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Virtues of the Centered Life

Western and Eastern approaches to spirituality differ in their accents on what to do with the ego – that separate center of personal identity that each of us cherishes as “I, myself.” The challenge in both cases is presented in the condition of duality, which is a consequence of separating into our own identity, known in psychology as individuation.

As long as the individuation process has been successful in forming a centered personality, ego can serve as a point of release into the grounding mystery of being within, as well as a launching point for transpersonal engagement in genuine community.

These two “options” for the well-centered individual are the Eastern and Western accents, respectively. In Western spirituality the (outward, extroverted) rise into community has been the favored way, while in Oriental spirituality it is the (inward, introverted) drop into the ground of being-itself.

In my diagram I have illustrated these two complementary paths of spirituality as they break through the duality of Ego and Other. One path takes identity up into relational unity (community) and the other releases it for a deeper experience of the grounding mystery (ground).

It’s important to see these as truly complementary and not mutually exclusive alternatives; both are equally available to the well-centered individual.

I won’t spend much time on it here, but that orange spiral is a reminder that not all of us get to this point. Instead, our chronic insecurity drives us to attachment, which in turn complicates into entanglement and ultimately a state of delusion where we are absolutely convicted in our belief that it’s all about us. All of our energy gets knotted up around (and around) these neurotic ambitions, making us anxious and frustrated, then leaving us exhausted … until it’s time to go at it all over again.

Because we are stuck on ourselves, the two spiritual paths are closed behind locked gates.

To the true believer of popular religion this will sound like esoteric code-speak, when it’s really they who have removed themselves from the simple truth at the center of their experience.

When we are properly centered, these deeper and higher dimensions of the spiritual life are open to us. We are secure enough within ourselves and consequently don’t need to latch on to others and wait for salvation. What we might call the virtues of a centered life are an inner calm and emotional balance, along with personal power and creative freedom.

The first pair of balance and calm can be summarized as “equanimity,” while the second pair of power and freedom combine in “autonomy.” Together, then, equanimity and autonomy are what the centered life enjoys.

My diagram also pulls forward from a recent post Peaceful Soul, Creative Spirit the idea that human spirituality is essential to our wellbeing. Instead of seeing these as parts of us, or as the “true self” separate from our body, I have been arguing for definitions that appreciate soul and spirit as the inward-existential and outward-transpersonal aspects, respectively, of a uniquely human spiritual intelligence (SQ).

I also regard our spiritual intelligence as activated or awakened only to the degree that we have achieved ego strength, where a stable center of identity provides the point from whence we can drop into the grounding mystery or rise into genuine community.

By this definition, a human newborn does not yet possess such an access point since an ego is still in its developmental future. A human adult who is neurotically self-involved will be prevented access for a different reason. For neither one is spirituality an active force in experience.

Just as the other threads of our Quadratic Intelligence (visceral, emotional, and rational) “come online” during critical periods of development, our spiritual intelligence is not only the last to awaken, but its full awakening depends on the successful formation of a well-centered ego. Only from there can we cultivate an inner calm, manage our internal balance, develop personal power, and express our creative freedom.

It is as if a well-centered identity opens a channel for our spiritual life to flow.

Stepping back out of the details for a broader view, it should be clear by now that what I earlier called the challenge of duality is crucial to understanding the human condition, our progress or arrest in ego development, the complications that spin us in neurotic directions, and the Shining Way to a liberated life.

Whether we take the ‘Western path’ to genuine community or the ‘Eastern path’ to the grounding mystery – ascending or descending, outward or inward, ethical or mystical, transpersonal or existential – we need to be secure enough and sufficiently centered in order to get over ourselves.

And whether we choose to take one path or the other, eventually we’ll need to come back to that center again. So let’s be mindful of keeping the porch swept and trash away from the door.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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The Shining Way to the Kindom of Spirit

Of all my reflections on the topics of spirituality, psychology, and community, this post represents my best effort so far. If I write nothing more from this point, I think I’ve made a meaningful contribution.

But I’ll keep at it anyway.

A few of the “big ideas” that repeatedly make an appearance include the grounding mystery, ego strength, and genuine community. These amount to so much scaffolding providing structure for the more detailed work of clarifying what’s really going on for each of us – and for all of us.

My diagram depicts this scaffolding on the image of a grapevine plant, with its deep roots, outreaching stem and leaves, and the berry cluster announcing its ‘self-actualization’ or, as we might say, its raison d’être (reason for being).

The terms arranged along the vertical axis name specific accomplishments, intentions, and virtues which are central to our own journey of self-actualization as human beings.

My returning reader knows that by ‘self-actualization’ I am not referring to some kind of elite individual attainment of miraculous powers and supernatural abilities, but rather to the process whereby our deepest nature is gradually awakened and fully expressed.

The Great Process of our universe, with the emergence of life and its increasingly complex networks of mutuality and interdependence, has brought us at last to the brink of what I call genuine community. I will even boldly designate this as its ultimate aim: sentient, self-conscious agents living in creative and inclusive fellowship.

But how can we finally get there? With the advent of self-conscious agency, evolution has given the fulfillment or frustration of this aim over to us. It’s our choice now whether or not we will connect, for good or ill.

This awareness has long been the inspiration behind the spiritual wisdom traditions of our world cultures.

In this post we will explore what I have elsewhere named the Shining Way, referring to that bright path of deeper insights and higher truths, by the light of which humans can find their way to fulfillment and genuine community. There are many places along the way where we can get snagged and hung up, and in other posts I have analyzed the causes and consequences of these common neuroses. They all tend to culminate in the formation of convictions which lock our minds inside boxes (like thought cages) that help us feel secure and certain about things.

Here, however, I will leave pathology aside and clarify instead the key elements of the Shining Way itself. Each of us can use this description as a kind of mirror on our own life experience: How true is this of me? Where am I still growing? Where am I hung up?


Faith

This term is not to be confused with the set of beliefs, values, and practices that characterize a given religion – for example, the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, or your personal religion. Its deeper etymology reaches far below such surface expressions of religious life and into the place where consciousness simultaneously descends and expands beyond our personal identity as self-conscious agents.

Underneath and supporting ego are the mind and body, or in more technical terms a sentient nervous system and its host organism. The body metabolizes matter for the energy it needs, and this energy is used in part to electrify nerve circuits and brain networks that support our conscious experience of sensing, thinking, feeling, and willing. There is an obvious dependency of ego on mind, of mind on body, of body on matter – and as quantum science confirms, of matter on energy – all of which comprises what I name the grounding mystery.

Faith is our capacity for letting go of ego preoccupations in order to center our mind, calm our body, and simply relax into being. Those preoccupations tend to tangle us up in worry, frustration, disappointment, and fatigue. In letting go of them, at least for a few moments, we can rest back upon the deeper support of existence itself.

In ancient languages faith derived from the root meaning “to trust,” in the sense of releasing control in grateful acknowledgment of the present providence (personified in many religions as a provident presence) of reality.

Integrity

When ego can develop upon a stable foundation of faith, our personality is able to organize around its own autonomous center. Integrity is a word that means “one, whole” in the way a complex system holds together in functional harmony. Certainly this has a clear moral significance, referring to consistency in judgment and behavior across dissimilar ethical situations.

As we’re using the term here, however, integrity is even more a psychological achievement indicating a well-integrated personality. Our inner life is stable and centered (by virtue of faith) in a condition called ego strength. If ego is our centered identity in engagement with the social world around us, its strength is a virtue of how effectively our internal impulses, motives, feelings, and opinions are “held together” in a coherent and harmonious sense of self.

Empathy

You will have noticed in my diagram that the three “inner” virtues of the Shining Way are not connected in a simple linear manner. This is because our third element, empathy, is a capacity made available only to the degree that a unified sense of self allows us access to our own human experience. It helps to imagine faith and integrity as providing a calm transparency to the “atmosphere” of our inner life, which mediates a clear vision of how experiences of all kinds make us feel.

As a human being you have experienced love, frustration, failure, joy, longing, confusion, loneliness, pain and loss, among many other feelings. Notice that we are not speaking exactly of external circumstances or objective events, as much as how those circumstances and events made you feel inside. Each of us has a unique threshold of sensitivity and tolerance, along with our own set of beliefs and expectations that serve to spin meaning around our experiences. Some of us may be more sensitive or tolerant than others, but nevertheless we all know what love, longing, or loss feel like.

Empathy literally refers to the inner (em) experience (pathos) of being alive. Importantly, it is not (yet) our sensitivity to the suffering of another, which is called ‘sympathy’ (sym = with or alongside) in Greek and ‘compassion’ in Latin. And while modern Western psychology defines empathy as compassion with an added component of cognitive understanding as to what another person is going through, it is actually an intuition rooted in the depths of our own human experience.

Compassion

Only one deeply in touch with her own human experience, who has contemplated his personal experiences of life, can reach out with understanding to another who is undergoing a similar experience. With compassion, the Shining Way opens to the realm of relationships and to the inviting frontier of genuine community.

Our sensitivity to what others are going through is directly a function of our own intimacy with attachment and loss, love and loneliness, success and failure, joy and sorrow. Such empathetic self-understanding will frequently motivate us to help another in distress, confusion, or bereavement. To step into their experience with them (sym+pathos, com+passio) for the sake of providing companionship, encouragement, comfort, or consolation in their need strengthens the human bond on which genuine community depends.

Just a note on the choice of the term compassion over sympathy, even though their respective etymologies mean the same thing. In ethical discourse, sympathy has over time developed more into the idea of emotional resonance – “I feel sad because you feel sad” – while compassion has evolved the aspect of motivated behavior – “I am sad with you and want to help you feel better.”

Goodwill

Compassion, then, is more than just a desire or willingness to join another person in their suffering. Its intention is to help lessen the pain, provide support, improve conditions, to somehow assist with their healing or liberation. Goodwill is very simply a matter of willing the good, of acting benevolently in the interest of another’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. Whereas compassion is the resonance of feeling we have for someone going through an experience with which we are deeply and intimately familiar, goodwill names the variety of ways that move this feeling into action.

Without the inner clarity that comes by faith, integrity, and empathy, pity instead of true compassion might motivate our charity, but this shouldn’t be confused with what we’re calling goodwill. The “good” that is willed is much more than a tax-deductible donation, or a middle-class gesture at managing a guilty conscience. When we pity another person, we are secretly relieved that we are not in their situation: “I am sad for you.”

Charity in Western capitalist societies has become a way of aiding victims of systemic injustice, without confronting the system itself. In some instances, acting for the greater good can put us into opposition with the traditions, institutions, and authorities who profit from keeping things the way they are.

Fidelity

With goodwill we have at last entered that higher zone of human self-actualization called genuine community. When we who are inwardly grounded and securely centered make compassionate connections with others around us, our benevolent acts of kindness, generosity, advocacy, encouragement, and forgiveness conspire to create what I call the kindom of spirit.

As a kindom, genuine community arises with the awareness that we are all related as sentient and self-conscious agents. Despite the fact that each of us stands in our own separate center of identity – but we should also say precisely because of this – we can see that all of us are very much the same in our deeper nature as human beings. And as a kindom of spirit, we seek the harmony, wholeness, and wellbeing of each one, one with another, and all of us together as one.

Fidelity is faithfulness to the kindom of spirit. By its virtue we dedicate ourselves to strengthening our connections, repairing ruptures, resolving conflicts, fostering creativity, transcending fear, and nurturing our shared aspirations for the liberated life.

 

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Passing Through, Never Home

In The Shining Way I presented in outline the way of salvation that true religion sponsors and promotes. Not all religions, but true religion. That qualification allowed me to make a critical distinction between religion-in-essence or religion-itself, and the sometimes pathological forms it can take when it gets hijacked by that most dangerous force in all the universe – our neurotic ego.

Right now, each and every religion is either tracking with or departing from the Shining Way, which is our guiding path into deeper meaning, greater joy, and higher wholeness as human beings. Throughout its history a given religion will trace a meandering line: coming closer, trending with, crossing over, or veering away from genuine community and our higher nature.

These days, it happens that the major traditions of name-brand religion are rapidly losing relevance and credibility, sliding into complacency, bigotry or terrorism, and ramping the enthusiasm of members for a final escape – an end-time deliverance out of this world.

When we identify religion-itself with its pathological deformities, we make two very serious mistakes. First, as just mentioned, we forfeit our chance to better understand the role and function of healthy religion in our evolving spirituality as human beings. By throwing out the baby with the toxic bathwater, we lose the ability to ground our existence and orient our lives inside a system of values and aspirations that can lift us into our higher nature.

The second mistake is even more critical, since it lies at the roots of the first one: In our effort to break away from religion and leave it in the past, we miss an opportunity for honest self-examination, which is also our chance for the liberation our souls truly desire.

This is not liberation as in deliverance or escape, but liberation as in being set free to become whole again. With our adventure into a separate center of self-conscious personal identity, we fell out of the unconscious oneness of our first nature (i.e., our living body). As the myths and wisdom traditions across cultures attest, our ensuing psychospiritual journey is about dying to the self we’ve been duped into believing we are, waking up from the trance of our separateness (which also means our specialness and self-importance), and rising into the fullness of what we are as human beings.

For this to happen we must surrender our center of personal identity (aka ego or second nature) and go beyond ourselves – not negate, renounce, or cancel out the ego, but rather to leap from its stable base into a conscious wholeness where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are affirmed in their unity. The stability of this base is a key precondition of our self-transcendence, for without it the thrust of our leap will only push our feet deeper into the muck of ego neurosis.

In this post my task is to reach into the muck in order to uncover and examine what’s got us stuck, which I’m hoping will also crack the code of what makes a religion pathological.

Certainly, the early and widespread interest of primitive religion in the postmortem was a very natural extension of human curiosity and imagination. What had been a breathing, moving, and vibrant individual the day before is now lying motionless and cold before us. What happened? Where did that animating life-force go? Because it was also so intimately connected with the unique personality of that individual, it wasn’t a terrible strain on logic to assume that it may have relocated elsewhere. For millenniums ancient peoples envisioned a place where the departed spirits of their friends, relatives, and ancestors (why not their pets and other animals?) continued in some kind of existence.

With the rise of theism and ego consciousness, however, a moral obsession over the dualism of right and wrong inspired a division in this shadowland of the afterlife. Now, depending on one’s station in life (e.g., landowner or peasant), or whether they were sinner or saint, a departed spirit – which was becoming more like a ghostly version of the individual’s former identity (ego) – would be punished or rewarded accordingly.

This dualism in the very nature of reality served to orient and motivate the moral compliance of members, and thus to enforce the social order. It was also during this stage in the evolution of religion (theism) that patron deities were imagined in roles of lawgiver, supervisor, judge, advocate, or disciplinarian. In the reciprocity of obedience and worship for a deity’s blessing and protection, devotees had a ‘higher reason’ to remain dutifully in their assigned ranks.

One thing we need to remember as we consider this emergence of the self-conscious ego is how its separation from the enveloping realities of the womb, the nursing bond, and the primal family circle brings with it some degree of insecurity. The fall into greater exposure and self-conscious vulnerability prompts the individual to seek attachment, where he will early on find safety, warmth, and nourishment; and later the acceptance, recognition, and approval he needs to belong. Attachment, that is to say, compensates for and hopefully resolves the insecurity which inevitably comes along with ego formation.

Because insecurity is registered in the nervous system as restlessness and anxiety, one way of managing it – particularly if positive attachment objects are unavailable – is by dissociating from the body. It is common for victims of child abuse, for instance, to seek escape where physical flight isn’t an option, by ‘walling off’ the violated part of themselves, even engaging in a fantasy of existing apart from their bodies. This dissociated self then becomes ‘my true self’, ‘who I am’ as separate from the pain and suffering the individual is forced to endure.

A consequence of dissociation is that the personality lacks the stable support of a coherent nervous state, and stability is a foundational virtue of ego strength.

Now, before you conclude that I’m making a causal connection between pathological religion and priests who were abused as children, hold on. The fact is that each of us is insecure in our unique degree, and that, further, all of us without exception have sought refuge outside and apart from our bodies. A good number of us entertain fantasies of living on without the pain and drag of an embodied life, as bloodless souls in heaven after we die.

Perhaps a majority of us have grown so estranged from our animal nature, that we try to suppress the body’s messaging system (called ‘symptoms’) through a variety of distractions, intoxicants, and medications. And we all tend to lock ourselves up inside convictions that keep us from having to be fully present in the moment – present in our pain, present to one another, or present with whatever challenge is at hand.

As I mentioned in The Shining Way, a neurotic ego is insecure (check), defensive around that insecurity (check), insists on its special entitlement (conceited: check), and holes up dogmatically inside convictions that keep the pain and confusion of life at a distance (check). In this sense, the neurotic ego is always ‘passing through and never home’. And there is the causal connection I’m wanting to make:

The homeless ego, dissociated from our first nature, has hijacked religion and is steering it like a jetliner for the far horizon of this life, as far as possible from the mess we’re in, but tragically also away from the present mystery of reality.

 

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