Roots of Spirituality

Spiritual consciousness is rooted in mammalian consciousness. Spirituality is, at heart, just a very sophisticated way of being a mammal.

In mammals, a mother takes care of her young. This means the mother and the child have modes of shared consciousness as long as they are inter-dependent. For the mother, the child’s welfare is her welfare. For the child, the mother is an extension of himself.

So a mammal has two kinds of awareness: ego awareness, where the animal strives for its own individual well-being, and communal awareness, where the animal experiences well being as fundamentally communal – including itself and members of its group.

This is the basic tension implicit in mammals. Not only in mammals. It applies to social animals, such as bees for instance. But it is a central feature of mammals.

For most mammals, this tension between ego and communal awareness is resolved by biology.

Once hominines, such as with homo habilus about 2 millions years ago, started to use tools and so started to have culture, the duality in mammalian consciousness between ego and communal awareness starts to be connected to culture.

Tool use – seeing how others are using tools, replicating them, seeing tools as communal property – is essentially tied to communal awareness. A group succeeds insofar as it’s members are able to do two things: 1) pass on tool use through fostering communal awareness, and 2) keeping ego awareness, which is hard wired into every living organism, in check so that it doesn’t undermine communal awareness.

By the time of the Neanderthals about 100,000 years ago and the Cro-Magnons about 40,000 years ago, we have the beginning of culture beyond tools: burials, jewelry, cave art.

All of this proto-mythological activity was part of the way these communities balanced ego and communal awareness. The more sophisticated tool use became, the more activity there has to be for communal awareness in order to instill the skills required for sophisticated tool use and community activity. These were enabled through communal rites like dancing, early chanting and singing. Seen from an ego awareness perspective, these actions seem bizarre: why would someone do that? But seen from a communal awareness perspective, group dance and rituals are no different from bees building a hive together or rams engaging in battle dances, etc.

With the rise of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, tool use and cultural practices became so sophisticated that humans now effectively live in a cultural world. Their activities are no longer like others animals plus some tool use. Now they start to have identities as defined by their roles in the social world.

An identity is a self-awareness which balances ego and communal awareness. A farmer. A blacksmith. A cobbler. These identities define a person’s place in society, and imbues them with an awareness of the sacred importance of those identities. If those identities collapse, that means individuals care more about their ego needs than the needs of the community.

Early myths are the groups narratives of these identities. Gods are the beings who excel at those identities – hunting, weaving baskets, maintaining fires, etc. Gods are the exemplars of a skill. So individuals aim to be like the Gods, in that they aim be skilled at the activities of the community.

The shamans and the priests – their identity is to keep the myths going, to channel the Gods and the divine realm of pure communal consciousness so that the society doesn’t break down into ego consciousness.

As communities grow and get bigger, new narratives of communal consciousness are needed to balance ego consciousness and communal consciousness. This is the history of mythology of societies.

When communities were small, there were select people whose identities were to let go of their ego conscisousness and channel group consciousness. Shamans, priests, divine kings.

But as communities became civilizations with hundreds of thousands of people, with empires filled with people of many different cultures, communal consciousness was no longer channeled only through priests or kings.

By about 2,500 years ago societies were so complex that some people had to cultivate their own communal awareness themselves. They could not simply focus on farming or being a warrior and expect the priests or the kings to channel the communal consciousness for everyone.

A new ideal started to form: each person has to deal with their ego awareness themselves and choose the divine, communal awarneess. This was the axial age revolution of Zoroaster, Abraham, Buddha, Socrates, Christ and Lao Tzu. By this point in history, nature by itself couldn’t balance ego and communal awareness. Nor could culture by itself. Over and above nature and culture, each person had to choose communal consciousness over ego consciousness.

This choice was being born again. Of dying to the ego consciousness and submitting to the communal consciousness, which would harmonize all of one’s being into a whole and provide peace from the rift within oneself between ego and communal consciousness. This choice was not a physical or an intellectual act. It was a transformation of one’s being, a change in body and mind at the deepest level.

One can’t achieve this by going to Church or learning physics, by affirming religion or by denouncing religion. The Axial age sages were clear about this. There is only one way: find the root of communal awareness within yourself, and submit to that heart and soul until your ego consciousness starts to burn and melt away; and keep holding to the communal awarenes even as the ego awareness screams and shouts, tries to deceive and trick you into holding on to it.

The journey of that path is spirituality. It is part of being a human mammal living in a vast civilization.

One thought on “Roots of Spirituality”

  1. > Over and above nature and culture, each person had to choose communal consciousness over ego consciousness.

    I think there is a tension here that is subtle and ever-present, which is basically this: what does it mean to live ethically and how does this mesh with the communal consciousness? The point I take from the Axial philosophers is that an individual has a responsibility to contribute back to the communal consciousness, and this contribution is mindful ethical action.

    I say this is “ever-present” because each person has to discover and define what “mindful ethical action” means for them … the ego consciousness is a necessary step to gain the critical distance for this activity. (But, like the ladder in the Buddhist parable, once it is used, it should be thrown away).


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