In the past 50 years there has been a scientific revolution every bit as staggering as the Copernican revolution. Copernicus said that the earth was not the centre of the universe. This was greeted with outrage and ridicule at that time. ‘Is it not obvious that the sun moves around the earth!?’ In the 20th century, there has been the quantum physics revolution, which has largely been ignored, except by quantum physicists. Even biologists and chemists still operate as if it hasn’t happened. Very simply put, the quantum physics revolution says that what we perceive has been crafted by our minds, or psyches. This is known as the ‘observer effect.’ If confronted by this assertion, the ‘ordinary’ person would be quick to dismiss such a perspective. The film What the Bleep Do We Know!? has been the most accessible communication of this revolution to date.
The most important consequence of this new understanding is that nothing that we perceive is absolute truth. This has major implications for religions built on the assumption of faith in divine revelation. It means that in fact, all those sacred texts are the product of the human mind and spirit in their images and dictates. Allowing ourselves to take this new reality on board is a major challenge to how we understand ourselves and our world.
Because it is our mind or psyche which has generated the truths attributed to one or another deity, we must now begin to look at the various renditions of what it means to be human. Then each of us has the difficult task of choosing the model of being human which most appeals to us as individuals, and is most workable for society. Choice is the very essence of what it means to be human.
Probably the most basic and universal understanding of what constitutes a human being is that we are a combination of body and soul. Apart from scientific fundamentalists, who deny any sort of soul or spirit energy to the human, everyone else seems to agree on these two bits. The nature of the soul, how it differs from the body, how they work together, etc., are all matters of debate.
Another way of characterising human beings is that we have four functional levels: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Each of these four aspects is composed of energy moving at a specific frequency band, much as light comes in a spectrum called the rainbow. The physical level moves at the slowest rate, with gradual increases as one moves up to emotional energy, then mental, and finally spiritual.
The history of a western understanding of being human is one that takes the process of thinking as its starting point. It is how thinking evaluates experience which is considered the proper order of priorities. Prior to the agrarian revolution, people were more experientially and relationally oriented – life was organized around ritual and the felt sense of what was happening, rather than a thought out analysis of a situation (see Carol L. Flinders, Rebalancing the World: Why Women Belong and Men Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium, Harper, 2003). However, for both the Greeks and the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, thinking was their primary mode of relating to the world. The Greeks used thinking to critique their gods and goddesses, whereas the Jews used it to absolutise their expression of spirit. The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures were part of an oppressed group, and their identity was primarily defined by their group’s religion.
Of course, the rules of the logic system for the Greeks and the Jews were very different. For the Greeks, Aristotle in the 3rd century BCE had worked out a set of guidelines which we still use today. The Greek thinkers did not view their religious beliefs as exempt from the rules of their logic. Whereas for the Jews, their thinking was dictated to by the assertions of the stories handed down to them by their ancestors about their god. There were no thinking-based rules of logic in Jewish tradition.
The difficulty with both of these approaches is that they become disconnected from the experience of the body. The body becomes something that we think about, rather than an intrinsic contributor to our understanding of being human. We will encounter the effects of this split latter in our discussion.
The Judeo-Christian Option
Let us look at the Judeo-Christian thinking on what it means to be human. I will go further and use the Roman Catholic articulation because it has the most extensive history of exposition, and, in its most recent publication, the most traditional and least influenced by modern thinking. At the moment, the most comprehensive source for the Roman Catholic position is The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Christus Rex Online English Version of the original in Latin, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993).
In brief, they see the meaning of being human as being in relationship with their god. On the surface, this seems benign enough. However, the god whom they go on to describe is highly problematic. While initially said to be entirely loving, the fine print reveals a god who demands serious retribution for any affront to his honour. This is said to have been taken to the point of requiring the killing his own son (see Jeremy Young, The Violence of God and the War on Terror, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2007).
One of the primary dynamics within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the practice of having a scapegoat. This is a mechanism which allows the group to deal with an angry, judging god. Ritually, an actual goat had been used in the original tribal society. The sins of the people were put on the goat’s head (symbolically), and it was driven out into the desert to die (see Leviticus 16). This saved the people from having to be confronted with their sins. But later, other people were used as scapegoats. Late first and second century Christians started to use women as the primary scapegoat, projecting all male discomfort with the body, especially their sexual energy, onto women. Sexual energy, as you may have noticed, makes it very difficult to think straight, and so was public enemy No. 1 for the male leaders in the Christian communities.
If you look at the current Catechism, you will notice that running through it are themes related to redeeming humanity, which their god had judged as sinful and deserving of everlasting punishment. The official saviour/scapegoat is Jesus, usually called ‘christ’, which means ‘the anointed one’ (indicating, in the Jewish tradition, the king). But even with his death, there is uncertainty as to the safety of individuals from damnation, so there is much discussion as to who is ‘saved’, and how they can be sure of this. Their guidelines for being human are generally useful for the smooth running of a society which is hierarchical and judgmental.
There have been dissidents within the Christian tradition, and there is a long history of schisms large and small (see Sean Moncrieff, God: A User's Guide, Poolbeg Press, Dublin, 2006, pp. 356 - 383b for 15 double columned pages listing all the various Christian churches and sects!) Most recently within the Roman Catholic Church there have been movements like liberation theology, small Christian communities, and feminist theology which have tried to return to the theme of social justice which they see Jesus as championing. But this has been firmly rejected by the current male leadership. They have decided to make the formulations of the Middle Ages in the science and philosophy of those times, as the only acceptable framework within which to talk about Jesus and the meaning of being human.
But there has been a lot of development in human knowledge since the Middle Ages. Especially since the 17th century, there has been a concerted effort to look directly at the evidence of physical reality and human behaviour. This, of course, suffers from its own serious limitations due to the observer effect, but it has helped us to be more precise and objective about what we say we are looking at, and who we are.
One may ask, why is not one point of view just as good as any other, no matter what century it comes from, given the difficulty of the observer effect. This is where I am offering the first of several guidelines for assessing the workability of any system of spirituality. I would suggest that whatever decreases our fear and increases our ability to love (firstly ourselves, though simultaneously others), and be loved, is most fundamental to a viable spirituality. And that is where the Christian approach is highly problematic, as it is very fear based. For all its talk of being saved, its practice of judging and scapegoating has made it a very violent and fear enhancing system (see Jeremy Young, The Cost of Certainty: How Religious Conviction Betrays the Human Psyche, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2004).
The challenge, however, in dealing with fear and love, is that whatever we use must work, as much as possible, equally well for all people at the same time. This means that the practice of scapegoating, which certainly helps the one projecting their fears onto someone else, obviously doesn’t work well for the one being projected upon. Or, we can take good care of ourselves by buying the least expensive item or food, but if it is produced at the expense of the exploitation of someone else’s labour, or of the environment in an unsustainable way, then it does not meet our criteria for self love.
Here’s also where a thinking dominant approach seriously limits our understanding of being human. Thinking operates from the neck up, and has evolved to generally ignore our bodily and emotional realities. Emotions in particular seem to be foreign territory to most people who excel at thinking. It has been those trying to care for people with emotional problems who have turned their thinking to dealing with emotions. Initially, this often gave us an intellectualised version of emotions and emoting (e.g., Freudian psychoanalysis). But gradually, there have been theorists who have allowed themselves the adventure of trying to think from inside their emotions and body experience. Those approaches, which are more grounded in the entire human experience, tend to be more effective. This is why, over the past century, many of the people interested in how to become a happy human being have been pursuing psychology and psychotherapy.
A Psychological Option
I would like to outline the psychological approaches which I have found most useful in providing functional information about being human. None of the psychological approaches deals directly with the soul. But some of them, principally Jung’s understanding of the unconscious, allow for a docking gate with spirituality and soul matters. Developmental psychology is the other area which provides a lot of very useful insight into what makes us tick as human beings.
The two most important bits of a psychological system are how it describes health, and how it suggests we might achieve it (which obviously also requires an accurate description of the problems we encounter). In Jung’s system, he uses a map of the psyche which includes our body, our consciousness, and the unconscious. Ultimately, health in this instance means a good working relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, which is reflected in the health of the body. While the initial container of consciousness is the ego, eventually a bigger phenomenon, which he called the self or Self, is needed to accommodate the unconscious, which includes a transpersonal or transcendent reality which connects us with all that is.
At the time of Jung’s early writing, there was very little infant observation data available. Freud and others had tried to describe the early stages of growth on the basis of their clients’ memories and reports. But this has proved decidedly unworkable, and rife with the projections of Freud et al. onto the first five years of life. The phenomenon of projection is another version of the observer effect. It has been more obvious in interpersonal interaction. This really gets in the way when trying to arrive at a useable understanding of what is going on inside the experience of infants and young children. Infant observation and longitudinal studies of individuals, with multiple observers who can exercise some check on each other’s projections, have proved most useful to date in trying to understand human development.
Briefly, each stage of development has specific tasks which need to be accomplished by the child in order to gain healthy functioning as an adult. Very briefly, the infant needs to feel that it is safe and welcomed into the world. The ability to trust is what is at stake here. The inability to trust is probably the most crippling emotional wound for any human being to try to live with. Later in life this leads to paranoia, very low self-esteem, and great difficulty, if not an inability, to enter into intimate relationships.
After the first 9 months, the child begins to toddle. With this newfound physical capability, the child starts to explore its world. If encouraged and safeguarded in this endeavour, the child learns that s/he is able to launch out into the unknown and get to know it. If they are inhibited in their curiosity, or find themselves constantly traumatized, then they learn to be timid and afraid of life. Later, they have a hard time taking any initiative, which leads to a very passive style of living.
The other hugely important task with which the toddlers must wrestle, is dealing with their own anger. Anger is a natural response to being afraid. It is also a huge surge of energy (as the adrenaline flows), which in and of itself is very scary for the little one. How a parent deals with the child’s anger is crucial to what happens next. If the parent allows the child to get angry, throw a tantrum, etc., but ensures that the child is kept safe and not abandoned to this atomic explosion, then the child learns that anger is manageable and not lethal in itself. More often what happens is either that the parent punishes the child for expressing anger, or that the parent’s own expression of anger is so explosive that the child learns to be very afraid of its anger. In either instance, the inability to deal with or express anger generally results in depression (anger turned against the self).
After toddlerhood, there are more tasks to be addressed, but these first few are the most basic and most important for human functioning. Eric Erickson and Jean Piaget are perhaps the most well known of the developmental theorists. Their work, however, is primarily based on the experiences of boys and men. So the developmental dynamics of girls and women has generally been seen to be deficient because they are different from the men. Interestingly, Carol Gilligan has shown that men are more afraid of emotional intimacy but excel at competition; whereas women are more afraid of emotional isolation, and often see winning at competition as promoting this isolation.
Further, all of the above researchers are functioning in a Euro-centric context. This doesn’t take into account the developmental dynamics of people and cultures outside of a Western setting. They cannot, therefore, make any generalizations about the source or focus of human fear. One’s notion of a happy human being is guided by having one’s specific fears assuaged. In order to make this book as self-aware as possible, I am limiting its guidelines as relevant for those functioning within a Western life experience. If it is useful beyond that, that’s a bonus; but it cannot be assumed to be speaking universally.
Western psychology, then, sees humans as passing through various developmental stages which culminate in the ability to love oneself and others. This allows for happiness and contentment, without the use of addictive behaviours, and an ability to deal effectively and competently with life experiences both joyful and painful. One’s level of maturity is assessed by one’s emotional and interpersonal point of view, including being tolerant, non-judgmental, and respecting of life at every level. This results in social justice and sense of ecological responsibility.
The New Age Reincarnational Option
There is yet another point of view on the meaning of being human, however, which has gained greater credence in the past forty years. This one takes a much larger perspective, seeing our human experience as part of a spiritual journey requiring multiple lifetimes. This is not a totally new point of view, since reincarnation has actually been the primary working assumption for most human beings for most of the time we have been on this planet. (The Western notion of a single lifetime is a minority opinion in the history of humanity. But our cultural ‘habit energy’ leads us to believe that it is the norm.) However, its elaboration in the past 40 years is more user friendly for Western minds.
The notion of reincarnation does not insure in itself the level of maturity described above by psychology. Any acquaintance with India’s caste system makes this very clear. (Reincarnation is a tenet of Hinduism.) But when combined with a different values system, reincarnation allows for both a lessening of fear about what happens to us when we die, as well as a sense of responsibility for living our life as best we can without blaming others for the life lessons we are involved in.
Contemporary approaches to reincarnation, from such authors as Sylvia Browne, Brian Weiss, Michael Newton, and Patrick Francis McMahon, agree on the assertion that the purpose of our many lifetimes is to grow in love, or level of vibrational energy. To that end we have the assistance of spirit guides (perhaps the origin of angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition), with whom we have a long-term relationship. They advise us when choosing the circumstances and goals of an incarnation, but the individual has the ultimate choice.
Each lifetime has specific goals, or lessons, for the insights and healing which we hope to achieve. Sometimes we are successful, or perhaps only partially so. We set up circumstances calculated to give us the best chance of achieving our goals. This includes an agreement with those who will be our parents, as well as the choice of economic, social, and health details.
Information gained in this sort of research suggests that our personal level of wisdom in the world beyond is not necessarily higher than the one we function from here. Despite increased awareness and a much bigger perspective, it is the level of our fear which can lead us to design unrealistic or counterproductive lifetimes. We can never know for certain, however, exactly what the point of any given lifetime is on this side of the great divide. No judgement as to the success or failure of a lifetime is possible before it is completed and viewed by the soul involved. If we have learned what we needed to learn while here, then the lifetime was a success, even if it looks wasted or miserable otherwise. The stories, channelled or reported under hypnosis, are fascinating in the creativity used to achieve growth and healing.
Another interesting detail of some models of the multiple incarnation perspective is that we tend to incarnate with the same souls over and over, taking different roles in order to understand life from differing perspectives. Michael Newton’s work is very specific in this area, with clients describing a soul mate, a soul group, and soul working groups, who tend to be part of one another’s cast of characters from lifetime to lifetime, though not necessarily every time.
This understanding of what it means to be human is at the same time very comforting and very challenging. It eliminates any sense of being under anyone else’s power or will. We have set this story up in order to help ourselves grow and heal, and so it is primarily for our good. Yet at the same time, we are challenged to change our thinking, emotional and judgmental perspectives in order to let go of the fear which confronts us throughout our life. There is no one else to blame for our ‘bad luck’ or lack of power in life.
The serious ‘shadow’ side of this perspective is the same as the one which plagues Indian society. It is all too easy for powerful people or the wealthy to dismiss the sufferings of others as the result of their own choice for their growth, thus allowing them to continue with injustice and oppression. This is where the other two guidelines for a healthy spirituality become important – the guidelines of social justice and ecology.
No matter what scripts people are operating out of in their lifetime, it is important for every individual to manifest love and respect for all other conscious beings (this includes Nature). We need to do this, not for the sake of others, but for our own sake. It is extremely harmful to ourselves if we do not operate from a level of integrity which understands that all our actions and thoughts impact on us. (‘What goes around, comes around!’) This is why self-love cannot be disengaged from love of others.
At the same time, this does not mean that we are responsible for other people’s self destructive or unwise choices. If we have the opportunity to help someone to understand how they might be harmful to themselves, it is a good thing to do, so long as they are open to this kind of sharing. Also, to the extent that their misfortune is due to the systematic oppression of people in a society, we must work to remedy the system. But we are not meant to be saviours to one another. Empowering ourselves and one another to know and exercise our creative power is the meaning of love in this perspective.
Body and Soul
Perhaps the most problematic area of how being human has been understood has been the attitude of spiritual thinking about the body. As I have indicated by various remarks previously, the human ability to think has been greatly developed in the past four thousand years. This has resulted in significant benefits for us, and in some ways has helped us to be less afraid. But rational thinking itself has been very afraid of the non-rational aspects of being human. This includes the body, our emotions, and spirit, in other words, all the other aspects of being human. This seems a strange state of affairs, but it is nonetheless amply demonstrated by the past 400 years of human history.
With the advent of philosophy and theology, there has arisen the notion that spirit is good and matter/bodies are evil. The religion of Zoroaster, which appeared in Persia long before the Hebrew people started their story, posits a god of light and a god of darkness. Later, it was said that the soul was darkened by its union with the body, or matter. This is the basis of what is called dualism – the notion that there are two basic energies in the universe, one good and the other evil. This would contrast with monism, which states that all the energy in the universe is of the same status and ultimately one. It manifests in different forms, but with no inherent goodness or badness in any of them. The Judeo-Christian tradition has been heavily influenced by dualism, starting from the time when the Jews were exiled in Babylon. In fact, all patriarchal systems are dualistic.
I would suggest that there are several reasons why thinking is so afraid of life. Firstly, thinking allows us to be self-aware. It is only thinking that can be self-reflective. Only thinking can know that it is thinking. Only thinking can observe from the outside and say, ‘I am having this feeling’, or ‘I am thinking this thought’. It can also anticipate the future in a way that surpasses what we have personally learned from past mistakes – if I pass a car on a bend in the road, I may be hit by an on-coming car.
But then we can also notice that we are alone. The price of being self-aware is to know our aloneness in the universe. (And this is just as true in the spirit world as when we are in a body, based on contemporary research.) There is no one else who can look at the world from exactly the same point of view as myself. Even the most well nurtured individual must acknowledge that, at the end of the day, they are alone with themselves. The ultimate aloneness that thinking identifies, when it is in a body, is death. Thinking cannot see beyond this reality (which it has constructed), and so death is its greatest fear.
The other thing that gets in the rational mind’s way is the body. Bodies move at a slower vibration than intellect, as do emotions (or passions, as they are known in The Catechism of the Catholic Church; see Part 3 - The Life of Faith, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 5 ). The rational mind finds itself inhibited by emotions of fear, derailed by feeling of sexual passion, defocused by boredom or anxiety, and tormented by physical pain. Because thinking has taken a long time to figure out how things actually work, it has blamed the body and emotions for its difficulties. And again, because most thinkers early on in the human experiment have been men, they have scapegoated women as the source of the problem. Women are the route by which souls become bodies. Women are the sexual tempters who distract men from the business of war and domination. Men have not taken responsibility for their own bodies and emotions, choosing instead to deny their bodies and project all their sexual feelings onto women.
Contemporary neuroscience demonstrates very clearly how it is that bodies hold emotions. The neural pathways of the body initially are not programmed for any habitual reaction. Repetitive experiences of an emotion cause the body to hold a preference for a particular reaction in a given situation. Even when we intellectually realize that this reaction is no longer helpful to us, it takes us a lot of time and effort to actually change the behaviour. Thus Paul in his letter to the Romans, 7:19, says ‘for the good I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do!’ We can all identify with his frustration. Not understanding neuro-physiology, men of his time concluded that the body was bad. The body isn’t bad; it simply holds energy at a very slow rate of vibration, and so requires time and energy if it is to be changed.
But there is an advantage to this. A friend recently observed that meeting her pain in her body made it easier to heal. Attending to our bodies, which vibrate at a slower frequency than our emotions or our intellect, provides an opportunity to engage with our pain in a slowed down state. The slower it vibrates, the easier it is to heal. Thinking about our bodies can’t heal them. But being in our bodies, and connecting consciously with them, allows healing to happen. Recent advances in the treatment of trauma have powerfully illustrated this.
Thus we come to a spirituality which includes the body in a positive role. This provides a meaning for our being here, in a body, with all its limitations. Yet it is not a medical model approach to healing, which reduces the body to itself, allowing no awareness of the spirit energy or soul, which is its underlying reality and sustainer. This body/mind/spirit connection is something we are only beginning to rediscover over the past forty years. But finding our way to this level of wisdom requires spiritual maps that far surpass those of the previous two millennia.
To end, let me summarize these three approaches to what it means to be human, the Judeo-Christian, the psychological, and the New Age, also noting some of their pros and cons.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has allowed rational consciousness to emerge and get to know itself by developing a dialogue with its god. It would seem that Jesus experienced his god as an all loving and non-judgmental being. It is this picture that many people have resonated with. But the institutional presentation of its god is heavily judgmental and wrathful. Its downside is that it also reflects the fear based approach to reality which characterises the ego and rational consciousness.
The psychological understanding of the human has mapped out our stages of growth, helping us to understand how our fear works, and what to do to heal it by describing models of emotional maturity. The recommendation of not judging is also an important contribution. It suffers from the limitations of the scientific point of view (except for that of quantum physics) which does not deal with any reality apart from the physical. This leaves out any consideration of the spirit level.
The New Age reincarnational point of view introduces a wider cosmology, one which places the project of being human in a bigger picture which is more congenial to many contemporary minds. It deals with the questions of fear and evil in a more empowering way. Its drawback is that it tends to be easily manipulated for self serving ends. Social justice is not well developed in its various presentations.
So which of these understandings of what it means to be human inspires you to live?
In order to provide a "big picture" perspective of Spirituality: A User’s Guide, and to see how "Chapter 3" fits in the overall scheme, this addendum shows the table of contents for the planned book. For each chapter, a brief description of the content is included.
1. A Babel of Spiritualities
This will be an overview of spirituality, and the problem/central question of how to evaluate all the various options available today.
2. Autobiographical sketch
This is a brief description of my own life, the forces and circumstances that have shaped it, and how my conscious focus of self healing and trying to be the best human being I can be, has led to my exploration of spirituality and spiritual techniques.
3. What does it mean to be human?
The most central issue in spirituality is how you understand what it means to be human. In this chapter I will address three paradigms for being human: the Judeo-Christian, the psychological (Jungian and developmental), and the reincarnational. For the first, the meaning of being human is determined by the will of their god, who is said to be all loving, but who has a significant shadow side which in fact instills fear. Developmental psychology has spent years observing the emotional stages which humans exhibit in their journey to adulthood (and beyond). The successful completion of these stages is what makes for a healthy human being. Jung’s understanding of psychological maturity allows for a docking gate with spirituality. The last paradigm expands the frame of reference beyond time/space, and understands our developmental journey as ranging over multiple lifetimes and requiring spiritual as well as emotional maturity.
4. Letting go of the need for absolutes (revelation)
Using the latest thinking from quantum physics, I look at the insistence of many religions that they have the absolute truth from their god, and then show how absolute truth is unknowable. Next I look at the psychological reasons why people feel the need of having some absolute truth, and how else this need can be managed.
5. Changing our Picture of Divinity
I address the issue of whether or not to make use of the notion of ‘divinity’, and then go on to look at the history of the dominant image of the divine and its heavy sexist bias. A consideration of the evolution of consciousness and its impact on our image of the divine makes use of a retrospective look at how the image of the divine has changed through history. I finish with the psychodynamics of the divine image, and the implication of this for a psychologically mature spirituality.
6. Creating our own reality
The awareness of creating our own reality is the greatest challenge humanity now faces. I explore the history of this idea in Hermeticism and the Hindu notion of ‘maya’ (illusion). Social justice abuses of this point of view are addressed, and then how to make sense of suffering in this frame of reference. Individual and collective benefits must also be balanced.
7. Becoming aware of our divinity
This chapter needs to address both how any given individual might find a way to become aware of their divinity, and what are the implications and meaning of being divine. An examination of the sorts of capabilities attributed to Jesus allow for a case study of assumptions made on the basis of their understanding of divinity.
8. Blocks to awareness: power and fear
This will be an examination of impact of fear and how the various types of power used to deal with it get in the way of connecting with divinity in ourselves, others, and the world around us.
9. Interaction with other people: power and social justice
This chapter will look at social justice as the most basic characteristic of the divine in human consciousness, while at the same time avoiding a savior attitude in which a person crusades for others but does not address the work of their own self healing and empowerment.
10. Relating to all that is: the macrocosm
The interconnectedness of all that is, as witnessed to by mystics and quantum physics, makes ecology an essential ingredient of any healthy spirituality. Seeing positive sense in having a body despite its temporary nature, relating to the consciousness in Nature, and letting go of commodifying the planet are the challenges that face the dominant and dominating spiritualities of the world today.
11. Summary conclusion
What do you take away from this? Recap the 4 guidelines for assessing healthy spirituality and perhaps explore how one might make use of bits and pieces from different traditions to achieve a new, more workable synthesis.