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Welcome!

John Daniels photoWelcome to my thoughtstream on the topic of creative change. I appreciate your visit and hope you’ll stay a while.

Tracts of Revolution explores the dynamics of human creativity as it swirls in our cells, pulses through our bodies, connects us to each other, and constructs the magnificent panoply of world cultures. You will find two distinct currents to this thoughtstream that may interest you.

“Conversations” are blog posts reflecting on the creative works of authors and artists of our present day and recent past. These creators communicated their visions of reality and the human future through words and other art-forms, partly to share them with the rest of us, but also because they finally couldn’t resist the force that seized and inspired them. I name that force “the creative spirit,” and am convinced that it inhabits all of us – while only a relatively few of us are courageous (or foolhardy) enough to “go with the flow.”

I have a lot to say about spirituality and religion, but this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that I consider the creative spirit especially religious or “spiritual” in a more narrowly religious sense. The authors I bring into conversation are both religious and nonreligious, believers and atheists, metaphysically-minded psychonauts and down-to-earth humanists. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what ideological camp you inhabit, what country you call home, what language you speak, which way you’re oriented, or whether you are charming or abrasive. You and I are creators, and it’s time we take responsibility for this incredible power with which the universe has endowed our species.

For a more practical and therapeutic approach to creativity, check out my blog Braintracts. Over the past 30+ years I have developed a life-change program that helps individuals take creative control of their lives and step more intentionally into the worlds they really want to inhabit. This approach is brain-based and solution-focused, pulling from the current research of neuroscience and the best practices in human empowerment (counseling and coaching).

The Medieval art/science of metallurgy investigated the molecular secrets of changing natural ores into metals and other alloys. The process was mysterious and the research traditions of those early scientists often took on the shroud of an almost gnostic mysticism. Mentallurgy is my attempt to remove the shroud of secrecy from the question of how the power of attention is transformed into the attitudes, beliefs, moods and drives behind human behavior. If you don’t particularly like the world you presently inhabit, then create a different one! Mentallurgy can show you how. Click over to www.braintracts.wordpress.com

The Four Human Force Fields

At some point along life’s way we feel an attraction, or perhaps metaphorically we hear a calling from beyond the boundary of what we know and who we are. Paradoxically, the source of this attraction or calling is not “out there” exactly, but “in here,” deeper within ourselves, a Beyond in the midst of our world, from the very Ground of our being.

It could be more of a push than a pull, more urgency than inspiration. Something inside of us is pressing forward and seemingly upward, toward a higher realization of what we might become. The Greek theologian and early Christian humanist Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130-202 CE) understood it as the process, both evolutionary and redemptive, of our becoming more “fully human and fully alive.”

Think of the complications and certain self-destruction that would follow as a consequence of a caterpillar’s refusal to cooperate with the process of metamorphosis that intends to transform it into a butterfly. Or imagine what would happen if a seed insisted on “holding it together” and desperately clamped down on the vegetal life-force pressing for release.

If they possessed a will and self-interest of their own, and used these to fight the process of transformation, the butterfly and the plant wouldn’t be realized, and what is being “saved” by their willful resistance would suffer and rot inside. In striving to save their life, they would end up losing it instead, forfeiting fulfillment for security, liberation for identity, the predictable existence of a worm or seed for the higher mystery of what their nature intends to become.

Luckily for them, caterpillars and seeds don’t possess a self-conscious will that could refuse to go with the larger and longer life-process eventuating in butterflies and trees.

We might consider it unlucky that humans do, since so many of us willfully resist the evolutionary and redemptive force that would empower us to become fully human, fully alive.

Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this tragic liability, this freedom to choose against our higher nature, that is also a glorious gift. Therewith, we possess a unique ability to feel the attraction and hear the calling, but also to participate in the process, to consciously “let go” to our uplifting transformation and actively participate in it – even steer its course to some extent.

This may be why we have religion and caterpillars or seeds don’t.

My diagram above carries forward a model of human development that I’ve been working on for some time now. The larger process follows a zig-zag pattern starting at the bottom, zigging to the left, zagging to the right, and finally reaching completion at the top. Rather than being a terminal line, however, we should think of this as a system of dynamic interactions flowing up, down, and from side to side.

I propose that we think of the four points or stages along the way as “force fields,” each with its own energy, values, actions, and concerns.

As the purpose of this post is to better understand the forces in play at that moment when we feel the antagonism between our waking transpersonal butterfly and our self-conscious caterpillar self – that may only be dreaming of becoming a butterfly, I will aim our meditation on that more imminent zone of transformation.

We all start our journey as newborns fully immersed in the force field of Primal Instinct, where the animal nature of our living body attends to what it needs to survive and grow. Most of this activity is unconscious and compulsive, neither requiring nor even allowing our conscious control and direction. Its instincts are biologically ancient, driven by energies and guided by an intelligence that cares little, if at all, about what other’s think or what other plans we may have in place for the day ahead.

It’s not long before our family and larger society begin shaping us to the Tribal Conscience – who we are, what we believe, where we belong, and how we should behave. It is inside this force field of human development that we start to become somebody: a self-conscious actor of roles that we are given and roles we fall into, which eventually, with practice and social reinforcement, define our personal identity and connect us to the role plays of life in our tribe.

Having a mind of its own, the collective consciousness of society is dedicated to keeping us inside its protected membership, as “one of us.”

Inevitably, however, and following the impetus of our human development, we start to orient ourselves more on our own pursuit of happiness – or on what we believe will make us happy – than on the norms and expectations of our tribe. We are entering the force field of Personal Ambition.

Actually, our ambitions, or better I should say ambition itself was already being engineered and exploited in early childhood, through behavioral incentives used by our taller powers to motivate proper behavior and conformity to Tribal Conscience. It would only be a matter of developmental time before the twin motives of desire and fear (the ambi- in ambition) would move beyond stickers, spankings, lollipops, and timeouts, in service to our becoming somebody, managing an identity, impressing others, and (dammit) finding happiness.

We are all a little insecure as a consequence of growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional tribe, under taller powers who had their own issues. But even if everything in our background was perfect, the developmental achievement of forming an ego and becoming somebody unique and special, separate in our own way from everybody else, brings along with it a gathering sense of our isolation, exposure, and estrangement.

It’s this anxious vulnerability that more repressive and authoritarian tribes use to lure or compel naturally self-insecure teenagers back into the fold of “true believers” where they belong.

My diagram of the four force fields in human evolution, development, and redemption has a thin dashed arrow descending from Communal Wisdom back to Tribal Conscience, to indicate a progressive influence over time of a self-actualizing humanity on the collective consciousness of a people.

I’ve done it elsewhere and don’t have the space to defend it here, but my returning reader should recognize this as the threshold in religion where its constructs of God (mythological metaphors, artistic images, theological concepts) mediate between our minds and the present Mystery of Reality.

In contemplating these constructs, devotees begin to imitate, internalize, and then actively personify the divine virtues represented to them.

It’s been a slow process, to be sure, that has gotten hung up or thrown off course time and again.

As more individuals are willing to not just “let go and let god,” but to let go of god (the religious construct) for an experience of God (the present Mystery), religion itself can advance into wiser, more liberated, generous and more inclusive versions of itself over time.

This highest force field is much ignored these days, as more and more of us are preoccupied with our individual pursuit of happiness – or, more honestly, with our failing efforts at managing the frustration, anxiety, and depression that get in our way.

We don’t understand that these are really messages, letting us know that gripping down and hanging on is not The Way.

Three Mandates of Education

A majority of college students surveyed say they are going to college to “get a job.” Now, we have to be careful here, since surveys only report back on what survey designers believe is relevant information. Do these surveys of college students ask them about their personal development, unique aspirations, and where college fits into their life plan?

If such options are included among the multiple-choice survey questions, it’s still likely that college students will select “get a job” anyway, and not necessarily because they really believe it.

The education process is generally a boring affair, a gauntlet of bookish instruction, ineffective teaching techniques, and stressful standardized assessments that actually paralyze creative learning.

Given that the academic experience so far hasn’t engaged their interests, passions, talents, or aspirations, why would students expect any difference at the college level? As it has been about passing checkpoints and graduating to the next thing all along, the next thing after college would be a job. Therefore, the ultimate purpose and final aim of education is employment.

Check.

If that’s true, we’re all screwed. And if it’s not true but students still believe it is, this can explain why 80 percent of college students change their majors and 50 percent of college graduates get jobs outside their degrees.

If education is just about getting a job, then it’s not working.

In this post I will put a new frame around education, one that acknowledges its usefulness in preparing graduates for productive work in society, but also affirms other priorities which are equally essential, if not more so. Two other priorities in particular must be included in a proper understanding of our topic. All of them together comprise what I’ll call the Three Mandates of Education. To whatever degree our current education process falls short on one or more of these mandates, it isn’t doing its job.

The Cultural Mandate of Education

Instead of starting with the Mandate of Education that aligns, more or less, with today’s widespread belief regarding its purpose, beginning with its Cultural Mandate will help us address the limits of this very belief. With respect to its influence in the management and evolution of human culture, education plays, or should play, the paradoxical roles of conserving tribal customs and spurring social progress.

Today’s depleted and anemic view of education is quickly becoming, if it hasn’t already become, just such a “tribal custom” – referring to an established way of acting, thinking, or regarding the world around us. As more members adopt this way of behavior and belief, it soon becomes inherent to their shared identity. Setting aside any judgment over whether a particular custom is ethically enlightened, its function in conserving and stabilizing a people’s shared identity is essential to every human culture.

However, every human culture is also a living organization, with its own growth dynamic and progression of life-cycles.

In paradoxical opposition to the conservation of cultural identity through traditions of tribal custom, education is also the engine and “propeller” of social progress. From this vantage point, tribal customs should be under constant review for their proper alignment with and relevance to a society’s “growing edges” of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Longstanding customs aren’t necessarily rejected and tossed aside if they happen to lack alignment in this respect.

But a healthy culture must be willing to reconsider, reform, and possibly reject any customs that perpetuate prejudice and resistance to a more ethically enlightened community.

It isn’t obvious to many, but today’s tribal custom or conventional belief, that the only valid purpose of education is to help the graduate “get a job,” is biased against diversity, equity, and inclusion – against social progress. When we factor in the cost of education, the access it requires, and the way standardized assessments favor those students and admissions applicants with a knack for cramming and recalling information on tests, there is little question that our current education process excludes large demographic segments of the population.

The Economic Mandate of Education

Because today’s education system isn’t geared for diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must give it a failing grade – to use its own diagnostic rubric. In essence, education ought to provide the instruction, training, and development that empowers citizens for productive work and gainful employment. Like a responsible parent, a social system needs to provide support to those who are unable or not ready to support themselves, as it empowers the latter to gradually take on more responsibility for themselves.

This Economic Mandate of Education is vital to the health, prosperity, and sustainability of society. In empowering its citizens to become productive members, education literally capitalizes on the talent, creativity, and “workforce” of each generation, while providing them with meaningful avenues for making their own unique contributions to the commonwealth.

Education thus is about much more than “getting a job.”

Instead, it is, or ought to be, about helping students reach vocational clarity: a focused understanding of their unique “calling” (from the Latin vocāre), direction, and purpose in life.

The most reliable clue on the path to vocational clarity is an individual’s interests, which are like the “sun” to an internal “solar system” of other important factors, such as curiosity, desire, passion, talent, and intelligence. To better fulfill its Economic Mandate, education would intentionally and systematically implement a process, beginning already in the late elementary and middle school grades, of assessing each student’s interests.

With this information, instruction could be differentiated and properly “scaffolded” to empower creative learning and talent development.

In high school, this growing vocational clarity could be guided to an understanding of careers and career clusters that best match the student’s interest profile.

By the time they entered college, fewer students would be stuck in the tribal custom of believing that their purpose in being there is to “get a job.” They would instead be focusing their study and training in preparation for a career that will be interesting, purposeful, productive, and fulfilling. With such a process in place from middle school to college, we could confidently expect fewer college students to change majors, and more college graduates to find work aligned with their degrees.

The Humanistic Mandate of Education

Implicit in our reflections on the Cultural and Economic Mandates of Education is a deeper awareness of, and respect for, the student as a human being and not just a data cluster, tracking statistic, or identification number in the system. Of all the mandates, this one is not just in danger of being lost, but has arguably already been entirely forgotten.

What does it mean to acknowledge the student as a human being?

A human being is more than a worker or future employee, and also more than a citizen of society or a member of some tribe. We are admittedly verging on the domain of spirituality here, but it cannot (or shouldn’t) be avoided just because so-called “spirituality” in our day has become this oozy, fringy and far-out collection of free thought.

In the context of education and its Humanistic Mandate, spirituality concerns the inner spirit of a human being and its evolutionary aim of creative authority: personal responsibility, self-transcendence, higher wholeness, and the liberated life.

Creative authority in particular is perhaps the best summary term for the principle that drives, guides, and inspires human fulfillment, and is the proper aim of the New Humanism. It’s not about human exceptionalism or a chauvinistic preference for human interests across the larger Web of Life.

In the New Humanism, “human” and “nature” are honored in their essential unity, “self” and “other” are nurtured in compassionate fellowship, and “body and “soul” are celebrated for their complementary engagement with the provident Universe around us and the grounding Mystery within.

Education literally means “to lead out,” and in this context its mandate is about leading (awaking, activating, empowering, and guiding) the human spirit through its evolutionary path to fulfillment.

In addition to conserving tribal customs and stimulating social progress, but also beyond preparing individuals for productive work and gainful employment, education must honor and serve the human spirit in every student, addressing but also listening to what it has to say.

Drift, Sink, or Sail?

Your life is like a sailboat. The “boat” of your life needs to be buoyant and watertight, with sufficient integrity to withstand the force of waves against it. And the “sail” needs to be tall enough to catch the wind, as well as broad enough to harness its force. A sailboat with no sail can only drift about, and without a seaworthy vessel it will eventually sink. It needs both.

And so does your life.

In this post I will translate the analogy of boat and sail into your paradoxically equal priorities of security and fulfillment in life. Without security you are vulnerable to “sinking” into depression – that is, after anxiety has compromised your capacity to withstand the variety of pressures and assaults a normal life brings your way. And without fulfillment, you are adrift amidst the random conditions and changing circumstances around you. Life will feel like “one damned thing after another.”

Security and fulfillment are paradoxical in the way they pull your attention in opposite directions, and yet play with/against each other in the full picture of a life well-lived.

I have done it myself, and observe many others doing what I call sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security: abandoning our aspirations in the interest of just staying afloat. Security feels more urgent than fulfillment, and if one has to be set aside or postponed for the other, “drifting” is preferable to “sinking.”

But here’s the thing: life is inherently insecure. “Pressures and assaults” at its surface are never-ending; just as you get one issue under control, three more pop up and demand your attention. If you suffered some damage previously and took in some water, you tend to be more vigilant around those areas where integrity has been compromised. Lots of us are just doing our best: bailing out and patching leaks, staying low in our boat to keep from capsizing and going under.

And because this is the nature of life, we can spend our whole life fixated on the trouble we’re in.

Before we take a few precious minutes to consider what else life might be about – that whole thing about a sail, the wind, and your need for fulfillment – it will help to clarify the basic elements of security. Of course, you can worry and fret over anything, but at least these things are relevant concerns when it comes to managing the persistent insecurity of existence.

The first element of security is safety, referring to your need for protection against the buffeting waves of life. Here we find another interesting paradox, in the way a strong boat holds out the water while at the same time resting upon it.

To be safe and feel secure, this dual aspect of adversity and providence, along with the corresponding skills of “withstanding” and “surrendering” to the reality of life, reveals an essential bit of wisdom. If you should invest all your effort in keeping life from hurting you, your inability – or more accurately, your habituated unwillingness – to release yourself to the greater mystery of being alive makes you increasingly inflexible and depletes your resilience.

We might say that safety is about holding your own but also trusting the Process.

It can take a while to learn this skill, and if your early family environment was both protective and empowering, you likely already have it within yourself – although you might not employ it as often as you could. If your infancy and early childhood did not equip you with an ability to withstand life and surrender to it, the good news is that it’s not too late to learn how.

The second element of security is belonging, which refers to a sense of inclusion and being at home in a reality larger than yourself. This has a pretty obvious connection to the dynamic of releasing, surrendering, trusting, and resting which is essential to feeling safe. With belonging, this action of release opens out to an expanded awareness of that in which you belong.

Staying with my analogy, there is a sense in which your boat “belongs” in the water – not underwater, certainly, but also not merely on top and separate from it.

Similarly, you belong in a family, a human community, a web of life, and a provident universe. Belonging is more than just sitting inside this hierarchical arrangement; it is also about connecting, relating, and participating in its higher wholeness.

Third, and completing the set of elements basic to security, is self-esteem. This shouldn’t be confused with egoism, conceit, or the interesting personality complexes that form around a core of insecurity and the desperate need to control how others see you.

Self-esteem simply refers to your need for a positive and empowered sense of self, the sense that you are worthy, that your desires and gifts matter, and that you have something worthwhile to contribute. Always feeling like you have to prove yourself to others, exhausting yourself in the effort to please them, placate them, flatter or impress them, are all symptoms of a deficiency in self-esteem.

The healthy combination of safety, belonging, and self-esteem is what provides you with the security you need to successfully manage the pressures and assaults of life. Holding your own against the sea while resting in its provident support; understanding that you are part of something greater that both bestows and invites the dedication of your unique gifts – with this very practical wisdom, your boat is strong and ready to sail.

Granted, with a seaworthy vessel you could merely continue drifting on the waves, but why would you when there is so much to life around you and out there?

It’s time to raise your sail: to start thinking about where you’re going and why it matters.

A sail is not designed to displace water but to catch the wind. An entirely different set of values to the security needs down below require your attention now. These values, or ideals, are the Five Aspirations of your human spirit. They inspire and motivate every human being to desire, seek, and strive after fulfillment. Aspiration is not just another word for “happiness,” but involves reaching full capacity and realizing the full potential of your human nature. Fulfillment.

I have explored the Five Aspirations in another post, so we won’t go too far into them here. Suffice it to say that, when your basic security needs of safety, belonging, and self-esteem are adequately satisfied and you can devote your attention to the art and adventure of sailing, the quality and enjoyment of your life is amplified exponentially.

It’s not to say that you will never feel insecure again; you will because you are an ego on a human journey.

The point is that, with a healthy realism and responsibility for the integrity of your boat, you have more creative freedom to explore deeper meaning, to clarify your higher purpose, to cherish genuine love, and cultivate inner peace.

Raise your sail and catch the wind! There’s more to life than just what’s going on inside your little boat.

Why Does It Matter?

Is life what happens to us, or is it more about our response to what happens? Are we really hapless patients in the process, reacting to the events and conditions of our life only after they have befallen us?

No doubt, that’s how it often feels. We barely have enough freedom to raise our attention above this relentless swirl of causality to consider where it’s taking us.

This common belief is not just a postmodern twenty-first century phenomenon. The evidence would suggest that it’s a universal and longstanding opinion of our species. By “evidence” I am referring to the perennial philosophy or wisdom tradition that’s been around for millenniums.

There would be no need for such an ancient and running collection of principles, precepts, and practices designed to help us take creative authority in our lives, if we and the thousand generations before us didn’t struggle with this question of freedom, purpose, and the ultimate meaning of life.

In The Power of Myth I anchored this question to the mythic archetype of Youth (ages 10-25), when we are constructing an identity, hopefully with the providential support of a family and community that are, on balance, more spiritually awakened. Such support earlier on (birth to age 10) would have served to establish in us a foundation of security and the corresponding faith in Reality as provident.

When we have around us a community that knows what it’s doing, and that has our personal wellbeing and human fulfillment as a top priority, we come to appreciate our responsibility in making life meaningful.

But many, perhaps most of us don’t emerge from our youth with this sense of creative authority and personal responsibility. And while it may be tempting to lay the blame for this on broken families and dysfunctional communities, that would only perpetuate the false belief that life is what happens to us.

Perhaps that is why the wisdom we need cannot be found in fresh supply inside the cultural depositories of religion. Just as its source is outside our institutions and orthodoxies, the timeless truths of Sophia Perennis flow in the borderland beyond conventional belief.

What is it that we need to learn? If we’re not helpless victims of life as it happens, what can help us take a new and better view on the meaningful life that seems to elude us?

Meaning is constructed in the choices we make.

In the illustration above, a path extends ahead and into the future. From a foreground vantage-point we can see that this path is composed or made up of individual stones, which will represent the many choices we make as we move along.

I’m not suggesting that we choose everything that happens. There are countless events and conditions, both inside and around us, that we have no control over, much less awareness of. I can even agree with the hardline determinists to some extent, who insist on something of a lockstep causality generating our physical universe and the “explicate order.”

Despite all of that, each of us is also taking in perceptions, assigning value to what we perceive, deciding what it means, and reacting behaviorally to our perceptions and to our own mental constructs of meaning. This flow or sequence of events isn’t determined in the same way as the physical universe, which is why those individual stones of the path are not meshed together like gears in a machine.

A strategic achievement in creative authority is gained in taking responsibility for the “gap” between what happens to us and our perception of it, between our perception and the value we assign to it, between our value assignment and the meaning we construct around it, and between this belief and our behavioral response.

Even if we can’t yet detect the gap separating one step and the next in real time, later reflection can usually identify where in the process we actually did have a choice.

We may resolve to do it differently next time. But without ongoing reflection and an intentional commitment to a new direction, the old chain reaction will likely take over and reinforce the belief in our own helplessness.

Meaning is a way of life.

What we are really struggling with is not the presence or absence of a gap between the stones paving the path of our life, but rather the practiced habit of doing things a certain way, over and over again. This is where our perspective shifts from the discrete choices we are making in the foreground, to the “way” or pattern that is formed, reinforced, and repeated over time.

We have moved from choices to character – not leaving choices behind us but acknowledging how our choices become habits, and how our habits form an identity and way of life.

We sometimes think of character as this unchanging, immortal core of identity that we carry within ourselves. But the fact is, character comes into shape and takes on force as our choices, beliefs, and behavior coalesce into a more or less consistent identity – much as the character in a story grows more familiar and predictable with the narrative progression.

Changing our way of life is less about converting to a different ideology or lifestyle, than it is taking personal responsibility for our choices and using our creativity to author a better story, one more aligned with our spiritual aspirations for deeper meaning, higher purpose, genuine love, and inner peace. That’s what I mean by “creative authority.”

Meaning in life is articulated in our philosophy of life.

Such talk of spiritual aspirations invites a further shift in focus, from the specific choices we are making, through our character and way of life formed over time, and ultimately to the vision we hold of a life well-lived. More than just an explanation or theory of life (which strictly speaking is biology), our philosophy of life serves to clarify what truly matters – not only to us but to others with us, and all of us together amongst the rest of life on planet Earth, for generations to come.

It’s not about getting rich, or how to win friends and influence people, but instead focuses our devotion on those ideals, aims, principles, values and practices that promote a reverence for life and advance communities of inclusion, freedom, justice, and equality.

It is still ahead of us, perhaps far ahead, but we can begin realizing our vision in the choices we make today.

Living Religion

After rescuing spirituality from dysfunctional religion, its proponents have sometimes gone way to the other extreme, turning spirituality into a catch-all for anything mystical, metaphysical, magical and spoon-bending. In their rejection of religious tradition, institution, and orthodoxy, they “rescued” something of a shapeless blob of experience, which has been branded in countless ways and sold for huge profits to sometimes desperate, somewhat disoriented seekers.

The end result is a graveyard of dead and dying religions, but also this magic ooze that can be turned into whatever the willing consumer wants it to be.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the conditions and circumstances warranting such a rescue effort aren’t real. Much of religion has lost its soul. For a couple generations at least, it has been trying to compensate for a steady slide into irrelevancy, exhaustion, and rigor mortis by investing aggressively in megachurches, entertainment productions, and celebrity leaders. The pose that such religion strikes for us, however, feels a little too much like the stuffed and rigid products of taxidermy collecting dust on the shelf.

What we have, then, is a dead or dying religion on one side, and this oozy whatever-you-want-it-to-be spirituality on the other. I have been making a case for some time now for seeing healthy religion and a vibrant spirituality as inseparable, as the temporally relevant expression of an eternally (i.e., timelessly) creative essence. Just as we can’t take the life out of a living thing and set it aside as we dissect and examine its now lifeless body, neither can spirituality live outside and without the structural support of religion.

Spirituality is the “soul” to religion’s “body,” and despite the wildly popular but erroneous belief that one can exist without the other, the truth is that they are the Yin and Yang, respectively, whose entwining interaction is the Tao which cannot otherwise be named or known.

Our ego can be forgiven for wanting to identify itself with the immortal soul and eventually gain its escape from the mortal body. The important thing to understand, however, is that this division and separation of body and soul is the ego’s fantasy, a delusion it has projected into the nature of reality and into our own human nature.

This projection is a kind of therapeutic prescription for a death anxiety it has no obvious way to effectively address or resolve.

Ego doesn’t (“I don’t”) want to die, so it dissociates itself from the temporal body, conceives of the body as just a temporary residence, and identifies itself as that which will (it must!) continue on after the body dies. Such an “immortality project” (Ernest Becker) or “Atman project” (Ken Wilber) only deepens and magnifies the death anxiety, however.

Once it gets going, the fantasy can be all but impossible to break. But when it does break, we suddenly come to know the truth, and this truth sets us free.

The decline and death of religion is historically correlated with this gradual dissociation of ego from the mortal body, its self-identification as an immortal soul, and its mindless degradation of all the systems, processes, principles and mysteries that conspire together, as Yin and Yang, in the Tao of Reality.

Once we invented the dualism of body and soul, it would be just a matter of time before the “body” of religion and the “soul” of spirituality had to come apart, each destined for its own kind of extinction.

Is there any good news here? Anything we can do to repair (re-pair) religion and spirituality, body and soul, time and eternity, human and being?

Of course there is, and it’s been with us for thousands of years. It just so happens that religion has placed it on the Index of things that true believers must avoid, and that contemporary so-called “spirituality” has almost completely dissolved into its oozy solvent of metaphysical oddities.

We are talking about the Perennial Philosophy or Sophia Perennis, an underground stream of spiritual wisdom that has inspired, nourished, and refreshed our human quest after the ultimate Truth of things. This Truth is acknowledged in Sophia Perennis as transcendent of the religions themselves, but nonetheless (and paradoxically) immanent in and inclusive of all things – including the religions.

The above meditation image, or mandala, illustrates the basic principles of this holistic and dynamic vision of Reality using the familiar design of the Tao.

Consciousness goes “out” to wander, explore, dance and play among the ten thousand things. It also goes “in” to be still, to rest in Being, return to its Source, and find inner peace. We need both. If we should invest all our attention in just one side of this Yang-Yin polarity, the outer will become a rigid empty shell and the inner an oozy shapeless goop.

So we are back again to our contemporary dichotomy of religion without a soul and spirituality without any shape.

The domain of religion is the outer realm, where the expression of experience in the form of symbols, stories, sanctuaries and sacraments constructs the frame for an overarching meaning to life. This should prompt the question of what kind of experience gets the process going in the first place. The answer brings us into the domain of spirituality, an inner realm where the essence and depth of consciousness reaches along dark roots into the grounding mystery of Being.

The multitudinous symbols of God in religious mythology and iconography are not artistic replicas of divine beings encountered in the outer realm, but rather artistic representations of a present Mystery sensed in the inner depths of Being.

The overarching meaning and the underlying mystery are not two separate things – until religion gets too attached to its doctrines, to the point where these formal expressions of meaning are defended as the absolute truth and final word, the one and only way of salvation.

As advocates for Sophia Perennis, the mystics and teachers of spiritual wisdom have patiently but insistently reminded true believers that the essential depths of Mystery can never be “solved” into meaning. The Mystery they speak of – so far as anyone can speak of the ineffable – is not epistemological, a problem for thought, but ontological, a matter of being.

Only as we can remain rooted in awareness to the inner mystery of being-itself will the meaning we construct around ourselves be, and remain, relevant to the life we are living. And the way we do this is our religion.

The Quest Mandala

By now, a returning reader is familiar with my “dancing” style with things I regard as essential to understanding the human journey. I prefer to keep words flexible and their contextual frames almost always moving, which makes it hard to pin me down and hold me to account. I don’t do this to evade responsibility for what I write, but because the things I write about are fluid, dynamic, and imbued with mystery.

My purpose in writing is not really to educate or convert a reader to my opinion. I write because I like to dance.

So let’s take another turn with the question of why we are here on this human adventure. Science can provide explanations for how we got here, but it’s the task of spirituality to clarify the why. This doesn’t mean that we have license to fly off willy-nilly into astral planes and metaphysical esoterica. We should stay in our bodies with our feet on the ground, even as we ponder the higher reaches of our human nature.

It doesn’t make sense to me that the evolutionary aim of our existence would require us to deny or discard what makes us what we are.

We will position ourselves at the center of the dance floor, which in the mandala above identifies us as an embodied, self-conscious mind – or ego for short. We begin in this position not because it’s where the human journey starts, but because this is where we first wake up to the adventure and realize that we need to figure some stuff out.

As “who I am,” ego is both for-itself and for-others, meaning that “I” am a unique person whose self-image is reflected back to me in the mirror of other persons.

Ego centers me in myself and connects me to you. Integrity and empathy, autonomy and affiliation, agency and communion: the polarity of experience that comes into play with ego development can be considered from various angles. Centering the self and connecting to others is the critical contribution of ego to the longer human quest. This dynamic of centering and connecting reveals the true meaning of power.

Our quest consciously begins as we wake up in this performance space between our centered self and our connection with others. Because this “middle realm” is frequently fraught with insecurity, attachment, shame and self-doubt, however, there is a strong chance we can get stuck here.

The naturally creative polarity of self and other cannot hold the balance, but instead snaps to the bi-polar extremes of possession or submission, taking power for myself or giving it all to you.

Now, you should be able to see this bi-polar swing between possession and submission as a defining pathology in human history, and probably in your own life story as well. I can see it in mine, for sure.

But instead of how we typically deal with pathology in Western medicine and psychotherapy, which is to cure it or cut it out as soon as possible, a better approach would be to regard it as a clue to how we can better manage the balance and use its energy for progress in the direction of greater health, wellbeing, and fulfillment.

By becoming more skillful in the equal priorities of keeping our center and making connections, the axis of our quest can pivot 90° to the vertical orientation. From our center we can drop and descend into the deeper realm of Being, to the quiet clearing of soul where we are grounded in the present Mystery of Reality (or Ground of Being). Ego’s quest for a proper balance of power (integrity + empathy) opens the path to soul’s quest for inner peace.

This axial shift from ego concerns to the soul’s aspiration for inner peace helps us understand the distinction between religion and spirituality, and perhaps also the popular self-identification on polls as “spiritual, but not religious.” I say ‘perhaps’ because in a large number of cases the distancing from formal religion is motivated by clerical abuse, dogmatic oppression, manipulative guilt, or a cumulative irrelevancy.

For these individuals, religion is a code-word for what they managed to escape and never want to go back to.

Spiritual is thus another way of saying that they still have inclinations for things divine and supernatural, but want nothing to do with all the traditional and organizational baggage. Their current preference is for a mixed-bag, when-I-need it, grab-and-go variety of religion, although they don’t want to call it that.

Many of them remain stuck in the middle realm, having pulled out of organized religion and its congregation of like-minded believers, into a private religion of their own where they can be in control and decide what it is.

That’s not what I mean by spirituality here. In this context it refers to that pivot to the vertical axis mentioned earlier, not out of, against, or away from religion, but beyond it; beyond ego to the soul, beyond the balance of power to inner peace. Here, spirituality is not about “me” and what “I” want. Indeed, “I” and “me” have been left up there in the middle realm, so to speak, for a deeper experience of contemplative solitude and grounded presence.

This vertical orientation opens a path upwards as well: with, through, and beyond our interpersonal connections with others, to the transpersonal (or communal) realm of spirit.

Our empathic and compassionate engagement in service to the higher wholeness of community fulfills our human quest for love. Again, just as a strong center provides the stable release-point from which consciousness can drop into the deeper realm of soul, so a strong connection with others provides the stable launch-point from which consciousness can leap into the higher realm of spirit.

Ultimately, which is to say, with respect to the highest aim and purpose of our human journey, it is the generous, joyful, ecstatic, and inclusive experience of genuine community that we long for. In the balance of power, and with our roots deep in the ground of inner peace, the synergy of love flows through us and out into the worlds we are creating and re-making each new day, together.

Deep Within and All Around

One of the more obscure concepts in mystical spirituality to explain, and arguably the most important for understanding what it’s all about, is the Ground of Being. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich popularized the term in the mid-twentieth century, but it has been foundational to the perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom for nearly 3,000 years.

Even Tillich’s assertion that God is just a theological nickname for the Ground of Being had already been made by Johannes (Meister) Eckhart in the early 14th century. It wasn’t received well by orthodoxy back then, either, and hasn’t been for as long as dogmatists have preferred talking about god (the theological construct) to experiencing God (the present Mystery).

At the same time as the orthodox Church was launching external crusades against other religions, it was also pursuing an internal campaign against mystical spirituality and its “Ground of Being.”

The effort continues to this day.

As a consequence of the orthodox rejection of mystical spirituality, it was driven into a variety of esoteric “secret societies,” pushing it even farther from the reach of ordinary spiritual seekers.

It wasn’t long before these esoteric sects had developed orthodoxies of their own, with hierarchies of authority and strict requirements for membership. The age-old metaphor of ultimate reality as the “Ground of Being” is still trapped inside an arcane symbolism and cryptic vocabulary. This is purportedly to protect the Mystery, when really all it does is bury the Mystery under needless nonsense.

Because theology, or “god-talk,” is such a nuanced and complicated language, it is common to assume that mystical spirituality must be even more so. If theologians talk about something (a supreme being) that is “out there,” how much more challenging it must be to talk about a present Mystery that is said to have no objective existence!

In this post I will use the convention of capitalizing the ‘G’ in God when speaking of the Ground, and employing the lowercase ‘g’ for the many theological constructs that we imagine to exist – even if that construct is the one supreme deity of monotheism.

Actually, it is much easier to understand mystical spirituality than orthodox theology, and for one very simple reason, which is that while theology talks about a god whose existence is always up for debate, spirituality speaks of a present Mystery that is Existence itself.

The Ground of Being is not one being among (or above) all others, but the source and power of be-ing in all things.

Using its popular nickname, God, we can say with Paul Tillich that there is no such thing as God, for God is not a thing. This is slightly, but importantly, different from saying that there is no such thing as this or that god. It is historically around this distinction that misunderstandings and conflicts have arisen.

The illustration above is useful in helping us appreciate what mystical spirituality is really saying when it identifies God with the Ground of Being. Let’s pretend that the large circle generates and contains everything there is. Whatever kind of being we may observe in this universe – a star being, a cloud being, a bird being, a tree being, a dog being, or a human being – is a specific and formal manifestation of Being, of a power actualized in its special form.

The revelation expressed in the term “human being” has been all but lost to us, but the insight is still there. A human being is a human manifestation of Being, or the power of be-ing in human substance and form.

In my simplified image of the universe, I have placed you in the very middle, as a self-conscious human being, or ego (Latin for “I”). Your ego is where the consciousness of your sentient body and mind is conscious of itself as a center of thought, feeling, will and agency.

Let’s have the color orange represent objective consciousness, which is your awareness of the countless objects around you (all of those other beings), as well as of yourself (as an object of self-conscious awareness).

Looking out and around yourself, all you can see is what your objective consciousness apprehends. All of it has objective existence from the vantage point of your ego. From that vantage point each thing or object, including you, stands out as separate and distinct from all the rest.

But notice, too, that everything is rooted in the larger circle, which in my illustration represents the Ground of Being. When you observe a star or a tree, you are noticing the attributes of a specific form and manifestation of Being, while its essence remains hidden – not behind or inside it as ‘something else’, but as the form itself. What you see is paradoxically the “visible concealment” of its deeper essence.

The be-ing of a star, the be-ing of a tree, and the be-ing of a human is colored purple; this dimension of its existence is not available to objective consciousness.

A final element in my illustration is a sphere surrounding your center of self-conscious identity, encapsulating it as it were. This is your world, referring to the construct of meaning that you project around yourself.

Your world is not the universe. If the physical environment around your self-conscious embodied mind is the ecosystem, the world is your egosystem. Everything inside your world has value, meaning, and identity relative to your ego. Your egosystem is also where the lowercase god is found – not outside but inside your world, which really means inside the stories and imaginarium of your egoic mind.

Another important distinction identifies the lowercase god as a literary being, a fictional character in myths, but not a literal (i.e., factual and objective) being. The lowercase god is a projection of your mind, but also a symptom of what’s going on in there: of your need for security, control, recognition and esteem.

This observation of mystical spirituality has given orthodox religion sufficient reason to condemn, persecute, and murder mystics through the ages. The mystics have always been more interested in what God means than in whether or not god exists. Indeed, the obsession with god’s existence has kept many believers from the spiritual nourishment they seek.

In healthy religion, the lowercase god is an acknowledged metaphor and symbol of the Mystery beyond name and form: the Ground of Being.

By now it should be clear that the Ground of Being is not “out there” or under your feet, in the way that the literal and physical ground is under your feet.

Looking out with objective consciousness, all that you see is the “hidden Ground,” Being hiding in (and manifesting as) the myriad beings around you. Pluck one of them from the web, take it apart and break it down to its most elementary particles, and you will get no closer to the Ground. All you will have is an exponentially multiplied number of smaller objects, each revealing and concealing the Ground in its individual form.

Is there anywhere you can turn to experience the Ground of Being without the veil of objective existence?

With this question we come at last to the foundational practice of mystical spirituality, which is about dropping out of objective consciousness and releasing your center of personal identity.

Remember, you too are a manifestation of Being, concealed behind a personal identity and enclosed by the construct of your world. In surrendering all that makes you one being among many, along with all your quirks, convictions, and masks of identity, objective consciousness is allowed to dissolve into an experience of the present Mystery of reality, the Ground of Being.

In some traditions of mystical spirituality, this shift is designated as a descent from, or “death” of, egoic self-consciousness, and the awakening, or “resurrection,” of spiritual Self-awareness.

As an ego, you are one among many beings; deep in your soul, you are One with the Ground of Being.

So then, who are you really?

The Power of Myth

I keep coming back to the ideas of “mythic themes” and the “four ages of life” in this blog. They are in the background of just about everything else I think and write about. My ancestral heritage for this stream of thought includes Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Northrop Frye – all pioneers on the frontiers of archetypal psychology, cultural and personal mythology, and the power of story in the construction of worldviews and the meaning of life.

In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, let’s jump right into our topic, which I will name The Power of Myth using the title of Bill Moyers’ popular interview series with Joseph Campbell back in the 1980s.

The diagram above features the arc of our individual lifespan divided into four Ages, each Age identified with one of the four mythic archetypes of development: the Child (Birth to age 10), the Youth (ages 10 to 25), the Adult (ages 25 to 60), and the Elder (age 60 to our Death). In the background of each period or Age of Life we see what I’ll call the “developmental axis” of that Age: childhood as the Age of Faith, youth as the Age of Passion, adulthood as the Age of Reason, and our later years as the Age of Wisdom.

Each of the Four Ages represents a relatively stable period of growth and maturity, centered on its axis (faith, passion, reason, or wisdom) and providing a correspondingly stable worldview to engage with reality – but also to put some mediated distance between ourselves and reality for the meaning we need. The thresholds and transitions between Ages generate some degree of stress and upheaval as our axis is needing to shift for a more existentially relevant engagement with reality.

Trauma, adversity, and setbacks during a particular Age of Life can result in the carry-over of “unfinished business” into the next, along with the coping and compensatory strategies we used during those unsettled phases just to make it through.

I call these strategies “neurotic styles.”

So while my diagram offers a clean and uncomplicated view of the Human Journey, it is not so clean in real life. Nevertheless, the value of such heuristic devices as diagrams and theories is in the way they help us discern patterns in the persistent ambiguity of what’s going on.

So far, we have the Human Journey progressing through four Ages of Life, each one centered on its own axis and contributing a dimension of experience to the full picture that we somehow need to become fully human.

Living without faith, passion, reason, or wisdom is not, as we might say, in the design intention of an awakened and self-actualized human being.

A deep inner surrender to Being (faith), an emotional investment in life (passion), a commitment to truth-seeking (reason), and an understanding of how to live well and be whole (wisdom) are all essential to our human fulfillment.

The remaining elements of my diagram identify the narratives that shape, drive, and inspire our Human Journey, and serve to differentiate Campbell’s “power of myth” into distinct themes and storylines.

In the Age of childhood, a mythic theme of grounding, orientation, and security shapes, drives, and inspires our experience. More than anything else, we need to know that reality is provident, that we are safe and belong. Faith releases inwardly to the Ground within, as trust and wonder open us to the Mystery beyond.

Stories of grounding and orientation center on the security of a home place which may be lost or put in jeopardy, but only for a time, before safety is restored and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Age of youth moves us out from our shelters of safety and onto the high adventure of identity, purpose, and freedom. Our world suddenly seems to become a performance stage where everyone is watching us and we are trying out roles for their approval, or else acting out against social standards for the recognition we seek.

If we happen to carry insecurity from childhood, a pressing and anxious need for acceptance may compel us to forfeit our pursuit of freedom. Our purpose, tragically, can be reduced to pleasing, placating, flattering and impressing the people whose acceptance we so desperately need.

This trade-away of freedom and purpose for the sake of winning somebody’s favor and approval is a common trap used to recruit youth by evangelical Christian groups and other cults.

Those who fall into the trap may take decades finding their way out of a piety of submission and obedience to a god who is morally scrupulous, impossible to please, and only conditionally forgiving. Behind it is very likely a chronic insecurity from childhood.

Adulthood is the time when many choose a life partner, build a family, start a career, while still enjoying occasional mini-adventures called vacations. Love, sacrifice, and devotion are now the storylines we use to weave our world, around an axis of reason. It’s more important than ever that our life makes sense and gives us a “reason” to engage our roles and routines with commitment and responsibility.

For love’s sake we willingly sacrifice our pursuit of other options and devote our attention, time, and energy to cultivating the healthy bonds and anchors of meaning.

At midlife, or around the age of 40, the conventional nature of our life roles and routines can suddenly feel empty and pointless. We may be tempted to think that our rescue from this aridity will come by exchanging our partner, job, or residence for a different one, when what is needed is a breakthrough to a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the life we have.

In a sense, the trajectory of life concern is needing to shift from the horizontal plane and our place in the world, to a vertical revelation of depth, presence, and the undeserved gift of just being alive.

At last we enter the Age of Life as an elder. Around this time we are beginning to lose our parents and older relatives, think about retirement, and experience the gravitational pull of mortality. While in our youth we could casually ignore the reality of death all around us, in our later years it is quite literally in our face.

Storylines of suffering, hope, and vision transform our worldview into a beautifully ironic picture, with its double vision of an Eternal Now in the midst of life’s passing.

Whereas otherworldly religion will offer its comforts of a promised life in the hereafter, spiritual wisdom opens awareness to a “peace that surpasses understanding” in the heart of this life and in the very shadow of death.

Throughout cultural history, it has been the special gift of elders to both challenge and encourage younger generations to take in the larger and longer view of life – in full acknowledgment of the fact that while we are all in this together, each of us is only here for a brief moment in time.

In our era of therapy, this longstanding and far-reaching framework for understanding the Human Journey remains ever relevant. Just step into it at the temporal point of your life and listen to what it has to say.

A New Look at Family Values

Conservative politicians and preachers frequently say that the health of society is a symptom of marriage and family health. For them, marriage and family are the foundation of everything else. Class tension, racial strife, and tribal conflict are both the sign and fallout of dysfunction at that primary level.

I’m not sure the politicians and preachers would agree with that last statement, as I will try to explain.

“Family values” has been the banner under which many conservative campaigns, as well as conservative crusades, have been organized.

By definition, conservatives are advocates for cultural institutions, traditions, and customs that “conserve” our connection to the past and the stability it offers. The past is a country that we know; it is familiar, or at least fondly remembered. As we also know, it can be a construct we imagine nostalgically, but that never really was.

Especially when the present is confusing and the future uncertain, keeping an anchor line to things and ways that have been around for a while can provide the security, identity, and orientation we feel we need.

I fully agree with the argument regarding the influence of marriage and family health on the general health of society. Of course, we should go even deeper, into the wellbeing of individuals, since every partnership and relational system is affected, for good or ill, by what individuals bring to it.

But then, what is meant by “family values”? The values, judgments, attitudes, and mores that parents happen to teach and model for their children? Or are they the values, priorities, practices, and commitments that create strong families, partnerships, and communities?

It should be the latter, but too often the “family values” espoused by conservative politicians and preachers are built on ethnocentrism, where the interests of the in-group are set against the needs, values, rights and happiness of outsiders.

Some of this in-group favoritism and out-group suspicion is a natural and evolved preference for the company, resources, and protection provided by one’s own kin and kind.

But when the democratic principles of liberty, equality, and inclusion pull on those like-kind and like-minded boundaries, conservative resistance can lift the banner of “family values” as a defensive maneuver, which can quickly take the offensive – and then become offensive to democratic vision and values.

Instead of finding a way forward, together, they actively undermine democracy and sabotage its progress.

In this post I will guide a meditation on “family values,” in the higher cultural and democratic sense. Not as defensive of in-group identity or offensive against out-group difference, but as creative of the healthy relationships that our democratic future depends on.

In the background of my diagram is the image of a Möbius band or infinity symbol, meant to convey the idea of “power” and “love” as dynamically distinct virtues which are paradoxically one. Around the two virtues are arranged my version of family values or “a family of values,” priorities and commitments that are essential to the strength, health, growth, and longevity of any relationship.

At the center of this family of values is trust, which is effectively the bond and balancing point of Power and Love.

Without trust, a relationship has nothing to hold it together. As the centering value of a healthy relationship, it is a function of each partner’s own centered power and of their shared, connected love. When partners are not centered in themselves, they cannot connect from positions of inner security and strength, and their effort at connecting tends to be more about codependency and manipulation than genuine love.

On the “power” side of this balance are three more values, each one reflecting an important dimension of Power and helping us understand the virtue of Power more holistically.

Faith should not be confused here with religious belief or the willingness to believe something “you know ain’t so,” as Mark Twain quipped. We are using it in its original sense, as an individual’s inner release or surrender to the grounding mystery of Being. It is neither cognitive, intellectual, nor orthodox, and has really nothing directly to do with what we believe about one thing or another.

Because faith is deeper than words or concepts can reach, and because our need to know intuitively that reality is provident exists prior to the acquisition of language and formal thought, faith is properly regarded as mystical or ineffable (beyond words).

Integrity is how this deeper dynamic of inner release to the grounding mystery of reality arises into a centered personality, which is why it is also called “ego integrity.” It’s still important, however, to distinguish this center of ego integrity from the question of social identity, of “who I am” in terms of the roles we play in the role-play of relationships.

As mentioned earlier, an individual’s personal integrity is what conveys the centering virtue of Power to the dynamic of trust in a healthy relationship.

Agency refers to our individual sense of self-control, creative influence, and personal responsibility. When we accept and embrace our agency, we are embracing our ability to make things happen as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. A lack of agency translates into an inability to make commitments, along with an unwillingness to accept responsibility for how our words and behavior affect others and the world around us.

Swinging back to the other side of the Möbius band, we find three more values that help us better understand the virtue of Love.

In my diagram, Empathy is on the same level as Faith to make the point that its focus is primarily inward, in distinction from another word it is frequently confused with, compassion, which looks outward. The em- (“in”) of empathy lets us know that we are talking about an individual’s deep understanding of the human experience, of what it’s like to be a human.

Empathy grows by a process of introspective reflection on such universal human experiences as abandonment, loneliness, exclusion, oppression, abuse, deprivation, inadequacy, failure and loss.

It is out of this deep acquaintance with our own human experience that a compassionate concern for another’s wellbeing arises.

A second value of Love, charity is commonly identified with donating our time, energy, and resources to others in need, which is not wrong exactly, but still shifts the focus too quickly from what we can call the “Spirit of Love” that ideally motivates our gifts of assistance, to the specific (and tax-deductible) gifts themselves.

Charity is from the Latin caritas, which derives from the Greek agape, an important word especially in the Christian New Testament referring to the selfless, generous, and universal love of God. In a real sense, charity is not “given” but flows spontaneously from one to another.

Rounding out our contemplation of Love and ultimately bringing us back to trust is fidelity, a value that shares its roots with “faith” (Latin fide). Its position on the Möbius band places fidelity in dynamic opposition with faith. Whereas faith releases to the grounding mystery within as the inner source of Power, fidelity is devotion to the health, growth, and longevity of our relationship with another. It is the outward, and in many ways the highest, demonstration of Love.

The contribution of fidelity to a lasting relationship lies in its commitment to nurturing and protecting the bond of trust rather than attaching itself to the other, or some ideal of the other. Fidelity to the relationship gives room for us and the other to grow in freedom.

As it started, it all comes back to trust.

If we’re going to preach “family values,” let’s take it all the way and put these values into practice!

You and Your World

If I told you that your identity and the world around you are not really real, you’d probably dismiss me as another of those quacky hucksters who want to sell you some crock of bullshit. There are lots of them around, and you definitely need to hold on to your common sense as well as your wallet when they start opening their boxes of foolery. Better just move on and keep your feet in reality.

But I’m not after your money, and I don’t have a cult for you to join.

When I say that your identity and the world around you aren’t really real, I mean they aren’t real in the same way your body, brain, and the physical environment around you are real.

The names of what you see when you look around yourself, the value things have for you or somebody else, the meaning of this, that, and the whole shebang – all of it is constructed and projected by your mind onto the reality of what you see. And then you apprehend the projected image as having objective existence, as a reality existing apart from you and outside your mind.

Fascinating!

It won’t be surprising to learn that personal identity (self) and its context of meaning (world) are as variant and numerous as there are egos on the planet. A review of your own experience growing up and coming of age will confirm the assertion regarding the constructed nature – let’s just say the imaginary character – of who you are and the world you live in.

If you had a better understanding of how it all gets going to begin with, you might not only accept the claim but embrace it as foundational to a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life.

In our scientific age a valid explanation cannot invoke alien agencies, transcendent deities, or occult powers in our effort to understand reality and the projection of a world. So we will begin where our grasp on reality is firmly established, in the fact that you are, at this level at least, a brain in a body. It doesn’t sound very romantic, I know, or even all that interesting. But there’s something going on here that you need to understand.


The neuro-architecture of your brain is an evolutionary record of nervous systems in animal life on planet Earth. Your brainstem regulates the many physiological events that generate and support the life force in your body. Its work is “unconscious,” by which we mean it is autonomic, involuntary, and compulsive – below the threshold of your conscious attention and control.

At this level, you are a brain in a body staying alive from moment to moment.

Moving up a level in your brain’s neuro-anatomy engages a constellation of structures and networks known as the limbic system (hidden within the dashed circle in my diagram above). Its primary role is to adaptively match your body’s internal state to the changing situations of your physical environment.

The repertoire of limbic programs it uses to do this are called emotions, and each program is designed to assess sensory information from the environment, activate and attune your nervous system to what’s going on there, and motivate adaptive behavior that will help you stay safe, grab an opportunity, gain an advantage, or whatever the situation holds.

While the brainstem operates at a level below conscious awareness, your limbic brain does its thing before you are consciously aware of what’s going on, letting you in on the secret only after a half-second delay. For that reason, consciousness at the limbic level is said to be “preconscious.” In the evolutionary history of consciousness, this short delay served the longer prospect of adaptive learning – but only after the priority of survival was satisfied.

So let’s pause to appreciate the amazing contribution of your limbic brain to the evolutionary adventure of consciousness on Earth. Beyond the urgent task of regulating the life force in its resident body, the brain now had the capacity to manage the body more adaptively to a wide range of survival situations in its physical environment. Every new situation afforded another opportunity to recall previous episodes, anticipate what was coming, refine its strategic response, and learn from the outcome.

Whereas the brainstem’s memory is about doing the same thing, instinctually, over and over again, the limbic system can build an archive of discrete episodes of experience and call them up in situations that happen to activate any part of the pattern.

Basal animals, whose consciousness is almost entirely invested in the brainstem work of regulating the internal life force of the body, behave in today’s generation exactly as they did millions of years ago. Limbic animals, however, are capable of adapting and learning new responses to the changing situations of their environment. Although for the vast majority of them the physical environment hasn’t changed all that much over the millenniums of time, to the degree it has changed, so too has their emotional repertoire and range of learning expanded accordingly.

Of course, you are also considered a “limbic animal,” but your brain has an additional layer to its neuro-architecture. Lots of species have a cerebral cortex as well, but it is most highly evolved in humans. The bi-lateral set of structures (one on each side of the brain) that began in limbic brains continues at this higher level, but the branching associations of the cortical brain are exponentially increased, adding to emotional learning and situational adaptation a capacity for symbolic language, creative imagination, pretend play, problem solving, making meaning and abstract thought.

The remarkable product of all this cortical activity is called your world, or as labeled in the above illustration, your “world project.” With the powerful tool of symbolic language, your creative imagination is, in this very moment, telling stories and constructing a world around you. In fact, this projected context of meaning is what creates the performance space for you to be a self and become somebody. “Self” and “world,” that is to say, go together or co-arise in the creative work of your cerebral cortex.

To summarize, your brainstem anchors you in the life force of your body. Your limbic system manages your body across the changing situations of your physical environment. And now, your cerebral cortex takes the core identity of these situational costumes and projects around it the semantic theater of your world.

From the constructed vantage point of this core identity, or ego, you can look inward (subjectively) to your self and outward (objectively) to your world.

It’s common to regard the environment and your world as synonyms for the same thing, which might be named Reality. But what I referred to above as the foundational claim of a revolutionary and liberating philosophy of life itself grows from the insight that environment and world are profoundly different.

The physical environment, as well as your basal and lower limbic levels of experience, is the factual realm. Your world project, though, including your higher limbic and cortical levels of experience, make up (quite literally) a fictional realm where you pursue imaginary things like identity, purpose, freedom and meaning itself.

Just because you share the social stage with others who also pursue these things doesn’t make them any less fictional and imaginary.

Indeed, it is precisely because you and others agree on their significance that such things preoccupy your waking thoughts and fill your dreams at night.

Now, that’s a lot to digest, so let me close this meditation by inviting you to imagine what kind of world would be constructed around the prevalent limbic programs of self-interest, social anxiety, and zero-sum competition. And then how about a world arising out of compassion, generosity, and goodwill?

You and I have the power to create and choose which world we will live in.