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Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Quadratics of Transformation

This is a blog about creative change. My posts on the whole have been exploring creative change along several distinct trajectories – personality and life experience, spirituality and religion, individual and community. Working the angles on transformational change has gradually clarified what I now take as the essential dynamics of what’s involved in the transformation of anything whatsoever. I’m going to call it the “quadratics of transformation.”

Behind its more technical mathematical definition from intermediate algebra, “quadratic” derives from quadratus, the Latin word for square. In the ancient world, the geometric form of a perfect square represented stability, symmetry, and wholeness. The four elements of earth, air, fire and water, for instance, were taken as the deep structure of reality itself. As I use the term here, quadratic transformation refers to the fourfold dynamic that plays out in transformational change – the way a given identity resists or undergoes alteration in form as it evolves over time.

QuadrixWe might take anything as our example, but let’s put a human being at the center of the Quadratic as our particular identity for consideration. As we follow the vertical axis upwards, we engage the context in which that person exists. Also called its environment or setting, we will use the more interesting term SYSTEM as a reminder that this person participates in a larger context of forces and conditions. From the perspective of our identity-in-focus (a person), the system is external – outside, around, enveloping and inclusive of identity itself.

If we start again with personal identity, we can take the vertical axis downwards, which moves us deeper into or within the person. Here we find internal forces and conditions such as the individual’s self awareness, his or her self-image, and a very interesting configuration of intelligence, talent, orientation and neurotic styles. When it comes to personal transformation, the tangles, fixations, and hooks in this internal configuration of the self represent a covert factor in the dynamic of change. Going “down” into the self pushes us deeper into its GROUND.

As we shift attention to the horizontal axis, we move to the left (in the Quadratic) where we are confronted with the power of HABIT. This refers to the routines and patterns that persist through time, somewhere along the sliding continuum into unconscious, reflexive, automatic and compulsive activity. By definition habit is conservative, keeping routines (including assumptions, preferences, and behavioral responses) that have been “working” to some extent. This so-called success of a routine might actually interfere with the individual’s personal achievement or pursuit of happiness, but still be conserved for its value in coping with stress.

Opposite to habit in the Quadratic of Transformation is the force of PURPOSE, which is progressive in the sense that it looks to what’s next or farther in the future and moves the person in that direction. In contrast to a rock, which is just about all habit, a human person has more potential to change (to grow and advance) – that is to say, the person has more purpose than the rock. Purpose here does not refer to a metaphysical plan or “mission from above,” but to the intention of identity, how creatively it leans into its options and stretches toward fulfillment. In human beings, purpose takes shape in strategies, goals, and the choices guided by intended outcomes.

So transformational change is the interplay of these four factors: a surrounding context (system), factors internal to the “self” (ground), the conservation of routines (habit), and an intention for the future (purpose). Eliminate just one of these quadratic factors and transformation will not happen. A weak or “shaky” internal ground makes identity unstable. An inadequate system (poor or missing resources) will put it at risk. Habit that has fallen out of date or is stuck in a blind repetition compulsion stifles creative freedom. And the lack of intention or directed purpose effectively forecloses on the future. Instead of transforming, identity will collapse on itself, become exhausted or obsolete, get stuck in its own ruts, or miss opportunities for progress.

                                                                                  

Relevance to Parenting and Education

In the field of education the Quadratics of Transformation can be immensely helpful in optimizing learning and supporting student success. Instead of simply pushing information at students, educators might become more deeply involved in the process of activating intelligence, promoting aptitude (rather than merely assessing it), and working with the unique quadratics of individual students.

In order to succeed in life and reach some degree of self-actualization, a human person needs a strong internal ground of faith, self-confidence, openness to experience, and encouraging self-talk (e.g., “I can do this!”). Such internal strength serves as the basis for resilience, adaptation, and the ability to exploit failure for the wisdom it can teach. Too many people struggle with a paralyzing sense of self-deficiency and unworthiness. Creative educators work early on to help establish in their students (and parents in their children) a provident foundation of self-efficacy.

In recent years, especially with the discoveries of neuroscience into how the brain develops, the value of “enriched environments” of learning has gained acceptance. Beyond just surrounding the student with an interesting variety of instructional media, student development is greatly enhanced as the individual becomes increasingly aware of his or her place in a larger system of resources and co-factors of learning. As a participant in a broader and richer context of knowledge, agencies, tools and services, the student can appreciate the excitement of learning as a cooperative achievement.

If they are reached soon enough, children can be taught the fundamental skills of effective learning and academic achievement. This goes beyond memorizing the alphabet and math tables, into techniques of setting up the problem, forecasting outcomes, identifying the steps, and constructing a strategy. These skills are gradually established as habits of effective learning and problem-solving through consistent practice. Routines become habitual and require less and less attentional effort as they are performed with consistency. Creative parents and educators understand the prime importance of helping youngsters practice and conserve the proven habits of success.

It’s difficult to reach a goal if one hasn’t been clarified and anchored in the future. When individuals are very young they need to borrow the prefrontal cortex of their adult advisors (parents, teachers, coaches), which is the region of the brain most involved in discriminating options, predicting possible outcomes, taking the long view, and making calculated decisions. Evolution has generated a very interesting situation for humans, where children need to rely on adult skills and abilities far into their development (late into the second decade of life).

If educators are fixated on instruction and assessment – unconcerned with education proper (educare refers to leading the student out into a broader or better understanding) – teaching will not awaken in students the aspiration toward higher ideals or the strategic intelligence for realizing them. Parents too, of course, can get overburdened and distracted by the stress of their responsibilities, interfering with their ability to model or encourage their children to look ahead and live with purpose.

If parents and educators can take a more holistic approach to bringing up our children, we can work together to support their development into internally grounded, intelligently connected, fully skilled and innovative leaders in life. The Quadratics of Transformation is a methodological tool that can help us better help our children.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Philosophy of Tears

Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.

Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).

His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.

Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.

The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.

A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.

The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Dynamics of LoveLong before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.

So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.

To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.

When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.

Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.

But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.

Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.

Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.

If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.

A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.

For now, however, we have an important choice to make.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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What Death Leaves Behind

My father is trying to find his balance now, after 56 years of leaning into his best friend and life partner. It’s not easy. The reality of my mother’s recent passing – or I should rather say, the hole she left behind – catches him unexpectedly and pulls him into convulsing grief, yearning to have her back. It strikes me, as it hasn’t before, that the real pain of death is not in what it takes from us, but in the absence it leaves behind.EmptyChair

When we lose the warm presence of someone we have loved for so long, memories call to us from the fading edge of awareness.

It’s tempting to remember, to go back to a time when she was here with me, tilting her head and smiling, or slapping her knee with a round tumbling laugh. I vividly recall my last conversation with my mother – what she said, how she looked, what she was wearing. It feels good to stay there, in that gauzy space in my memory.

I don’t want to leave.

But then. Why can’t the world just stand still long enough for me to collect myself, to mourn my loss and cherish what I had? How can those millions of people rush by so insensitively, so carelessly? Don’t they know? Can’t they see this absence, this hole that I keep falling into?

The Buddha said that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent and passing away. We hold on to what we love and it becomes part of us. As time goes on we hopefully learn how to adapt and accept things as they change. My love for my mother evolved over the years I knew her, getting deeper and stronger and more complicated as we shared life together.

My clutch as an infant gave way to an apron-string dependency in early childhood. Then I tethered my adolescent identity to her (and to my father), orbiting in tightening circles or flying farther out according to how supported or misunderstood I felt. In my adult years, we both were wrapped into our separate adventures, touching base from time to time by phone and sharing the occasional holiday as a family. Even though I didn’t get to touch and kiss her very often, the presence of my mother at least somewhere in my world provided me with an ineffable sense of security.

Her death has left behind this vacancy. My father is overcome with emotion as he vacuums over the spot where her hospice bed had been. An empty chair across the kitchen table has him weeping over his morning oatmeal. You know how a wall that once held a painting keeps a shadow in its absence? It’s like that – a reminder of something that isn’t there anymore. His vacancy is different from mine, even though they were once occupied by the same living person.

One of my daughters has a favorite book of my mother’s. In the margins are faint pencil checks marking passages that had caught her attention; here and there a crumb from her morning toast is lodged in the seam. Young fingers slowly sweep the pages – imagining, remembering, wondering, longing. Something so ordinary is suddenly the only one of its kind.

I find myself getting frustrated over an inability to focus on things that held my fascination but a couple of weeks ago. Certainly she knew I loved her. Did I tell her often enough? What does that even mean: enough?

The world still wobbles out of balance. Sorrow rises and rolls like a black ocean, lapping over the rim of my fragile composure. So love leads to suffering? I hurt more the harder I hold on? Sounds right. But I’m not quite ready to let go. I need to live with this absence for just a while longer.

Why don’t you pull up a chair and tell me your story?

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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The Spirituality of Dropping Out

In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about purpose and the importance of living a “purpose-driven” life. In Christian circles especially, the message has been that knowing god’s purpose for you and living with a mission-in-mind is what it’s all about. This has turned out to be a “best-selling” proposal, as apparently many people are looking for purpose in life. Whether specifically religious or not, we like to think there’s something we can do or jump on board with to give our lives direction and meaning.

But what is purpose, and what does it mean to have one? For most of us it’s probably identified with being useful or having a function. We are reassured in knowing that god has a use for us, that we fit into his design scheme and have something we can wake up to each day. If there was no grand purpose to existence, then life would be meaningless. If this moment in life isn’t hooked into a forward trajectory of end-values, then there would be no reason to go on.

And if there happens not to be a god up there directing our lives toward the goals of prosperity, salvation, and a better setup later on, then we’re screwed. In previous posts I’ve made the case for god as a construct of meaning, and purpose as a positive illusion that keeps us sane and tilted to the future with hope. It hasn’t been my agenda to discredit these things – I’m neither an atheist nor a nihilist – but only to explore their importance to the general guidance and inspiration in what may be regarded a meaningful life.

In this post, however, I want to say something about the even greater importance of “dropping out” of meaning from time to time. While religion – the meaning, the message, the morality and the mechanics of what is going on at the surface – is concerned with keeping people plugged into the mission, our soul (and spirituality) really has no interest whatsoever in “making it,” fitting in, or “getting there.” Instead, what we seek at the deepest level is what I name the present mystery of reality, or real presence.

Let’s unpack this a bit more so we can see the difference between a “purpose-driven” life and one that is “presence-seeking.”

skipping stoneIn the illustration above, daily life is represented as a skipping stone on its trajectory through time. The stone itself is the “I” of ego, the construct of personal identity that carries the imprint of my earliest relationships and the role assignments of my tribe, along with the peculiar neurotic styles that defend and compensate for my emotional wounds. Ego suffers under the delusion of substance – that “I” have reality and matter more than anything, though it’s nothing but a reflex of contractions, preferences, attachments, and convictions.

As I said, none of us get very far along in life without our share of bumps, bruises and emotional wounds. Ego is the part of me that I want you to see: my glow, my charisma, my accomplishments and lofty goals. I am careful to play this to the audience so they will regard me highly, approve of me and give me accolades, and maybe (if I’m lucky) envy me for my magnanimity. I am a handsome actor.

Underneath me – or rather, on the underside of ego – is my shadow. This includes those parts of myself that I don’t want you to see, the parts I’m ashamed of or unsure about. At the pain-center of my emotional wounds, inside the ring of self-defense and coping strategies, is a sense of vulnerability and “not enough.” If I can keep these hidden, or maybe outwardly project their opposites into a moral crusade of some kind, then I’m safe.

But here’s the thing. Every time I arc closer to reality, the reflection of my shadow on the water’s surface confronts me with a challenge to acknowledge and confess what I’m up to. As I approach the real presence of mystery, this forsaken and repressed part of myself comes closer to the threshold of self-awareness. When I make contact with reality, this negatively charged shadow repels me into another launch – and off I go for another arc across the pond of life.

Behind me, then, is the momentum in this game of “Outrun the Shadow” that I’m busy playing. If my ego-and-shadow duality is sufficiently polarized, this push from behind will exhaust itself into a fall only to be recharged the moment I barely touch what is repulsive and unforgivable in myself. So I contract with renewed purpose – with the necessary look-away from the present moment and my internal conflict, along with the requisite conviction concerning the high importance of the end I am pursuing. Onward Christian soldier.

Look right there, at the very point where momentum flags but before the ego is flung out again. This is something we habitually overlook in our skipping course through life: Let’s call it intention. What is intention? It is related to purpose, but isn’t end-focused like a purpose-driven life is said to be. Very simply, intention is not living for a purpose but living with purpose – or as we commonly say, living on purpose.

Whereas “purpose” in the conventional sense gets tied to future goals and making forward progress, intention doesn’t have an outcome in mind, no end-point in the future, but rather represents the opening of awareness to the depth of life in this moment. It descends along a vertical axis into present-moment experience, into the present mystery of reality. The real presence discovered here is not a something from somewhere else; it is not a being, but being-itself, the power and freedom to be here and now.

From the surface perspective, the one who “drops out” of the official program of a purpose-driven life is a loser, a quitter, a defiant and godless mystic. He or she stops fussing and stressing over the “many things” that the rest of us are trying so hard to manage. Instead of working to please god, fit in his plan, and accomplish his mission, the mystic enjoys a deepening communion with the present mystery. He or she surrenders ambition, letting the neurotic tangle of personality unwind and dissolve away. No future salvation for this one; it’s a pity.

From below, however, the spirituality of dropping out is really about dropping in – into the here-and-now, into this body, this breath, into this quiet presence of being. In this deeper place, the ego boundary that had separated me from the rest of reality suddenly transforms into a threshold connecting me to everything. What had put me against reality now joins me to it – but not ‘it’ … just this.

Religion at the surface attaches incentives of rewards or penalties to the obligation of reaching out and helping others. A spirituality of the depths knows that self and neighbor are really one – an awareness that opens out into compassion, benevolence, generosity and forgiveness. There really is nothing to hold onto, nothing to defend, nothing to chase after, and nothing to lose.

When I rise from this contemplative state, put on my costume of identity and step back into the game, others will get a sense that the game is changing.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.

Chakra_tree

The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-ku), proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?

 
 

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Life in Three Dimensions

A human being is intended to live in three dimensions. I’m not referring to the three dimensions of ordinary space, and by “intended” I’m not suggesting that someone out there (i.e., god) has designed us with this specifically in mind. More along the lines of the genetic entelechy (inner aim) that drives and guides a living thing toward the ideal of maturity, my theory is that the individual develops – and our species is evolving – into a three-dimensional life according to the entelechy of our human nature.

So what are the three dimensions? Let’s start with life in one dimension. One-dimensional life is driven purely by unconscious instinct and guided by the urges and reflexes that keep an organism connected to the life-supply. I’ll name this the “elementary” dimension as it concerns what the organism of our body needs to stay alive and grow. It is basic and necessary and doesn’t require us to think, choose, or make decisions. Thankfully, you don’t have to decide when to breathe or how you will digest your food. It’s all taken care of automatically by the unconscious code in your cells, glands, and organs.

A human being has an animal nature, which by definition anchors us firmly in the elementary dimension of life. Your body is constantly seeking (though unconsciously, that is, below your conscious attention or control) situations where your biological needs are satisfied. I’ll call the general condition where these needs are connected to the life-supply security (‘S’ in the diagram below).

When you were still in the womb, and especially just after you were born, your nervous system was picking up signals and forming an internal impression regarding the provident nature of your environment. To the degree that its basic needs were met, your body established an internal state of security – a visceral (gut-level) sense that reality is safe, supportive, and favorable.

Generally speaking, wombs are more secure environments than the space outside the womb, but every human being has to undergo this “fall from paradise” and hopefully reestablish connection to the life-supply. For the rest of your life, your body and nervous system will continuously monitor reality for how providently it supports your needs. Outside of Eden the supply flow from resource to your need fell short of the instantaneous satisfaction that an umbilical cord provides. So already in your first hour after birth the pang of craving and anxiety broke the spell, causing you to cry out for caring attention.3D

If your caregivers were indeed attentive and responded to your cries with the support you needed, then this twinge of insecurity was resolved and you could relax into being. But no parents are perfect, nor could they be there at the very moment when your need declared itself, which is why all of us get hooked by anxiety to some extent. If we have difficulty as adults relaxing into being (or having faith in reality), then it’s not entirely our parents’ fault because they weren’t completely off the hook themselves (double meaning intended).

The quality of attachment to your caregivers can be measured in terms of intimacy (‘I’ in the diagram to the right). This refers to how close, warm, loving and supportive these bonds were, making it an extension of security. Because humans beings have a social instinct, this pursuit of intimacy occupies the critical crossover point between the first and second dimensions of existence. These attachment bonds served as your biological environment outside the womb, and so they are strongly correlated to your sense of security …

But your parents were also the first higher powers (or taller powers) who began the process of installing in your spongy brain the cultural codes of your tribe. This is what it means to say that intimacy is a crossover point between the first and second dimensions, from the elementary to the “ethnic” (referring to a primary human group). A human being cannot survive without social support. Those early intimate relationships not only satisfied your physical needs to some extent, but they also forged the emotional and interpersonal foundations of your identity (ego, or social self).

As you continued to grow into this second dimension, your tribe gradually trained and equipped you to take on specific roles and responsibilities (‘R’ in the diagram above). To the degree that society is a role play, your occupation and performance within this interactive system was a shared investment of everyone involved. You were expected to abide by the rules that dictated exactly where in the play your part came up (what I’m calling occupation) and how you were to carry it out (performance).

Eventually, after numerous roles on a variety of social stages, you were encouraged to take up a more or less permanent occupation in the world of work. As is the case with all your roles, there was a subtle but very persistent pressure on you to identify your self with this work role. The more successful this identification is, the more you are willing to lose and sacrifice on its behalf. Obviously this makes the exit transition of retirement problematic for individuals whose self concept is completely tied to their job or career.

And this is where most of us are currently stuck: in the second dimension, struggling to keep our relationships intact as we daily go to work and trade our creativity for a paycheck. A two-dimensional human being is not a totally fulfilled human being, however, which is why so many of us are frustrated, bored, and chronically depressed. The entelechy of our nature compels us to break through to a third dimension, but our present condition has such a grip on us that the upward thrust of our inner growth slams against the ceiling of the conventional world.

The “grip” I speak of is also known as the consensus trance, the contraction on consciousness exercised by the assumptions, expectations, and concerns of society. A tribe maintains order by its success in managing the mental limits of its members. If you feel stuck in the second dimension, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of your tribe in providing the intoxicants, prescriptions, distractions, amusements, excursions (as long as you come back!) and fluffy retirement package for sticking it out.

Few people wake up from this trance. Sleep-walking through a life of mediocrity is just easy enough to postpone a breakthrough. Religious orthodoxy spritzes a little more hallucinogen into our minds to keep us from causing a disturbance: Just wait. Your reward in heaven will make it all worthwhile.

But there are a few – and you may be one of them – who do wake up. They start by asking questions such as “What’s the point?” “Who really cares?” and “Why should I give away one more day of my life to something that doesn’t really matter?” Or they come to certain conclusions like “I’ve been living inside a mass delusion my whole life!” and “Life is short, and then you die.”  The truth of this is indisputable: you will die someday, and you don’t know when.

It could be tomorrow.

If tomorrow is your last day, how does that awareness affect what you do with today? Quite often when people ask themselves this question they break into a new realm of awareness, into what I’ll name the “existential” dimension of a human being. The fleeting character of life and the role play of society inspire in them a focused quest for the really real. This is the search for authenticity (‘A’ in the diagram”) and an authentic life, for the genuine ground of reality.

Finding it around you and inside yourself does not constitute an easy answer to your quest(ion) after the really real. You will still die, and it could be tomorrow. But now – and that’s a key existential word – you have the opportunity to be spiritually grounded, deeply centered, fully awake, and completely alive. As each moment unfolds like a flower, you draw its beauty and fragrance into every cell. Even if it’s painful and more like a thorn, you can be there and touch reality with open awareness.

The existential dimension of life is therefore about being present and responding in wonder, mindfulness, and gratitude to the present mystery of reality. It doesn’t throw off responsibility, renounce intimacy, or abandon security; but it may motivate you to quit your job for something more creative and true to your soul, leave a relationship that’s abusive or dead, or take a risk for the life you really want.

There are no guarantees.

According to reports, those who have awakened to authentic life don’t often win the affections of their two-dimensional contemporaries. Sometimes they have ended up on the street, in exile, or on a cross. But if you could go back for an interview and ask them whether it was all worth it, to a person they would no doubt respond with something like, “Are you kidding?!”

 

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The Other Side

Just weeks ago I reported the devastating news our family received, that my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive and already widespread pancreatic cancer. I contemplated what it would mean to lose the one who carried me into this world and cradled my early life, as only mothers are able to do. I wondered what it would be like on the other side of this loss.

Now I’m learning.

My son was born on my brother’s birthday – the young man who had lost his life twenty-seven years ago under the waves during a triathlon on the morning he was to walk across the stage to accept his master’s diploma. And now my mother has passed on the same day as my older daughter was born. Deliveries and departures – perhaps it’s a reminder that birth and death are warp and weft of one cloth. The finitude of our condition prevents us from holding the full tapestry all by ourselves. We need the grace of companionship and a supportive community to see the larger meaning of our human experience.

My mother was a searching soul, but not restless. She kept her mind open, but still held strong beliefs – about the present grace and mystery of God, about the beauty of human nature despite its limitations, darkness, and odd quirks. And about herself. She admitted to me that she had struggled with self-doubt all her life. This from a person who had presented countless spiritual retreats, written book studies on the works of well-known authors, and ministered alongside her husband of nearly 56 years, himself a pastor and gentle soul of unimpeachable character.

It had been an effort for my mother to step into the fear in order to follow through on her spiritual calling. But she did it. And the many, many people who were forever changed by the touch of her spirit are in some sense children of her faith. More than ever before, she has become a guide in my own journey of faith through the triumphs and tangles of this short, very short life.

Yes, this life is a witness. My mother, in her passing, has left behind a beautiful presence even in her absence – soft and fierce, patient and forgiving, longing and quietly at peace. What will I do with that space, with that presence? Is it even possible to pick up with my life as it was yesterday, or even earlier this morning?

She taught me to listen before I speak, to observe the flower rather than pluck it from its stem, to love people for their brokenness – not in spite of it. This is wisdom that can only come out of a brokenness that was found by a grace and strength from beyond. My mother wasn’t perfect, and never claimed to be. Later in life she discovered the joy of salvation in the wonderful, really unbelievable fact that we are all loved anyway.

Having released her anchor in this world, I feel that my mother’s word of encouragement to me now would be Let it come. Look for the hand of God. Love what spirit brings into your life. And when the time comes, let it go with gratitude. None of it’s yours, but it is all a gift.

Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to dance. I won’t forget.

 

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2014 in Timely and Random