Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
By most standards, I’m not the greatest Christian.
This is actually not because of my lifestyle–I’ve given up drugs and alcohol, even tobacco, though cussing might still be a bit of an issue–but because of the way I think. And while though I’m in a committed, three-year, healthy relationship, pre-marital sex doesn’t exactly fit well in the box of “good Christian” either. Never mind that St. Paul only grudgingly condoned marriage as a last resort option for those who couldn’t reign in lust’s power, the “good Christians” never consider not getting married. By all appearances, having children, not cursing, and living safe, sterile lives is the Will of God–the reason Jesus needed to come down and die on the cross for us.
I don’t want to sound overly cynical. I actually appreciate the message of Christianity. As a matter of fact, I love it when the Christian message is once more wrestled from the status-quo of those “Good Christians”, and am reminded of why I found its message so life-changing in the first place.
You see, I like to consider myself a Christian, but a lot of those that claim the title most fervently seek to deny me that right.
I connect spiritually within Christian churches, without doubt, and the symbolism of the Sanctuary’s decorum speaks to me at a deep, non-rational, soul-level while the sermon reaches my rational sensibilities. In short, I connect with God, and seek to apply that connection into my daily behavior.
But because I also connect with God in other spaces, in other religions even, I’m deemed as…well, I’m deemed not Christian at all.
However, what I see in the symbolism of the cross–driven home most recently when I attended a funeral here in Germany, in a church where the figure of Jesus was still painfully up on the cross–is an argument for Life itself. The juxtaposition was severe, but drove it home further in my mind: the funeral’s theme was death, yet vibrant, blossoming, fragrant flowers covered the pedestal where the ashes stood. And behind it all, Jesus–as we’re told, God made flesh–hung up on the cross. Yet his sacrifice conquered death, and in that interior space all of us at the funeral shared, my consciousness brimmed with the symbolism: the cross was like this energy field of light, shattering from beyond this mortal coil–like the halos of light given to Saints in Medieval paintings–and Jesus could not possibly die, but only pointed towards the Light and Life that shines eternally, beyond this earthly realm.
It was a metaphor for me. My ego–that negative, separate self-sense that obsessively seeks power and ways to clutch forever all the things it wants, that sees everything as objects in pursuits of its conquests–was what died with Jesus on that cross. But what shined through in that ego’s death–in my small-self-personality–was Life itself, the energy and the intelligence of the Universe. And once I died to ego–what Jesus, through his gospel message, was constantly urging us to do–everything changed. I was never separated from my “Buddha Nature”, and once the mind ceased its craving, the gentle and good parts of my nature–which were all along the fundamental parts of my nature–were allowed to shine and naturally express themselves.
Or, in Christian language: Jesus’ death allowed the sacrifice for me to once more experience that reality beyond the fear-based, ego-striving, mind-based plane and claim my “At-One-Ment” with God. Jesus, after all, implored us to find the Kingdom of God, which was “neither here nor there, but within you.”
Christianity, alas, has become much more the religion about Jesus, and seems a bit removed from the religious of Jesus.
Because while an awareness of ego and its manifestations have the potential to be life-changing, and while I believe this is the entire point of any religion–to take us to that transcendental place, in the here and now, and help relieve us of suffering (not to deny it exists, or obsessively run from it, but to help truly relieve us)–it seems too often that this message gets lost in the doctrine and dogma of religious institutions.
Instead, we get: “Just believe.” And then we’re directed where to think: Just believe that (1) Jesus is God, (2) That He died on the cross for your sins, and (3) His death is the ONLY way you are saved.
That’s it! Just believe. And those particularly “Good Christians” are the ones especially apt in casting away rationalism and its evil “evolution”.
So here comes a major qualifier: ‘just believing” works for a lot of people. I’m sure they connect at a deeper level than I’ve dumbed it down to. And that’s great if it works, that’s great if they’re able to tap that transcendental place inside and live happy lives connected to the Source of Creation. But it doesn’t work for a lot of people. Matter of fact, this message is talking to an entire different generation, an entire different consciousness which framed the world entirely different than the one our kids our growing up in.
It might help to explain that “sin”, when translated from the Greek, is something more akin to “missing the mark.” So when Jesus talked about “sin”, he was talking about “missing the mark” in life, inferring that there was just so much more you could be doing with your life. It’s like the alcoholic–their behavior robs them of all the joy a full-life might offer. Jesus wanted us to see where we, too, were “missing the mark”, so we might tap the joy of a full life.
That’s just a modest start. Our challenge when talking to the emergent world at large takes us outside the walls of religion. Which has the potential to be a beautiful place.
Let me explain it this way:
I got sober–from a heavy drug addiction–through a spiritual path. Essentially, I was able to “beat my addiction” because I began to stand down from my posture of defensiveness and attack, taking up a posture of open-mindedness instead. Possibility then seeped into my being, and, coupled with exercises that demanded humility (a.k.a. 12 steps and rehab), I began to walk out of my ego-bound logic and wake-up to my Higher Self–at that time, what I called God. When I connected to, thought from, and operated through my Higher Self, I hardly even had the desire to use drugs or pursue pleasure for pleasure’s sake anymore. Which was quite a miracle for me because I couldn’t go twenty-four hours without the obsession to use winning out.
Old behaviors swam in the form of thoughts, but new behaviors were also given form in the ‘still, small voice’ inside–what I considered ‘the Holy Spirit’ the Christian tradition talked about. During my initial spiritual awakening, during the first six months of sobriety, I walked fairly close along the Christian path: and it worked great. But as I continued my journey along institutional lines, it always ended up in a disappointing spot, one I initially chastised myself as ‘weak’ for not getting excited about.
It always ended up, at least in the ‘non-denominational’ (another word for Baptist) strain I was encouraged to follow through family pedigree, with “The Great Commission.” What was the purpose of having this great connection to God? How did this play out in the 9-5, so to speak? Why, to preach the message to everyone else, of course! To preach it loud; to preach it proud.
Maybe I was a poor Christian. But I just couldn’t get excited with knocking door to door and proclaiming that Jesus would save them from an eternity in Hell and banishment from God. I was a former atheist, after all, and well knew all the logical arguments against God. The logical arguments, I might well add, against God as a fixed idea, a set of logical prepositions, and NOT the experienced reality of consciousness arisen from a directed set of behaviors and actions. (This directed set of behaviors, incidentally, is what the Buddha deemed “Dharma”.)
And yet why not? If there truly is an idea or Truth that will help people, why not go out and spread the word? After all, the 12th step of the A.A. program is to not only practice these principles in all our affairs, but “to help carry the message to all alcoholics who still suffer”.
Here’s the point: with the ‘outbreak’ of Christianity in the years after Jesus’ death–a movement, it would seem, clearly lead by St. Paul and his sophisticated understanding of both Jewish theology and the new, emerging Christian one–it seems clear that a major, social movement was happening. A great expanse in consciousness, if you will, in which people connected to a “higher law” or “Dharma”. Which, if we’re willing to see the slightest bit objectively, translates nicely to our day and age.
You see, the letters between the early Christian communities as chronicled in the New Testament don’t need to be read as some closed-off, fixed date in history. Those communities inhabited a world as in-flux, as uncertain as ours–there were as many religious choices, as many economic uncertainties, as many injustices, as many unknowns as we all well know. There were probably more.
And when St. Paul came round with his message–a message, as Christians are sometimes guiltily reminded, that he was willing to be persecuted, tortured, and jailed for–there is something those of us today might well remember: his message was new. It was radical even. It rubbed the Jewish community and status-quo the wrong way, it wrested control out of the religious authority of its day. And there’s more: It was a message that transcended and included: this message went beyond the borders of Judaism (not without debate), and even the other cultures and groups were considered potential members: even those foul, course Gentiles.
In short, the new Christian movement was couched in language that made sense to those who lived in that time, it spoke to the particular spiritual difficulties and needs of that time. Then as now, those who lived in New Testament times did so in the present Moment, an uncertain moment not so far removed from the challenges and uncertainties our particular moment and our particular cultural crossroads stares at.
So why be reluctant to speak to our time in its own language?
Perhaps it deserves its own explanation. Essentially, social scientists differentiate 5 major changes in human society–(1) Foraging, (2) Horticultural, (3) Agrarian, (4) Industrial, and (5) Informational. Each major external change in human society was accompanied with, and correlates to, each ‘stage’. These are (1) Archaic, (2) Mythic/Magic, (3) Traditional/Myth, (4) Modern Rational, (5) Post-Modern/Pluralistic.
So, to lay it out in an easy manner for the mind to ingest:
1. Foraging Society
2. Horticultural Society
3. Agrarian Society
4. Industrial Society
5. Informational Society
Now, according to a certain Integral perspective–a very useful way of looking at the world–each step up in the level doesn’t just get rid of the other system, but it transcends and includes it. So, when human society made the advance from hunting and gathering and started planting crops and staying in one place, did that mean that all humans stopped foraging for their food? Of course not. The foraging society (and their corresponding worldview) lived alongside the more evolved and sophisticated Horticultural Societies. Just like a cell will surround and engulf a group of atoms, and become a new whole, with each step in human society’s development, the next stage would surround and engulf the old layer.
So, if we fast-forward to the Industrial age, when humans were busy digging up the earth and transforming the upper-crust of the world into a steaming, steel-based, shiny, efficient world, we would find the same principle: as society advanced into the productive and oil-fueled world we know so well today, naturally the agrarian societies still existed.
(The following diagram shows a bit more complexity than I’m pointing out, but if you study the diagram, you’ll notice where the worldviews coincide–the point is to show how the stages transcend and include the previous stages)
One other extremely interesting point of note, and useful to make sense of the world I walk in daily, is how each stage desires to knock the old stage out: that is, both levels begin to compete against each other, especially in terms of world-view. To give an example of the Agrarian Society and its “Traditional” World View–you can see the competition even a bit in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, when the “God” of the Jewish tribes is in direct competition to the lesser ‘gods’ of the pagan neighbors (warrior/magic worldviews). The story of the rise of Islam is another prime example of competing worldview–antagonistic worldviews–when a new order rises.
Of course it’s happening now (which is the point…patience, please): with Industrialization came rational, modern worldview, and with its evolution began to attack the old, “traditional” reading of the Bible. Science gained its rise, and naturally it was hostile–and still is–to the old worldview with its active God in the course of human events.
And just a quick note on “Post-Modernism”–a word that gets thrown around a lot by some of the leading, world-spirituality teachers, but that I suspect not everyone has a firm handle on. (I remember when I was still trying to toe the Christian hardline, our good-hearted Bible study leader couldn’t tell me what it meant, but assured me that ‘Post-Modernism’ was evil, the latest trick by the devil to foil mankind). Quite simply, and stemming from the shift of society from an Industrial one to an Informational one (all the information we could ever want–a click of the mouse button away), has naturally led to an altered worldview. Making sense in the wake of such an influx of available information, the Informational Age has led to a sense of plurality, of relativism, of not being sure that any one perspective is “true”. Why, all perspectives are true!
The simplest example I’ve come up with to illustrate this important ‘truth’ (but not the last chapter in ‘truth’s’ story) is that of a foreign language. Let’s take, say, English and German. Both are complex, highly evolved, linguistic tools that aid in symbolic reconstruction of reality. Now, which one of these does a “better” job at describing reality? Is the English ‘air’ a better description of the reality, or is the German ‘Luft’ somehow more accurate?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that both are equal. If you’re German, you will prefer, relate, and understand to the German depiction of reality (through language), and if you’re English, or American, well…
And Post-Modernism is comfortable with that fact, with the fact that ALL truth is so relative, based on our life experience and particular perspective. With our particular “stages of human development” example, the Post-Modern perspective has also attacked the stage before it, questioning the certainty of any discipline which claimed to know a truth. Nothing is certain, nothing is better than another, all is relative. And damn you if you think otherwise.
–And this is the culture, this is the day and the age that we need to try and reach with a stylized spiritual and religious vocabulary, like Paul adapted his language to the spiritual understanding of the Jews in his time. Like I said, the view we can capture if we dare to venture into Post-Modern space–outside of the walls and relativistic truth of any one given religion–can be a beautiful one indeed.
I’m not alone in this. Thank God.
In the interest of “The Great Commission”, of spreading the word and creating the momentum of a new way of living–like early Christians must have, like the rapid rise of Islam tells us the Muslim world did–I realize that when an idea truly informs your life, it naturally get proselytized. When you work through the twelve steps, you actually have a desire to reach the alcoholic who still suffers. Going door to door “selling Jesus” doesn’t sit well with me, because, well…it isn’t a message that actually informs and engages my life in the ‘Post-Modern’ world. At least the way the fundamentalists package it.
What I realized, however, and not without a little bit of depression attached to it, is that all spiritual teachings, in the end, seem to have this dictum to spread the word attached to it. Even when I listen to Andrew Cohen, and all his passionate elucidation on what he calls “Evolutionary Enlightenment”, it still comes down to the same common denominator as the rest.
“What the post-modern culture needs is not just traditional Enlightenment where we all just go on the meditative cushion and bliss-out into the timeless, formless, eternal Ground of Being,” a paraphrased but typical lecture by Andrew Cohen might go, “but one which embraces the Evolutionary impulse and the desire of the Creative Energy and Intelligence of the Universe (a.k.a. God) to create–in this time and in this historical place.” Traditional enlightenment, Cohen argues, is only half the picture, and an un-engaged one. If we want to create a deep, spiritual, relevant worldview which includes a Higher Purpose that the ego-entrenched Post-Modern can “sink into”, then we need to create. “So it’s quite radical”, another paraphrased but typical line of Cohen might run, “but what I’m teaching is to connect with the Ground of Being–as done in most traditional enlightenment traditions–and then react, to connect with the creative side of that Ground, the Becoming aspect (as opposed to the Being), and then transform culture.”
Which sounds great, and which I agree with, but which also always leaves me with a question: What does this activity look like? Beyond all the speculation and abstractions, what will this socially transformational behavior consist of? And then it hit me, leaving me as disappointed as when I saw the last two Matrix movies:
It looks like people proselytizing. It’s the Great Commission all over again, only this time its Andrew Cohen’s teaching.
“But wait,” inspiration began to speak, “Why not? Why wouldn’t a spiritual idea transform society? Why not go out and spread the word?”
It’s an idea I realized I’ve been doing–that I’m doing now. But only when listening to another prominent world-spirituality leader, did I feel fully convicted that here was something worth spreading. Essentially, a post-modern spirituality (or, to move beyond it, a ‘post-post-modern’ spirituality), operates according to these basic, spiritual principles (basic spiritual principles, by the way, that every mystic strain in every major religion has distinguished):
1. We each have a personality, born in this historical time and place, and is identified with our place, our status, etc., in this historical time and place
2. his ego is only a tiny, tiny piece of what our being is. A lot of our dissatisfaction, suffering and unhappiness come from identification solely with this ego.
3.Accessed through the deepest part of our individual beings, it is possible to enter into a Non-Dual realm where everything is connected, and is outside of time and space.
In a nutshell, that might be a way to frame a world-spirituality in language: the ego is the block, the companion within our inner-spaces of consciousness that, if removed, might awaken us to the eternal depths within.
Especially in Eastern traditions (but also applied through the Christian one through the Course in Miracles), this is the part in the spiritual tradition where we are told to give up our story-lines, to take up our crosses and follow Him. To let go of the ego’s wishes–usually demands for special treatment, power, etc.–and to stop listening to the ego’s restless demands for more.
This is where it gets interesting.
To relate it to a 12-step, recovery-from-addiction perspective, this is the point where the cravings to use drugs are replaced, all those swirling thoughts of resentment and ‘who done us wrong’ given up, and a certain spaciousness materializes gracefully (and gratefully) into our lives–the ‘awakened’ addict has stepped away from his or her ego and the ego’s addictions. A Higher Power is felt–a conscious awareness of some Greater Creator active in one’s life.
And to keep this feeling, you’ve got to give away the experiences to others–if you get caught up in more ‘worldly pursuits’ of getting ahead, if you place work over recovery, there’s a great chance you slip back…into ego. But it’s interesting to note, those who seem to stay sober over 20, 30, 40 years, those are the ones who keep sharing the message, keep giving back. They are the ones, you might say, who’ve connected to their higher calling (you may want to keep this idea in mind).
But the 12-steps is one of many viable spiritual paths (one which, I believe speaks well to a Modern/Rationalistic world-view, but may miss some needs the new ‘addict’ who comes from a Post-Modern/Pluralistic world-view comes from), and it’s interesting–worthwhile even–to see how other paths advise walking down it, long term.
In the Zen and other Buddhist meditative/contemplative traditions, the ideal is to extinguish the ego completely. Through practice and detailed, past-down, meditative instructions, the practitioner goes beyond small-mind into the Big-Mind, realizing that ‘emptiness is form’, and ‘form is emptiness’. The mystery of existence, the utter un-know-ability of the Transcendent, the utter un-contain-ability of our egos to trap It in a concept can only be experienced.
These traditions then proclaim as the extinguishment of all ego traces as the desire, to rid ourselves of all desire–the ego ever hijacking the material realm to get its end–and bring the timeless Ground of Being into as much of our lives as possible.
As I tried to articulate, this is basically where all the traditional forms of mysticism and Enlightenment leave us–with the advice to pull-up desire at its root, and abide in the eternal Ground of Being.
But science and rationalism has provided the awareness that the Universe–and everything in it, including thoughts and consciousness–is evolving. What’s more, as evidence continues to unfurl that the Universe seems to be evolving, well, consciously, towards greater complexity, the conclusion that this material realm is all just illusion has been re-evaluated. What was the purpose behind the impulse that led to the Big Bang in the purpose? Why did the All begin this great experiment in the first place?
Which has created some new leaders–leaders who once received the direct teachings of ancient wisdom passed down from the lineage, using the ancient practice to awaken to that timeless, mystical dimension of the Ground of Being–who come from and are immersed in the Post-Modern/Pluralistic/Informational world-view to consider that their just might be a purpose for us here on the material plane, after all. That is, we shouldn’t just drift into the Timeless realm and seek to bring as much of its Presence as we can to this, but we should awaken to that Highest Part of ourselves and get our ego’s out of the way so that it might operate.
“Let God work through you.” “Let go and let God,” is also some language used in recovery. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus once explained, speaking in this case as God.
And this post has gone on long enough (I’m surprised if any of you are still here), so let me just close it with a quick summary of a current debate, one that I find quite inspiring.
Andrew Cohen, the prominent architect behind the EnlightenNext non-profit organization, talks about what he calls the Authentic Self, this Highest Part of your being–attached and connected to God (though post-modern contexts don’t usually like that word, preferring the more neutral “Energy and Intelligence of the Universe)–is part of the Energy and Intelligence of the Universe seeking to realize itself, to manifest itself in the material realm!, and all vestiges of the ego should be systematically destroyed to allow for this Aspect to shine and mold the culture in which your space/time/historical personality walks about.
According to this model, even positive goals and dreams, like writing that novel, are just old stirrings of ego seeking to hijack the glory and wanting to be individually glorified. In his retreats, Cohen puts some serious pressure on the students, insisting that they examine their motives, and decide if they really want to go through with their ‘spiritual commitments’ if, after an honest, deepest-soul-look, there is no reward, no recognition for it. “Do I really want to be free ‘more than anything else’? More than fame, a pretty wife, a nice family?” An honest look quickly reveals resistance, a squirmy something inside that still wants to hold on to these ‘good’ things–Cohen would call this ego, and admits that this aspect of ourselves that hesitates to go ‘all in’ will always be with us.
But another spiritual teacher, another leading figure on the World Spirituality stage, Dr. Marc Gafni (who received his mystical teachings from the lineage of Kabala–the mystical strain within Judaism), has coined a term, Unique Self which has a different interpretation of that squeamishness we all feel when pushed to the limit of “wanting to be free more than anything else”. Gafni acknowledges, like all the rest, a negative, small-self ego that needs to be transcended to receive liberation. Careful to distinguish the Soul from what he calls the Unique Self–a part of the All itself, yet beautifully, uniquely you.
But that Unique Self wants to be realized, not just shut out and extinguished. It delights in being realized, as uniquely realized through you, and can only ever be you–that Higher You beyond the small ego. In other words, I’m no longer just ‘Mike Dorman’, I’ve moved beyond that limitation, and operate on a higher context, but nevertheless can realize all my uniqueness, that beautiful, unique face of the All, through ‘Mike Dorman’. Because with each Unique Self comes a Unique Calling–a passion that drives us, a passion that wants to create, through our unique talents and gifts. Because, as Marc Gafni says, “the greatest freedom is to meet your obligation.”
I’ve come full circle. Maybe I don’t mind proselytizing. Maybe I’m actually ‘uniquely’ gifted at it, and can use my talents to teach and write to help carry the good word. Maybe the “Great Commission” is a natural offspring of a vibrant, new move of Spirit.
*If any of this interests you, please look further into it yourself: