Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category


Religion, Spirituality and the ‘Inner Hierarchy’

February 25, 2018

This post is a collection of thoughts that starts suddenly in the middle of nowhere and then wanders off somewhere else. It is not especially coherent, but it is supposed to mean something. I am still clearing up the ideas involved in it. It might be interesting, dull, utterly inscrutable or mundanely obvious.

Humans, like other mammals and primates, have a more or less pre-programmed ‘inner hierarchy’. We automatically size up other people we encounter, to determine whether or not we feel dominant or submissive to them, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Much of this is learned and socialized of course, but there is also a substructure of automatic behavioral patterns that automatically kick in, especially if the dominance or submission is clear cut.

In other words, humans have a kind of map for sets of behaviors for each level of a hierarchy. Clearly, a similar set of psychological conditions accompany these.

These behavior patterns sit deep in the psyche, often largely beyond conscious awareness or control. these are triggered by certain signals — body posture, certain types of language use, adornment, etc. I assume anyone reading this has experienced a situation where they were shocked at their own behavior in some kind of unexpected response to such signals: too submissive to an authoritarian, or maybe nasty to someone who signaled submission.

I am arguing that we automatically place ourselves somewhere on a scale of dominance/submission, according to a kind of ‘inner map’, which also contains behavioral patterns which are triggered according to where we place on this scale.

Everyone tends to go a little weak in the knees when encountering an especially high status person. (There are of course good evolutionary reasons for an instinctive tendency to express submission to highly dominant individuals.) But it’s not just crass power games involving survival or receiving favors. Our sense of awe when encountering an extraordinary landscape, or a wild animal, or work of art, etc., probably comes from this same aspect of our psychology.

We are carrying, in other words, a complete program for how to act, and how to feel for each status level of this inner hierarchy.

So people can feel genuine awe for “God”, regardless of whether or not there are any gods, if they happen to stumble into that part of the brain where the feeling of awe for a higher power is located.

Mystics, especially outside the three dominant monotheisms, report feeling like they themselves have been transported to this higher status position, without feeling dominant over others, but more like they are observing themselves and everyone else as if from a great height or distance.

The existence of this ‘inner hierarchy’ makes humans very susceptible to religion. The notion of an ultimate alpha male is close enough to deep seated mammalian instinctive feelings and behaviors. We are at the utter mercy of external factors, regardless of whether they’re due to random chance or deliberate intention of a “higher” being. It’s not easy to live with that fact, and it is easy to feel stress related to powerlessness.

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued persuasively (using research o primates including baboons and humans) that stress is most closely associated with lower status. In fact merely occupying a lower status position is itself a cause of stress.

We can also note that under stress (aka lower status in relation to some stressor) or who feel helpless, are more likely to trust an authority figure.

All this makes it quite easy for priests to convince people that “God” is up there on the top step, and that there are steps descending downwards towards us — the hierarchies of seraphim and cherubim, the angels, a few saints, and then splashing out into physical reality, the popes, cardinals and bishops, down a few more stairs to the priest who is standing before you, one step up. You can see the stairs leading upwards, maybe the last visible step being some magnificent church, before it disappears into the clouds.

And that priest is at the immediate end of all that power, right in front of you.

Some religions and sects (and cults) are very particular about the status its sheep are allowed to occupy. They use ideology to prevent people from moving up the scale on their own ‘inner hierarchy’ as it exists in their psyche. They even define humanity in a way that denies the very possibility of such inward mobility.

Humans are guilty of original sin, or do not belong to a lower caste, etc. The whole thing is framed to keep followers stuck in one position on their ‘inner hierarchy’. (This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.)

Should a subject feel themselves being tugged upwards, they should immediately dismiss it as hubris. The fear of falling even further downwards can be used as a constant threat over them.

Gautama the Buddha said “be a light unto yourself”, implying, I suppose, that humans are in fact free to move upwardly in this ‘inner hierarchy’.

The dissolution of the illusion of self — so surprising at first, and maybe a little shocking too — is a key to this. A ‘self’ can be fixed at one level on the inner hierarchy, and held there until its future Day of Judgment, where this single unified ‘self’ will be condemned or redeemed, according to its acts.

For this reason, mystics who preach the illusory nature of the ‘self’, have never been tolerated by any authoritarian religion. The practice of meditation is also treated with immense caution at best (and seen as a subset of prayer); and usually without outright condemnation. They don’t want people locating themselves at many different points on that inner hierarchy, or maybe, all points and nowhere on it, simultaneously. That ‘self’ is the thing that authoritarian religions hold power over.

(It is instructive to note here that despite appearances New Age esoteric spirituality is also guilty of this. They have carried over the Platonic/Christian view of the “soul” as something unitary and immortal. Thus the stakes for salvation are just as high as in Christianity, and the power of its priesthood just as great — though without any moral strictures for priestly behavior. This is bad for actual spirituality, but great for marketing.)

As a small child, I accidentally discovered this myself. I used to lie awake at night looking for who “I” refers to. I couldn’t find it, yet there was still consciousness, somehow, without any “I”, just bubbling up out of nowhere like a slow, happy fountain. I used to just lie there, completely astounded by this experience. As a teenager I once remembered that I used to be able to do it, but when I tried I couldn’t get there anymore. Too much inner turmoil.
Conscious awareness is a tiny little window onto the present moment, like a little piece of sky, with clouds swirling in and out of view. It is surrounded by a wall of words and thoughts about hopes and dreams, tied together ultimately, by emotions. Emotions resulting from the pain of loneliness and the fear of death or dissolution.

It does seem to me that it is possible for the frame of this window to expand or disappear, and reveal the vast empty sky — a sky of consciousness, which is just there: it is, by its nature, aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

Posted by Yakaru