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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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Matter, Life, Spirit

Matter_Life_Spirit

One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.

Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.

One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.

But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.

One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.

Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.

I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.

As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.

This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.

Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.

In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.

This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.

We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.

 

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Creative Spirit and the Invitation to Life in Its Fullness

matter_life_spiritMatter reacts. Life adapts. Spirit creates. 

With that, I have summarized the 14-billion-year cosmic process in three stages and just six words. I’m using the term ‘stage’ here less in its temporal sense than as a way of identifying distinct levels of complexity in the evolutionary architecture of our universe. True enough, energy first fused into matter, then stirred to life, and eventually awakened as spirit. But each preceding stage continued as foundation to subsequent ones, not just persisting underneath the others but taken up, incorporated, and transformed in the breakthroughs they represented.

You, for instance, are a rather remarkable synthesis of physical matter, animal life, and creative spirit. Your life is generated and sustained out of a deep economy of physical reactions going on in your body all the time. And as you move through the changing environments of your life, your body and mind are adapting so as to optimize your ‘fit’ to the way things are. The adaptation of life amounts to this constant quest for the niches where environmental stress is manageable, internal distress is minimized, and the opportunity for longevity and reproduction is greatest. Once life finds such niches, it settles in and makes itself at home.

Think about the various niches you have settled into, those safe corners and familiar grooves where “everyting irie.”

And this is our problem as human beings. Whereas the material processes that keep us alive are autonomic and unconscious; and while slipping into a best fit with our surroundings is a preconscious preference for the path of least resistance; that aspect which makes us most uniquely human – our creative spirit – must operate in full awareness and by conscious choice. For this reason, habit, convention, custom, orthodoxy, and even morality as the rules that determine our social affections and behavior, can keep us so deep in our grooves that spirit has no chance of waking up.

If my reader ever wonders why I am so critical of orthodoxy (not only in religion) and the mental bypass of conviction which closes the mind to everything but its own absolute truth, this is why. As the theme of this blog is ‘exploring creative change’, my passionate interest is in that transforming process whereby human beings break through the constraints of family patterns, tribal traditions, belief systems, and identity contracts that keep us asleep.

My message is not that we need to trash them all, necessarily, or leave them behind and go it alone through life. When the creative spirit awakens in us, some of these things will be dropped off and left behind, as their authority is no longer required. But others, like that literal god who comes to life again as a literary figure and metaphor of the grounding mystery, can light up with fresh relevance and illumine the path ahead. Creative spirit awakens ‘on the other side of god’ and invites us to live in conscious awareness of our place in the unity of existence.

In an interesting way, each of those three stages in the cosmic process surpasses the one immediately preceding it by breaking (through) a law that would prevent its progress. Life has to overcome the stabilizing force of entropy which is constantly pulling matter down into more steady states of equilibrium. By self-replication, sexual reproduction, and social bonding, life pushes upwards against this law of matter and thereby secures for itself a higher stage of existence. Life’s law is that niche-seeking survival mandate mentioned earlier: stay as deep inside those grooves of pleasure and avoid any pain that signals compromise, exposure, and a loss of security.

Habituate yourself to your surroundings, to the circumstances of your life, to the role-play and ideology of your tribe: that’s what the preconscious law of life will have you do. It’s safer inside the circle, where you can live closer to what you know and be assured of the resources you need to survive. Do what you’re told, don’t rock the boat, stay in line, wait your turn, look before you leap. If you’re still alive, it must be working. Why tempt fate? What’s the point in thinking outside the box, when the box contains all you need to know?

I could add more platitudes and proverbs of the status quo, but you probably have a pretty good feel for this law of adaptation that manages to keep so many of us spiritually asleep. If the creative spirit is to awaken in us, we will have to confront, break through, and rise above the trance of security and its delusion of meaning. The very identity that has been shaped for us by our taller powers and tribal handlers is now our greatest impediment, our most formidable obstacle to genuine liberty.

Just say to yourself, “I want to be free to live my own life, to follow my bliss, and realize the fullness of what I am” – merely let those words out of your mouth, and just as quickly will come rebuke and admonition for entertaining such a selfish fantasy. So insidious is this reproof against genuine self-actualization, that the script spins automatically inside your own head. What you don’t understand is that this script, together with its sponsoring tribal ideology, is itself a fantasy, and a selfish one of the highest order.

After all, this is the center of identity known as ego, which is really a mechanism of social adaptation by which the tribal mind replicates itself in the individual. You were disciplined, shaped, and instructed to hold certain things as self-evidently true. That’s just the way it is, you were told. Because I said so. It’s in the Bible. Your brainwashing was nearly complete before your rational and critical-thinking prefrontal cortex could come online to help you see through much of this so-called wisdom. If you grew up in a strict religious household, then the everlasting consequence of god’s judgment further secured your duty as carrier of your tribe’s memetic code (i.e., the cultural analogue of our genetic code, but constructed out of memes rather than genes).

Needless to say, the creative spirit doesn’t break (through) the rule of life in society as an act of belligerence, but as liberative and transpersonal, meaning that it breaks beyond the ego stage of consciousness and sets us free for a larger vision of where we really are, and where this great cosmic process is inviting us to go.

 

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The Three Stages of Religion

In my last post I explored the essential function of religion as a way of connecting (religare, tie together) the inner and outer realms of human experience. Our mystical communion with the grounding mystery is metaphorically represented and depicted across a collection of sacred stories known as mythology. These myths (mythos, narrative plot) are recited by the community in ritual performances and worked out in daily life according to the local customs and precepts of morality.

A critically important qualification in all of this is that the mythology of religion must align with our current understanding of the cosmos. When it does, our spirituality (inner realm, grounding mystery) can flow out and connect meaningfully with our science (outer realm, cosmic order), generating an awareness that everything “turns as one” (universe). When this alignment is missing, our myths become incredible and increasingly irrelevant. Rather than being able to inhabit our stories, enacting them and living them out, we are left with the choice of taking them literally as eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events of the past or tossing them aside as so much childish superstition.

All of that is looking at religion as positioned at the center of a vertical axis, with spirituality below (or within) and science above (or around). This central position helps us appreciate the intended function of religion (to connect these two realms) as well as understand how and where it begins to fail. In this post I will turn this axis 90º to the horizontal and picture it as a moving time-line from left (the past) to right (the future). The question now is, “How has religion evolved through the millenniums, and is this evolution more or less haphazard or does it proceed according to a deeper design?”

Snow Cone 2I will build a case that religion evolves as human beings develop, which means that the larger cultural shifts we observe across the centuries are deeply correlated to changes unfolding (or arrested) at the individual level of human consciousness. The above illustration is pulled forward from my most recent post (Religion and The Snow Cone Universe), but in place of the word “religion” I have inserted a graphic representing what I will explain as three stages in the evolution and organization of consciousness. “Stage” here will be used in two senses of the word: as a developmental period of time and as a kind of platform (think theater stage) that provides consciousness with a specific vantage point on reality.

Thankfully we don’t need to do a lot of research or dig into cultural archaeology to start making sense of these stages I have in mind, for they are represented in the very structure of your consciousness as a human being. Just as your individual development is unfolding according to a sequence of distinct stages, so religion has been evolving along that same advancing line. So, I’ll ask you to sit back and take a look at yourself.

Stage One: BODY

Let’s just get the hard fact out of the way: You’re an animal. You breathe, burp, and bleed just like other animals. You were born, grew up, and one day you will die – just like other animals. Inside and under your skin is a complicated system of tissues, glands, organs and nerves, pulsing together as an interconnected web of urgencies. The urge to breathe, for instance, is a compulsion that evolved around the need of your cells for oxygen (and to blow off carbon dioxide); breathing is an urgency. Many other urgencies are presently taking care of what this animal nature of yours requires to live.

Like other animals, you possess an instinctive intelligence that has been evolving for millions of years and across numerous species. Through a network of impulses, reflexes, drives, and adaptive routines instinct serves to uphold a dialogue between the internal urgencies keeping you alive and the larger rhythms of your external environment. The cycles of Sun, moon, and seasons are intricately timed with your needs for activity and rest, arousal and reproduction, nourishment and shelter. You don’t have to think about this provident coincidence since the urgency that anchors it in your throbbing viscera is unconscious and graciously impersonal.

From the stage of your body, reality is physical, vibrant, sensual – and alive. Since everything in you and around you is caught up in a pulsing tango (and tangle) of urgency and rhythm, from this vantage point nothing is inert or uninvolved. Colors, sounds, odors, flavors, temperature, current, texture, pressure and weight: a kind of glory cascades across the dazzling variety of forms, effervescing to the surface and dancing on your senses. It’s not you over here and that over there, but you and that together, partners in the same cosmic dance.

At this stage religion is animistic, connecting and closing the circuit between the inner mystery and outer cosmos by a mythology of hidden agencies. Anima is Latin for vital force or life-force, a related term to spirit, meaning breath. It’s not that something else is on the other side of what we perceive with our senses, but rather that what we perceive with our senses participates in and manifests forces that hold everything together. Again, these are not supernatural personalities (deities) pushing things around (that idea comes later) but creative energies expressing outward from the interior of things.

Stage Two: EGO

In addition to being an animal and having an animal nature, you – and this especially refers to the you you think you are – are an identity project of your tribe. Ego is also from the Latin, translating as I, the subjective center of a separate self. You needed this separate center so your tribe could shape an identity around it and assign your place in the larger role-play of society. For this to happen with reasonable success, your animal nature (body) needed to be trained (i.e., socialized) to behave properly – not to bite, pass gas, or mate in public. In addition to such constraints on unacceptable behavior you were conditioned by your tribe to be polite, cooperate with others, and pick up your toys.

All of this social shaping of identity (ego) is what we generally call morality. The individual is expected to follow the rules and respect authority, and not only because those in charge have their hands on the carrots and sticks. It just makes for an easier life together in community. Your tribe dutifully (but not always very competently) instructed you with the preferences, values, and beliefs that demonstrated obedience. Because all of this happened in the first decade or so of your life, the part of your personality where these moral sentiments and reflexes still reside is known as your inner child. Most of what goes on in there is deeply conditioned but nonrational – prompted and carried along on scripts of flattery and shame, praise and blame, guilt and appeasement.

Another strong virtue of early childhood was your gift for fantasy. Daydream, dress-up, role play and pretending to be someone (else) occupied much of your time. Fairy tales and closet monsters were sources of endless fascination or bedtime anxiety. Fantasy is your creative intelligence for making things up and acting as if what you can’t see is more real than what you can. Your tribe exploited this native ability of yours and got you invested in the collective fantasy of meaning-making, producing a kind of semantic shelter in the world you shared. As long as this world-construct was confirmed and reinforced in the habits of everyday life, the illusion of its reality could be maintained.

Religion at this stage is theistic (from theos, god) referring to the belief in higher powers that model human character and supervise the world from the margins. When you were a child these higher powers were literally your “taller powers” – i.e., the adults who were in charge of things and provided for your needs. Theism postulates (but doesn’t prove) an intention behind and above the world, representing an important advancement on the spontaneous and impersonal life-force of animism. The gain was that theism introduced the notion of there being a plan and purpose in the nature of things that we can interrogate, petition, and perhaps even influence for our benefit.

Stage Three: SOUL

Currently, and for the past several millenniums, human beings have been comfortably established in second-stage culture and religion. The reason is simply that ego has been the dominant mental location of human consciousness for that long. Theism, as the religious system coordinating deity, tribe, and ego, has provided orientation and meaning to our species for a long time. Until fairly recently, that is, when our cosmology (scientific model of the universe) began to render the old myths unbelievable.

When one stage is passing and before the next stage is fully entered, the phase we find ourselves in can be very disorienting. Once-true believers lose faith, members leave their churches, denominations don’t seem to work anymore, and the “spiritual but not religious” look for inspiration from other sources. We can also see the endangered religions growing more desperate and violent, putting up their defenses and terrorizing nonbelievers. It is tempting to conclude that such is the nature of religion itself, and that we will be much better off without it.

To understand the third stage of religion, however, we need to look beyond the anxiety, hostility, and depression of the disoriented ego. Your inner child is not capable of creating the life you really want. It’s not only stuck in the problem, it’s where the problem is centered. What you really need is to ascend to the mental location of your higher self – rational and responsible as an adult ought to be, but also emotionally balanced and intellectually engaged. You don’t need to leave your passion and creativity back in childhood (or repressed in your personality).

What is soul? Let’s first say what it isn’t, exposing some popular efforts to hang on to ego. It isn’t a ghostly replica of the body’s physical form, and it’s not another word for the immortal ego. Soul isn’t what continues on after you die, as a disembodied personality moving residence to the next earthly incarnation, new celestial home, or some metaphysical higher plane. All of these explanations are trying to figure out what happens to you when you die, when you – again, at the mental location of ego – are nothing more than a temporal construct of social roles, attitudes, and beliefs. Your third-stage challenge is to open yourself to a post-ego way of being, where “me and mine” are no longer anchors of ultimate concern.

The “post” in post-ego – as well as in post-theism, the religion of our third stage – doesn’t require that you renounce your ego, throw it down, or try to stomp it out of existence. It simply means after, referring to a way of life oriented on the essential realization that All is One, which logically comes after the illusion of your separateness (ego) has been transcended. In the light of this realization you instantly understand that you, as an individual, are a participant in the larger communion of beings. Morality is no longer about obedience to another’s command, but is rather about making choices and taking action with a much (much) larger context in mind.

Notice how this insight marks an advance beyond the animism of Stage One, where the emphasis was more on the peculiar manifestation of the life-force in a tree, a thunderstorm, or in the body itself. This is the difference between instinct (unconscious, compulsive, urgent) and wisdom (fully conscious, contemplative, intentional). A higher capacity for holding the awareness that All is One had to wait on the ability to open your mind without losing it, to detach your focus without getting distracted, and to jump from your highest thought into the mystery encompassing all things.

 

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Why Religion Can’t Advance

Working from the root meaning of the word “religion” (from Latin religare) I’ve been making a case for it as a necessary and essential dimension of human cultural life. Even theism, which I don’t regard as the only model of religion worth considering, occupies a critical place in the development and “awakening” of human consciousness to the present mystery of reality. So when I say that “religion can’t advance,” I am not advocating for its abandonment (finally) for the sake of progress and other modern values. I’m saying that it presently can’t but needs to advance.

If religion can be liberated from its current deadlock, it stands a good chance of fulfilling its primary function as incubator of the human spirit. I don’t use the words spirit or spirituality with any metaphysical associations – as something that inhabits and survives the body – but rather as metaphor of the mystical intuition and creative intelligence that links us, as the rhythmic urgency of breathing from which the metaphor of spirit derives (Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus), to the deeper and larger reality in which we (hopefully) find ourselves.

In its current condition religion isn’t serving our spiritual incubation as a species, but is rather holding the human spirit captive. Instead of lifting us up and setting us free, it is holding us down and locking us inside toxic convictions. The polarization between complacency and terrorism, between those who use religion to cultivate security and privilege and those who use it to justify resentment and violence, is setting the stage for our likely extinction – one way or the other.

A fast-growing third party, which I’ll call the unaffiliated commonsense liberals, is working hard to throw god down and expose the underlying pathology in religion. They take a “surgical” approach to the solution: Cut it out and move on. It’s time to grow up. No more sleeping in mommy’s lap or pleading with daddy to save us. We need to leave religion in the nursery with our pacifiers and security blankets. We’re on our own, folks.

But religion isn’t a product of infantile dependency – or at least it’s not only that. To those who sit in church pews or strap on explosives it must also be said that religion is not about getting “it” right or proving “them” wrong. It’s not really about you at all. In fact, the widespread assumption that religion is about me and my security, my meaning, my purpose, or my destiny in the next life is precisely where religion today is stuck. So if I’m going to clear some space for a fourth option – not complacency, not terrorism, and not atheism either – then we need to spend a little time trying to understand what’s in the way.

Ego 1Taking an historical and evolutionary perspective on the phenomenon of religion reveals it as something that has developed over time. This development of religion is correlated to the emergence of individual consciousness – of the growing awareness in the individual of himself or herself as an individual, an irreducible center of identity. This is what is meant by the term “ego,” or I: an anchoring reference point of a self-conscious orientation in reality.

Identity has to do with being a part of something, at the same time as you are apart from other things. This is the dynamic of attachment (a part of, belonging) and separation (apart from, distinction) that each of us must negotiate – or I should rather say, the negotiation of which results in who each of us comes to be.

Archetypally we can associate our attachment need with Mother and our separation need with Father, regardless of who actually plays these primary roles in our early life. What in psychology is called “ego strength” is the centered, stable, and healthy balance in the personality between our ego needs to fit in and feel secure on the one hand, and to stand out and feel special on the other.

Ego 2Now, let’s pretend that this all goes reasonably well. We are enabled to occupy our own center of identity, as the tether for an expanding perspective on reality, a widening sphere of concerns, values, and choices. With maturity we understand ourselves within the increasing complexity of our situation, managing the balance between our dependency and responsibility.

A healthy and stable identity provide us with two critical points of access to the present mystery of reality, one opening downward to what is within us, and the other opening upward to what is beyond us. I call these two orientations communion and transcendence, respectively, and together they represent the farther reaches of our human nature.

They are complementary principles like Yin and Yang, with communion inviting awareness to sink below the consciousness of self, in a gradual and steady release of identity until all reference to “me and mine” has dissolved away. Transcendence works in the opposite direction, not releasing the ego but going beyond it across an extended web of relationships.

A religion that affirms and supports ego strength in this healthy sense will encourage the practitioner to “go within” for communion with the grounding mystery and “go beyond” in transcendence to the universe that is our home. Healthy religion – not the kind that is stuck with the ego and can’t advance – should thus be the outspoken advocate for both “mystical” (ground) and “scientific” (universe) research. In that case, each of us would regularly practice meditation (whatever helps you descend the rhythms of your body and enter that deep clearing of a calm presence) and build out a rational model of reality based on the evidence of careful observation.

If we stop pretending for a moment and instead take account of how things have actually gone with religion, we can begin to appreciate where it gets hung up. For whatever reason, ego strength isn’t established and the functional balance in our need for attachment and separation is thrown off-center. Because our personal histories are unique, how it happens for you will be different from how it happens for me, but the consequences of our dislocation (Buddhist dukha) will be predictably similar.Ego 3When our insecurity overwhelms the need to separate and become our own person, any number of “attachment disorders” may result. To some extent, however, they all have to do with our desperate drive to put ourselves beneath what (or whom) we hope will dispel our anxiety. Submission, in the sense of throwing ourselves on the mercy of god (or whatever) out of a sense of guilt, shame, or depravity, regards “the other” as everything and the self as nothing. Typically “the other” – represented in an external deity perhaps – is really an externalization of the sick ego’s own self-condemnation. Confessing our unworthiness and inability to change brings a brief but temporary relief of the burden, as the shameful part of ourselves is admitted to be seen. But it won’t last, and we’ll soon be back for another “fix.”

A different set of problems emerges when our need for attachment is not adequately met and we are left to establish ourselves by showing off and chasing fame. Whereas healthy development would give us the strength to go beyond “me” and “mine” for the sake of cooperation, participation, and even self-sacrifice for a greater good, an inability to get beyond ourselves compels us to self-inflation instead. Now it really is all about me. Individuals with “separation disorders” crave recognition, are fixated on self-importance, seek their own glory, and have to be better than others. (This sounds a bit like the biblical deity Yahweh in his adolescent phase.) Tragically, their passionate drive to stand out and be recognized too often alienates the very audience whose praise and approval they so desperately need, and they end up alone.

                                                                                  

So where does all of this lead me, as it concerns the present predicament of religion? Once again, I don’t think the answer is to “be done” with religion and finally grow up. Clearly the lukewarm and sentimental religion in many of our churches won’t help us much, nor is violence in god’s name (whichever god) our way through. We don’t need to condemn the ego or glorify it. But we can drop it from time to time and sink into an ineffable mystery; we can leap off its shoulders into a larger experience of what is going on all around us.

Of course, to let go of ourselves requires an ability to let go of some other things as well. One step at a time …

 

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Flow in the Creative Life

I am of the opinion that a human being desires. Before this desire gets directed along a particular channel and attached to a specific object, it is life in its purest form. Life, desire, creativity and spirit – these are deeply synonymous terms in the vocabulary of what it is to be human.

Think of desire as the current that activates and inspires our experience at different levels. Oriental philosophy offers the idea of chi or energy and the various chakras or activation points along the vertical axis of the spine. Each center opens out to reality at a unique frequency of intelligence and concern. When the chakras are fully aligned and activated, an individual experiences “flow,” fulfillment and well-being.

The West has its own chakra system, although it hasn’t been developed to the degree of detail and sophistication as in the East. Typically these activation points go by the names “mind,” “heart,” and “will” – where mind thinks, heart feels, and will moves you to act. Medieval philosophy in many ways is best understood as a sustained contemplation and dialogue on these three energy-centers in human experience.

For their part, soul and body are not regarded as additional centers but refer rather to the deep interior (soul) and animal nature (body) of a human being. It was only later that a third dimension was clarified – not a “power” or energy center but what I have elsewhere characterized as a standpoint in reality – named ego. This is the socially constructed and self-conscious identity of an individual person.

As a construct, ego lacks the “substantiality” of the soul and body, and for that reason it would be acceptable to say – with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a project and projection, a rather neurotic contraction of defenses, attachments and delusions.

In the language of liberation, awakening, and the creative life, ego is our primary obstacle. It’s what needs to “die” – in the words of Jesus (the Christ) – so that our deeper life can rise up and find its wings.

Back to the energy centers. This idea has become particularly interesting to me of late, as I reflect on creativity, desire, and spirit. I am appreciating more how the truly creative individual is one whose mind, heart and will are perfectly aligned and fully activated. In order to work out the implications of this, let’s look more closely at each of these Western chakras.

For our purposes I will use the organs of the brain, heart and gut as visual representations of mind, heart and will. And even though we are born with all our organs intact – with the brain nevertheless continuing to mature still into our third decade – I am going to begin this reflection at the gut level and move upwards, following the direction of development.

GutWhy is it that you feel sick to your stomach or have issues with your intestines when you feel distressed or threatened? Your gut is a system of organs working together to metabolize nutrients and remove toxins. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, your gut gets thrown into high gear so that you can have all the energy you need to get out of danger.

Your gut is the energy point where you feel either securely grounded or dangerously at risk of not getting what you need to stay alive. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as provident and supportive, something greater in which you can trust and have faith.

Of course, the indisputable fact that you are alive is proof enough that you live in a provident universe. Not only “this place,” but this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, and the entire cosmos are conspiring at this moment to provide what you need to stay alive and flourish.

  • Key words here are: Providence, Support, Security, Trust and Faith.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to points above. If it’s uncertain, or if you were raised in a home where there was lots of deprivation, neglect, abuse and repression, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your gut. You can expect your health and happiness issues to be centered there.

HeartBut let’s say you are faithfully grounded in a reality that is provident and supportive. This sense of security is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your heart.

Why is it that when someone close to you decides to leave or is suddenly taken away, you feel “brokenhearted”? Why do so many people suffer from heartache? Your heart, more than any other organ, is connected to every other organ and outpost in your body. By its very nature it is about cooperation. When the connection between your heart and another organ is lost or obstructed, that organ will die.

Your heart is the energy point where you feel either intimately connected or coldly removed from the web of mutual interdependence. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as relational and loving, something in which you can belong and find love.

A distinction between Western and Oriental cosmology is that while the latter regards the multiplicity of separately existing things as an illusion, Western philosophy and science affirm it as foundational to what the universe is. A corollary of this idea is the view that being is essentially relational and dynamic rather than monistic and unchanging.

  • Key words here are: Relationship, Communion, Intimacy, Belonging and Love.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to the next point above. If it’s absent or doubtful, if your experience has involved more than your share of exploitation, rejection, betrayal or dysfunctional relationships, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your heart. Your health issues might be centered here, in the physical consequences (or early symptoms) of losing your passion, compassion, and communion with life.

BrainBut let’s say you do feel a strong sense of belonging and healthy rapport in your relationships. This sense of intimacy is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your brain/mind.

Why is it that a lack of clarity in your efforts to make sense of something gives you a headache? Why are people so ready to trade their lack of meaning and purpose for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment plan? Your brain is your “executive” organ, the seat of conscious awareness, and the worktable in your construction of meaning. Its dual responsibilities are to regulate the internal processes of your body and articulate the neural platform of your mind (thinking self).

Your brain is the energy point where the certainty of your life’s meaning is managed. With its unique cognitive powers you are constantly sounding a transcendent reality for echos of significance. At this level of intelligence, reality is scanned for patterns, rhythms, and correlations, which are then analyzed, synthesized, and fantasized into a cross-referencing system of meaning known as your world.

What you seek is understanding, and as you are busy with the process of constructing meaning, various checkpoints along the way (conventionally called “facts”) challenge your brain to update its world-picture.

Key words here are: Transcendence, Meaning, Certainty, Understanding and Truth.

Now, if the ascending path of desire has gotten tangled up and caught on hooks farther down, leaving only a trickle of energy by the time it reaches this point, your personal meaning can become extremely rigid, awkwardly outdated, and curiously dogmatic. When your intellectual guidance system is out of sync with the actual coordinates of reality, you should expect headaches – physical and otherwise.

                                                                           

Okay, so there you have my interpretation of the Western “chakra system.” Human creativity is an inverse function of the “impedance” in this flow of energy/desire/spirit through the primary centers of the gut, heart and brain.

The more impedance – that is to say, the greater degree in which this creative flow gets “hung up” and pulled off center into the various ailments, demons, and neuroses of our predicament – the less creative we are. (I suppose it’s obvious to also say, the more destructive we tend to become.)

The creative life is grounded in the provident mystery of reality. It flows outward into communion with all things. It strives to ask better questions, ones that will deepen understanding and open up a larger vision for our lives.

I think this model has a lot to commend it. Philosophy, theology, politics, business, commerce, art, science, medicine, ethics – we stand a chance of getting our cultural system back on track and centered again.

And just to think, it all begins with you and me.

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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What You (Really) Want

At the very deepest level life is desire. Because organisms are open systems – not closed and self-sufficient, but dependent on their environments for what they need to survive and prosper – desire is active even at the cellular level. As our focus moves upwards to higher levels of organizational complexity and consciousness, desire becomes appetite, interest, longing, curiosity, aspiration and quest.

While your life at the individual and daily level may seem hopelessly complicated at times, the truth is that as a human being you seek just four things. Well, they are not really “things” in the straightforward sense, but rather distinct kinds of experience. It’s not really a successful career, a large social network, lots of money, or even everlasting life in heaven after you die that you really want.

What are these four types of experience, the pursuit of which makes you just like every other human being on this planet? Very simply, you want pleasure, happiness, meaning, and well-being. The present arrangement of your life, as well as the ambitions that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you awake at night, is fulfilling to the degree that you have managed to keep these four pursuits in a healthy balance.

Quad

Let’s look at each one briefly, and then explore how we human beings can lose this balance – and consequently lose our way in life.

You are a sensual being (there, I said it). What I mean is, you are wired and connected to reality by sensory pathways that deliver signals to your brain and body, spontaneously eliciting reflexes that move you toward what you need to survive and away from what might be harmful or dangerous. Pleasure is the lure that gets you to reach out for the big juicy apple. Your cells require its vitamins, fructose and fiber to do their thing, but you need incentive to pick it off the tree and take a bite. Apples are delicious and pleasing because they contain the raw energy your body needs.

Once in a while the apple turns out to be spoiled rotten inside, and your bite into it brings not pleasure but disgust – a signal that it is not gustatory, not tasty and edible, not good for you. Pain (disgust in this case) is the sibling to pleasure, and its purpose is to keep you from doing that for too long, which could result in sickness; or in other situations, in injury and death.

Your body is keyed into pleasure and the pursuit of it because organic evolution has made powerful pairings between the requirements of physical health and the numerous “delivery systems” (like the apple) in your environment that carry the goods. Pleasure feels good, and you typically want more of it. Until you get too full of apples; then the opposite signal of pain kicks in and you start to feel uncomfortable and nauseated.

The advertising industry has devised many clever ways of associating (the promise of) pleasure with purchases that really have nothing to do with what your body needs. A beautiful human model slunk over the hood of the latest model car excites our desire for sex and romance, and then anchors this feeling to the automobile. So we rush out to the dealership to find our beckoning lover. Sixty months of financing beyond our means is not too much (at least at first) to have the pleasure we’ve been promised.

In addition to pleasure, however, you also want happiness. This is because you are an emotional being as well as one that’s wired up for the pursuit of pleasure. Being happy – feeling positive, content, cheerful and optimistic in life – is another enticing payoff for getting into arrangements that (again, promise to) provide the support you need.

Happiness is a very attractive experience, and people spend gobs and gobs of their money, effort, and time in pursuit of it. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone has an “inalienable right” to chase it down, though he probably didn’t foresee the reckless extent to which later generations would go at it.

Quite often – probably most often; okay, all the time – people seek professional help to find happiness. They want desperately to feel better emotionally about their lives, their relationships, their past, or themselves. This will usually involve a delivery system more complicated than an apple, along with a probability of complications and side-effects that carry some risk as well. But the risks are worth it – or so we are willing to believe.

What else do you want? Meaning. This is because you are an intellectual being equipped with a cognitive intelligence that picks up patterns out of the whirligig of reality, or makes them up where they may be missing. Patterns are rhythms and designs, constellations and correlations that connect things and suggest other orders of significance. The root-word sign in significance names something that points beyond itself and “translates” the mind into a cross-referencing system where its meaning is revealed.

Your mind is a factory of signs. The language you learned from your tribe established the basic conceptual building-blocks of your world. By nature your mind is never content with a closed box of meaning, but soon itches with curiosity to know what’s “outside the box” and around the corner of the latest theory. Of course this natural curiosity can be discouraged by your tribe (and often is), to the point where asking questions is tantamount to doubting authority and opening the box becomes a punishable sin.

The social construction of identity, of what we call the ego, involves the methods by which your tribe exploited your natural desire for pleasure, happiness, and meaning. Especially in the early years, your sense of self was powerfully defined by the preferences, attachments and convictions conditioned into you by your cultural handlers (parents and teachers).  Through the early stages of ego formation, a human being was made into “one of us” – an insider, a good boy or girl, a believer.

But the ego itself is an illusion, fronting a persuasive charade of reality while being nothing  more than a rather sophisticated role play. This appearance of solidity is tested in times of doubt and disillusionment, but like a frantic little spider, the ego rushes out to the rupture and weaves a story that will restore security. If it doesn’t take too long, the trance can go on without serious interruption.

But the web does break, predictably. This is because you are a living, growing, and evolving being. The tight suspension that supports your identity, your world, and all the things that impinge on your happiness cannot keep you from growing up and out of your current disguise. It’s not just that you want more happiness and more meaning – although, again, the advertising industry is ready to accommodate your fantasy. Flip the channel and you’ll see what I mean.

Something else is going on.

You are also a spiritual being – not a soul inside a body, but a being that engages reality with a spiritual intelligence. What are you looking for in this case? What qualitatively distinct type of experience is your soul after? Not pleasure, not happiness, and not even meaning, but well-being.

What is well-being? At first blush, it is about being well, which is linguistically derived from being whole. This is not an experience to be achieved, and it’s not about clutching more things and people into your life to make it complete. It is a realization that all is one and you are a participant in something very much larger than your little ego and its meticulously managed world. Something profoundly mysterious and beyond words.

You are inwardly grounded in this mystery as well as outwardly connected, directly or indirectly, to every other existing thing.

The mystical traditions call this experience communion, from com (with, together) and union (one). Your spiritual intelligence as a human being gives you the ability to be conscious of this mystery, even if you can’t describe it and make it finally (once and for all) meaningful. Soul is that standpoint in reality where you can touch the unity of all things and release your conscious self to the deep grace of being-itself.

And then – ploop! just like that – your mind wants to put labels on it, get a box around it, and convert the experience into a belief. Spirituality is made into a religion, mystery collapses into meaning, liberty is turned into obligation, and what was once a life-changing insight gets pinned like a butterfly to the rigid board of orthodoxy.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

To experience well-being, you need to let go of the attachments and convictions that define you. Like the hard shell of the seed which must relax, let go, and open up to allow the green fuse to emerge, ego-identity and the little world you manage must surrender to the soul’s desire.

Until you can give yourself over to the mystery of life in this moment, your human fulfillment is postponed. Let go of fear. Let go of pain, and even of pleasure. Let go of doubt – and let go of certainty, too. Let go of what you think you need to be happy or have a meaningful life. Let go of “me, myself and I.”

Just let go. All is one. The provident mystery of reality will gently catch you. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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