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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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The Underground to Community

Today more than ever our planet needs us in community. Our species is so careless and disorderly, so thoughtless and destructive, so self-involved and unconcerned over the catastrophic impact our behavior is having on the larger web of life – upon which our own viability and well-being depend, it seems necessary to point out – that I wonder how far from the edge we currently are.

Or have we already gone over?

Human and nature, self and other, soul and body have fallen into pernicious divisions, to the point where nature is reacting violently to our longstanding disregard for her balance and capacity, individuals are committing violence against others they don’t even know, and even our bodies are destroying themselves as a consequence of our inattention to matters of the soul. Even if we can see this evidence, the truly concerning thing is that we are feeling increasingly powerless to do anything about it.

We need to come together for solutions, but we seem to have forgotten how.

Our solutions will need to heal the pernicious divisions just mentioned. Humans must awaken to their place in and responsibility to the living system of nature. Neighbors and nations must remember their common humanity.

But both of these breakthroughs depend on our success as individuals in managing a more holistic alignment of our inner (soul) and outer (body) life.

Our task, as illustrated in my diagram, is one of breaking through the meaningless noise of the crowd and engaging in the meaningful dialogue of genuine community. As I will use the term, crowd refers to a kind of herd consciousness that lets us be passive and anonymous, mindlessly conforming to the fashions of the majority. As mood and movement roll like waves through the herd, we let it take us and take us over.

In the crowd we are not responsible. When something sudden and shocking happens, we look up at each other and blink.

Obviously no creative solutions to the challenges we face will come from the crowd. The constant noise – which in communications theory is the absence of signal or useful information – interferes with our ability to speak intelligibly or think intelligently, damaging the inner ear that could tune our attention to a hidden wholeness. In the crowd we don’t have the distance and detachment to even regard our challenges with any clarity, so penned in are we by the commotion around us.

Joseph Campbell analyzed the ‘hero’s journey’ into three distinct yet continuous phases, beginning with a departure from the realm of ordinary life; proceeding to a stage of trials, ordeals, and revelations; and returning home again, but now with gifts and wisdom to share. In this post I will rename Campbell’s phases to correlate with the critical steps leading from herd consciousness (the crowd) to genuine community: solitude, silence, and serenity.

As mentioned earlier, this inner quest of the individual for a more centered and unified life is the journey each of us needs to make.

The hero’s departure, whether for a wilderness, desert waste, dark forest, the open sea, or a distant land, invariably moves him or her into a period of solitude. The revelation or discovery of what changes everything cannot be found in the crowd where the trance of familiarity and group-think dull our spiritual intuitions. It’s necessary to get away from the noise and out of the conditions in which our current assumptions were shaped.

Before attention can shift on its axis to a more inward and contemplative orientation, it must be freed of the usual fixations.

Taking leave of the crowd isn’t always easy. As Erich Fromm pointed out, it offers an “escape from freedom” that might otherwise require us to take responsibility for ourselves.

The cover of anonymity and herd consciousness gives us a sense of belonging to something larger, a place where we can go along with the group and not be individually accountable for our lives.

Even after we’ve left behind the noise of the crowd, however, we still have inner noise to resolve. This isn’t just an echo of group-think in our heads but includes the incessant and frequently judgmental self-talk that ego churns out. We can be sitting by ourselves in silence as the ‘monkey mind’ chatters away.

Much effort might be invested in the work of managing this nervous resident in our head – perhaps giving it something to play with, like a phrase to repeat or an object to fix its focus upon – when the real goal is to preoccupy the ego so that consciousness can make its way quietly to the stairwell.

By an underground passage we enter a vast inner silence, what I call boundless presence – away from herd consciousness and far below ego consciousness. Here we realize how much of all that is just an illusion, a consensus trance where identity is merely a role we’ve been playing and the world only a projection of meaning upon the present mystery of reality.

In the deep, slow rhythm of our breathing body, consciousness can rest in its proper ground. Here there is nothing to worry about and nothing to think about, for there is no “I” to worry or think.

This is serenity: centered, calm, open, and free.

Upon reaching the treasure of this realization, our hero’s next challenge is deciding whether to remain here forever or else bring something back to the herd, in hopes that others – even just one other – might wake from the spell. To our surprise and relief, however, we find that some are already enjoying the liberated life.

Although they still may not see things exactly as we do, we share a mutual appreciation of the fact that truth itself is beyond belief. And while our different beliefs are precious in the way they provide us with standpoints in reality, the crucial task before us is in constructing meaning that can include us all.

Such co-construction of meaning is known as dialogue, and it is the most important enterprise of genuine community. The resulting coherent system of shared meaning is the world that supports our identities, connects us to one another, orients us together in reality, and promotes our creative authority as agents of compassion, understanding, peace, and well-being.

 

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Boundless Presence

For a while now I’ve been working towards a unified theory of human development that doesn’t merely annex spirituality onto one of the conventional models, but rather affirms it as essential to what we are. To do this successfully I’ve had to draw clear distinctions between spirituality and religion, between healthy religion and pathological forms of religion, between religion oriented on a separate deity (theism) and its evolutionary breakthrough to the liberated life on the other side of god (post-theism).

Because deformities and perversions in religion are so common these days, we can easily get caught in the trap of analyzing the problem. Psychotherapy and the mental health industry have fallen into this trap, to the point where diagnosing disorders and designing treatment plans (talk therapy, drug therapy) around the goal of managing or eliminating symptoms leaves undefined exactly what mental order might be.

What is it to be a healthy, happy, and fully self-actualized human being, and how can we get there? As far as spirituality is concerned, the answer must go beyond tinkering with religion and trying to fix its pathologies.

What we need is a positive and comprehensive model that can shed light on where we are now, as well as show us the opportunities and challenges of the path ahead. Such a vision of the possible human should inspire each of us to dig deeper, reach higher, and give ourselves fully to what we can yet become. I believe I have such a model; see what you think.

Given that human beings came on the scene just a second before midnight in the 14-billion-year-long ‘day’ of our universe, we need to move quickly through all the important events that preceded us and made our arrival possible. The graphic on the right should be read from the bottom-up, which will guide our ascent through the distinct epochs and organizational stages of the universe.

The first and all-encompassing epoch/stage is energy, which transformed next into matter, and then provided the conditions for life (organic) to emerge. Each step in this process defined a smaller horizon of existence, so that the quantum field of energy contains everything else, the atoms and nuclear forces of matter are within that, whereas cells and living things represent a much, much smaller horizon inside matter.

It was billions of years before the organic horizon of living things on Earth incubated a further transformation, in the evolution of sentient life. Sentience refers to the capacity for sensation, awareness, perception, and suffering which is most developed in the animal kingdom. By virtue of possessing nervous systems with some form of central ganglion (leading eventually to brains), sentient creatures also have the ability (in relative degrees) to adapt their behavior in response to the environment. In short, they can learn.

Later still, the family of primates acquired an additional power as an epiphenomenon of sentience, enabling them to be self aware. In our own species this virtue of self-awareness would reach its climax in ego formation, where an individual is not only sensitive and responsive to the environment and reflexively aware of his or her subjective experience, but psychosocially occupies a separate center of personal identity.

Healthy ego development establishes the personality on a stable nervous state, in what I call positive embodiment. Here self-awareness feels ‘at home’, centered and grounded in the vital rhythms of the body. A coherent nervous state oscillates around a baseline of calm, responding appropriately and adaptively to situations as they arise while maintaining composure. A base of stability, then, provides for the emotional balance of mental health.

These are the provident conditions that give rise to a unified sense of self. Altogether the three traits of a stable state, balanced mood, and an executive center of identity comprise what is known as ego strength.

But our story isn’t finished here, even though this is where many of us stop or get stuck. Despite the fact that conventional society and religion (particularly theism) are organized around personal identity and ego needs, self-awareness is still only a stage. The question remains about a likely evolutionary intention behind the formation of a separate center of identity.

A young child impersonates her parents (taller powers), personifies reality with imaginary playmates and the characters of storyland, and is supported in the habit of personalizing her world and taking things personally – all for what? The culture might say: For no other reason or higher purpose than becoming the center of everything, a dedicated consumer looking for happiness in the next purchase or next attachment, and blessed assurance for the life to come.

As a stage, however, and not only a curious innovation of sentient life, egoic self-awareness represents a critical breakpoint – a threshold and not a final destination.

The spiritual wisdom traditions, and now increasingly some secular “fourth force” schools of psychology (after behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanist paradigms), regard ego consciousness as a new point of departure – assuming, of course, the provision of adequate ego strength.

Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughan (1993) define the transpersonal as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos.” Whereas the separate ego generates a worldview where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are divided and frequently in conflict, there is a way to reconcile such divisions and become whole again.

A healthy ego makes it possible for the individual to break from the bondage of “me and mine,” to be liberated from the consensus trance of society and religion, and to enjoy the flower and fulfillment of life. Inwardly consciousness drops away from the ego center, into the nervous system and organic processes of the body, both of which of course lie below the threshold of self-conscious personal identity.

By such a meditative descent, the individual ceases to experience him- or herself as an individual at all, but surrenders more completely to the grounding mystery of being itself.

As this transpersonal path inward and downward breaks through deeper centers, their corresponding outward horizons are transcended as well. By outward leaps, consciousness ascends past the boundary of ego concerns and farther out to include all sentient beings, all living things, the material cosmos, and the whole of reality. At this level of awareness, the turning unity that we casually name the universe is experienced – not just imagined or conceived – as our home.

Such is the breakthrough realization that has inspired an enlightened ethic in various periods and places around the planet, promoting genuine community: We’re all in this together.

Healthy ego formation, then, makes possible the experience of a new reality beyond the limiting horizon of “me and mine,” by the transpersonal breakthrough beyond ego.

The grounding mystery of no-thing and the turning unity of all things are two aspects (inner and outer) of what I call the present mystery of reality.

Spiritual intelligence (SQ) reconnects consciousness to its ground and home after a long and complicated adventure into identity. The symbols, stories, rituals, and rites of passage that facilitate this adventure to its intended fulfillment constitute the essence of religion (from the Latin religare, to link back, reconcile, or reconnect).

The present mystery of reality is now more than just a concept in the mind, and has become a transpersonal experience of boundless presence. But neither is this an end in itself, for now the real work of genuine community can begin. Now that we have gotten over ourselves, nothing more stands in the way.

 

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The Human Journey

In my previous post The Four Ages of Life I offered a model for understanding spirituality as a deeply interior experience that evolves through the lifespan. The entire arc progresses – or more commonly, meanders – through Four Ages, different in duration but organized in such a way that each one builds on those before it, carrying forward also their shortfalls and incorporating them into the developing whole. A stage model is nothing new, but as far as I know the specific themes that I associate with the Four Ages comprise a unique theoretical arrangement.

By following the progress of spirituality – instead of, say, physical maturity, emotional, intellectual, or ethical development – I am also hoping that this scheme of Four Ages of Life will open a constructive dialogue on the topic of religion. I’ve made a case elsewhere, and many times, that religion should not be identified only with the organized brands evident around us (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.).

As a system of utilities (stories, values, practices and beliefs) which connects us to the grounding mystery within, to others in community, and to the turning mystery of our universe, religion is everywhere. But most importantly it’s how you put it all together. You may borrow from the tradition, mythology, and symbols of a name-brand world religion (or more than one), but however you keep the concerns of existence, meaning, and daily life aligned together in a working system is your religion.

Another application of my Four Ages model has to do with that gold standard of transpersonal psychology known as self-actualization (A. Maslow). The conventional understanding of self-actualization regards it as a rather distant goal of psychological development, where the fulfillment of lower needs (survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem) provide conditions for a breakthrough beyond the limited experience and perspective of ego.

The fact that self-actualization is defined as the salient marker of transpersonal consciousness restricts its meaningful application to that point (and beyond) where an ego is securely in place, since ‘going beyond’ (trans) the personal presupposes a separate center of identity as the person we are.

Instead of a later-in-life achievement, self-actualization could be measured as the degree in which an individual is realizing his or her human capacity at each Age of Life. In addition to a transpersonal variety, then, we can also give attention to pre-personal self-actualization – achievements in the progress of spirituality that precede the formation of a personal identity. In that case, a young child might be self-actualized not in terms of wisdom but of faith.

And not only pre-personal, but even personal modes of consciousness could be interpreted according to whether and what degree one’s ego facilitates the realization of his or her human capacity at that time in life.

The above diagram pulls forward the lifespan arc model of my previous post, but with an important change. Besides conceiving the different Ages of Life in terms of chronological periods of time, each Age is depicted as a circle (or cycle) turning continuously in its own phase space. In other words, even after you have become an adult and are building out the meaning of your life, the dynamic of Faith continues to turn deeper below. Just because the critical period for a trusting release to reality is behind you doesn’t mean that the primary concern of that Age of Life isn’t continuing to affect everything about your adult engagement with reality now.

In the same way, each previous Age of Life continues to shape the development of spirituality over the lifespan.

You should notice a purple meandering line coursing across the Four Ages, making for a less schematic trajectory than the arc in the background. If you follow the meandering line, you’ll notice that its forward progress moves through alternating clockwise and counterclockwise revolutions of the Ages themselves. This is meant to suggest that, while progress is propelled by a gearing-together of our four themes (faith, passion, reason, and wisdom), it is possible for us to lose forward momentum and get ‘stuck’ inside the centripetal spin of one or another.

We’re back to the example where insufficient faith in reality keeps us obsessing over concerns around security and trust. So, even though our chronological age indicates where we perhaps ought to be in terms of our developing spirituality, complications and difficulties earlier in life can persist in holding us captive.

This allows the model to be individualized according to our unique path through life. More free-moving here, a little hung up there. Advancing toward self-actualization in this aspect, but somewhat impeded in another. If we use a simple value metric such as 1=low, 2=moderate, and 3=high to identify our degree of self-actualization in each of the Four Ages, we end up with a series of numbers (e.g., 2-3-2-1) that represents our “self-actualization profile.” The purpose would not be to compare ourselves with others, but rather to bring to light where our human journey to fulfillment needs creative attention.

It could be that traumatic events or inhospitable conditions of life early on got us hung up with anxiety over whether reality is resourceful, responsive, or reliable in any profound sense. A low value here would likely interfere with our self-actualization in subsequent Ages of Life. An insecure and defensive juvenile ego might completely eclipse a transpersonal intuition of oneness beyond the construct of identity in our later years (Age of Wisdom).

I’ve argued that the obsession in some forms of theism with glorifying the (divine) ego and saving the (human) ego from extinction actually prevents the progress of spirituality in those religions from our soul’s true destiny, which is to release ourselves to the present mystery of reality. Despite such teachings in the tradition regarding the necessity of dropping the illusion of a separate self or dying to our seed-form so that the fullness of life can spring forth, a persistent concern with personal identity and what we deserve only intensifies the conceit and strengthens the illusion.

Obviously it’s rather shortsighted to lay all the blame for our ego fixations at the doorstep of dysfunctional theism. An entire society, from religion to politics, from art to morality, from commercial interests to domestic initiatives, from its management of resources and consumption of goods to its disposal of toxins and waste, can be caught in the delusion of ego-grandiosity.

The human journey begins in the uplift of a provident mystery, comes to unique expression in our personal aspirations, and finally passes through the veil of meaning where All is One.

Where are you on the path?

 

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