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God and COVID-19

Times like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in religion. On the “worse” side are declarations to the effect that the challenge we face is an instrument of god’s will. It has been sent for the divine purpose of punishing sinners, testing the righteous, or maybe just as a demonstration of god’s awesome power.

Just now, some conservative Christians are spinning stories classifying the coronavirus pandemic as god’s judgment on globalism, with its tendency toward moral promiscuity and contaminating his revealed truth (given to us, not them) with worldly deceptions. That’s frequently how children, as well as full-grown adults who are stuck inside an an obedience-based morality, try to justify their taller/higher Power’s presumed omnipotence in the face of tragic experience. They screwed up, or somebody else did, and now they are paying the price.

Of course, it’s not the conservative Christians themselves who have sinned. Or maybe they did, by making too many compromises. Now their faith is being tested and purified. Hopefully they will learn their lesson and get it together, which means tightening the orthodoxy, strengthening defenses, and protecting their membership against future lapses.

You see? It’s possible to spin the narrative any which way – “the narrative” referring to how human beings try to find meaning in the midst or in the wake of undeserved pain and catastrophic loss.

Our big brain pitches experience into the future, in the form of expectations and predictions of what’s next. So when the unexpected and unpredictable tragic thing happens, we are compelled to find – or else spontaneously create – a story that connects it to the past or present we think we know, or to a future we believe is coming.

One problem with trying to put a theological (god-narrative) spin around our suffering is in the way it pulls us out of the present experience itself and into our heads, where this and every kind of story is spun. You might think that the therapeutic benefit of escaping raw suffering for a story that explains it, justifies it, downplays it, or even takes it personally would outweigh any value there might be in simply taking it as it comes.

When human beings become clinically unhappy, it’s either because we are stuck inside a story that’s preventing us from a realistic engagement with and healthy adaptation to the world, or because we are lacking a coherent story to make sense of our suffering. The Jungian psychologist James Hillman believed that a client in therapy is really seeking a case history, a narrative account that gives their suffering a context and assigns it a meaning.

And then there are those who can’t seem to break out of a story that is contextually irrelevant or maladaptive to the changes and challenges of real life. When the mind is so locked inside its beliefs, we call it “conviction,” and this is the true source of our suffering.

Once upon a time – a very long time ago – religion provided people with stories that engaged them imaginatively with reality and helped them adapt creatively to the vicissitudes of actual life. Although many of its “classical” stories, called myths, seem quaint now and out of touch with our modern sensibilities, back then at least – when a culture’s model of reality (cosmology), guiding stories (mythology), and way of life (morality) were fully aligned – people were enabled by religion to find grounding and orientation amidst suffering and in the wake of tragedy.

But no longer today.

The devastation and hardship brought on by COVID-19 cannot be reconciled with a god up in heaven. Where is that anyway, in a universe which has no “up”? To declare that “god has a plan” and “everything happens for a reason” (meaning to serve some objective) may calm our anxiety for a moment by the presumption of someone “out there” who has it all under control.

But such reassurances no longer work to give us grounding in life, center us emotionally in our experience, connect us compassionately to the suffering of others, and inspire us to act responsibly for the greater good.

One thing we can learn from the coronavirus is how deeply involved we are in the web of life, how connected we all are to each other, and how much we need each other’s company, kind hospitality, and warm loving touch to be healthy, happy, and whole.

If you have the virus right now, it’s not because you are a sinner. God is not putting you through this to test your faith. It’s not even part of some larger plan or higher purpose.

In the West especially we tend to confuse the use of god as an explanation of why we suffer with the gracious Presence, or grace-to-be-present, that we long for most deeply in life.

But it is possible for you to be present to your experience, to simply and fully be in this moment.

Every true religion cautions against using your god as a mechanism for denying mortality, escaping suffering, or otherwise explaining it away. Rather than tying your pain or loss to something external to it, try to relax more deeply into it. Instead of allowing yourself to be overtaken by suffering, open your awareness so as to include it within the present mystery of being alive.

God isn’t an explanation, but a metaphor of the present mystery that eludes every explanation. The coronavirus may be happening to you, but this profound mystery is the deeper truth of what you are.

Take care of yourself, and let others care for you. Sometimes the way through is just letting it be.


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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a vale of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.


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Who Do You Think You Are?

The modern paradigm of medical and mental health has a built-in bias for diagnosis, due in large part to its historical interest in isolating and treating pathology of various kinds in the body and mind. A consequence of this bias is that while we can zero in on what’s wrong or not working properly, our understanding of what constitutes psychic (mind) and somatic (body) wholeness is less developed.

Individual sufferers go to professionals for help, many of them privately hoping that their psychosomatic health and quality of life will be elevated as a result. Instead they find themselves subjected to ‘treatment plans’ designed to suppress symptoms of dis-ease rather than actualize genuine wellbeing.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s in counseling I was surprised – and increasingly more aggravated – by the requirement put on students to choose our guiding theory from among current orthodox protocols of diagnostic psychotherapy. As professional therapists we would need to work closely with insurance companies, with doctors who could prescribe drugs, and (of course) with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is continually inventing more categories to pigeonhole the symptoms of suffering among the general population.

Even then it was obvious to me that a concept of ‘disorder’ must presume some deeper grasp on what ‘order’ (aka health, wholeness, or wellbeing) is, but this was barely discernible in the literature and never explained in the classroom. I began to suspect that some larger conspiracy might be directing our training as students and future professionals in the field. As counselors (and not drug prescribers) we could offer short-term talk therapy for clients, but the real money lay in tying client symptoms to more serious disorders with a basis in neurobiology that could justify pharmaceutical interventions.

Now, I’m not denying that some cases can benefit from a combination of talk and drug therapy – although the trend these days is to get patients through counseling and on open-ended prescription medication plans if their symptoms persist, which in 70% of cases they do. Strong research suggests that this rather abysmal success rate of therapy (of either type or in combination) can be attributed not to the particular protocol used, but to the fact that individual sufferers don’t readily take responsibility in the salvation they seek.

And this, in my opinion, swings back around to a diagnostic paradigm that effectively ignores the person and reduces suffering to symptoms seemingly outside the individual’s choice or control.

If we are to take responsibility in our suffering as well as creative authority in our pursuit of wellbeing, we need psychotherapeutic models that envision us as actively engaged in the construction of both suffering and wellbeing. In a sense, that’s what I am working toward in this blog. So it’s in that spirit that I offer another installment on the question of identity and our human journey.

My diagram contains a lot of terminology relative to the construction of identity, but we’ll step through it in a way that simplifies things considerably. Let’s begin at the middle, where the executive center of identity known as our ego is represented. Ego is how we identify ourselves, as the starring actor in a story we’re continually telling ourselves and others – our personal myth. Every myth has a supporting cast of other actors whose importance in the narrative is a function of their proximal influence on matters concerning our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

Each of these four feeling-needs (referring not to the fact of our being safe, loved, capable, or worthy, but our need to feel we are such) presents itself at a critical period of our development, in this precise sequence, rising upon earlier ones and setting the stage for those coming later. (As is often the case with my diagrams, information should be read organically from the bottom and flowing or growing upward.)

The four feeling-needs further organize into two broader concerns connecting to ego’s need to belong (or fit in) and be recognized (or stand out) – the two polar drives in our construction of identity. Belonging answers our need to feel safe and loved; recognition satisfies our need to feel capable and worthy.

You can appreciate their polarity in the way they pull against each other: the effort to gain approval (a type of social recognition) often involves a willingness to give up some anonymity (a type of social belonging). Conversely, if our first priority is to hold a position of acceptance (another type of belonging), we will try not to draw undo attention to ourselves (another type of recognition).

In dynamical systems, something called an ‘attractor’ is a recurrent code that draws a system into persistent patterns of organization. In our consideration of the pattern known as personal identity (or the construct of who you are), two polar attractors drive development: at one end is the secure base (an attractor for safety, love, acceptance and belonging), while at the other end is the proving circle (an attractor for personal power, worth, approval and recognition).

Archetypally these correspond to our mother (or mother figure) and father (or father figure), respectively. A number of Freud’s most enduring insights can be liberated from his theory of sexuality and better understood archetypally in these terms instead.

The unique admixture of temperamental predispositions, environmental conditions, and personal life events tends to ‘lean’ our personality more toward one attractor than the other. Even within the range of so-called normal psychology this is the case. A normal well-adjusted personality can value belonging over recognition, or vice versa. The important point is that both attractors and their associated values are critical to our identity and mental health.

What this suggests is that our individual personality can be understood (not diagnosed!) as either security-seeking or esteem-seeking. Identifying more with one doesn’t mean that we have no interest in the other; healthy identity is somewhere in the balance of both. If you happen to value safety and love over power and worth, it may simply reveal that close relationships are more important to you than personal achievements, not that accomplishing things and making progress don’t matter.

You were probably waiting for me to mention this: It can happen that the balance snaps and we get stuck at one pole or the other. Security becomes everything and we end up giving all our energy to pleasing and placating the people we feel we can’t live without. (This is common among children of addicts and victims of abuse.) Or else if we’re caught at the other end, we stay busy trying to flatter and impress others so they’ll esteem us as somebody important and worthy of praise. (This is frequent among celebrities and performers of various kinds.)

The goal of development is to hold the balance and use our stable center of personal identity to leap (or drop) into a larger (or deeper) experience of wholeness and wellbeing. More about that next time …


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Fully Present

Fully PresentIn the Wisdom Circle I’m part of, conversation flows along tangents into topics that interest us or challenge our pursuit of a relevant secular spirituality. Whatever arena we wander into, it’s not just a new perspective we’re after, but some kind of meaningful and responsible course of action. Given such-and-such, what can we do in the interest of greater honesty, integrity, and effectiveness? Our objective in every case is to clarify how a fully engaged spirituality might affect or transform the way we live in this world.

I am reminded of the diagnostic matrix used in conventional psychotherapy for identifying and treating a client’s peculiar form of suffering. Typically a strong and overwhelming feeling of unhappiness is what first motivates an individual to seek professional help, and it’s here that interpretation begins. And as such feeling will commonly exert either a suppressive or compulsive effect on behavior, sapping one’s drive or spurring conduct that only adds to the problem, any counselor who’s paying attention will also look carefully at what the client is doing.

After the linkage between feeling and behavior has been established, the task of therapy becomes one of bringing to light the associated thoughts and beliefs which have the client locked in a mindset that is perhaps irrational, unrealistic, juvenile, or delusional. As thinking provides an overlay of commentary on suffering – adding justification, self-judgment, conspiracy theories, or just more confusion to the pain – it is necessary to get this storyteller out of the closet and into the light of interrogation. It is hoped that by changing up the mental script a client will begin to feel better about things, start acting differently, and thereafter produce more positive results.

In the diagram above, a red line from feeling to doing represents that irresistible impulse to act in ways that perpetuate or amplify an individual’s suffering. The curved green line is meant to illustrate that elevation into thinking which will expose the faulty logic and distorted beliefs keeping it all in play. Higher elevation into thinking involves the individual in more rational reflection and discrimination, where the driving narrative of one’s personal myth can be analyzed, updated, and strategically modified.

In our Western psychology of mental health, these three correlates – feeling, doing, and thinking – form the ‘holy trinity’ of therapy. The better therapies work with all three in a more or less balanced way. Nevertheless, each one has also been favored over the others in the major schools of medicinal (feeling), behavioral (doing), and cognitive (thinking) therapy. Competition among these schools has prompted research into which modality is superior, or what combination of factors represents our magic door to mental health.

Interestingly enough, the research has shown all of them to be about equally effective, and maybe the results improve a little when they are combined in some way. But ‘effective’ here doesn’t mean significantly effective. In fact, they perform just slightly better than placebo and often come with side-effects no one wants. Research consistently bears out the greater influence of another factor, quite apart from the specific treatment protocol: The quality of relationship between therapist and client (called the therapeutic alliance) proves to be the real magic door. Any why is that?

In my diagram, the deeper essence of this fourth factor is identified as the individual’s sense of grounding in a reality that is supportive and provident. Obviously, a therapist (or anyone else) who is welcoming, trustworthy, empathetic, insightful, and encouraging will demonstrate such a reality to the client. The ‘alliance’ part of this involves an individual in gradually calming down, finding ground, getting centered, and opening up to the other person. The more open a client becomes, the more confirmation he or she receives that reality is provident and supportive, which in turn encourages an even deeper release and a larger horizon of faith. This is the dimension of being (be).

This factor of grounding offers a fourth correlate in a more complete picture of mental health and happiness. Changing how we think with talk therapy, how we feel with drug therapy, and/or what we do with behavior therapy is not enough. I have drawn lines from each of these three to the grounding mystery within, because it’s only as they are internally grounded that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be genuinely creative. Otherwise, insecurity will tend to hijack our faculties and generate a delusion of our separateness (isolated, exposed, defensive, critical, judgmental, etc.) – where true happiness is impossible.

You’ll notice that the line between think and be is actually an arrow, from the latter to the former. Because thinking is the mental activity by which we construct meaning and build out a worldview, it is vitally important that its product (i.e., our perspective on and orientation in reality) is properly grounded in the way things really are.

No doubt this reveals my cognitive bias, but enough of my own experience and observation of others has convinced me that until our thinking is reality-oriented and the meaning we construct is sufficiently clear-sighted to acknowledge that the grounding mystery cannot be captured in words or theories, we will tend to become prisoners of our own convictions and fall that much farther out of touch. By the time that happens, how we feel and what we do have been commandeered by a distorted, outdated, and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A human being is a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment. Ideally we live our lives as passionate and reasonable people, growing ever more proficient in the skills that help us be successful individuals, partners, parents, community members, and citizens.

The big question has to do with the degree in which we have realized our full potential, evolved our consciousness, and found our way back to the place it all begins, right here and now.

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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in The Creative Life


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