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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Leaders We Need Now

Every age and generation has a need for capable leaders, for those who are able to see a bigger picture, understand what’s happening, and help the rest of us through the doors of necessary change. A leader is not always the one up front, with the loudest voice and getting all the attention. A true leader might not even be the one who was elected.

Go figure.

When I think about the kind of leaders we need today, three critical principles of leadership come to mind. Each principle corresponds to a dimension of our existence as human beings: (1) as individuals who (2) interact with others in (3) systems of various kinds and complexity. Not only effective leaders, but proficient human beings – that is to say, those who are skilled in the art and wisdom of being human – must learn how to manage and nurture the consilient unity of these three dimensions.

When we don’t (can’t or won’t) hold them in balance, we quickly succumb to frustration, disorientation, foolishness, and crazy-making dumbfuckery.

In this post I’ll lay out three critical principles of leadership that we sorely need today. Each principle is the sun-center to an orbiting set of values, which will only be mentioned but not explored in much detail here. I don’t believe there is a fixed number to each set of values, and we should allow for the way these principles get interpreted and play out in any given context. The principles themselves, however, are universally valid, and I would argue that no culture can flourish long or well without holding them as sacred commitments.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: We are all part of a turning mega-system of existence called the Universe. This universal system can be analyzed into smaller and deeper star systems, solar systems, and planetary ecosystems; into regional cultural systems, more local social systems, and family systems; into individual organisms and the internal subsystems that conspire in keeping them alive; and deeper still into the molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems of matter and energy.

As far as we know, nothing exists except as and within systems.

Stewardship

The principle that orients a set of values applying specifically to living as and in systems is stewardship. In the conventional sense, a steward has the responsibility of managing and caring for the resources of a household, which is a family system where several individuals live together in community. Stewards aren’t owners, and what they look after is not their personal property. Instead, we might say that a steward and everything he or she looks after belongs to the household.

As a kind of manager, a steward helps to sustain a healthy household economy and promote harmonious community among its inhabitants. This web of resources, interactions, and shared experience is a more local instance of what we commonly name the Web of Life – still another term for the Universe considered from the vantage of living things. To view human beings through the lens of stewardship – as many religious traditions have long done – is to regard them not as owners or externally positioned “masters of the universe,” but as members of this one magnificent household of life.

With our evolutionary grant of self-awareness and creative freedom, humans possess a unique ability in contemplating our place and role within, as well as our special responsibility to, our planetary home. As many myths suggest, coming into this responsibility as stewards follows a certain path – the archetypal Hero’s Journey – of separating from our source, establishing an individual center of identity (ego), and then releasing this hard-won identity for a deeper and larger experience of oneness.

Empathy

Whether leaders and the rest of us can lead and live by the principle of stewardship is dependent on the quality of connection we enjoy with others. If individuals have difficulty identifying themselves as partners in a system (the relationship itself), the cause is often rooted in a lack of empathy. When we cannot connect in deep and meaningful ways, the higher systems of our life together go unseen.

The best way I know of properly defining empathy is by comparing it to its sound-alike: sympathy. Literally ‘sympathy’ means “to suffer with” (or alongside) another, to be affected by their pain or misfortune. The different prefix “em” (or en) denotes a critical shift in position, from alongside to within. In other words, the individual transcends his or her separate identity – this time not outward to the larger system encompassing them both, but inward to a place of essential oneness prior to their differentiation as individuals.

By virtue of their identical natures as living, sentient, and self-conscious human beings, individuals are capable of an empathetic connection.

Our first experience of empathy was when we lived literally inside our mother and our developing nature drew its life from hers. Once we were born and officially began our own Hero’s Journey, the formation of a separate identity slowly (but at times dramatically: think of adolescence) pushed our self-center out and away from the source.

Even though we continued to carry within ourselves those deeper registers of sentient life, and with them at least the capacity for empathetic connection, the degree in which our ego formation got hooked into neurotic hangups made much of this natural capacity unavailable.

The leaders we need today are individuals who are grounded, centered, and open empathically to the experience of others. They are the ones who truly understand that we’re all in this together.

Integrity

This brings us to my third principle of leadership, which actually comes first in the evolutionary sequence and serves as the basis of human proficiency in a general sense. Integrity refers to a state whereby two or more elements hold together as one. In this case, psychosomatic integrity speaks to a unity of mind and body – or more accurately of soul and body, where ‘soul’ names our deep inner life rather than an immortal entity (the so-called true self or “real me”) residing in the body.

The integral balance of soul/mind and body is a growing fascination in psychology, which is coming to regard this balance as a key to understanding a large number of disorders, illnesses, and troubles afflicting our species. When early life experiences get us hooked into neurotic patterns of insecurity and defensiveness, mistrust and self-doubt, suspicion and resentment, our restless mind doesn’t let our body calm down and recover. Instead, our animal nature loses its resilience, succumbs to the stress, and even starts to attack itself.

The leaders we need today are individuals who successfully manage their psychosomatic integrity, who express strong interpersonal empathy with others, and who live in stewardship of the systems on which our lives, health, community, and human future depend.

When given the opportunity, let’s try to elect more of them.

 

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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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Where Love Can Only Grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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 Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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