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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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The Leaders We Need Now

Every age and generation has a need for capable leaders, for those who are able to see a bigger picture, understand what’s happening, and help the rest of us through the doors of necessary change. A leader is not always the one up front, with the loudest voice and getting all the attention. A true leader might not even be the one who was elected.

Go figure.

When I think about the kind of leaders we need today, three critical principles of leadership come to mind. Each principle corresponds to a dimension of our existence as human beings: (1) as individuals who (2) interact with others in (3) systems of various kinds and complexity. Not only effective leaders, but proficient human beings – that is to say, those who are skilled in the art and wisdom of being human – must learn how to manage and nurture the consilient unity of these three dimensions.

When we don’t (can’t or won’t) hold them in balance, we quickly succumb to frustration, disorientation, foolishness, and crazy-making dumbfuckery.

In this post I’ll lay out three critical principles of leadership that we sorely need today. Each principle is the sun-center to an orbiting set of values, which will only be mentioned but not explored in much detail here. I don’t believe there is a fixed number to each set of values, and we should allow for the way these principles get interpreted and play out in any given context. The principles themselves, however, are universally valid, and I would argue that no culture can flourish long or well without holding them as sacred commitments.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: We are all part of a turning mega-system of existence called the Universe. This universal system can be analyzed into smaller and deeper star systems, solar systems, and planetary ecosystems; into regional cultural systems, more local social systems, and family systems; into individual organisms and the internal subsystems that conspire in keeping them alive; and deeper still into the molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems of matter and energy.

As far as we know, nothing exists except as and within systems.

Stewardship

The principle that orients a set of values applying specifically to living as and in systems is stewardship. In the conventional sense, a steward has the responsibility of managing and caring for the resources of a household, which is a family system where several individuals live together in community. Stewards aren’t owners, and what they look after is not their personal property. Instead, we might say that a steward and everything he or she looks after belongs to the household.

As a kind of manager, a steward helps to sustain a healthy household economy and promote harmonious community among its inhabitants. This web of resources, interactions, and shared experience is a more local instance of what we commonly name the Web of Life – still another term for the Universe considered from the vantage of living things. To view human beings through the lens of stewardship – as many religious traditions have long done – is to regard them not as owners or externally positioned “masters of the universe,” but as members of this one magnificent household of life.

With our evolutionary grant of self-awareness and creative freedom, humans possess a unique ability in contemplating our place and role within, as well as our special responsibility to, our planetary home. As many myths suggest, coming into this responsibility as stewards follows a certain path – the archetypal Hero’s Journey – of separating from our source, establishing an individual center of identity (ego), and then releasing this hard-won identity for a deeper and larger experience of oneness.

Empathy

Whether leaders and the rest of us can lead and live by the principle of stewardship is dependent on the quality of connection we enjoy with others. If individuals have difficulty identifying themselves as partners in a system (the relationship itself), the cause is often rooted in a lack of empathy. When we cannot connect in deep and meaningful ways, the higher systems of our life together go unseen.

The best way I know of properly defining empathy is by comparing it to its sound-alike: sympathy. Literally ‘sympathy’ means “to suffer with” (or alongside) another, to be affected by their pain or misfortune. The different prefix “em” (or en) denotes a critical shift in position, from alongside to within. In other words, the individual transcends his or her separate identity – this time not outward to the larger system encompassing them both, but inward to a place of essential oneness prior to their differentiation as individuals.

By virtue of their identical natures as living, sentient, and self-conscious human beings, individuals are capable of an empathetic connection.

Our first experience of empathy was when we lived literally inside our mother and our developing nature drew its life from hers. Once we were born and officially began our own Hero’s Journey, the formation of a separate identity slowly (but at times dramatically: think of adolescence) pushed our self-center out and away from the source.

Even though we continued to carry within ourselves those deeper registers of sentient life, and with them at least the capacity for empathetic connection, the degree in which our ego formation got hooked into neurotic hangups made much of this natural capacity unavailable.

The leaders we need today are individuals who are grounded, centered, and open empathically to the experience of others. They are the ones who truly understand that we’re all in this together.

Integrity

This brings us to my third principle of leadership, which actually comes first in the evolutionary sequence and serves as the basis of human proficiency in a general sense. Integrity refers to a state whereby two or more elements hold together as one. In this case, psychosomatic integrity speaks to a unity of mind and body – or more accurately of soul and body, where ‘soul’ names our deep inner life rather than an immortal entity (the so-called true self or “real me”) residing in the body.

The integral balance of soul/mind and body is a growing fascination in psychology, which is coming to regard this balance as a key to understanding a large number of disorders, illnesses, and troubles afflicting our species. When early life experiences get us hooked into neurotic patterns of insecurity and defensiveness, mistrust and self-doubt, suspicion and resentment, our restless mind doesn’t let our body calm down and recover. Instead, our animal nature loses its resilience, succumbs to the stress, and even starts to attack itself.

The leaders we need today are individuals who successfully manage their psychosomatic integrity, who express strong interpersonal empathy with others, and who live in stewardship of the systems on which our lives, health, community, and human future depend.

When given the opportunity, let’s try to elect more of them.

 

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A Method of Dialogue, Step One: Preparation

A method is not like a machine, where once you get it going you can step back and leave it alone. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a method of dialogue and community formation. To step back from dialogue is to abort the process and abandon community.

Furthermore, dialogue and community simply do not happen where individuals are not invested in the work.

That’s why PREPARATION is the first step or phase in the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue that we’re exploring in this five-part series of blog posts (Introduction + each of the four steps). If individuals and would-be partners in dialogue mistakenly think that they are stepping into some kind of automatic machine for making community and cranking out creative resolutions, the process doesn’t stand a chance.

The higher consciousness represented in the spiritual phenomenon of community does not (and cannot) exist separate from the individuals whose creative intentions combine and fuse in its consilient effect.

Neither is PREPARATION for dialogue a simple routine that we do as a way of getting ready for the really important stuff. As an organic process, community awakens and unfolds out of the deeper presence that partners bring to the encounter. And although I am analyzing my method of dialogue into four steps, we shouldn’t think of these as stacking blocks or even as stepping stones where we leave one for the next in line.

It’s preferable to regard them as phases, as in the developmental transformations from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Just as the butterfly doesn’t stack on top of these earlier manifestations or leave them behind, but rather incorporates and emerges out of them, our individual PREPARATION for dialogue is the interior source out of which community grows. No egg, no butterfly. No intentional presence of individual partners, no dialogue and no genuine community.

What I’m calling intentional presence can be further analyzed into three virtues, by which I don’t mean moral qualities but actuated powers, as when we speak of the potency of medicine as its virtue. In the case of our intentional presence as individuals, the virtues in our intention to be fully present can be differentiated in terms of our being grounded in existence, centered in ourselves, and open to reality.

When we are grounded, centered, and open, we are becoming more fully present.

It’s important to understand that these virtues of intentional presence are not the result of effort, as if we must work to become grounded in being, centered in ourselves, and open to reality. The truth is that we are already these, but our mind gets distracted or lured away from this truth, tangled up and captivated inside its own designs.

Each form of existence is grounded in being; if not, it wouldn’t be. Each individual is centered in itself; if not, it wouldn’t be one. And it’s also true that we are always open to reality – to the turning cosmos (or ‘universe’) and vibrant web of life; if not, we would instantly perish.

So we require some sort of practice – a technique, a ritual, a simple meditative exercise – that can help refocus our conscious attention on this place and this moment, commonly called the here-and-now. There is no single and set way of doing this, but the counsel from our numerous wisdom traditions is pretty straightforward: Be still. Be quiet. Close your eyes and just breathe. Let yourself simply relax into being.

If a focal object in front of you helps orient your attention; if soothing music and soft light help you calm down; if counting your breath occupies your mind and keeps it from wandering away, then include these supports as needed.

The purpose of such a practice is to allow all your insecurities, all your concerns, all your judgments, and all your expectations to just fall away. What’s left is boundless presence: grounded in being, centered right where you are, and open to it all.

As we should expect, such practices of intentional presence take on the character of our local cultures and traditions. And because historically it has been the enterprise responsible for mediating our minds to the present mystery of reality, we should neither be surprised nor offended if such practices still carry some of the formal features of religion.

It is possible to ‘liberate’ intentional presence from these traditional accouterments, however; which is what we must do if our aspiration is to engage dialogue and create community across cultures in this increasingly secular and global age.

Individual PREPARATION ensures – or more accurately, makes it more likely – that the productive dialogue and consilient effect of genuine community can arise. When partners take the time to be fully present (grounded, centered, and open), the dialogical phase of consideration can begin. We’ll explore that next.

 

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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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Spirituality Basics 1: The Human Condition

One complaint that can legitimately be leveled against religion is over its tendency to complicate something which is really quite simple. An overlay of codes, rules, values, and beliefs quickly obscures the shining truth at its core. Tragically this accumulation of secondary material can become a religion’s primary concern, where it gets so caught up in its process that it loses sight of its purpose.

How many religions promote themselves as “the only way” when all they end up doing is getting in the way of our genuine liberation and wellbeing?

In this post and the next two I will clarify what I understand to be the basics of spirituality, without the overlays and parochial jargon. My experience and observations bear out that when a religion keeps these basics in view, all that secondary material can serve well to further interpret, amplify, situate, and apply them in a most relevant way. The basics alone are probably insufficient in themselves to provide the kind of practical support and guidance that religion can. But again, without this core in view, a religion turns into a source of spiritual injury, discouragement, and confusion.

The place to begin is always where we are, and the spiritual quest must start by taking into account our human condition.

In the very word religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) is a critical clue as to what this condition entails, which might be diagnostically summarized as isolation, alienation, estrangement, or simply separation. The Greek hamartia (off target) and Pali dukka (out of joint), central metaphors of the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively, both use the idea of suffering as the result of losing our center, struggling for balance, and lacking in functional wholeness.

This off-centered condition skews our perspective on reality and compels us to cling to whatever can provide some stability. But of course, such clinging to anything outside ourselves – what the Bible calls idolatry and Buddhism names attachment – only perpetuates and amplifies the fundamental problem, which is that we are still not centered within ourselves. Our condition only worsens the harder we try to fix it.

This desperate anxiety – a potent amalgam of craving and fear – splits our motivation between the desired object (craving) and the possibility of not getting the fix we need (fear).

These dual motives of craving and fear work against each other, as when the fear of failure distracts our focus and interferes with the achievement of our goal. The prefix ambi- in the word ambition identifies this opposition of two competing motives in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. Personal ambition, then, refers to the bipolar motivation that oscillates between craving and fear, excited for success but anxious over failure, never fully satisfied because the supposed solution is irrelevant to the real problem.

Rather than wising up to this internal contradiction, however, we invest ourselves in risk protection, giving up some of what we want now for the sake of having enough later. Or we inflate the value of the goal in our mind to justify and compensate for the anxiety that’s ripping up our insides and snapping the stem of life’s meaning.

So far, I have left unmentioned the actor in the middle of this fantastic mess – the “I” behind our cravings and fears, the one who is seeking an external resolution to an internal predicament. The word in Greek is ego, and so we use this term to designate our personal identity, the unique and separate person we regard ourselves as being. From the middle of this experience our identity seems very substantial – indeed (with Descartes) as more real than anything else.

Everything around us changes, but this center of self-consciousness is immutable, enduring, and by virtue of being separate from the body, maybe even immortal.

Despite this feeling of substantiality and permanence, our personal identity is actually a social construction, utterly insubstantial and in constant need of being reminded of who we are by telling ourselves stories. The longest running narrative might simply be called “the story of my life,” and its main plot anchors us in smaller stories about the past as it orients us in other stories about the future.

If we say that the past and the future are not real, we mean that they are not present, which is the only moment when anything can be real. The past is no longer and the future is not yet; both are dependent on the standpoint in time called Now.

“The story of my life” – or our personal myth, where mythos is Greek for the “plot” that provides continuity beneath and throughout the changing scenes of a story – is obviously not the unbroken record of every Now since we were born. Only certain events are included, just the ones that contributed major or minor threads to the narrative tapestry of our personal myth. And for those that are included, factual accuracy is less important than their thematic contribution to our overall sense of identity and meaning.

Interesting stories are about compelling characters, and the construction of identity has been a collective effort of weaving together a confabulated autobiography of “who I am.”

An essential and early part of this collective effort involved gaining some independence for the ego from the urgencies and instincts of the body. An urgency refers to an urge connected with a survival need, such as the urge to eat for the sake of nutrition, or the urge to breathe for the sake of taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

There is an immediacy about urgencies that makes them unnegotiable – or at least we can’t put them off for very long. If we should try to hold our breath too long, for instance, the autonomic urgency of breathing will take over, even if the conscious mind that is trying to pull off this stunt has to be put temporarily off-line so the rhythm can be resumed.

The body is possessed of many such urgencies working together in systems, rhythmically and reliably supporting its life as an organism. If an urgency is urgent action around a specific need of the body, then an instinct has to do with compulsive behavior of the body in pursuit of what will satisfy this need. Hunger is the urgency around our need for nutrition, but the coordinated behavior of the body in search of food is driven by instinct. Since instinct represents a higher level of coordination, there are far fewer instincts than urgencies in the body.

Because instincts are responsible for motivating us to behave outwardly, our tribe had a strong interest in shaping and directing our behavior in ways that would complement, or at least not conflict with, the norms of society.

As Freud discovered, the instincts of sex and aggression particularly pose a challenge to this project of managing social order. We needed to learn when and how it was proper to act on these instincts, and when it was necessary to restrain them. However, if the discipline of restraint on aggression was severe enough, or if our tribe coded sexuality with abuse, secrecy, and shame, the construction of our personal identity came at a cost of repressing these instincts – condemning them, denying them, pushing them behind us and into what Jung named our Shadow.

By this gradual but at times traumatic process of socialization, our ego was formed. The more severe the repression, the more pronounced was our separation from the body. If severe and pronounced enough, our sense of self might have completely dissociated from the body, turning it into an enemy of the “good boy” or “nice girl” our tribe demanded that we be. Or maybe we adopted an alter-ego, a split in our personality through which the irrepressible compulsions of the body could still be gratified.

It’s this need for separation that lies at the heart of our human condition. Once the body has been alienated – that is, pushed away as other – our project of personal identity has the one challenge left of breaking free entirely from the body’s mortal coil.

A denial of death thus becomes the driving impetus behind our ambition to gain deliverance and live forever. But let’s not forget about the intrinsic character of ambition, which is that it contains two contrary motives – a craving for something and a fear of not having it. The excessive preoccupation in some religions with the goal of everlasting life without the body inevitably carries within it a pathological denial of death.

My diagram above is meant to be read from left-to-right following the progression of development through the formation of personal identity (ego). Farthest left is the representation of our essential nature as animals (body) with a capacity for contemplation, creativity, self-transcendence, and genuine community (soul). We might be tempted to regard the imposition of ego consciousness and its delusion of separation as something regrettable, and maybe better eliminated.

But the paradox of spirituality is that self-transcendence (literally the expansion of awareness beyond the limits of personal identity) is not possible without a stable ego in place. We must first become somebody before we can get over ourselves.

It’s that question of ego stability that determines whether subsequent development goes in a healthy or pathological direction. We have already described one side of this pathology, in the repression of instinct and ego’s dissociation from the body. This is about the negotiation of our personal identity with respect to the natural inheritance of our animal body. On the other side of this divide is a less ancient but still very old cultural inheritance that carries instructions of its own, which we know as wisdom.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this cultural wisdom has much to say about our place in the universe, our connections and responsibilities inside the great Web of Life, the waking potential of the human spirit, and the aim of our existence.

Much of this wisdom is well known: How cultivating inner peace is key for making peace with others. How living for the wellbeing of the greater whole promotes health and happiness for oneself. How opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations. How letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise. How living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

These are all things we might consider obvious, as they are wisdom principles in the cultural atmosphere of our species and intuitively confirmed in our own quiet reflection.

But we don’t pay attention. Or else we print these wise sayings on wall posters and desktop calendars, but let them remain in perpetual contemplation rather than put them into action. This separation of who we are and how we live our lives from the cultural inheritance of wisdom is what I call ignórance – where the accent identifies a willful disregard rather than a mere naiveté or lack of knowing.

This, too, is a kind of denial; but instead of pushing something (i.e., instinct or mortality) behind us, we simply turn away and act as if that spiritual wisdom doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it is impractical, unrealistic, or intended for someone else. To be honest, we would have to admit that the fulfillment of our personal ambitions requires that we ignore what we deep down know to be true.

By separating ourselves thus from this historical bank of universal truths, we can continue with our pursuit – of what cannot make us happy, healthy, or whole. At least we can do it without guilt or needing to feel responsible for the consequences that fall out from our choices and actions.

There we have the basics of spirituality. Our essential nature as spiritual animals is abrupted by the imposition of a socially constructed personal identity, or ego, whose ambitions (e.g., for success, wealth, fame, supremacy, or immortality) are generated by some combination of repression and ignórance. The repression of animal instinct makes it possible for ego to achieve its delusion of escape and independence. But over time we must construct a number of defenses against the spiritual wisdom that would otherwise challenge our ambition and the stories we are telling ourselves.

When we finally “get it,” when we realize that our personal ambitions cannot be fulfilled and will not resolve our fundamental problem, which is the fact that these ambitions keep us off-center and perpetually discontent, an opportunity presents itself for our genuine liberation and wholeness.

We can at last get over ourselves and reconcile with our essential nature. The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Now our human adventure can find its true and higher path.

 

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These Three Remain

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

Each of us is on a human journey, but only a few will reach our destination. A sizable fraction will be cut short by accident, violence, malnutrition or disease – from causes the rest of us could do better at eradicating. The major percentage, however, don’t expire before their time but actually give up on themselves and settle for a life of mediocrity. Many of these, too, have suffered at the hands of others, though their injuries are not so much physical as spiritual.

How does one’s spirit suffer injury? Well, if we define spiritual intelligence as our awareness of being grounded in mystery, connected to others, and belonging to the universe, then any event which shatters this unity consciousness or undermines its development is a cause of spiritual injury.

The necessary formation of a separate center of personal identity – what we call the ego – already puts a strain on this sense of oneness, as occupying one’s own center implies a distinction between self and not-self (or other). And when you factor in the ignorance, insecurities, twisted convictions, and social irresponsibility of those in charge of supervising our ego formation, it’s no wonder that spiritual injury is so widespread.

Instead of first focusing on the problem, I prefer to piece together what an optimal outcome would look like, and then use that picture to see where things commonly fall out of alignment. What does it take to strengthen spiritual intelligence so as to develop and amplify unity consciousness, rather than merely accommodate our spiritual injuries or build pathological religions around them?

My diagram replays a familiar scheme from earlier posts: the arc of character tracks across our individual lifespan and between the two powerful force fields of nature and culture. I’ve made the point elsewhere that nature and nurture (another name for culture) are insufficient to explain our destiny as individuals. We must add to these a ‘third force’ of our personal choices, their consequences, and the habits of character that we form over time. These habits of belief, thought, preference, feeling, and behavior slowly but surely form deep ruts or automatic routines that hold us captive inside.

For each of us, character grows steadily stronger with time, and the more deep-set those ruts and routines become, the more unlikely and difficult it is to change.

When we are born (depicted in my diagram by a stroller) the force of nature is dominant in the urgencies, drives, inclinations, and reflexes which life has evolved in us. Immediately (following the rising arc) the force of culture exerts itself in the parenting, training, instruction, and role assignments that shape our animal psychology into a well-behaved member of the tribe. Eventually this force of culture loosens up somewhat (in the arc’s descent), allowing us to retire and settle into our elder years, until nature claims us again (depicted by a gravestone). The time between our birth and death, then, progresses through the tense intermediate region between nature and culture.

I’ve divided the arc of our lifespan into trimesters, and further identified each trimester with an essential theme, concern, or optimal realization we need to come to during that phase (if not before).

In the first trimester, when we are young, dependent, and especially vulnerable, we need to experience reality as provident. I don’t equate this notion of providence with a belief in god – although a deity’s capacity and virtue in providing for his or her devotees is certainly traceable as a metaphor to the early experience of being cared for by our taller powers. Here, providence refers to how the universe supports and provides for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-consciousness.

Our reciprocal capacity for relaxing into being and surrendering our existence in trust to a provident reality is known as faith – the first of “these three” that optimally remain throughout our life. The word is commonly used these days as a synonym for belief, as in those articles of doctrine that distinguish, say, Christian faith from the Jewish or Islamic faith traditions. Whereas this uses the term to make separations among different religions, its deeper (and original) meaning has to do with the inward act of releasing oneself to the present mystery of reality – a mystery which, indeed, the religions do represent differently in their own ways.

Faith itself, however, is the property of no individual religion but rather the source experience of all healthy and relevant ones.

As development in maturity continues to lift us higher into the force field of culture, our experience becomes increasingly context-determined by the values, beliefs, traditions, and worldview of our tribe. If we carry within us a deep openness to reality as provident (i.e., faith), then this second trimester guides us to the critical opportunities that invite and realize our potential. As my diagram illustrates, the threshold between providence and opportunity is where we discover what is possible.

Not everything is possible – despite what well-meaning parents tell their starry-eyed kids – but much more is possible than our assumptions (i.e., habits of thought and belief) allow us to notice or admit.

A perspective on reality that holds open a positive expectation for the future is what we call hope. Similar to how we needed to distinguish genuine faith from religious beliefs, it’s important not to confuse genuine hope with mere wishful thinking. The latter is characterized by an inability or unwillingness to accept what is and to wish that things could be different. Hope, on the other hand, begins with acceptance and looks forward to the future already emerging in the present. Whereas wishful thinking tends to break away from reality, hope stays with it – even when it’s uncertain or painful – and seeks to join the creative transformation currently underway.

Over time, the open question of what is possible gathers focus as attention to what truly matters. It typically takes decades of trial and error, sampling reality and testing our opinions regarding its deeper value. Things matter no so much (anymore) on the scale of how they make us feel or help us get what we want, but rather (increasingly) for the connection they provide to the unbroken wholeness of all things.

Our conceptual name for this unbroken wholeness is ‘universe’, literally the turning unity of existence; experientially we name it communion, the intuitive awareness of being together as one.

What really matters, then, is what confirms, repairs, or reconciles us to the hidden wholeness of being. As we are brought back into conscious union with the present mystery of reality, we ourselves become whole and our lives become more harmonious. The delusion of separateness, which had attended and to some extent supported the formation of our personal identity, dissolves in the light of our realization that we aren’t – and never really were – separate from it all. Such a realization can be summed up in the fresh discovery that We’re all in this together.

How are we to live in view of this universal truth of communion? Not for ourselves alone, or in the interest of our tribe alone, but for the wellbeing of the whole – the whole human community, the whole web of life, for the planet and our shared future, for those yet unborn. The principle we’re talking about is, of course, love. Not mere affection or ‘just a feeling’. Not a preferential regard for insiders only, but the creative outflow of goodwill, generosity, and lovingkindness – uncalculated and unrestrained, given out of the infinite capacity of the One Life that we all together are.

In his letter to the church in Greek Corinth, the apostle Paul penned what would become arguably the greatest Ode to Love ever written. After contemplating the mystery of faith and clarifying the focus of Christian hope, he confessed that without their fulfillment in a love that is both active and boundless, nothing else ultimately matters.

Without love, we are on our own.

 

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