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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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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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Creative Authority

A friend in an engagement community that I weekly attend asked recently, “What, exactly, goes into this idea of ‘creative authority’?” – an idea (or ideal, really) that occupies a strategic position in the theory of human fulfillment that I’ve been working to clarify in a conversation on post-theism.

It is critically important that post-theism not be defined as a reactionary movement, as an effort to throw off theism and its antiquated god for the sake of something like secular materialism or atheistic humanism. Quite the contrary, post-theism holds a vision for what life is like after (“post”) theism – not after theism has been discredited and finally abandoned, but when it has served its evolutionary function and releases the self-transcending human spirit into a new existence as an enlightened partner and co-creator in the great community of life.

Before I offer a response to my friend’s question, let’s quickly recall where “creative authority” fits into my broader theory of human fulfillment. We started life fully immersed in an animal nature (body), with all its biological requirements and urgencies keeping consciousness oriented outward to the resources we need. Gradually, and with success in satisfying our basic needs, awareness began to open inwardly as well – not just to this pang or that urgency inside the body, but deeper into a sense of our grounding in a provident mystery. This sense of provident grounding is registered in the nervous system at an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level, which is why I call it animal faith.

Immediately with our birth our tribe went to work shaping our identity (ego). Through guidance, directives, feedback, and discipline we were given clear (but sometimes not so clear) messages about what it means to be a good boy or girl, a member in good standing, a person of value. Because the foundations of identity are constructed early on and are primarily emotional in character, I call the construct of identity itself our inner child.

With sufficient animal faith underneath us, supported by the caring and responsible influence of our tribe, identity can achieve a level of healthy development known as ego strength. Key attributes of ego strength are a stable personality, balanced mood, and a unified sense of self.

This is where things really get interesting, since social security, group membership, shared purpose, and personal value are like four sides of the box containing a meaningful existence. Why would we ever want to leave? Where else would we possibly go anyway? Outside the box is meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, and certain despair – or at least the heresy of someone else’s meaning. This is a necessary part of our programming.

An essential part of this project of identity construction is the tribe’s representation to the youngster of what a “good person” looks like – not in physical appearance necessarily, but how a good person behaves, how they treat other people (insiders and outsiders), what values they hold, how they handle conflict and common challenges of life.

Beyond merely listing these features in something like a bullet-point format, this ideal of a good person is represented in the role models of parents and other respected adults, but also in stories that depict super-human, supernatural superegos who are engaged to the tribe as divine protectors and providers.

Theism is a religious system that orients the individual to taller powers (adults) and higher powers (gods) that exemplify the character of a “good person.” These role models are intended to inspire similar developments in youngsters and devotees, but typically in theism the deity demonstrates the virtues in their more or less pure form. (We must not forget that this is a “dramatic” demonstration, since the god lives only in the fictional space of sacred dramas or myths.)

The deity, for example, who is worshiped for having shown compassion to the tribe when they or their ancestors were lost and without hope, exemplifies this degree of loving concern and will typically have expectations (in the form of injunctions or commandments) on the community to aspire toward a similar level of compassion for others in need. In this way, worship, as the exaltation into collective aspiration of the deity’s praiseworthy virtues, flows naturally into morality and obedience for the tribe.

We should acknowledge a flow in the opposite direction as well. The particular historical concerns currently pressing upon a tribe’s existence will “select” those divine attributes most needed in the moment, or possibly even alter the portrait of god in story and theology in order to provide some timely justification. Neglect of the needy, persecution of outsiders, and violence against unbelievers are either dug up from the mythological archives – you can always find a verse for that in the Bible – or else insinuated into the script of orthodoxy from the local church pulpit.

A similar dynamic as what we find in parental role models with their children is also present in theism proper: When a virtue demonstrated by the exemplar is imitated successfully by the aspirant (child, devotee) and internalized – which means integrated into the individual’s ethical character and way of life – an external representation is no longer required and can be transcended. Because the virtue (say, of forgiveness) now informs life from within as an authentic expression rather than from outside by imitation, we might say that the individual has progressed to a post-parental, post-theistic mode of being.

True enough, there are complications that can slow this process down and even arrest it altogether, but in this post I want to pretend as if development has advanced according to design – and by “design” I mean according to the inherent tendency of a human being to mature into a self-actualized adult.

When this sequence of obedience, aspiration, internalization, and authentic expression reaches fulfillment in the stable, balanced, and unified personality, ego strength is achieved and the individual is finally capable of a new mode of being and a higher way of life. Earlier concerns over belonging and recognition, security and freedom, of maintaining membership in the tribe as a person of value, are no longer the preoccupations they once were.

Consciousness has shifted to a new and higher mental location, one that supports a realization of deep communion and universal participation – or more simply stated, the realization that All is One. At this point the tribe has given up custodial possession of the individual (as ego), and the individual begins a new life “after god” (the lower-case ‘g’ referring to the patron deity of the local tribe). This higher mental location for consciousness is what I understand by soul – not “the real me” inside a body or just a new (spiritual) name for the ego, but the individual’s existence as grounded in mystery and connected to all things.

A perfect word for this new arena of life, combining deep communion and universal participation, is community – from com (with, together) and unity (as one). Here the awakened soul understands, by direct intuition and not hearsay, that the separation so important to establishing a clear identity for the ego was really a delusion of consciousness at that level. In some sense, the entire tribe is under this same spell, which is probably why spiritual awakening is frequently described as the breaking of a trance and coming to see things as they really are.

So this is what I mean by “creative authority”: the individual taking for him- or herself the authorial rights to a new story. Siddhartha’s new story was the dharma of his Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path. Jesus’ new story was his gospel of forgiveness and solidarity with the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr’s new story was about a world where our children won’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Each of them stepped intentionally and courageously into creative authority, come what may.

With that, I can finally respond to my friend’s question about what creative authority entails. In the diagram below are listed five virtues that I find in the dharma, gospel, and Dream stories just mentioned; but they are also well represented across countless others. Since the diagram depicts the path of human fulfillment organically, as growing up from a body-centered mode, through an ego-centered (and theistic) mode, and into a soul-centered (post-theistic) mode of being, my visual display of these five terms is meant to be interpreted in a similar bottom-up fashion.

Creative Authority_virtuesContemplative

Even though “contemplation” is commonly used in the West as a synonym for “meditation,” I want to avoid this confusion. While a meditation practice is essential for descending the inward path to the grounding mystery of being, contemplation is closer to the idea of “mindfulness.”

Creative authority is contemplative in the way it holds a mindful perspective on reality. This includes a big picture and long view on one’s place in the great community of life. Contemplatively the individual acknowledges that s/he is both a participant in and a manifestation of oneness.

The opposite of contemplative mindfulness would be something like conviction, where one’s beliefs about reality actually separate the mind from reality. A conviction is a belief that holds its owner hostage. Contemplation, on the other hand, opens the mind to the present mystery of reality.

Empathetic

With “reality in mind,” creative authority is open at deep levels to the connectedness of things. As a cell in the great body of community, an individual feels the dynamics of well-being or deterioration in the connective tissue of relationships. Empathy is similar to “sympathy” and “compassion,” but adds to these a degree of rational understanding to the direct and spontaneous feeling.

In the profession of counseling today empathy is what the helper needs in order to truly help the one who is suffering. Drawing on the big picture and long view afforded by contemplation, the helper can offer perspective and recommendations that have a larger context in mind. The helper is careful not to jump down into the dark hole of suffering for the sake of merely providing some company in the misery, but instead confirms genuine care and understanding while holding open the horizon of possibility and hope.

Responsible

Whereas in the ego realm of the tribe responsibility is about following through on what’s assigned or expected, for creative authority this element of obligation is transcended. The self-actualized adult doesn’t act or refrain from acting because of what someone else (human or divine) might think. In this way, the motivation of responsibility is not externally coerced but rooted in empathy, coming directly out of a grounded and connected life.

Within a much broader and deeper context than ego consciousness is capable of grasping, soul-centered responsibility understands that “the right thing” is not always what feels good, gets rewarded, or even promotes individual self-interest. Sometimes, in fact, doing the responsible thing involves transgressing on tribal rules (or divine commands) that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, bigotry, oppression or violence against others. The resulting “conscientious guilt” – willingly bearing the indictment for the sake of a higher good – is something the individual must learn to live with (and care less about).

Benevolent

I said just now that the soul-centered responsible adult commits his or her life to a higher good, which is to say that this individual wills the good, chooses the path of well-being, and puts it into action. Benevolence continues the organic progression of creative authority – as one who mindfully holds the big picture (contemplative), deeply understands what is going on (empathetic), uses his or her influence for the benefit of the whole (responsible), and now wills that greater good into an intentional way of life.

Most likely the ego was instructed in the importance of having “good will” toward others. The so-called “golden rule” of Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself (quoted by Jesus but originating in the Jewish book of Leviticus), are typically limited in their practical application to the in-group where ego is a member.

Jesus’ exhortation to Love your enemies and do good to those who commit evil against you (Matthew 5:44) represents a decidedly post-theistic direction, which neither the patron deity of the Judaism of his day nor the patron deity of later Christian orthodoxy was capable of fulfilling. Theism will always have “outsiders,” who necessarily live and perish outside the saving mercy of (the insiders’) god.

Forgiving

This, I suppose, is where the real test lies. How far does the benevolent life of creative authority reach? Where is the edge, where is the boundary that defines the extent of lovingkindness? For the ego there must be a limit, past which it is not only dangerous and foolhardy, but positively blasphemous to go. If god will finally cast his enemies into everlasting torment – even if it is out of a reluctant obligation to condemn the sinner – who am I (asks the ego) to presume that god might be outdone?

I have made a case that this was precisely the message (new story, gospel) of Jesus, summarized in the simple yet revolutionary appeal of “unconditional forgiveness” – loving anyway, doing good anyway, choosing benevolence over retribution, letting go of the past and moving into a shared future. (For more on that, see “Jesus Against Christianity“)

Forgiveness, as “letting go,” concerns more than just our relationships with others, even if that’s where it is most difficult and most urgently needed. Releasing the past allows the individual to take from it the valuable lessons that constitute wisdom, without having to drag an unexamined life behind him or her like – in the wonderful metaphor of Robert Bly’s – “a long, black bag.” We forgive so we can be free to grow and learn and fulfill our creativity authority in the great community of life.

 

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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Metaphors of Life

Metaphors operate at a level where experience first breaks over the threshold into expression, the real presence of mystery into representations of meaning. At a very deep level – just short of the very deepest – human beings orient themselves according to a guiding metaphor of life itself.

What is life, and what is your place in it?

Western culture is organized around a guiding metaphor of life that we could name circling the drain. With its accent on the individual, everything tends to be oriented according to the individual’s perspective, more specifically to the perspective of that separate identity called ego. drain

This is who I am. This is my tribe. These are the things that belong to me. Such are the ambitions I have for myself. I have a limited amount of time to realize my dreams, and finite resources to exploit before my time is done.

I do my best to hold and protect my own, to get what I need and have enough of what I want, but it’s very apparent that life is leaking away from me all the while.

This drain metaphor of life spawns other secondary metaphors, which are more enmeshed in language and hence more meaning-full. The farther out and dependent our minds become on this web of meaning, the more dogmatic we get in our beliefs, the more convicted of our certainties, and the more vulnerable we become to anxiety and depression. We worry over many things, sink into fatigue and discouragement, and get just enough rest to rush out and try it again.

Western religion has compensated for this inherent bipolarity in egoism with its invention of an afterlife fantasy where the ego will live on forever once the body expires. Physically my body is trickling down the drain with each passing minute, but I (ego) will not die. Instead I will pop out on the other side, fully intact and without the drag of a mortal frame. Over there, I will be reunited with my loved ones who went down the drain before me, and I will be everlastingly happy.

The metaphor of circling the drain, therefore, is what inspired our familiar and highly defended notion of salvation as a rescue project. What we’re looking for cannot be here, for the obvious reason that everything is going down the drain. Our only hope is to find the way out – out of this world, out of our bodies. Not really out of time, exactly, since heaven is supposed to be everlasting, but at least in time without a drain to worry about.

Outside of religion, the metaphor of life as circling the drain has stimulated a view of the individual as consumer – needing, demanding, taking, devouring, using, spending, wasting and casting aside the leftover junk. We have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as chronically empty – of what exactly, no one knows for sure. But there are countless fillers on display in the marketplace that we are encouraged to try out. Keep your credit card handy.

So we oblige by filling ourselves up with all manner of “stuff” and in the process have become discontent and possessive, malnourished and overweight, popular and lonely, renting storage and buying insurance policies to keep it all safe as we inwardly waste away.

                                                                                  

There is another metaphor of life, one that predates our Western notion of the drain by thousands of years. Its roots are in the organic intelligence of the body – the very problem from which the ego seeks escape. It is central to a grounded and mystical spirituality. Instead of circling the drain, this metaphor invites you to join the stream.

riverLife is a flowing river, and you are part of the mystery. There’s no need to throw yourself into a tightening spiral of anxiety, craving, attachment, frustration, disappointment, desperation and depression.

True enough, since the larger culture has been constructed around the drain metaphor, you will be tempted to regard this idea as something else you need to take and make your own. But that’s just ego again. 

By its nature, a stream cannot be possessed. If you should try to dam it up and turn it into a reservoir, you might achieve the illusion of ownership and control, but your entire perspective will have shifted to a vertical axis centered on leakage and loss prevention – the drain again.

Joining the stream promotes a very different outlook on reality, a different way of orienting oneself in the world. As a metaphor, it counteracts the ego’s tendency towards nervous consumption and the grip-down on me and mine. Rather than closing focus down into a spiraling anxiety around the drain hole of mortality, the stream metaphor opens our focus up to the larger reality to which we belong.

Our separation from reality and antagonism to life is only a delusion of ego consciousness. I (ego) am not really separate from everything else, but my insecurities and defenses make it seem so. And yet, this mistaken sense of separateness is what alienates me from my body and hence also from life itself.

The metaphor of life as a stream is also a gentle reminder that it’s not about me. Admittedly it can be a considerable – perhaps even traumatic – change in perspective that’s required, and one that isn’t supported by the general culture we live in. To some extent this has always been the case.

Even though their teachings were later turned into programs of escape from mortality and its complications, Siddhartha and Jesus were really speaking about the opportunity afforded in each moment of life to release the neurotic compulsions of “me” and “mine” for the sake of a larger and more participative experience. The Buddhist “no-self” (anatta) and the Christian “new mind” (metanoia) are early concepts that get at this idea of joining the stream.chart

The above chart sets in contrast these two different images, identifying the points where each guiding metaphor works its way into our worldview, our fundamental attitudes toward life and the values we uphold, as well as our approach to the mysteries of death and dying.

Everything changes as you learn to give in to the greater reality, rather than stubbornly insist that reality deliver on your demands. You are wonderfully free of convictions and the need to be right. You begin to understand that nothing belongs to you, that there is only One Thing going on here and you are part of it.

In life and death, you can be fully present and trust the process. This is the essence of faith.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.  What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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