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Becoming Homo Sapiens

When modern science organized the taxonomy of living things on Earth, it placed our own species in position with an almost religious confidence, as the “wise one” (Latin homo sapiens) among all the creatures. At the time there seemed good reason for such high regard, as we clearly possessed traits and abilities that put us above the rest. It remains an open question, however, whether self-selecting as “wise” was more of an aspirational reach than evidence-based assessment.

Wisdom is not a new interest of ours by any stretch. It can be argued that homo sapiens began its unique advance in evolution as we applied our speculative (outward-looking) and contemplative (inward-looking) intelligence to the mysteries of existence. Since prehistoric times humans have had a keen interest in understanding our place in the wonder of it all.

The so-called wisdom traditions of our separate world cultures are so many tributaries of one ancient stream, bubbling up from the same wellspring – not so much “back there” as “in here,” deep in our individual psyche.

At times along the way, this living stream of spiritual wisdom has gotten blocked by other forces which seem more pressing and urgent. It’s always tempting to temporarily suspend our consideration of interests farther out and later on, of anything that is not inside the immediate circle of “me and mine,” in order that we can address and hopefully resolve the urgency.

We possess a deep knowing, for instance, that All is OneEverything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – three wisdom principles that are not mere logical conclusions, but rather intuitive insights drawn from our direct experience of reality. We know these truths, and yet we frequently choose to ignore them in the choices we make.

Such willful disregard is what Alan Watts called ignórance, referring not to something we don’t know but to our habit of disregarding what we know so we can do what we want.

My diagram places wisdom (sapiens) in what Abraham Maslow called the “farther reaches of human nature” – as the future fulfillment of our deepest potential as a species. It stands at the higher pole of a continuum opposite to instinct, which we have in common with all the other animals. Between the two poles and serving as a kind of phase transition from instinct to wisdom is belief.

Each of these is a kind of behavior program, a distinct set of codes that motivates humans to behave and actively engage with our environment.

In Darwinian terms we can further say that our behavior will either fit us adaptively to our environment or else put us (and our environment) at risk of damage and possible extinction.

For its part, instinct is unthinking and compulsive, driven by codes deep-set in our animal nature. At the other end, wisdom is exquisitely thoughtful and visionary, lifting consciousness to transpersonal ideals, larger horizons, and longer aims.

As the transitional stage between instinct and wisdom, beliefs and belief systems have dominated the human experience for thousands of years.

Homo credulitas is probably a more fitting nomenclature, since this long historical epoch of our evolutionary rise into tribes, cities, nation-states, civilizations, and the contemporary pan-global culture is made possible by a unique ability of our mind to construct around us an envelope of meaning called a world.

A world is a more or less personal construction of language that helps us feel secure, serves as context for our identity, orients us in reality, and clarifies a meaning for life.

These four functions of our world – security, identity, orientation, and meaning – connect neatly at the corners to form a box containing everything that matters to us. We live for what’s inside the box, we obsess over what’s inside the box, and if it comes down to it, we will kill defending what’s inside the box. The American box is different in big ways from the Iranian box, and inside each of these are many more boxes – religious traditions, political parties, social classes – which further contain millions more individual worlds, each unique in lesser but still exceptional ways.

Smaller boxes contained in bigger boxes, contained in still bigger boxes, until we come to the biggest box of all where all of us are insisting to the rest of us that our world is the real world, the way things really are.

And of course, we have to believe this, since it is believing which makes it so, recalling that all of these boxes, from the small-scale individual to the large-scale global, are made of beliefs, are quite literally make-believe.

That such a claim sounds ludicrous and is itself unbelievable actually substantiates its validity, insofar as our mind cannot believe “outside the box.” We can indeed think outside our box, but it takes both practice and courage since breaking past the outer boundary of belief also requires that we move beyond the security, identity, orientation and meaning of life inside the box. If all these things are constructions of belief, then reality – not the “real world” but the really real, existence as such – is beyond belief, indescribably perfect in itself, transcendent even of meaning and therefore perfectly meaningless.

If you can’t believe this, then, in the words of Jesus, you are not far from the kingdom of God. Maybe very close, but not quite.

Recalling those wisdom principles from earlier – All is One, Everything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – we get a sense of how their truth stands beyond belief. It doesn’t matter which boxes you happen to occupy (or that hold you captive), whether you are rich or poor, white, black, brown, or green. They are not articles of belief, much in the same way that gravity is independent of whether or what you may believe about it. They don’t need validation from any source other than your own direct experience.

If you let yourself, these timeless insights into reality will resonate with your own true nature and lift your consciousness far above the ego concerns of “me and mine.”

Now ask yourself, How shall I live in light of these self-evident truths? If you’re not going to ignore them and do what you want, then what difference will they make? How will the full acceptance of their truth inspire you to leave your box and live a truly liberated life?

Welcome, “wise one.” Your higher adventure is now ready to begin.

 

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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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The Heart and Hope of Democracy

Let’s begin this meditation on the heart and hope of democracy with you identifying yourself with either the Blue or Red sphere in the diagram above. Then let’s pretend that all of your life you’ve been training to be the best Blue or Red you can be. From an early age your tribe was actively shaping and colorizing you, giving you careful instructions, applying timely discipline, and downloading all the necessary codes that would eventually get you to the point where, today, you don’t regard Blue or Red as one option among two (or many) but as who you are.

Beyond that, Blue or Red is also how you see the world around you. The meaning of things and the issues that grab your attention hold a strong correspondence to the perceptual filter of your identity. Blue or Red concerns just feel more important to you, and you make friends more easily with other Blues or Reds. Having the same values and beliefs about the world helps your conversations stay in tracks that are familiar and predictable.

If you are Blue, then those Reds are way off base. If you’re Red, then those Blues have no clue what’s going on.

Being sure of your identity as Blue or Red, you are vigilant to keep reddish or bluish tendencies in check. In fact, quite often it’s easier to determine where you stand on something by checking out the other color and then taking the opposite position. If your tribe has done its job and you remain strong in your convictions, the separation between you might as well be another feature of reality itself. You are Blue or you are Red, and they are way over there, outsiders to the one and true way of being in the world.

Democracy will always be challenged by the duality of opposites.

Blues and Reds might relish the fantasy of living out their days in a land exclusively Blue or Red, where everyone believes and behaves the same way – the right way, their way. But such a fantasy amounts to nothing more than what Joseph Campbell called a “utopiate”: a utopia or “no place” in the imagined future that sedates the mind like opium and keeps consciousness, now in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

As long as Blues and Reds see color as essential to the nature of what and who they are, ideology will continue to be mistaken for reality.

Indeed, living in a fantasy is not far from a true description of what’s going on for you as a Blue or Red. A better word perhaps might be trance, seeing as how your identity, beliefs, values and way of life were “put on you” starting at a very early age, like someone put under a spell by a hypnotist. We could justifiably call this entranced state “separation consciousness,” since its principal effect is in convincing you that you and that Red or Blue over there are entirely separate and have absolutely nothing in common.

Now, I’m not suggesting that who you are and what you believe are meaningless, for clearly they mean everything to you.

However, if we pause to consider how the meaning of anything is not found in the thing itself – Where exactly is the meaning of a flower or a star? – but is rather put on it by our mind, usually in agreement with other minds, then the notion of meaning as a spell and belief as a kind of trance might start to make more sense.

As long as Blues honor and respect only other Blues and bluish values, and as long as Reds honor and respect only other Reds and reddish values, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

We need to arrive at a place – which is no utopia but actually a step closer to reality – where Blues and Reds can listen to each other, ask questions that seek understanding, confirm this understanding by paraphrasing it back to the owner, and then join the work of constructing a world where they can coexist in peace, but even more where they can thrive in mutual honor and respect.

According to the dictionary, being worthy of honor and respect is the definition of ‘dignity’. The heart of a healthy and vibrant democracy lies in the dignity individuals recognize in each other. If we ask where this worth resides or attaches itself, it can’t be with those socially conditioned, culturally relative, autobiographical factors that define your identity as a Blue or Red.

When we assign dignity to anything at this more superficial level, we end up amplifying things that separate individuals rather than connect them.

For a healthy democracy, dignity must be acknowledged as attaching to human nature itself. Underneath all of that overlay of personal identity and far below the trance-state where Blues and Reds contend for supremacy, you are a living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. Every human being is worthy of honor and respect, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ideology, socioeconomic status, and even moral character.

If you are a human being that happens to be Blue or Red, your humanity makes you equal with everyone else. That Red or Blue over there is not your enemy but your potential partner in dialogue, referring to that disciplined process described earlier where we listen to each other, ask questions to gain a better understanding, confirm our understanding by paraphrasing each other’s perspective, and then engage in the work of constructing a world where we can live and flourish together.

When we can do this, when Blues and Reds can become partners in a process rather than enemies across an ideological divide, the trance of separation consciousness will drop from our minds like a veil. This revelation is what is meant by “awakening,” as your spiritual intelligence sees through the illusion of separateness (and of identity as well) and becomes aware of, or wakes up to, the unity of all things.

As the hope of democracy, genuine community is characterized by unity consciousness.

But community isn’t only about a change in awareness. If All is One, as unity consciousness bears witness, then there is no ‘outside’ and therefore no ‘outsiders’. This ethic of radical inclusion is the flowering manifestation of that deep realization in the heart of democracy, of each person’s dignity as a human being. At the very least it means there are absolute limits to what Blues and Reds can do to each other.

It also means that everyone, of whatever color, needs an invitation to the table if democracy is to work.

Finally, a spiritually awakened community that is radically inclusive will be thoroughly humane. In the English language our word ‘human’ was originally spelled with an ‘e’, but over time it bifurcated into ‘human’ which frequently means ‘only human’ (i.e., weak and fallible), and ‘humane’ which describes the tender virtues of grace, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and the like.

As a mark of genuine community, the commitment to a shared life that is thoroughly humane is absolutely critical to the health and longevity of democracy.

So if you are Blue or Red, remember that this not what you are most basically. The construction of your identity as Blue or Red doesn’t have to make every other color a threat and enemy. Hold your beliefs but don’t let them take your mind hostage. As best you can, try to see through the veil of who you are and of the world as you presently conceive it, to what is really real.

The heart of democracy is inside every Blue and Red, and its hope is a world that includes us all.

 

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Learning to Trust Ourselves

At this same time four years ago I published a post that introduced what I called The Two Systems, referring to two sets of values and concerns that profoundly shape human culture and our individual lives. These two systems are like the Yin and Yang of Taoism, where the creative tension between them informs our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions – the very structure of our personality, interpersonal relationships, and our engagement with reality as a whole.

According to the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

What we can know and say about the Tao is only what is manifested in the dance of Yin and Yang (soft and hard, moist and dry, quiet and active, female and male are a few of the metaphors that Lao-Tzu uses in speaking of them). It’s not that one or the other is the ultimate reality of Tao, but rather their interactive unity presents us with an epiphany (an “appearing through”) of what cannot be named.

Similarly when it comes to understanding the Tao of human relationships, it’s necessary to understand and honor the creative tension between two forces, which I call the love of power and the power of love, or supremacy and communion. If this tension should snap, the love of power and the power of love will become pathological, where power devolves into domination and love deteriorates into submission.

Of course I realized even back then that representing supremacy or the love of power as anything but pathological would stir suspicion in my readers, particularly those who are or have been victims of someone else’s love of power. How can the love of power be good in any sense?

First of all, I don’t want to say that either supremacy or communion are good in and of themselves, since this would be breaking their creative tension to exclude one system in favor of the other. Power is not ‘bad’ and love is not ‘good’, but great benefit is to be found in their dynamic balance. My diagram illustrates this dynamic balance by complementary values distributed across the two systems.

At the farther poles of the arc of supremacy are virtue (Greek areté, excellence) and competition, both of which are clearly evident in athletics and capitalism. In competition we test and strengthen our abilities, improve our products and services, and become more proficient in our discipline. The desire for excellence in sport, business, art or craft is what I mean by the love of power; and a competitive drive can push us to always be improving our game.

Approaching closer to the axis of dynamic balance with communion, influence and responsibility continue this accent on power. To have influence is to use our power to effect a wanted or necessary change, and taking responsibility is about applying our knowledge, skill, and authority toward accomplishing or ensuring some end.

At the very center of balance is trust, where power is at one with love.

Shifting over to the side of communion we can follow a similar, and complementary, set of values. At the far ends are equality, which stands opposite to virtue on the side of supremacy, and the ‘working together’ of cooperation across from competition. Closer to the central axis are relationship and connection, moving the accent of interaction more to the bond and rapport between individuals than their individual contributions.

The point of all of this is really to offer a meditation on the critical importance of trust in our personal, interpersonal, and larger social life together. To the vertical axis of my earlier model I have added the dimensions of peace (being inwardly rooted in the ground of being) and truth (being outwardly oriented to the reality beyond us).

When we honor the dynamic balance of supremacy and communion in our lives we are in a position of trust. From that position we can drop below ego concerns for a deeper peace within, as we are also able to look through our constructs of meaning for the truth of what’s really real.

On the other hand, when we choose power instead of love or love instead of power – effectively snapping the creative tension of supremacy and communion – this access point is closed to us. Domination and submission alike block our path to the deeper and higher experiences of the spiritual life. When we lose the balance and fall to one side or the other of the middle way, the flow of our human spirit gets diverted to pathological extremes.

Our ability to trust each other is a function of our individual capacity to trust ourselves.

I’ve written a lot about what makes trusting ourselves problematic. A chronic nervous state of anxiety (or the inner feeling of insecurity) can get set early in life if our environment doesn’t provide what we need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (what I name our subjective needs).

Psychologically our developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) must disassociate from the anxious body to keep from falling into it. Here the body is not to be trusted, which means that we cannot trust ourselves. This self-distrust works out into our relationships as harbored suspicion, withheld love, emotional manipulation, and a negative opinion of another’s nature and intentions.

You might agree with me that this condition is widespread in our world today.

If we are generally anxious and insecure, what can we do about it? Is this ‘just the way I am’? Do we simply need to find ways of gratifying our craving for security and accommodate the same in others? This is what we are doing currently, and it is obviously not helping. So what then?

We could put effort into working things out between us, in the hope we can reach a place where mutual trust is finally established. Using a method of dialogue or talk therapy might help us make some progress, but even here our self-distrust will get in the way.

As my model suggests, our mutual engagement in trust is made possible as each of us is able to verify and correct our constructs of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) so as to be more reality-oriented. Our strongest beliefs, called convictions because they hold our mind captive (like a convict) and prevent us from thinking outside their box, prevent us from seeing anything as it really is.

Or else they cause us to see things that aren’t really there or aren’t true because we can’t feel secure without them. Either way, our convictions blind us to the really real in each other.

But we have to go deeper still and make this very personal, for our convictions are compelled by anxiety, and this profound and chronic insecurity is what keeps us from trusting the grounding mystery of our own body. If we can’t be fully present in our body and relax into being, our security-seeking strategies (attachments and their protective convictions) will only amplify our suffering, as the Buddha discovered.

The self-described “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts posed a simple question: “If you can’t trust yourself, can you really trust this mistrust of yourself?” Contrary to much popular religion these days, our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will not be found in escape from the body, but only as we are willing to let go, free-fall, and become fully incarnate in its warm presence.

When we can trust ourselves again, we will be able to trust each other, and the world will be redeemed.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.

 

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Where is God?

As an advocate of post-theism I stand in an interesting space, with suspicious theists on one side and suspicious atheists on the other. As they debate the literal existence of god, I want to know what god means – not what did god mean by this commandment or that Bible story, but what the mental construct of god means.

Because theists and atheists don’t typically give this question the attention it deserves but assume they are both talking about the same thing, any hope of a resolution must be abandoned.

Theists hear the “post” in post-theism as just a clever disguise for atheism, while atheists hear “theism” and conclude that I’m playing a word trick in order to lure them into an intellectually and ethically untenable position.

As I open our topic for meditation, let me once again clarify what post-theism means, which will also serve as a starting definition of what god means.

“Post” refers to what follows or comes after something, as in “post-war times” or “post-democratic age.” It doesn’t mean that the thing on the far side of the hyphen (war, democracy) didn’t happen or no longer matters. Indeed, its reality or validity is accepted, along with a recognition that it had a place and served a role in what followed. But what followed is after, even if the influence of that earlier thing has been incorporated and transcended in the new form.

Post-theism doesn’t give any time to arguing for or against the existence of god, but rather inquires into what’s after god. How is god being incorporated and transcended in religion today?

So what does god mean? We get closer to our answer by noting the significant roles that god plays in theism. First of all, god is a personification of the creative and provident intelligence evident in the universe. Notice that we’re not saying that god is evident, but that the universe presents us with evidence of causality, intention, maybe even purpose, which we personify in our construct of god.

A second thing to note about god is his* personal development over time, as depicted in the chronological sequence of myths featuring him. God’s character grows increasingly more refined and universally appealing in the general narrative. Early stories of god represent him as jealous of competition (i.e., the gods of neighboring tribes and nations), vengeful toward his enemies (which invariably are also the enemies of his tribe), and nitpickingly scrupulous when it comes to the moral and ritual behavior of his devotees.

As the centuries roll on, however, and importantly as his biographers are confronted with a wider diversity of human needs, beliefs, and ways of life, god grows into the higher virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, and, with particular clarity in the storytelling of Jesus, preemptive and unconditional forgiveness.

As I’ve already slipped it in, I should just make explicit the causal link between a construct of god and the growing self-understanding and world awareness of his human authors. In theism this relationship isn’t merely unilateral, with god as the personified projection of human ethical progress through time. It goes the other way as well, with the narrative ideal of god’s character evoking the worship and aspirations of his people.

In glorifying god as compassionate and forgiving, these same ethical virtues are exalted by the people as worthy of pursuit in their daily lives.

When theism is healthy, this combination of a deep faith in the provident mystery of reality, along with the progress of believers in their efforts to internalize and express what had earlier been projected and glorified in the character of their god, leads very naturally to its threshold with post-theism.

When god has fulfilled his role as the existential ground of faith and the transcendent attractor of human ethical progress, one question remains: What comes after god?

Once again, this will feel a little irreverent, possibly sacrilegious, and even blatantly heretical to some on the inside of theism, who see the threshold as leading away from god and into abject atheism – or worse.

As with many progression thresholds where we cross from one paradigm, mindset, or perspective on life into something profoundly different, we can feel as if we’re being asked to renounce all that we have believed to this point. Seemingly now we need to say “No” to god, “No!” to his religion, and “No!!” to those who claim to speak on his behalf.

But remember, post-theism isn’t about saying “No” to any of that, or trying to argue it off the stage. It’s about asking, “Now what? What’s next? How can we continue our spiritual journey after the veil of mythology has come down?” In some ways, this is the question of our time.

This whole evolutionary shift forward would be much less traumatic if theism could self-consciously facilitate the spiritual growth and faith development of its members – across the full arc and through all the seasons of a modern human lifespan.

Imagine what it would be like if resident post-theists, preferably in positions of teaching and leadership, helped young or new believers step into the sacred story-world where they take on new identities as god’s beloved children. As the curriculum progresses, they would be encouraged increasingly to take responsibility for their behavior and even for their beliefs.

This would involve equipping them with the critical tools and intellectual freedom to dig into what they had so far only accepted as true. At some point someone would sit them down and say, “Look, we are playing a very elaborate game here. It’s called ‘Where is god?’

“What you’ve been given so far are not final answers, but our best questions. You’ll be expected to come up with some of your own. Think of them as maps for your quest.

“The really important thing to keep in mind is this: None of us knows what god is, so you’ll have to look everywhere.

“Search outside this sanctuary. Explore the woodlands, oceans, and deserts of Earth. Contemplate the galaxies overhead and the ground under your feet. Scout about in foreign lands and forsaken urban alleyways. Look high and low, both near and far.

“Don’t forget to look inside your neighbor, the stranger on the street, and even in your worst enemy – for god loves to hide where you least expect to find him!

“Finally, don’t forget to look inside yourself; for if god isn’t there, it’s not likely you’ll find her anywhere else.”


* We’ll stick with the preferred pronoun of biblical theism … for now.
 

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