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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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Mental Bypass in Religion

Intuition_Understanding_ConvictionHow did something with its origins in a mystical intuition of reality’s essential oneness become such a violent force of division in the world? If religion began as a system of symbols, rites, and sacred stories with the purpose of linking the business of daily life back to the grounding mystery of being, where did it start to lose its way and become a program of separation, deliverance, and escape from this world?

Or to make it more personal, what makes an individual who believes in ‘the god of Jesus Christ’ or in Jesus as ‘my personal Lord and Savior’ act in such ways as to utterly contradict the core teachings of Jesus himself?

That last question is probably the easiest to answer. A misalignment of Christian behavior with the teachings of Jesus most likely has to do with a difference in consciousness between Jesus and the professing (but hypocritical) follower. It’s not simply a matter of imitating the actions of Jesus or parroting his words; his words and actions manifested a certain degree of enlightenment, empathy, and courage. That’s where the difference lies. It’s not that he was god and we aren’t, or that he was perfect and none of us can be.

Very simply put, Jesus was spiritually grounded and lived his life by the mystical intuition that All is One. To phrase it with more of an ethical focus: We’re all (in) this together.

And probably most of his professing followers aren’t, and don’t.

It may have been this depth of grounding and spiritual clarity that eventually got misconstrued into the metaphysical doctrines of his heavenly origins and divine nature. At any rate, the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy went in an entirely different direction. He became a virgin-born world savior, supreme object of worship, patron of generals and kings, and the one who will eventually come again to judge the quick and the dead. This is the Jesus in whose name Christians have destroyed indigenous cultures, waged war on unbelievers, drowned witches, burned heretics, and condemned homosexuals.

An entirely different direction.

Much of religion today has become identified with emotional convictions of one kind or another. This is the type of belief sponsored by orthodoxy. It’s not about articulating a profound mystical intuition into an intellectual understanding where its relevance to life in the world can be worked out. Instead it is locked inside very specific turns of phrase, tied to proof texts, cross-referenced, embedded in confessions and creeds and recited together with the standing congregation. Its lack of relevant (real-life) meaning is compensated by a fervent passion that ‘it must be so’, since a Christian’s present identity and post-mortem salvation depend on it.

A returning reader will be familiar with my low regard for conviction, as the point where a belief once held by the mind turns the table and becomes its prison. What initially may have served to frame a perspective on something eventually closes down to just ‘this way’ of seeing it. Nothing outside the frame is validated, no alternatives can be considered, no other answers to the question or solutions to the problem. Creative thinking comes to an end. When it happens in religion, wild metaphors that may have once carried an experience of mystery across the threshold into meaning now lay dead in their cages. At this point, without a lifeline remaining to its own spiritual depths, thought becomes rigid, dogmatic, and heartless.

Emotional conviction is perhaps the chief symptom of religion’s collapse. This is not to say that Jesus himself, for example, didn’t carry a great deal of passion into his teaching and way of life. Indeed, his ethical precept of ‘love your enemy’ – which is how he translated the mystical intuition of oneness into a social revolution – generates a mixture of inspiration and anxiety in any reasonable person just contemplating it.

The point is that his passion, and his passionate action, came out of an intellectual understanding of the spiritual basis and strategic purpose of unconditional forgiveness.

We can imagine two of Jesus’ disciples, soon-to-be founders of two distinct traditions of Christianity, holding a conversation after he is gone. “We must love our enemies because Jesus told us to, and we need to stay with his program,” one says to the other. “Although, we might need to qualify what he probably meant by ‘enemy’, since there are some people in this world that are simply impossible to love and frankly don’t deserve it.”

“You’re missing the point,” says the second disciple. “Jesus could love his enemy because he understood that our separation from others is a lie we impose on reality, when in truth we are all one. Forgiveness and love follow rather spontaneously upon the realization that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. We don’t do it because Jesus told us to, but because we are all in this together.”

Whereupon the first disciple proceeded home to begin the work of orthodoxy, and the second carried on with the work of converting truth into love.

 

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The View from Down Under

De Mello: “The trouble with people is that they’re busy fixing things they don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.”

“Problems” motivate our efforts to fix them. A problem means that something is wrong – at least in our everyday way of speaking. A math problem, interestingly enough, is not broken but waits to be solved or figured out. If you come out with the wrong answer, then you’ve got a real problem.

My favorite one-word synonym for reality is mystery – as in the present mystery of reality, or the real presence of mystery. This mystery is the deeper ground beneath/within us, as well as the greater whole around/beyond us. At the personal level this mystery turns up as you and me, doing our best to figure things out.

All of this could inspire contemplation and wonder, but what we seem to bump up against most often are problems. Whereas reality is a vibrant web of causes and conditions, effects and forces that seems to go “down” and “out” to infinity, our personal worlds are simple by comparison. Even though we want to believe – or do we have a need to believe? – that the mystery of our own lives is a problem to solve or perhaps even “fix,” chances are good that many of our problems are self-created. To paraphrase Nietzsche: If all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.

De Mello invites us to consider a different way of approaching reality – not with our tools but with intelligence. Specifically with a contemplative intelligence, one that takes in the Big Picture, sinks through appearances, and ponders the mystery in its depths. There will always be time to “figure it out” or “fix it up” the way you want it – or maybe there won’t, who knows?

But if we’re busy constantly trying to fix what we think is wrong or broken, the genuine mystery of being alive in this moment and somehow connected to all things passes by our blinders. The deeper ground and greater whole become invisible to us. Can we reach the point where they eventually become inaccessible to us as well – so tangled in problems that we lose our sensitivity to the mystery?

Our worlds have problems, but reality is a mystery. It’s when a natural force like a tornado comes into our world and upsets the arrangement, leaving damage and injury in its wake, that it becomes a problem. From a distance the weather phenomenon is fascinating and awesome. Just don’t come too close to me and mine.

Relationships have conflicts, and if these conflicts go on too long, we might say they’re broken and need fixing. I suppose it’s possible that many of my chronic troubles with others have to do with deeper or larger patterns that I don’t understand. It’s easier to point the finger of blame – at the other, of course. What if relational conflicts are really (that is, in reality) places where we come together at our differences, but just don’t understand the higher Tao that’s playing your Yin against my Yang?

As a constructivist, I appreciate the way in which our worlds provide the security, identity, significance and purpose we need to make life meaningful. Also as a constructivist, I accept these as “positive illusions” – things we need in order to keep our sanity and express our creative nature as a species.

We make it up, find problems in what we make, and spend our time and energy fixing the problems. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

What would happen if we took a more contemplative approach to our lives? Spending less time reacting to the problems we create – which only tends to generate more problems – and more time understanding our own creativity and its roots in reality, could make a real difference.

Understanding something doesn’t necessarily mean that we can explain it. The two metaphors are intriguing: explanation refers to “folding out” or opening up what is hidden in the deeper layers, while understanding involves “standing under” something and seeing it from the opposite angle of ordinary perception. The undersides of many things can be rather shocking.

Explanation is a kind of diagnosis, a necessary step toward fixing what’s wrong or broken. Moreover, it’s analytical, surgical and reductionistic in the way it spreads out the innards of something for closer examination. Once the frog is fully dissected, of course, all you have is frog parts. The living mystery is not just the parts in working order and functioning properly. It’s something more, something else, which vanished when Kermit went kaput.

This is not to say that explanation has no place in our quest for knowledge. Western science and philosophy have built up quite a library over the centuries – picking reality apart, cutting it up, breaking it down, charting its innards. We have come to know a lot about the composition of things, how they can be re-engineered, genetically modified, and synthetically replicated to do more for us.

But what if the real problem is our present discontent, our greed for more, a chronic frustration that fuels unrealistic expectations and set us up for disappointment? The deeper the disappointment, the harder we poke. The harder we poke, the more inflamed things become. Smaller problems multiply from the Big Problem.

Perhaps we need to get a different perspective on things. Before we start pulling them apart to fix them, let’s try to understand what’s really going on.

 

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