There might be a distant star that I see overhead, another country halfway around the globe, the neighborhood just over the hill, or that book across the table from where I am sitting. It would seem that here, while tethered to my present position, is limited in its scope by a purely arbitrary horizon.

In other words, if my here is this room, then the book and this table are included. If my here is the county I live in, then my neighborhood and the one over the hill are both included. If my here is planet Earth, then that faraway country is included. And if the horizon of my present location is the universe itself, then that distant star is also here. While the center position of here is not arbitrary but instead permanently fixed to my present location, the scope of what’s included is as small or inconceivably large as I care to make it. (Recent blog posts of mine make a case for this virtue of ‘care’ as perhaps the most salient indicator of human self-actualization, if and when it comes about. See “Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)” and “A Spirituality of Religion”.)

To a great extent it is the work of news media, politicians, preachers, and moral bigots everywhere to contract the horizon of here so that only the right and the righteous are included. Once the line is drawn, just about any manner of violence against outsiders can be justified. The genuine mystic – referring to one who has dropped out of meaning and opens fully to the boundless mystery of being – is an insider par excellence, despite the fact that orthodoxy condemns him or her as a dangerous outsider. When Siddhartha included ‘all sentient beings’ in his ethic of universal compassion, and when Jesus included ‘the enemy’ in his ethic of unconditional forgiveness, they were inviting us to a higher life where outsiders don’t exist.

Implied in fixing the vantage point of here to my present location is an acknowledgment of now. Whereas here is relative to my horizon of awareness, now refers to that fixed point at the center which is always and only in the present. The past is no more and the future is not yet; only the present is. What ego cannot apprehend, in its shuttling back and forth on the story loom between yesterday and tomorrow, is where our soul abides: this timeless moment, the Eternal Now. It is never yesterday or tomorrow; it is always today. Always now.

Opening the present requires that we drop out of meaning and into the mystery, deeper into the center of awareness that is always now, and then allowing the horizons of here to simply dissolve away like fading ripples on a pond, until we are left with that most exquisite and essentially ineffable of insights: All is One.

 

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