Being Human

Recently, psychologist and spiritual director, Dr. Jackie Stinton sat down with me to talk about what it means to be fully human and why this is so important for the spiritual journey and for living wisdom. Join us in that conversation.

Jackie: When I reflect on the big themes of your writing I am struck by the priority you place on being human. You suggest that any healthy spirituality should help us actualize the fullness of our humanity. What led you to this emphasis on being human?

David: My interest in what it means to be human was the reason for my initial attraction to psychology. But I first became interested in the way spirituality either enhances or reduces our humanity when I realized in my mid-thirties that I wasn’t attracted to the majority of the religious people I knew. They seemed to me to be 2D caricatures, not 3D persons. Too often they appeared to be little more than their beliefs and religious practices.

Much worse, however, I knew that I was like them. We were all poorly developed characters in a second-rate novel. We badly needed human development, not just spiritual development and certain not just religious development. The people that I was attracted to were those who were most real. I wanted to get to know them better because of their authenticity and obvious full-orbed humanity. They made me want to be more deeply and fully human.

Jackie: What do you mean by full-orbed humanity? And how did this discovery start you on your own journey of being more fully human?

David: What I mean by full-orbed humanity is being fully awake – all cylinders of our humanity firing in synchronous harmony. It is being grounded in our bodies. It is richly engaging our mental faculties but also having learned to access and trust the subtle trans-rational wisdom of the heart that is accessible through things like intuition and imagination. It is living soulfully, something cultivated through reflection on experience and holding of tension. And it involves following the call of our spirit toward the fulfillment and transcendence that comes through union of spirit with Spirit.

Noticing how much I longed to be more real and more deeply human was a moment of spiritual awakening. It turned out to be a transition from making a religious journey to a spiritual one, and then to the journey that is foundational to  both of these – the human journey. I had assumed these were the same. But my spirituality was limited to trying to be a good Christian. I had been resisting any deep engagement with my humanity. I had been using my Christian faith as a defense against anything that threatened me. I had been choosing to stay in a safe place and settle for a tribal identity as a way of avoiding a truly transformational spiritual and human journey. But what I longed to do was to step out of my comfort zone and be more real and more authentic. I longed to move out from the shallows in which I was wading and allow myself to be pulled along by the flow of the river of Life, to move beyond knowing about things – myself and God included – into the depths of personal knowing of Reality.

Jackie: You just mentioned accessing the wisdom of the heart and I know you are very interested in the perennial wisdom tradition. What is this and why is it important?

David: The perennial wisdom tradition is the common core of wisdom that is shared by the world’s major religions. It is built around a recognition of four things:

  1. That however named, God is Ultimate Reality
  2. That the human soul possesses a similarity to and longing for this Ultimate Reality
  3. That direct, immediate knowing of Ultimate Reality is possible
  4. And that union with Ultimate Reality is the final goal of all existence.

It’s the mystics of the various religious traditions, not the dogmatists, who have most clearly understood and taught these things. They express these foundational realities in the language of their own traditions but the essential truths they describe serves as the foundation of human wisdom.

I have built my understandings of psychology, spirituality and human life on this foundation. It is definitely fair to describe this foundation as Christian but it is equally fair to describe it as the perennial wisdom tradition. I prefer the later, not to minimize the importance and uniqueness of Christianity as my personal spiritual path but as a way of expressing my commitment to live as much as possible from a place of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

Jackie: How does the wisdom tradition understand the heart, and what role does it play in human knowing?

David: The heart of the wisdom tradition is very different from the heart of contemporary culture. It has nothing to do with the sentimentality of Hallmark cards and Valentine’s Day. The heart of the wisdom tradition is the fullness of the mind. It also includes such generally underdeveloped faculties as intuition, imagination, symbolic communication, extrasensory perception and a number of other ways of knowing and accessing wisdom. The development of these faculties has often been described as the movement of the mind down into the heart.

Our metaphoric heart connects us to everything beyond us. It can see further than the mind because it draws its data from all levels of reality – including but never limited to reason. This is why it is our spiritual center. It moves us into a realm that is not less than rational but more than rational. It embraces reason but transcends it.

Jackie: Can you give me an example of heart knowing that embraces reason but transcends it?

David: Think of the role of imagination in what we call thinking outside the box. What we are being encouraged to do when someone asks us to this is to set aside the normal demand of being realistic. Once we do we engage our imagination and begin to see all sorts of possibilities that previously escaped our notice. However, after ignoring reason in order to engage our imagination it is usually prudent to return to it as a framework for evaluating the fruits of our flight of imagination. So, we embrace reason in order to transcend it.

Jackie: What helped you cultivate this heartfulness?

David: I have always been highly intuitive and this was what initially drew my attention to my heart. It took me quite a while, however, to learn to trust my intuition and to discipline it by deepening the connections of my head and heart.  My work in psychoanalysis was the first step in this direction. I had been drawn into psychology after reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Personal subjectivity had long been of keen interest to me and the psychoanalytic framework for approaching knowing within this realm immediately captured my imagination. So intuition, subjectivity and imagination – all dimensions of the heart – were heavily engaged in my psychoanalytic training where I acquired a framework for bringing my mind down into the heart. This was deepened when I spent a year working through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. At the core of these exercises is learning to discern the movements of Spirit within spirit. This is learning the wisdom that we can access through the subjectivity of contemplation, imagination and prayerful reflection.

Jackie: How would you advise someone who wanted to cultivate to cultivate heartfulness?

David: It starts by learning to notice our hearts. If we are attentive we will sense our hearts calling us to higher levels of wholeness. Often this call comes to us through  our deepest longings. Pay attention to these longings. Don’t be distracted by your mistrust of them, or your knee-jerk judgement that they are unrealistic. Paying attention to your longings is often the first step of cultivating a relationship with your heart and eventually being able to embrace it as a way of accessing wisdom and deep knowing.

Jackie: What is the soul, how do we engage with it, and how does it connect with the body, mind and heart?

David: It is impossible to precisely define soul. Words don’t really capture it, although they can point towards the sphere in which it operates. However, to place some sort of boundaries around it I would say that soul is our capacity for self-reflection and self-knowing. It calls us to a journey of deepening consciousness – not merely of our self but of the world. Soul thrives in places of genuineness, love, and presence and expresses itself through imagination, creativity, and depth of experience.

Soul is the middle ground between matter and spirit, body and mind, events and experience, thinking and feeling, suffering and its meaning. Soul stands as a bridge between the lower and higher realms of human personhood, transmuting and integrating the lower with the higher. It’s the harmonizing center where thinking, feeling and willing can be aligned in a way that allows each to speak with it’s unique voice in the conversation of the self. Without soul at the center, we either get lost in the ethereal world of spirit or become mired in matter. But we will always be less than fully functioning whole humans.

Jackie: Soul seems to be the essence of who we are as human beings. But I feel almost lost when I hear the power and beauty of what you describe. What is the journey to connecting with our soul?

David: As we move ever deeper into the mystery of our self we move into realms of spaciousness that can be both terrifying and awesome. Yet, if we are attentive, we will always sense a call to enter more deeply into our lives, to move from our circumference toward our center. It’s a call to more fully engage our experience – particularly the valleys and dark parts of those experiences.

To live soulfully is to live with genuineness, depth, love, reflection, gratitude, presence, connections and attention. Any step we take toward any of these is a step of connecting with our soul. Soul is present whenever we are totally absorbed in one thing, place or person, when we enter a moment without ego or judgment. Soul is present when love spontaneously emerges in our heart and we let it flow through us to others. Soul is found in the quality of how we live. If our lives are rich in meaning then they are rich in soul. If we are honestly living our own truth and embracing our own realities then we are living with soul.

Jackie: How do you understand spirit?

David: The ultimate function of the human spirit is to point us toward our Source. Humans are an emanation of the Transcendent One many of us call God. Just as the natural direction of a stream is to flow toward the sea so too our spirits call us to participate in the flow of all existence into the One in whom we find our ultimate belonging and wholeness. This is our true home, a home we experience as the union of spirit and Spirit. Here the stream returns to its Source, not by going back but by trusting the flow that draws us and all things forward toward wholeness and fulfillment.

Our false self is the partial or entrapped self that is isolated from the truth of our existence within this larger whole. It is the self that defines itself apart from Spirit. Our deepest longings all point us beyond the entrapment of our partial selves, an entrapment that leaves us aching for places of belonging. Our spirits are this ache. They point us toward the wholeness that we can only find within the ultimate whole that is God.

Jackie: Most of us are more in touch with our false self and likely ignore or feel the deep despair of the ache of belonging. But are you saying that our spirits are this ache and that attending to that ache can lead us towards the wholeness of belonging in God?

David: That’s it exactly. It’s our spirits that call us beyond whatever small safe places we inhabit, places that block us from knowing the larger wholes within which we already belong. It’s our spirits that continuously call us to stop pushing the river and slip into the waters of life and allow ourselves to be pulled along by the flow that is drawing us and all things toward the fullness of our beings that exist in Spirit. It’s our spirits that are calling us to awaken – and then to stay awake. And what we are sensing is the movement of Spirit within spirit – the Spirit of God stirring within the depths of our spirit. The deeper we journey into the mystery of our self the more difficult it is to distinguish between our self in God and God’s self in us. This is the communion of Spirit with spirit that lies at the very heart of our being.

Jackie: It seems to me that our acceptance of the possibility of this sort of communion of Spirit with spirit requires that we accept our humanity and the fact that we are part of the larger whole that is God.

David: That’s it exactly! This is the reason I am convinced that any spirituality that does not deepen our humanity and experience of solidarity with all humans is bad for the soul. Tribal spiritualities may give us a sense of belonging but but finding safety and belonging in small cramped places that restrict human becoming is always a human tragedy.


2019 ©Dr. David G. Benner