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The Long Adventure

As we search for a fuller understanding of ourselves as human beings, it’s necessary to beware of explanations that reduce us to essentially one thing. On one side, scientific materialism wants to insist that we are nothing more than a highly evolved marvel of organic chemistry. On the other, metaphysical realism says that we are nothing less than an immortal spirit-being on a brief earthly sojourn. Whether we are nothing more or nothing less, each side presumes to reduce to simpler terms the complexity of what makes us human.

If we can set aside our Western penchant for reductionism and take a different approach, a much more interesting picture begins to emerge. In earlier posts I introduced the notion of ‘mental location’ as a vantage point for consciousness in its engagement with reality. Sentient awareness in human beings engages with reality at three distinct realms: (1) a sensory-physical realm at the mental location of the body, (2) an interpersonal realm at the mental location of the ego, and (3) a mystical-intuitive realm at the mental location of the soul.

Such a notion avoids the pitfalls of thinking in terms of parts or pieces, where inevitably one part (body, ego, or soul) is regarded as essential as the others are reduced to mere ‘accidents’ or dismissed outright.

Just a quick check-in with your own experience will verify that you connect with your physical surroundings through your body, with your social situation through your ego, and with the mystery of being through your soul. The convention of regarding these aspects or modes of being as somehow belonging to us (e.g., my body, your soul) encourages the mistake of separating them into parts and property of the self.

In actuality, however, there is no self that has these in its possession, no ‘fourth thing’ beyond the three modes under consideration. If anything, self is the consilient (‘leaping together’) effect of body, ego, and soul working together – and sometimes less cooperatively. In any given moment, you can turn your conscious attention on reality as mediated at the mental location of body, ego, or soul. Sentient awareness is continuously monitoring your engagement with reality at all three simultaneously.

To help with my explanation, I have a diagram that lays out this idea of mental locations or modes of consciousness. You should notice an arcing arrow sweeping across from left to right, which represents the progression of time. In addition, a spatial arrangement displays the three modes and their relative positions with respect to what I name the grounding mystery.

Briefly, ‘grounding mystery’ refers to the depth-structure of our individual existence, descending from the center of self-conscious identity (or ego), deeper into sentient awareness, organismic life, and peering into the abyss (from the perspective of consciousness) of physical matter and quantum energy farthest down (or within). It’s important to understand that the grounding mystery is only within and not outside the forms of existence. Engagement with the grounding mystery is an introspective affair.

As far as the relative position of the three modes with respect to the grounding mystery is concerned, you’ll notice that both body and soul are in direct contact with it whereas ego is slightly elevated in its own separate space. This makes the point that body and soul together constitute what we are as human beings, while ego is who we (think we) are.

The various roles we play in society are not essential to what we are; rather they are masks of identity that make sense only inside the niches and stories of our interpersonal experience. We need to be reminded that our word ‘person’ (and its cognates personal and personality) derive from the Latin persona, referring to the mask an actor wore on a theater stage.

Ego, then, is your mental location of personal identity, which is not natural or essential to what you are but instead is socially constructed as your sense of being somebody (having roles) separate from the roles played by others. The process of individuation gradually detaches this center of identity from the grounding mystery and suspends it inside the performance space of social interactions we call society.

In many early myths, the hero, who on this reading stands for the ego on its adventure of discovery and conquest, must gain escape from some monster or dark force that seeks to devour him. This captures perfectly in metaphor the uneasy relationship of ego to the animal energies of the body from which identity must be ‘saved’ again and again. A portion of consciousness must be liberated from the urgencies and instincts of the body in order to be installed at the new mental location of personal self-conscious identity (ego).

What ‘saves’ personal identity from falling into the body and getting swallowed up are the numerous rules, routines, moral codes, and role-play scripts that validate who you are and keep ego suspended – or, as another way of saying it, that keep you firmly enmeshed in the web of interpersonal and tribal affairs. We can think of these social conventions as programs directing your interaction with others, each one a kind of algorithm (a fixed and closed sequence) of moves, actions, and commands that start and finish a distinct subroutine of the larger performance.

Over time these numerous subroutines of personal and interpersonal engagement became your habit of identity, the second nature of who you are.

In my diagram I have placed the image of a robot (or android: a more humanlike robot) to represent your second nature – the separate center of personal identity (ego) and social codes that dictate your values and direct your behavior in the role-play of society. I’m using this image less in the sense of advanced robotics or artificial intelligence than as something not quite human, human-like but less than human. Your second nature moves and reacts quite automatically according to these encoded programs, closing off or channeling the energies of your first nature (as a primate) into something more conventional and morally compliant.

At the temporal transition from body to ego I’ve put a cube (or box) which symbolizes this process of socialization, where your animal (or first) nature is eventually domesticated in the formation of your personal (or second) nature. The box stands for all the codes that define who you are, determine what you believe, and direct how you behave, as something humanlike but not yet fully human.

At the following transition, between your second and higher natures, you can see that the box is breaking open in a creative release of spiritual energy. In other posts I have explored this event of disillusionment (the liberation from illusion) as the deeper significance of apocalypse in mythology: the imposed veil of meaning falls away and you are finally fully present to what is.

This is what we mean by self-transcendence and moving into a transpersonal mode: you use your center of personal identity as a point of release into a deeper center of awareness (soul), which corresponds outwardly to an enlarged horizon of communion and wholeness.

If we can get past the debate over the metaphysical existence of angels, taking them instead as metaphorical representations of the liberated life – not as self-interested animals or social androids, but as creators, messengers (the literal meaning of angel), and guardians of wisdom – we will come to appreciate their significance as our own higher ideal calling to us.

Interestingly our technology-infatuated generation is more enamored with androids than angels these days, which is no doubt partly due to the irrelevance of literal angels in our scientific cosmology, but may also represent a seduction away from transpersonal to artificial intelligence as our anticipated key to the future.

The automatic life has a certain attraction over one where you need to live with a higher wholeness in mind. In a sense, you can’t be held responsible for the programs driving your thoughts, feelings, and (so-called) choices.

The liberated life is paradoxically about taking responsibility for the world you are creating. Your long adventure as a human being leads to your awakening, waking up from the trance of who you are and living with wide-awake holy intention.

 

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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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The Pursuit of Immortal Glory

The universe is a great Web of Life. You might argue that because so much of it is uninhabitable (dead rocks and nuclear furnaces) we should keep our discussion on the topic of life focused solely on our home planet. But we must remember that Earth is itself a product of the Universal Process which began some 14 billion years ago, and even if our planet was the only place where life exists across the entire 96 billion-light-year diameter of the observable cosmos, we are logically bound to the conclusion that the universe is alive. And conscious. And holding this thought, right now.

The Web of Life, then, extends out into the cosmic surround, includes the whole earth, the vibrant system of living things called nature, and your body as an organismic member of this system. Your body can’t survive apart from the support of nature, nature can’t continue without the favorable conditions of Earth, the earth wouldn’t exist had not the universal process conspired in the way it did for our planet to get formed and flung around its home star.

You may feel separate and all alone at times, but that’s something else, not your body.

I have placed you in the above diagram, nestled in the Web of Life as an embodied and natural earthling, a child of the cosmos and latter-day descendant of stars. For now we’ll focus on the purple figure outlined in black, ignoring everything behind you and to the right. Black is my color code for your animal nature, which is extroverted in its orientation to the environment (nature, Earth, cosmos) as you reach out for the shelter, resources, and connections you need to live.

Purple represents your inner awareness, oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery of consciousness. Also called the Ground of Being, it is how our provident universe is experienced from within, so to speak, in the uplift of existence. This grounding mystery of being can only be found within as you detach attention from the sensory-physical realm and allow awareness to drop past “mine” (property and attributes), “me” (the felt object of self), and “I” (the center of personal identity), into the deep and timeless present.

Consciousness has no object at this point. Ground is merely a metaphor reflecting the experience of mystery as both source and support of existence in this moment.

This duality of outer and inner orientations of consciousness, one through the body and out to the Web of Life, and the other through the soul and deeper into the Ground of Being, is what constitutes your essential self as a human being. You are a human animal (body) with a capacity for contemplating the inner mystery of being (soul). Because your highly evolved brain and nervous system make this dual orientation possible, you and your species may be the only ones with an ability to contemplate your place in the provident universe.


I should be clear that it’s not entirely by virtue of your advanced nervous system that you are able to break past the boundaries of personal identity for a larger (Web) or deeper (Ground) experience of reality. You need a center of personal identity (color coded orange in my diagram) in place to make such transpersonal experiences even possible. We call them transpersonal precisely because they are about going beyond the personal center of identity and its limited frame of reference. The center is who you think you are, and the frame is a construction of meaning where your identity belongs. It is your world.

Things get interesting at this point, and not just a little complicated, since ego formation is not an instinct-driven process, but instead depends on your tribe. The construction of identity and its frame of reference (world) is accomplished over the first three decades of your life. During that time your tribe is selecting or suppressing temperamental predispositions according to its standards of a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. As time goes on, the incentives for compliance evolve from candy or spankings, to grades, degrees, bonuses, and promotions. The goal is to shape you into “one of us,” someone who belongs, follows directions, and will do anything for the sake of honor.

Even though your personal identity is a social construction, your tribe still had to work with (and on) an animal nature that really doesn’t care very much about rules and expectations. A strong instinct for self-preservation needed to be reconditioned so that you could learn how to share and make sacrifices. Impulses connected to elimination, aggression, and sexual behavior had to be brought under control and put on a proper schedule. The means for accomplishing all of this is called social conditioning, and the primary psycho-mechanism for its success is the ego.

Somehow your constructed identity needed to be sufficiently separated from the animal urgencies of your body, but without losing the tether to your embodied essential self.

This is where, in the deeper cultural history of our species, religion progressed out of animism and into theism. The higher power of a patron deity not only served to give supernatural sanction to tribal morality, but it functioned also as a literary role-model. I say ‘literary’ because patron deities live only in the storytelling imagination (aka mythology). Every deity is a kind of personality construct, a literary invention and projected ideal reflecting back to the tribe those character traits and virtues which the community aspires to emulate. In exchange for their worship, sacrifice, and obedience, the patron deity bestows favors and rewards (e.g., success in childbirth, bountiful harvests, increases in wealth, and beatitude in the next life).

If we look closely at the patron deities of name-brand religions today, we can identify three qualities common to them all. Underneath and behind the tribe-specific virtues, its devotees honor their deity as immortal, supreme, and absolute. In the pictorial language of myth these translate into a depiction of the deity as separate, above, and outside the ordinary world of everyday concerns.

An even closer look will reveal these qualities as the driving aspirations of ego as well.

In the need to establish a separate center of personal identity, ego must first be differentiated from the body. Because the body is mortal, ego must be – or aspire to become – immortal. Notice that the ego’s status with respect to the body is ‘not’ (im-) mortal, a simple negation without any meaningful content. In addition to being separate from the body, ego takes its position above the body (the literal root meaning of the word ‘supreme’) and manages things from up there. Finally, as a final move of separation, ego begins to regard itself as essentially independent and outside the realm of bodily concerns – just like the deity.

According to my theory of post-theism, the intended outcome of theism is the internalization of the patron deity’s ‘godly virtues’, to the point where its projected ideal is no longer needed. The individual assumes creative authority in his or her life, taking responsibility for modeling the virtues of maturity, ego strength, and community interest. This is especially important to up-and-coming theists (the younger generation), who need taller powers to show them how to be and what to do.

Throughout this very fascinating game we can’t forget your essential self. The construct of identity can now serve in the transpersonal experiences of empathy, communion, and wholeness. If we can survive ego’s pursuit of immortal glory, these are the promise of our human future.

 

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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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Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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The Simple Message

“Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” What if the message of a one-world religion was as simple as that? Obviously the meaning of those words would need to be unpacked before believers scramble on board. There is no magic in merely repeating the words as you break bread, ring a bell, prostrate yourself, or whirl in circles. Religion has really never been about some special power in ritual performances, but rather how these rituals focus attention, unite members of the community in shared intention, and provide thereby a sacred entry into deep time where everything is celebrated as moving in a purposeful direction.

It’s been about connection, as the root religare implies (to tie back or link together). Just because some religions have degenerated into reactionary, separatist, and violence-prone idiocracies (a rule of spiritual idiots) isn’t a sound reason to reject religion itself out of hand as the same. The occasion of bad science or bad politics doesn’t give us good reason to cast science or politics on the cultural junk pile; instead we redouble our commitment to keep science aligned with empirical facts and politics oriented on the welfare of society.

With so many blatant examples of bad religion all around us, I want to call us back to its essential function, summarized in the simple message of “Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” All religions will find the secret to a renewed inspiration and relevance as they realign themselves once again to the vision of reality conveyed in this message. So let’s take a few minutes to unpack what it means.

Web_GroundPlug in

A human being has both an inner life and an outer life. Our inner life, called our soul, trails deep inside to the very root of consciousness. In that deep place within each of us, finally inaccessible even to our own searching mind, consciousness rises out of and recedes again into a mystery that all religions acknowledge as an elusive presence. Before they put words to it and dress it up in symbols, stories, and doctrines, this presence is intuitively known as the very Ground of Being, the creative source in which our existence finds its genesis and provident support.

Reach Out

A human being also has an outer life, called our body, which extends far outside the boundary of our skin – although for the sake of convenience we commonly regard it as a physical object. In truth, however, our body is of the same substance (homooúsios) as the earth and contains the saline of its oceans, metabolizes the light of the sun and has stardust in its cells. It is not a separate thing at all; in fact, our body belongs to a vibrant Web of Life as large as the universe itself. The very nature of our body shares in the interdependence of cosmic reality.


The inner life of our soul and the outer life of our body make human beings a fascinating duality. Outwardly we are connected to the Web of Life and dependent upon its sacred balance of energies, while inwardly we are rooted in the Ground of Being and cradled in a present mystery. These two aspects of our existence, outer and inner, are what religion has long helped us hold together. By coordinating our deeper communion with Being and our wider fellowship with Life, religion (as religare) keeps us whole.

Open Up

But there is yet another aspect of human beings, besides the inner and outer, that introduces a wonderful complication to this enterprise of unifying our experience of reality. What we call ego is our identity as members of this or that human tribe (family, community, culture). Because every social group of humans is unique according to its history, traditions, customs, concerns, values, beliefs, and aspirations, every individual ego – which, of course, carries its own unique set of inclinations, moods, and motivations – is unique as unique can possibly be.

Egos must be shaped to the aims of the group so they can take the responsibility of promoting its peculiar construction of meaning known as ideology. One problem with ideology is that it tends to codify our human insecurities into compensatory convictions of absolute truth. If our tribal existence is particularly imperiled by vanishing resources and competition with a neighboring group, for instance, an idea something like manifest destiny will soon rise in our minds, providing all the justification we need to secure what is ours by right.

It’s at this stage in the game where religion constructed the notion of a patron deity, whose role is to authorize the moral order, incentivize internal reform, justify external campaigns of war, and characterize the virtues to be cultivated in the lives of devotees. These protected memberships served, and still serve, as social incubators of identity. Members are believers, believers are aspirants, and what they aspire to is represented in their deity. Submission, devotion, and obedience train their collective energies on a common ideal which they confess together as the one and only way.

As I said, inevitably (and by design) the constructed identity of an individual ego will carry the social investment of its culture. Family patterns of abuse, neglect, or discrimination – but of healthy nurturing as well – work themselves into the operating system of our personality. I would dare say that all of us, simply because we had to find our way through this broken maze of childhood, enter our own maturity with some deep-set insecurities about ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the prospect of happiness. As a consequence, we play it safe and keep ourselves closed to the greater reality.

An insecure identity, contracted in self-defense and working itself into nervous exhaustion, is that much removed from its own inner life and Ground of Being. Indeed the mere suggestion that “I” (ego) might surrender completely and lose myself in union with the soul’s grounding mystery is contemplated with horror. But outwardly, too, the self-involved ego is ignorant of and careless about the body and its vibrant Web of Life. Reaching out too far and opening its horizon of understanding to the fragile balance of life would take focus away from its precious contract of “me and mine.”

And that’s where the real contribution of “true religion” lies: in challenging us to open up and to drop the illusion of identity. Only then can we plug in to the Ground of our being and reach out to the Web of Life. Only then will we be whole.

This is the simple message.

 

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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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