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Spirituality Basics 1: The Human Condition

One complaint that can legitimately be leveled against religion is over its tendency to complicate something which is really quite simple. An overlay of codes, rules, values, and beliefs quickly obscures the shining truth at its core. Tragically this accumulation of secondary material can become a religion’s primary concern, where it gets so caught up in its process that it loses sight of its purpose.

How many religions promote themselves as “the only way” when all they end up doing is getting in the way of our genuine liberation and wellbeing?

In this post and the next two I will clarify what I understand to be the basics of spirituality, without the overlays and parochial jargon. My experience and observations bear out that when a religion keeps these basics in view, all that secondary material can serve well to further interpret, amplify, situate, and apply them in a most relevant way. The basics alone are probably insufficient in themselves to provide the kind of practical support and guidance that religion can. But again, without this core in view, a religion turns into a source of spiritual injury, discouragement, and confusion.

The place to begin is always where we are, and the spiritual quest must start by taking into account our human condition.

In the very word religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) is a critical clue as to what this condition entails, which might be diagnostically summarized as isolation, alienation, estrangement, or simply separation. The Greek hamartia (off target) and Pali dukka (out of joint), central metaphors of the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively, both use the idea of suffering as the result of losing our center, struggling for balance, and lacking in functional wholeness.

This off-centered condition skews our perspective on reality and compels us to cling to whatever can provide some stability. But of course, such clinging to anything outside ourselves – what the Bible calls idolatry and Buddhism names attachment – only perpetuates and amplifies the fundamental problem, which is that we are still not centered within ourselves. Our condition only worsens the harder we try to fix it.

This desperate anxiety – a potent amalgam of craving and fear – splits our motivation between the desired object (craving) and the possibility of not getting the fix we need (fear).

These dual motives of craving and fear work against each other, as when the fear of failure distracts our focus and interferes with the achievement of our goal. The prefix ambi- in the word ambition identifies this opposition of two competing motives in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. Personal ambition, then, refers to the bipolar motivation that oscillates between craving and fear, excited for success but anxious over failure, never fully satisfied because the supposed solution is irrelevant to the real problem.

Rather than wising up to this internal contradiction, however, we invest ourselves in risk protection, giving up some of what we want now for the sake of having enough later. Or we inflate the value of the goal in our mind to justify and compensate for the anxiety that’s ripping up our insides and snapping the stem of life’s meaning.

So far, I have left unmentioned the actor in the middle of this fantastic mess – the “I” behind our cravings and fears, the one who is seeking an external resolution to an internal predicament. The word in Greek is ego, and so we use this term to designate our personal identity, the unique and separate person we regard ourselves as being. From the middle of this experience our identity seems very substantial – indeed (with Descartes) as more real than anything else.

Everything around us changes, but this center of self-consciousness is immutable, enduring, and by virtue of being separate from the body, maybe even immortal.

Despite this feeling of substantiality and permanence, our personal identity is actually a social construction, utterly insubstantial and in constant need of being reminded of who we are by telling ourselves stories. The longest running narrative might simply be called “the story of my life,” and its main plot anchors us in smaller stories about the past as it orients us in other stories about the future.

If we say that the past and the future are not real, we mean that they are not present, which is the only moment when anything can be real. The past is no longer and the future is not yet; both are dependent on the standpoint in time called Now.

“The story of my life” – or our personal myth, where mythos is Greek for the “plot” that provides continuity beneath and throughout the changing scenes of a story – is obviously not the unbroken record of every Now since we were born. Only certain events are included, just the ones that contributed major or minor threads to the narrative tapestry of our personal myth. And for those that are included, factual accuracy is less important than their thematic contribution to our overall sense of identity and meaning.

Interesting stories are about compelling characters, and the construction of identity has been a collective effort of weaving together a confabulated autobiography of “who I am.”

An essential and early part of this collective effort involved gaining some independence for the ego from the urgencies and instincts of the body. An urgency refers to an urge connected with a survival need, such as the urge to eat for the sake of nutrition, or the urge to breathe for the sake of taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

There is an immediacy about urgencies that makes them unnegotiable – or at least we can’t put them off for very long. If we should try to hold our breath too long, for instance, the autonomic urgency of breathing will take over, even if the conscious mind that is trying to pull off this stunt has to be put temporarily off-line so the rhythm can be resumed.

The body is possessed of many such urgencies working together in systems, rhythmically and reliably supporting its life as an organism. If an urgency is urgent action around a specific need of the body, then an instinct has to do with compulsive behavior of the body in pursuit of what will satisfy this need. Hunger is the urgency around our need for nutrition, but the coordinated behavior of the body in search of food is driven by instinct. Since instinct represents a higher level of coordination, there are far fewer instincts than urgencies in the body.

Because instincts are responsible for motivating us to behave outwardly, our tribe had a strong interest in shaping and directing our behavior in ways that would complement, or at least not conflict with, the norms of society.

As Freud discovered, the instincts of sex and aggression particularly pose a challenge to this project of managing social order. We needed to learn when and how it was proper to act on these instincts, and when it was necessary to restrain them. However, if the discipline of restraint on aggression was severe enough, or if our tribe coded sexuality with abuse, secrecy, and shame, the construction of our personal identity came at a cost of repressing these instincts – condemning them, denying them, pushing them behind us and into what Jung named our Shadow.

By this gradual but at times traumatic process of socialization, our ego was formed. The more severe the repression, the more pronounced was our separation from the body. If severe and pronounced enough, our sense of self might have completely dissociated from the body, turning it into an enemy of the “good boy” or “nice girl” our tribe demanded that we be. Or maybe we adopted an alter-ego, a split in our personality through which the irrepressible compulsions of the body could still be gratified.

It’s this need for separation that lies at the heart of our human condition. Once the body has been alienated – that is, pushed away as other – our project of personal identity has the one challenge left of breaking free entirely from the body’s mortal coil.

A denial of death thus becomes the driving impetus behind our ambition to gain deliverance and live forever. But let’s not forget about the intrinsic character of ambition, which is that it contains two contrary motives – a craving for something and a fear of not having it. The excessive preoccupation in some religions with the goal of everlasting life without the body inevitably carries within it a pathological denial of death.

My diagram above is meant to be read from left-to-right following the progression of development through the formation of personal identity (ego). Farthest left is the representation of our essential nature as animals (body) with a capacity for contemplation, creativity, self-transcendence, and genuine community (soul). We might be tempted to regard the imposition of ego consciousness and its delusion of separation as something regrettable, and maybe better eliminated.

But the paradox of spirituality is that self-transcendence (literally the expansion of awareness beyond the limits of personal identity) is not possible without a stable ego in place. We must first become somebody before we can get over ourselves.

It’s that question of ego stability that determines whether subsequent development goes in a healthy or pathological direction. We have already described one side of this pathology, in the repression of instinct and ego’s dissociation from the body. This is about the negotiation of our personal identity with respect to the natural inheritance of our animal body. On the other side of this divide is a less ancient but still very old cultural inheritance that carries instructions of its own, which we know as wisdom.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this cultural wisdom has much to say about our place in the universe, our connections and responsibilities inside the great Web of Life, the waking potential of the human spirit, and the aim of our existence.

Much of this wisdom is well known: How cultivating inner peace is key for making peace with others. How living for the wellbeing of the greater whole promotes health and happiness for oneself. How opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations. How letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise. How living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

These are all things we might consider obvious, as they are wisdom principles in the cultural atmosphere of our species and intuitively confirmed in our own quiet reflection.

But we don’t pay attention. Or else we print these wise sayings on wall posters and desktop calendars, but let them remain in perpetual contemplation rather than put them into action. This separation of who we are and how we live our lives from the cultural inheritance of wisdom is what I call ignórance – where the accent identifies a willful disregard rather than a mere naiveté or lack of knowing.

This, too, is a kind of denial; but instead of pushing something (i.e., instinct or mortality) behind us, we simply turn away and act as if that spiritual wisdom doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it is impractical, unrealistic, or intended for someone else. To be honest, we would have to admit that the fulfillment of our personal ambitions requires that we ignore what we deep down know to be true.

By separating ourselves thus from this historical bank of universal truths, we can continue with our pursuit – of what cannot make us happy, healthy, or whole. At least we can do it without guilt or needing to feel responsible for the consequences that fall out from our choices and actions.

There we have the basics of spirituality. Our essential nature as spiritual animals is abrupted by the imposition of a socially constructed personal identity, or ego, whose ambitions (e.g., for success, wealth, fame, supremacy, or immortality) are generated by some combination of repression and ignórance. The repression of animal instinct makes it possible for ego to achieve its delusion of escape and independence. But over time we must construct a number of defenses against the spiritual wisdom that would otherwise challenge our ambition and the stories we are telling ourselves.

When we finally “get it,” when we realize that our personal ambitions cannot be fulfilled and will not resolve our fundamental problem, which is the fact that these ambitions keep us off-center and perpetually discontent, an opportunity presents itself for our genuine liberation and wholeness.

We can at last get over ourselves and reconcile with our essential nature. The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Now our human adventure can find its true and higher path.

 

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Our Quest for Identity, and What’s Beyond

ego-careerOne of the critical achievements on the long arc to human fulfillment is a capacity for getting over ourselves. Our chronic problems and pathologies are complications of a failure in this regard. We get tangled up, hooked, and held back from our true potential and end up settling for something we aren’t. Instead of focusing on the problem, however, I would rather look more closely at what fulfillment entails.

The exquisite and sought-after experience across the spiritual wisdom traditions of higher culture is a direct realization that All is One, and that, further, the self is not separate from this oneness but belongs to it – or rather, that they are two aspects of the same mystery, contemplating itself. This isn’t merely a conclusion of logical thinking, where ‘all’ is the inclusive class of everything that exists, in which the self is necessarily a member.

What is also called unitive consciousness is not a decision at the end of syllogistic argument, but rather a spontaneous intuition, an ecstasy of awareness in which the deepest center of oneself is known in perfect correlation with the infinite horizon of all things.

Great spiritual lights of our species – again, without deference to culture or religion – have been taken by this mystical realization, and a few of them attempted to communicate the kernel of its insight to their contemporaries. They apprehended the translucent nature of reality where even ordinary things are epiphanies of the Holy One, and their personalities conveyed this self-same light. Witnesses and disciples praised them as unique revelations, glorifying and elevating them to the status of saviors, angels, and gods.

Their message wasn’t from somewhere else, however; not one of them preached an ethic of separation and other-worldly escape. The ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Jesus’ teachings is nowhere but in the very midst of things, at the sacred center of life in this world.

Unitive consciousness does not require the abolition of ego, of the sense each one of us has of our personal identity as an individual. It’s not by an erasure of self that the spontaneous intuition of oneness is gained, but rather by transcending it – affirming it, finding center, and then going beyond our individual self into a deeper and larger experience of wholeness. Again, the genuine mystics have long understood this.

It is the rest of us – insecure and uncertain in our identity, entangled in neurotic attachments and stuck in our convictions – who mistake their message for one of ego annihilation, or, which is merely the opposite side of the same fundamental error, for one of ego salvation and life everlasting.

In my diagram above, the middle segment of an arcing arrow involves the process whereby our essential nature as a human being is socially conditioned to the tribal conspiracy of groupthink, also known as the consensus trance. The natural inclinations and urgencies of our animal body are gradually trained into behaviors that complement rather than disrupt the rhythms of social life. If all goes well, our personal identity (or ego) will carry forward a positive sense of embodiment, of being centered in an organism that itself rides in a stream of primal intelligence we can trust.

If it goes otherwise – and I promised that I wouldn’t focus on the problem, so it only gets a mention for now – ego lacks embodiment and we are dissociated from the body’s natural wisdom. The many symptoms of this dissociation are not appreciated as messages and revelations, but instead are medicated or simply ignored.

The responsibility of the tribe, then, is to shape our identity through the assignment of social roles and then provide us with the necessary recognition that will reflect back to us the person we are. We are validated as an insider, as one who belongs. All the perks of membership are offered to us: security, attachment, and meaning give our life orientation and purpose. And these can be enough to keep us inside, fully identified with our roles and dutifully chasing the awards and promotions that make them worthwhile.

I’ve reflected elsewhere, and many times, on this axis of security, attachment, and meaning in both our fulfillment and pathology as persons. The inherent and inescapable lack of perfect security in life – especially when we are young – motivates our attachment to those who might make up for what’s missing. We can end up locked inside a set of convictions about the way things must be, which allows us to ignore if not outright deny the fact that our shared agreements concerning the meaning of life are also a screen against the present mystery of reality, or the way things really are.

Most of us stay right here, for the rest of our lives. With enough distractions, diversions, and intoxicants – perhaps throwing in the anticipation of another, better life later on, next year or after we die – this daily round at playing the person we’re supposed to be can keep us clinging to the carousel and pretending that all of it really, truly matters. When someone comes along who seems not to take the game as seriously, who seems lighter somehow but still deeply centered in him- or herself, we might look on admiringly, feel threatened by the apparent nonchalance, or else elevate the individual as a glorious exception.

In any case, we misinterpret his or her translucence as a special possession or extraordinary gift. The light, in other words, is degraded into a unique property of the individual which sets him or her apart from the rest of us.

Actually, what we are witnessing is a capacity for transcendence, an ability in that person to go beyond him- or herself for the sake of a deeper and larger experience of life. In our quest for identity, success is measured in ego strength, in our socially supported achievement of a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under the executive management of a healthy sense of self (ego). Such individuals have it, and this virtue of ego strength allows her to drop the mask for a deeper center of identity, which in turn opens her consciousness to a larger horizon of membership. He doesn’t need to defend his beliefs or clutch at attachments, for he has nothing to lose.

These individuals are transparent to reality, like parting veils on the present mystery, glimpses into our own true nature as human manifestations of being.

It is to this critical threshold of ego-transcendence that our quest for identity is taking us. Find your center, drop your attachments, and get over yourself.

 

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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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Staying Safe, Playing Small

map-of-egoOne of the odd and wonderful things about us humans is how an extended period of juvenile dependency, which makes us impressionable to social shaping like no other species, also leaves us exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of social abuse. What could open the path for creative evolution and human progress often ends up shutting us down inside neurotic hangups and rigid convictions. Odd and wonderful, but tragic as well.

My diagram is fairly complex, but hopefully not overly complicated. Let’s take a tour by starting with that smaller break-out frame to the bottom-right. Since we were very young, each of us has been on a vigilant quest for three things: security, attachment, and meaning. I reversed their order from how they are presented in the break-out frame to acknowledge their developmental sequence in our early formation.

Our deepest and most pressing concern is for an assurance that reality is provident, that what we need to feel safe, included, and nourished is actually there for us when we need it. If it is, then our sense of security functions to open us further to reality. But if we don’t feel secure, our generalized anxiety motivates us to compensate somehow for the missing assurance, which we engineer by attaching ourselves to others with the demand that they keep us safe and satisfied.

I’m using the term attachment in a way more consistent with the Buddhist notion than how it’s used in Western developmental psychology, where it commonly refers to the close and intimate bond between infant and caregiver. But let’s keep both definitions together as representing a deep paradox we have all experienced time and again: our closest relationships are often ‘the ties that bind’ us and prevent our necessary freedom and growth.

To the degree that attachments compensate for a deeper insecurity – which they are incapable of resolving, by the way – the meaning that we construct around ourselves and those we depend on to manage our anxiety tends to be small, rigid, and closed. It’s small because we can’t risk extending our horizon beyond what we can see and control. Our meaning is rigid in that it lacks flexibility and real-time relevance. And it is closed, which is to say that our mental box excludes discrepant information and alternative views, as it inhibits healthy doubt and intellectual curiosity.

Each of us, then, lives inside a narrative construction called a world, and our world both reflects and addresses our historical quest for security, attachment, and meaning. Whether our quest went well or badly in childhood, even now as adults we inhabit a world built on those early emotional codes. Inside our world is where we came to a sense of ourselves as somebody special, with an identity of our own. Despite having reached physical maturity as an adult, this deeper and more primitive part of our personality – what is named our ‘inner child’ – still comes out and takes over whenever we get poked, hooked, or stressed.

Let’s move from the break-out frame to the center of my diagram, where a larger representation of that same box is displayed. At the top and bottom of the world frame are two important insights to keep in mind. First, every world is an exercise in make-believe. (I put the word “make” in parentheses to indicate our widespread unwillingness to admit that we are doing it.) In another post I defined belief as pretending to know something and then forgetting that we’re pretending.

In other words, we act ‘as if’ our judgments about reality are straightforward descriptions of the way it really is, when there is always an element of our need or wish that it be that way.

It’s easy to forget that reality is not made up of words, or that our words – however connected and stretched into broad fabrics of meaning – are not the reality we presume to define. Reality itself, or what I call the present mystery of reality, is just that, something that eludes our mind and its dragnet of language. Of course, so far as we have closed ourselves up inside a small, rigid, and closed frame of meaning (or world), this realization will be vigorously resisted. If meaning is relative and our world is make-believe, then perhaps our identity is a fantasy as well!

Hang on to that thought.

Those who share our world – or, more accurately, whose constructions of meaning significantly overlap and fuse with our own – are just as committed to the conviction of its truth. We are exactly the somebody special we believe we are, and each of us has our place and plays our role in the web of social interactions that contains and validates our identity. Every scenario is a role-play, every player has a role, and each role comes with a script that seems to drive our behavior without us even thinking about it.

And that’s precisely the point: this thoughtless and scripted performance of social role-plays is what keeps our world turning, as it keeps us under its spell.

Welcome to the consensus trance. The word ‘trance’ is in parentheses because no one wants to admit that much of our life in society (and even in privacy) is lived in a state of robotic stupor, enacting programs that have been installed in our brains.

Moving our attention to the center of the frame we find ego, that separate center of personal identity who’s the star of our show. One aspect of personal identity faces the other – other egos, objects, and even the whole shebang of what’s going on (so-called ‘objective reality’). Particularly in our social interactions – which, we must keep in mind, are role-plays in make-believe – ego takes on what we might call ‘modal identities’, referring to who I am in this or that social context. The Latin word persona (“to speak through”) describes the mask a stage actor would wear in personifying a character in a play, usually equipped with a small fluted mouthpiece to amplify volume and aid in voice projection.

A persona might also be thought of as a kind of socially approved deception. As long as we perform our roles according to script and in conformity with the consensus trance, we can lead others to believe that we are the roles we play. Because others who share our world are already susceptible to being duped in this socially acceptable way, we sometimes take advantage of the opportunity by leading them to believe something about us that is neither honest nor true. (As we are not typically eager to confess this, I’ve put the word ‘deceive’ in parentheses.)

While our ego’s persona (one of many) displays and projects only what we want others to know about us, there is a corresponding but opposite aspect that stays out of view – or at least we try hard to keep it hidden. This is what Carl Jung named our shadow, and its dark shade covers not only the things we don’t want others to see, but also things about ourselves we have neglected or ignored. In addition to those inclinations and tendencies in ourselves that had to be pushed down and out of sight (i.e., repressed) so we could be accepted and included – and which, as Jung insisted, are frequently projected onto others who then serve as our enemies and scapegoats – there are deeper treasures like creative intelligence, artistic talents, and dormant potential that go undiscovered.

Now it should be obvious that when we are profoundly insecure, co-dependently attached, and held hostage by our convictions, the parts of ourselves we are repressing and the social deception we have to carry on just to stay in control (or so we believe) conspire to cut us off from others and from our true self. You might think that since everyone is playing along, what’s the harm?

As it turns out, the harm of staying safe and playing small is significant indeed. According to the spiritual wisdom traditions, the serenity we’re seeking as human beings, and which conventionally gets confused with the security we can’t get enough of, is only accessible by a descending path of surrender through the self. The grounding mystery is only found within, as we are able to release our need to be somebody special and simply relax into anonymous being.

And the harmony we long for, which gets confused with a quality of attachment that is not even possible, calls us to transcend the demand that others play to our script and take the ascending path to genuine communion instead. What I like to call the turning mystery of unity is beautifully exemplified in the nature of our universe (“turning as one”), but it can be found wherever individual egos can get over themselves and join in togetherness.

If we can’t – or won’t – surrender inwardly to the grounding mystery and transcend outwardly to the turning mystery, the consequence is that we end up sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security; we forfeit community for the sake of our attachments; and we come to despair inside a world that is far too small for our spirit.

 

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The Will of the People

The biggest problem for Republicans these days is that their 2016 presidential candidate is not a Republican. He is by name, of course; Donald Trump’s name is on the GOP ticket. But Trump apparently has little understanding of or regard for the principles of civility and decency, cooperation and respect, dialogue and compromise, ethical leadership and responsibility, temperance and self-sacrifice on behalf of ‘we the people’ – in other words, little understanding or regard for the foundations of liberal democracy.

As the circus approaches election day, even Republicans are offended and embarrassed, poised now to renounce their candidate in the interest of our nation’s future. How did he get this far? How was it possible that a dozen or so much more qualified contenders got pushed off the stage – a few of them viciously maligned and forced (or so it must have felt) into some mud-slinging of their own? A few reputations and political prospects were not only injured but maybe even permanently wrecked in the fray.

I have a theory.

In evolution there is a force at work that Darwin named ‘natural selection’, which has to do with the ongoing necessity of living things to maintain their ‘fitness’ in the interest of survival and reproduction. A later proponent of evolutionary biology, Herbert Spencer, coined this idea into the phrase “survival of the fittest,” referring not simply to the strongest and most aggressive individuals who can bully their rivals and out-compete for females, but to any organism that can successfully adapt to its environment and find a provident niche where it can thrive. By putting this requirement on living things, nature has raised a gradient against the likelihood that genetic mutations and individual deviance will survive and reproduce, unless it can win this struggle for fitness.

In economics there is another force, which the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw at work in free-market capitalism, where rational self-interest and competition in business conspire toward ‘the wealth of nations’. As individuals and industries compete with each other for market share, the cost value ratio of what they offer to consumers keeps the quality of their goods or services from slipping out of favor. This is another kind of selection, and fitness here allows a commercial enterprise to survive and maybe spawn a new generation of innovations. Smith wasn’t praising selfishness in business but rather an interest in building one’s own competitive edge in delivering genuine value.

And in politics there is yet another force, which in liberal democracy has been called ‘the will of the people’ or ‘the general will’. The idea here is that the collective effect of individuals voicing and voting for what they want is a clarified expression of what is best for the body politic. In representative government the people elect officials who carry the responsibility of defending and promoting the majority interest of their constituencies. Not everyone gets what they want, but a broad base of shared value is eventually established where the security, freedom, and each individual’s pursuit of happiness can (at least in theory) be protected.

Now over many decades the Republican Party has been steadily undergoing a transformation of character, from the republic-defending, ethically centered, and unifying efforts of Abraham Lincoln, to what we have in Donald Trump. (Just put those two individuals side-by-side in your mind for a moment and you should start to feel the twisting vortex of cognitive dissonance.) Along the way, the Grand Ole Party sidled up to various special interest groups, some endeavoring to forward a few constitutional rights that are more period-specific than they want to admit (like the right to bear arms against the encroachments of a hostile government), and others seeking to bind our nation to a religious orthodoxy that historically has condemned the advances of science, the liberalization of morality, the creative authority of individuals, and the rise of inclusive community.lincoln_trumpThere is a deep underground reservoir of repressed insecurity, resentment, and bigotry in our national unconscious, which has been kept below a thin threshold of civility – at various times not so successfully. As things progressed for liberal democracy, many of these inner demons made their way into legislation while others got projected onto whatever scapegoats we could find. Unfortunately this repressed shadow attached itself to the Republican Party, altering the platform from a philosophical avant-garde for individual freedom and social responsibility, to something just short (maybe) of institutionalized racism and bully politics. This is not Lincoln’s party, and it’s not what Americans aspire to be.

My theory is that this mysterious force called ‘the will of the people’ orchestrated the steady elimination of worthy GOP candidates and left us with this one very crass and blatantly bigoted contender for the presidency, for the purpose (not conscious, mind you) of pushing the Republican Party into extinction. If there is to be a resurrection at some point, Republicans will need to get their house in order.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Ego’s God

Post-theism, unlike atheism with which it is commonly confused, advocates for the necessity of theism in the full development of human beings. If I am critical of theism – referring to the belief in higher beings who supervise and intervene on human affairs – it is not because I think its contribution to our progress as a species is no longer needed, but that its worldview for the most part is so outdated as to render it largely irrelevant to life today. I have explored this loss of relevance in recent posts already (Religion and the Snow Cone Universe and The Three Stages of Religion), so I’ll rest my case for now.

According to the general course of religion’s evolution across the millenniums, theism occupies the middle stage between animism and post-theism, which makes it either a successful bridge or a tragic barrier to what Abraham Maslow named the “farther reaches of human nature.” When it succeeds, the personal ego can be transcended in the interest of communion, responsibility, love, and fulfillment. But when it fails in its essential function, theism locks the ego down in regressive attitudes and self-preoccupation, where “me and mine” become anchors of an insatiable consumerism, dogmatic orthodoxy, and redemptive violence.

The present failure of theism is partly due to its insistence on defending an obsolete worldview, but even more to this lockdown on the ego – on its insecurities around death and its ambition for immortality. My title for this post has a double meaning, referring on one hand to the way that god inspires and endorses an acceptable range of possibilities in the formation of individual identity (ego), as a member of this or that tribe. I consider this the essential function of theism. Obedience to the will of god, worship of god’s attributes, and conformity with the character of god as represented in the myths and testimonies of tradition, draw ego development in the direction of this ideal.

The other reading of my title is more consistent, in my opinion, with what theism today has become: Ego is god. This is where it becomes “all about me and for my sake,” where religion is reduced to the services that meet my needs and will ensure my everlasting destiny in heaven when I die. If these services and assurance were not there, ego would have no reason to stay with religion or “be religious.” Today churches compete for the attention, entertainment, satisfaction, membership, and fair-trade donations of the ego-as-god.

To understand how we got here, we need to examine more closely the process of ego formation and the forces that hold ego together. There is widespread consensus in developmental psychology that ego (referring to the individual’s separate center of identity) is not something we are born with, but must be constructed through the process known as socialization. The ego is thus a social construct and is molded, i.e., disciplined, shaped, dressed up, and acknowledged as “one of us,” an insider, a person of value and member of the tribe.Ego Dynamics On the way through this gauntlet of moral engineering, the identity under construction must negotiate two opposing values: to fit in with the group, but at the same time to stand out as an individual. It could be argued that the ego’s need to belong (fit in) precedes and is therefore deeper than its need for recognition (to stand out). But then again, the mere urgency of needing to fit in presupposes some degree of separation or exposure. So I will assume that these two opposing values arise together, forming an inherent tension (and anxiety) in the process and product of socialization known as ego.

In order to fit in and stand out, the ego must be provided with rules and expectations. Every tribe (referring here to any organized and internally engaged human population, beginning with the nuclear family) will have its conventions as to what being “one of us” must look and act like. As the individual toggles back-and-forth between belonging (but without getting buried in anonymity) and recognition (but without losing the connection of human intimacy), ego is trying on various personae or masks.

Each mask represents commitment to a role, and every role is part of a role-play, the elaboration of which is known as culture. In the early years an individual will try on a variety of masks, pretending to be a doctor or nurse, cowboy or Indian, cop or robber, grocery clerk or celebrity fashion model. Through it all, of course, is the felt pressure to be a “good boy” or “good girl” according to the morality of the tribe. Eventually certain masks will become more or less permanent identifiers, as the identity an individual settles on or is stuck with. Typically these demarcate the roles that will involve him or her in such conventional pursuits as marriage, family, and career.

Some masks and the energies they elicit are discouraged by the tribe, as perhaps not appropriate to “who we are” or to the way a good boy or girl should behave. As Carl Jung explained, these roles and their associated inclinations must then be split off and pushed out of sight, in order to ensure the individual’s acceptance by others. This split-off aspect doesn’t just fall away and disappear, however, but lurks behind the ego as its shadow – alluring, scandalous, forbidden, and dangerous. Jung theorized that our full individuation into a whole self is only possible as we are able to come to terms with our shadow and find ways of reconciling it back into our personality. Only then, after integration, balance, and stability have been achieved, can we transcend or go beyond the ego into higher transpersonal experiences.

A primary function of theism, as I’ve said, is to arrange and orient tribal life around an image of ultimate reality, personified and projected as a provident agency behind the mortal realm where we humans live and die. The deity (referring to this personified representation in myth, art, and theology) puts on display, as it were, the attributes that devotees glorify in worship and strive to obey in daily life. In this way, the moral development of culture over the millenniums has followed a trending line of ascent, from basic commitments to the primary group, through an opening-up to outsiders (strangers), and into still more enlightened practices of benevolence and forgiveness (as it concerns the enemy).Ego_Deity_DevilPost-theism urges us to continue this progression, to the point where we have fully incarnated the virtues of our deity – or to put it another way, where the projected image of our own dormant nature is finally reached and awakened in the way we live. At that point we can take up the responsibilities of loving each other, caring for the earth, and being faithful “higher powers” to the generations depending on us. They are just starting out on the adventure of ego-formation, which means that we must be creative mythmakers, wise advisors, and provident stewards of the theism that is shaping them. An important stipulation is that our representation of God (as deity) must be congruent with the cosmology that contemporary science is revealing to us.

But whereas theism might lend a bridge for the longer arc of our spiritual evolution, it is currently hung up on the ego – and hung up by the ego, in the form of deities who are calling for jihads, damning outsiders, and demanding purity over love. God’s shadow, which is the condemned and unacceptable parts of ourselves that have split off and taken metaphysical reality as the devil, is seen at work in liberal politics, in the civil rights of minorities, the decline in church membership, and in the general deviance of our youth.

In the crusade of true believers and fundamentalists against the menacing shadow of evil in the world, “the devil” is actually magnified and empowered. Violence against terrorism only intensifies aggression, just as the state-sanctioned murder of murderers only justifies more murder as a solution to our problem. The split within us thus gets played out as a split down the middle of reality, and in our campaigns to root out and destroy the shadow in our enemy, we are pushing ourselves and everything with us to the verge of extinction.

Ego is not god, but neither is God an ego. The thing that religion seems so desperate to rescue out of the world will bring about the end of the world and take us all down – unless we can wake up first.

 

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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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