Monday, December 5, 2022

On Being and Becoming

     A conversation came up recently about how we tend to define ourselves by who or what or how we ARE, and whether we might be holding ourselves back by that thinking. The speaker called it an "ontological bias," which should be a clue that this was a group of highly gifted people. It tickled me, honestly, because out "in the world," defining ourselves by who we ARE seems to be a far step ahead of defining ourselves merely by what we DO. But her point was to go another step beyond self-limiting thinking: to shake off any self-definition at all, any static self-understanding, and step out into continual becoming.

    Continual becoming. I think that is a pretty fair synonym for "enlightenment," or "mystical union with God." And I also think it is achievable. No, not permanently and continuously, but at least intermittently and increasingly, through practice. After all, the idea of attaining perfection once and for all is just another way of "being." Enlightenment, or mystical union with God, is "becoming," it is a path and not a destination. In real life terms, I know from experience that I can transcend my weaknesses; I can grow in ways I thought were beyond me; I can know peace and contentment and love that I never imagined. I have changed so much already in my life, I do easily things I used to struggle with, I'm no longer bothered by things that used to torment me, I know that an astonishing amount of change is possible. Thank God, because I still do struggle plenty. I still and always will have a ways to go.

    But here is the paradox: the only way to transcend the limits of present reality is to head straight into it, even to embrace it.

    God does not mystically unite with my fantasy self, only with the genuine transparent me - warts, cracks, and all. Buddhism talks about the illusion of "self," but Buddhist practice for transcending that ego-self is, first and foremost, to pay close attention to it. Watch my breath, watch my thoughts, observe my impulses to desire and aversion. There is no beaming up to Cloud 9; I have to climb up slippery rungs through the chilly rain and fog, and sometimes dodge lightning. How do I climb that ladder? St. Benedict says at the beginning of the 7th chapter of his Rule, we ascend by humility, and we descend by exaltation. And humility is not exaggerated self-abasement, it is very honest, clear-eyed self-appraisal. 

    It's very hard to find words for this! Let me give an example. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous promise sobriety for the hopeless drunk, and a whole lot more. Sobriety may be the motivating goal, but it comes along with, and as the result of, a whole spiritual awakening. The 11th step talks about improving our conscious contact with God, a God we didn't even necessarily believe existed back at the 1st step. The program promises all kinds of wonderful things. And it works. By the time you get to the 9th step, you find this famous text: 

    If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
    Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

    What is "this phase of our development," and how do "we work for them?" Well, the 9th step is the culmination of a whole process of confronting our worst parts, admitting defeat, taking a leap of faith that with help, we can turn that defeat around. It is a way that involves self-examination ("a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves"), confession, reflection, softening into willingness, inviting grace, and doing penance. The 9th step is the penance part. In the 8th step we took a second inventory, of all the people we had harmed (which always includes ourselves), and became willing to make amends to them all. In the 9th step we did that thing. We humbled ourselves and "made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." Even when they had injured us, too, first and worse. Which is a lot deeper and a hell of a lot harder than the classic Catholic "say 5 Hail Marys and a couple of Our Fathers, absolvo te." But it's real, and it's effective, and it is the only way to shake off the boundaries of our ego-self, the false self. To go from being to infinite becoming. To reach those promises.

    On a practical level, I can say that self-knowledge enables me to lean into my strengths and scaffold my weaknesses. It informs my choices of what direction to go in my life, what to do and what to leave undone. Understanding my own limitations allows me to ask for the support, patience, or accommodations I might need from other people. Self-knowledge gives me a lot more authority over my own life experience. 

    But also, on a spiritual level, I know that the point of union with the unbounded Deity is inside the boundaries of my finite nature as one creature of God. Wishful thinking is only a barrier. I can only transcend myself as myself, not as the transcendent self I wish I were. I can only reach up toward that Cloud 9 by descending the ladder of humility: self-awareness, self-examination, owning my faults and flaws, taking responsibility for them, and by seeking out ways to do all this in communion with other people who are on their own path of becoming, whatever that looks like, in whatever language or framework(s) of meaning they have for it. Alone, I am one creature; together we are God incarnate.

   Wishing you a magical Advent and Christmas, or whatever kind of wonderful December you choose to celebrate.

~~~  peace  ~~~

No comments:

Post a Comment