This is a book I have wanted to write for a long time but was not ready to do so. My own journey into the fullness of being human was too limited and my personal wholeness too truncated. I don’t claim to have arrived but I have discovered some very practical and concrete ways of moving toward these ideals.
We become fully human by living the incredible adventure of the life we are given and the opportunities for love that it presents. The route to wholeness is not perfection but embracing the realities of our lives – including our brokenness – and giving ourselves fully to love.
Love is one of the three big themes of this book. Love is the foundation of all being and becoming. But the love I describe is not the soft sentimental love of Hollywood or Hallmark cards. It is the word some cosmologists are bold enough to use to describe the attractional force that holds planets in orbit and provides the glue that holds atoms together. It is the strongest force in the universe. But it is also the gentlest. Only love can soften a hard heart, renew trust after it has been shattered, inspire trust and free us from the tyrannizing effects of fear. Love holds all things together and grounds all human being and becoming.
The second big theme is wholeness. Wholeness isn’t something we need to achieve. Modern science makes clear that reality already possesses an integral wholeness. Think of the cosmos as a series of nesting Russian dolls – smaller wholes being contained within larger wholes. Wholeness comes from finding our place within the larger wholes within which we exist. This is the place of belonging that we need for full and deep human being and becoming.
The third big theme of this book is the nature and importance of the heart – not the pump in our chest (although it is obviously pretty important!) but the metaphoric heart that plays such a crucial role in living out of our depths. The cultivation of heartfulness is the route to the fullness of our humanity and this book presents practical discussion of just what this involves.
So, if these things are of interest, this book is for you. My hope is that it will help you live more fully the great human adventure of life and love.
I have often joked that I must be a descendent of the great fifth century Irish explorer and adventurer, St. Brendan the Navigator. My claim to this lineage is extremely tenuous – actually, totally fatuous. It rests on nothing more than the fact that both my parents came from Ireland (my mother emigrating from Northern Ireland with her family as a child and my father being a seventh generation Irish-Canadian hailing from the Republic of Ireland) and that I have always had a serious case of wanderlust and an irresistible passion for exploration. I am an inveterate sailor who loves finding my way across new stretches of open sea or coastline, a seasoned hiker and non-technical mountain climber who can’t resist a new peak or trail not yet taken, and a passionate explorer of cultures and countries that are off the well-traveled tourist routes. And what is true of me in a physical sense is even truer intellectually and spiritually.
I was born with a restlessness that has been my ever-present life companion. My eye is always toward the horizon. I am consistently drawn to larger possibilities, driven to explore alternate perspectives, on a quest for bigger vistas, addicted to hearing other voices. Those who think like me, believe as I do, or see the world in a similar way to how I see it are never of as much interest to me as those who offer me possibilities of encounter with alternate vantage points that are associated with their uniqueness. The journey of becoming whole and fully human has been my constant quest for sixty years. And mapping the territories of spirit and soul that are travelled on that journey has been central to my calling for the last forty of those.
But while life may feel like an adventure for me I am quite aware that for many people it feels more like a crapshoot, a battle, or a prison sentence. Major health concerns, financial problems, or other life circumstances make mere being enough of a challenge that the very notion of a larger horizon of becoming is unimaginable. They are unable to feel the gentle tug of the evolutionary flow of life. Their preoccupation is simply to make it across the treacherous waters of an unrelenting river that sweeps them off their feet and tosses them around each time they attempt to cross it. What they long for is survival, not fullness of being.
However, many of us who are blessed to have lower-level physiological and psychological needs reasonably met are keenly aware of the disquiet of ferment and the all-embracing ache of longing. We find it hard to settle for where we are. We feel called forward – even though it is often unclear whether we are actually moving forward or backward, up or down. Nonetheless, we are propelled by a hope that is strangely mixed with gnawing nostalgia. We feel an insatiable hunger for something we feel sure we will recognize when we taste it and a longing that resists satisfaction when we misunderstand it and seek gratification in penultimate places. We feel an instinctual draw to the horizons of further becoming. We find ourselves gazing beyond where we are as we sense possibilities of being more than we are.
Sometimes we are seduced by the siren call toward the enormously dangerous shores of perfectionism. As we shall see, this is not only impossible to achieve, but deeply soul-damaging. At other times, we are tempted to give up entirely on being human and instead seek to become gods or some kind of super humans. This is a quest that is often aided by pathological forms of spirituality that deny or minimize our bodies. But many of us want to actualize our humanity, not escape it – to be more deeply human, not more than human.
It is these mysteries of human being and becoming that I want to explore in this book. As we shall see, becoming is a fundamental property of being. The dynamic character of being implies the tendency of everything to transcend itself. To be is to exist within an evolutionary stream that gently draws everything toward greater consciousness that expresses itself in ever-new and more complex forms.
Being human involves continuous becoming. Whatever it means to speak of infants being human at birth, everything we know about human development demands that we acknowledge that becoming fully human is a life-long process. It is also clear that fullness of being human does not arise automatically with the simple passage of time. Becoming fully human is both far from automatic and far from inevitable.
Sadly, some people treat being human as just a poor excuse for a failure to live up to some higher ideal. Recently the mayor of Toronto ended months of denial that he used cocaine and frequented crack houses by saying that while he remained adamant that he had never used drugs of any sort, if he had it might have been while he was in a drunken stupor. This, he said, was something everyone should be able to understand since, like the rest of us, he was just human.
But being human is so much more than this. Second only to life itself, nothing could be a greater gift. As the pinnacle of evolutionary development, humans are entrusted with the highest levels of consciousness, complexity, intelligence and creativity known in the universe. But with this comes an awesome responsibility. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, humans are the arrow of evolution and the direction of its future. Not only do we have the opportunity to consciously participate in our personal and communal unfolding, but, as unbelievable as this may seem, the way in which we do so will have consequences for the continuing unfolding of the cosmos.
Everything that exists floats on a stream that flows toward transcendence. The human distinctive is not that we are part of this flow but that we possess the possibility of either consciously participating in it or of ignoring or even resisting it. However, while life is a river of change, everything that exists is not only being drawn toward self-transcendence but also tends to conserve its own form. Paradoxically, conservation is necessary for self-transcendence. Becoming is a dance of union in which both conservation and change have a role to play, a dance in which both rest and movement are integral steps.
In humans, this dance between being and becoming involves a third dynamic – doing. Humans have a hiddenness that can only be manifest when we act in the world. Although this activity can also be a way of avoiding both our being and further becoming, doing plays an indispensable role in our discovery of the hidden realms of our being and in the outworking of our becoming.
Spiritual writers sometimes suggest that doing is inferior to being. People who don’t get distracted by spiritual matters immediately realize that this is nonsense. They often live with an elegant simplicity in which their being is their doing and their doing is their being. This is much more sensible than trying to achieve a state of being that involves an escape from doing. Even if it were possible it is bizarre to think that it would be desirable. It just wouldn’t be human. Translating our being into action is one of the ways we humans are different from rocks!
Doing is a mode of being, a particularly essential mode of being for humans. But if we are to be whole, our doing and being must be integrated. Being is the fount and doing should be the stream that flows from it. When our doing is disconnected from the vital spring of our being we are simply thrashing around in stagnant waters, cut-off from our source. It is only when our doing is a cooperative response to the flow of the stream that emerges from the depths of our being that we can find our fullest becoming.
It is the possibilities of human becoming that lead many of us to speak of life in terms of a journey. And what a journey it is! The self that begins the journey of human unfolding is not the one that ends it. This is particularly clear when we look not just at growth but also at the profound reorganizations of self that are involved in transformation. Authentic transformation always involves major shifts in the platform from which we experience the world, others and ourselves – so major that when we notice them we often have a sense of being born again or of having become a new person.
My life has been a cascading series of these sorts of reorganizations of self. I simply cannot live another other way than to open myself to the possibilities of becoming more than I am at any point in time. Of course it is often scary to take my hands off the controls and allow myself to change in ways that I cannot regulate. But having tasted transformation, I would never trade it for the comfort of safety.
I have gone from being a dogmatic fundamentalist to a Christian who holds his beliefs with humility as I journey with those of any faith or none; from someone whose primary identification was with fellow-religionists to one who now feels a profound solidarity with all humans. Friends who have known me for a long time often comment on what they describe as my continuing reinvention of myself. I don’t see it that way at all. None of the changes in me over the decades have been accomplishments, nor are they deserving of applause. My journey has not been about trading in old systems of belief or ways of being for more progressive ones. It has simply resulted from my consent to the impulse of becoming that coursed through my veins inviting me to abandon my safe position on the shore of the river and jump in and go with its flow. All that was required of me was to be open, attentive, responsive and trusting.
Authentic transformation always changes how we see more than what we see. Most importantly, it involves a profound change in how we see our self, others and the world. Transformation begins at the boundary of what I think of as me and what I think of as not-me. Transformational changes always involve enlarging “me” and shrinking “them” or “it.” It frees us from the isolation of the small places of abode built by ego and surrounded by a barbed wire fence, introducing us to the much more expansive places of participation and belonging within larger wholes that are discovered by self.
The new levels of consciousness and forms of identity that emerge in these places of spaciousness and belonging build on the old ones. Transcendence always emerges out of integration, never destruction. The dynamic engine of human becoming is always love, not aggression or hostility. Attempts to kill off parts of self that we feel don’t belong leads to dissociation, not wholeness. The journey of human becoming is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Transformation is movement toward transcendence through re-formation. New, higher levels of organization emerge from older ones that continue to live on but now do so within a new overall framework of self.
The human journey is a symphony of movement and rest, progress and regress, effort and consent, holding and releasing. Although it is common in Western culture to use age as a reference point for where we are in this journey, age is in fact rather useless as a marker of progress. It is alarmingly easy to be in our sixties or seventies and yet still avoiding the inner journey that is supposed to define the second half of life. In the same way it is quite possible to be in our twenties or thirties and yet well into such second half of life tasks such as taming and decentering our ego as we begin to transcend it in favour of our larger self. The stages of life flow together and wash up upon each other’s shores in ways that make it impossible for us to know exactly what stage we are in at any point in time. But if we are honest we will always know if we are up on the shore watching the river or are in the midst of the flow. And if we are reflective and honest we should also be able to tell whether or not our doing flows principally from our being and whether our being is deepening and evolving as we attend to life’s invitations to further becoming.
In general terms, however, becoming more than we are in the first stage of life involves growth whereas in the second stage of life we encounter the possibilities of genuine transformation. The English word “transformation” is a conjunction of two concepts – “trans,” or more than, and “formation,” or development. Trans-formation is more than development. It cannot occur until formation has taken place and this is why it is in the second stage of life that we are most ready to engage the larger horizons of human becoming. By then, identity should hopefully be sufficiently secure as to allow us to transcend whatever has become our core sense of our self. But more important than securing identity, the crucial work of the first stage of life is the softening and decentering of ego. Ego can engineer self-improvement projects but while these may change the externals of our self they do so only by wrapping it tightly within a façade. This is not transformation. All it does is strengthen the ego as we engage in makeovers of our false self.
But, regardless of your age, since you have gotten this far, chances are very good that you already know something of these possibilities of becoming in your own life. You may still chronologically be in the first half of life but may be reaching into the realms of becoming that are generally associated with the second. Or, you may be well into your second half of life and just beginning to sense the possibilities of awakening and transformation that to this point were not even on your radar.
Quite possibly, you long for the possibility of moving beyond the cramped quarters of your small ego-self and living life out of a vastly more expansive identity and state of consciousness. Perhaps you have had moments in which you saw the world and all its inhabitants with a degree of clarity and compassion that felt like you were seeing through the eyes that were transcendent to your own. Or maybe you have known the experience of passing on love that was not your own, possibly even freer and fuller than you had ever yourself experienced. Or possibly you just long to live more fully out of a place of deep connectedness to the sacred center of everything that is, a place that is less bound by your preconceptions, history, and fears of surrender to the transcendent ground of being. These and other glimpses of the possibilities of fuller, truer and deeper life are all extraordinarily valuable gifts because they keep us from fully accepting the so-called normal existence of the small ego-self. They keep our souls molten and our spirits questing and leave us more responsive to invitations to awaken that come to us in our lives.
The cult American movie, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, tells the story of two slackers who move back and forth across the space-time continuum to assemble a menagerie of historical figures as their high school history project. As much as I loved it, in terms of really awesome adventures, Bill and Ted settled for something far too small, something more suitable as entertainment than real life. If you really want adventure, if you want to be part of something unbelievably exciting and of truly cosmic importance, there is no journey more awesome than the journey that we will be exploring in this book!
How easily we settle for life in small safe places. I know I certainly have in the past and consequently I understand how easy it is for us to do so. We settle for the isolation from other humans, the earth and the Divine that comes with the restrictive filter through which we experience life lived from our small ego-self. But all the while our spirits long for union with all that is. We settle for fragmentation while our spirits speak to us of possibilities of wholeness. We think we are solidly in touch with reality but all we actually encounter are our preconceptions, thoughts, labels and judgments about it. Taking those as reality, we then wonder why our life seems so lacking in depth and meaning! Some might talk about transformation or expansion of consciousness but we settle for the life we know and despair of ever experiencing anything like a profound inner awakening.
This book is for those who simply can’t resist being part of the great adventure of human being and becoming. It is for those who are not prepared to stay in safe small places, those who are aware of the call of their spirits to the expansiveness of larger places of belonging. It is for those who long for wholeness and sense that the path to it is not simply through self-improvement but involves finding one’s place within the larger wholes within which they exist.
It is written for seekers – Christian or non-Christian, religious or non-religious, people of any faith or none. Finders who no longer seek will not likely be happy with what I share – no matter what they think they have found. Such people are only interested in hearing their own thoughts presented back to them and consequently listen only to voices that tell them what they think they already know. But seekers – even those of us who have tasted the possibilities I will be discussing but long for a fuller knowing of them – live with a degree of openness and hunger that finders find intolerably threatening. This, ultimately, is what drives finders toward the certainty they crave and aridity of their inner selves that comes along with certainty.
One group of seekers that has been in my mind while writing this book are those who long for larger horizons of belief and belonging but fear the costs of following the scent of freedom and spaciousness that calls them forward. If you are within this group it is quite possible that you want to keep one foot firmly planted where you presently stand while tentatively easing the other forward. I understand this feeling. But unfortunately, you can’t cross a chasm in small steps. Ultimately you need to step off the platform on which you stand before finding your feet firmly on another. Of course that feels terrifying but this is because you are focusing on your fears. When you focus instead on your longings for wholeness and allow yourself to be drawn forward by them you will discover that the real danger lies in compromising your being and sacrificing your further becoming out of fear.
In our journey together we will encounter huge concepts and vast vistas. The big-picture context we will be working within is what we know about human and cosmic evolution interpreted primarily from the perspectives of the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin and the perennial wisdom tradition. But don’t confuse a big picture with an academic orientation. Although I will be drawing on insights from science, philosophy, and psychology my focus will be how these insights help us live our lives as humans. It is these practical implications that we will continually return to each time we engage relevant insights of science.
Earlier chapters deal more with issues of human being while later ones focus more on questions of human becoming. However, because being and becoming are dynamically interwoven, chapters are not organized in a linear way. The shape of how we will proceed will be less a straight line than a continuous series of looping spirals that weave back through ideas introduced in earlier chapters in order to place them in an ever broadening and deepening context. This, I believe, is the shape of the human journey itself and this is the way in which ultimately the totality of our being is woven together in the new forms that are manifest in our becoming.
There are three big themes of this book – the wholeness of reality, the importance of the human heart, and love as the foundation of all being and becoming. These we will encounter over and over again as we spiral back and forth between cosmic and human being and becoming.
Ultimately, nothing is understandable unless we approach it from a wholistic perspective. Nothing about humans is, therefore, understandable without placing humans within their natural context and this is always the larger whole within which we as individuals are but a part. It is only when we start with the largest wholes that we can ever see how smaller wholes fit within them. Understanding the way in which reality is structured like a series of nesting Russian dolls has profoundly important consequences for those who seek wholeness. Wholeness can never be experienced unless we find our place within the larger wholes within which we exist. Finding our place within those larger wholes provides us with the sense of calling and belonging that we need for full and deep human being and becoming.
The second big theme we will be exploring is the nature and importance of the heart as an organ of perception and source of wisdom. The heart that we will be focusing on is not primarily the pump in our chest but the metaphoric heart that plays such a crucial role in living out of the depths and fullness of our humanity. What we will discover is that heartfulness complements rather than competes or interferes with mindfulness and that ultimately, the only way to move beyond the egoic mind with all its pettiness and smallness is to ground the mind down into the heart. When heart and mind are aligned, the heart can become the magnetic center and orienting compass that is essential for human unfolding.
The third overall theme of this book is the deep and fundamental way in which love is the foundation of all being and becoming. But the love that we will be describing is not the soft sentimental love of Hollywood or Hallmark cards. Love is the word some cosmologists are bold enough to use to describe the attractional force that holds planets in orbit and provides the glue that holds atoms together. It is the strongest force in the universe. But it is also the gentlest. Only love can soften a hard heart. And only love can renew trust after it has been shattered. Only love can inspire acts of genuine self-sacrifice. Only love can free us from the tyrannizing effects of fear. And only love can transform persons. Love holds all things together and grounds all being and becoming.
But before we launch on the journey that is ahead of us perhaps I should say something more about myself since I will be guiding our exploration of this great adventure. It seems to me that this gives you the right to know more about me than what you will find on the book jacket.
First and foremost I would say that I write this book as a human. That, much more than my professional background or spiritual tradition, is the foundation of my identity. I have long been convinced that if I don’t embrace this foundation fully any other identity will be shallow, superficial and ungrounded.
The people to whom I have always been most attracted have always been profoundly human and passionately seeking further becoming. I connect with them in deep places. Their being speaks to mine and calls me to deeper and fuller levels of becoming. It is these people whose presence has always been most luminous to me – that luminosity coming from being, not beliefs, ego, or impression management. Borrowing from the second century Christian mystic, St. Irenaeus, I would say that nothing more honors our being, or Being itself, than humans who are fully alive. My longing to be that sort of person has been an orienting compass that sits on a pedestal at the center of my soul.
But I also write out of other levels of my being. I also write as a clinical psychologist who has never tended to see people in terms of their psychopathology but rather in terms of their barriers to awakening and further unfolding. This is another way of saying that the psychology that has shaped me is situated at the boundary of psychology and spiritualty. My professional training and practice have been grounded in depth psychology – that is, the tradition that was first mapped by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and continues to be explored by those who climbed on their shoulders and have thus been able to see even further into the depths of the human soul.
Perhaps more surprisingly for a psychologist, the mystics have also had a very important influence on my understandings of human being and becoming. Because mysticism is rooted in humanity, not theology or religion, they have much to offer us in understanding psychology, particularly spiritual psychology. Mystics start with human longings and follow them to their transcendent source. They help us realize that personhood is ultimately only intelligible within a transcendent context in which we exist as part-wholes within larger wholes. And by showing us what it means to be connected to the ground of human being, they help us realize the possibilities of human becoming.
The mystics have also profoundly shaped my spirituality. While I draw deeply from the perennial wisdom tradition and have benefited immensely from interfaith dialogue (particularly with Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims), I live out my spiritual journey as a Christian. Here my tribe is Anglican and my specific lineage is the contemplative tradition, this being the context for my affinity to the mystics. This explains the Christian perspective that will be evident in what follows. I haven’t sought to exclude it, only to write primarily from the perspective of a human being. However, I know that when I speak from my own tradition but out of the depths of my humanity (not merely my religious experience and beliefs), seekers from other traditions or none are then able to connect to what I am describing. I know this because the same is true for me.
Candidly, I share much more common ground with secular humanists who seek to live fully and deeply all that it means to be human than I do with religionists of any persuasion who use spirituality as a form of escape from their humanity. I also have more in common with spiritual seekers of any tradition or none than with spiritual finders within my own tradition. It is this common ground out of which I will speak in what follows.
And so, let the journey begin! It is a journey toward the fulfillment of our humanity. It is a journey of participation in the great cosmic evolutionary adventure. It is a journey that is deeply spiritual because it involves a return to our Source. It is the most important and most awesome journey any of us can ever make!
“David Benner comes again with winsome wisdom. His contribution and legacy will most certainly be taking concepts like Being and Becoming and not simplifying them, for they would then be less satisfying, but giving us the insights and connections to create a beautiful elegance that helps us “grasp.” I am so heartened to see David continue to take the big current concepts like entanglement and interconnectedness in a quantum world and help us grasp, even as we gasp, at the increasingly permeable membrane between the seen and unseen, between hard scientists and soft mystics. Please read this. Please integrate this. Please pass this around. We will have a richer and more current Christian expression because of it. A Christianity that is truly becoming in a world that continues becoming and unfolding. Both the book and the author are gifts.”
“From his own adventures in the human journey, David Benner offers this exquisite and engaging mosaic to expand our awareness of being as vital interconnectedness and to compel us toward our destined wholeness through timely practices of receptivity, hospitality, and consent to love-guided living.”