“It is what it is” (II)

There is nothing more there than what is there; but what is there is more than it appears

3,900 words

The previous post titled, “It is what it is,” ended with these sentences:

“Things are ‘just what they are.’ In one sense they never change because ‘they are only what’s there, …’ But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the forces that go into our makeup, the relationship of gratitude that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not of some washed-up ancient war-god with an unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends ‘dependent arising.’ This is where metaphysics begins.”

The fundamental argument of these essays is that human relationship has a transforming power over the material universe because by changing the human valence it significantly changes the environment in which material processes work themselves out. That is certainly meant to include everything on earth right up to human evolution, and, given the significance of the human presence within the totality of matter’s energy, ultimately, even if only eventually, the whole cosmic process.

Relationship means bearing. It is basically a noetic phenomenon because it draws its primary significance from human thought and has its greatest impact through attitude, feelings and intentionality which are all the by-products of thought. How I think of myself in connection with any other thing is the ground of how I act and react with regard to it.

Thought as a psychological phenomenon is a key notion in the Buddha’s program. It is the fulcrum around which turn the “four truths” that are often used as a short summary of his teaching. The four truths are:

First: the fact of universal suffering among human beings attests to the dissatisfaction we experience even when our demands are met. Humans are endemically unsatisfied.

Second: this dissatisfaction is born of the uncontrolled cravings that emanate from the unconscious thought stream of the human organism: thought evokes desire, uncontrolled desire creates dissatisfaction.

Third: craving can be controlled and eventually terminated by controlling thought. When cravings are terminated suffering will cease.

Fourth: the consistent practice of basic moral behavior, what Buddha called the “eightfold path” or dharma, made possible by thought-control, will bring justice and harmony to the human community and inner peace and happiness to each individual.

The central factor in both the arising of suffering and its cessation is thought, a general word that refers to the stream of images that run through our minds and the feelings of desire or aversion that are associated with them. The opening words of the Dhammapada, which is said to be the one of the earliest collections of the Buddha’s preaching and a concise distillation of his vision and program, make this point emphatically:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.[1]

It is from this central focus on thought that the Buddha’s emphasis on meditation — and from there the practice of mindfulness which is the continuation of the meditative posture throughout the day — becomes clear.

The control of thought is the practical tool for changing behavior. When we speak of thought in this sense we realize we are speaking of an unconscious process not unlike the instinctive behavior of animals who are obeying algorithms “selected” by evolution and hard-wired into the DNA that controls the neurological and hormonal systems of their organisms. The fact that this thought process is mental has deceived us in the West into believing that in the case of human beings it was a “spiritual” pro­cess and not material. But the Buddha recognized the reflex nature of human behavior, and the paradoxical unconsciousness that characterizes human mental processes. He saw that as the key to transforma­tion: make the unconscious mental processes conscious and you can change them. Since you are what you do and you do what you think, by changing what you think, eventually you can transform yourself. If you want to become a just, generous and compassionate human being start thinking just, generous and compassionate thoughts. If you want to stop being judgmental, self-centered and disdainful of others, stop judging, catch yourself when selfish and disparaging thoughts enter your head even when you are just daydreaming. That’s what Buddha meant by meditation: become conscious of what you are thinking, and think the thoughts you want and they will lead you to the behavior you want.

Now this is extraordinary despite its simplicity. It means that at some point along the line the hard-wired biochemical algorithms that over eons of geologic time were developed to predispose the biological organism to behavior that worked for survival became malleable to human will and intention. Humans, somehow, had developed the capacity to transcend the evolutionary programming of their own organism and change it in accord with their vision of what they want to be. But how can this be? How can a biological organism bypass and even reverse its own programming — which is the very source and basis of its material survival in a material world.

It is even more extraordinary because the Buddha identified the process as completely natural.   There was no recourse to gods or superhuman powers emanating from another world. He insisted that there was no “self” outside the organism — i.e., a “soul” separate from the body that functioned outside of the chain of the organism’s material causes.

By one’s self alone the evil is done, by one’s self one suffers; by one’s self evil is left undone, by one’s self one is purified. The pure and the impure stand and fall by themselves, no one can purify another.[2]

It was the very same human organism that disappears at death that enters the chain of causes before or beyond behavior and modifies it as behavior. The physical habituation created by repeated patterns of behavior following the urgings of embedded algorithms was not eliminated but rather incrementally modified — nudged — over a long period of time and effort, with the effect that a new physical habituation was slowly introduced in place of the old, but at no point was physical habituation erased or superseded­. The will and intention to transform itself, in other words, functioned within the limits that determine the operation of biological algorithms; their finalities were not obliterated nor ignored, but modified from within — transformed.

What’s so pivotal about this insight is that it offers a compelling explanation of the “mind-body” problem that is a scientifically compatible alternative to the traditional, discredited but intractable western assumption that the human mind is an example of the presence of a different kind of entity in the universe: spirit. Buddhist practice is consistent with the position that, in the case of humankind, the very biological organism made only of matter, without any change in its make-up whatsoever, is capable of a level of activity that other configurations of the same material components are not. Humans are capable of intentionally modifying the algorithms that determine organismic behavior.

Please notice the paradox here: even after modification, algorithms still determine behavior; nothing there has changed, it is still a completely biochemical, material phenomenon. But the bearing, the direction, the inclination, the proclivity of the algorithm has been significantly re-aligned, sometimes by as much as 1800. It is possible to turn the human organism in the completely opposite direction with regard to an object of desire or aversion. Hatred can become love, revulsion can become attraction.

So it appears that in the case of humankind, matter exhibits a transcendence that belies the limitations said to characterize it.

Before we go further on this path I want to make clear what I mean by transcendence. Transcendence for me never means that something — an entity or force — goes beyond matter, because I believe that there is nothing but material energy in our cosmos. I will always use transcendence to mean either a material event that goes beyond expectations (but never goes beyond materiality) or to refer to an unknown factor responsible for known phenomena — a factor which is also presumed to be material but cannot currently be identified by our instruments of observation and inferential tools. Transcendence refers to material events and to our know­ledge of them.

Matter transcends itself in two senses. Evolution is the first. Evolution is responsible for matter’s continual incremental re-configurations of its own internal relationship of elements under the impulse of the need to survive that eventually produce emergent species of being. By emer­gence evolutionary biologists mean the appearance in the material world of entities capable of levels of behavior that the earlier organisms from which they evolved were not.[3] Life, for example, is emergent in the evolutionary process. Organisms that apparently were not alive evolved into organisms that exhibited the behavior characteristic of life. Human conscious intelligence is another example. Animals that appeared incapable of what we call conscious intelligence eventually evolved into organisms that were capable of thought. This ability to produce new organisms that transcend their ancestors in significant ways is why I say that matter is transcendent in itself. Matter has the capacity to transcend itself through incremental modifications. It’s why I call my picture of the world transcendent materialism.

Please notice in passing, the incremental material modifications characteristic of evolutionary change resemble the features of the Buddhist method of modifying feelings and transforming behavior by controlling thought.

The second use of the word transcendence has to do with human understanding, what we have systematized into the disciplines we call science. Our sciences assume that all phenomena are the effects of causes. When there are phenomena whose cause science cannot identify we say that they are transcendent. But, I want to emphasize that the word does not refer to anything that is immaterial. It’s another example that justifies the term transcendent materialism. There is nothing that transcends matter. All the human activities known as “mental,” which includes the very ability to recognize one’s own self, are dependent on the integrity of the material structures of the human organism, like the brain, or they disappear or are significantly distorted. Transcendence in this second sense simply means that matter does things that go beyond what our sciences thought it could do.

The immediate corollary is that these components — comprised of the same material energy released at the time of the big bang — have all along had the potential for such behavior, a potential that was apparently activated by the specific re-configuration achieved in the evolutionary emergence of the organism. This demands that we re-think how we understand matter. It suggests that what we have called matter and defined in a way that was diametrically opposed to “spirit” was an erroneous imposition created by our prejudice. We thought matter was an inert, lifeless, unconscious, inanimate “stuff” that could be acted upon but could not act. We thought matter needed “spirit” if was to live and be conscious … that there had to be two kinds of reality: matter and spirit. But we were wrong.

We now realize that there is only one kind of “stuff” in our universe: something that in the past we alternately called matter or spirit and that now appears to be neither, but some “other” thing entirely that is capable of manifesting both kinds of behavior depending on the degree of the internal integration and complexification of its components. When I use the word “matter,” this stuff is what I mean. These components when integrated at the levels studied by physics and chemistry display none of the characteristics that come to dominate matter’s behavior in its more evolved forms — animal life and then later, human consciousness. Evolution in every case has elaborated organisms whose configurations are beyond the capacity of physics and chemistry to explain using their limited observational and analytical tools, requiring the establishment of entirely new disciplines based on their own premises and axioms — biology, psychology, sociology — to understand them.

Immanence

It would seem there is little more to be said at this point since we know so little. But at least we have clarified that the answer lies within matter itself beneath the surface of the phenomena perceptible at primitive levels of evolution. At other, more developed levels, matter’s transcendent behavior is altogether without explanation if matter’s primitive form — studied by physics and chemistry — is all we assume is there. There has to be something more to matter or life and thought remain utterly incomprehensible. What is that “something” and how do we speak of it in a way that does not contradict our belief that there is no dualism? We know there are not two realities but only one, and it is the one that we experience with our eyes, ears, nose, hands and minds — material reality.

Clearly we cannot say what it is, or even that it is a “what.” Perhaps it is a mere modulation of the frequency of a wave, or an imperceptible dimension, or a relationship as we have suggested earlier in this essay none of which are “things.”

But to know that we not only observe and can measure material phenomena for which we have no explanation whatsoever, and that these indisputably material phenomena for all their mystery and impenetrability are some of the most familiar, universal and successfully utilized capacities of the untrained human organism, like human thought and moral transformation, is to deepen and intensify the sense of transcendence. It makes it clear beyond question that transcendence is an entirely immanent quality of our cosmos’ material energy of which we are made. This transcendence, in other words, whatever it will ultimately turn out to be, does not belong to another world or plane of existence; it is interiorly part and parcel of the very components that make up our human organisms. It resides deep within matter and is constitutive of what matter is. We, and apparently all things made of matter, are the ground of that transcendence. There is no duality here, no “other thing” or other place, for we are talking only about matter in this cosmos. The source of our ability to stand above and beyond our own material algorithms and re-configure them so they transform who we think we are, is part of the very material fabric of our being. In one sense it is not mysterious at all for we live and use it every day … but we have no idea what it is.

We are nothing more than what we are, but what we are is more than we thought.

Religion

It is this more that corresponds to what the various world religions have identified as a divine principle, the source of our sense of the sacred.  I call it LIFE.  And while the Buddha never appealed to this divine principle either theoretically or in practice for the implementation of his program of self-transformation, he never denied its existence and he utilized the mind’s power to transcend organismic programming as the primary tool for achieving individual liberation and social harmony.  The point I am making is that despite the fact that I reject any claim that this divine principle is a rational “God” entity, a person, not made of matter, who is responsible for the existence of the forms and features of all other entities in the universe and for all the events that occur during the passage of time, the indisputable transcendence manifest in our world supports but does not obligate the fundamental religious conclusion that there is a divine principle resident in the universe. Those who choose to relate to this transcen­dence in a way that validates our sense of the sacred cannot be dismissed as irrational. By the same token, the absence of any clear knowledge of what exactly creates this transcendence, also validates those who, without dismissing it or its primordial influence on the human condition, choose to attribute it to unknown causes. Their parallel claim that the spontaneous sense of the sacred that has given rise to the world’s religions can be understood as the affective side of the conatus sese conservandum, an unavoidable echo of matter’s existential energy, is no less legitimate. “Atheism,” like religion, is reasonable but it is not obligatory.

In either case, however, the Buddha’s discoveries are compelling. Whether or not you choose to utilize his methods for transformation, you are enjoined to embrace basic morality — the eightfold path, the dharma — as indispensable to the survival of human society and to transform yourself accordingly. Social immorality — greed, hatred, exploitation, injustice, sexual violence, murder, larceny, prejudice, disrespect for persons or groups — is not an option no matter how it is presented in the movies. Whether or not individuals choose to integrate these insights with what they have inherited from their ancient religious traditions, all are faced with finding ways to live with gratitude and loving-kindness, suppressing greed, rejecting hatred, eliminating injustice, forgiving and having compassion on others, respecting and defending one’s own rights, repudiating the claims to superiority that lie at the base of all inter-tribal rivalry and conflict, protecting species other than human, defending the earth’s life-support systems by which we all live.

Basic morality is the key to social harmony. And social harmony is indispensable for human survival. Basic morality, therefore, is not optional. All religions may be thought of as different ways of motivating basic morality. But the Buddha showed that motivations other than the desire for individual peace of mind and the survival of society were not indispensable. Clear insight into what creates harmony and disharmony among people is all that is required. Anything else meant destruction. The Buddha appealed to common sense.

Metaphysics

Social harmony and therefore basic morality are obligatory because we cannot survive without them. Other human pursuits, like the desire to understand, are not, despite the innate thirst that drives them. The search for understanding, admittedly an almost insuppressible desire of the human mind arising from the leadings of conscious intelligence, cannot be considered obligatory for we can survive without it. But the universal experience of understanding through causes is operational for every human being from a very early age and those who try to prevent it, or control it, or deny it, are doomed to frustration. The ability to understand cannot be exterminated; it is the ground of personal freedom. As much as any other feature of our organism, it defines who we are as human beings. The hunger to understand is an intrinsic drive of human nature.

The very fact that there is an undeniable transcendent feature of the human condition — the power of moral transformation — for which we have no explanation leaves the human mind uneasy. Human beings are not comfortable in the face of mystery. And the discomfort created by being confronted with an effect for which we cannot assign a cause can reach such a level of intensity that it is not unusual to hear it described as painful. It is significant that once the cause is known and understood, the pain and tension quickly dissipates.

There is no way to suppress the desire to understand the source of the transcendence that we encounter in human life. Because of our abstract and convoluted history, however, many will not engage in this pursuit. Those who join the effort are all “scientists,” for that is the meaning of the term: those who explain effects by identifying their causes.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would agree that much of what we have inherited as religion in the West was the ancient habit of imagining other-worldly causes for known effects. Thus ancient religion has been correctly criticized as an ersatz “science” that flourished in the vacuum created by the absence of true science. Ancient religion imagined invisible causes which supposedly belonged to another, imaginary, world.

The scientific continuation of that religious search took the form of metaphysics, a branch of inquiry developed by the Greeks. What made metaphysics different from physics was precisely the visibility. Physics looked for the visible causes of visible effects, even if those causes were only visible to highly sophisticated instruments of observation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, assuming the existence of “spirit,” looked for the invisible causes of visible effects, causes that were invisible precisely because they were believed to belong to another world … a world where invisible ideas that were considered immaterial — spirit — were the only reality and extended their causal power to the visible world of matter.

Metaphysics as constituted in that historical context is no longer valid because there is no other world of invisible causal immaterial ideas that explains this material world of visible effects. But the process of understanding observable effects by identifying their sufficient and necessary causes remains. The difficulty arises that such causes are not necessarily discoverable by physics, not because they are not material, but because they are not visible either to the naked eye or to any currently extant tool of human observation or measurement. We simply do not know what portion of the spectrum of matter’s energy is occupied by the causes of human evolutionary transcendence, transformation and our inability to explain either.

But we know there is something there, because we can see its effects and they are clearly transcendent. So, do we need metaphysics? Drop the name if you insist, but the search will go on.

 

[1] Dhammapada, ch 1, # 1, Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 60-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., ch XII, # 165, (Kindle Locations 279-280).
[3] Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. [Accessed January 11, 2018]. “emergence,” in evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. …
The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle.
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“It is what it is.”

“It is what it is … it is only what it is.  There is nothing more there than what is there.”

Before going any further I want to acknowledge the simple clarity and absolute ultimacy of those words. I totally agree with them. They are the sole basis and authority for the following discussion on how we relate to our material universe. These reflections limit themselves to the phenomenological dimension: they eschew metaphysics altogether.

 

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It’s because they are clear and ultimate that those words offer a challenge to our understanding of the material universe and the way we humans, who are its genetic offspring, relate to it. We are all and only matter. For over nine years in these essays, I have tried to be as clear and as ultimate about my understanding of reality and what that understanding means for religion. This particular articulation I’ve quoted advances my project significantly, and I am supremely grateful for its assistance. Why should I be so grateful?

Because most of the metaphysical ways of saying what I meant have run the risk of re-introduc­ing a fatal duality back into reality, a duality that I have struggled mightily to eradicate. Metaphysics is not our idiom, and we tend to take its abstractions and imagine them as “things.” I tried to address my apprehensions in two essays posted in August of 2016 titled “A Slippery Slope.”

That traditional duality is expressed in many ways: the “sacred and the profane,” “natural and supernatural,” mind and body, matter and spirit, “God” and creation. All are reducible to the notion that what we call “God” is an entity — a real separate independent stand-alone being, existing alongside of and opposed to other real individual “things” like the things in our material universe, including us. None of those dichotomies are real because the statement about a separate “God-entity” is not real. The differences and separations that they all assume — between “God” or a divine sphere and other things — do not exist. They are conceptual contraries that at one time, perhaps, were believed to be real ontological opposites, but are now recognized as chimeras. Trying to explain this in metaphysical terms is difficult to grasp.

Hence, I use the word “eradicate” intentionally because it evokes the image of “tearing up by the roots.” Using less surgically terminal language often will be taken to mean “the duality is officially deleted but we surreptitiously use it when no one is watching,” i.e., something we claim does not exist but we have recourse to in practice. The practice, of course is religion. Our western religions of the book have habituated us to a hopelessly anthropomorphic imagery about “God” and we tend to interpret any recognition of a divine principle to mean what our imagery has always evoked: a separate divine person. To insist that we are pursuing a meaningful synthesis of our understanding of reality and then refuse to integrate basic practice with the theoretical ground we claim to have established, is to fail at the very doorstep. For how true can our vision be if we can’t live with it? These reflections avoid that approach.

The way we have understood the presence of the Sacred in our lives is the source of the problem; it has created the difficulty we have in describing that presence in a way that sustains a consistency between vision and practice. It is difficult because, due to the conditioning of our religious heritage we do not seem to be able to conceptualize presence without evoking entity, and a rational humanoid entity besides.

Words betray us. They come to us already forged. In this case, the use of the word “presence” has already skewed the discussion. For the word implies that what we are talking about is a “thing.” So how do I both evoke the sense of a “presence that is really there” that goes beyond wishful thinking or the evocation of poetic symbols but that does not simultaneously imply the existence of a “thing,” an “entity,” a “substance” or a “person”?

 

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I am going to suggest the use of a word that I have used many times before that I believe speaks to the heart of matter — I believe it explains what I am talking about, and it is able to do that because, in fact, it is itself the real basis for the explanation. That word is “relationship.”

Now this word, like all our words has a charged history. The scholastics used it but gave it an ontological meaning. We still have a tendency to imagine relationship as a chemical valence, or an interaction of force fields between entities, suggesting an entity in its own right, invisible perhaps, but there, nonetheless … i.e., present.  So when we insist that a relationship is real we tend to slip into thinking of it as some thing that stands beside and alongside of other things, an example of the duality we are trying to eradicate. It is not. It is a bearing, an intentionality of the one thing toward another. (As a corollary it deserves mention that, in fact, relationship tends to reduce duality to unity because it generates a concurrence in the two things that are relating to one another that mimics a common identity.)

The mediaeval scholastic application of the category of relation to the persons of the Trinity was both the result of that ontologizing tendency and the cause of a Christian belief that took what were three different ways that human beings relate to the Source of their sense of the Sacred and imagined them to be metaphysical structures — real persons — that are internally constitutive of Deity itself. The absurdity here has been suppressed for so long that a rational discussion is virtually impossible today, not even in the closed door meetings where theologians talk to themselves. But I believe that relationship, correctly understood, is the best way to describe the entire realm of reality consigned to religion: the sphere of the Sacred. Let’s unpack all of this.

First, let’s consider how relationship is real. We’ll begin with an innocuous example: the relationship between me and my cat. I used to have a cat that I fed and took to the vet when she was sick. She was friendly to the point of appearing affectionate. I acknowledge it may only have been an evolutionary adaptation. Whatever my cat’s true feelings were, it worked with me. I “loved” my cat. She was not just a cat. She was my cat.

I may have seen a cat out on the street and couldn’t care less, but once I realized it was my cat my entire reaction changed. Before recognition and acknowledgement the animal was only what she was. After recognition she physically remained exactly what she was the second before but now she is transformed. Has anything changed? No! But then, Yes! because now she is the object of my loving-kindness. And these changes are real. Her entire significance in the human world where significance is significant has changed and following hard on that, so has her destiny in this vale of tears. The precarious life and possible violent death of a stray alley-cat is no longer her anticipated trajectory. And yet nothing has changed. She is what she is … she is only what she is and what’s there is the only thing that’s there.

But of course, what’s changed is my bearing as a member of the planet’s ruling species transforming the environment where she will eke out her survival. But even here, nothing’s changed except my attitude, or better, my acknowledgement of a relationship. That cat was my cat.

This kind of paradigm shift is even more pronounced in the case of human beings. The ability to observe and react to human beings differentially inside and outside of personal relationships actually characterizes much of human behavior and the complex history of clans and nations that has evolved from it. Our being … and our consequent destiny … is determined exclusively by relationship. The astonishing change in attitude that occurs when we accept people as known persons with whom we have a relationship is a prime example of the severely limited scope of the maxim that opened these reflections. “We are only what we are” until we are in a relationship. Then everything (metaphorically speaking) changes (it’s metaphorical precisely because, in fact, nothing changes). For the personal relationship transforms the individual not only in the eyes of the relator but in the individual’s own eyes as well. Relationships reduce discreteness and separation even as they preserve distinction and diversity. Such transformations can, and actually do change the course of human history. They do not affect the “thing,” but they do affect the process in which the thing works out its destiny.

Now this is really a no-brainer, but we don’t turn our attention to the fact that relational factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with “what is really and only there,” profoundly transform reality in the human sphere. And what, after all, are we talking about when we talk about religion, but the significance of the effects of relationship in the human sphere. Religion is not science. Religion is the activation of a bearing — a specific direction in the human process, an intentionality. Religion is what happens when we assume a certain relationship toward the material universe. The material universe includes us humans, who are a slightly more evolved version of biological organisms that share exactly the same matter as everything else there is.

 

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Well, what exactly is that relationship that is supposedly so transformative? It’s a relationship wherein human beings acknowledge that we are the product of a massive elaborative process going on within the super-abun­dant matter of which we are constructed and from whose more primitive forms we evolved. The very genetic modulations in form and function resulting from evolution already represent something of a challenge to the declaration that things are “only what they are.” For in the case of our own organism at one level we are “only” quarks and leptons, the sub-atomic quanta packets that are the building blocks of everything there is. And yet at another level here am I. At the level of my fully evolved organism I am something entirely and significantly different from the very elements of which I am constituted. The biological evolution occurring over eons and eons of deep geological time could not have taken place if the multiple sustained and consistent interactions evident in the availability of the material components and favorable environmental conditions were not there. No human being like myself, looking at this scenario rationally, could be anything but supremely grateful that the multiplicity of factors that comprised the conditions that allowed my humanity, which I enjoy so intensely, to exist— embodied in a material organism that is so much my own that it has given rise to my very self — were so stable, and that my ancestors had the ability to adapt to whatever instabilities continued to exist within that environment.

Gratitude. Now we are getting into the thick of it. I am grateful that I am here. Doesn’t gratitude imply that there is someone to whom I am grateful? And if there is someone to thank, aren’t we speaking about something other than what is “just there”? How can things be “just what they are” if as a matter of fact their presence is being provided (or has been provided) by someone or something else … which by implication must also be there if indeed it is the real provider of what is there?

Clearly this is what the author of the opening maxim was getting at: he was insisting there is no “God.” Please be advised, so do I. There is only the material universe doing what it has done on its own for the 14 billion years that we can verify its existence. Therefore a sentiment like gratitude that seems to imply something else, must be, in principle, an illusion.

Now this creates a problem, because the sense of gratitude is not only spontaneous and very intense, it is also sustained even after having been informed by modern science about the way evolution functions. As a matter of fact the sense of gratitude is as sustained, continuous and insuppressible as the sustained positive magnanimity that human beings perceive gives rise to it. Gratitude and magnanimity appear to be correlated, for we human beings, by being in an uninterrupted sense the product of a process like biological evolution, which we did not initiate and about which we have little knowledge and over which we have virtually no control, we have a profound sense of have been given, or provided … or to speak more impersonally: thrown, spawned, emanated, evolved … so the very interior feeling of “being only what I am” becomes difficult to maintain. I am constantly confronted with the evidence that I am not what I have chosen or made myself to be but rather I am the product of a multitude of contributing factors that are not me: the reproductive cells of my ancestors and theirs, the quality and availability of food in my now socially controlled environment, the accessibility of health care, police protection, infrastructure adequate to the prevailing climatic conditions, etc. These are the proximate causes of my existence. Even without referring to more remote cosmic conditions that made my existence possible I see that “what I am” depends in large measure on other things — on what I am not.

I really have no choice: like it or not, I have to be grateful, because the very thing that I cherish the most, my life, my self, is dependent upon a host of “other things.” Of course, in terms of strict logic, you may say you have no obligation to be grateful, because there is no one person or self-iden­ti­fied collectivity of persons who are responsible for all these things which make it possible to be here. My existence is not the result of any observable benevolence. But since when does obligation characterize gratitude, any more than the acts that gave it rise? The feeling of gratitude, I contend, does not come from the identification of a donor, it comes from the acknowledgement of dependency — the awareness of being a recipient. I love my life, hugely, and I am supremely grateful to whatever it is — no matter how many disparate and unconnected factors there are — that make my life possible. Gratitude is first and foremost the recognition of having received myself from elsewhere … of not having made myself. It is a spontaneous reaction that arises and is sustained in total ignorance of the source of such largesse.

If we are going to analyze this accurately I believe we have to keep this sequence of discovery in mind and acknowledge what is primary and what is secondary. Nothing “objective” except other conditioned material factors have been mentioned as the source of my precarious existence. What we know is what we are, and what we are is the end product of a multiplicity of agents, the majority of which we are ignorant of and, in fact, we may never know. This indisputable reality that conditions what we are, i.e., that we are radically dependent, is the starting point; it absolutely determines our self-embrace. To accept ourselves for what we really are is to accept ourselves as received from elsewhere, and so totally NOT in control of our own existence that we don’t even know all the things on which we are actually dependent to continue being here and being what we are.

Clearly, in this view, what we are is an item in a vast network of things and processes that transcend our organism in whatever direction we look.   So from this angle it seems that anyone who would claim that “what is there is the only thing that’s there” must recognize that the “what” is really an immense totality in motion in which I am borne along like a drop of water in a great river, about which we are all generally aware but which is unknown in all its depth and detail both in things and the forces operative in the process. Without knowing all of what goes into our being here as ourselves, we are not in a position to make any definitive statement about etiology: source and causation. We are utterly agnostic about everything except the one known and clear fact: that we are totally dependent on a vast collectivity that is not us for our being-here and being what we are. And the practical and unavoidable psychological counterpart of this perception is gratitude.

 

4

Now I am going to claim that this self-perception entails a correlative self-embrace that is a crucial step in the establishment of humankind’s moral posture. In other words, the recognition and acceptance of dependency — and its associated gratitude — is constitutive of the moral embrace of the human being functioning within a community of human beings who are necessarily affected as a community by this mutual common acknowledgement. The acceptance of dependency (which includes social inter-dependency) brings a particular moral bearing to the business of living together in community that is achieved by no other means. The community of people who are all personally aware of this fact about themselves and all the members of their community are predisposed to making collective decisions that are compassionate and cooperative: advantageous to each and all.

I believe that this is the primary and foundational level of human social/personal life. This is “ground zero,” the absolutely unavoidable constituent bedrock of human social cooperation. It is essential to human survival because the human individual cannot live outside of human community physically or psychologically. Everything else is secondary to this ground. The perception of dependency and the feeling of gratitude for life are critical to human well-being.

Religion is secondary. There is nothing primary or foundational about religion. Religion has no “facts” of its own. Religion is a tool that the human community has developed to assist in the establishment and the continued protection of the instinct to gratitude with all its sources, viz., the perception of dependency.  In this effort to preserve this personal bearing that society needs so desperately in order to maintain its cooperative character, in ancient times an entire sphere of causes was invented out of the poetic imagination of our earliest ancestors in order to fill the gap in our ignorance. Today we call it myth. This is religion.

The perception of dependency and the concomitant feeling of gratitude is indisputable fact. It is the only religious fact. The rest is projection. The sources and causes of the dependency and the sources and causes of the sustained magnanimity of available resources are fundamentally unknown even to this day. To eliminate this hiatus in our knowledge, which was much more pronounced before the discoveries of modern science, religion was invented and the unknown sources and causes of the desired attitudes imagined. This occurred wherever human community was found, accounting for the plethora of religious forms across the globe. In each case the result was the same: the unknown source and sustainer of existence was imagined and projected as real, generally in the form of a sphere of creative power, both benevolent and malevolent, that were entities humanoid in character — “gods.”

 

5

The gratitude founded on the awareness of dependency that I am now evoking as constitutive of human society and therefore religion, is fundamentally the same as what I have called in other contexts, a sense of the sacred. I spoke of the sense of the sacred as the spontaneous reaction of the individual human being, driven by the innate conatus to survive, aware of his own precarious possession of existence, and the consequent thirst and hunger for a secure source.   They are the same phenomenon seen in the first case from a social perspective, and an individual in the second. In each the phenomenon I am talking about is a human psychological bearing, an attitude, an intentionality that derives from the human perception of its own vulnerability … i.e., that human beings do not possess a stand-alone locked-down control over their having been born, or being this person or that, or how long their existence as human organisms will last or where it is going … but nevertheless love cherish and will do anything to preserve their life.

It is what the Buddhists call the awareness of “dependent arising” which is often conceptualized in later Buddhism as “emptiness.” Everything is “empty” because everything is characterized by the absence of independent existence. Please notice: there is no mention of, much less identification of a metaphysical source of existence, or an objective remedy for emptiness. The entire exercise has been on the subjective side. The analysis attempts to plumb the human source of the religious phenomenon and finds it in the common experience of humankind of its depen­dency which generates religion as its universal response. Essential to that response is gratitude.

Putting all this together with the transformative power of relationship that we explored in sections 2 and 3, we can see what religion has come to mean for the human species. The relationship to life that is characterized by gratitude sustains and justifies a cooperative spirit in the human community. A sense of gratitude deriving from an awareness of dependency transforms the perception of the material environment from being neutral or even hostile to patently familiar, magnanimous and profligate, if not benevolent.

I want to emphasize: the transformative factor in this view of things is not the identification of some “God” person, despite the fact that people will tend to imagine a sustained magnanimity as the gift of a benevolent source, and benevolence evokes personality, as does gratitude. In the view I am espousing, however, all things remain exactly and only what they are and always have been: the evolved versions of material energy released at the big bang. There is nothing else there. The only change is the relationship generated by the community of human individuals who — prodded by an insuppressible innate material instinct for self-preservation — love and cherish the human life they possess and everything that has gone into creating and sustaining it. The individual comes to realize that he or she isn’t just “what he is, or what she is.” They realize they are the point of coalescence of all their multiple causes and therefore bear within themselves each of those causes. They recognize themselves as the spawn and representative of a totality in process about which they know almost nothing.

Ultimately, then, it can be said that gratitude is reducible to the love of life, and the love of life to the embedded conatus. It must be acknowledged that we are to that extent utterly determined. We cannot help ourselves. “We cannot keep from singing,” as the old Baptist hymn proclaims, not because we have positively encountered some divine benevolent donor who has blessed us with the gift of human life, but simply because we cannot do otherwise. We love material life because WE ARE MATERIAL LIFE and we are programmed to love what we are. We can’t help it. If we try to suppress it we make ourselves sick. We are grateful because we have exactly what we are programmed to want; our only problem is we do not have it permanently. (The vain attempt to create this absent permanence by accumulating things and aggrandizing the “self” at the expense of others is the source of all self-inflicted human suffering, conflict, injustice and disharmony among us. Correlatively, the acceptance of impermanence accompanied by an unconditioned gratitude gives rise to an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness toward the entire cosmos of dependent entities which gave us birth and to which we belong.)

These minimalist conclusions may not satisfy those who have become dependent on their fantasies about “God” persons and other “spiritual” entities imagined to live in a parallel world invisible to us, but it helps make clear what exactly we are dealing with. These are the phenomena we are confronted with. As far as facts are concerned, it is all we know. It exhaustively describes our present condition; it is indisputable. How all this began and is able to sustain itself and what it will all become, is a matter of legitimate metaphysical conjecture, and in the context of our universally acknowledged ignorance, no reasonable possibility can be validly dismissed beforehand as untenable. Those who have decided to opt for the traditional western humanoid “God” person(s) have no greater claim to factuality than any other theory about the origins and destiny of our reality. It is all the work of the imagination — every bit of it.

But in addition I want to emphasize: it is all secondary. The primary event is the acceptance of the full depth of dependency that characterizes organic life and the whole hearted embrace of the spontaneous gratitude and loving-kindness that wells up in the human heart toward the multiple factors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, proximate and remote that have concurred so marvelously in producing and sustaining my existence. I embrace in an act of loving-kindness all the cosmic forces that produce my existence. This is the ultimate religious act. It transforms the cosmos itself from being “just what it is” to being my cosmos — the beloved ancestor that spawned me. This is not metaphor. It is raw fact. And the love I have for myself is transmitted to my cosmos, my environment, my community, making it cherished, the object of loving-kindness, compassion and concern. There may not have been any affect of love toward me functioning in any of the various “causes” of my existence, including my parents whose copulation may have been devoid of any focus outside of themselves and their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter. I don’t love them because they loved me but because they gave me existence. It is my existence that I love. The relationship is created unilaterally by my gratitude as recipient — by my love of my LIFE — and it transforms the universe by bathing it in the light and heat of loving-kindness. It turns the universe into my universe, and the earth into my earth, and gathers all the human beings around me into that embrace. All people become my people because I love LIFE.

Imagine, then, a community of people each individually grateful for his or her LIFE and mindful of the many sources of mutual conditioning among us by which each one affects each other. We each embrace all, in our gratitude and compassion, and we are each embraced by all in theirs. For we know what we are made of. We are well aware of our radical dependency. We are dust and fast disappearing. This I contend is the religious event. The one thing necessary. The act of cosmic gratitude is constitutive of the authentic human individual and the cooperative human community. Without it full humanity remains only a potential of the individual organism which continues being “just what it is” until energized by the transforming power of the community’s gratitude, evoking loving-kindness.

So it’s true. Things are “just what they are.” In one sense they never change because “they are only what’s there, and they are there the way they just happened to get there.” But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the cosmic forces that went into our makeup, the relationship of loving-kindness that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially. If you doubt that you have that power, try cosmic gratitude for just one day. You’ll see.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not some washed-up ancient war-god with a dubious and unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends “dependent arising.” This is where metaphysics begins.

 

 

Reflections on the “Our Father”

3,000 words

 Our

It would be inappropriate to address our LIFE as “my.” We are all members of families, clans and lineages that merge in a cloud of ancestors that become totally indistinct as they disappear into the distant past. Way back there our DNA tends to become one single human thing. Go back further, and we mesh with more primitive life forms from which we are descended. Made of the same quarks and leptons, we are all ultimately members of one cosmic organism: the offspring of LIFE, matter’s energy.

Here I am sitting surrounded by things made of wood, clay, fiber, grown or dug from the earth and metals forged in stars. We are all LIFE’s energy to be-here. How can I fail to include their clamor? How can I omit the living cells of my body crammed with molecules and atoms taken in just hours ago from my sibling life-forms, plants and animals, made incandescent by the oxygen in the air all around me that I breathe in uninterruptedly? How can I say “my” when this “self” that prays is a web of living connections ex­ten­ding outward beyond even the earth to the farthest reaches of the cosmos?

Father

“Father” is figurative, of course. But still, LIFE is more like a father than a god. Material LIFE evolved the genetic codes that weave together particu­late matter, chemical valences and electromagnetic force fields that make up our material organisms which reside, draw living energy and find atomic and molecular replacements in this material world. Matter’s LIFE is what spawned us, and matter’s LIFE is the precious spark we bear as our own in our most intimate center, the place where our being-here in each sequential “now” of the flow of time surfaces simultaneously for all of us. We are alive together because we are all born again in every successive instant of this LIFE we bear. We are bound together by LIFE’s material energy that pours out the universe like a river of existence.

We are LIFE’s offspring. But we are not its “children.” LIFE does not micro-manage our lives like a hovering parent; nor like a god does it demand obedience and punish us if we fail to comply or perform miracles in response to our incantations.

LIFE evolves apace with the natural order and that includes our self-determi­na­tion. LIFE lives in our autonomy and full human maturity. It cannot function for us outside of it, so it is meaningless to ask it to do so. We are on our own, and we are responsible for what we think, and what we do.

“Prevenient grace,” in the traditional Christian sense of an infallible influence on our thoughts and choices by a guiding “God,” is a derivative of the naïve concept of “providence” and is equally naïve. It can only be a metaphor. Our life is in seamless confluence with LIFE itself. We are LIFE in human form; LIFE can only do what we do. We cannot ask it for miracles, and it cannot override our decisions. LIFE is not a god.

Who art in heaven

“Heaven” is also a trope. LIFE transcends us all. LIFE is whatever it is and I have no idea what that might be. LIFE’s abundant generosity prompts us to address LIFE as “You.” Is LIFE a “person” at some level imperceptible to us? “Heaven” is a symbolic clue. It means the answer is beyond us. Does LIFE love us? It doesn’t matter. We love LIFE. It gave us itself to be our selves. What more do we need to know? We are its offspring.

I am alive with LIFE’s material energy but I am not all of LIFE. This LIFE I live as my very own, came to me one night in a dreamless sleep and “I” awoke. I did not give it to myself. I know that when it leaves, there is nothing I can do to stop it from going, and once it’s gone there is nothing I can do to bring it back.

Where does it live when it is not living in me? Everywhere, in everything. So I call it “heaven.” It’s my way of reminding myself that I do not know what LIFE is and that it belongs to us all. I do not own LIFE even as I live it as my own and have the capacity to pass it on. LIFE belongs to me as it belongs to all things. LIFE is beyond us all and it is whatever it is …!

Hallowed be thy name

“Hallowed” means “holy.” It is another word for “sacred.” What can it mean to say “LIFE is sacred”? Our gratitude just for being-here would be enough to make LIFE the object of our loving worship.

Does “holy” refer to the traditional difference between the sacred and the profane, i.e., that what is sacred is special, it is kept apart in a special place, taken out only at special times, treated with special care and not mixed with ordinary things which are “profane”? Profane connotes something ordinary, of no value, common, mundane, routine, something to be used and thrown away.

But then, how can we call LIFE “holy,” for LIFE is our common Source. Of all things common and ordinary, LIFE is the com­mon­est and most ordinary of all. LIFE lets itself be used and thrown away. It is the energy of the material universe in which we float suspended like sponges in the sea.

So in this prayer, “holy” must mean something else. It must mean what makes LIFE different. This is a great paradox, for what’s unique about LIFE is precisely that it belongs to us all, from insignificant microbes to the majestic galactic formations seen in the Hubble telescope. We are all driven, set in motion, sustained in existence and drawn into the struggle for survival by LIFE whose evolved Self we are. What makes LIFE special is that it is not special. What makes it uncommon is that it is the most common presence of all: it has made its own reality available to become others, giving itself so completely, so unreservedly, and so unconditionally that it is empty of itself.

What makes LIFE different from everything else is that it is not its own “thing” like the rest of us. It sustains all things intimately with its own self. It is the being-here of all things that are-here, it is the LIFE of all things that live. It is the inner reality of everything.

LIFE has No-Self. It lives in the selves that have evolved from its inner dynamism. That is its holiness: its emptiness, its self-abandon, its utter donation of everything it is, to the point of having nothing that is its own. That is what holiness means in our material universe, and that’s what we seek to emulate: a generosity that leaves us with No-Self to serve: like LIFE whose offspring we are.

Thy kingdom come

LIFE’s “kingdom” is the family of things gathered by LIFE.   But “kingdom” is also a figure of speech. For LIFE is not a king. It says nothing, wants nothing, commands nothing. It brings us together without force or coercion. It is we who imagine LIFE as if it wanted something.

When we look closely we can see that LIFE is pure generosity, total absence of self; it is only others. Jesus, our Jewish Teacher, whose message is captured in this prayer, said “be like your Father who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust, and the rain to fall on the evil and the good.” … LIFE gives the same gifts to all, no matter who they are, and we should be like that. To be “ruled” by LIFE, then, is not to live by coercion or need, physical or emotional, legal or moral, political or religious, but by an energy with an attitude: give your “self” away!

Thy will be done

If we were to imagine that LIFE wanted anything at all we’d have to say, from the way it acts, that there be more LIFE.   We want to transform ourselves so that we will want what LIFE wants and do what LIFE is doing. We want to become imitators and agents of LIFE. This is more than possible, for we are its offspring; we are genetically programmed to generate LIFE … as our bodies constantly remind us.

On earth as it is in heaven

So we, the evolving material forms of LIFE, are active here on our planet the way LIFE is active everywhere in the universe: generous to the point of aban­don­ing its “self” and compassionate toward the conatus-driven material entities with which we share this earth. We all know we are vanishing. We understand why all things tremble. Even the stones will perish.

Give us this day our daily bread

We are matter, and we are vanishing. We need more matter every day to stay alive: food, air, water, clothing, shelter, other people. Being matter creates this struggle for us: we must take in matter from our surroundings or we will not survive. LIFE cannot help us with that. It has already evolved everything we need to procure our own survival together. This “petition” is clearly a fiction: for we are talking to ourselves. We know exactly what we’re up against. We have to provide our own bread as a community. We have no illusions about it; we have to struggle together to survive.

But it makes us anxious as individuals. We have compassion on everything living for we know all individuals are driven by the same need. Everything is under the lash.

Living organisms of every species achieve maturity when they can take care of themselves. We humans provide ourselves with our daily “bread” through intelligent and cooperative labor. To beg LIFE for our daily bread is to embrace our individual maturity in collaboration with other adults without clinging to the sterile individualism of a dependent childhood or puerile adolescence.

We are all born with a conatus whose job it is to keep us alive. But the conatus’ instincts are the same in all individuals: to avoid enemies, to find food and to reproduce. It is a struggle to stay alive, and sometimes we lose. There is bound to be fear, conflict, overreaching, hoarding and violence.

We are all fair game for one another. We are all constructed of the same homogeneous matter and at any moment it can be ingested by other life forms, from microbes to carnivorous predators, to sustain their lives. It is the basis of our own survival. We eat other life forms, God forgive us, and they eat us.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the human condition, the source of potential tragedy: we resonate with LIFE’s generosity but we are driven to stay alive by appropriating the matter of other entities. To survive and reproduce is a command of our flesh that is every bit as imperious as our instinct to share. To live we must take … but to be LIFE we must learn to give and receive what is freely given. This is hard. And we often fail to find the balance.

Forgive us our trespasses

As individuals we get scared. We think we are being diminished and we take too much … and in order to protect ourselves we deny others what they need. God forgive us.

We suspect that others are like us, and are taking more than they need … or they will, and they will even take what we need — what belongs to us. They can’t be trusted. In the end, no matter what we do, we will die … LIFE itself, it seems, can’t be trusted! We can’t help these fears, it’s the way we are.

But we will not allow ourselves that excuse. So we need to forgive ourselves until we get it right. Death or no death, evolution put us in charge. Our intelligent bodies awoke from our ancestral sleep and suddenly everything changed. We see clearly what we are capable of: we choose to follow our potential which mirrors the self-emptying generosity of LIFE itself and subordinate the blind instincts of the conatus to it. Such a choice requires that we forgive ourselves as a first step. How else can we carry out such a momentous project? We want to transform the very conditions of our existence. Asking LIFE to forgive us allows us to forgive ourselves. And it’s not a fiction: the LIFE in which we live and move and have our being has been betrayed by our selfishness — our failure to surrender to the LIFE that we are. May LIFE forgive us … we have betrayed ourselves.

So we ask for forgiveness for letting our selfish conatus mindlessly run the show. We are in charge, we forgot that. We failed ourselves, for we are the living offspring and powerful agents of LIFE. We can’t start again unless we forgive ourselves.

As we forgive those who trespass against us

LIFE put that selfish conatus at the center of our organisms. LIFE evolved this paradox. There’s a design flaw in the human organism, if we’re honest. Who can blame us if we follow our selfish instincts. Blame LIFE!

But we are in charge, and we have made our choice. LIFE did what it had to do, given the material conditions that impacted our evolving bodies and I forgive it! Before even forgiving those frightened people who have cheated, robbed, insulted and injured me in body and mind, deceived by the anxieties coming from the spontaneous instincts of the mindless conatus, I forgive LIFE itself for the way it evolved! It had no choice.

I forgive LIFE for leaving us at the mercy of a need to survive that has driven a wedge between us … separating us one from another and making it hard to trust. I forgive LIFE for the design flaw that requires my death and the death of all living things as the condition for being-here. I forgive LIFE for our crippling diseases and for the brutal onslaughts and indignities of old age. I forgive LIFE for evolving a biota based on a food chain of predators and prey. I forgive LIFE for not insuring that both partners of a loving relationship die together … for allowing one to live on desolate and amputated. I forgive LIFE for never answering us when we cry for help.

I forgive LIFE, for LIFE can’t help it. It is constrained by matter’s limitations. The prayer of St Francis is entirely applicable in regard to LIFE itself: “… to love rather than to be loved, to give rather than to receive.”

I can relate to LIFE but not as to a god, or parent. I relate to LIFE as it really is … in its “suchness” as the energy of matter “that makes the sun shine on the just and unjust, and the rain fall on the evil and the good.”

And once we have forgiven ourselves and forgiven LIFE, with deep compassion we can forgive others what they have done to us. We know what they are up against. Life is hard. They are doing the best they can.

The point is: LIFE gave us intelligence and now we are in charge. We do what we choose to do. We choose to forgive LIFE its design flaws and we choose to forgive our family. We choose to further the project of creating more LIFE more abundantly. We are in charge now. We know we could go on glutting ourselves until we choke … and we could kill whatever gets in the way of our narcissism (including ourselves).  But we choose to live, to transform our selfish “self,” to find ways to overcome our isolation born of fear of one another, form a mature community of collaboration and justice that will cast out fear and promote LIFE for all who have been spawned by the earth.

We justify this choice because we are in touch with LIFE intimately, at the silent center of our organism. We are LIFE, and we know connaturally what LIFE is, what it wants and what it can do. It’s a power we wield, a divine power, the same power that LIFE itself deploys for all its creative projects.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Because we know it is LIFE itself whose power we activate as our own, we call on ourselves as collaborators with LIFE to consider our own weakness under the relentless demands of the conatus and not put ourselves in situations that require more than we can handle. We should help one another in this regard. This too is our responsibility.

The ancient adage that “God” will “never let us be tested beyond our strength” is a benign fiction. It is a way of encouraging ourselves to deal with whatever comes our way and accept responsibility. For LIFE does not control what happens to us, and cannot be blamed for our failures. We can’t expect that “evils” beyond our capacity won’t overwhelm us, which, if we are honest, happens to people every day. We only have one another; we are all we’ve got. We have to have compassion … on ourselves as well as others.

Don’t be fooled. If LIFE could prevent these things, then LIFE could also be condemned for permitting them. Shall we sit in judgment on LIFE? This is nonsense. It’s time we grew up. We are LIFE. We have to help one another in our weakness. That’s the story. Being activated by LIFE is the miracle; there are no others.

If we call on LIFE to protect us, we have to acknowledge that we are momentarily generating a fantasy; we are intentionally regressing into childhood and conjuring an imaginary parent. It is a survival mechanism invented to avoid an emotional implosion at a time of overwhelming fear and anxiety. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

Dealing with difficulties is our responsibility. Mindfulness is the way. Know what you are doing, do only what you really want to do, and anticipate the consequences that your action will entail because you will have to embrace them.

For the rest, I wish us all “good luck,” for we all know quite well that anything can happen. There are no miracles.

Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

3,500 words

Those who are familiar with Buddhism are aware that Buddha taught that the “self” is an illusion. It has been called the core teaching of the Buddhist vision and forms the basis of its practice. The word for it in Sanskrit is anatman, and anatta in the Pali dialect.

While it is emphasized that Buddhist truths are not to be understood metaphysically but experientially, most observers believe that, whether intended or not, what we in the West call the human “soul,” conceived as a permanent, separately existing entity, the locus of thought and the individual human identity, intentionality and personality — a metaphysically real “thing,” — is exactly what the Buddhist teaching rejects. The position is that the Buddhist “No-Self,” which is claimed to be an undeniable fact of experience, would not be possible if there were a metaphysical “soul.”

Rather than debate potentially unsolvable metaphysical questions, Buddhists focus on what they believe really matters: the effectiveness of the No-Self teaching in directing and energizing the individual’s liberation from the cravings that create suffering.

The “soul,” the Fulcrum of Western culture

Western observers, however, are a different breed of cat. What No-Self means in the physical / metaphysical world may have been of no interest to Buddha’s followers, but we in the West come out of a tradition that has been centered for millennia on the doctrine of the spiritual soul, an “immaterial substance” (sic) that is capable of living without the body. The traditional western “soul” is immortal and its destiny is to exist for all eternity in another world where only spirits reside.  Naturally those who are still convinced of the ancient western tradition in this regard want to dispute the Buddha’s claims, for their view of the world depends on it.

The “soul” has been crucial in the West because it was the inner dynamic of all social construction.  If there is no soul during life, there also are no persons.  Persons are distinguishable in our tradition from other biological individuals because persons have souls and the others do not.  So the issue is relevant to our original question.  Is there actually a “soul” which really exists and bears the identity and eternal destiny of the human individual?  Everything social depends on recognition and respect for individual persons, from family patterns to legal systems, from business transactions to law enforcement and penitentiaries.

In addition, the “soul” is the basis of moral coercion.  If the soul does not survive as this individual person after death, there can be no judgment or punishment; and without fear of punishment there is no way to compel obedience to the moral law.  Of course, the down side is it tends to reduce human life to quid pro quo — a business transaction: moral behavior in exchange for an eternal life without suffering.

So the question: does the human being have an immortal soul?

You might be surprised to hear that Christianity has had a strange history in this regard. The earliest “theologians,” like Tatian and Athenagoras, known as “apologists,” who wrote in the second century, believed that the soul was the form of the body and when the body died its animating principle — the soul — disappeared with it. That the soul was naturally immortal and could live without the body they condemned as a pagan belief.[1] They argued that it would render the resurrection superfluous.  Immortality belonged only to the gods, not to humankind, and the overwhelming gift of God in Christ was that divine immortality was now shared with man, a completely undeserved supernatural donation, and that the recipient was not a disembodied soul, but the individual living human being.

But that changed.  By the third century Christian writers like Tertullian were declaring the soul to be naturally immortal.[2]  This change of perspective suggests there had been a “coup” in which educated upper-class converts to Christianity had taken over leadership in the Church and had begun to reshape doctrine to concur with their worldview.  The belief in the existence of the immortal soul was the centerpiece of the Platonism that was the accepted wisdom — the science — of the Greco-Roman educated classes in Late Antiquity.  It came to be considered an undeniable fact of nature.  That assumption lasted until the fourteenth century when William of Ockham showed it could not be proven by reason alone.  He relegated it to a matter of faith.  It was officially defined true as a matter of faith by the Catholic Church at the 5th Lateran Council in 1513.

That doesn’t prove there is a soul. But there’s also no way to disprove it. The Buddhists don’t even try. They claim that what is compelling for them is the way the doctrine of No-Self functions for the liberation of the individual and through that for the wellbeing of human society.  For the “self” asserts rights and makes demands that contribute to cravings to seek pleasure, avoid pain and aggrandize the ego that lead to entrapment in an unending cycle of demands and dissatisfactions that adversely impacts human society. And correlatively, when those cravings are starved they tend to shrivel and disappear, lending credence to the proposition that the “rights and demands” originally asserted by the “self” in their regard were fictional to begin with.  The individual survived and actually lived quite well without responding to them.  That, in turn, corroborates the Buddha’s insight that the “self,” the source of those demands, is itself an illusion.  The self has no rights and can make no demands because it is not really there.

So the Buddhists can always say to the westerner who demands proof of the teaching of No-Self that they have an indirect proof.  They can prove experientially that the human organism is malleable — changeable.  What appear to be its needs can be reduced to the point that they no longer assert themselves, calling into question the validity of those needs and the metaphysical ground claimed to be their origin.

The Metaphysical Question

But for us in the West, the question of the real existence of the soul deserves to be resolved — physically and metaphysically — in the same terms which have been used to support it for millennia.

First, by physical I refer to the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. Do these disciplines with their specific tools ever encounter evidence that would compel one to conclude that the “soul” as traditionally believed actually exists? Can it be observed and measured in some way? Theories that a body weighed right before death and again immediately after showed a difference, were made in pursuit of exactly that kind of proof.

By metaphysical I refer to the rational examination of the conditions that accompany existence. Metaphysics determines what the minimum requirements are for something to be-here, to exist. Are those conditions present in the case of the soul?

I think it’s safe to say that there is no compelling physical evidence that the soul exists without the body. Claims of weight loss at death have been disproven. But there are other claims. For example, phenomena emanating from the human organism, specifically the ability to think, identify itself, observe itself thinking, etc., suggest capacities that go beyond what material reality was traditionally thought capable of. But none of those pheno­mena seem grounded in anything but the human material organism; and when the organs that serve as platforms for those activities are damaged or destroyed, the behavioral phenomena disappear or are altered beyond recognition. What have been traditionally adduced as materially transcendent activities, therefore, on closer examination appear to be completely dependent upon the material organism for their existence and character.

Besides, the growing acknowledgement among philosophers of a possible “mental dimension” to material reality, represented by the term “neutral monism,” suggests that projecting a separate spiritual substance outside and independent of matter is no longer necessary to explain the phenomena.[3]  Matter may contain within itself the explanation of what it is obviously capable of evolving into.  Human thought is the product of the human brain, a completely material organ, not an other-worldly ”soul.”

But the Buddhists’ argument for the No-Self is also telling in this regard.  The apparently identifiable permanent “self” experienced during life is thoroughly changeable (albeit not without difficulty) exactly as they claimThis seems to be similarly dependent upon the body, for those practices designed to reduce craving involve the imposition of self-denial on organic urges resulting in their quiescence.  The “self” changes because the body changes.  This provides more evidence for the absence of any permanent and substantive “self” even before death.  The “self” is a mental construct — a result of organic urges, it is not the source of those urges.

Then, when the organism dies, all activity of whatever kind  ceases. There is no indication of the existence after death of something containing the essence and identity of the deceased human individual any more than in the case of any other species of biological organism.  Like all human functions that go beyond the ordinary behavior of other biological entities, the identity function is dependent upon the human organism for its existence and normal operation.  When the brain deteriorates, even before death, self-coherence is also affected, sometimes drastically.  So in answer to the question about the metaphysical conditions for anything to exist, it appears that the first requirement is that it be matter; and when the organism’s matter decomposes or becomes diseased, the “self” disappears or becomes unrecognizable.  Even if the self is a “soul” it needs a corresponding and healthy material base to exist.

The atomic composition of the human organism

But there is another side to this question, and that is the nature of matter itself.  This impacts the unity and integrity of all things made of matter including the human being.  All things are comprised of the same material energy coalesced into various kinds of sub-atomic, atomic and molecular particles and corresponding force fields.  There is nothing that is not made of the very same matter, and that includes all living organisms at all levels of complexity and in all aspects of their form and function, even the neurological.  It is all the same matter.

The human being is a biological organism — a highly complex fully integrated combination of atomic elements and the fields associated with them.  These elements, in turn, all come from the material environment where the organism resides.  Oxygen, the element needed to combine with nutritional fuel for the metabolic combustion that occurs in living cells, is drawn into the organism continuously from the outside through respiration with every breath.  The waste products of cell metabolism, carbon dioxide and water, are similarly borne by blood returning to the lungs to be expelled outside into earth’s atmosphere where it becomes available to other organisms that use it for their own lives.

The water that makes up 70% of the human body is a chemical combination of hydrogen with oxygen forming a liquid.  It is, like air, taken in continuously from outside the body and, as the bearer of the waste products of metabolism, expelled outside.

All things share these elements that comprise the human body.  Hydrogen is the simplest element: one proton and one electron field.  Every other element of the more than 120 that make up the periodic table, represents a complexification of hydrogen, as nuclei gathered more protons and their accompanying electron fields.  Everything made of matter is a result of the evolution of hydrogen, combining and integrating with itself over eons of time, first in the super-hot furnaces at the heart of stars forming elements that later evolved into the life forms we are familiar with.  So that scientist and author Curt Stager can validly say to his readers: “Hydrogen has become you after billions of years of stellar fusion and countless dances of atoms in air, earth, fire and water” and in turn, “you bequeath them” … “to the many lives yet to come.”[4]

What is true of air and water can be said equally of everything that makes up the human organism and all its metabolic and behavioral functions.  They are constructed of the temporary possession of elements and their composites that exist in sufficient quantity in the surrounding environment to provide the organism with an uninterrupted existence.  I say “temporary possession” because every single atom of every organ or function in the body is replaced on the average of every seven years with atoms from the environment.  The atoms of the elements in the human body are exactly the same as those residing in other life forms and in the rocks, soil and water of the accessible surroundings.  All this suggests a continuous exchange of material elements between the individual human organism and the rest of the material universe. The homogeneity and the sharing of the matter possessed by all the entities, living and non-living, evokes for some observers like atomic physicist David Bohm the image of a single flowing river within which there develop waves and eddies and vortices (whirlpools) which give the appearance of being separate individuals but are all and only the river.[5]

There is nothing unique about any biological organism; it is all made of the same matter, and if the “soul” is defined as the coherence of this human body, it would seem to partake of the same homogeneity. So it should be no surprise that we recognize the characteristic functioning of the conatus in all other life forms.  Self-preservation, on display in self-defense, the flight from enemies, the search for food, the desire to reproduce and the need to gather with others for collective survival, is com­mon across all the phyla of living things.  The signs of its functioning are unmistakable, especially among animal forms, and creates the basis for our sense of compassion and companionship with them.  The very fact that despite vast differences in our organisms — like insects — we are able to recognize similar behavior driven by the same needs, suggests a homogeneity of the source.  We all act the same because we are made of the same clay — matter’s energy, and in its living forms we can see that matter is driven to exist, so we suspect it was driven to exist even before it was incorporated into a living organism.

Life, we conclude, is not something separate from the matter we encounter in the living forms that inhabit our planet as if injected from outside.  It was an intrinsic property of matter all along that only became perceptible when it came together in just the right way.  Similarly, with consciousness. The individual recognition that occurs between and among all species of animals reveals that the phenomenon exists across the various phyla of animal life.  We also suspect that the potential for consciousness — Strawson’s thesis — is an intrinsic property of matter that necessarily functions at all levels of evolved integration albeit with the capacity of range and depth allowable by the extent of the complexification.  Those familiar with farm animals know that chickens, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats can differentiate between human individuals even though they all do so at very different levels of ability.  We observe that consciousness is present according to various levels of complexity in all species of animals and therefore we extrapolate this potential to the substrate itself of which all these species are made.

Relativity and quantum mechanics

The 20th century saw two major breakthroughs in physics that have completely undermined the security we once had about the nature of matter.  The theories of relativity and quantum me­chanics have revealed matter to be a fundamentally mysterious quantization of an essentially homogeneous flow of energy through time that fills the universe.  This energy sometimes manifests itself as particles and sometimes as force fields or waves.  It calls into question the fundamental imagery we have had that matter and what is made of matter are dense impenetrable “things” that are all outside of one another.

Rather it appears that at the quantum level matter compenetrates other matter, exists in more than one behavioral state simultaneously and that in its wave form each particle extends through­out the universe and its presence where it integrates with others to form organisms can only be accounted for statistically, i.e., with a certain degree of probability, not with precision.

This indeterminacy has made it impossible to simultaneously fix the location and behavior of particles.  The observations themselves are revealed to be part of the phenomenon observed adding credence to the suspicion that the imagery of impenetrable masses that we have inherited from our traditional science is false.  The observer is not outside of what is observed.

… relativity and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look at the world as an undivided whole in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality.  In this totality the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.[6]

The proposal for a new general form of insight is that all matter is of this nature: that is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can only be known implicitly … . In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement.[7]

The human organism, in this scenario, is thus comprised of trillions and trillions of these sub-atomic components whose physical reality is commensurate with the totality of matter’s universal energy of which its presence here and now is a statistically determined resolution.  Our particles are the distillations of a homogeneous energy that suffuses and pervades the entire universe.  In this context the heretofore unchallenged claim that the human organism is “only itself” and exists radically independent of other material entities, suddenly becomes a highly questionable proposition.  How much more so does the claim that the “self” — which arises from the merger of the passing urges of the individual organism — is permanent and is capable of existing independently, lack credibility.

As we can see in Bohm’s propositions quoted above, science is beginning to speak in terms that are remarkably consistent with the worldview implicit in the Buddha’s recommendations for practice.

Relativity and quantum theory, in fact, provide excellent illustrations of this strange world [of the Buddha] so contrary to common sense.  In the Buddha’s universe a permanent, separate self is an illusion, just as substance is an illusion to the atomic physicist.  Distinctions between an “outside world” and an “inner realm” of the mind are arbitrary.  Everything in human experience takes place in one field of forces which comprises both matter and mind.  Thought and physical events act and react upon each other as naturally and inescapably as do matter and energy.  … As Einstein described matter and energy solely in terms of the geometry of space-time, the Buddha describes matter, energy and mental events as the structure of a fabric we can call consciousness. His universe is a process in continuous change — a seething sea of primordial energy of which the mind and the physical world are only different aspects.[8]

How does the “self” change?

While I believe it has become abundantly clear that there is no separately existing “immortal soul” as the western tradition has projected since Plato, the Buddhists have to acknowledge that the changeability of the “self” which they adduce as proof of its impermanence, is only possible because there is an agent of change that is resident in the same organism.  That agent represents the activation of human intelligence with its undeniable moral clarity, and of the conatus with its irrepressible drive to live, to bring the “self” to heel, and eventually to transform it, drop by drop, into a generous and compassionate moral force in a world of perishing beings.  What exactly is it, then, that changes the “self.”

It is the very same self, whose intelligence allows it to compenetrate itself from within, render itself totally transparent, and activate a potential derived from the living self-emptying energy of creative transcendent matter, LIFE, coiled in the conatus at the very center of its own life that effects this change.  There is only one “self,” and it is capable of doubling back on itself, assessing itself with its own resident resources and applying its intentionality — drop by drop — to the reduction of the unconscious self to obedience.  There are not two selves.  The belief that what effects change is an Absolute Self that is metaphysically distinct from the human self and exists alongside it is a fallacy.  There is a transcendence to the human self that might allow that projection to gain purchase.  But it is precisely the total compenetration of LIFE’s creative material energy resident at the core of the material human organism that is activated in the process of personal transformation.

Aquinas would say that “the Primary Cause only works through secondary causes.” The collaboration is seamless, and therefore the agencies are indistinguishable.

 

[1] Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, U. of Chicago Pr., 1971, Vol. 1 p. 30

[2] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Translated by Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0310.htm&gt;.

 [3] I am referring to authors like Galen Strawson who explores “panpsychism” in Mental Reality, MIT press, 1994.

[4] Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2014, p.246

[5] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London & NY, 1980, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14. (emphasis in the original)

[7] Ibid., p. 14

[8] The Dhammapada, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, from the introduction, pp. 80-81

Materialism and Mindfulness

Preliminary notes to a commentary on the psalms

13,000 words

This is the beginning of an open-ended work in progress. The first installment is long, but divided into sections of less than 2,000 words each. It will be followed at unspecified intervals by others on the same theme. The general intention is to examine the moment to moment working out of the relationship to the Sacred implicit in the premises of transcendent materialism.

In this case it will take the form of a commentary on the psalms, not because there is something superior about these ancient prayer-poems of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but simply because they were the ones in which most of us were formed. We are bound to them by age-old practice and their poetic content is not only grafted into our subconscious but has found its way into the culture as truisms no one disputes. They have formed the fundamental attitudes toward the Sacred for us and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The psalms, however, evoke an obsolete view of the world. They assume a humanoid definition of God” and the erroneous relationship that definition implies. They also bear the scars of an earlier updating made by men like Augustine of Hippo whose Roman Imperial Christian Platonism functions like a voice-over, distracting us from what the psalmist was actually saying and preventing our own attempts at appropriation. That’s the reason for this exercise. If our vision of reality has expanded beyond those confines, our relationship to the Sacred must change accordingly. Hence the psalms, which, as traditionally understood could actually hold us captive to a mindset we no longer want to live with, become the strategic heights that must be conquered in a struggle for liberation.

Ironically, what’s at stake is the continuity of our tradition. For, recognizing the serious disconnect between the psalms and our view of the world, we tend to aban­don them altogether, consigning the entire genre to the museum of obsolete artefacts. As I hope to show, this would be great loss, for the psalms also throb with pre-Christian, pre-Platonic longings that concur remarkably with our materialist view of reality.

We will also find that the materialism of the psalms synchronizes with a religious universalism that so far has eluded us. Eliminating the spiritist presuppositions of the Platonic paradigm interwoven so authoritatively by Christians over the centuries opens the psalms to use by non-western traditions. I think especially of the forms of Buddhism that are currently flourishing in the West. Adjusted for the discoveries of science, the psalms unexpectedly function to confirm the relevance of paths that are not our own.

*       *       *

For me, personally, this is not an academic exercise — the dry exchange of one set of words and categories for another. It is my attempt to wrestle with Jacob’s angel, all night long if need be, until he surrenders. I want to first pray the same psalms that sustained my commitments when I was young, but as I now understand them and believe they must be prayed if they are to open the sacred dimensions of our material universe and planetary family.  

Traditions hold a certain sacredness for us not for being old but because we share a deep humanity with the people that forged them. These ancient prayers have borne the weight of millennia of people seeking LIFE. We cherish the psalms despite the atavism that we are obligated to challenge.

Finding words that accurately communicate the way one prays, however, is not a straightforward project. Prayer is often wordless, and trying to verbalize what is a silent stance, commitment, surrender, or regret, can easily mislead. But my responsibilities in this regard go only so far. You, the reader, will be misled only if you fail to check what I offer against your own experience. This is not a lesson. I am not a teacher. I am simply sharing my experience. The authority you have to follow is yourself.

This re-emphasizes the point that that these reflections are not now, nor have ever been, my private project. It is a collective endeavor. We are bound to one another at levels that go far deeper than the paper memberships invented by officialist orthodoxy. As our understanding of the world has grown, our expanded experience of the Sacred adds to our collective growth and evolution. It continues the process, already well underway, of making the whole world a human family grappled together by the steel hoops of justice and love. I hope you will make your experience part of this enterprise.


1.

I am quite conscious of the fact that using the word “materialism” anywhere in a presentation on religion, and especially in the title, is likely to turn away the very people  I am trying to reach with my message. But I am willing to run that risk because I am confident that my point of view will ultimately prevail. Materialism is the truth, and the truth is more than important; it is the very quint­es­sence of the sacred. My position is very simple: everything is made of matter; there is nothing that is not made of matter; matter is all there is. “God,” the wellspring responsible for the existence of all things and the innate source of our sense of the sacred is a material force that enlivens matter as matter. This “God” is equally near to all, and is that in which we live and move and have our being.

Matter is sacred. Any religion claiming to be true has to embrace the reality of our material universe. The fact that there are phenomena that transcend the obsolete reductionist definition of matter imposed on it by Platonic-Cartesian dualist prejudice does not affect the thesis in the least: all those phenomena without losing anything of their transcendent character, are the products of matter, nothing else. Matter is simply capable of more than we were led to believe.

The reason for the traditional recoil against matter is also very simple. Historically, here in the West, religious people have come to equate the sacred with what is called “spirit.” Of course that word means different things to different people. But what they all have in common is the belief that there is another world, another level of reality where our lives and destinies as human beings really belong. By prioritizing this other place, ironically as physically distinct from this material world, belief in spirit questions the full reality of our universe. Fundamentally, it is an escape. It imagines an alternative universe that is not controlled by the mechanical causes and effects that rule the material world where we eke out our daily survival often with great difficulty.

Material forces and their outcomes are determined — that means they are locked in place. With matter there is no room for variation. If the myriad of links that connect your ignition key to the running of your car’s engine are properly in place, when you turn the key your car has to start. There is nothing magical or supernatural about it. No “God” can prevent the car from starting and correlatively, if they are not in place, no amount of prayer and fasting will ever induce it to start.

Many people have recourse to religion precisely because they do not like that. They feel they need to have another avenue to travel on, one that is not determined by material reality which is the cause of so much suffering. Life is hard, but I am not speaking of social problems — the miseries that we heap on one another — I am simply speaking of the fact that material reality is impervious to our desires. It eludes our control. We have to bend ourselves to its demands; matter does not accommodate us. We are not particularly happy with this world the way it is.

For many, religious belief in spirit offers a way out. It is focused on miracles — past, present and future. Miracles are physical events that bypass the laws of nature. And this bypass is possible because spirit is believed to be a force that is independent of and more powerful than matter.

They imagine spirit as “something” that is not bound by the laws of nature, and in fact, they think it can dominate and control matter, compelling it to conform to what spirit imposes on it. Spirit in this sense represents material power and that includes the ability to neutralize matter’s destructive potential. The irony here should not be overlooked: spirit is imagined to work physically on matter; it is thought of as a material force and therefore, by implication, something of a material “substance.” It’s a further indication of its origins in fantasy.

The ultimate source of this force is an invisible person called “God” who is conceived as pure spirit who, inexplicably, created matter and has infinite power over it. The entire significance of “God” for many people is that “he” is not constrained by matter as we are and can make matter do whatever “he” wants. So they feel that if only they can establish a connection with this all powerful material force, they can compel it, or cajole it, or manipulate it or in some other way harness it to do what they really want: submit matter to our will and whim — perform miracles.

The ability to perform miracles — to coerce matter — they call “power.” And this “God” is therefore all-powerful. “Power” means the ability to negate matter’s effects — implicitly by the application of a violent force. The fact that there is no evidence that this actually ever happens in response to any human communication does not seem to deflect spirit’s true believers from their convictions.

The greatest miracle of all, of course, would be to neutralize matter’s tendency to shift shape. Fragmented as it is, units of matter come together and then drift apart assuming one temporary form after another, always changing. This impermanence impacts us adversely because in our case our bodies are one of these temporary forms, and when their components dissolve and re-combine in another form we die. Hence our enthusiasm for the story we tell ourselves that under the veneer of the body we are actually spirits — immortal “souls” — that after the body disintegrates live on forever. Also “God” the pure spirit of infinite power is believed capable of reversing the disintegration of our bodies and bringing them back to life again after we die to live on as bodies in another world where supposedly only spirits reside.

So we cling to our belief in spirit. Notice that all the reasons have to do with dissatisfaction with our material world and ourselves as material organisms living immersed in and dependent upon matter for our own survival. We believe in spirit because we want to control and in some cases avoid or obliterate matter’s natural behavior. We are material organisms, despite our claim that we are something else, and our fixation on spirit is explained as a fantasy that provides an imaginary cure for the negative consequences of matter, principally its impermanence that means death for us. We are not interested in spirit in itself, it is actually quite foreign to our experience; it is conjured as a material weapon in our struggle to survive in a material world. Our interest all along has been in harnessing matter, and the elimination of death.

Notice that in the history of religion in the West, so-called “spiritual” realities were described as if they were material, i.e., as if spirit were a substance. Spirit was conceived as if it were simply a different kind of matter, a “thing” or “force” that was equally as determined in its func­tioning and results as matter, differing only in the plane or dimension of reality from which its operations originated. So, for example, “grace,” a spiritual force, was conceived by Christian theologians as if it were some kind of infusion like a magic potion or an energy which made miraculous things happen: it changed people’s minds, or more grossly, it was thought to actually rearrange the sequence of events, natural or man-made, like thunderstorms or baseball games, to effectuate certain outcomes “willed by God” usually because some people had asked for it and had been able to meet the requirements for securing “God’s” favor.

2.

All this stands in stark contrast with reality. And the religion that I propose embraces the material reality of our universe and ourselves as part of it, enthusiastically and without reservation. There is no other world … there are no miracles … and a “God” of power who coerces matter does not exist. That is not a belief or a theory, it is a fact.

The world, exactly as it is, is sacred. The material world is not an illusion that will disappear with death or an imagined Armageddon. It is not a curtain behind which real reality lies hidden. What you see out there is what is really there.

The spirituality I advance is derivative of this understanding and moves between two foci: (1) the individual material organism … and (2) the material environment in which this individual emerges including matter’s energy, the ground and matrix of all things. The sacred is engaged in this context and no other. There is no other world and no other existence, and therefore the sacred bears no reference to anything else.

This differs radically from the former spiritist-dualist conception of the sacred which imagined the human individual to be an immortal soul destined to live eternally without the body. In that discredited worldview the relationship also moved between two foci: (1) the individual soul whose eternal destiny was determined by its ethical behavior while in the body … and (2) an imagined world of spirits where it was believed the soul would spend eternity in relationship with its unknown destined community. In this view, one’s earthly community was irrelevant to one’s eternal destiny. No matter how deeply loved, unless these others as individuals lived in such a way as to earn membership in the community of reward after death, there was no way to expect that relationship to them here would continue later. Each “soul” was on its own. A saintly mother, effectively, had to learn to disown a sinful son or daughter because her primary relationship was to “God” and whatever future community would end up sharing eternity with her. This view of things fostered an individualism born of distrust of others. It tended to undermine local family and clan connections and encourage dependency on the overall moral authority.

God is the energy of matter

It has been traditional in the West, with some notable exceptions, to claim that “God,” which Paul identified as that “in which we live and move and have our being,” could not possibly be material based on the prejudicial denigration of matter’s characteristics. Aquinas’ argument that “God” is simple (a feature derived from the assumption that “God” is spirit) and could not enter into composition with anything other than himself without losing his simplicity, like all arguments for the existence of spirit, assumes what it claims to prove. The underlying problem is the universal assumption of the existence of spirit as a substance existing in a parallel world and yet fully operative in the world of matter, a phenomenon that is not explained.

This evokes another objection: how can a “God” that is pure spirit and diametrically opposed to matter, even have created matter? Specifically how can a mind that is supposedly not matter even have imagined such a thing — its complete antithesis? Where would it go for the paradigm? Even Gregory of Nyssa recognized the anomaly here and acknowledged that he had no answer for it.

Some theologians, like Meister Eckhart, argued that spirit is uncomposed and that “God,” as infinite pure spirit, in order to create a finite imitation of infinity conceived of the present moment in the flow of time as the finite counterpart of the “eternal now,” and created matter as a foundational solid that would sustain time’s sequential fragmentation.  Eckhart was a Thomist pan-entheist and his theories, expressed in spiritist dualist terms, dovetail in practice with the spirituality inherent in transcendent materialism.  I have no problem with Eckhart’s mysticism, what I disagree with are the physical /metaphysical assumptions that he uses to explain them. That his spiritist participation in God’s act of ESSE parallels our materialist co-possession of God’s material energy underscores the similarity of the experience. The experience is the same, how you explain it is what is different.

All arguments assume the existence and characteristics of a substance called spirit — something for which modern science can find no evidence whatsoever. To the contrary, when science proceeds on the premise that there is nothing but matter driven by its own internal energies, it is able to explain all the forms and features of our universe including the near infinite number of living things on earth.

Even human consciousness, traditionally adduced as proof of the independent existence of spirit, is now seen to be a product of the material configuration of the human organism. The activities of mind are clearly known to be completely dependent upon the human body for their existence and character. If the relevant components of the human body are damaged or destroyed, the corresponding mental operations cease or are altered beyond recognition. Diseases like Alzheimer’s that are known to physically damage the brain entail the extreme loss of cognitive function. The dementia that often accompanies old age in which the human individual no longer recognizes close friends and family, and possibly even his or her own identity, is clearly body-dependent. Mind, in other words, is a product of matter, not the other way around as we traditionally believed.

But matter has its own internal energy, and when that is included in the analysis, it becomes clear that the dynamism of matter has been responsible for the evolutionary elaboration of new forms of material organisms and even new levels of function. Complex molecules at a particular moment in geologic history began to display the characteristics of life — identity, self-preservation, nutrition, reproduction — where no such phenomena had previously existed. Later the emergence of human consciousness followed the same pattern, appearing where no self-reflec­tive perception had existed before. The ability to constantly transcend itself — go beyond its current forms and unveil capacities no one would have ever guessed were there — is the creative power of the energy innate in matter. Matter’s energy is transcendent. It goes beyond the platforms from which it launches new forms. It creates as if out of nothing. Hence I speak of transcendent materialism — matter with a creative dynamism. Evolutionary emergence actually happened. New things appeared as if “out of nothing.” These are facts, not beliefs or theories.

So we are slowly becoming aware that the universe is entirely different from what we supposed it was. And that means, of course, that the “God” responsible for it all, while maintaining the same essential relationship of loving-source, ground, model and creator as ever in our tradition, turns out to be entirely different from what we were led to believe.

“God,” whatever else that may mean, is the living energy of matter. And, since the energy of matter is first of all an energy to-be-here, “God” in our material universe also retains the traditional definition as esse in se subsistens — the act of existing itself. The fact that “God” is the existential energy that characterizes every particle and sub-particle of matter, is particularly consistent with and highly explanatory of how all things share, by participation, in the very existence that is proper to “God” alone. Once it is understood that what we share with “God” is not some concept — like the abstract “act of existence,” or “life” considered as a separate vital force injected into matter — but our very material substances, participation in being opens up for everyone a broad rich landscape that was heretofore the private meditation garden of a few philosophers and theologically trained religious.

A “God” who is the existential energy of matter redefines the concept of “power.” Power for this “God” is the ability, and we might even say, the proclivity to produce LIFE and more LIFE. Power is potentia — potential — not potes­tas, or imperium, the imposition of control. The goal, then, of human relationship to the Sacred will be to align one’s own potential with “God’s,” to become “powerful” in the transmission and enhancement of LIFE. And the “spirituality” of those pursuing that relationship — the bodily transformations that accomplish that alignment — will be directed to the conscious embrace of our potential as “God’s” potential … achieved incrementally in each succeeding present moment until the two become identical and the human organism is the perfect expression of matter’s sacred energy.

What was abstract becomes concrete and our unity with “God” is revealed as more intimate and organic than ever imagined. “God” is not a distant Spirit who voluntarily chooses to “draw near” to some human soul mysteriously elected for mystical experience. “God” is by nature near to all of us, as Paul insisted, because in “him” our bodies live and move and have their very being. “He” is the living matter of which we are constructed. Suddenly the esoteric texts of Johannes Eckhart and John of the Cross cease being the opaque expressions of ascetical virtuosi speaking from ethereal regions beyond this world. It now becomes clear that they were speaking of ordinary reality as we now know it, a reality the science of their times did not recognize but that they discerned through the faithful reading of their own inner experience. They experienced what they did because that’s the nature of this one real world. They were able to break through the obfuscations created by ancient Platonic dualist expressions by allowing the intimate touch of reality to inform their understanding and not the other way around. They were uniquely sensitive men who trusted what they felt rather than what they were told. They palpably experienced how intimately they and “God” were one. Unfortunately they had no other way to communicate it except through the convoluted dualist categories of mediaeval theology, which we have to decipher in the new terms provided by the science of our times.

The science of our times has quietly, over the course of 500 years, led us to see that organic LIFE is the core of reality, and we know LIFE because our bodies are alive with the same organic LIFE. The Platonic detour that took us in circles is no longer in force. We are not constrained by those categories. We see clearly what we are. And we know that what we are is what “God,” our living substrate, has to be: the material energy to be-hereesse.

What Eckhart had to go to the mountaintop to find, we can see every day on our way to work and back: we are alive with “God’s” LIFE because we are material organisms — bodies; we are made of “God’s” material energy. All it takes to be in touch with it, is noticing.

3.

Being-here is time related. Existence erupts in a seamless sequence of instantaneously vanishing “nows” that come out of nowhere and slip almost immediately into a past that is no longer here. If it’s important to notice anything, we must notice what is-here now. The past is not here anymore. The future is not here yet. Hence if we want to relate to the existential energy — the esse — we call “God,” we have to do it in the present moment. For a conscious organism, being present to the present moment means noticing.

Noticing is everything, but we spend most of our time distracted. We very often don’t attend to what passes through our minds. That means the feelings that our thoughts and images give rise to are generally beyond our oversight and control. It’s as if someone or something else is injecting them and causing the actions they inevitably suggest. Our minds are racing through the images of a changing stream of consciousness whose headwaters are so far back in memory that were they to be identified it would be difficult to trace the connections between the two. Distraction at a minimum robs us of efficiency and focus. But that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also mean so much suffering for ourselves and others. Because when we’re distracted the conatus takes over — our organic auto-pilot whose job is self-preser­vation — and begins scanning the horizon for any and all possible threats to the “self” which, in order for the conatus to do its job, must see itself as poor, vulnerable, defenseless and afraid. It spies enemies actual and potential everywhere. The default mode it runs in is paranoia. It would seem a conatus that perceived itself any other way could hardly qualify for the role. But, more rarely, some people do believe themselves to be superior and invulnerable. And when that happens, unfortunately, things are often even worse. It drives the ruthless pursuit of ego-enhancement at the expense of everything and everyone else.

The role of the family and neighborhood in the childhood formation of an individual’s ideas, attitudes and values provides much of the content that feeds the conatus’ voracious appetite. Invariably enemies are identified, criteria for judgment about others’ intentions are established, defensive or retaliatory rejoinders are suggested and often the very reactions of the offended victim, if perceived as inadequate, are subjected to humiliating condemnation by the survival community. The example of parents and older siblings in their response to life-situations are absorbed and internalized. What one is to cherish and how one is to respond to virtually every eventuality in life is pre-programmed by the local culture and becomes as intimately and unconsciously part of the individual’s mindset as language and preference in food, music and    mates. How one is to proceed in the accumulation of wealth and the choice of one’s work in life are also part of cultural formation, sometimes exercising a lifelong influence that can be both blinding and enslaving. Religion and the feelings of guilt or approval it generates for certain behavior are also in this category. By the time the individual moral consciousness is awake enough to even question behavior and motivation and imagine alternatives, habits of thought, attitude and action have already been ingrained and exercise a determinative control over the “self” protected by the conatus. One discovers a fully fleshed out “self” has been formed in the absence of any authentic input by conscious intention.

So our organic instincts, in the absence of an active self-awareness, can take our minds hostage churning out images derived from various authorities that militate against the trust that sustains harmony among us. Unless challenged these feelings will convict others (and even ourselves) of having betrayed and humiliated the “self” that the conatus feels obligated to protect. Self-aggrandizement, defensiveness and retaliation are its stock-in-trade, often aided and abetted by the culture.

Some people are able to check these negative feelings quite naturally. Perhaps having been fortunate enough to have secure and positive parents and family, they catch themselves thinking thoughts that are selfish, unreal, mean or paranoid, and refuse to give them purchase. Some grow up with such a sense of their own attractiveness, talent and rational competence that they cannot imagine anyone having a negative thought about them. Definitely lucky people. Others grow into self-confidence as they mature, establishing successful relationships with family, friends and work and faithfully carrying responsibilities for others. Dark brooding feelings also occur to them, but they are able to dismiss them and over time, like the first group, cease to find them even minimally credible.

Still others are not so lucky. The ordinary circumstances of their lives have not provided a resistance to the negativity that poisons peace of mind and undermines healthy and satisfying relationships. Those who, for whatever reason, have to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of negativity, must find artificial devices to help them avoid sliding into reactions and addictions that offer a temporary respite for the pain that their uncontrolled feelings generate. Of course I am speaking in extremes. The reality for most people is somewhere in between.

But there’s enough negativity generated by the culture or by the distracted defensiveness of a runaway conatus that almost everyone would benefit from some mechanism, or exercise, or practice that will help them identify and control the flow of imagery through their minds and the intense feelings they spawn. The blind-sided conatus that comes embedded in our material organisms can be harnessed to energize a different self, aware of its secure identity as matter’s sacred energy, liberated from cultural preferences and prejudices that undermine healthy relationships and determined to become compassionate and generous toward all things. But it requires noticing.

4.

Buddhist spiritual practitioners have addressed this distractedness and have identified it as one of the principal sources of the unsatisfactoriness that seems to dominate human life even when the more painful forms of anguish and suffering — which unfortunately also abound — are not present. Their response to the problem is what they call “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the fruit of meditative practices that promote attention to the present moment: noticing. Since so much random daydreaming has to do with what happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future, focus on the present moment is bound to find itself in short order face to face with a runaway mind dwelling obsessively anywhere but the present. Becoming aware of the default negativity of the conatus is the beginning of wisdom. Incrementally re-establishing conscious awareness and control of the conatus-driven mind is the path to personal transformation.

Even when negative thoughts are so intense that the conscious mind cannot stop them, the practitioners of mindfulness claim that the very act of observing them consciously and identifying them as both uncontrolled and unintended, immediately creates a distance that saps them of intensity. Over time, without the nourishment of ownership actual or assumed, mindfulness can weaken them to the point of elimination.

The conatus is a biological instinct that mines the existential energy of all the matter of the body and places it at the service of the living composite — the self. The conatus is not itself conscious but functions for an organism whose identity includes the imagining mind. In the absence of conscious self-awareness and control, the conatus generates the appearance of a self by producing feelings connected with mental imagery generated by fear and self-protection. It’s the job of the conatus to aggrandize the organism and to identify threats to its growth and success. When that instinct is allowed to function on its own without conscious control, consciousness at some point will awake to find its conatus-driven mind awash with a series of thoughts, feelings and reactions already in place which have projected a posture toward the outside world. The now-attentive consciousness evaluates what it sees going on, and finds itself pre-defined. It sees itself as others see it, based on the evidence of attitude and behavior. The difficulty it encounters changing things due to the strength of the habits formed further confirms the assessment. The uncontrolled ruminations of a distracted conatus have constructed a false self-comprised almost entirely of self-defensive negativity and self-aggrandizing illusion possibly reinforced by cultural beliefs some of which may bear the weight of sacred tradition. Getting control of this situation is not easy, especially because it is not immediately apparent that getting control is even possible.

5.

But the “self” formed by unconscious habits is not the last word. The very ability to observe one’s own behavior as if from the outside, and then assert that one’s intentions are different from what the established “self” is feeling and doing, indicates that there is a source of identity that transcends the sub-conscious mind habituated to negative thinking. That source of present-moment identity can be called the “true self,” or the transcendent self for it transcends its own habituation. The choices it makes represent the posture of the fully aware conscious organism, no longer distracted, but mindful of itself and its surroundings and increasingly attentive to the present moment as the fruit of its meditative practice.

This is the point when we come face to face with the mystery of our existence as human beings. For the ability to stand back and look at oneself feeling and acting seems to draw on a source of conscious identity that transcends the organism’s unconscious mental operations. If such a source of identity did not exist the work of the unconscious conatus would be entirely opaque: the mind would not be able to see past it; the only thing perceptible would be what the runaway conatus was presenting for consumption. Where does this other identity come from?

Some claim that there is an Absolute Self that exists underneath or alongside the relative self of our routine mindlessness. Each human individual, they say, is potentially energized by either self and chooses which of those selves they will activate to let dominate their attitudes and behavior — in effect that there are two selves that we have recourse to as we choose. I can understand how observation of distracted human behavior and the awareness of human potential might lead someone to say that. But I believe on metaphysical grounds that the human organism is only one thing and it is driven by only one conatus. And it is one and the same mind that either notices or doesn’t notice.

The ability of the mind to double back on itself and look at itself doing what it does as a mind is a feature of our reality that we have traditionally ascribed to “spirit.” But I say there is no separate spirit. What we are looking at is the ability of matter as configured in the neurological components of the human organism to focus or not focus on the content of its consciousness, to be mindful or to be forgetful, to attend to the present moment or let itself drift distractedly into imagery from the past or projected into the future or provided whole cloth by the local culture. The energy is the same whether distracted or attentive. The conatus is the same whether it is mindlessly pursuing self-aggrandizement, accusing others of hostility and betrayal, dwelling on prejudicial tribe-generated judgments or intentionally being activated by a mindful consciousness to generate conscientious alternatives to rancor and conflict.

The conatus is perfectly capable of being “tethered” and made to see that self-preser­va­tion is located in heeding the dictates of conscience and intentionally focusing its energies on the development of a self that becomes thoroughly compassionate and generous. There is nothing mutually exclusive here. I’m talking about engaging the enormous self-directed energies of the conatus sese conservandi — the body’s drive to survive — in the transformation of the self. We are each only one thing, ourselves, and the material energy that drives us is ours to direct and apply. The issue is to regain control of it, slowly and incrementally over a long time if necessary, and point it where we will. It’s not a question of eliminating it; it can’t be done anyway and the attempt would leave us dehumanized. That was the mistake of the Platonic delusion. It thought the self-directed urges of the body were depraved and needed to be obliterated. That was wrong. The solution is to teach the body’s conatus what “self-preserva­tion” really means.

6.

Synteresis (sometimes spelled synderesis) was a word the Greeks used to refer to the immediate and spontaneous natural grasp of right and wrong. They thought of it as an innate habit, the moral counterpart of the principle of contradiction. It’s not at first a conscientious judgment about moral action; it is prior to conscience. It is the inborn knowledge of the first moral principles. You don’t have to develop this habit. It comes with the human organism. The human individual cannot not know that there is right and wrong. The sense of justice is built into the organism because it comes with intelligence.

Synteresis was considered a sub-routine of the mental grasp of identity, hence injustice is its first wake-up call. Injustice offends the principle of contradiction — the principle of identity — that each is only oneself, has a right to be oneself, is owned only by oneself, and therefore owns what one needs to survive and remain oneself. The Greeks attributed it to the Platonic belief that the “soul” was spiritual and made in the image of a spiritual “God” who was defined as subsistent Goodness: one of the three principal derivatives of Being (unity, truth and goodness). “Goodness” as the moral corollary of unity and truth — the right desire to remain oneself — correlates to “justice.” It is first apprehended in the jarring unease felt at its violation, hence injustice is its most basic perceptible form.

Inevitably, due to its Platonic origins, synteresis was classified under the general category of “the domination of the flesh by the spirit,” since sensuality was believed to be an exclusively bodily feature inclined toward evil, and synteresis its spiritual antithesis rooted in the intellect (mind or spirit). In our material universe, however, we know that the phenomenon of the immediate sense of right and wrong, which virtually no one disputes as a phenomenon, is not to be attributed to a “soul,” an ethereal substance whose reality belongs to another world, but rather to the human organism made of matter always consciously in touch with material identity — the innate realization that each thing is only and always itself. Synteresis, like intelligence itself of which it is an expression, is a function of matter and is for the human observer a primary datum in the search for the nature and character of the material substrate — matter’s energy — from which all things are constructed. Synteresis, in other words, our embedded inclination to recoil at injustice, is a derivative of matter’s existential energy every bit as much as the conatus. It’s a primary source for our knowledge of what matter’s energy is.

It seems that there must be some intrinsic connection between conatus and synteresis. They are both the direct, non-mediated expressions of the same thing: the foundational substrate of our universe of matter. In practical, psychological terms it means that the revulsion at injustice and the drive for self-preservation must essentially be the same thing.

This seems paradoxical, because the inclination to moral rectitude characteristic of synteresis has generally been interpreted as a selfless dynamic, while the characterization of the conatus has generally been that it is mindlessly focused on selfish goals. But this is where our analysis of the role of mindfulness in the confirmation of the conatus’ malleability — its radical openness to be directed to what exactly constitutes “self-preservation” — dovetails with what we know of physical / metaphysical reality. It is a clear example of the unity of identity of the human organism. We are only one thing. We are not two selves, a relative self and Absolute Self vying for attention and control, nor are we a soul and a body, each contending for domination of the individual in a zero-sum war that will mean the extermination of the loser. We are always and only one same identical conscious material organism capable at all times of consciously and intentionally directing or not directing the spontaneous energies that come from our material infrastructure. The only thing that would render us incapable of such action would be a serious impairment of the material organism stemming from physical or hormonal damage or when something mind-altering like drugs or alcohol interferes with the body’s normal operation. Moral capability depends on the integrity of the physical organism.

This is also an important datum in our understanding of our source, matter’s energy. Physically and metaphysically speaking, we are what our source is. That means we are not different from “God,” the LIFE of matter. We are one and the same living “stuff.” The synteresis — the fundamental moral inclination that we are born with — every bit as much as the conatus itself, is the primary expression of the energy of LIFE. And the intuitive sense that the conatus’ drive for self-preser­va­tion is to be identified with the synteresis’ abhorrence at injustice now is seen to have a physical / metaphysical foundation. Matter is “God”-stuff … and the “stuff” that we are talking about is us, for we are made of it.   We are all and only matter. We and “God” are comprised of the same genetic material. That’s how we were “created:” we are “God’s” own existential material energy evolved.

All of the dualities that have kept us fragmented and self-imploding are now seen to be illusions. We no longer imagine that “God” is different from us or that we have to somehow travel some great distance to find “him,” or overcome some great obstacle to make contact. We do not have to buy our way into “God’s” favor in order to escape from the consequences of a body we drag around like prisoners in chains. We are not eternally at war with ourselves trying to have an imaginary soul deal a death blow to a body whose very vitality is a sign of moral depravity. And when we fail in our efforts to control the conatus we can start again because the “God” we have insulted and betrayed is not other than ourselves.

There is no need to climb some moral mountain or spend a lifetime in exploring the tunnels and caverns of our subconscious. Our task proceeds mundanely on a daily basis — on our way to work and back, as it were — to remember who and what we are. The practice of mindfulness is to return to the present moment as “God” stuff and insure that “the words of our mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, are acceptable in the sight of ‘God,’ our synteresis-illuminated conscience.”

We do not hesitate to identify ourselves with “God” because the “God “ of the “pantheism” that traditionally frightened us was defined by the discredited idea of a “God” with an anthropomorphic definition of “power.” We know we are not omnipotent, but we also know now that “God” is not omnipotent in that old discarded sense either. We have a different idea of what “power” means. “God’s” “power” is not manifest as control of matter but as its very LIFE. “Power” was our category, a display of coercive force, it did not define “God’s” power which is exhausted in the potential for generating LIFE.

“God’s” power is the potential to propagate LIFE, absolutely nothing else. The ability to destroy, stifle and control is what we humans mean by power. It is, in “God’s” terms, impossible. “God” cannot do that, for “God” is always and only creative LIFE. There are no miracles because “God” cannot suspend the laws of nature. “God” is nature. To suspend its laws would mean nullifying himself. The principle of identity rules. “God” cannot be anything but “God.” There is only one miracle: the invincible potential for LIFE that emerges at each present moment — each “now” — of matter’s existence in whatever forms it has, up to the moment, evolved..

And so we identify ourselves with “God” and unapologetically pursue allowing “God’s” LIFE to take over and completely supplant the false power-hungry “self” that our unbridled and undirected mindless conatus has been allowed to conjure into existence, like a blind sculptor. The result of its unconscious efforts, no matter how grotesque, in the case of human beings is not set in stone. Habits grooved into living flesh are open to change. They can be transformed through the power of mindfulness: welding synteresis to the conatus.

7.

Prayer. The pre-existing energy of the matter of our organisms — present since the moment of the “big bang” — congeals into the conatus-synteresis that is the foundation of our individual identity. It compels us to find “God” at the intimate center-point, the shared ground at the “intersection of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, … .” which “like a two edged sword, living and active, discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is the “place” where the existential energy of our source becomes our very own, bound over in service to our identity. The conatus-synteresis is the organism’s drive to survive as human — its thirst for life and its revulsion at injustice.

If we intend to relate to this “God,” therefore, this is the “place” we will find him, with a face and features indistinguishable from our own. And that, for us, erstwhile spiritists learning to pray all over again in a material universe, is the consummate challenge. For our tradition has not taught us to think of “God” as our matrix and therefore of ourselves and “God” as a compenetrated entity. To the contrary it has imagined “God” to be distant and inaccessible, “out there,” “other” than we are, separate and distinct, an individual person, Pure Spirit, who acts ad extram outside himself on matter and who requires a moral response to his revealed commands as the condition for contact. The fact that a theologian as officially acceptable as Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century that “God” does not work ad extram but rather accomplishes everything — from creation to redemption — internally, as a participation in the trinitarian processions themselves, has not put a dent in the anthropomorphic imagery universally held by the Christian tradition. Thomas’ immanentist theology, even if understood, was never applied. The ancient humanoid imagery stemming from the Hebrew Scriptures remains perennially unchallenged by the pastoral exhortations and catechetical education of the Christian clergy.

It’s only when we do away with the erroneous duality of matter and spirit that we can finally demolish the separation-illusion we have erected between us and our creator which was based on the alienating effect of our human bodies. “God” was thought to be pure spirit and that’s what drove the irretrievable wedge between us. Only now, knowing that we are the very “stuff” that our creator is made of can we fully embrace and be morally enlivened by the divine immanence that theologians spoke of but the ecclesiastical authorities never found conducive to their program of social control. The hierarchy needed “God” to be distant; how else could they justify their ministrations, guaranteed to bring a metaphysically distant “God” near, always with the hope that he will perform miracles for paying clients.

But “God” is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The LIFE that we share with “God” is only one LIFE, “God’s” LIFE — matter’s energy. That is the miracle — the energy of LIFE — the only miracle. There are no others.

If we are to re-imagine “God” as “God” really is, then, we have look at what “God” is actually doing: activating our existence in the present moment, enlivening the matter of our bodies, specifically that energy within us that reaches out for more existence and is outraged at injustice. If we are to touch “God,” our attention has to focus on the present moment when we know that our material existence is newly arising in time as pure fresh water from a mountain spring as yet uncompromised by the pollutants that enter downstream. It is the “still point of the turning world,” and our true self newly armed with the conatussynteresis emerges with it at every instant. This is a constantly renewed potential that is born of the non-contradiction — the truth — to which we are welded in steel by our diaphanous minds. That intelligence as yet uncontaminated is not selfish in the least, is fully liberated — we might even say “all-powerful” — and in no way beholden to the “knee-jerk” false self that it sits quietly observing. That doesn’t mean that it is immediately capable of seeing details clearly, much less taking charge of the organism, which unfortunately may be held captive by the illusions of a mindless conatus now hardened by years of habit into a caricature of itself. The true self displays its authenticity, first, in its inability to not see things for what they really are. This is the terrible “judge of the living and the dead” that we dread: our implacable conscience. It knows what we do and why we do it. It fears no shame. But it has no power to coerce; it invites us to surrender to its unlimited potential rooted in the infinite ground of esse — matter’s existential energy itself emer­ging afresh in every moment.

It reminds us wordlessly what frauds we have been and are still capable of being, but whose unsullied re-emergence with conscious intelligent existence at each moment invites us to identify with this true self, the true residence of the organismic energy of the conatus-synteresis, forget the fraudulence of the past false distracted selfish self, and embark now as if it were the beginning of time in the limitless embrace of its Source arising to the surface. This is the “creator” and “savior” on whose existence we ride “as if on eagles wings.” The Source and outflowing current of this living spring are indistinguishable. It is ourselves. This is the “God” to whom we pray.

8.

The psalms were a compilation of imprecations made available by Hebrew priests to their various paying clients, as well as the collected songs of praise and pleading that were used for official state functions after the return of the Jews from exile. They are many and varied, but they have one thing in common: they are directed to “God.” They are dialogic. As you would expect from the era in which they were redacted, around 600 bce, they assume “God” to be a separate individual humanoid “person” out there, all powerful in a coercive sense, who did once and even now still can perform miracles like those associated with the Exodus, and make good things happen for “his” people.

Hebrew legend has it that they were slaves in Egypt and that the god Yahweh identified himself with their plight and helped free them from bondage. It is not surprising, then, that this earliest recorded religious adventure in our tradition took the form of a business contract. The captive Hebrew People bound themselves to do what “God” wanted and in return he bound himself to do what they wanted. Of course that involved miracles that put matter at the service of their needs: locusts devoured crops of their Egyptian captors, the Nile turned to blood, and even the Red Sea parted to aid their escape from slavery.

The psalms assume the contractual relationship between Yahweh and the Jewish people that is known as “the Covenant.” The contract provides the context in which the psalms generate their characteristic content. It accounts for some of the boldness — sometimes quite demanding — that otherwise would seem impertinent coming from a poor suppliant directed to the all-powerful master of the universe.

We used to imagine that “God” was literally as the psalms depicted “him.” But we have since learned that “God” is not like the person in the psalms or the other writings of these ancient near eastern people struggling to salvage a modicum of sovereignty in a region contested by the great rival empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. To begin with, the series of miraculous occurrences said to have accompanied the exodus from Egypt never happened, or were natural events given a hieratic interpretation by people emboldened in their efforts at liberation because they believed that Yahweh’s power was being applied on their behalf. Recalling the exodus and the contract that emerged from it forms the core of the argument of the psalms just as it formed the centerpiece of Jewish self-identity. The Jews were a people because they had a powerful “God” to whom they were related and who once suspended the laws of nature to secure their freedom and could do so again.

That means that the miraculous, as far as the psalms are concerned, has an important foundational dimension: it created the identity of the Jewish community. In our times we can only take that as metaphor. The community we relate to is the whole human race surviving by the fertility of the earth’s environment. This triad of the power of “God,” communal identity and freedom is the leitmotif of the psalms and remains their central dynamic even after the literal physical / metaphysical context has been brought up to date. It’s the source of the psalms’ transhistorical significance both for the individuals and the global community that emerges from using them.

Christians from the earliest days were aware of this feature of Jewish identity, and they boldly arrogated it to themselves. They identified themselves as the new chosen people. Jesus was the new Moses … his death and resurrection were the new Exodus, the definitive liberation, the passage through the Red Sea of death to the promised land of risen life. And Jesus was the “David” predicted by the psalms, the king who would rule from one end of the earth to the other, the “first-born son” of God himself whose reign would have no end. None of this was in the mind of the psalmists who created these songs. “David” was the reigning king at the time. The hyperbolic projections of his longevity, political reach and domination of others were very straightforward: Yahweh’s people should expect no less. After all, it was the wonder-worker of the Exodus who guaranteed it.

All this reference to Jesus, it hardly needs to be said, was imposed later by believing Christians who were determined to find symbolic clues and hints of “God’s” universal purpose — designed for the entire human race — in the events recounted in the Jewish Scriptures which formed the basis of their daily prayer. The earliest Christians, after all, were all Jews. Where else would such expectations come from?

What is most salient to our perspective is that the early Christians believed they were upgrading Judaism from a local, sectarian, tribal belief, to the final universal design intended by God. The early Christians were Jewish universalists. But almost within their lifetime, Christianity itself, in order to protect its boundaries became a sect every bit as closed and exclusive as the Jews that they thought they were transcending. In this respect, Christians claimed the “contract” — the Covenant — was transferred to them. There was a “new contract,” a New Covenant, and it was with Christians. It is not at all surprising that, by using those categories and terminology, Christianity became as tribal and exclusive as anything they thought they were escaping.

How do we, in our time, despite the sectarian dynamics in operation both for the Jews and later for the Christians, deal with this? I contend “The contract” provides an especially apt analog for the relationship between the human organism, the human community in which the organism effectuates its survival, and the living material energy of which it is made, and which is the source of all its powers. While the Jewish Covenant imagines a God-person with a residence beyond this world, and the Christian appropriation of that Covenant crassly identified the Roman Empire as the new “tribe” to which all must belong, the claim that “God” is activating his considerable coercive power for the Jews (or the Roman Catholics) can only be a metaphor. Literally speaking there is no such “God” or power and there never was, neither for the Jews nor for the Catholics.

But what is relevant is the dynamic of the relationship. Yahweh, in the psalms is bound to the Jews. There is no question about his commitments, even were his preference to change. He is bound by contract. Yahweh belongs to the Jews, and the Jews belong to Yahweh, like it or not. They are “two in one flesh,” like a married couple however dysfunctional the relationship, and indeed the prophets use the marriage metaphor more than once to describe the bond between Yahweh and the Jews and to draw conclusions about the behavior that it implies.

In our terms, “God” is the living dynamism resident in matter. “God,” as Eckhart would say, is the ground in which I exist. “God” belongs to us and we to “God” in the most intimate manner possible for we are one and the same stuff. My “self,” however, that coalesces under the driving insistence of the conatus to survive in each present moment in time, is quite capable of erroneously imagining itself to be a solid stand-alone independent entity — groundless — existing in its own right. “God,” even understood as the energy of matter, is not spontaneously perceived as part of this picture. Therefore a significant correction is needed if the human organism is to imagine itself accurately.

An independently existing entity is what Aristotle called a “substance,” a term that Spinoza claimed could only be attributed to “God,” and since everything else existed in “God,” everything else was, for Spinoza, necessarily a “modality” of the one divine “substance.” Spinoza’s philosophy was an idealist version of pan-entheism, taken directly from the mediaeval focus on the central place of ESSE — “being” in the conceptualization of reality. For pan-entheists of any persuasion, you cannot conceptualize the subordinate entity without including its Source-ma­trix, “in which it lives and moves and has its being.” In the obsolete spiritist-dualist Platonic metaphysics that earlier constituted the “perennial philosophy” of the west, the Substantial Source that “modalized” the human individual was the concept of ESSE, always an abstraction even when imagined as a concrete force as in Aristotle’s “act.” But our science has more accurately revealed to us the concrete characteristics of our universe: ESSE is matter’s energy and everything that exists is constructed of it. It is easy to imagine because it is concrete.

In our terms “divine power” means the unlimited and irrepressible potential for LIFE and justice that is on display in the conatus-synteresis embedded in human organisms. LIFE’s power — i.e., “God’s” power — expresses itself in the identification of our own identity, the driven conatus, with the embrace of justice, synteresis, the moral corollary of the principle of non-contradic­tion. That identification is the source of unlimited human potential — it is the divine guarantee of personal and social identity and liberation and it necessarily involves the displacement of the imaginary independent “self” with another “self” fully aware of its roots in the ground of “God’s” LIFE. In that moment — always a present moment, of course — the organism is freed from captivity to the false self, the erroneous self that thinks it has its own existence, as if it were its own source. But the human organism is not self-originating. It is in the achievement of that liberating realization that both the true self and true human community are born.

*     *     *    *

All the factual elements that form the content of the psalms have changed for us. We are not Jews. We do not believe that “God” is an all-powerful entity who had a tribal contract with Jews and then later with Christians. We are convinced that there are no miracles and never were. We have come to understand that “God” is not a humanoid person “out there” with whom we can communicate but rather a living dynamism “in here,” in our flesh — the innate force of LIFE enlivening the material substrate of this evolving universe and our very bodies. “God” is LIFE, absolutely universal and “belongs” to everyone. What we experience as our own living identity, the conatus, the drive to survive characteristic of every living organism, is an existential energy that belongs primarily to the material substrate of our organisms and only secondarily gathered into an ephemeral human “self” by the conatus from the coalescence of trillions upon trillions of living cells that comprise our bodies, a “self” that we use as a tool to thread our way through our life with others on this earth. It is an organismic identity, and when the organism disintegrates, that identity, that “self” formed by the conatus, disappears.

Our relationship to this “God” is exhaustively mediated through our relationship to ourselves, our family and local community, and a global society increasingly interdependent for the survival of each and all. This “God” can only be contacted in one place: where the rubber meets the road — at the present moment where LIFE reveals its presence in the aggregations and configurations of evolved matter. LIFE exists nowhere else. “God” is only the living dynamism of matter — the force of LIFE — emerging into existence in each present moment.

As self-conscious organisms who are ourselves the primary examples of such configurations we have special access to that revelation. We perceive it from within. We have an inside view on our own existence, which is always simultaneously a social phenomenon, emerging in the ever present moment. It is not just a matter of knowledge, we experience it palpably, wordlessly, directly and intimately. It is there that we touch the wellspring of our power — where “God’s” LIFE becomes our potential for life and justice. And it is to that shared power — that divine potential that is us — that the psalms direct us to cry out for help against our enemies.

Our enemies are our own mindlessness that allows selfishness to cripple our potential: to become addicted to gross gratifications, to propagate injustice by our greed, to foment the prejudices and exclusions of our atavistic tribalism, to spread the errors of false self-worshipping religion, to let ourselves be intimidated by the blinded selfishness of others. We have recourse to only one source of power — the invincible divine potential that surges into existence at every new moment as ourselves (and as other humans). We pray to that “God” for there is nothing else to appeal to. There is no other “God,” and for human beings there is no other power that is relevant to our reality. Authentic power is the human potential of a synteresis’ charged conatus. Coercive power is now recognized as inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. For it is impotent to achieve the real goal of the conatus, the preservation and enhancement of the true self guided by synteresis.

In order to accomplish the purpose of prayer — which is the conscious attempt to align ourselves with the meaning of our existence in a universe of material LIFE — the “will” of “God” is made manifest as our moral conscience informing an energized conatus through the spontaneous promptings of our innate synteresis. Just as the “God” we call upon to rouse himself in our defense is our synteresis-directed conatus, the “God” we obey is our conscience.

9.

Work and survival. The conatus drives identity because the organism is driven to survive. This is not suppressible and we are lucky that it’s not. It’s what makes us human. We have to struggle — work — to stay alive, and we identify ourselves by how and how well we do it. It’s both our joy and our fulfillment as well as our constant preoccupation. It’s what we do under the sun. It is the essence of the human condition as it is of every material organism in the universe. It is the source of all community and conflict among us.

Surviving in our material universe has never been easy, and despite the security that the technological conquest of human survival should, in theory, provide for all, in practice for the majority of people across the globe, life is as hard as it has ever been. This is, obviously, a problem of our own making. The psalms, which in their original sense directed themselves to a “God” who is committed by contract to be our surrogate identity, are unrelenting in their insistence that he fulfill his promise. The incongruity here — demanding that “God” help us with a task that we now realize is clearly our own responsibility and well within our capacities as a global community — identifies the paradigm of adjustment as we approach making the psalms relevant for our time. It is the principal recurring inconsistency we encounter, and if left to thoughtless inattention, it is the issue most likely to derail our efforts. It is here that we have to apply our newfound awareness of the confluent identity of the divine potential with ours: that our potential and “God’s” are one and the same thing. What makes us human is that we carry divine power around with us like the hammer of Thor.

We have defined “God” as the force of LIFE driving the survival orientated activities of every living thing on earth. Calling upon “God” to help us with “our daily bread” can mean nothing other than galvanizing the productive and cooperative energies in the human community, personal, local and worldwide, to create and distribute the necessary resources so that we all may live. This may sound paradigmatic for our project, and it is. We could spell out the academic details in terms of economic and political systems, but really, aside from that academic exercise, what more is there to say?

*         *         *

If we are just talking about understanding, there is nothing more to say. Nothing. But that’s the difference between understanding (even poetic understanding) and prayer. It’s only after you have finished understanding the facts, that the struggle of prayer begins; for prayer is directed to the activation of divine potential. In this light it becomes clear why the presumptions and expectations awakened by the ancient Jewish Covenant — the contract, the fulcrum of the psalms’ leverage with Yahweh — provide an extremely apt metaphor for the modern confrontation with the human condition. Perhaps no other metaphor would work as well.

Prayer is engagement in the present moment — the real situation; it is the prelude to action. In the case we’re examining it’s the mindful confrontation with the dismal failure of the human community to devise a system of production and distribution that takes care of all the human beings in the world. Starvation, famine, generalized regional scarcity and national underdevelopment, political upheavals and genocidal wars generating massive displacement, homelessness, un- and under-employ­ment, racial and ethnic inequality, lack of educational and medical services … the list is long. To understand the scope of the reality is one thing, to conscientiously become engaged in reversing the failure is quite another. But in analyzing how exactly prayer — the psalms — fit into this picture, a number of things have to be clarified.

The first is to constantly remind ourselves that there are no miracles, and the cries of the psalmist for signs and wonders must be uncompromisingly nudged away from any such expectation. That means, furthermore, that the shameless engagement of the Church in the pursuit of miracles, even miracles of social justice, must be adamantly resisted if not openly denounced. The real “power” that is being called upon is our own potential for conscientious and effective response, my own first and that of other human beings. However, and here is the hub around which the whole effort turns: it still remains a divine potential albeit expressed only by human beings.

So this is the second fixed point: the psalmist is still in the position of suppliant. The one praying is needy. There is no temptation to an angry arrogance at “those who do not respond,” or haughty condemnation of those who begin but then fall by the wayside, including oneself. The wellspring that resides embedded in our organism suffusing LIFE’s moral power from present moment to present moment is still “God” and we are still in the condition of beggars — begging now for the moral strength that through mindlessness we allowed to go slack; nothing has changed there. Prayer reminds us that just as in calling on “God” we are really calling on ourselves, so also in calling on our own potential we are still really calling on “God,” the resident and transcendently creative source of that potential, material LIFE. Our very humanity is a marriage contract.

Prayer then immediately elevates my compassion for the people who are suffering … and for us whose consciences are prodding us to respond (in spite of failures) … into a commitment to effective engagement in a way that no amount of intellectualizing or exhortation can match. There is nothing inherent in just understanding that guarantees engagement. Prayer takes understanding to a different level — the level of effective action. You cannot ask Yahweh to “wake up” and apply “divine power” to remedy the situation without knowing what you are really asking for. You are asking yourself to “wake up.” By praying, now that we know that divine power only works seamlessly with secondary human causes, you are calling upon yourself to arise and take action … confident that your surrender to the divine potential which is indistinguishable from your own, will bear you up as if on eagles wings … will hide you protected from the negativity that prowls like a roaring lion seeking to destroy you and your efforts … and the efforts of your collaborators.

 10.

Death and the totality of matter’s energy. Many of the psalms appear to have been prayers provided to the sick or prayed in their name to call on divine power to heal them and keep them from dying. We are all familiar with the phenomenon: we reach for outside help when we feel helpless. It is absolutely universal. It was no more indulged in 600 bce than it is today.

So here’s our dilemma: How do we embrace our material universe with the natural cycle of birth and death that defines all life as we know it and still use the psalms … or indeed, still claim to pray when we know that the “God” we pray to is the very dynamism that has evolved things the way they are? The violently coercive “God” “out there” beyond us that the psalms appeal to for help does not exist.

Despite the triumphant claims of many of these psalms that Yahweh has in the past and once again can and will save the pleader from death, all have died. The only immortality that LIFE has been able to devise so far is focused on the preservation of species accomplished by the reproductive action of the individuals … who all die. Indeed, factually speaking, even if those who prayed these psalms were themselves cured at the time, it was only temporary.   Anyone using them even in the old way would have to be fully aware that they were only asking for a postponement, for death was inevitable. In a literal sense, even for traditional believers, none of those prayers were really answered.

But there is no making light of this situation. Many who have come to grips with death appear to have come out on the other end hardened and stoic. Death is inevitable, they say, whining for immortality is an indication that you have not left the fantasy castles of childhood.   All things change. Our family members die. Friends come and go. Youth and health are evanescent. Enjoy the days as they pass. You will live on in the memory of others.

Frankly in my own experience, I have entered into such stoic mindsets only when I was feeling robust and invulnerable. Strong, healthy relatively prosperous, in the warmth of my family, I was simply not in the mood for dwelling on what was not here yet and would occur only in the distant future. Desperate feelings were to be ridiculed. I think I imagined myself facing death in the same psychological state as I was in at the moment. But that’s not always what happens.

My sense now about that kind of attitude is that it was a stoic intellectualizing — a thinking about death that left the body out of the calculation. It was not an existential encounter, a somatic realization that generates an anguish or immobilization that is beyond rational explanation or voluntary control. The same person who today can “cast a cold eye on death” and pass it high on his horse, tomorrow, for whatever reason and however quiet it’s kept, finds himself unhorsed, broken, perplexed, terrified and whimpering — his once stony heart “melted like wax within his breast.”

As that last phrase indicates, the psalms are aware of the body and are not afraid or ashamed of its frailties. “God,” says the psalmist, “knows that we are dust. The wind comes and we wither and are blown away like chaff. We are gone and there is no sign that we were even there.” This is a sentiment that is clearly pre-Christian. It puts the psalms squarely in the human camp. The Christian Platonist is the one who can cast a cold eye on death because he sees this life as a veil that one is to pass by with indifference. The only reality is the after-life in the spirit world. By insisting that we live forever as our selves, Christianity has robbed us of the anguish and pathos of true loss. It has made us distant, hard, unfeeling, haughty, judgmental, unable to tremble except out of fear of hell and our own individual damnation. The wailing of the psalms at death and suffering was always an embarassment to Christians who prayed them; they secretly held those feelings in contempt. True Christians knew this world was an illusion.

The Jewish psalmists, in contrast, stand totally disarmed before death; they had no afterlife to deflect its blow. They yielded to what they felt, and we who use the psalms recognize that we are in fully human hands. They knew: death is abhorrent, nauseating. It ends our connections with the ones we love. Ordinarily when it is far enough away we can live without thinking about it. But when it approaches, when it comes close and we feel its cold breath on our necks, a terror arises that is like nothing else. Even the most battle hardened military frame of mind has some chink in its armor where the stiletto will enter. The sheer amount of PTSD generated by our endless wars should be proof enough for that. Many carry around the wound, open and suppurating, without ever having cried out in anguish and despair, until they find themselves lashing out at family, friends or strangers with a violence they did not know they were capable of. These matters cannot be dismissed. The psalmists knew.

The psalms face death with all the anguish and despair that the conatus can generate when its commitment to its assigned task of protecting the “self” has been shredded beyond repair by an invincible impotence that no amount of will power or intellectualizing can counter. Given the psalmists’ belief in the coercive power of Yahweh, the “God” of armies, “out there” in the heavens, he begs and pleads that “God” exercise his power to save him from death.

In our idiom, we know that “God” is LIFE, and that the power that “God” and I wield together is not a coercive control of matter but rather the potential for more LIFE. However, in my case the potential, as far as I can see, is limited to the lifetime of my organism and what it can accomplish with hard work and mindfulness. There are no immortal souls that live without bodies. Whatever “souls” there are, are the dynamism of living bodies and when there is no life in the body, there is no soul. My sense of who “God” is may have changed, but the fact of my death and the uncontrolled feeling of terror as my body sees it draw near has not.

“God” is LIFE, the source and matrix of matter’s existential energy. That means that the “God” that resides at the foundational center of my “self” providing the dynamism of my life, also resides at the center of the existence and life of everything else in the universe. “God,” therefore, is at the very heart of the totality of being. But I am part of that totality as an emergent product of LIFE and also as intimately identified with the matrix-producer of LIFE. My cries for life and endless life are made in the context of being carried along in the river of LIFE in both an active and passive sense. What more effective thing can I ask for than to be kept an integral part of this flowing enterprise evolving into new forms constantly capable of doing more astonishing things. To continue existing as matter’s energy can hardly be considered an “arm twisting” request since this is exactly what has been going on for 14 billion years and is responsible for the emergence of this organism whose conatus has knotted into a “self” I call “me.” Perhaps “superfluous” would be a better word for this prayer because there seems little worry that the sub-atomic components of the material-energy of my body, which the first law of thermodynamics says are neither created nor destroyed, won’t also be here for the next fourteen billion years, and really … why not … forever.

The only thing that probably won’t be here, it seems, is the “self” which appears to be a virtual reality concocted by the conatus to carry out its commands to protect and enhance the organism. However, it is precisely this “self” that I call “me” whose disappearance generates a dread and terror that I cannot control. Accurately identifying this “self” as virtual — i.e., a product of the imagination, a “symbol” of the material organism — I can begin to separate it in my mind from the actual material energy of my organism, and simultaneously accept the fact that it will not share the destiny of the material totality of the universe to which my body belongs.

In other words, by learning, incrementally if necessary, to identify my organism with the universal totality of matter’s energy, I come to realize that the fear of death is not a real existential fear. There is nothing substantial going out of existence at my death. The only thing that disappears is my “self.” My virtual reality and the valences that it has established with other “modalities” of the One Great Substance will vanish, leaving always the core components of my organism intact. My body, in other words, which the conatus was committed to protect, is always safe.

Let me acknowledge at this point that this is a mental exercise that bypasses the feelings  which have become habituated to think of the solitary self as real in the substantial sense. That is where the terror resides. The unconscious “self” thinks of itself as isolated from the totality of being.  Of course it’s going to feel terrified.

The unconscious self is the conatus’ avatar for the organism generated without conscious control. But the conscious self that becomes active in meditative mindfulness is an entirely new creation born of the constant injection of synteresis into the frenzied ruminations of the conatus. Through mindfulness, the conatus becomes habituated to seeing its quest for secure life satisfied by the identification of the organism with the totality of matter’s energy and its evolving project instead of the pyrrhic victories of the isolated ego.

Slowly and incrementally, the conatus sees its existence, now and into the future, made safe by its inclusion in Spinoza’s One Great Substance, and endless Evolving Project of which it is an integral part. This corresponds to the “true” or transcendent self that we saw in section 5. Fundamentally, under the aegis of a meditative mindfulness a new self emerges through the conditioning imposed by the conscious mind. And this new self knows itself to be a material organism whose components have existed for 14 billion years and are part of a Cosmic Adventure of Creative Evolution … and whose end we cannot see.

 

 

 

Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.

Slavery

The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.

Money

Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.

Transition

The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.

Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

This blog is dedicated to elaborating the social implications of a new set of premises about the nature of reality that modern science has helped us establish.   After 500 years of careful observation and critical analysis we are now fairly certain that we live in an exclusively material universe.

That wasn’t always true. We used to believe that reality was dominated by and could only be understood as idea, an immaterial product generated by an immaterial substancespirit-mind — and that the entire universe was the result of a Spirit-Mind’s insertion of a multitude of self-reflective immaterial ideas into a formless plasma called matter.

That unchallenged assumption which molded our thinking for thousands of years, has been overturned in our times.  It is a radical inversion that has amounted to a complete reversal of our image of reality and our scheme of values. Trans­cen­dent phenomena like human consciousness, whose “obviously immaterial” characteristics were once taken as prima facie evidence for the existence of spirit-mind and an entire other world where spirits originated and to which they were destined to return, are now, without losing anything of their quality as phenomena, accepted as functions of this one material world. There is no other world.

Of all the implications of our new understanding, this is the one that is the most relevant to our lives: there is no other world.

Being and work

Science has discovered that all of reality — everything — whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy. To be, in other words, is to be matter. Based on that central fact, material energy is, in corollary fashion, also responsible for the by-products of its time-driven dynamism: (1) a conatus or drive for self-preservation observable in each and every living organism, and inferred to exist in some form in every particle of material energy, making survival (existence) an innate and insuppressible urge; (2) evolution, defined as an adaptive mechanism driven ultimately by the conatus that guarantees matter’s continuing existence despite the changing environmental conditions that impact its survival; (3) a sense of the sacred arising spontaneously in human beings whose innate self-con­scious desire to exist, springing also from the same conatus, reverberates in an insuperable appreciation for and desire for union with the projected source of existence, material energy, LIFE, as a guarantor of survival.

Because to be-here is the inner dynamism that constitutes its very reality, everything matter does and becomes is a reflection of its existential bearing. Every living organism of whatever kind and at whatever level of complexity or ability to act is driven to survive because and only because it is made of matter. Everything it pursues and everything it does, whether in action or at rest, is a question of continuing to exist. It ultimately defines work.

Life from LIFE

Living organisms openly display dynamic characteristics which may not be perceptible in inanimate matter before it has been drawn up onto the plateau of life — the most revealing of evolution’s stunning achievements. Matter’s energy even at the most primitive levels must possess in dormant form the potential for what it does at the level of life. Nothing comes from nothing. Hence we say that matter is a dynamism driven by LIFE whose potential is released through the aggregations and complexifications achieved in the process of evolutionary adaptation.

These evolutionary developments are observed occurring throughout pre-life as well, first in the construction of the elegant table of the elements and, later, in the emergence of ever more complex molecules. These innovations reveal matter’s communitarian nature: matter achieves survival by unifying and re-arranging its separate particles and forces.

The process of evolution by unification and complexification continues at the level of life. Very early in earth’s geologic history unicellular organisms invented sexual reproduction and discovered the survival power of multicellularity and the division of roles within the resulting organism. Both advances involved the enlistment of many individuals in the pursuit of a common benefit; both measures enhanced survivability exponentially. Multicellularity, in turn, seems to have been taken up as a paradigm for species’ societies at all levels. The congregation of individuals and the distribution of roles and functions within the survival community proved to be the most effective strategy for the continued existence of the individuals of a species. All individual organisms survive communally with other members of their own species and also, symbiotically with members of other species. Commonality is a function of the unity of material energy. Communal survival activity shared among individual organisms is work. Work’s communal, collaborative nature is aboriginal: it is both the source and the result of 14 billion years of material evolution.

This communal character stands in sharp contrast with the exaggerated individualism evoked by the Platonic paradigm.   The separate soul of Plato’s imagination was quintessentially solitary. If it was to liberate itself from the dungeon of the body and its corruptions, it had to do so alone. There was no communal “salvation” in the Platonic system. A mother could not save her thieving son, nor a village its drunken idiot. Family and clan lost whatever survival significance they may have had in a material universe, because in Plato’s universe the world where survival was really won was another world reached only by dying — a world of bodiless spirits, where the relationships spawned by bodily reproduction were meaningless. Entrance into that other world required the death of the body along with all its genetic connections to family and clan. The only saving connection was with the impersonal rituals of the Church. The Church took the place of all natural communities.

Work as a function of existence

In a material universe, however, collaborative work is the direct result of the insuppressible urgings of the conatus in the real world and therefore is part of the line-up of characteristics that are found wherever material energy is found. They are corollaries of existence. It is precisely because all matter is innately driven to survive, that all matter is also collectively active in the pursuit of its continuance. That activity is work. It is a universal expression of the dynamism of the conatus and I claim it is a feature of all of reality.

[A note: Since my interest in this reflection is work as a human activity, my terminology will reflect that. But I want to state clearly at the outset that there is no intention to exclude non-human reality from the analysis or the conclusions. Work is a dynamism for continued existence that is natural to all material reality. There is evidence that at the quantum level, matter is proactive in the genetic adjustments neces­sary for the adaptation of the living organism to its environment. If that is true, it means that evolution itself is the result of work.[1]]

Human Consciousness. Human self-awareness represents another astonishing plateau in evolutionary development, responsible for characteristics that seem not to have existed in any prior life-form, analogous to the way life did not appear to have been present in earlier material entities that were not alive. But following out the analogy, and faced with mounting evidence of the presence of complex consciousness in animals other than human, we are compelled to attribute some dormant potential for consciousness to the very quanta packets of energy that constitute the building blocks of everything material in our world. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “interiority” of matter.

Some modern philosophers, like Galen Strawson, have suggested this feature of reality be called panpsychism. The meaning of the term is contained in its etymology: “everything,” pan, is “mental,” psych-. In other words, similar to our judgment about the presence of LIFE dor­mant in inanimate objects, mind is present as a dormant potential existing in all material reality because all psychic phenomena of whatever kind are clearly the products of material activity coming from organisms that are all and only comprised of and nourished by exactly the same quanta of material energy that constitute everything else in the universe. The data of daily observation, in this regard, is so universally corroborative of this conclusion that we are confident of it even though we have not as yet determined what mechanisms are employed in the activation of that potential. The simple fact of the matter is that consciousness exists, and there is nowhere else it could have come from except this world’s matter.

Desire. The full flowering of mind, most evident in the human species, reveals the intense appetitive nature of the conatus. With the evolution of higher consciousness it becomes clear that the conatus was not just a mechanical drive, a blind and passive reflex, but rather a living thirst, a passionate self-conscious hunger to be here that when satisfied fills the organism with ecstatic joy, and when thwarted, with dejection and despair. This nuances our understanding of the nature of work. Work is not only a reaction to the animal instinct to stay alive, it is a response to the desire for existence.

The human species’ conscious awareness of the inevitability of death is an aspect of this mental phenomenon. It adds a special dimension to the human conatus. The human instinct for self-preserva­tion necessarily extends its preoccupations to the place where the ultimate threat to the organism is perceived to reside. Hence the human conatus is necessarily addressed to transcending death. LIFE is assumed to have a source. Given the imperiousness of the conatus, desire for union with that source is not avoidable for the human organism. That means religion or its equivalent is natural and spontaneous; it springs from the very instinct for self-preserva­tion.  Work is the active application of that instinct.

This passion to possess existence through union with its source is a response to the Sense of the Sacred. The reflexive awareness of this appetitive relationship to existence generates the peculiar communal response called religion. Religion is work like any other, only clearly focused on the pursuit of that aspect of the conatus’ goal that reaches beyond daily survival. Thus religion must be understood as a function of matter’s existential bearing, bound up with work and the very destiny of the human individual stemming unavoidably from its being a material organism facing death whose innate instinct is to be-here. That internal contradiction is elemental to humankind and explains its unique sense of disconnect with the natural world.

Religion or its equivalents are natural and unavoidable. Insofar as work is the emanation of the conatus, in the case of humankind that conatus and its genetically driven activity is necessarily suffused with the passionate desire to ensure that the organism continues existing endlessly, because at any other terminus, death would give the lie to the conatus. It is not surprising, then, that human work would extend its reach beyond securing shelter and the day’s food. We can say a priori, that virtually any human endeavor that goes beyond securing those basic survival needs, contemplates projects that in one sense or another appear to guarantee the conatus’ ultimate goals, whose most fundamental characteristic is endless existence. These activities are the equivalent of religion and can take almost any form.

Religion, in this scheme of things, then, is only the most formally labeled and socially acknowledged example of this uniquely human pursuit of immortality. It is not difficult to identify others; they are myriad: all achievements that are believed to linger in human memory offering a kind of life beyond death, monumental projects including the magnification and ascendancy of the nation, military and economic conquests, academic, artistic, literary and athletic achievements, the abasement and exploitation of others for the purposes of asserting one’s or one’s tribe’s superiority, fame derived from any source, competitive activities specifically designed for creating distinction and recognition, the superfluous accumulation of goods, power, influence, land, capital, money. Animals do none of these things, because none of them are necessary for survival. These all speak to the attempt to extenuate and amplify individual existence beyond one’s limited “size” and location in the time-line of social history. I would put the perennial drive toward empire on the part of nations in this category of ersatz religion. It is an attempt to achieve immortality, and individuals identify with empire as their own participation in immortality. Empire is not only a pursuit of the elite.

If religion in our day no longer fires the imagination with hopes of immortality, it’s not because humankind has lost the hunger for endless existence. It’s just that, having decided that religion’s narrative lacks credibility, people have turned to other endeavors as more realistic substitutes. Whatever else has changed, the innate insuppressible human passion for endless life has not, and work as the emanation of that passion, will always tend toward securing it. Hence work must also be understood — and judged — under the rubric of man’s sense of the sacred as the pursuit of transcendence.

The dangers here are real. The perennial tendency of nations to take conquest and domination of others as a sign of superiority, is one of the principal substitutes for transcendence. The unabashed admiration on the part of most readers of history for the great empires and their accumulation of wealth, power and territory, suggests that the futility of seeking that kind of ascendancy has yet to be appropriated and internalized. There seems little chance that a political dynamic built on any other purpose will be put in place anytime in the near future.

Work in a Material Universe

Given this background, work has to be seen as (1) a natural and necessary activity of material organisms in pursuit of survival, (2) necessarily having a community dimension not only stemming from the communal processes that characterize evolution but because human survival is not physically achievable by solitary individuals working alone and because the collaboration among individuals is itself constitutive of society giving work a defining importance for humankind. Work is also (3) necessarily a pursuit of transcendence: the individual is transcended through collaborative endeavors which identify the worker with the surviving community and the attempt to embrace the source of existence by mutual consent of the collaborators. It doesn’t matter what that source of existence is believed to be. Even if it is only “the memory of humankind.” These are all transcendent pursuits and should be assessed as such.

Work as survival. The primacy of survival activity — work — as the fundamental expression of the conatus means that the entire category of servile labor, necessarily the object of disdain and revulsion in our erstwhile dualist-spiritist universe, is revealed as completely baseless. There is no distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. There is no sub-human, bodily labor distinct and separate from reason and therefore there can be no sub-human “carnal” people consigned to the eternal repetition of mindless tasks. Survival work is not only the responsibility of each and every human organism for its own sustenance, it is the very expression of the organism’s roots in matter which grounds its existential bearing and the equality among human individuals that shapes the community that survives by it.

Work and existence. By survival work the material organism is manifesting openly its acknowledgement of belonging to the totality of matter’s living energy, the source of confidence in the endlessness of its being-here. Hence work is more than mere physical exertion; it is a dynamic declaration of self-aware­­ness and self-accep­tance. It is the conscious embrace of materiality. The organism embraces itself precisely and unapologetically as a material organism and takes a profound satisfaction in what work achieves: organismic life for another day — food, clothing, shelter and human community built by cooperative collaboration. Work is the expression of and commitment to belonging fully to the totality that endures. And belonging to the community of matter is the surest guarantee of individual endurance.

Work as ascesis. Work can no longer be thought of as a punitive discipline, the result of and punishment for some ancient transgression of our forebears, and a liberation of the spirit from the flesh. Work is rather a carnal joy and a privilege: the opportunity to express our intimate participation in the source of existence itself: material LIFE. The principal reward that work provides — survival — is immediately confirmed by ancillary benefits that enhance the organism: a strong healthy body full of energy and enthusiasm for life; a positive disposition and self-esteem that prevents the onset of depression or despair that the awareness of death might otherwise engender; the sense of security derived from the palpable comradery, companionship and mutual support generated by working cooperatively with others for the survival of each and all.

Far from being the whip that begins the process of liberating the spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, work in a material universe allows the material of the human organism to realize its full capacity to bring resident reason and spontaneous compassion born of material empathy to interface with the matter that work is transforming. Mirror neurons, the physical source of our empathy, are pure matter. We are all pure matter. The work worked and the working worker. The weight of matter borne is no longer a crushing burden that breaks my carnal will and forces compliance with my spiritual soul, but is rather a sibling’s touch that evokes in me a creativity not unlike that of an artist, who in elaborating what his vision reveals, may see a potential that no one knew was there. It’s like clay molding clay. The resulting mutually compenetrating engagement is explosive. Hesiod noticed certain workers got it right: “… they do their work as if work were a holiday.”

Manual labor in particular, which involves the intimate and continuous contact between my body and the matter under elaboration, becomes an occasion for the acknowledgement of the most important relationship of all: of the material energy which I am and the material energy that constitutes everything in the cosmos. It is one and the same. I AM THAT! This sense of intimate oneness with all that IS — LIFE — can serve to sustain a sense of one’s secure belonging to existence that has always been the great goal, the desideratum, of ascesis since before the advent of Christianity.

Of course all this assumes that work is guaranteed its primary and constitutive goal: survival.   Justice for the worker first and always means that work’s fundamental existential bearing is not frustrated.

Survival as a community effort

The significance of this new paradigm for the structuring of just and fulfilling work relationships hardly needs to be elaborated. First of all it reveals the class system that continues to divide work along servile physical lines to be baseless, demeaning and inherently destructive of the integrity of the human organism. Whatever needs to be done to secure survival is a responsibility that devolves upon everyone. If work is divided among the members of the community it is done for efficiency and convenience, not as a reflection of some putative quality difference among human beings, much less some illusory distinction between matter and spirit.

That some people are so wealthy that they never have to work is not a “blessing,” it is a travesty.   And those who intentionally pursue careers that will free them from the onus of physically providing themselves with food, clothing, shelter and community have entirely missed what it means to be human.

This has a primary application in the equality of men and women despite the obvious role differences established by their bodies. The female organism is not “more carnal,” more subject to emotional needs for being the place of gestation of offspring. All human organisms are equally capable of assuming all the roles in a complex society. Male-female role differences may be established by convention but they always remain conventional; there is nothing necessary about them. Reproduction is an instinct and function of all organisms. Indispensable genital equipment and efficacious function are features of every individual body, male and female. To heap burdensome and self-effacing tasks on one and not the other is a profound injustice, and may be the result of conscious exploitation. Platonic dualism lent itself to exactly such distortions of humanity.

In the case of children, the development of the rational function should no longer be given such priority as to entail the suppression or disregard for the wholeness of the human organism. Children’s emotional balance, ability to relate to others, predisposition to sense their unity as material organisms with other species of life and more primitive forms of matter’s energy, should be given as much emphasis as the development of their rational abilities to control the outside world by logical cerebration and emotional distance. The child should be educated to empathetically relate in organic material solidarity to whatever part of reality she/he will be later asked to manipulate and control with their work.

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

This topic — the division of labor in complex society — brings together all the contradictions that come from our tortured history.   I believe our materialist paradigm can offer new insights into how to resolve the problems that Platonic dualism bequeathed to us.   Having established the premises, future posts will begin reflecting on what this may mean for the future of work in a material universe.

 

[1] Cf McFadden and Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Random House, NY, 2014, pp. 219-221.