Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions

Hierarchy and the Spiritual Quest

The individual has been freed. It happened long enough ago that we can now see the negative side of its extreme: the narcissist. And his narcissistic society. If the self-introspection and reversal of values of the Modernist movement gave greater rise to the individual and the individual’s importance beyond a mere cog in the wheel of the nationalist machine, that freedom has now created a kind of free individual which borders on dangerous.

No one doubts the importance or even health of self-expression, but what is left that this freed individual can submit themselves to? The paradox in society becomes honoring the individual whilst providing the context in which these individuals can contribute to the all. And I’m not here to try and hammer everyone back to some imagined, “better” time in the past, which if we would all just become militantly conservative, we might once more realize. No, the past is past, and bygones should remain bygones. I’ve experienced too much guilt myself from my education and cognitive and socio-economic status/perspective to even attempt to insist that the rest of those who’ve been immersed in the “post-modern” world throw all that away and start interpreting things like those who can function in a church community.

For while I completely respect the viewpoints and values of the devout Islamist, or for that matter, the devout Christian in America, there is a context and perspective that the rest of the world lives in that—dare I even say it—has progressed beyond that old worldview. And while that old worldview provides a living expression of the Timeless one can connect to, giving sufficient context in which the “freed individual” might submit to (God, or at least, “The Church”), I daresay that the technological and political and economic situation of our current world have made it very difficult to straddle the two contexts, no matter how much we may strive to “be in the world but not of it”.

But the problem, as some have labeled it, of the free individual and his or her freedom of every institution and authority—even the state must represent its freedoms and interests—is a sort of self-serving creature that knows no authority outside of itself. The very notion of authority outside of oneself is, in a very secular context, sacrilegious.

And hierarchyWhy, that’s an even more demonized word than authority. Hierarchy?

“Whether we are aware of it or not, levels of authority everywhere govern the course of our lives. Bosses oversee our places of work, guardians of the law enforce civil order, red lights and green regulate the public bustle of lives in our streets. Within us, mysterious stops and starts curb and give rein to jostling mitochondria and avid enzymes in the spaces of our cells.”

As much as the freed, post-modern individual might cringe, hierarchy is a fact of life—politically, socially, and yes, naturally. Luckily, I have an old magazine from 1985 that explores the issue of hierarchy in a spiritual context. Because I don’t think it even gets brought up in the spiritual discussions of our time. For, as they even perceived in 1985, “we live in an egalitarian moment in which it is considered that everyone is equal and everyone is free, and the idea of hierarchy is perceived as an arbitrary imposition on the freedom of man.”

ImageThe magazine interviews a scientists, writer, social critic, and Jewish rabbi for his take on things. The man’s thinking is inspiring, and has been fueling my imagination and perception since I was lucky enough to stumble upon the article. According to Adin Steinsaltz, the reverse of the egalitarian movement and idea is true: if you look anywhere in the physical world, you’ll see that hierarchy is what keeps the whole thing running. “Egalitarian ideas are not supported by any evidence.” Interestingly enough, the rabbi points towards the idea of a soul as the bedrock of all Judea-Christian ideas of egalitarianism: “We can speak—in a way—of the equality of souls mostly because we can’t see them!…All forces everywhere, within and without, work against equality.”

Of course, if everything has a hierarchy–including inner processes—well, than that means inner processes have a hierarchy. According to the good rabbi, “There are many discussions in Jewish mystical tradition about interrelationships between mind, or intellect, and emotion. In our view, in the hierarchy of the soul emotions are below mind, because mind gives meaning and direction to emotion.” There is more interesting discussion detailing exactly what that internal (and invisible) “hierarchy of the soul” (though we may only consider it in psychological terms) might look like. Adin Steinsaltz betrays his already ample consideration on the matter, insisting that a sense of values comes “hierarchically above, conscious mind. We believe there are powers within every framework that give direction…on one level my mind is made up about whether it wants to be for or against something. Then it creates the network and the building blocks for my basic attitude. Later, some kind of appropriate emotion arises.”

Image Using oneself as the measure of truth, it’s interesting to introspect on some sort of ranking order of thought processes that, hierarchically-automated, run through information and even channels the emotional energy (into the very emotions themselves) that some information comes charged with. Furthermore, I think this aspect is fascinating to consider from a recovery standpoint—what basically happens in the course of the 12-steps or the “spiritual awakening” is a foundational rebuilding in the hierarchy—the very core, system-of values that regulates and over-rides the complex regulation of thought and decision is transplanted with a “recovery-based” one. I can notice the emotional restrictions in myself when new information may conflict with my system-of-values. For instance, if I read a science article that disregards the psychological ritual in a primitive man, only considering how ignorant said primitive is only in relation to the modern worldview, I automatically reject the “scientific” view because it has not met my system-of-values, which considers the spiritual framework which informs a worldview as more critical than an accurate system of measurements.

But think about the pre-recovery process—my mind had already been made up about one basic premise: my pleasure was not to be compromised. I never considered the fact that drinking or drug use was really wrong, and any sort of viewpoint that considered it contrary was immediately cast aside.

Going back to the internal, hierarchical system in general: “Because emotion is secondary, in order to develop it needs something to build upon.” That means there needs to be some reference point in which the emotion can be directed against—that system of values that Rabbi Steinsaltz already mentioned as being “above” the secondary emotions. “If I don’t have any picture of whatever it is, I cannot have any emotion—love or hatred…or even reverence.” Again, for their to be a strong feeling of anger, I have to already have an existing framework or ‘system-of-values’ for that anger to rub up against. Which becomes particularly interesting (spiritually speaking) when considering the ’emotion’ of reverence:

“Even if I think that something is far beyond me, I need to know the gap in order to have the feeling of reverence and awe…Newton supposedly said that he felt like a small child playing with pebbles on the shore of the sea of knowledge—to feel that really and truly, you have to know as much as Newton did.”

Image Steinsaltz goes on to pontificate the rest of the “soul’s hierarchy” according to Jewish mystical tradition. The model is also interesting, and goes as follows: system of values—conceptual life—-emotional life. But even before a system of values comes the bit mysteriously defined ‘nature of proof’, “possibly the highest hierarchy in the conscious mind”. As perhaps expected from a rabbi or religious person, Steinsaltz points to something beyond pure reason in the order of inner hierarchy.

Which once more becomes interesting when considered from the recovery example. Basically, in the recovery process, one is asked not only to submit to a new hierarchy (at this point it just might be the 12 steps in general) besides one’s own ego-self, one is basically asked to acknowledge the presence of something beyond pure reason. But, as the submission to a new hierarchy requires, this demands a level of willingness sometimes only the desperate possess. It is this “leap of faith” into a level of hierarchy one step beyond “pure reason” that is (at best) difficult and (at worst) sometimes impossible for the purely rational man to take. Once one has taken that leap, though, the new ‘spiritual perspective’ with all its new, ranking system-of-values is finally perceived. But, as early recovery attests, that step into that new hierarchy is terrifying, awkward, and unknown. More on that later…

Far from being against the spiritual search, where one might be tempted to see all beings as Equal and parts of the One (everything is interrelated, remember?), hierarchy is actually essential for the spiritual search, or “a movement upwards of the sense of values…In the abstract, when there is no interrelation, movement or size doesn’t make any sense. Without a scale, there is no movement; to advance or retreat depends on having a direction—a beginning and an end.”

Precisely regarding this beginning and this end, we can begin to see the traces of a Judea-Christian conception of an eternity with fixed points. Following this line of thought towards a universe with an advance and a retreat, Steinsaltz elaborates an exalted picture of the Jewish (in particular) conception of the religious quest:

“Given the creation by God of a complete universe, it is a basic assumption that everything is interconnected. One can see something like that by looking at drops of water; one sees reflections, smaller ones and bigger ones, like in a house of mirrors; the same thing, the same nature , reflected in different ways. It follows that if I would know perfectly, completely, entirely, one part, then I would know the whole…So we are the result of everything that is. The idea is that we contain (and this point is considered essential) the mind-body point of connection; the same hierarchy that exists in the body exists in the mind.”Image

“…because we are men, we have to correct. We have free will, and we have the ability to repair.”

This concept of free will has been cropping up a lot in my consciousness from various sources, and will likely be explored in a later blog post. For now, it is beautiful and inspiring to hear from a largely Jewish conception a similar idea to the Hindu one of inner divinity—a divinity existing within all of our inner realms, if only we would let it free to shine from the muddying influence of our egos’ selfish ‘hierarchies’.

“Because we have free will, we are also the only ones who have the ability to distort. One of our problems is that of choice. There is an attempt to become better; it is like making corrections for a lens. The lens became for some reason not right, so it distorts whatever is seen through it. We believe the main duty, the chief work of man, is to make corrections until it is possible to transmit the right picture.” [emphasis mine]

This type of language is also given in recovery circles, where people will often talk about getting out of the way, and letting God act through them. Of course, I’ve been coming across this almost exact language in the creative context, where not usually using the word God, actors or artists will talk about being swept away completely, and “they” were only an instrument for a greater energy expressing itself through them. Almost always, this energy that sweeps unblocked through the individual personality is given room to operate through service to something greater (in our interconnected hierarchy). In fact, may I suggest a great interview on precisely this concept of removing ego from creative intentions in the following link:

Of course, the same objection to this Jewish conception comes up with the Hindu idea of inner-divinity: if I’m so divine, why the hell don’t I feel it? Or, as the article poses it: “If I am a reflection of this perfect order, why am I not perfect?”

For me, this is where an already interesting concept get even more juicy. “Free will is an element of disorder. It is also the only element of advancement.” Please pay attention to this. In recovery, most report an inner feeling of growth—immeasurable physically, sure (except in perhaps of terms of outward success: an unreliable outer gauge of an immeasurable, subjective inner experience), but one in which it feels like development (emotional first) occurs which allows old, external barriers to be overcome as the flow-like nature of the inner Self is allowed to overflow. It’s very much development. And why some may cringe at the idea of Self-Improvement as “recovery”, I think it’s obvious that emotional development is arrested at the time of substance abuse; hence, the 45-year-old alcoholic that behaves like a 12-year-old. It is clear that development occurs–is allowed to occur—in recovery beyond the grasping, dysfunctional control of the ego. To carry our conception further a bit, I’d like to call that “development” of the inner self, “evolution”.

Think about evolution in general in relation to that previous idea: “Free will is an element of disorder. It is also the only element of advancement.” Think about that: as all of nature is clearly evolving, perhaps reflecting that inter-connectedness we at root all share—the nature of our inner Self also reflecting the external in its capacity to evolve—yet, according to this conception, for it to really happen, it has to be a conscious process, formed within free-will.


This interview took place with Adin Steinsaltz in 1985. Currently, in 2012, spiritual discussions talk about the “energy and intelligence that created the universe” (in the post-modern hierarchical context, God is sometimes hesitated to be used) wanting to realize itself in the material form. That is, in addition to the timeless, Ground of Being that the Buddha talked about, when all involvement in the material realms was realized as illusory, this new strand of spiritual thought talks about a creative burst that is built up of the same timelessness as this Ground of Being, but which wants to realize itself in the material form. That is: God wants to somehow manifest Its perfect nature in the material realm, and this continuing drive for evolution and progression is that process unfolding. The human shell is—at least at its best—an instrument for that service, a vehicle for greater consciousness.

Steinsaltz knew this already, but framed the language within a different, hierarchical context:

“Sometimes you wonder why so many babies are born wise and beautiful, and why when they become adults, they lose both those qualities! It is because babies are innocent; they reflect the power of relation and choice. They reflect something which we call the great order of things. The bigger they become, the more they are able to move. There are some people who, as they grow older, clearly become wiser—not just more knowledgeable…Their choice, their achievement of consciousness, was a growing from one set of relationships to another, a bigger one, a better one, which is what all this is about.”

Ok. I hope you’re still with me: there exists hierarchy all around us in the universe—both within and without. The very existence of hierarchy implies that there is a beginning and an end, though it is completely interrelated. And somewhere within this creation scheme in which processes can move, the human was formed which has a point inside with this “mind-body connection” which allows for “free-will”. (Another interesting juxtaposition with recovery and addiction: it is a ‘disease’ when all conscious thought is over-ridden by the compulsiveness of the addiction. When we consider somebody healthy, in recovery, they once more have the choice whether or not to use). This human form then, is another vessel in which the process of evolution can unfold, revealing the perfection of the principle behind all the hierarchical properties, and is able to move between different levels of hierarchy.

“So our process of growing, from the physical to the spiritual, is getting from one set of ways of behavior, and so on, to a different one, which we hope is a higher one.” Again, when considered with the addiction example, the words are startlingly true—an old set of behaviors is given up for new one, which most would consider “higher”. But the movement into the new hierarchy is difficult, awkward, and usually needs desperation to push one into it.

Getting back to the difficulty of stepping into new paradigms and systems-of-values, Steinsaltz emphasizes the chaotic nature of free-will itself. “Any kind of movement is a way of destroying a system of order. Walking, for example, is becoming unstable.” To me, this is truly a fascinating conception, this notion of acting and disrupting an equilibrium state, as if each step is a mini big-bang which sets the Great Big Dance spinning around for hierarchical order all over again. “Flying in a plane creates a different kind of instability; the plane becomes less and less stable until it takes off, and then it re-stabilizes and gains equilibrium.”

Movement destroys equilibrium all the time; the power to move is also the power to destroy order.”

Again, to use the addiction/recovery example, you might say that we are moving from one level of order and “choosing” to live according to a different, higher order (“We are going to know a new employer [God]”).

“In every set of circumstances, every level of hierarchy, there is stability of some kind. Movement is a disturbing element, and also rather dangerous. Between one step of a ladder and another, there is a void; the void is necessary because it makes the difference between the levels.”

Which explains the tumultuous, inner experience of early recovery, when forced to try to live by a new code of life, which eventually does stabilize and offer a “higher” view of life than the old ego-run/addicted one.

To end with a recovery example, as this blog page’s conception originally began with that intention, the good rabbi talks about another phenomenon that 12-step language might call “complacency”. “I have some ability to change consciously to a different order, but actually, we set our hearts on a certain place and don’t want to get any higher.” What’s interesting about the recovery process (and what the rabbi frames into the Jewish ‘religious quest’) is the requirement to continue to grow, which can be exhausting. We never question the child’s necessity to grow and develop and evolve, but we cut it off in ourselves often after the age of 25, sticking only to things we know and that our comfortable. But, those of us who would develop and continue to ‘get out of the way of ourselves’ (or our own Divinity, or God’s way), the choice remains to continue to step into higher hierarchies, as terrifying as those first, void-filled steps may be. After all, the Russian story sums up the predicament most of us, if we honestly look, find ourselves in:

“…a simple soldier rescued the Czar from some danger. The Czar told him he could ask for whatever he wanted, and the soldier said, ‘Please, change my commanding officer!’ Instead of moving upward in the hierarchy, I just want to shift into a more comfortable position on the same level.




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