Tag Archives: society

Where Love Can Only Grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Human Purpose

In my last post I identified what can be thought of as the channel of creative life, summarized in the “upward-and-outward” flow from internal security, into skillful control, opening up in freedom, and fulfilling its purpose in accomplishment. These four are the positive illusions human beings must have in sufficient degree in order to keep from insanity (where we lose our minds) and inanity (where life loses significance). But there must be a complementarity and balance among them, or else this channel of creativity will get hooked or crimped along the way.

Human beings are animals – however justifiably we may see ourselves as “special” and “unique” among the animals. As such we possess an animal nature equipped with urges, drives, impulses and reflexes that have evolved for our survival and prosperity. The specialness of our species has to do with the fact that our development is socially dependent. Our brain continues to form itself throughout life, according to the challenges and opportunities of social interaction.

With the invention of language and tools, we have been able to adapt to our situation on this planet. But more than just accommodating ourselves to the circumstances, our big brain has enabled us to imagine possibilities, invent our own “socialsphere” of culture, innovating and improvising on reality in astonishing ways. All of this creative output is more than just a further extension of unconscious instinct. It is the expression and product of a certain disciplined, methodical, and technical kind of performance called “skill,” and skills must be learned.

In a skillful performance – of any kind, and it doesn’t have to be “artistic” in the narrow sense – you need to be centered and grounded within yourself. This is what I mean by security. If you don’t have the sense that you are deeply established in a reality that is supportive and provident, the consequent anxiety will interfere with your performance – if it doesn’t entirely block and frustrate your creative flow.

Once established and confident within yourself, the next step is to take up the tool or instrument that will serve as the means by which you will accomplish your outcome. This instrument doesn’t have to be physical or mechanical in nature; your own body (think of dancing) or a theoretical model that provides a way of “wrapping your mind” around something are also examples of instruments. Your skillfulness with such tools involves taking effective control in the movements (physical or mental) required for their intended function.

In the “learning phase” of skill acquisition, your attention is devoted almost exclusively to the mastery of these functional maneuvers. You must get familiar with how the instrument is designed to work. With practice, your movements will become increasingly precise and efficient, reducing the number of mistakes or “user errors.” Over time, your dedicated practice in taking control will get habituated, requiring less conscious attention as the technique becomes trained into memory.

This liberation of attention, made possible by refined and memorized control, is what we call freedom. As it is habituated and memorized, control sinks deeper below the threshold of conscious awareness, freeing your directed attention (focus) for other things. If your skill is perpetually under-practiced or gets “rusty” through lack of use, you are not likely to enjoy this higher freedom that mastery affords. Distraction, laziness, inconsistency and poor technique can keep you stuck in the learning phase. Because it takes concentrated focus and effort to master a skill, never quite getting there can become a slow drain into fatigue, discouragement, and depression.

Once mastered, however, a skill can open up an astonishing range of creative possibilities. Now you are free to express yourself by means of your instrument, leverage the change you desire, and accomplish your goal. Freedom itself is the liberation and expansion of consciousness, up and out from a dedicated attention to control, while purpose amounts to a reinvestment of this energy.

Purpose can be analyzed into its own “yin” and “yang,” as when you do something on purpose (let’s call that yin) and set out to accomplish a purpose or goal (that’s yang). Intention has to do with presence, mental focus, conscious investment and internal engagement with the here-and-now. If I ask you, “Did you do that on purpose?” what I’m wanting to know is whether you intended to do it – not by mistake, out of necessity, or because someone else told you to, but whether you did it freely, willfully, and with full presence of mind. That’s the yin of purpose.

Tao Symbol

The yang of purpose is its objective. Other terms that help fill out the definition are aim, goal, outcome and achievement. In order to accomplish something you need to have some kind of mental ideal or internal representation of what you want to bring about. The projection of that ideal into the future ahead then exerts a reciprocal force upon you by way of attraction, inspiration, or even a sense of “mission.” An objective is yang because of its built-out and externally positioned quality. It cannot be separated entirely from its yin counterpart of intention without becoming disassociated and rigid.

Creativity ultimately flows into purpose. When you are inwardly grounded and secure, masterfully in control of your instrument, and consequently free to explore the possibilities, you can engage the present moment with intention and envision your creative outcome.

A human being, like every other living organism, grows, develops and evolves according to a genetic template. This is not to suggest that life is genetically determined. In fact, science is discovering the surprising extent in which genes are responsive to the environment and experience, turning “on” and “off” in reaction to signals from outside. This is known as epigenetics. Throughout this constant interaction of genetic codes and environmental signals, an organism develops along a species-specific pathway to maturity and fulfillment.

Human beings are creators: this is perhaps the best way to characterize what “maturity and fulfillment” mean for our species. We are not simply driven by our instincts, but neither can we reach our full potential under the constraints of morality alone. I don’t mean to suggest that we should throw off all moral concern and live for our own selfish advancement. Rather we need to grow through our morality and into the higher creative life, living with embodied intention and reaching out with soulful purpose.

Each moment provides a new opportunity to embrace the present and live into what’s next.


Posted by on October 13, 2013 in The Creative Life


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Light and Shadow

Robinson: “Faced with the shadow, the unacceptable, [the response of the West] has been to reject and exclude it. The dark has been detached from the image of God or the Christ and projected on to a Devil or Antichrist viewed as the embodiment of evil per se – though at the beginning of the process, as in the book of Job, it was not so: Satan was among the agents of God and seen as doing his work, the hand of the Almighty, albeit his left hand.

“This process comes to its climax in Zoroastrianism, post-exilic Judaism, Islam, and not least in Christianity, where the Devil came to occupy a uniquely powerful, even obsessive, position. The absolutizing of evil in a totally malignant Being has been the dark side of the absolutizing of the good in ethical monotheism. Evil is utterly banished and excluded from God.”

An inability to hold a creative opposition together results in dualism, where the internal tension strains through a bi-polar phase and finally breaks apart into a split reality of warring opposites. With one eye – let’s say the right (and all that it means to “be right”) – we see what is good, orthodox and acceptable. With the other – the left (Latin sinister, French gauche) – we see what is evil, deviant and unacceptable.

Conventional theism regards this dualism as based in metaphysical realities. On the right (correct) side is a company comprised of gods, angels, saviors, saints, and buttoned-up true believers; on the left (errant) side are devils, demons, fiends, sinners, and pants-down heretics. These opposites can have no part in each other, and in the end one or the other must win.

But why stop there? Historically on the “right” side are also males, the logical mind, and the self-righteous ego. And on the “wrong” side are females, the emotional body, and the sex-obsessed id. In other words, while the out-lying branches present a view where one side is held separate and apart from the other, following this tree of metaphors back to the trunk reveals each as a part of the same reality.

Post-theism takes a step back from metaphysical realism and tries not to get caught up in the passionate testimonials that claim to have encountered good or evil in its pure form. I’m suspicious that such a metaphysical dualism – a division in the very nature of reality itself – is actually rooted in a more home-grown dualism within ourselves.

If I can’t accept a basic part of what I am – and in the West it has tended to be my impulsive, carnal, pleasure-seeking animal nature – then it (Freud’s Id) must be split off, pushed down, depersonalized and disowned. This is the part of me that had to be managed, disciplined and domesticated in the early years of my socialization, as this animal nature was being converted into a polite and well-behaved member of my tribe.

It wasn’t socially acceptable to crouch down and relieve myself in public. I had to “hold it” and go find a restroom. In some circles it’s not socially acceptable for girls to play rough or for boys to dance. Whatever we needed to do to ensure the protection, provision and approval of our “higher powers” – even if it meant casting off some natural passions and talents, we did it.

But if a part of what I am has been shushed, punished and excluded long enough, it’s going to show up somewhere. Robinson’s point is that it shows up in our metaphysics, in our mythology, in our religion, and in our ethics. It emerges from under ground either as out-and-out deviance and rebellion, or else in the prejudice and bigotry of our moral convictions.

The mythological god is where this psychosomatic dualism gets projected and sanctified. If god hates sinners and deplores what is evil, then why should we be any different, right? If god is constrained by some reluctant obligation to condemn unbelievers – even though he supposedly loves all of us unconditionally, mind you – then why should I forgive my enemy? How can I, if even god can’t?

It seems to me that there is a whole semester of Jesus’ teachings, particularly on the topic of forgiveness and love for the enemy, that has been pushed out of the curriculum of orthodox Christianity. This “first voice” of Jesus will not be heard as long as the dualism of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, rules and urges, “us” and “them” persists.

We worship in god what we glorify in ourselves, and we persecute in each other what we can’t accept in ourselves. As more and brighter light shines on the cultured ego, the shadow behind it grows darker and more ominous. A passionate pursuit of righteousness may really be a sublimated fear of our repressed urges. We only appear to be chasing after godliness; in fact, we are running from our own shadow.

This internal strain of the ego trying to break free of the id serves a purpose, so I’m not suggesting that it’s completely neurotic. The social expectations of the tribe need to prevail over the animal impulses of the body if the individual is to take his or her place in polite society. Certainly, the primal energies dedicated to physical survival, sexual reproduction, and pleasure-seeking have to be guided into channels that are conducive to community life.

So the tension and interplay of “good” and “evil” is inherent in our human development. But when this tension becomes intolerable and the whole thing cracks apart into warring opposites (absolute dualism), reality goes apocalyptic. Relationships break up as individuals break down. As this continues, any hope for peace and community, reconciliation and love, health and happiness falls over the edge.

Interestingly enough, buried in our own fairly ancient mythology is an image that offers a way back to wholeness. Lucifer – that captain of devils who keeps whispering to us from behind the hedges of our Victorian garden-morality – is so named because he bears the light we have lost. He’s the part of us that we keep pushing away from ourselves and condemning in each other.

In order to get our light back, we need to face him, not cross ourselves and run away.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dropping Illusions

De Mello: “You must drop it all. Not physical renunciation, you understand; that’s easy. When your illusions drop, you’re in touch with reality at last, and believe me, you will never again be lonely, never again. Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality. Contact with reality, dropping one’s illusions, making contact with the real. Whatever it is, it has no name. We can only know it by dropping what is unreal.”

Awakening is used across the wisdom traditions of the world as a metaphor for salvation – which, of course, is still another metaphor. Many metaphors in this class have to do with being set free from something that is pulling us down and holding us back, as our dreams at night hold us captive to scenarios conjured up from the subconscious imagination. While asleep, the experience we’re having isn’t real, as compared to the physical world of the bed in the room in the house that Jack built.

And then there are dream episodes where you are running from danger or falling in love, which at least one part of your brain can’t distinguish from the peripheral sensations of your bedroom. Your heart races as stress hormones are released into your bloodstream. You thrash about and may start weeping in the middle of your dream. Awakening to the real world involves getting out of the predicament in your dream (the particular scenario that has you so worked up), then getting out of the dream itself, and finally waking up from sleep to become aware again of the real world around you.

But let’s not stop there. After all, what is this so-called “real world” you have awakened to? A comfortable bed in a room designed for sleeping (and other stuff), as part of a house in a neighborhood of a city in a state of the country where you are a citizen. Your country has a language and a history that are rooted in a still-larger culture, going back many generations and centuries. You and your fellow citizens live together inside a system of law, politics, morality, commerce and other basic values that constitute a more or less coherent worldview.

Keep going. This worldview – we might say, by definition – is only a view on the world, and not the world itself. Everything, from the bed you dream in to the canopy of tribal  mythology that holds everything in place, is a cultural artifact. A worldview is constructed much as furniture is made, but out of words, values and meanings rather than wood, metal and fabric. Even the bed isn’t “just” a material thing, but an object built by design for a specific purpose. It, too, is “made up.”

And then there’s the world – the thing that your worldview is only a view of. What is the world? From the root-word wer-ald, literally “man age,” world refers to the envelop of significance that human beings pull around themselves for security, identity and purpose. Your wer-ald co-exists with you as long as you’re alive, for the length of your age.

So even the so-called real world is meaningful only in reference to human beings. It’s also an artifact, a kind of boundary term that allows your made-up world to gradually and imperceptibly merge with reality. You have a world, I have a world, and we share a good part of a cultural world – although our local tribes may espouse very different, even conflicting beliefs about what it all means.

As a metaphor, then, awakening is a process of liberation from illusion. On this definition, not only is the dream scenario an illusion – or a play of imaginary representations, constructs of the mind – but so is the dream. And so are the many layers of cultural artifacts, from the bed you wake up in, to the role-play of your life in society, to the character and history of your people, and even to the mythological god who validates and supervises the whole thing. Illusions all.

One level “up,” so to speak, might seem more real than the one(s) farther down, but it’s still only a representation – a re-presentation, a secondary presentation, a mental construct, a mere image standing in for the real thing (or so we believe). So what we have is a nested stack of representations: dream scenarios inside of dream states inside of role plays inside of tribal dreams inside of cultural dream states inside the real world that god built.

Just so we can draw a boundary around all this illusion, let’s say that everything on the far side of representation is “metaphysics” or “revelation,” and leave that to the prophets and crack-pots who claim to speak for god.

I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide how much illusion we are willing to accept as truth. You’ve got to get on with your life somehow, right? We might expect a fully awakened human being, one who is entirely free of illusions, to be a world-renouncing party-pooper. Pretty much good for nothing when it comes to what the rest of us are so worked up about.

But renouncing the conventional world for one that is supernatural, metaphysical, or monastic is merely swapping out one illusion for another. Just because you switch from a functional language about garage doors to a liturgical language about god almighty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to reality.

So what De Mello means by “dropping illusions” must be something else besides turning your back on this world for the sake of a heavenly reward elsewhere and later on. Maybe it’s not even possible for our minds to apprehend reality, since the moment they grab hold and slap a label on it, the construction of meaning is already well underway.

Maybe the best we can do is try to live in full acknowledgement of our nature as meaning-makers, storytellers, spin-masters and illusionists. Perhaps dropping illusions is not about renouncing them, as it is stepping through them with a waking awareness to the real presence of mystery.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Love and Self

Watts: “There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when [you are] convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love [yourself]. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”

I’ve broken my usual rhythm in this conversation so I can bring out a second quote of Watts, from the chapter entitled “Creative Morality.” His concluding remark “that one has no self to love” stands in obvious – which at this point only means apparent – opposition to our Western notion of the self as something solid and enduring. Besides, how can we make sense of Jesus’ “second greatest commandment,” to love your neighbor as yourself, if there is no self to love?

The answer to this question depends on the definition of self that we assume. My working assumption is that “self” designates a unity of three distinct centers of experience and their corresponding realms. Body involves us in the physical realm as a living organism inhabiting an environment. Ego involves us in the social realm as a member of a tribe, one of “us.” And soul involves us in the spiritual realm, which as I’m using the term isn’t something separate and apart from these other aspects of self, but instead opens us to the deeper ground and greater mystery of being.

These didn’t come together as my “self,” as in popular mythology where the soul preexists, briefly occupies, and eventually survives the body. Body, ego and soul are not separate “parts” but, once again, merely distinct centers of experience that evolve together through time. It is only because the language we use to make sense of all this is tethered to an ego, which is itself a social construction of the tribe, that we even presume to “have” a body and a soul.

In a fateful series of steps, ego, taking the dominant position, imagined an antagonism between body and soul, proceeded to scandalize the body and identify with the soul, and finally stepped fully into the role as a transcendent and heaven-bound immortal. Of course, this didn’t transpire in a vacuum, for we must remember that ego is itself only a construct and symptom of the tribe. In fact, this entire fantasy was very useful to the tribe, as it provided a way of managing the ego and enforcing a morality of obedience.

This was the situation in India 2,500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama saw through the trance and found a path of liberation. As the Buddha (awakened one) he came to the realization that ego’s self-designation as a metaphysically separate and permanent center of identity was not only lacking a basis in empirical experience but was also being exploited by the tribe to keep everyone in the game and awaiting their turn.

He stated his break from orthodoxy on this point in the doctrine of “no self” (anatta): The individual is a composite of mutually-arising conditions, just as a candle flame depends for its existence on the interplay of numerous elemental forces. Full enlightenment and perfect freedom come as we are able to quiet our cravings and allow the flame to “blow out” (nibbana). What comes after that? It’s not for us to know, he said, simply because it is unknowable. In other words, it’s a mystery.

Now we have sufficient background to understand where Watts is coming from, and what he means by saying “there is no self to love.” Though he never abandoned his Anglican roots, Watts became increasingly interested in the teachings of Buddhism and was convinced that it offered an effective alternative to the strangling orthodoxies of the West.

The idea of “no self” might even help us interpret the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (It was already part of the Hebrew scriptures that shaped the spirituality of Jesus). In this case, self is not the immortalized ego but merely a reflexive reference to what I am. I don’t have a self to love because I am this self, which makes self-love essentially spontaneous, unconditional and free-flowing.

And perhaps that’s the take-away message: Love creates and connects, and flows like a stream. We love ourselves when we can get out of the way and let its current move through us.

It’s not about me after all. What a bummer.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Letting Go of God

Nietzsche: “Why atheism today? It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.”

Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his literary persona as the madman, who ran into the marketplace with his lantern looking for God. It’s in that parable that he makes the fateful statement that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” While understandable, it is also unfortunate that Nietzsche has gone down in history as an arch-atheist, an enemy of religion. The above quote makes it clear that he distinguished between theism and religion – the one needing to pass or be pushed into extinction, and the other innately present in human beings as an “instinct.”

Most of Western history has been dominated by a theistic model of religion, which is why Nietzsche’s three cheers for atheism has been heard by many Western readers as a categorical rejection of religion. But theism is only one model, and the evidence of cultural archeology shows convincingly, I think, that it wasn’t the first on the human scene. What I’m calling religion here is a more-or-less systematic way that Nietzsche’s “religious instinct” finds expression in the shared life of a community. The most primitive form of religion was likely some precursor of animism and magic, where natural forces and the rhythms of life were revered. This early religion had a primary correlation with the body and its mysteries.

But as familial clans of early humans diversified into more sophisticated societies, the focal point of human wonder and concern shifted increasingly to tribal dynamics of membership. This is the evolutionary stage where an individual’s identity, or ego, became paramount. Belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) were powerful preoccupations – just as they still are in the developmental stage of adolescence. The theory is that this is also the point in the history of religion when the mythological god was “born” – that is, when god was generated out of the creative imagination and projected into narrative constructs called stories, or myths.

Theism is a belief system organized around the presumed existence of the mythological god. As a literary product of the “religious instinct,” the mythological god exists only in myths – and then only as a metaphor of “the other” who sees me and knows me, who demands my worship and obedience. As my ego-ideal, this god also awakens my deeper potential and attracts my higher nature. So far, so good. But what happens when the mythological god fails to stay ahead of me, developmentally speaking? He becomes oppressive and an obstacle to my evolutionary advancement. God is moralistic and I remain mired in guilt. God is aloof and I am disoriented. God is jealous for glory and I must be nothing.

Obviously this theory of religion’s evolution leaves an open question: Is there a model of religion that might help us appreciate how the religious instinct finds expression at the level of soul? Unlike ego, soul is unconcerned over matters of identity. This spiritual dimension of human life is what opens us to the deeper ground of our being and the greater mystery of our place in the universe. What stands in the way of this expansion of awareness and experience of mystical communion with all things? Nietzsche’s answer is the ego; or rather, that co-dependent relationship of the ego and its mythological god.

If this god can die – if I can find the courage to let go of “my” god – then the possibility arises for the transformation of spirit into a form of religious life that is … Nietzsche called it “atheistic,” but perhaps the better term is “post-theistic.” Theism, along with the myths and the god who inhabits them, must be transcended. Maybe the first act of liberation is saying “no” to theism: The god of myth does not exist “up there” or “out there” separate from us. Only after we have sufficiently released this god – who has become largely irrelevant in our modern secular lives anyway – will we be able to catch a vision of the higher horizon that awaits.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Are We Spiritual Idiots?

Heschel: “Is it not possible that we are entering a stage in history out of which we may emerge as morons, as an affluent society of spiritual idiots?”

What is spiritual intelligence? Do “spirit,” “spiritual” and “spirituality” even have a place in a worldview that rejects metaphysical realism as a foundational assumption? If the mythological God has died with our outmoded and irrelevant mythology (as Nietzsche claimed), then are we just done with God altogether? If an immortal soul was a prophylactic against our human anxiety over death (as Watts contended), does it have any significance once we come to full acceptance of our mortality? In other words, is the revolution leading us into an age where the language of spirituality is nonsense? Or are we already there?

Let me review the conversation so far, as it concerns our understanding of human nature. As a human being I am body, ego, and soul: each of these is a center of experience, and the focus of my conscious attention migrates “up” and “down” the axis connecting them. The experiential center of “body” orients me in the physical environment as well as in the deeper stream of my genetic prehistory. Instincts are those drives, reflexes and internal urgencies (as in the “urge” to breathe) that sustain this body as a living organism. (I caught myself about to write “my body.”) For the most part, these impulses are dedicated to ensuring my survival, and sometimes this means contending with others for what I need.

Ego is my identity as shaped in the social context of a tribe (first my family, then moving farther out). Beyond physical survival, I also need to belong – where I can “fit in” and “stand out” as a valued member. If body motivates self-interested behavior, ego is where “other-interested” behavior is trained into me. I need the acceptance, approval and recognition of others to hold my place here. The experiential center of “ego” orients me in the field of interpersonal relationships, social expectations, cultural anxieties and aspirations. My successful ego development requires definite “role models” – personalities who exhibit and demonstrate those qualities of character that my tribe deems worthy of emulation.

Chief and highest among these role models is the mythological God. At this level, religion is an organized program for supporting the devotee (ego) in becoming more like God – obeying God’s will and conforming to the way God is portrayed in the myths. It’s at this level, too, where the doctrine of one’s immortal soul is most “useful.” Who you really are does not die with the body (so don’t be anxious). But where you end up (heaven or hell, since you have to go somewhere) is determined by how obedient you are to God’s will, which by implication means how compliant you are with tribal orthodoxy.

Ego is not soul. Identity is not spirituality. However easy my tribal training has made it for me to say “I (ego) am immortal” and “I (ego) have a soul,” both statements are misguided. Not only that, they amount to a powerful trance that can prevent me from fully engaging my spiritual center of experience. Soul is spiritual, not personal – as persona refers to the masks of identity and tribal roles that connect us socially to others. As long as ego continues to personify and claim ownership of the soul (just as the tribe personifies “my” God in its mythology), we will become – or continue to be – spiritual idiots.

What does it mean to be “spiritual,” then, if not dutifully performing the religious and moral disciplines that (my tribe says) will get me to heaven? What is “spirituality” if not the ego reflecting on its own immortality and trying to be more like God?

Here’s a short answer …

This body is rooted in the rhythms of nature, and is itself a coordinated system of organic urgencies. This ego is my social identity, drawn out of the body and shaped through my interactions with other members of my tribe. And this soul is not who I am, but what I am: grounded in the mystery of being and a living part of The Whole. “Spirituality” is about living in the awareness of communion. “Spiritual” names that dimension of life where all things breathe together. And “spirit” is the breath, the creative dynamic of existence that inhales oneness and exhales the astonishing magnificence of it all.

Already too many words. In the face of mystery, it is best to be silent.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Overcoming Morality

Nietzsche: “The overcoming of morality, in a certain sense even the self-overcoming of morality: let this be the name for that protracted secret labor which has been reserved for the subtlest, most honest and also most malicious consciences as living touchstones of the soul.”

The terms “morality” and “moral” are rooted in the notion of “mores” (pronounced mor-ays), referring to the customs of behavior and interaction that coordinate our life together in society. According to its basic definition, to say that someone is  “moral” simply means that his or her conduct validates or violates what society regards as proper, right and good. Moral behavior, in other words, can be either “good” or “bad” depending on how it lines up with accepted standards.

In popular discourse, however, we frequently use the term “moral” to classify exclusively good behavior and “morality” as the values that define “the good life.” It’s in light of this second, more popular definition that Nietzsche’s call to overcome morality has been interpreted as an attack on everything decent, noble, and good. Is he advocating for a society where theft and murder are permitted, even condoned? This would amount to a bad reading of Nietzsche. What does he really mean?

Remember that Nietzsche rejects metaphysical realism – the philosophy behind our beliefs in God and the soul as real things, “above” me and “inside” me. Religion has used these notions – these absolutes – to control the lives of believers with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, persuading them to surrender their intelligence, creativity and freedom to a higher authority. Morality as the  customs that shape and motivate human behavior in society substitutes for and renders unnecessary our capacity as individuals to face the challenges of our life together. If a rule prescribes how you should regard and act toward another person, it serves as a groove in the social landscape that pulls your behavior into alignment with what is considered right and proper.

We don’t like to admit this, but there are instances in our society where being kind to strangers or reaching out to “sinners” would be judged as contradicting the accepted customs – the morality – of the tribe. Even if there are deeper animal sympathies that naturally generate distress in us and motivate outreach when confronted with the suffering of another, these rules in many cases work to resolve the internal tension and justify our inaction. Precisely because morality controls our minds, prescribes our attitudes, and constrains our behavior it must be overcome.

Rare individuals have courageously – even maliciously, in the way they aggressively challenge and pull down the control system – accepted the guilt of breaking rules for the sake of living more spontaneously, more creatively and more responsibly in the world. They are what Nietzsche calls “the living touchstones of the soul.” Their conscientious guilt, rather than the guilty consciences of the rest of us living obediently inside the cattle tracks of morality, is the price of human redemption.

Think of them. Thank them. Join them.


Tags: , , ,

Insecurity and Freedom

Heschel: “Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy, of stepping out of the confining framework of routine reflexive concern. Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.”

The human being is body and soul. The part of us that puts these primary aspects of our existence in opposition to each other and then claims ownership – “I have a body; I have a soul” – is the ego. In my opinion, a major preoccupation of popular religion is with this conceited center of identity. I (ego) deserve to be happy. I (ego) want to live forever. I (ego) need to be right and be rewarded for being good. When religion gets (re)organized around the ego it becomes nervous, defensive, bigoted and sectarian.

Etymologically the term “religion” refers to what ties together and cultivates the relationship of body and soul. In the very word is a presumption: that body and soul are essentially separate and need to be (re)connected. It is in exposing the error of this foundational conviction that our revolution begins.

Ego is not the key player, but merely a social conceit. This center of identity is a product and reflex of tribal membership. It isn’t “added to” our primary nature of body-and-soul, but is an ongoing social construction project. We come to self-consciousness in the context of societal relationships, taking into ourselves the language, preferences, attitudes and beliefs of our tribe. Our social development as egos has the primary objective of making us into agents of our group, extensions of our tribe. I (ego) am also a symptom of my tribe’s chronic dysfunctions and internal contradictions. I (ego) want love and power. I (ego) want to fit in and stand out. I (ego) want security and significance.

So far, all three of my conversation partners – Friedrich Nietzsche, Alan Watts, and Abraham Heschel – acknowledge freedom as a critical feature or attribute of a human being. For Nietzsche, freedom puts us “beyond good and evil,” in a position where we must choose our way through life. As values, “good” and “evil” are really value-assignments, moral judgments that we compose into the myths and worlds we inhabit. We pull these around ourselves for security and meaning, but it’s all made up and tied inescapably to perspective. Nietzsche is perhaps most well-known for his declaration that “God is dead,” meaning that the mythological God is dead, which has come about because our myths have lost their power to entrance us. For Nietzsche, our disillusionment is our liberation.

Watts digs a little deeper, into the psychological origins of ego and its world project. We are living bodies; the claim of having a body is merely a persistent conceit of the ego. As organisms we have evolved with powerful drives and instincts, perhaps deepest among them being the drive to survive, to keep living, which also entails not dying and avoiding death at all costs. The self-consciousness that steadily emerges through the social construction of ego only amplifies our anxiety around the fact of mortality. To dampen our anxiety or distract us sufficiently from it, we escape into the refuge of metaphysical “counter-facts.” A transcendent and all-knowing God lifts us above the limitations of perspective. An immortal soul (really the undying ego) calms our fear of death. A universal order of moral government and higher purpose resolves our sneaking suspicions that maybe life is just a shot in the dark.

Heschel carries this idea a step farther. While our social formation as egos can bury our creative energies in the safe-house of tribal membership, it also serves to liberate us from the compulsions and urgencies of animal life. This freedom is insecure and there is always the temptation to fall back under the control of some other authority – if not our animal impulses, then perhaps cultural fashions or religious orthodoxies. True freedom, for Heschel, implies responsibility. The ego is not set free from the compulsions of animal instinct simply to be made captive to the slightly higher compulsions of our social neuroses. Freedom is not a goal, but the precondition to a higher task.

“Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Sacrifice = sacri (holy) + facere (to make). It’s not primarily about losing something, but is rather about sanctifying the ordinary with extraordinary attention and care. Maybe this is what “commitment” really means …


Tags: , , , , ,