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

A Reconciliation of Religion & Science

The overstory of cultural evolution features a complementarity of visions known as religion and science, which in the last 2,500 years or so have been competing for dominance, with religion on a dramatic decline in the West since the 1800s – but starting long before. Many will argue that this decline of religion in the West is a sign of our spiritual decadence as a culture.

This argument comes off too much like that oft-used tactic of corrupt authority: blaming the victim.

Religion becomes irrelevant and then comes down with coercion and threats to enforce compliance. All the while, its members are disengaged and quietly leaving out the back door. A good percentage of those that remain are either there for the kindred society it provides, the warm familiarity of its customs and beliefs, or else because they are convinced that it holds the only point of access to the ultimate glory they seek.

In this blog I have been making a case for seeing much of religion’s troubles as self-inflicted, brought on by its own dogmatic unwillingness to meet and advance with the evolving spirituality of its people – and of our species generally. If the role of religion is (1) to facilitate the spiritual development and liberation of human beings, and (2) to provide for the creative engagement of spirituality with the real world and its challenges, then religion is failing on both counts.

Religion started losing ground way back when the enterprise of philosophy – the disciplined pursuit of wisdom based in a grounded understanding of the universe and our place in it – dedicated itself to building a system of knowledge free of magic, superstition, and orthodoxy.

What began as “natural philosophy” soon became science, a headwater that quickly differentiated into numerous tributaries: physics, geometry, biology, astronomy, and dozens more as the centuries went on.

All of this sprang from a newfound confidence in sense experience, critical and contextual reasoning, experimental methods, and methodological doubt (holding a claim in question until it can be validated or disproved by evidence and logical thought) – all anchored to a growing sense of the individual’s capacity for finding the truth by more natural lights.

Ideally, religion would have encouraged this progress to a more rational and reality-oriented way of being, just as a parent should encourage and support their child’s development into more formal operations of thought, ego strength, and intellectual autonomy.

In the same way that a parent doesn’t insist on controlling the behavior and beliefs of their adolescent with a dogmatic “Because I said so!” it is critical for religion to know when, and how, to step back and then reengage its members in accordance with their evolving faith, expanding curiosity, and developing intelligence.

This moment of breakthrough is wonderfully illustrated in the so-called Flammarion engraving (see above), which may date back to the early modern period (15th-16th century). It depicts an explorer who suddenly, it would seem, is able to see through the veil of a world where his life’s security, orientation, and meaning have been safeguarded – up till this moment.

On the other side of this veil he beholds a cosmic system of elements, physical forces, spheres and wheels; no deities, archangels, or heavenly abode are to be seen.

Not, that is to say, what he was told to expect.

That realm beyond the veil is the universe of science; the veil and its enclosed world, the domain of religion – at least in its theistic mode. Theism is a type of religion oriented on a patron deity (or deities) who provides protection, support, and final salvation to his (or her) people in exchange for their worship and obedience.

Its rise over the longer history of religion correlates exactly with the ascendancy in human consciousness of the self-conscious personal ego. The patron deity plays the role of celestial superego to a growing multiplicity and potential anarchy of human egos on the ground, so to speak, each in pursuit of their own happiness. As moral administrator and archetype of virtues, the deity incentivizes proper behavior and inspires the activation of virtue in his (or her) devotees.

When natural philosophy began to lift the veil of meaning to discover a reality not populated by god and his angels, this revelation itself was the signal of a transformation in human consciousness.

Solar gods and lunar goddesses, heavenly fathers and earth mothers were drawn aside on physical stars and moons, the boundless vault of outer space and blue marble of our precious home planet.

Those earlier mythological references had accomplished their work of attuning human consciousness to a provident universe: the generative source, dynamic web, and shared destiny of all things. With a deep feeling of belonging, that they were safe and supplied what they needed to flourish and live meaningful lives, theism had served humans well.

But the time had come for some to step out into a larger reality and learn how to live on the other side of (post-) theism and its richly embroidered veils of mythology. With a well-grounded faith, a sacred reverence for life, and their ethical virtue sufficiently awakened, religion should have been ready to facilitate the progress of this generation of seekers into a post-theistic spirituality and worldview.

Just as the parent needs to help a child emerge from under the protective firmament of dependency to face reality as it is, to take on life as it is, so theism needed (and still needs) to not just allow but encourage and inspire the spiritual liberation of its “children.”

Whereas theism, especially in these latter days, tends to be unifocal in defending a literal reading of its myths and laying claim to absolute truth, post-theistic religion accepts and embraces responsibility for cultivating faith in its children, awaking compassion in its youth, and ordaining the higher self of adults for the task of interpreting the stories and updating its metaphors of God.

In this way, post-theistic adults can lead and guide the spiritual evolution of believers all the way through.

When theism elected to hold its ground rather than adapt and accommodate the transformation in consciousness that was underway, it created conditions for the spiritual decadence of Western culture. Without the intentional structure of a post-theistic guidance system in place, many would-be post-theists were either pushed out, or, for the sake of staying true to the longing within themselves, chose to leave, forced from their community to find their way alone.

What theism hasn’t understood all this time is that a post-theist is never alone, having attained the realization that Everything is connected, All is One, and We’re all in this – together.

In large part, those who stayed inside were either still in need of what theism provided, or else, locked up in their own convictions and driven by a spiritual frustration, saw themselves as its heroic crusaders against a god-forsaken and sin-sick world.

Veils can be convenient to hide behind.

Free to Shine

In Clarity and Brilliance I offered a way of conceptualizing the dynamic integrity of human consciousness across its four types of intelligence: rational (RQ = mind), emotional (EQ = heart), visceral (VQ = will), and spiritual (SQ = soul/spirit).

The validity of these four is well-established in the psychological literature, with our spiritual intelligence most recently accepted into the empirical and academic discussion, now free of its supernatural and metaphysical preconceptions.

Using the analogy of a diamond, I employed the terms “clarity” and “brilliance” to help us appreciate the integrity of intelligence and how consciousness is (or can be) amplified, developed, and expressed in the human being. We have to qualify this with a “can be” since, in many of us, this flow of consciousness is actually impeded by neurotic, even pathological, complications. We’ll come to these after a bit.

“Clarity” refers to the transparency that each facet offers to the diamond’s interior depths, while its “brilliance” describes the effect of focusing and magnifying the light from these depths into a resplendent outward radiance. A clear diamond is also a bright diamond.

Clarity is looking in, brilliance is shining out.

So too with consciousness and its three “facets” or faculties of mind, heart, and will. When these are transparent to the inner depths of soul, consciousness is focused and intensified into the outward expression of spirit. This can be depicted more abstractly using the cross design of ‘X’ and ‘Y’ axes, where the three faculties are arranged along the horizontal (‘X’) axis and spiritual intelligence forms a continuum along the vertical (‘Y’) axis, with soul down-and-within and spirit up-and-around.

This entire system should be understood psychospiritually. Instead, in its early efforts to legitimate itself as a scientific (i.e., not “superstitious”) enterprise, Western psychology detached the horizontal axis of faculties from the recently discredited and unscientific vertical continuum of spiritual intelligence. It then further dissected the faculties into separate centers, or, which became the mainstream paradigm, absorbed the heart and will into a more broadly cognitive theory of mind.

Twenty-first-century psychology is more open to a psychospiritual approach, now that spiritual intelligence (SQ) has been validated in the research. Psychologists can agree, if not with the supernatural worldview and metaphysics of religious true believers, then with more of their scientific peers, that humans universally seek existential grounding in reality, as well as transpersonal community with others and all things – perhaps even with the cosmos itself.

These are not mere wishful fantasies or forgotten sensations of prenatal life, as Freud believed, but aspirations or spiritual longings that are deeply rooted in human nature.

In this post I will merge my “diamond” model of consciousness with the Five Aspirations of a human being. The coincidence of there being five aspirations or spiritual longings that drive us through life, and also five distinct nodes of our quadratic intelligence – rational, emotional, visceral, and two for the esoteric/contemplative and ecstatic/expressive poles on the continuum of spiritual intelligence – only recently clicked for me.

But it’s enough of a revelation that I wanted to upload it to the cloud of superconscious wisdom, just in case someone else, somewhere else, and perhaps at some other time, might download and help it to advance.

My diagram brings forward the diamond image, associating each faculty or node with one of the five aspirations. Thus:

  • The soul centers our longing for inner peace.
  • The mind centers our longing for deeper meaning.
  • The heart centers our longing for genuine love.
  • The will centers our longing for higher purpose.
  • The spirit centers our longing for creative freedom.

In the healthy and self-actualizing human being there is a deep sense of grounding in reality, which registers in the nervous system as a calm inner peace. Free of distress and securely based, the faculties of mind, heart, and will can develop and function with clarity, opening to life in the world with clearheaded and kindhearted goodwill.

The clarity of these faculties focuses awareness into the deep interior of the soul, where it is cultivated, amplified, and then projected outward as spirit in creative freedom. A clear (or open) mind, heart, and will provides for a relevant engagement with reality, one that is in touch with what’s going on, sensitive to the wonders and mysteries, challenges and opportunities it holds.

It’s when we put this dynamic of consciousness on its course of normal human development that the complications mentioned above start showing up.

If for whatever reason an individual lacks the grounding of inner peace, this insecurity has the effect of “clouding” the faculties with distortions that interfere with their proper function – dysfunctions which arise in the effort to manage insecurity and prevent an overwhelming flood of panic and despair.

Rather than opening in curiosity and seeking to understand, the mind closes down on its own beliefs, finding a false sense of security inside a defended enclosure of conviction. Instead of opening to others and to reality itself in lovingkindness, the heart gets locked into obsession and neurotic attachment. And in this clouded and distorted state, the will gets stuck in the ambition of “what’s in it for me?”: desperately craving something but at the same time afraid it won’t work out or be enough.

Conviction, obsession, and ambition are all compensatory mechanisms for managing – or more accurately, coping with – the subjective insecurity (anxiety) that comes with ego formation and standing out as somebody unique and special.

Because the development of personal identity entails a differentiation of self-consciousness from the ground of consciousness itself, even a normal ego experiences some degree of exposure and alienation which registers in the nervous system as generalized anxiety.

Given that normal ego development brings some anxiety along with it, and now with a better understanding of how the mind, heart, and will lose their transparency to the depths of soul as they get trapped in their own coping strategies, we can sympathize with how humans “manage” to so magnificently muck things up for ourselves.

We can also see the wisdom in the various methods and techniques that humans have devised over the millenniums for cultivating a more grounded existence. When we have inner peace, we can live free of conviction, obsession, and ambition – free to create a life of deeper meaning, genuine love, and higher purpose.

We can be free to shine and share in the Spirit of true community.

Human Rising

If you live by your convictions, you are a prisoner (a convict) to your beliefs and have difficulty thinking outside the box (your prison) and being open to mystery, to the present mystery of Reality, to Reality, or just to what’s real.

It’s important to you – we might even say it’s mandatory – that Reality, just like your mind, is locked down inside clear categories, on a grid of values that are absolute and unchanging.

If instead you live by your aspirations, there is a longing in you for fulfillment, which shouldn’t be confused with happiness but refers rather to an experience of realizing your potential and becoming more fully human. Humanity has been evolving for many millenniums, and your own development has progressed through stages of growth, awakening, and self-actualization since birth.

The truth is, both of these forces are at work in you. One works to define you and the world around you, adding layers over time of identity and the habits of judgment and belief that hold your identity together and keep your world intact. The other works to transform you, along with the world around you, by activating the inner capacity and evolutionary aim of your human ideal.

To the degree that convictions lock things in place and aspirations break things open, these two forces are antagonistic to each other. Much of your pain or joy in life is how this antagonism plays out.

To really get our minds around this, take a look at the illustration above. Vertical and horizontal axes are arrows coordinating an upward and forward movement, to signify a larger organic process in play: growing out of the ground and following the inner aim of its ideal – in this case, a mature and more fully self-actualized human being.

The horizontal arrow moving from left to right correlates to the actual past and possible futures of development. And you – or your “I” (ego) in this conversation – are at the center, corresponding to the experiential present.

Coming to you from the left (or past) is the storyline of your development as a character – the main character of your personal myth. Just as earlier chapters of a story serve to define the characters who develop and interact with each other, your life up till now is the record of conditions, events, and choices that have conspired in the construction of a personal identity – who you are and how you present yourself to others.

Now, to help us understand what’s going on as we move to the right, let’s turn our attention to the vertical axis, from the temporal (horizontal) to a contextual orientation. Your existence is grounded in Reality and is a product or manifestation of other forces – not biographical this time, but generally biological. This is not about who you are as a personality but what you are as a living, sentient human being.

Your existence is “generated” up from this ground, which is why we call it your existential ground, the generative Source and Ground of Being. Simultaneously with your emergence from this ground, you have been surrounded by and involved in a larger web of beings and forces, on the broadest contextual scale known as the universe: the “turning-as/into-one” of everything there is.

The transcultural wisdom tradition known as the Perennial Philosophy or Sophia Perennis acknowledges this universal web as a vast community of beings: not a chaotic mess but a cosmic order; not a random arrangement only, but a harmonious whole – a community in the true sense of the term.

This community manifests in a highly sophisticated and complex way among human beings. Life and consciousness have evolved in you to the point of achieving self-conscious awareness, in the ego (“I”) that puts on masks and plays the roles of identity. Over time and across countless role plays your identity has taken on the habits of character, that star of your personal myth mentioned earlier.

Now, it’s important to see that in order for you to participate in and consciously belong to human community, you (along with others) need to become a self-conscious person with a character of your own. In other words, genuine community, which is transpersonal in nature, depends on the pre-existence, so to speak, of persons, of separate egos playing the game of identity.

Community, therefore, is not a mere collection of egos, but a higher wholeness (com+unitas: together as one) that forms as individual egos are able and willing to “get over themselves” for a life in mutual harmony. There is no possibility of going beyond (trans-) the personal without a personal ego already in place.

This is a main reason why philosophies that denigrate the ego as something to be denied, renounced, or extinguished actually impede human progress toward genuine community.

What these philosophies are reacting to is not the ego of normal human development, but the neurotic ego which refuses, and is to some extent unable, to go beyond the drama of personal identity for a transpersonal experience of unity.

Many don’t understand that the way through is not by attacking and defeating the ego, but rather by helping it become sufficiently centered and strong to be capable of getting over itself.

My illustration displays two orange lines (the color code of all things ego-related in this blog), a solid line beneath your ego and a dashed line above it. The solid line makes the point that consciousness cannot descend into its ground without first releasing the masks and roles of personal identity, along with the separate self-conscious ego that defines itself by them.

This may be where the error lies with those philosophies of ego-renunciation, in their confusion of the necessary release with an aggressive rejection of the ego.

The psychospiritual benefit of dropping out of ego consciousness and into the grounding mystery of what you (really) are is in the creative freedom it affords, for getting over and going beyond the limitations of personal identity, of your character and the convictions that otherwise hold your spirit captive.

With that freedom you can cultivate the spiritual aspirations that will fill your sails and take you to the farther reaches of human nature, and (through that dashed orange line) into the higher wholeness of genuine community and the liberated life.

Democracy at (the) Stake

The foreperson on the grand jury for Georgia’s State prosecution of election interference by Donald Trump and others is recently in the news, giving interviews to whomever will listen (and it seems everyone is) over her excitement for having the privilege to serve in that capacity. When asked, she confessed that she did not vote in the 2020 Presidential election.

Wait, what?

Obviously, interfering with elections is on a whole different scale than not supporting elections by choosing not to vote. But in both actions it is clear that democracy is at stake – we can even say that democracy is at “the” stake, against the wall, on the gallows (choose your metaphor). Democracy is government by participation, under the leadership of representatives we pick to be there.

That’s how it’s designed to work.

Whether the ballots we cast are illegally stolen or not counted; whether we are prevented from casting our legal vote or make the choice ourselves not to participate, democracy is on its way out.

People with good sense and who care about equality, freedom, equity and inclusion need to understand that ideals and values such as these must be worked for, defended, and consistently promoted in their actions and choices.

A frightening number of current representatives, however, are showing by their rhetoric that these ideals and values are not in their picture of a future America. In fact, if they have their way, America will be a nation under autocratic control, of racial and gender inequality, of codified inequities permanently locking out the lower classes from access to a better life, and with high walls of exclusion against every person, thing, and idea that doesn’t fit obediently inside their box.

The walls of their box are forged of fear, not faith; of anger, not hope; of self-interest and not “a more perfect union.”

By regularly stirring the pot or throwing more logs on the fire (choose your metaphor), these anti-American politicians, along with their handlers and supporters, are continuing to cast doubt on the integrity of elections, thus undermining the trust of Americans in the entire process.

Must-winners are inevitably sore losers, and sore losers tend not to be fair players.

If they can discourage or otherwise convince voters who don’t support them or believe in what they stand for to stay home on election day, then their comparatively small base of devotees will prevail over the general will of the people.

And that is how democracy dies.

Interfere with elections, overthrow election results, or persuade opposition voters that their votes won’t matter and not to bother showing up: choose your adventure, but the result will be the same. There is no effective will of the people if that will is not registered, recorded, counted, and protected.

For a while, there will still be opportunities to participate in democracy – by serving on a jury, for instance.

But eventually these won’t really matter, either, since by then something other than a constitutional justice system will be deciding who’s in, who’s out, and who deserves what.

As a young person, the Georgia State grand jury foreperson might hold the belief that democracy “just is,” like a backdrop to daily life and its more immediate concerns. As long as the economy is working and the lights stay on, the political side of things can be left for others to run and worry about.

As we enjoy our freedoms, we don’t often consciously appreciate all that goes on and all that had to happen – the collective work and sacrifice of thousands – for us to be free. It’s easy to believe that the environment, atmosphere, and “spirit” of freedom is and will always be around us, as we chase our economic dreams.

It was partly this preferential interest in the values of capitalism over the values of democracy that got Donald Trump as close he came to winning the popular vote in the 2016 election. Trump was a celebrity icon of how to bend, and if necessary to break, democratic principles (along with ethical standards) in pursuit of economic gain.

Even before Trump, fewer Americans were showing up to the polls to cast their vote. He just found a way to exploit that political indifference – or maybe it’s ignórance: willful ignorance – to his advantage.

The “American Dream” is really a hybrid of economic and political aspirations, for the freedom to make a better life for ourselves and to turn our diversity into genuine community. Individual prosperity and communal wellbeing shouldn’t have to compete for our attention and loyalty. They both require commitment and sacrifice in order to be realized, and it could even be argued that one cannot be fully realized without steady devotion to the other.

From the very beginning of this Experiment, Americans have wanted only enough politics and law to keep the playing field safe and fair. An outstanding characteristic of American ideology is in how we tend to view community and communal values through the lens of individualism and our own pursuit of happiness.

Even in our typical use of the term, community amounts to little more than an aggregate of individuals, rather than, as the word literally denotes, to a qualitative shift toward communion as individuals are able to transcend their personal interests for the sake of unity and a greater good. If we take any steps in the direction of community, we do it according to a calculus of “what’s in it for me” versus what’s best for us all.

I’ve made a case elsewhere for regarding democracy – not just the will of the people, but a vision for how individual wills can work together and create genuine community – as perpetually endangered in a nation where personal ambition is valued above communal (or transpersonal) wisdom.

Maybe Trump and “Trumplicanism” is just a temporary slip on the slope of democratic progress. But hopefully it has taught us that taking responsibility for democracy and doing our part makes a difference. We may not get our 15 minutes of fame for doing it, but it really does matter.

In every election, democracy is at (the) stake. By choosing not to participate, we are also hastening its demise.

All the Way Through

Treatment for anxiety will be a multi-billion dollar enterprise this year, up from previous years and expected to continue its rise for the foreseeable future. We want the inner peace of a relaxed body and calm mind, but we settle – actually we pay a lot – for feeling a little less anxious, if it can be managed.

If our anxiety can’t be managed, we are at risk of falling into depression, which is chasing the trendline of anxiety disorders like a dark demon, ready to swallow victims who can’t stay ahead of it.

The successful treatment of any malady begins in a proper understanding of its causes, conditions, and course of development, along with whether and to what extent it may be a compensatory or comorbid factor in a still larger system.

In the case of anxiety and depression, we know already that they typically coexist in a bipolar pattern: cramping up in nervous agitation, then crashing down into exhaustion where our thoughts circle the drain of hopelessness and despair. In treating one side of the pattern, symptoms often worsen on the other, drawing the patient into a web of medications, with added prescriptions aimed at mitigating the negative side-effects of the primary drugs.

And so on.

In this post I will offer a framework for understanding anxiety and depression from the perspective of wisdom spirituality. I don’t presume to diagnose my reader’s mental illness, nor am I recommending that anyone abandon their current treatment plan. It’s just a different way of looking at our pandemic of bipolar suffering, with the goal of understanding its place in the larger system of human experience, development, and transformation.

Wisdom spirituality identifies a polarity in human nature. Not the bipolar pattern of anxiety and depression, but a tension inherent to being human. One side, or pole, of this tension is represented by the path of development culminating in human fulfillment, in the actualization of our individual and species potential.

Such a quality of life can be compared analogously to the free flight of a butterfly that has emerged from its cocoon, and is known as spiritual liberty or the liberated life.

It is not a life that is trouble-free, gliding as it were above the labors and frustrations of a caterpillar’s existence.

Spiritual liberty is not about being always happy and never sad or afraid, but allows rather for a creative embrace – and release – of every sensation, feeling, and judgment. It is about being fully alive.

The path to spiritual liberty – again, not to immortality or world-escape, but to a fully awakened and liberated life – flows from an inner peace, through mindful presence, into the experience of communion with others and all things, ultimately finding wings in the fulfillment of our essential Self.

By essential Self (with the uppercase “S”) we mean not merely the soul in a body but the body-soul essence of a human being, the animal with a perhaps uniquely evolved capacity for contemplation, empathy, creativity, and self-transcendence.

This Self of our essential nature stands in paradoxical relation with a second nature, that of our conditioned self (with the lowercase “s”), whose path of development focuses on the formation of an executive center of self-conscious identity called ego.

As a product of social engineering, the design intention of our ego is to identify us with a tribe, as “one of us” who behaves and believes in a way that ensures group cohesion and sympathy with the herd.

As “one of us,” part of this project in ego formation serves to induce a sense of individuality that psychologically separates us from our body, which becomes increasingly an object of control, ornamentation, and sensuality. Ego also differentiates us from others who engage with us in role plays of social interaction that give our life meaning.

My diagram illustrates the two paths: the first, of our essential Self developing toward spiritual liberty; and a second, of our conditioned self differentiating an identity that provides access to a meaningful life in society.

This is where we can begin to appreciate a tension in the polarity of being human and becoming somebody.

The tension starts already as our essential aptitude for inner peace has to share space with a subjective insecurity (or anxiety) over the gradual separation into a centered identity of our own. Part of us wants to, and still can, release in faith to the provident ground of our existence. But this other part must follow the authoritative influence of a tribe that needs us to get in line and do our part.

It’s at this point that the polar tension of the two paths becomes impossible to ignore.

While our essential Self seeks to be present and open authentically to Reality, our conditioned self is already busy in the work of personation, referring to the somewhat anxious pursuit of identity by trying on masks (Greek personae) and stepping into roles that will qualify us for the social acceptance, approval, and recognition we crave.

With respect to our essential Self, personation is the process of covering over, even suppressing and denying, our authentic nature for the sake of becoming somebody who fits in and stands out.

Now, according to wisdom spirituality, the paradoxical relation of these two paths has evolved with the aim of bringing us to the place where we are empowered to surpass ego identity for a larger transpersonal experience. It is indeed a foundational insight that helps us understand the bipolar pattern of anxiety and depression, but more importantly helps us see our way through to spiritual liberty.

When our neurotic insecurity hides inside and behind masks of identity, an experience of communion – our participation in a dynamic web of higher wholeness – is foreclosed and we are locked down by the conceit of “me and mine.”

In the worldwide anthology of principles, parables, koans, and proverbs, wisdom spirituality often speaks of the necessity for a truth seeker to “die” as a caterpillar and shed their cocoon of identity, in order to find a New Life beyond the masks and roles, and even more importantly beyond the ego who is pretending to be somebody behind all those masks and roles.

But it’s hard to let go and leave behind our conditioned self, even for the promise of an experience we can hardly imagine, much less accept as a real possibility for us.

And because others of our tribe are equally insecure and attached to the pretense of identity, reinforced by generations of dogmatic orthodoxy dismissing or outright condemning spiritual liberty as rebellious, blasphemous, and sacrilegious, our conceit can get further impounded behind convictions that close our mind to everything outside the box.

What I’m calling “spiritual depression” is not a special subtype of the garden-variety clinical depression so prevalent today. It is not unique to religious folk or to those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Spiritual depression is the deep, dark place we find ourselves after we have pushed away (or withdrawn from) everything that doesn’t fit inside our box, along with anyone who suggests that most of what is real and true is outside our box and can’t be owned.*

This depression is spiritual because it signifies something more than a deficiency in the balance of neurotransmitters in our brain, or an autoimmune disorder of psychosomatic illness, or even a breakdown in our construction of meaning.

It is spiritual because it is our human spirit that languishes and slowly dies inside a cage that was forged, ironically, to “save” our life.

It should be obvious, then, how this bipolar cycling of anxiety and depression “works.” We are anxious because the process of becoming somebody requires us to separate ourselves to some extent from our own existential ground and from the others around us.

And while personation is developmentally about putting on an identity that conforms to the world of tribal values and concerns, our insecure conceit (or conceited insecurity), compounded by a repressive tribal morality, can drive us deeper into our cocoon – so deep, in fact, that we can’t find our way out.

How would wisdom spirituality counsel us at this point, if our current treatment protocols and intervention methodologies only keep us spinning in bipolar cycles between anxiety and depression, and back around again?

Relax. Set the mask aside for now. Open your wings and be free. If you’re not there yet, just keep going – all the way through.

It’s in our nature to fly.

*This explains the odd phenomenon where dogmatic Christians are forced to deny the real Jesus, who felt it was his mission to break open boxes and acknowledge God as a mystery beyond the constructs of theology and the convictions of believers.

Provident Organizations

What’s going on when we read a best-seller about some innovative and industry-leading company, and then ten months later get the news that it’s falling apart and on the verge of bankruptcy? Obviously there’s some lag time between the research and when the finished book hit the shelves, but did the wheels come off that quickly? Really?

More likely, a toxic process was already metastasizing inside the corporate culture, carefully hidden from public view but felt by insiders long before.

You may be familiar with how it feels.

An organization is a social organism, a living thing in its own way. Which means that, like all living things, it has a lifespan and evolves through cycles of growth, stability, decline and death – or rebirth, if its members and leaders are paying attention and visionary enough to see new life on the other side.

One of the telltale signs of a culture becoming toxic, in fact, is an onset of dysfunctional leadership, where leaders lose the vision and start doing things that cause or contribute to organizational pathology. What kinds of things?

  • Requiring their approval on everything
  • Micromanaging their direct reports
  • Calling out and punishing creative risk-taking
  • Closing off feedback channels
  • Clutching credit and recognition for themselves

Instinctively, perhaps, a leader inside a toxic culture grows increasingly fixated on his or her own status, power, and job security, and less concerned about the organization they were hired to lead and serve.

Self-protection takes over, and self-transcendence – getting over themselves, thinking about the social organism and acting in the interest of its greater wellbeing – is no longer a priority.

A healthy organizational culture, on the other hand, is “tonic,” referring to a tonal strength that develops with stretching. Tonic cultures are flexible, adaptive, resilient and, as any stretching routine has the aim of increasing range of motion and establishing (or recovering) a new center of balance and control, more capable of responding creatively to the unexpected.

As regards leadership, tonic leaders are those who work consistently to keep the organization strong, centered, and sound (another derivation of the tone in tonic).

So, do pathological organizations produce dysfunctional leaders, or is it the other way around? Our modernity-conditioned preference for mechanistic models of unilinear causality tempts us to think it must be one or the other. But we have to remember that we are dealing with social organisms here, living systems and not machines.

The correct answer to our question is that pathological organizations and dysfunctional leaders are “comorbid” in toxic cultures, just as a dysfunctional heart (leader) is both cause and symptom of cardiovascular disease (in the organization).

In tonic cultures, leaders fiercely protect a safe and supportive environment where members can feel grounded, centered, connected and included in a “higher wholeness” that is purposeful, relevant, and worthwhile.

They are encouraged to take creative risks without fear of being punished if they fail. Whereas the switches, circuits, and gears in machines require regular maintenance and service, the spirit or lifeforce of an organization needs to be properly nourished, regularly exercised, and sufficiently rested to be healthy and strong.

The opposite of a pathological organization, then, is a “provident organization.” There should be a formal process for creating provident organizations, along with a badge that designates its collaborative accomplishment by leaders and members. In the future, companies, agencies, and teams will proudly wear their badge because it means they are being intentional in the work of building sustainable corporate and social cultures where everyone feels safe, supported, valued, and appreciated for their contribution to the whole.

When Gallup surveyed thousands of employees worldwide, a shocking 79 percent (in 2021; 87% in 2012) reported feeling “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” in their workplace.

The world of business reeled from the news.

Just imagine how employee disengagement translates into a damaged morale, plunging profitability, and market disadvantages. No wonder we are struggling! many leaders griped. These employees of ours are unmotivated and don’t care. They’re probably just sitting at their desks, surfing social media or taking naps. 

What did many of these leaders do? They implemented positive motivational incentives like recognition awards, and negative incentives like more frequent performance reviews, mandatory re-training, probations and threats of termination.

And what did that do? It confirmed but also amplified the experience employees were already having, of working in environments where it’s not safe to take risks, where open and inclusive community is not allowed, and where micromanagement suffocates the creative freedom and higher purpose in their work.

Many of these disengaged employees were not being lazy, but self-protective.

For many, disengagement is a coping strategy for moderating anxiety and preventing burnout. The effect of dysfunctional leadership and its various mechanisms for applying pressure to perform only makes the problem worse.

As a consequence, organizations become increasingly pathological, leaders grow more dysfunctional, and the whole thing rapidly collapses. Terminations, layoffs, downsizings and reorganizations are conducted in a panicked attempt to forestall bankruptcy and avoid terminal extinction.

It is precisely when members are starting to disengage that leaders need to resist their own self-protective impulses and “get over themselves.” Self-transcendence in leadership is enabled by a leader’s faith in his or her team and a corresponding vision of how they can, all together, meet the challenges and find opportunities in what’s before them.

In other words, the path to rebirth and new life for the organization does not involve bracing against reality and pressing down on employee performance, but stretching and re-centering the organization in a grounded sense of community and shared purpose.

As a social organism, an organization might have its anatomy represented in an “org chart,” but its life and wellbeing are a function of the flow of spirit or lifeforce through, across, and among those who fill that chart and personify it with living human beings.

We are coming to better understand the degree in which competitive success in the market is sustainably supported by a communal and cooperative spirit inside the provident organization. Only tonic cultures can flourish, adapt, and transform over time, by the inspiration and guidance of leaders who believe in their members and value human fulfillment over the bottom line.

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.


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.