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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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Becoming Human

The challenge for religion today – one of its many challenges – is to offer an understanding of the human being that is relevant to contemporary life, compatible with our present model of reality, prescient of where our  evolution as a species may be leading, and in deep agreement with that stream of enduring insights concerning the fundamental nature of things which Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.

In actual fact, however, religion – particularly so-called popular religion – is failing us on all four points. It is increasingly losing currency as a way of providing real guidance for today, locked in a stalemate between complacency and terrorism. In one of the supposedly more advanced societies, courts are jammed by legal efforts to throw aside scientific theory for biblical myth in deciding what our children should be taught in school.

As far as a vision for the future is concerned, popular religion is exploiting our inherent insecurity as a species by promising true believers a final escape from this corrupt world. And many of the deep discoveries of our long adventure have been all but forgotten if not rejected outright as myth, magic and New Age. Instead of discovery, which involves a process of looking deeply into things, religion today campaigns for truth as revelation from above and outside of things.

My efforts aren’t the last word, obviously. But they are dedicated to the task of continuing our human quest with these four frontiers in mind – daily life, our model of reality, the human future, and that fund of deeper insights carried across the cultures and millenniums of our collective history. Just because I challenge traditional notions of god, truth, immortality and salvation, it’s probably easy for someone to conclude that I must be an enemy of religion, when in fact I am one of its outspoken advocates. Not of this or that religion, but of religion as the system of sentiments, theories, ideals, values and practices which link us back (religare) to the present mystery of reality.B_E_SThe illustration above provides a way around our current impasse, where much of popular religion holds the human spirit hostage to outdated ideas, long-abandoned worldviews, and adolescent moralities of reward and punishment. My diagram is intended to be interpreted dynamically rather than statically; that is to say, as representing the progressive transformation of human beings over time, instead of a snapshot of what we are and always have been.

We know that individual human beings develop as they mature, but their development might not result in maturity. It often happens that development gets arrested around neurotic fixations and emotional attachments, holding back at least part of the personality in “infantile” or “adolescent” attitudes and mindsets.

We can, of course, use this same lens to appreciate where entire societies and cultural systems get hung up and held back as well. Real problems come when this arrested development degenerates into a pathology of profound insecurity and holy conviction, producing a readiness (even eagerness) to kill and die for the truth in our possession. When we are prepared to trash this world for the sake of a better one elsewhere – whether it be the suburbs, a neighboring planet, or heaven after we die – we carry the principle of destruction inside ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we turn this paradise into ashes and need to move on to the next promised land.

Across the horizontal axis of my diagram is a depiction of the sequence by which human individuals and cultures develop. Going up along the vertical axis are three centers of consciousness and the rising transcendence of distinct stages that provide different perspectives on reality. These mental locations of awareness engage peculiar sets of concerns, values and aims. As we evolve from one stage to the next, the task is to carry forward and upward our gains in development, integrating them somehow in a holistic and meaningful vision of human destiny. Let’s take these centers and stages one at a time and see where this fit-and-flow design can lead, but also where it has gone bad.

A human being is a biological organism, a complex organization of molecules, cells, tissues and organs conspiring together in a pulsing symphony of life. The deep history of this symphony stretches into a pre-human past, modifying along the way a basic template by adapting it to changing conditions of its environment. This is our animal nature, compelled by instinct and guided by reflex to seek out niches of safety, resource, and opportunity over the long course of many millions of years. As a providential arrangement of protoplasm and vital urges, our body is carnal (flesh) and incarnates the energy of magnetism, matter, and light.

The body is our mental location in the natural realm, with a set of concerns, values, and aims organized around the singular priority of survival. Our most powerful instincts are dedicated to keeping us alive, bonding us to our group, and passing our genes into the next generation. Thankfully the fulfillment of this survival mandate hasn’t required much careful consideration and deliberate choice; unconscious drives simply get it done.

Whatever number of decades brings you back to early childhood, an exponential factor of that time span suggests a distant era when our species was beginning to transcend mere survival concerns in the interest of functioning cohesively as a tribe. Successful reproduction presents us with the challenge of raising children in a social context, in such a way that our offspring eventually can assume identities compliant with the pressing needs and occupational roles of the group. Through this process of socialization, an animal nature is disciplined into a personal ego – into a person with a separate and special identity, but still “one of us.”

As the next-higher mental location of consciousness, ego provides a perspective on the landscape of cultural meaning, consisting of the artifacts, traditions, assumptions and conventions that support a sacred canopy called a worldview. Personal identity is thus a socially constructed point of reference where consciousness is shaped and bent upon itself as self-consciousness, reflecting back on the individual an image of “who we are.” The dutiful ego is expected to do its part, promote the values of the tribe, and contribute meaningfully to the commonwealth.

A culture’s sacred canopy is woven of narrative threads called stories. They are not simply reports of fact – what would the point of that be? – but imaginative representations and entertaining plots (from the Greek mythos) that serve to articulate a cross-referencing web of significance. The productive power of this web is fantasy, the very same power that pretended and animated your world as a child. Fantasy is not a weak attempt to describe reality as we see it; rather it is a literally fantastic project in meaning-making, constructing a habitat for the mind. I call the part of our personality responsible for the ongoing defense and repair of our worlds, the inner child. It is spontaneous, playful, and dependent on the support of others; but it can also be neurotic, insecure, and prone to tantrums.

Now, I would say that the form of popular religion summarized at the start is stuck exactly here – at the stage of development where humans are heavily invested in the identity project of ego. Just as your inner child operates according to a model of reality perhaps decades out of date, many present-day religions are still trying to manage meaning inside a worldview thousands of years old and equally outmoded. We need to engage the present reality of our situation, but it’s like performing brain surgery with a paleolithic flint chip.

Jesus, the Buddha, and others have tried to help us see that the source of our suffering is self-preoccupation – the emotional cravings and dogmatic convictions that disable us spiritually. We cannot really know freedom, love, and truth until we learn to let go, open up, and reconnect in more creative ways.

Transcending ego brings us to the mental location of soul, where “me and mine” no longer entrance us. I am of the opinion that this higher self of the soul is a distinguishing mark of maturity. It is not about identity or even meaning. Soul doesn’t fuss with the question “Who am I?” but rather seeks authentic life beyond the masks we wear. It is our spiritual self – the creative spirit in us that contemplates the mystery, celebrates life, and consecrates the precious value of each passing moment. Whereas ego separates us from reality by its veil of meaning, soul reaches through the veil to realize oneness with (communion) all things.

The set of concerns, values, and aims organized around this priority of communion constitutes what is meant by wisdom. Instead of the urgency of survival or the project of identity, wisdom is about living in view of the ever-expanding context of daily life. We make choices and take action, the consequences of which ripple out into our relationships, leach into the soil and water, choke the atmosphere and threaten life. These rippling rings of effects and side-effects should be evidence enough that we are not separate from anything but rather one with everything.

And so, becoming fully human is a destiny still calling to us from the other side of meaning.

 

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The Path to Wholeness

According to the conceptual model that I’ve been developing, the familiar designations of body, ego and soul refer to distinct mental locations, or standpoints in reality. Traditionally, the dualism of body and soul has dominated the conversation, with ego sneaking into the meeting relatively recently. Soul was identified early on as the “true self,” with body its temporary container. Now ego has become another (albeit more psychological than spiritual) name for the soul.

This confusion of terms, along with the tendency in metaphysical realism to make the soul into a “separate thing,” and the tendency in scientific materialism to reduce the soul first to the ego (personality) and then to the body, leaves one to wonder whether re-definitions are even advisable at this point. Perhaps we should simply scrap the traditional vocabulary and move on.

Such frustrations as this are common in transitional periods of culture, when the vocabulary that supported an earlier (but increasingly outdated) worldview is still being pressed into the service of constructing meaning. Of course, archaeologically it is expected that by stepping back into the mind-space of ancient languages we today can reconstruct how earlier cultures saw the world. But we also need to make sense of reality for our time, and we are stepping into a decidedly postmodern period of history.

So in the interest of reinterpreting the traditional terms of body, ego and soul for a relevant postmodern conversation, I am offering this notion of standpoints in reality. Another spin through this vocabulary revision might help put things in perspective.

BESThe diagram to the right is intended to be read from the bottom-up. I’ve arranged it this way to acknowledge the organic and evolutionary nature of the topic under consideration – i.e., what is a human being? Living things tend to grow “up,” which means that human development can be understood as progressing through phases of growth, perhaps even according to specific “stages” of relative completion along the way.

If a stage can be thought of in the spatial sense, as a specific location where one can stand and take a perspective on things (as on a theater stage), then we are very close to my notion of a “standpoint in reality.” Each stage or standpoint (body, ego, soul) provides a unique mental location where a human being engages reality. The present mystery of reality is thus revealed to us as three distinct realms: sensual/nonpersonal, social/interpersonal, and spiritual/transpersonal.

Body is represented in my diagram by a circle, or more accurately a cycle. The body functions as an energy converter, taking up the vibrational oscillations of inorganic (air, water) and organic matter (food), dismantling and re-engineering it into more energetically “open” packages of living cells.

The body’s own biological clock moves through the revolutions of daily activity and nightly rest, and every level deeper into its organic interior is characterized by this same dynamic of cycles. All of this is occurring right now far below conscious awareness or direction, which is why I call it the “unconscious present.”

With an evolutionary history of millions of years, the body is animated by powerful urges and instincts. The very fact that I’m here right now is a credit to the success of these drives and reflexes in my pre-human and human ancestors. It stands to reason that I should be able to trust this animal intelligence for continued evolutionary success – if it weren’t for the additional fact that I’m involved in a tribe.

Ego is represented by a horizontal line moving left-to-right, which stands for the developmental project of constructing an identity – a “one of us.” The tribe must work with the body’s animal nature, in the interest of training and channeling its instinctual energy into behavior that supports (or at least doesn’t interfere with) social order. Sometimes this means working against its urgencies and impulses, putting restraints in place to keep it under control.

This process of imposing restraints, incentives, and permissions on an animal nature in order to shape a self-conscious identity (ego) is summarized in the term “instruction.” The most important part of constructing this “one of us” involves instructing it with the rules and values of our tribe (family, clan, club, culture). This is Nietzsche’s “morality,” and while he didn’t appreciate the way it can frustrate human freedom and stunt human creativity, some such system of constraints is necessary for a peaceful and productive coexistence.

Identity, then, is instructed. All the way from the language we are taught, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with, and the gender we express; from the family and work roles we take on, the degrees or certifications we pursue, and the destinies we chase after – who we are seems to commit us to specific ambitions in life. The judgments and preferences of our tribe gradually become internalized and situate us firmly in the mental location of “us.”

Because ego is a product of past instructions and a project of future ambitions, the present moment is nothing but a vanishing threshold between its twin obsessions. And if early socialization involved neglect, abuse, or repression, then the personality might host a significant “shadow” of insecurity, shame and resentment. The shadow tends to pull the ego into earlier configurations of itself where the personality got hooked or held back.

When the personality gets hooked in this way, ego might compensate – sometimes with considerable assistance from the tribe – by projecting the shadow forward and ahead of itself, into moral crusades against those who express outwardly what it can’t accept in itself. Since the shadow can also include talents ignored or left undiscovered, ego can become a relentless critic of those more courageous and/or successful.

As each of us is aware, the social realm of ego and tribe can be endlessly fascinating. Because dualism – past/future, shadow/mask, self/other, right/wrong, and good/bad – is woven into the very structure of identity itself, an entire lifetime can be spent sorting it all out. A spiritual consequence of this is that the individual may very rarely, if ever, become consciously present to the mystery of reality.

As I said, the present moment is inaccessible to the ego, whose identity is stretched between past (instructions) and future (ambitions). About the only way ego can add value to time is by extending it indefinitely into the future. As its developmental antagonist, the body, is time-bound and mortal, ego took to itself the virtue of everlasting life.

But everlasting life is just “more life, without end.” In order to experience true immortality, the individual must break past ego altogether. In the standpoint named soul, reality is experienced as the timeless ground and always-present universe of being.

The ground invites awareness by an inward path into the depths of being-itself, beneath and prior to the separation of ego. Mindful breathing is a widely practiced meditation technique that brings conscious attention to the softness and gentle rhythms of the body. Drop your concerns, set thoughts aside, let go of “me,” and just sink into this present moment. This is the “narrow gate” – invisible to the ego – that opens to an ineffable and unqualified mystery.

The universe elevates and expands awareness beyond the ego by a different path. Spiraling out, around, and beyond “me” is a wondrous and apparently infinite community of beings. In this moment I am connected to all things, and all things are turned into one (“uni-verse”). It is astonishing just to consider a provident universe, where conditions are just right (at least in this corner of reality) to support the emergence of life and the evolution of consciousness.

Attention itself is a miracle.

In the standpoint of soul, this present moment is all there is. Grounded and connected, ego is transcended and all personal references are left behind. Here and now, I am whole and all is one.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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