The Inner Commons

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I’ve long thought we should all be compensated by social media for our contributions to their bottom line. Considering they regard my digital activity as a commodity to be harvested, I thought I deserved a kickback, or royalty, if you prefer. But alas, I never got one.

I thought it might be difficult, but disconnecting from sources of distraction to follow wherever my inner process might lead me was far more important; as we all know so well, it’s also necessary. Even more than necessary, with the distractions intensifying and the algorithms ever more refined as they reach into my amygdala or give me shots of dopamine, the act of unhooking has practically become an act of sedition.

Fortunately, attention is not a commodity to be plundered like a vein of raw material. It’s a renewable resource whose value never diminishes. We have the capacity to regenerate and explore the intangible wilds, connecting to the depth of existence, anticipating the unknown, a birthright of being human, where all we are and all we know becomes a springboard to all we can imagine. Deliberate acts of renewal sustain our imagination and creativity.  

Neglecting to swim in the sublime inner worlds of feeling and imagination generates distorted, disconnected, and addictive behaviors. Just as going into the enveloping silence of wilderness reveals an abundance so often ignored, or worse, never known, so descending into silence reclaims the inner wilderness. The domain of the inner commons is where precious resources may be buried but not tarnished. Continuously regenerating a capacity for uncluttered presence sustains our access to the vital wholeness and emergent nature of life.

If you think about it, competition for our attention has been ongoing forever but has only recently accelerated in reach and sophistication. The Catholic Church may have been the original multi-national corporation, as Dara Malloy calls it in The Globalizating of God, seeking broad and lifelong influence upon an individual psyche. Its function was (and remains) to define spirituality in its own image, to define religious thought, faith and ritual, to deny other manifestations of spirituality, to literally own God and influence how we focus our attention in all relations. The Church was the original wave of what is now called modernity. The Pope himself was the one who carved up the New World and decided which monarchs would receive the spoils. That enterprise presumed itself the zero-point of knowledge and morphed into the multitude of manifestations defining the vertical integration of attention and consumer behavior. The marginalization and extinction of outlying traditions was a cornerstone of empire and foretold the dominance of religion and its hegemonic designs on the inner terrain we continue to see today.

The simple act of turning off the cacophony of modernity to focus our reverence and awe on anything other than patriarchal monotheism is now a battleground. Institutional religion remains central to that conflict as a symbol (and instrument) of coloniality and exclusivity. In its most radically conservative forms, Christian Nationalism, the ‘originalism’ of Wahabbist Islam, even among ultranationalist Buddhists, it is the status quo, it is business as usual. It promotes an increasingly tortured tribal definition of prayer as devout and uncritical submission to (male) authoritarian hierarchy.

On the other hand, prayer and ritual have been part of how humans inhabited the world in all times and places we know, though it’s much more than mere submission, supplication or asking for personal favors. Prayer is invariably attended by silence, at least implicitly. It resounds with silence regardless of whatever sound, rejoicing or lamentation, may (or may not) accompany it. Supplication and prayer are all infused with stillness, a return to the primordial womb of creation. If modernity is all about doing, then prayer is a recovery of being. Prayer is an act of love, especially self-love. It leads us into the realm of paradox and movement, uncertainty and inquiry. It’s an act of reclamation and connection, bringing us closer to earth and closer to the deity, to the unity of each, whether mythological or material.

In its loosest definition, prayer is a catchword for humility, surrender, devotion and wholeness. It is an affirmation of belonging, reminding us of our place. Prayer can be a sensory adventure into hidden realms of nature, our nature. Laughter is prayer. Joy is prayer, by which we reach beyond ourselves, not to remind ourselves of a presumed personal relationship with an omniscient and omnipotent force, but to re-embed ourselves in relationship, in belonging with. It’s a perpetual doorway to the unseen. To pray is to open your heart and get out of your mind, whether nourished by ancient history, last week or this moment. It’s an invocation of the gifts of ancestors who continue to deliver their wisdom in a continuous release seeping into the soil of culture.

Rituals of allegiance and submission have become the objective of corporate presence in every aspect of life nowadays, to substitute for what once was an immediately accessible connection with our spiritual home. While churches turn increasingly into corporations, corporations have turned into churches. Instead of allegiance to a deity, we now declare fealty to brands, products, to the ubiquitous presence and seduction of ritual consumption, now framed as delivering all the same benefits we once received through family or community ritual practices restoring connection, wholeness and renewal.

This is the tragedy of the inner frontier. Such values are now associated not with places or group practices or the most intimate sanctum of mind, but with products. Patriotism substitutes for spirituality with America as the product. Starbucks is the ubiquitous church of the caramel soy latte. The supermarket houses myriad distortions of our primary connection to the true source of nourishment. Amazon has become the god of all gods, greater than Odin, Ares, Esu or Tutankhamen. Thou shalt have no other gods before me! Kneel!

(So, if you’re an agnostic, where do you go for a cup of coffee? Where do you buy a book or…….anything?)

In some quarters, the formalized practice of prayer or any of the common forms of mindfulness are being coopted as instruments of control. No wonder church attendance is declining so rapidly. There are also fewer blessings, offerings or sanctifications and a poverty of rituals grounding secular life in any ecumenical framework. Certain cultures or sects remaining true to such values, in which protecting the inheritance of overtly mystical practices in which God is immediate and personal, are deemed foreign, extreme or even dangerous. We need reminding that the nature of our god becomes the nature of our world. And it is these very disagreements about the nature of the deity, who owns it and how we use our attention to connect with wholeness which are hastening the collapse already upon us.

When our actions in the world are founded on devotion to a zero-sum lie, they become either rough, halting or tenuous. If we can face how disconnected personal and collective actions have become, we find ourselves circling around the truth of our brokenness–how truly heartbroken so many of us have become in this time of loss. Getting on our knees, figuratively or actually, may not be the (only) answer. But how do we imagine our actions can be entirely divorced from our beliefs about God, a supreme being, Pachamama, InterBeing, the Most Merciful One, ineffable spaciousness without beginning or end–or whatever its name may be? Which of your actions would you argue can be separate from any of that?

If we lived your lives connected to the inner wild while remaining connected to the outer world, how would that look? Or feel? Sitting with this question, I cannot help but see many of the expressions of devotion all around me as more bewildered and confused surrender, more disempowerment than prayer, most likely salved by another ritual visit to one of the new churches of our broken world.

Re-inhabiting the inner wilderness may not heal a broken heart, but it’s a start. It would surely remind us there’s so much more to lose, and to save.

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