Monthly Archives: April 2013

At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.


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Dropping Illusions

De Mello: “You must drop it all. Not physical renunciation, you understand; that’s easy. When your illusions drop, you’re in touch with reality at last, and believe me, you will never again be lonely, never again. Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality. Contact with reality, dropping one’s illusions, making contact with the real. Whatever it is, it has no name. We can only know it by dropping what is unreal.”

Awakening is used across the wisdom traditions of the world as a metaphor for salvation – which, of course, is still another metaphor. Many metaphors in this class have to do with being set free from something that is pulling us down and holding us back, as our dreams at night hold us captive to scenarios conjured up from the subconscious imagination. While asleep, the experience we’re having isn’t real, as compared to the physical world of the bed in the room in the house that Jack built.

And then there are dream episodes where you are running from danger or falling in love, which at least one part of your brain can’t distinguish from the peripheral sensations of your bedroom. Your heart races as stress hormones are released into your bloodstream. You thrash about and may start weeping in the middle of your dream. Awakening to the real world involves getting out of the predicament in your dream (the particular scenario that has you so worked up), then getting out of the dream itself, and finally waking up from sleep to become aware again of the real world around you.

But let’s not stop there. After all, what is this so-called “real world” you have awakened to? A comfortable bed in a room designed for sleeping (and other stuff), as part of a house in a neighborhood of a city in a state of the country where you are a citizen. Your country has a language and a history that are rooted in a still-larger culture, going back many generations and centuries. You and your fellow citizens live together inside a system of law, politics, morality, commerce and other basic values that constitute a more or less coherent worldview.

Keep going. This worldview – we might say, by definition – is only a view on the world, and not the world itself. Everything, from the bed you dream in to the canopy of tribalĀ  mythology that holds everything in place, is a cultural artifact. A worldview is constructed much as furniture is made, but out of words, values and meanings rather than wood, metal and fabric. Even the bed isn’t “just” a material thing, but an object built by design for a specific purpose. It, too, is “made up.”

And then there’s the world – the thing that your worldview is only a view of. What is the world? From the root-word wer-ald, literally “man age,” world refers to the envelop of significance that human beings pull around themselves for security, identity and purpose. Your wer-ald co-exists with you as long as you’re alive, for the length of your age.

So even the so-called real world is meaningful only in reference to human beings. It’s also an artifact, a kind of boundary term that allows your made-up world to gradually and imperceptibly merge with reality. You have a world, I have a world, and we share a good part of a cultural world – although our local tribes may espouse very different, even conflicting beliefs about what it all means.

As a metaphor, then, awakening is a process of liberation from illusion. On this definition, not only is the dream scenario an illusion – or a play of imaginary representations, constructs of the mind – but so is the dream. And so are the many layers of cultural artifacts, from the bed you wake up in, to the role-play of your life in society, to the character and history of your people, and even to the mythological god who validates and supervises the whole thing. Illusions all.

One level “up,” so to speak, might seem more real than the one(s) farther down, but it’s still only a representation – a re-presentation, a secondary presentation, a mental construct, a mere image standing in for the real thing (or so we believe). So what we have is a nested stack of representations: dream scenarios inside of dream states inside of role plays inside of tribal dreams inside of cultural dream states inside the real world that god built.

Just so we can draw a boundary around all this illusion, let’s say that everything on the far side of representation is “metaphysics” or “revelation,” and leave that to the prophets and crack-pots who claim to speak for god.

I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide how much illusion we are willing to accept as truth. You’ve got to get on with your life somehow, right? We might expect a fully awakened human being, one who is entirely free of illusions, to be a world-renouncing party-pooper. Pretty much good for nothing when it comes to what the rest of us are so worked up about.

But renouncing the conventional world for one that is supernatural, metaphysical, or monastic is merely swapping out one illusion for another. Just because you switch from a functional language about garage doors to a liturgical language about god almighty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to reality.

So what De Mello means by “dropping illusions” must be something else besides turning your back on this world for the sake of a heavenly reward elsewhere and later on. Maybe it’s not even possible for our minds to apprehend reality, since the moment they grab hold and slap a label on it, the construction of meaning is already well underway.

Maybe the best we can do is try to live in full acknowledgement of our nature as meaning-makers, storytellers, spin-masters and illusionists. Perhaps dropping illusions is not about renouncing them, as it is stepping through them with a waking awareness to the real presence of mystery.


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The Two Eyes

Robinson: “By drawing the insights of another center into as it were the gravitational field of one’s own, so that they come to form part of that ‘universe’ revolving round its single center, one is deliberately seeking escape from the tension of living with both poles at once. But truth may come from refusing this either-or and accepting that the best working model of reality may be elliptical or bi-polar, or indeed multi-polar.”

Let’s start with something straightforward and uncontroversial: An individual is an identity organized around a center and contained by a boundary.

The boundary of an individual not only separates and protects it from external reality, but also provides a threshold for engaging with that reality. If the individual is a “self,” then everything in external reality is “other.” This self-other (S-O) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Western view of reality. It is about “going out” and making relationships with others, which makes it extroverted, active, and social in orientation.

The center of an individual is inside, even deep inside. Centers are not about separation but integration, integrity and internal balance. If the identity of a self is organized around its center, then deeper into the center gets closer to what can be called its “ground.” This self-ground (S-G) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Eastern view of reality. It is about “going in” and experiencing union with the ground, which makes it introverted, contemplative, and mystical in orientation.

I qualified these different views of reality by designating them “so-called” Western and Eastern, but this supposed geographical distance can cause us to overlook the fact that they are both represented in each individual person. You are a self that relates outwardly to others and inwardly to your own ground. Instead of analyzing you into opposing parts – as in the familiar body-and-soul dualism – it is more helpful to regard you as a duality of orientations, outward (S-O) and inward (S-G).

Interestingly enough, just as entire cultures can be dominant in one orientation or the other, the same is true of individuals – wherever and whenever they live. Some are more extroverted, active and social, while others are more introverted, contemplative and mystical in the way they are oriented in reality.

We need to say “more” one way or the other, because every individual has both orientations, although one is likely to be preferred over the other. Your individual preference is almost certainly encouraged and reinforced by the cultural preference of your tribe. In this way, the West shapes an Occidental orientation and the East shapes an Oriental one. Of course, there are introverts in the West and extroverts in the East, but they probably feel a little bit like left-handers in a right-handed society. They can get along, but it does require continual adjustment.

Robinson is exploring the potential for dialogue between these two different orientations. It’s not just about getting, say, a Buddhist from Bangkok together with a Christian from Cleveland. That level of dialogue might be educational and constructive – but only eventually. If either the Buddhist or the Christian hasn’t been engaged in a dialogue between his or her own “Western” and “Eastern” eyes, dialogue at the table will be more like a debate, where somebody’s got to be right.

If you and I don’t appreciate as well as strengthen our two eyes, we can become monocular – rigidly attached to our preferred orientation and intolerant of its counterpart in ourselves or each other.

We need to have “one eye” on reality outside ourselves, on the Other. This is the reality we connect to with our bodies. It’s “out there” and separate from us, confronting us with difference, with otherness. Obviously, the religious system of theism is based on this idea of encountering the Other. But whereas popular theism is carried on the belief in an objective and separate being dressed up in the garb of mythology, its more respectable roots are likely in this primary experience of reality as Other.

We also need to have “one eye” on reality inside ourselves, on the Ground. This is the reality we connect to with our souls. It’s “in here” and essential to us, inviting us into the depths of our inner being. The varieties of mystical religion are based on this idea of union with the Ground. But whereas some popular forms of gnosticism can spin off into bizarre metaphysics, a genuine mystical approach disregards all this monkey-chatter and simply revels in the ineffable experience of oneness.

I’ve mentioned the conventional terms of “body” and “soul,” but if the spiritual adventure of our species is to move forward to the next phase of its evolution, we will need to let go of them as names for parts of ourselves. You don’t “have” a body and soul; rather you are these. And for sure, it’s time to drop the notion that you are a soul inside a body. That a time will come when your soul is released from the mortal coil of your body and live forever somewhere else.

This “dualism of parts” has been hampering our spiritual development for a long time, endorsing a neglect of the body, an abuse of the earth, a suspicion of others, and a persistent ignorance of our own wholeness – even our holiness – as complete yet paradoxical beings.

Perhaps a postmodern spirituality can retool the definitions of body and soul, away from the language of parts-in-opposition, toward a language of complementary orientations. In that case, body is your orientation in reality that connects you to others, to the otherness of things, to reality-as-Other. It is not a part of you, not something you have. It is YOU as situated in a community of others, confronted with difference, and finding your way through it all.

Soul is your orientation in reality that connects you to your inner ground, to the oneness of your being, to the ground of being-itself. It is not a part of you, or the “real you” temporarily housed inside a body. It is YOU as rooted in mystery, below the quirks and contradictions of personality, inwardly aware and wordlessly present.

Our challenge as individuals is to acknowledge this dual orientation in ourselves. Certainly acknowledge our preference for one orientation over the other, but then engage a disciplined dialogue between our “two eyes” – outward and inward, active and contemplative, social and mystical.

Reality gets that much larger and deeper when we open both eyes.


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Holding On and Letting Go

Anderson: “People of power and position are not the only ones who resist threats to a belief system; so do ordinary people who have internalized that belief system and take it to be absolute reality. The collapse of a belief system can be like the end of the world. Even those who are most oppressed by a belief system often fear the loss of it. People can literally cease to know who they are.”

One of the working threads in my current conversation regards (a) world as a human construction of meaning. There are as many “worlds” as there are mentally functioning human beings on this planet, and each individual migrates through numerous world-constructs in an average lifetime.

A world is not reality, but only a representation of reality. It is “made up” of our recurrent thoughts, persistent opinions, personal and family stories, as well as the overarching myths of our culture that can bridge many generations. Inside these enclosures we feel relatively secure, conserve an identity (or several identities), search for significance, and work out our purpose.

Another, but less inclusive term for what we are calling a world is belief system, which tends to take the discussion in a more cognitive direction. Beliefs are judgments and conclusions that nevertheless still require an emotional “boost” to cross any gaps in logic, insufficient evidence, or lack of direct experience. From the root-word meaning “to hold dear,” belief is less about knowledge than commitment.

We are emotionally attached to our judgments about reality. It gets even more complicated when we realize that many of our beliefs are nothing more than emotional commitments to other beliefs. We need them to be right, or else all hell might break loose. At least our worlds might fall apart, which is probably worse.

Anderson makes the point that “ordinary people,” as distinct from those in positions of power and privilege, are just as defensive of the worlds that make their lives meaningful. We could also add those of lesser fortune, who labor and strain under the weight of oppression. If you see yourself as a victim of evil-doing, at least you have an identity equipped with its relevant concerns, coping strategies, aspirations for freedom and “the good life,” along with your own retinue of fellow victims, enemy-oppressors, and occasional benefactors.

The fact is, we need our worlds just as much as our worlds need us to create them. Problems arise when we forget that we’re making it all up and start insisting on our world’s absolute truth. The postmodern discovery is that every world is a project (coming out of us), a construct (built and arranged around us), and a representation (of reality). While our amnesia regarding its origin and status as so much pretense may be adaptive to some degree, our insistence on the absolute truth of our belief systems is where all wars, most divorces, and many mental illnesses likely begin.

After the birth of what I am calling the “postmodern discovery,” many believed that the time had come for humanity to advance beyond the need for belief systems altogether. But that turned out to be just another emotional judgment (belief) of an emerging worldview – another phase in the evolution of worlds, despite the elevated self-consciousness of its perspective.

It seems to me that the real challenge is to occupy our worlds in humble awareness of their nature as fabricated, provisional and necessarily short-sighted views on reality. Psychologically we can’t live without them. But in the interest of our health and longevity as a species, and of the health of our planet, we need some combination of courage and compassion to reach through the emotionally charged boundaries that separate us from each other.

When our worlds do collapse – either completely as in the phase-transitions to a “new mind,” or only partially as we slowly outgrow earlier convictions – the experience can be nothing short of apocalyptic. What had provided security and a place to stand feels as if it is falling away from under our feet. What had provided us with orientation and a sense of direction suddenly comes to pieces above our heads.

Because who we are is so deeply implicated in how we see reality, the breakdown of our world amounts to a loss of identity.

Just as post-theism entails transcending or going beyond the objective existence of the mythological god, so too does this evolutionary moment require that we loosen up and let go of our egos as fixed identities. Such self-transcendence needs to happen if we have any hope of staying in touch with what’s really going on, with the really real, with reality.

Letting go is scary, and it’s not without risk that we release what has given us security for what might lead to fulfillment.

This is where the old guard is typically called in. Tribal authorities, holy tradition, sacred scriptures and the mythological god are all being summoned inĀ  defense of our out-grown worlds. We don’t want to lose what we have, even though it has already lost much of its relevance to our daily lives. So we close our eyes and hunker down, and call it faith.

If we take the step from this fixed position, we want our foot to land on another fixed position – somewhere we can lean into and put our weight, something that’s stable and certain. But both stability and predictability are features of belief systems, not actual experience; of worlds, not reality.

The present mystery of reality is dynamic, and actual experience is much more fluid than our rigid belief systems can comfortably admit. And yet it’s a mark of both maturity and faith when we can climb to the edge of our worlds and leap from what we think we know, into what is beyond belief.


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The View from Down Under

De Mello: “The trouble with people is that they’re busy fixing things they don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.”

“Problems” motivate our efforts to fix them. A problem means that something is wrong – at least in our everyday way of speaking. A math problem, interestingly enough, is not broken but waits to be solved or figured out. If you come out with the wrong answer, then you’ve got a real problem.

My favorite one-word synonym for reality is mystery – as in the present mystery of reality, or the real presence of mystery. This mystery is the deeper ground beneath/within us, as well as the greater whole around/beyond us. At the personal level this mystery turns up as you and me, doing our best to figure things out.

All of this could inspire contemplation and wonder, but what we seem to bump up against most often are problems. Whereas reality is a vibrant web of causes and conditions, effects and forces that seems to go “down” and “out” to infinity, our personal worlds are simple by comparison. Even though we want to believe – or do we have a need to believe? – that the mystery of our own lives is a problem to solve or perhaps even “fix,” chances are good that many of our problems are self-created. To paraphrase Nietzsche: If all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.

De Mello invites us to consider a different way of approaching reality – not with our tools but with intelligence. Specifically with a contemplative intelligence, one that takes in the Big Picture, sinks through appearances, and ponders the mystery in its depths. There will always be time to “figure it out” or “fix it up” the way you want it – or maybe there won’t, who knows?

But if we’re busy constantly trying to fix what we think is wrong or broken, the genuine mystery of being alive in this moment and somehow connected to all things passes by our blinders. The deeper ground and greater whole become invisible to us. Can we reach the point where they eventually become inaccessible to us as well – so tangled in problems that we lose our sensitivity to the mystery?

Our worlds have problems, but reality is a mystery. It’s when a natural force like a tornado comes into our world and upsets the arrangement, leaving damage and injury in its wake, that it becomes a problem. From a distance the weather phenomenon is fascinating and awesome. Just don’t come too close to me and mine.

Relationships have conflicts, and if these conflicts go on too long, we might say they’re broken and need fixing. I suppose it’s possible that many of my chronic troubles with others have to do with deeper or larger patterns that I don’t understand. It’s easier to point the finger of blame – at the other, of course. What if relational conflicts are really (that is, in reality) places where we come together at our differences, but just don’t understand the higher Tao that’s playing your Yin against my Yang?

As a constructivist, I appreciate the way in which our worlds provide the security, identity, significance and purpose we need to make life meaningful. Also as a constructivist, I accept these as “positive illusions” – things we need in order to keep our sanity and express our creative nature as a species.

We make it up, find problems in what we make, and spend our time and energy fixing the problems. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

What would happen if we took a more contemplative approach to our lives? Spending less time reacting to the problems we create – which only tends to generate more problems – and more time understanding our own creativity and its roots in reality, could make a real difference.

Understanding something doesn’t necessarily mean that we can explain it. The two metaphors are intriguing: explanation refers to “folding out” or opening up what is hidden in the deeper layers, while understanding involves “standing under” something and seeing it from the opposite angle of ordinary perception. The undersides of many things can be rather shocking.

Explanation is a kind of diagnosis, a necessary step toward fixing what’s wrong or broken. Moreover, it’s analytical, surgical and reductionistic in the way it spreads out the innards of something for closer examination. Once the frog is fully dissected, of course, all you have is frog parts. The living mystery is not just the parts in working order and functioning properly. It’s something more, something else, which vanished when Kermit went kaput.

This is not to say that explanation has no place in our quest for knowledge. Western science and philosophy have built up quite a library over the centuries – picking reality apart, cutting it up, breaking it down, charting its innards. We have come to know a lot about the composition of things, how they can be re-engineered, genetically modified, and synthetically replicated to do more for us.

But what if the real problem is our present discontent, our greed for more, a chronic frustration that fuels unrealistic expectations and set us up for disappointment? The deeper the disappointment, the harder we poke. The harder we poke, the more inflamed things become. Smaller problems multiply from the Big Problem.

Perhaps we need to get a different perspective on things. Before we start pulling them apart to fix them, let’s try to understand what’s really going on.


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