Category Archives: religion and spirituality

Make the World Go Away

Make the world go away


And get it off my shoulders


Say the things you used to say


And make the world go away.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdWEbweX1rQ)

These words from Eddy Arnold, an old country-western great, really speak to me from time to time. Everyone feels from time to time that they wish to “check out,” perhaps using the old line from Star Trek, “Beam me up Scotty. There is no intelligent life down here.” The need to escape is part of being human and requires us to find appropriate ways of making the escape. For, there are many “escapes” that are costly or devastating in the long-run such as addiction, or fanatical beliefs…of any sort… or insanity, or even at an extreme suicide. These are all merely ways of saying, “I hurt too much! Stop it! Give me an escape! I can’t take this anymore.”

Shakespeare had insight regarding the escape into insanity and btw, all of these “escapes” carried to an extreme become insanity. For example, Hamlet pined re his desire to, “Flee to a nutshell and there be the king of infinite spaces.” This brilliant image of retreating to a private world is an astute description of insanity, which is always a retreat to a private reference system where one is freed….at least in his mind…from the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” There, the assault of reality might continue, but the individual ensconced in his private prison will be oblivious to the “assault.” “Free at last! Free at last! Praise God, I’m free at last,” he might say. But this “freedom” is an ugly escape from reality, for actually it is the antithesis of freedom as one is then in the bondage of his own whims and fancies. Paul Tillich called it “an empty world of self-relatedness.”

And all escapes have some risk for if they become too much a preference over reality, they can devolve into insanity. Religion is such a classic example of how a valid “escape” can become a prison. And a glass of wine or shot of bourbon can become such a delightful escape, or release, that addiction sets in and one disappears into the bottle. (And I admit, I have some experience with this “disappearance.”)

Arnold’s lovely tune also offered a marvelous escape…of the adaptive variety…as it was a love song and he was pining for the solace of relationship when his lover would again, “Say the things you used to say, and make the world go away.”

Jesus is “Speaking” to Me!

Now, He does not “literally” speak to me.  I don’t hear voices or anything like that.  If it should happen I would refill my prescription of industrial-strength Haldol quickly! But my imagination, so long dormant or even imprisoned within tyrannical linear thought is finally coming out to play and from time to time I like to interpret a few things I’m learning in the realm of spirituality with the following refrain, “Jesus said unto me….”

For example, in the mid eighties when I was knee deep in my “great depression” and was walking past a large Baptist church to get my favorite comfort food, ice cream, and I just noticed that for the first time in my life I had no tinge of guilt for not being there in that moribund house of worship, for disobeying the biblical injunction to “forsake not the assembling together as  the manner of some is,”  And this tid-bit of freedom has been burgeoning through my life since then, slowly working away on that deep-seated core of guilt and shame that had kept me in Christian bondage. And there on that street that summer night, Jesus told me, “Hey Louie, its ok!  You don’t have to do that anymore!  You are free, my son!  You’ve done your time, done your penance…a penance you never did have to do in the first place; for, after all, that’s what I was about.  Remember?  Remember?  Remember?”

And Jesus continued to speak to me and to tell me, “Hey, that whole Christian thingy.  You don’t have to do that any longer.  I paid the price for your freedom from all bondage, even the bondage to “me”….which by the way I never had in mind!”  I began to explore this vein of thought and realized that in the way I had been taught in my youth, I was no longer a Christian and Jesus was telling me it was ok.

So I wondered in that wilderness for years, knowing that I was not an atheist or even agnostic even with this radical vein of thought coming to me from Jesus, of all people.  For, yes I had lost my religion, I had lost my family, I had lost my childhood friends, I had given up professional employment and was living on a meager income, barricaded in the basement of an office building.  I had “lost” everything.  But, I then realized that Jesus and the Christian tradition was still there even though “it” had lost its grip on me.  I no longer “had” to be Christian but realized that I still believed fully that Jesus walked the face of this earth and trotted out a lot of marvelous ideas….and lived them, embodied them!  Now it is true, dealing with “loss” of this type…and speaking now as a clinician…can lead to radical loss which is known in my trade as psychosis.  But I knew that history was still present for my scrutiny and that Jesus had been here in history in some shape, form, or fashion and though we know little about Him, we can surmise that he was a powerful spiritual teacher and I found that his teachings had great value for me, greater value for me than ever before.  And I realized that this meant that I was a Christian and always had been and this “loss” I had experienced was the “loss” of the letter of the law which in the subsequent decades has allowed the “spirit of the law” to begin to flow in my heart and life.

 And since then, Jesus has said occasionally, “Hey Louie!  You are beginning to get it!  You find me only when you lose me, you find me only when you lose the “idea” of me and discover me deeply in the inner depths of your own heart, discovering that the Kingdom is within.  And, Louie, this “loss” you experienced is an ongoing experience but this is only the loss of your ego self which is what I had in mind when I taught that you can find yourself only when you are willing to lose yourself.

 Since then I’ve come to realize why most Christians hyper-ventilate with the Mel Gibson “Passion of Christ” stuff for with that imagery they can allow the story of Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection to remain…in their mind…an historical “fact” and miss the point that he was “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”  This allows them to keep Him and the whole story a mere conceptual narrative which has nothing in the least to do with the depths of their heart where the real “death, burial, and resurrection” must take place.  They cling tenaciously to the “idea” of Jesus just as they cling to the “idea” of their own identity for to let go of the “idea” and embrace the experience would mean letting the ego die, it would mean following the advice of W. H. Auden who encouraged us to, “climb the rugged cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

 

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But with this vein of thought, I always am brought to the realization that I have just condemned them all to hell!  By that I mean, in the old-brain mind-set of “literallew” they do not believe the “right way” and therefore are “lost as a goose in a hail storm.”  But the marvel of the Jesus story is that…as the old evangelical hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all.”  Sure, they don’t get it “right” but guess who else does not get it “right”?  C’est moi?  None of us get it “right” but the message of Jesus is that we are forgiven nevertheless!  And as far as getting it “right”, please define right for me?  “Right” will always be a rational construction, a formulation arising from the depths of the heart which always has a deep-seated need to legitimate its preconceptions.  And that is why Christianity has often been a laughing-stock, easy fodder for late-night comedians such as Bill Maher who see readily through the non-sense and confront them with reality.  But, being confronted with reality, most Christians have a built-in escape, captured by W. H. Auden with this note, “When Truth met him, and held out his hand, he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Thoughts re Subject/Object Distinctions.

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” (Thomas Berry)  But our world “functions” because of clear and precise “subject-object distinction” that is the reality of most people, a “distinction” which makes us “objects.”  Most people do not see the unity of all things for doing so is too frightening.  And the result is that, yes, the world “functions” but the price tag of failing….or refusing…to see the unity of all things is that catastrophe always lurks on the periphery of our collective reality.  Witness current political circumstances around the world…and in my country (the U.S.).  According to the teachings of Carl Jung…and countless others…until we embrace the violence which is within all of our hearts we will never see the Millennium arrive.

But when we are safely within the harbor of our “object” world we do not have to be bothered with the ambiguity of subjectivity– imprecise boundaries, the confusion, the doubt, and the fears that haunt all of those who have dared to take that path.  W. H. Auden put it this way,, having the Star of David offer these words:

Those who follow me are led

Onto that glassy mountain where are no

Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread

Where knowledge but increases vertigo:

Those who pursue me take a twisting lane

To find themselves immediately alone

With savage water or unfeeling stone,

In labyrinths where they must entertain

Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

Finally, I’m “Somebody!”

“The Jerk” is one of my favorite movies and my favorite scene is when the star, Steve Martin, discovers he listed in the phone book for the first time and announces with great delight, “I’m somebody! I’m somebody!” Well, only yesterday I had similar delight when I discovered by accident that this literary venture here is ranked #800,000 or so (out of who knows?), produces income of $.36 per day and has a value of $139.00. What a hoot! About the only thing sillier than “holding forth” like I do in this blog is compiling statistics about completely unknown bloggers like myself! Like many other bloggers have noted, I often wonder why I do this? “What’s the point?” Well, I don’t know. But I gotta get this “stuff” out somewhere and better here than the “street preaching” I used to do before they tarred and feathered me and ran me out of several towns. Btw, I’ll sell this verbal dog-and-pony show for half price any day. I’m expecting a deluge of offers.

I think one of these days I will pass on and will suddenly find myself before God. He’ll see me coming and immediately roll his eyes and groan, whispering soto voce to a colleague, “How in the hell did this guy get up here? I intended to let him live for ever just to avoid having to deal with him.” Then He’ll say, “Ok, Literarylew, get your ass on up here and let’s see what you’re worth.” Then I’ll remember the value cited earlier and my heart will sink.

The Enneagram and Immanence/Transcendence

A blog-0-sphere friend and spiritual mentor recently introduced me to the enneagram, a personality-type inventory dating back to the 4th century. Though it is initially off-putting, appearing to resemble some Face-Book contrivance in which you “fit” into some conceptual category, it is a very sophisticated and rich spiritual tool.

As a result of taking a simple test, I have learned that I am “6” with a “5” wing which reveals a lot of things about how this little whirly-gig in my head operates. For example, I am an “observer” in life, standing aloof and detached, making observations about life, including even myself. I think Emily Dickinson was one of these as evidenced in a line of her poetry when she noted, “Life is over there, on a shelf.” Emily was noting her perspective that life was, in a sense, an object on a shelf and she was studying that object as if it was a specimen in a test tube or on a laboratory table.

There is certainly a place in our world for people like this though there is always the risk of carrying the detachment to an extreme with pathological results. But the other extreme…failure to go “meta-cognitive” on life…is also pathological.

Approaching this matter as a clinician, the issue is integration of the two extremes…head and heart, thought and feeling. We are thinking beings and feeling beings but if either function becomes out of balance, problems result. And to further complicate things, when one is on either extreme the recognition that one is on the extreme is very difficult to apprehend without intervention from “out there.” By that I have reference to what Carl Jung called “einfall” (an “intrusion” perceived as from “out there”) and that W. H. Auden had in mind when he wrote, “O blessed be bleak exposure on whose sword we are pricked into coming alive.”

Religious and Spiritual Addiction

I use the expression “drinking the Kool-aid” often to refer to those who have always carefully followed the dictates of the tribe and never left its “safe confines.” This is in reference to the hundreds of religious extremists in 1989 who followed the dictates of their leader, James Jones, and committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the Guyana, South Africa compound.

I admit that using the expression of “drinking the Kool-Aid” to describe those who simply follow the tribal dictates is a bit over the top and even “ugly.” As indicated yesterday, we must have people who follow these “dictates” and allow malcontents like myself to have such a good life. But the problem occurs when the human need to “belong” goes beyond the pale and an inordinate energy begins to constellate to maintain this sense of “belonging” or “tribal identity.” At this point the normal human need for group affiliation becomes poisoned and the need to affiliate with the world at large begins to be diminished and eventually even discouraged. Unconscious fears are then unleashed and then, with a leader who is in tune with these unconscious forces, ugly things can happen. Witness the aforementioned Jim Jones and Guyana Massacre.

What has happened in this scenario is that the need for group affiliation has become addictive and the reason this is so is because the members of the group have a deep-seated fear of the existential loneliness that haunts us all. That terror so grips them that they are willing to make horrible decisions to protect what I will call the “group lie”….even the decision to die or in some cases to kill others…rather than deal with the gamut of fears associated with this loneliness which dwell in all of our hearts.

And many noble truths can be present in a “group lie.” I think, for example, many expressions of this disease are found in my Christian faith, the best example immediately available being Westboro Baptist Church. These people have merely taken a noble spiritual tradition and used it to perpetuate their own private fantasy, giving no concern for the world outside of themselves and even contempt and scorn for that world.

This is religious addiction and religious addiction is one of the most pernicious forms of this mental illness as they “know” they are believing and doing the “right” thing. And it is their “knowledge” and “certainty” that is the basic problem. Reasoning with them is a waste of time. And I might add that this Westboro Baptist Church phenomena is reflective of the poison that is always a temptation with any belief system, certainly any spiritual tradition. Yes, even mine!

For, we are all addicts as psychologist Gerald May noted decades ago. My “guru” Richard Rohr has noted his own penchant for “thought addiction”, a malady that I wrestle with myself. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot. We must have a denial system and religion is one of our best efforts in this respect.

But religion does have the capacity to lead one beyond the “addictive” dimension of faith into a region of value, into a region of human experience in which one offers respect, value, and love to the whole of God’s creation. But this entails giving up the addiction to the “letter of the law” which then entails having the courage to realize just how much we are all slaves to this “letter of the law.” It requires understanding what Martin Buber called the “it world” and respecting and participating in this “it world” while realizing that one’s roots are “elsewhere.”

But religion also has the capacity to illustrate the same dishonesty of the “it-world” and offer only a smug, self-serving dog-and-pony show which has the simple purpose of perpetuating its own private fantasy, of being only a “work of the flesh” as the Apostle Paul would put it. This religion illustrates the “bad faith” so eloquently described by Sartre, the faith that Shakespeare had in mind when he noted, “With devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself.”

A root fear with all addiction is hopelessness which is associated with the fear of being out of control. This fear drives addicts to invest immense energy into their “substance” and thereby derive a sense of being in control even though from anyone looking on they are very much out of control. It is not pleasant for Christians to consider their faith as a “substance”…nor is it for adherents of any other belief system…but when they venture into the addictive dimension of faith they are totally missing the point of their faith and are using it merely as a means of escaping reality. And reality, if we live authentically or even attempt to, will always lead to vulnerability.

The Adventure of Life

“Life is an adventure,” so they say.  It is a commonplace that is almost banal, ranking right up there with “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  But, I find it really is an adventure which takes place when one begins to venture beyond the narrow confines of the way one was taught to see…and feel…the world.  But the real challenge lies in the very difficult task of becoming aware of this narrow prism through which one views the world, how the tyranny of assumptions shapes our fundamental perceptions of the world.  And to ask one to see these premises that shapes this world view is like asking a fish to see water.

It must be noted by those of us who swim in the aether of cerebral thought that most people in the world cannot ever make this meta-cognitive leap; and for them to do so would be catastrophic for human culture.  The day-to-day grind of reality depends on people who “mindlessly” go through the motions of their daily life without questioning the “basic assumptions” that I am putting on the table here.  And furthermore, for me to use the term “mindless” here merits caution as I do have a contempt gene which is too often near the surface!

We are tribal creatures and the tribal rituals are easily analyzed by people like myself who have lived their whole life “off the grid” in some fashion.  (I think one term for people like me is “pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals” or perhaps more accurately “alienated.”)   But we are a tribe, a global tribe composed of smaller tribes who must somehow find a way to live together with a modicum of harmony.  But each tribe has an innate tendency to not see beyond the safe confines of its basic assumptions and each member of that tribe learns to drink the same “kool-aid.”  That is what makes it a tribe.

But the adventure of life starts when we realize that we have “drank the kool-aid” in some fashion and are shaped by basic assumptions given to us by our culture.  Then we can begin to find a bit of freedom and can begin to play with reality.  Yes, we can even begin to “play with our self” (wink, wink) and with the beautiful human and natural world that we find ourselves in, a beautiful “Garden of Eden” in some sense.

However, it is scary!  We are hard-wired to live within those “safe confines” and to suddenly realize we are “off the reservation” can easily be a Pyrrhic victory.  To take a quantum leap here, it will ultimately bring us to the Shakespearean issue of “to be, or not to be” and can even bring one to the point of suicide.  For it is gut-wrenchingly painful to realize that one does not belong to the tribe, to be deprived of that “fig-leaf,” and to stand there on that heath like King Lear, pelted by that pitiless storm, naked as a jay-bird.

This is where faith comes in for me.  But the temptation here is to take one’s tribal faith, make a fanatical investment or re-investment in it, and hold on “come hell or high water.”  And all fanaticism (i.e., “addiction) has its roots with this deep-seated existential loneliness.  The tribal religion that my culture offered me was the Judeo-Christian tradition and I have certainly allowed it to be in my life the “opiate” that Karl Marx described.  But opiate does not work for me anymore…or at least that one does not! (I do drink too much!)  I find that my “tribal religion” offers symbols, stories, traditions that are very valuable as I stand here on this heath with King Lear and others and find that there is hope and even purpose.  This “adventure” I am discovering now beyond those aforementioned “confines” involves death, for pushing limits always involves a death-wish of some sort but the Christian tradition teaches that death and live are intertwined and that to “die” is to “live.”  To put it succinctly, there is no “life” without “death.”  Oh yes, there is existence but there is no experience of human-ness, being a live body and soul for this brief moment we have in this time-space continuum.  This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples who wanted to delay going with him for to help with a burial party, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

However, here is an important point that I’ve already touched on.  It is easy to interpret that quip from Jesus to mean that everyone else in the world who did not follow him was “dead” and therefore would “burn in hell one day.”  That is how I was taught!  But I don’t think so.  Jesus was playing with words, telling his disciples that they needed to follow him and let the burial party take care of its business, that it did not need them.  Jesus was saying that the rest of the world was okay and “dead” was only a metaphor to say they were not amenable to his teachings, that their role in life was to see things differently and to live different lives within “safe confines.”  Jesus realized that the “adventure” I’ve described here was not for everybody but that their life also was “ok”.