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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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Does Your Religion Work?

The question is not whether religion will one day be only a memory of our brutal and superstitious past as a species, or else singularly responsible for our future catastrophic self-destruction. A lot of people feel that we would be better off without it. In their perspective religion is unnecessary baggage crowding the mental space we could be using for more relevant and practical concerns. We can’t deal rationally with these things until we abandon superstition, come to our senses, and work together for real solutions.

A returning reader is familiar with my less categorical appraisal of religion. I can be critical of every tradition and denomination with respect to how easily it gets tangled in our neurotic obsessions with glory, guilt, sex, violence and death. But at the same time I am constantly in search of what we might call ‘religion in essence’, as distinct from its countless historical manifestations. From the etymology of the term we can define religion as the system of attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that works to link us back (Latin religare) to reality, resolving the separation inherent to the rise of ego consciousness.

Personal identity is a process of social construction that gradually establishes an executive center in the ego – actually a deputy center, subordinate to the authorities of family and tribe. Ego stands above the body and apart from others, and if development has been particularly difficult or traumatic, it becomes estranged from its own inner life (soul) as well. When this condition of separation is severe enough, a profound insecurity can overtake the personality. The essential function of religion is to provide the means for ego to reconnect with reality – internally with its own grounding mystery, relationally with others, and transcendentally through a meaningful world-picture (or cosmology).Faith_Love_Meaning

Distinguishing essential religion in this sense from its various manifestations – inspired or deluded, genuine or dysfunctional as the case may be – gives us a useful model for assessing the relative health of our own. Whether or not you believe in god, say your prayers, go to church, or hold out hope of an afterlife, the real litmus test of any religion has to do with how effectively it connects you to the grounding mystery within, to others who share the world with you, and to the universe that surrounds you.

My shorthand for these dimensions and associated practices of life is illustrated to the right. I’ll unpack each term more thoroughly in a bit, but for now I’ll restate my general thesis in the following way.

Religion is the system by which human beings cultivate faith, nurture love, and construct meaning. However you do that, is your religion.

Faith

We begin with faith because its presence or absence sets the tone for everything else. From the time we were still in our mother’s womb, our nervous system was picking up clues as to whether reality was provident and supportive, or instead hostile and dangerous. This was long before we had an ego and prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently the deep impression registered in our nervous system was both unconscious and ineffable.

In the context of essential religion, faith has nothing to do with beliefs – orthodox or otherwise. The roots of the word reach far below the articulate mind and its propositional truths, into the matter of trust, surrender, and release. I prefer release because it keeps the dynamics of faith centered internally, where to trust (in) anything we must first let go and open up to what is beyond us.

Its opposite is not heresy or intellectual doubt, but anxiety – more accurately existential anxiety, a profound dis-ease concerning the nature of reality. Our nervous system is gripped with tension, skittish and hyper-reactive, which sets us up for nervous exhaustion. This anxiety is the cause of so much that goes wrong in religion.

Because faith is our trusting release to the grounding mystery of being itself, it’s not something that can be measured or manipulated. It is our spontaneous ability to surrender control, relax into being, and rest in the moment. The good news is that it’s an ability we can develop by intentional practice.

Love

We might expect that a deeply grounded faith will translate in positive ways to our relationships with others, and this is indeed the case. The ego is established in its own separate center, which suggests that reaching out for affection, intimacy, cooperation, and reconciliation is where our religion is really tested – and where many fail. A deficiency in faith (i.e., excessive anxiety) makes us suspicious of others and unable to trust them, so when they let us down as they inevitably must, our core impression of reality is confirmed. Around it goes, in a self-reinforcing loop.

Because ego-formation moves our center of personal identity into its own separate position, the real work of religion lies in caring for others, respecting their interests, understanding their needs, forgiving their faults, and helping them thrive. In short, the real work of religion is about love. We should be able to say with confidence that any religion which fails to cultivate the power of love in human relationships, even more when it arouses and justifies hostility towards others, is neither healthy nor true. This insight is what motivated Siddhartha to eschew metaphysics and Jesus to renounce orthodoxy, revealing the way of liberation as consisting in loving-kindness.

Meaning

The age of postmodernity coincides with the dawning realization that meaning is not something we find in reality, but construct for ourselves. Words are human creations, and the sentences, stories, and worldviews they make up really are made up. If there’s a crisis of meaning these days, it’s not that life has let us down but that we are doing a bad job making life meaningful.

At the highest level, our religion inspires a view of the full horizon of existence, a unified theory of how the Whole Thing moves as one. In prehistoric and ancient times such theories were dramatic narratives, which we know as myths. As we approach modern times, these stories become more mathematical than narrative in structure, and personal elements are strictly excluded. A downside of this shift from sacred stories to scientific theories is our difficulty in seeing ourselves in the bigger picture. If we reduce mind to brain, brain to body, and body to nothing but dead matter, where is the self? Where is the human spirit? How is it possible to say that we belong to the universe?

One more quick drop down to the level of faith will help us appreciate how the meaning of life is really a creative project of our shared life together, and how the quality of our relationships is directly a function of how deep and strong is our individual faith. Faith, that is to say, encourages love, and love engages us in the collaborative pursuit of meaning.

That’s when you know your religion works.

 

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Why Religion Can’t Advance

Working from the root meaning of the word “religion” (from Latin religare) I’ve been making a case for it as a necessary and essential dimension of human cultural life. Even theism, which I don’t regard as the only model of religion worth considering, occupies a critical place in the development and “awakening” of human consciousness to the present mystery of reality. So when I say that “religion can’t advance,” I am not advocating for its abandonment (finally) for the sake of progress and other modern values. I’m saying that it presently can’t but needs to advance.

If religion can be liberated from its current deadlock, it stands a good chance of fulfilling its primary function as incubator of the human spirit. I don’t use the words spirit or spirituality with any metaphysical associations – as something that inhabits and survives the body – but rather as metaphor of the mystical intuition and creative intelligence that links us, as the rhythmic urgency of breathing from which the metaphor of spirit derives (Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus), to the deeper and larger reality in which we (hopefully) find ourselves.

In its current condition religion isn’t serving our spiritual incubation as a species, but is rather holding the human spirit captive. Instead of lifting us up and setting us free, it is holding us down and locking us inside toxic convictions. The polarization between complacency and terrorism, between those who use religion to cultivate security and privilege and those who use it to justify resentment and violence, is setting the stage for our likely extinction – one way or the other.

A fast-growing third party, which I’ll call the unaffiliated commonsense liberals, is working hard to throw god down and expose the underlying pathology in religion. They take a “surgical” approach to the solution: Cut it out and move on. It’s time to grow up. No more sleeping in mommy’s lap or pleading with daddy to save us. We need to leave religion in the nursery with our pacifiers and security blankets. We’re on our own, folks.

But religion isn’t a product of infantile dependency – or at least it’s not only that. To those who sit in church pews or strap on explosives it must also be said that religion is not about getting “it” right or proving “them” wrong. It’s not really about you at all. In fact, the widespread assumption that religion is about me and my security, my meaning, my purpose, or my destiny in the next life is precisely where religion today is stuck. So if I’m going to clear some space for a fourth option – not complacency, not terrorism, and not atheism either – then we need to spend a little time trying to understand what’s in the way.

Ego 1Taking an historical and evolutionary perspective on the phenomenon of religion reveals it as something that has developed over time. This development of religion is correlated to the emergence of individual consciousness – of the growing awareness in the individual of himself or herself as an individual, an irreducible center of identity. This is what is meant by the term “ego,” or I: an anchoring reference point of a self-conscious orientation in reality.

Identity has to do with being a part of something, at the same time as you are apart from other things. This is the dynamic of attachment (a part of, belonging) and separation (apart from, distinction) that each of us must negotiate – or I should rather say, the negotiation of which results in who each of us comes to be.

Archetypally we can associate our attachment need with Mother and our separation need with Father, regardless of who actually plays these primary roles in our early life. What in psychology is called “ego strength” is the centered, stable, and healthy balance in the personality between our ego needs to fit in and feel secure on the one hand, and to stand out and feel special on the other.

Ego 2Now, let’s pretend that this all goes reasonably well. We are enabled to occupy our own center of identity, as the tether for an expanding perspective on reality, a widening sphere of concerns, values, and choices. With maturity we understand ourselves within the increasing complexity of our situation, managing the balance between our dependency and responsibility.

A healthy and stable identity provide us with two critical points of access to the present mystery of reality, one opening downward to what is within us, and the other opening upward to what is beyond us. I call these two orientations communion and transcendence, respectively, and together they represent the farther reaches of our human nature.

They are complementary principles like Yin and Yang, with communion inviting awareness to sink below the consciousness of self, in a gradual and steady release of identity until all reference to “me and mine” has dissolved away. Transcendence works in the opposite direction, not releasing the ego but going beyond it across an extended web of relationships.

A religion that affirms and supports ego strength in this healthy sense will encourage the practitioner to “go within” for communion with the grounding mystery and “go beyond” in transcendence to the universe that is our home. Healthy religion – not the kind that is stuck with the ego and can’t advance – should thus be the outspoken advocate for both “mystical” (ground) and “scientific” (universe) research. In that case, each of us would regularly practice meditation (whatever helps you descend the rhythms of your body and enter that deep clearing of a calm presence) and build out a rational model of reality based on the evidence of careful observation.

If we stop pretending for a moment and instead take account of how things have actually gone with religion, we can begin to appreciate where it gets hung up. For whatever reason, ego strength isn’t established and the functional balance in our need for attachment and separation is thrown off-center. Because our personal histories are unique, how it happens for you will be different from how it happens for me, but the consequences of our dislocation (Buddhist dukha) will be predictably similar.Ego 3When our insecurity overwhelms the need to separate and become our own person, any number of “attachment disorders” may result. To some extent, however, they all have to do with our desperate drive to put ourselves beneath what (or whom) we hope will dispel our anxiety. Submission, in the sense of throwing ourselves on the mercy of god (or whatever) out of a sense of guilt, shame, or depravity, regards “the other” as everything and the self as nothing. Typically “the other” – represented in an external deity perhaps – is really an externalization of the sick ego’s own self-condemnation. Confessing our unworthiness and inability to change brings a brief but temporary relief of the burden, as the shameful part of ourselves is admitted to be seen. But it won’t last, and we’ll soon be back for another “fix.”

A different set of problems emerges when our need for attachment is not adequately met and we are left to establish ourselves by showing off and chasing fame. Whereas healthy development would give us the strength to go beyond “me” and “mine” for the sake of cooperation, participation, and even self-sacrifice for a greater good, an inability to get beyond ourselves compels us to self-inflation instead. Now it really is all about me. Individuals with “separation disorders” crave recognition, are fixated on self-importance, seek their own glory, and have to be better than others. (This sounds a bit like the biblical deity Yahweh in his adolescent phase.) Tragically, their passionate drive to stand out and be recognized too often alienates the very audience whose praise and approval they so desperately need, and they end up alone.

                                                                                  

So where does all of this lead me, as it concerns the present predicament of religion? Once again, I don’t think the answer is to “be done” with religion and finally grow up. Clearly the lukewarm and sentimental religion in many of our churches won’t help us much, nor is violence in god’s name (whichever god) our way through. We don’t need to condemn the ego or glorify it. But we can drop it from time to time and sink into an ineffable mystery; we can leap off its shoulders into a larger experience of what is going on all around us.

Of course, to let go of ourselves requires an ability to let go of some other things as well. One step at a time …

 

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