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Monthly Archives: November 2014

Our Creative Brain

I am fascinated with the human brain, and since I own one, I try as best I can to understand how it works. Without reducing all that I am to my brain and what goes on inside it, I nevertheless have a strong suspicion that everything I am is deeply dependent on this three-pound wonder between my ears. In reflecting further on the matrix of meaning and the myths by which we construct our worlds, I’ve come to a revelation concerning how all of this might be brain-based after all.

Web of Meaning_MatrixHere is my illustration of what I call the matrix of meaning – the crisscrossing polarities of primary concerns (orange) and narrative motifs (black) – and the web we construct on its frame as we weave the pattern known as our world. A deeper exploration of the matrix itself can be found in my post “Myth and the Matrix of Meaning” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2), while more about the peculiar construction of the web and its zones of meaning is in “Meaning and Paradox” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-sv). The opposition inherent to the four polarities gives the matrix its creative energy, which in turn compels this incessant human activity of meaning-making.

As I reflect on the matrix and particularly on the zones of meaning with the brain in the back of my mind (how’s that for a twist?), I begin to see how the three zones correspond to three main evolutionary divisions in our brain’s anatomy: (1) the primitive brain stem enfolded by (2) the limbic system and crowned with (3) a cerebral cortex. Each division evolved with specific responsibilities to the whole, and all of them work together for the survival, adaptation, and fulfillment of our potential as a species.

NeutralityThe brain stem (informally known as our “reptilian brain”) is responsible for the internal state and basic life-support of our body. Activities such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature and the countless visceral events that must be coordinated in regulating the dynamic balance called homeostasis are monitored and adjusted from the autonomic control center of the brain stem.

Notice how the first zone of meaning, neutrality, is deeply similar to the brain stem’s preoccupation with homeostasis. Could it be that this natural balance-point in the body’s internal state is at the root of our preference for familiarity, comfort, and living on “autopilot”?

We like to stay where things are manageable, where the situational demands on our attention and effort are minimal. If we could, a part of us would prefer lounging in the warm sun as long as our animal nature is content.

Meaning-making begins, then, with our basic needs for safety, warmth, and nourishment. Once the channels of provision are flowing, it’s easy for us to stay in those grooves and succumb to the sleepy rhythm of the day-to-day.

Conflict

But as we know, we can’t stay there indefinitely. Life throws us curve balls and our automatic routines are upset. In addition to a brain stem that
works compulsively to keep us alive, humans (and all other mammals) possess a limbic system, which gives us the ability to respond emotionally to our environment.

Obviously any organism that can link up an association between an external object or event and its own internal state, so that the merest stimulus suggesting that object or event in the future elicits an anticipatory response, will have a survival advantage over an organism lacking this emotional talent.

Once again we can see a correlation between the brain and meaning-making. Emotion is equipped for life in the “conflict” zone, where the polarities in the matrix generate stress and strain. The limbic brain is also the niche in our nervous system where ego begins its career, also known as our inner child. In our quest for identity (ego = “I”) – typically most desperate and dramatic during adolescence – we are trying to figure out where we belong and how we are special.

Stories of privilege, entitlement, and superiority serve to bolster the ego and make us feel that everything revolves around “me and mine.” If the body seeks homeostasis and validates our narratives of contentment and the status quo, ego frequently instigates conflict in its ambition to be first, highest, and best. There’s no need to recount the damage done to ourselves, our relationships, and our planet as ego tries to exploit conflict in its favor, whatever the cost. I want to win, don’t you?

Paradox

The most recently evolved division of our brain is the cerebral cortex – all those billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections that carry the impulses of experience into conscious thought. At this level the brain is further organized into lobes, circuits, and nuclei specialized to process specific kinds of information coming across our senses.

Beyond this sifting-and-sorting business, however, the cortex also gives us the ability to restrain our urges and reflexes, to extract general ideas from concrete examples, to think critically and strategically, to imagine what’s possible and to transcend opposites. The farthest forward of specialized structures and last to come fully online is our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, rationality, forethought, and responsible behavior.

Another interesting feature of the cerebral cortex is its lateral division into left and right hemispheres. While the differences between the two hemispheres are commonly misrepresented in popular literature, research has revealed the left side (above and behind our left eye) as more gifted in abstraction and analysis, while the right side tends to be better with information that is concrete and intuitive. In the “conversation” between the hemispheres, conducted across a structure called the corpus callosum, our higher brain is able to reconcile opposites as paradoxes rather than have to come down on one side or the other (dualism).Zones_Brain

What we’re talking about here is our higher self, also known as the soul, which is where our adult intelligence resides. Only as we are able to move out of neutrality and rise above the conflict can we refine our appreciation for the complex nature of experience. The greatest paradox of them all – the timeless mystery within us and the turning cosmos around us – is home to the soul, the zone where we construct and celebrate ultimate meaning.

 

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Meaning and Paradox

A while back in a post entitled Myth and the Matrix of Meaning I offered a way of understanding our personal and cultural myths (referring simply to a narrative plot, from the Greek mythos) as constructed upon a deep system of codes (matrix) which generate the concerns and motifs that preoccupy us as human beings. If our lives are to have meaning, the stories we tell and put into action must orient us meaningfully inside this matrix.

Meaning is not something we look for and find in reality, but rather something we as humans project onto reality. We spin meaning like a spider spins a web: it comes out of us, anchors to the matrix at specific points (which I’ll review in a moment), stretches across the present mystery of reality, and serves as a habitat. So the popular notion of our “search for meaning” is fundamentally mistaken. If we find meaning, it’s only because someone else put it there. Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a floor clipping of our own or an unpublished draft we don’t remember setting aside long ago.

The belief that meaning is out there to be discovered is part of the heritage of theism, which, particularly in its monotheistic variant, promotes the myth that (a) god purposefully created the universe and made it meaning-full. Our “search for meaning,” then, is coming behind god and finding what he put there beforehand. Conceivably there is nothing that does not “have” meaning; we just need the intelligence and wisdom to discover it, or else count on some angel or ordained expert to reveal it to us. As theism loses currency these days, more and more people are having to come to terms with the responsibility of making the meaningful life they want.

The matrix of meaning consists of four primary human concerns and four narrative motifs. Each concern and motif exists in polarity with another concern or motif. Thus the concern of Security stands in opposition to that of Suffering, while Freedom stands opposite of Fate. Other creative and interesting relationships among the primary concerns are the more lateral associations of each concern with its neighbors on either side. Similarly the motifs comprise oppositions of Love and War, Work and Play. This dynamic of polarity – opposites that are connected along a continuum – gives the matrix its creative energy.

For a deeper dig into the primary concerns and narrative motifs making up the matrix, you might be interested in the post referenced earlier. At this point, however, I want to explore the composition of meaning as it is spun around, between, and across these supercharged polarities of the matrix.

Web of Meaning_MatrixFirst Zone of Meaning: Neutrality

The design of the matrix, as illustrated in the above diagram and already mentioned, is all about polarity. If we could go to the very center of all this creative opposition we would arrive at a point where each polarity is effectively neutralized, approaching a kind of perfect and non-energetic equilibrium. One set of stories that human beings weave defines a zone in the web of meaning (colored bronze in the diagram) which I will name neutrality. This is where we feel comfortable and things are “manageable” – stress and conflict are minimal, we are holding it together, and things are copacetic.

When life is fairly predictable and we know our way around, a trance state can start to set in. Living our lives doesn’t require much deliberation, as the routine pushes us along and behavior becomes automatic. Humans perhaps have a natural preference for neutrality, where the situational requirements on our active attention and focused effort are reduced and we can accomplish our daily tasks without too much mental investment.

It is also in this first zone of meaning that the more profound insights into reality picked up by sage philosophers and mystics are “dumbed down” into the platitudes and catchphrases of pop-culture. We think that repeating a fifty-cent affirmation at the beginning of each day will fill us with spiritual vitality, or that going to church will add significance to our lives. We glorify our messiahs and turn shamans into celebrities, then give them book deals and send them into early retirement.

Second Zone of Meaning: Conflict

Moving out from the center puts us deeper into the countervailing forces of polarity, where the strain of this-against-that is acutely felt. This zone of meaning (defined by a mauve strand in the web) is definitely not comfortable and our well-practiced habits of life don’t move us very effectively through the stress. Consequently it amplifies into distress, interfering with our ability to manage well, think straight, and accomplish our goals. Quite often our disturbed state will upset the status quo in our relationships, stirring up miscommunication and discord.

One short-term value of conflict is that it can focus us in an instant, which makes it a common tactic of politicians and preachers when they want to jolt their constituents and congregations out of complacency. Conflict just feels electric and alive. Occasionally we will actually seek it out as a kind of therapy for lethargy and boredom with life-as-usual. Antagonism – directing our energy in opposition to something we hate or can’t stand – can be a quick fix when irrelevance starts seeping under the floor-boards of our world. If it goes on interminably, however, we can lose hope and start looking elsewhere for purpose.

Many of us at this point (or in this zone) take steps to relieve our distress by self-medicating (with food and intoxicants), seeking help from medical or mental health professionals, or using exercise to burn off our nervous energy. If we do nothing, then our nervous system is at risk of crashing into depression. We might try a meditation technique for a while and experience some initial benefits, but it’s not long before the strain of life – or in a more existentialist vein, the “burden of existence” – turns the discipline into one more demand on our precious and shrinking resource of time.

Third Zone of Meaning: Paradox

While popular wisdom, which turns out not always so wise, calls us back from the strain of daily life into the zone of neutrality where meaning is flat and predictable once again, our real challenge at this point is to step through the strain and into the higher tension of paradox (violet strand). But whereas the tension of the second zone is merely unproductive and exhausting strain, the tension of paradox is creative. This is where a dualism such as freedom versus fate is finally understood as a proper polarity: freedom in fate, and fate in freedom.

Creativity is itself paradoxical, as a marriage of freedom and fate, chaos and order, wild energy and fixed form, raging waters and the stable riverbed. Each of the four polarities in the matrix can be appreciated in this same way (as paradox), but only as we are able to push above the neurotic dualism of everyday life strain. It’s not freedom or fate, security or suffering, love or war, play or work but all of these currents swirling together in the vibrant stream of reality.

We come to learn that our moral campaigns and utopian ideals where fate, suffering, war, and work are eradicated and the world returns to its original paradisaical state of bliss, are nothing more than fantasies – and sometimes dangerous delusions. It’s at this stage, in fact, that we become aware of our human responsibility in constructing meaning and creating the worlds we want to live in.

The present mystery of reality is transparent and opaque, random and provident, the ground of being and the abyss of extinction. And just as in quantum physics, reality will “show up” according to what we set out to prove.

                                                                               

Imagine that each of the zones in my diagram outlines a world we have constructed and inhabit. Each step outward across the web of meaning translates the tension inherent to the matrix into a larger and more complex (and also complicated) worldview.

We can choose to live small and stay where the tension is minimal, where our daily habits allow us to sleepwalk through life.

Or we might sign our allegiance to one dogmatic orthodoxy or another, drawing excitement, purpose, and hope from a crusade we believe in.

We also have the option of stepping through the veil of conflict and taking in a bigger picture, where the world (our world) is not such a simple place – for neutrality and dualism are both simplistic constructs. As our web of meaning is capable of supporting an appreciation for polarity and paradox, we can live with ever-greater fidelity to the way things really are.

 

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Ego’s God

Post-theism, unlike atheism with which it is commonly confused, advocates for the necessity of theism in the full development of human beings. If I am critical of theism – referring to the belief in higher beings who supervise and intervene on human affairs – it is not because I think its contribution to our progress as a species is no longer needed, but that its worldview for the most part is so outdated as to render it largely irrelevant to life today. I have explored this loss of relevance in recent posts already (Religion and the Snow Cone Universe and The Three Stages of Religion), so I’ll rest my case for now.

According to the general course of religion’s evolution across the millenniums, theism occupies the middle stage between animism and post-theism, which makes it either a successful bridge or a tragic barrier to what Abraham Maslow named the “farther reaches of human nature.” When it succeeds, the personal ego can be transcended in the interest of communion, responsibility, love, and fulfillment. But when it fails in its essential function, theism locks the ego down in regressive attitudes and self-preoccupation, where “me and mine” become anchors of an insatiable consumerism, dogmatic orthodoxy, and redemptive violence.

The present failure of theism is partly due to its insistence on defending an obsolete worldview, but even more to this lockdown on the ego – on its insecurities around death and its ambition for immortality. My title for this post has a double meaning, referring on one hand to the way that god inspires and endorses an acceptable range of possibilities in the formation of individual identity (ego), as a member of this or that tribe. I consider this the essential function of theism. Obedience to the will of god, worship of god’s attributes, and conformity with the character of god as represented in the myths and testimonies of tradition, draw ego development in the direction of this ideal.

The other reading of my title is more consistent, in my opinion, with what theism today has become: Ego is god. This is where it becomes “all about me and for my sake,” where religion is reduced to the services that meet my needs and will ensure my everlasting destiny in heaven when I die. If these services and assurance were not there, ego would have no reason to stay with religion or “be religious.” Today churches compete for the attention, entertainment, satisfaction, membership, and fair-trade donations of the ego-as-god.

To understand how we got here, we need to examine more closely the process of ego formation and the forces that hold ego together. There is widespread consensus in developmental psychology that ego (referring to the individual’s separate center of identity) is not something we are born with, but must be constructed through the process known as socialization. The ego is thus a social construct and is molded, i.e., disciplined, shaped, dressed up, and acknowledged as “one of us,” an insider, a person of value and member of the tribe.Ego Dynamics On the way through this gauntlet of moral engineering, the identity under construction must negotiate two opposing values: to fit in with the group, but at the same time to stand out as an individual. It could be argued that the ego’s need to belong (fit in) precedes and is therefore deeper than its need for recognition (to stand out). But then again, the mere urgency of needing to fit in presupposes some degree of separation or exposure. So I will assume that these two opposing values arise together, forming an inherent tension (and anxiety) in the process and product of socialization known as ego.

In order to fit in and stand out, the ego must be provided with rules and expectations. Every tribe (referring here to any organized and internally engaged human population, beginning with the nuclear family) will have its conventions as to what being “one of us” must look and act like. As the individual toggles back-and-forth between belonging (but without getting buried in anonymity) and recognition (but without losing the connection of human intimacy), ego is trying on various personae or masks.

Each mask represents commitment to a role, and every role is part of a role-play, the elaboration of which is known as culture. In the early years an individual will try on a variety of masks, pretending to be a doctor or nurse, cowboy or Indian, cop or robber, grocery clerk or celebrity fashion model. Through it all, of course, is the felt pressure to be a “good boy” or “good girl” according to the morality of the tribe. Eventually certain masks will become more or less permanent identifiers, as the identity an individual settles on or is stuck with. Typically these demarcate the roles that will involve him or her in such conventional pursuits as marriage, family, and career.

Some masks and the energies they elicit are discouraged by the tribe, as perhaps not appropriate to “who we are” or to the way a good boy or girl should behave. As Carl Jung explained, these roles and their associated inclinations must then be split off and pushed out of sight, in order to ensure the individual’s acceptance by others. This split-off aspect doesn’t just fall away and disappear, however, but lurks behind the ego as its shadow – alluring, scandalous, forbidden, and dangerous. Jung theorized that our full individuation into a whole self is only possible as we are able to come to terms with our shadow and find ways of reconciling it back into our personality. Only then, after integration, balance, and stability have been achieved, can we transcend or go beyond the ego into higher transpersonal experiences.

A primary function of theism, as I’ve said, is to arrange and orient tribal life around an image of ultimate reality, personified and projected as a provident agency behind the mortal realm where we humans live and die. The deity (referring to this personified representation in myth, art, and theology) puts on display, as it were, the attributes that devotees glorify in worship and strive to obey in daily life. In this way, the moral development of culture over the millenniums has followed a trending line of ascent, from basic commitments to the primary group, through an opening-up to outsiders (strangers), and into still more enlightened practices of benevolence and forgiveness (as it concerns the enemy).Ego_Deity_DevilPost-theism urges us to continue this progression, to the point where we have fully incarnated the virtues of our deity – or to put it another way, where the projected image of our own dormant nature is finally reached and awakened in the way we live. At that point we can take up the responsibilities of loving each other, caring for the earth, and being faithful “higher powers” to the generations depending on us. They are just starting out on the adventure of ego-formation, which means that we must be creative mythmakers, wise advisors, and provident stewards of the theism that is shaping them. An important stipulation is that our representation of God (as deity) must be congruent with the cosmology that contemporary science is revealing to us.

But whereas theism might lend a bridge for the longer arc of our spiritual evolution, it is currently hung up on the ego – and hung up by the ego, in the form of deities who are calling for jihads, damning outsiders, and demanding purity over love. God’s shadow, which is the condemned and unacceptable parts of ourselves that have split off and taken metaphysical reality as the devil, is seen at work in liberal politics, in the civil rights of minorities, the decline in church membership, and in the general deviance of our youth.

In the crusade of true believers and fundamentalists against the menacing shadow of evil in the world, “the devil” is actually magnified and empowered. Violence against terrorism only intensifies aggression, just as the state-sanctioned murder of murderers only justifies more murder as a solution to our problem. The split within us thus gets played out as a split down the middle of reality, and in our campaigns to root out and destroy the shadow in our enemy, we are pushing ourselves and everything with us to the verge of extinction.

Ego is not god, but neither is God an ego. The thing that religion seems so desperate to rescue out of the world will bring about the end of the world and take us all down – unless we can wake up first.

 

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