Friday, April 28, 2006

Friday Reflection: Beyond Fundamentalism

(click the graphic to view Johann Rousselot's photographic essay on a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, the New Life Church)

Yesterday, we saw that the self-images of our species and of individuals tend to narrow our field of vision to such an extent that we become psychologically myopic. In one of my books, I coined the term "neuropia" for this malady (it's a composite word, combining "neurosis" and "myopia"). The point is that, under the influence of fundamentalist belief systems, the image (as in the "image of God" from our Biblical scripture yesterday) becomes the reality. The problem is, of course, that the image is merely an infinitesimal fraction of reality. The result is that we miss so much under the delusion of the self-image that we start to destroy ourselves, just as we are doing today, on scales both large and small; both personal and societal.

We also saw (I hope) the connection between the grandiose human self-imagery (God made us exactly like Himself, distant and separate from Nature, which we were commanded to control and subdue) and the practical consequences of these cultural delusions. As Arundhati Roy pointed out in the selection we quoted, once nuclear war is set loose upon the Earth, the planet itself will finally become our physical enemy. Why? Because that is the way we have treated it these past few millennia, and particularly this past half-century, under the influence of the demonic beliefs of fundamentalism.

What we must remember, no matter your individual religious, national, or political affiliation or leaning, is that if we choose to continue making war on the planet, we will lose. There will be no human survivors—none, at any rate, worth saving. This is why I ask that everyone who reads this message takes a little time and effort to turn within, find the self-images that lurk there, and clear them out. There are ways to go about this, some of which I discuss at my other website and in my two books.

It doesn't have to happen all at once, because, for one reason, it probably can't. It is far more crucial to merely loosen one's grip on the images than to dispel them entirely in one fell swoop. I discuss this approach in a reflection on the character of Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame, in my Tao of Hogwarts:

What's "Evil" About Religion?

The question has to arise in many readers' minds, "how can one possibly equate such a stereotypically evil character as Lord Voldemort with religion? What right does this author have to thus globally demonize religion and those who practice it in humility, goodwill, and faith?"

This is a fair question, and one that deserves a fair answer. My primary response to the question "what's wrong with religion?" is, "Intrinsically, absolutely nothing." It has been my experience, personally and through interactions with clients, students, colleagues, and friends, that there are "religious moments" in most people's lives. There may be a time when Christianity may help you to live and to grow; there are moments where Buddhism may nourish you; or Judaism, Islam, Wiccan belief, Hinduism, Shintoism, or indeed any belief or practice that might help you connect with your Cosmic Origin. In my own life, as in those of many people I've known, even a period of atheism (or a studied ignorance of religious matters entirely) has been a step on the path of growth and inner development. So once again, the answer to the specific question of what's wrong with religion is, "nothing's wrong." The problem arises in the forced attachment to the ideology.

This is the danger of religion, and indeed, of any orthodoxy. Wherever, through the strangely medieval power of attachment, a religion or other orthodoxy becomes institutionalized, then each individual's growth potential is instantly oppressed, to the extent that each member of the group finds his identity through the ideology...This is what I mean when I speak of "Voldemort-consciousness" in the orthodoxies of our lives, religious and otherwise...

What, then, is the religious person to do? What is he to make of such a perspective? Before you reject it as a slander against whatever faith you may practice, consider this suggestion: remain with your religion and its practices for as long as they help you to grow within, but keep your radar up: remain open to the fact that spiritual life is no different from intellectual or psychological life in its natural need for expansive movement. Just as your body needs room to breathe, and your psyche the freedom to learn, your soul needs the space for growth and transformation. I have not met with the doctrine that can enduringly provide the inner space required for the dance of transformation—the expanding awareness of a life lived fully and deeply through to completion. Therefore, I ask that you simply be open to the possibility that a time may come where your religion or belief no longer suits your inner space—that, like an old garment, it simply "no longer fits."

Paradoxically, such a moment can be detected wherever you hear within yourself the phrase, "This is the Truth, the Truth for all and for all Time." Whenever you feel the merest shadow of such a belief hardening within you, that's the time to firmly and fully rid yourself of it and move on. That sensitivity to the monumental voice of ego is your protection. In the presence of such an open awareness, any religion can be safely, modestly, and constructively practiced, free of the Voldemort-consciousness of institutional ideology. We may leave the question there for now, with the hope that the reader may arrive at his own understanding on the matter. For the moment, it may be helpful to recall an expression I once saw on someone's T-shirt: "Religion is for people afraid of going to Hell/Spirituality is for those who have already been there."

Another (and, I think, complementary) perspective is provided by Alan Watts, in his Introduction to Meditation:

What do you mean by the word 'I'? I, myself. Your personality, your ego—what is it? First of all, it is your image of yourself, and it is composed of what people have told you about yourself...But remember, it is an image—just an idea. It is your thoughts about yourself, but in fact you are not this at all...It is simply impossible to cut ourselves off from either our social environment or our natural environment. We are all that, and there is no clear way of drawing the boundary between this organism and everything that surrounds it.

And yet, the image of ourselves that we have does not include all those relationships. Our idea of our personality and of ourselves includes no information whatsoever about the hypothalamus or even the brain stem, the pineal gland, the way we breathe...The information contained in your image of yourself says nothing about any of this.

Therefore it is obviously an extremely inadequate image, but nonetheless we do think that the image of self refers to something because we have the very strong impression that 'I' exist. And we think that this impression isn't just an idea, it is really substantially there, right in the middle of us. And what is it?

...Well, what are we, if we aren't who we think we are? When you take a scientific point of view, your organism is inseparable from its environment, and so you really are the organism/environment. In other words, you are no less than the universe, and each one of you is the universe expressed in the particular place that you feel is here and now. You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at itself and exploring itself.

...We have been bamboozled, however, by religionists, by politicians, by our fathers and mothers, by all sorts of people, who tell us, 'You're not it.' And we believed it.

I think the main point of these reflections—mine on Lord Voldemort and religion, and Watts' on the image of self—tend toward the same realization. It is not merely unnecessary, but actually impractical, to hold tightly to a belief or an image. Thus, I ask that you examine your beliefs regularly, and hold them very lightly, as if you were carrying a small, living bird in your cupped hands. This will make it easier to let a belief go when you no longer need it. Listen to your body-wisdom, the quietest yet clearest voice within yourself, and you will know when it is time to let go.

This is one way clear of fundamentalism; and I think it is a very effective way, though not by any means the only one. The truly spiritual people of our world have taught us the same thing: the real Buddha, the genuine Muhammed, the historical Jesus, would not want us to hold them like a sword or a gun—they would not want to have the breath and the life squeezed out of them in a rigid, clutching grasp of fundamentalist iron. They would want to be held like a newborn kitten, like a baby's hand, like a lover's breath. And like all these, they would also make the same request that every living form of Nature, seen and unseen, makes of each of us: treat me as an equal to yourself—a spark of the same Fire from which you came—and help me to grow, and I will help you in turn. And then let me go.


I think that each of us can become a leader, in his and her unique way, if we can adapt a practice like this unto ourselves. I hope that you have seen that George Bush is not a leader; that Donald Rumsfeld is not a leader; that Osama bin Laden is not a leader. These are, from a psychological standpoint, sick, diseased, functionally dead people; for fundamentalism is the kiss of death. So far from being leaders, these men have proven themselves slaves—servants to an image of humanity and themselves that tells them, "our Truth is exclusive, sacred, and unchangeable; and it must be defended, even if it means that tens of thousands of innocents are murdered for it; even if it means that the world sinks further into the scarlet mud of destruction."

So once again, let us be the leaders that we lack in Washington and the other ideological capitals of this world. Let us start today, and (if you're in or near New York City) tomorrow on the streets. The unity of free and autonomous individuals is something that the political leaders of our world will not understand. But it is also something they will not be able to ignore.

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