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Soulful Religion

A very long time ago, way back in the dim prehistory of human cultural evolution, “primal religion” functioned to keep our run-away brain connected to the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. At that point, the tribe was still a human group organized around the necessities of sex, territory and nutritional resources. These cycles and rhythms represented the pulse of life that no primitive society could afford to fall out of sync with. Woman, more grounded and in touch with natural cycles than her male counterpart, was a figure of wonder and reverence. She was regarded a nature being, an embodiment of the generative force beneath all things.

The man, while still dependent on the cycles of need and provision, activity and rest, harvest and the hunt, was the more aggressive proponent of technological advances (invention of tools) and mastering the environment. His talent was in his powers of detachment, abstraction and control – mental progress that increasingly removed him from the wisdom of nature, woman, and his own body. This is the stage in history – no longer in the circular turns of natural time but now on the abstracted “time line” of identity and conquest – when ego became the new obsession. Not embodiment but role-play, not natural wisdom but technical reason, not cooperation but competition, no longer participation in a larger providential order but finding the way out.

What has been called “conventional religion” is where this ambition of world-escape is the prominent feature. The patron deity dwells beyond this world and condescends to the worship of the devoted in elaborate and expensive buildings, according to liturgies and traditions managed by (mostly male) custodians. Our god is great – exalted, majestic, and worthy of praise. We worship him and give him what he deserves, because one day we expect him to give us what we deserve for all our sacrifice, moral obedience, and unshaken conviction. One day we will live forever in heaven, without the drag of our bodies, singing hymns on golden streets in the perfect everlasting city.

In this post-conventional age, if it’s meaningful to talk of “soul” at all, it can no longer be as a synonym for ego. While ego is the “I” of personal identity, shaped by and reflecting the social influence of my tribe, soul is that in me which is more than “me,” that seeks a higher wholeness, fulfillment and well-being. Whereas conventional religion sanctifies the split of “I” from “it” (the body) in an afterlife envisioned as an unending celebration of disembodied egos, a religion of the soul will consecrate this quest for wholeness, communion and real presence.

Soul doesn’t look to the future for salvation. In fact, this fixation on and desperate hope for a future way out is now precisely the “problem” that soulful religion must find a way to resolve. As long as we persist in the male initiative to detach from, dominate, and finally escape the realm of nature, woman, and the body, our situation on this planet will continue to deteriorate. Unfortunately, as the conditions for life on Earth are compromised and degraded by human activity, the temptation for escape becomes all the stronger. The resurgence in conventional religion in what we know as fundamentalism can be understood as the urgency many feel to get back to the truth, take control, and secure our escape out of this doomed situation.

If soul awakening is the inevitable course of human evolution, then we should expect resistance from the ego, its tribe, and this escapist ideology. I’m reminded of the challenge in therapy, in helping a client get “incarnated” again, to come back to a body presently racked with symptoms from a lifetime of unhealthy habits, physical self-abuse, and an underlying body shame. Who wants to go back to that? What purpose could there possibly be in going into the pain, rather than medicating or distracting ourselves away from it? Our impulse is to run from “Lucifer” – a name for the devil that everybody’s looking out for these days, whose name means “light bearer” – instead of facing him and taking back our light.

The good news is that soul awakening is our evolutionary intention as a species. Just as an apple tree “apples” – as Alan Watts would often say – a human being develops according to an intrinsic ideal that attracts and guides this development towards maturity and fulfillment. With its fantasy of detachment, control and everlasting life somewhere else, ego not only makes coming back to the body unappealing, but it also stands in the way of what might be called true salvation. From the root-meaning “to heal and make whole,” salvation involves a return to this present moment, to the place where you are, to this body you are, to the earth that is our home.

This is the division in our being that must be healed – before it is too late. Soulful religion is carried out on the basis of some very simple practices, like breathing, calming down, getting grounded and expanding your awareness beyond the neurotic cluster of self-interest. A very long time ago we did these things naturally, instinctively, and for the most part unconsciously. During the “age of ego” and the escapist methodologies of conventional culture and religion, we gradually forgot how to breathe and be fully present, as we lost touch with the living wonder of our body. Now some of us are relearning how to do these things. Or if that sounds too much like the ego taking control and setting out to achieve a goal, then we are learning how to release ourselves to the natural wisdom of human be-ing.

Soulful religion doesn’t look to the future for salvation, and neither does it put faith in the truth of doctrines. The wholeness we seek at the level of soul – and the mystery that opens to us from this standpoint in reality – is not about being right or belonging to the right church. Soul understands that all our efforts at being right have divorced us from what is left, which is everything else. The real path of salvation will bring together left and right, woman and man, body and ego, them and us, for the sake of the Greater Whole.

This is where the responsibility of being human takes on new urgency.

 

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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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