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Monthly Archives: March 2015

This Is Your Life!

Nature took a huge risk in giving our species self-control and free will. Of course, I need to qualify these terms right away, as our self-control and free will are really quite limited. But the degree in which we have these is behind most of what today we celebrate (and sometimes regret) as our distinctly human contribution to life on this planet.

When in our prehistory this endowment occurred is impossible to say, but if our individual development through the lifespan recapitulates the timing and sequence of our evolution as a species, then we can confidently say that it began early. In all honesty we have to admit that it’s probably still in process, seeing as how so much of our tribulation along with the collateral damage we are causing is a consequence of our immaturity and neurotic hangups around self-control and free will. Self-control achieves a liberation of creative energy from the compulsive drives and reflexes of instinct, while free will invites the question of how this creative energy will be otherwise invested.

The beneficiary (and executor-in-training) of this endowment is that peculiar little miracle called the ego. For thousands and perhaps millions of years, the human body and soul have changed very little. The outward orientation of consciousness to its surroundings and the inward orientation to its own grounding mystery are essentially the same today as they were at the dawn of our history. The difference – and the difference-maker – across that great span of time has been this center of self-conscious identity: the “I” (ego).

As I said, although it may have begun to appear many millenniums ago – in the “childhood” of our species – we are at present certainly farther along but (just as certainly) significantly short of where we need to be. Nature’s gamble is still in play. It’s reasonable to assume that our evolutionary progress as a species advances according to how far we are individually able to develop and use our creative energy for the greater good. Our individual hangups may hinder human progress more than we realize or want to admit.Arc LifespanMy diagram above illustrates the timing and sequence of human development as it tracks with the formation of ego consciousness. The arcing magenta-colored arrow represents the lifespan, which I’ve divided into four periods – the early life of a Child, followed by the age of Youth, maturing into a longer period of an Adult, and culminating in the late life of an Elder. Before I dig deeper into each of these four periods, let’s stay at this level of resolution and think about the major ideas carried in my diagram: Ground, Character, and Destiny.

Character is first of all a literary term referring to personalities (human or otherwise) that are introduced and developed in stories. At first introduction a literary figure is a cosmetic placeholder, just a name filled in with the bare details we need to know as an audience. As the story progresses we are given more information and observe this personality in various situations of challenge, agency, and reaction. Over time (which means farther along the narrative) the figure takes on weight and consistency, to the extent that we can reasonably predict how he or she will behave next.

That’s what I mean by character: the habit of identity that accumulates around individuals as they follow their inclinations (or restrain them), respond to their circumstances (or hide from them), and choose their path through life (or look for excuses). The one doing all of this is ego, which makes character the “weight and consistency” that determines identity as time goes on. I’ve tried to illustrate this increasing influence of character on identity by the color gradient of the word (getting darker and heavier from left to right).

Destiny refers to the culmination of development, to what I have elsewhere called the “apotheosis” of the individual and evolutionary fulfillment of our species. Its most important meaning is subjective – that is to say, the clarity of vision that individuals, communities, or even entire generations have concerning the longer purpose of their existence. The color gradient of this word is also intended to suggest that this future vision becomes more vivid and attractive with the formation of character.

The third big idea represented in my diagram is Ground, which should be familiar to my readers. Ground is not some thing, but the generative source and support of all things; it is being-itself. Also called the grounding mystery, it’s the internal wellspring of existence accessible only by the descending path of introspective meditation. Even though it’s the best and most widely used metaphor for this mystery, “ground” is still only a conceptual qualification for what cannot be named or known. This ineffable nature of the grounding mystery makes it a limitless source of inspiration, which helps to explain the lush variety of mythopoetic depictions of God across the world religions.

But let’s come back to character, as it’s really the central idea of my diagram. Our evolutionary endowment of self-control and free will tracks with the gradual ascent of ego consciousness, as the individual increasingly becomes a “separate” center of identity. I put that word in quotes to remind us that separateness, along with the associated delusion of independence, is really only an apparent separateness (and independence) and is itself dependent on a crisscrossing system of suspension wires called agreements or beliefs.

In other words, who (we think) we are is nothing more than a function of what we attach ourselves to or push away from, constituting an “identity contract” that characterizes us (literally) as “for” this or “against” that. The identity contract itself will record various subsets of attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and responsibilities that fill out what a given role entails.

As we advance along the arc of our lifespan we are taking on additional identity contracts, even as we step out of others and leave them behind. The more defined our identity is, the stronger our character is, since character is nothing but the “weight and consistency” that identity accumulates in the process of becoming somebody (ego). On balance, the older we are the more identity contracts we are likely to hold. A newborn baby has no ego as yet, but soon enough she will begin taking on agreements and entering identity contracts with the powers that be.

The formation of character is thus a life-long project. But this project doesn’t proceed in a haphazard manner; we don’t simply take on identity contracts at random. Instead I will suggest that the arc of ego development moves through distinct evolutionary fields that coincide roughly with chronological periods of time – the four ages of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. The age thresholds indicated in the diagram (10, 25, 60) shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors, but rather as average ages at which an individual is likely to cross over from one major period (or evolutionary field) to the next.

Each age is oriented on an existential concern, which in a previous post (“Myth and the Matrix of Meaning”: http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2) I named a primary concern that acts as a magnetic attractor of values and interests. Now I can place these primary or existential concerns in the developmental context of an individual lifespan, specifically in this chronological order: security (Child), freedom (Youth), suffering (Adult), and fate (Elder). I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing an individual thinks about or dwells on in a given period. Obviously there is much else going on. The point, however, is that each existential concern – even if not explicitly registered in consciousness – pulls all other values into its gravity.

The remaining components of my diagram are “mood” (at the deep center) and four literary modes, or types of story (along the periphery of the arc). I am borrowing these modes from the work of Northrup Frye, a giant in twentieth-century literary criticism.

Mood is a kind of mode in its own right, referring to the physical-emotional state of the nervous system persisting over time. Our experience of life is profoundly conditioned (filtered, shaped, limited, and oriented) by our prevailing mood, which is how provident we feel reality is as it concerns our security, freedom, suffering, and fate. The ideal physical-emotional state is what we might name confidence (or faith), an inner assurance that the present mystery of reality supports us in our need.

During each of the four ages of life (Child, Youth, Adult, Elder) the individual is composing a life narrative (or if you will, a personal myth) that organizes his or her experience around the stage-relevant existential concern. One mode of story is the comedy, which constructs a narrative about security (home, supervision, protection, resources), the invasion of security threats, and the successful defense of home base. A comedy in this sense is not necessarily a “funny” story, but rather carries an optimistic confidence that everything is going to be all right or “happily ever after.”

Just as a comedy isn’t necessarily “comical,” a romance isn’t always “romantic” in the sappy sense. As a literary mode, romance is a story about freedom (adventure, risk, discovery, inspiration), the trials that wait beyond the horizon, and the validation of desire for a worthy ideal. Romance has an obvious correlation to the age of Youth, when an individual typically grows bored with the current world-order and pushes the boundaries of fashion, propriety, safety, and moral permission.

To associate adulthood with suffering and tragedy should elicit protest – but maybe not from adults themselves. The plot-curve of tragedy trends in a definite downward direction, engaging along the way in experiences of suffering (pain, obligation, sacrifice, loss), typically without an upward reversal of fortune to make it all better. The Buddha’s dictum that “life is suffering” rings true for many adults who have to learn the art of living with pain, of reconciling their youthful dreams to actual achievement, and carrying on after the loss of friends, employment, or aging parents.

As an individual progresses into the age of an Elder, the boundaries of what is possible begin to collapse more closely to the limits of reality. Since one’s character is largely the product of all that’s happened, of all the choices made, of the way things just happened to shake out, is it a fallacy to believe that all of it is as it had to be? What good is wishing it had been otherwise? In the greater scheme of things there may be limits and necessities that ultimately call the shots – what the ancients called fate. The literary mode of irony provides a double vision on the narrative, where the self-control and free will of its characters are contained and determined by the story itself. Just as in real life, the last period on the final sentence brings everything to an end.

Now, while that seems like a needlessly pessimistic note to end on, let’s remember that wisdom – the esteemed virtue of later life – is an understanding of how to live in harmony with the greater rhythms, higher wholeness, present mystery, and terminal conditions of our life in time. Before we shuttle our elders off to nursing homes, we might honor their lives and really listen to their stories.

 

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Impossibly Human

Schedule of NeedsI spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of human beings and what we need to be fully human. In that quest is an acknowledgment that humans don’t always live up to their potential – that, in fact, we frequently underachieve or leave unrealized what is in our nature to become.

Perhaps due to the ambivalent “gift” bestowed on us by God or evolution, referring to our ability as self-conscious choosers to determine our own destiny, ours might be the only species on this planet that routinely frustrates its natural design. There is in the apple seedling an impetus or inherent purpose that drives development towards becoming a mature fruit-bearing apple tree. Nature has provided us with something similar, but our self-actualization takes us far beyond physical maturity and reproductive fitness.

The analogy is still provocative, however: If apple seeds are intended to become apple trees, what is the analogous evolutionary ideal that is even now tugging at our genes, shaping our personalities, and luring us in the direction of human fulfillment? Almost two and a half millenniums ago, Aristotle named this internal impetus or inherent purpose the entelechy of a living thing, an inner aim that guides development to its natural completion. Apple trees just “go with the flow” and attain self-actualization practically every time, while human beings, with our self-conscious free will, end up getting in our own way and almost always make a mess of ourselves.

In this post I will present a theory of human needs, about what we need to be fully human. Instead of categorizing these needs according to where they fit among the “stacking” intelligences of our physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects – exemplified most famously in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – I will consider the possibility that our needs as human beings are not so stackable and complementary, but are rather inherently in tension with each other.

To satisfy one need puts a strain on other needs; and to hold on to satisfaction – or to think that we can “get it” and be done – around any of our needs will tend to generate anxiety and ultimately depression, insofar as the latter is a state where we lose hope of ever finding what we really need. This inherent tension among our needs, along with our tendency to get hung up in anxiety or pulled down into depression, might make us wonder whether our species represents a failed experiment of nature. We got loaded with a set of needs that is impossible to satisfy as a whole. Maybe.

My diagram above lays out what I regard as our evolutionary needs as human beings. The “stair-step” design is an effort to avoid the limitations of the stacking model, which is too vertical and static, while retaining a developmental perspective. Needs to the left are both deeper and earlier than those to their right, just as needs to the right are higher and later than those more leftward. I don’t want to dispose entirely of the idea that our needs open up in some kind of sequence (thus the left-to-right progression up the stairs). But with each “step” a new element of tension is added to the mix, further complicating the prospect of self-actualization as we go along.

So let’s dig a little deeper into each of these five human needs, and try to get a feel for how impossibly human we really are.

SecurityI define security as the assurance an individual is encouraged to have by virtue of being grounded in a reality experienced as provident and supportive. By identifying it with an inner assurance I am deliberating separating security from the question of whether the individual’s reality is actually provident and supportive. In other words, security is an internal perception more than it is a description of external conditions.

Typically when our biological urgencies for air, nourishment, protection, and bonding are met, the “idle speed” of our nervous system gets set to an RPM that is relaxed, calm, and open to our surroundings. The organism-environment duality is perceived as auspicious and favorable to life – in Einstein’s words, the universe is friendly. We needed security – this assurance – when we were born (even before), and we haven’t stopped needing it ever since.

EnjoymentBut soon we need more than just to feel secure – not just more secure, but something more than security alone. Our developing nature opened out to reality in quest of enjoyment: pleasure, amusement, happiness, and excitement. To enjoy something is to find joy in it, or to take joy from our experience of it. While security has to do with the mood or mode of being as calibrated in our nervous system (anxious or calm, recoiled or open to reality), enjoyment is about emotional engagement with what has our attention.

Because enjoyment requires an open engagement with reality, this need introduces “competition” with our need for security. While security is basically passive in seeking confirmation that reality is provident to the animal urgencies of our body, our need for enjoyment compels us to actively seek what will bring pleasure and excitement. Opening ourselves in this way to reality, however, exposes us to pain and harm as well. It seems we can’t have total security and real enjoyment at the same time.

MeaningPerhaps the first efforts at meaning-making in humans were inspired by a need of consciousness to ascend to a vantage-point on reality where the inevitable suffering of life can somehow be reconciled and included in a single worldview. We need to know that the pain, hardship, and bereavement that haunt our happiness are somehow worth it.

Beyond this therapeutic function of meaning, though, is the way it crisscrosses reality with threads of causality and purpose, value and significance, identity and reference that our minds can inhabit. This web of meaning gives us a way of connecting the dots of experience, imagining patterns across the complex features of existence and otherwise confusing events of our lives. We have only recently begun to appreciate to what extent meaning is in the eye of the beholder – not “out there” in reality but projected by our minds for the purpose of making sense of things.

TranscendenceWhy can’t human beings just be content in our webs and worldviews? Why do we grow bored with the agreements and interpretations that once contained our experience so neatly? Why do we keep asking questions and challenging the answers? What is it that compels us to look over the wall, push the envelope, and try new things?

I think the answer is that we have a need for transcendence, to “go beyond” whatever boundaries and horizons define our current reality. (Let’s not forget that these boundaries and horizons are not actually in reality itself but projected onto it by our minds.) Perhaps something in us knows that meaning is a self-made illusion, and that genuine contact with reality requires a daring outreach into the unknown. Perhaps the fact that we are dynamically alive and continuously evolving beings makes it unavoidable that our comfortable castles in the air eventually become too small to contain our spirit.

I don’t want to confuse this need for transcendence with a metaphysical interest in the so-called Transcendent. This isn’t a “need for god” or for the supernatural in our lives. The compulsion to go beyond meaning is an implicit acknowledgment that humans need not simply more meaning, but something more than meaning. Since even our highest and most sacred meanings are still only qualifications on the present mystery of reality, we need to go beyond even these in our quest for authentic being.

FulfillmentI am using the term “fulfillment” here to get at the idea of self-actualization, where nature is perfected, as it were, in the mature and fully developed individual. It is common in the traditions to envision this ideal state as the liberated, exalted, and glorified personality, depicted in theism as a deity who actively expresses and models the virtues of our higher nature.

This is one of theism’s important contributions to our human adventure: What we might call “the moral character of god” (again, referring to the mythological deity) serves to attract and inspire our ethical formation in the direction of those qualities upon which human well-being and genuine community depend. With fulfillment, these virtues and attributes are gradually internalized by (or awakened in) the aspirant, opening out into new varieties of post-theism where the need for an external role-model is finally transcended.Schedule of NeedsThe question remains whether this destiny of human fulfillment is even possible, given the inherent tension among our developmental (and evolutionary) needs. Inevitably, it seems, tension produces conflict, and conflict – internal and interpersonal – gets us tangled in neurotic contradictions, chronic frustration, inter-tribal hostilities and more suffering. We grip down on the wrong things for security. Our craving for enjoyment becomes addiction. We surrender truth for meaning. We opt for self-improvement over transcendence. And in the end we sacrifice fulfillment on the altar of security, forfeiting our higher nature for the sake of a few petty ego conceits.

Perhaps we are impossibly human.

 

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Second Birth

The higher religions share many things in common, even as devotees strive so desperately to promote what makes theirs distinct and superior to the others. These common elements are emphasized and celebrated in the more mystically oriented currents, while the orthodox mainstreams either downplay them or interpret them tightly around their core doctrines.

Mystics of all religions tend to resonate with the myths, symbols, and ideals of spiritual life regardless of cultural origin or theistic attachments. They seem to have an ability for seeing through the historical conditions and local inflections that make one religion so different from the others. And while this depth-vision of theirs commits them to a stance that is commonly condemned as heretical (which it is), blasphemous and atheistic (which it isn’t), mystics aren’t really so interested in challenging doctrines as they are in seeding human transformation.

An example of something you’ll find across the higher religions is the metaphor of a “second birth,” which is said to conduct the believer into a new mode of being characterized by expanded awareness, a transpersonal orientation, and a profound intuition regarding the unity of existence. Whatever it may be called – metanoia (new mind), satori (true sight), buddhi (awakening), or the more common enlightenment – this idea of breaking through to a more grounded experience of reality (the way things really are) is the central insight.First_Second Birth

In the present post I offer an interpretation of this “second birth” experience, using the terms that have become important in my ongoing explorations into human transformation: body, ego, and soul. Critical to my use of these terms is an effort to redefine them as names for distinct “mental locations” of consciousness rather than separate parts of a human being.

Body and soul, for instance, are not from two different realms and yoked for the length of an earthly lifespan, only to uncouple and go back to their separate realms. Instead, and more in line with a postmodern reading, “body” and “soul” name distinct mental locations from which consciousness engages the surrounding sensory-physical environment (as body) and its own grounding mystery within (as soul).

Ego introduces a third term, which I take as literally introduced (inserted) into the primary duality of body and soul. Indeed the popular separation of body and soul as opposing forces is actually an ego delusion. By inserting itself between the mental locations of body (outward oriented) and soul (inward oriented), ego pushes them apart (as parts) and then gets caught in its own illusion.

Interestingly enough, this illusion – and to the extent that an individual is utterly entranced by it, this delusion – is a necessary step in human development. Society (aka “the tribe”) must work to shape an animal nature into an obedient member of the group, with all its roles and rules for getting along. Some of those impulses just need a little domestication, while others require stronger sanctions. But the individual submits for the most part, since security and belonging are the coveted benefits of membership.

My diagram above illustrates this insertion of the ego in that cultural workspace of the tribe, where nature is socially conditioned and personal identity is constructed. A physical (or “first”) birth delivered the individual out of a maternal womb and into a tribal womb, in which a sense of self (ego identity) will form. The demanded constraint on animal impulses and a socially required modicum of self-control are what eventually establish an ego identity above the body (often represented as a rider atop its horse).

We can distinguish at least two levels or phases in this process of identity construction, the first taking place inside a family system into which the individual is born or adopted, and the second involving cultural influences farther out. A family is more than just a group of people who live together and share a household. It is a present manifestation of deep generational codes, prevailing moods, and social reflexes that move individuals to behave in ways they don’t fully understand or feel capable of altering.

What we call “family patterns,” then, are the deep emotional conditioning that bind members in relationships of attachment and antagonism, perpetuating various co-dependencies and dysfunctions that make every family so wonderfully complicated. This correlates directly to the fact that ego identity is emotionally based, and it also explains why family patterns are impossible to fully understand.

Even if these primary relationships are abusive, the emotional bonding they provide can hold the individual captive – just as the entire family system is captive to its patterns – and unwilling to leave. What else is there? Where might a young child go for a better life? Outside the family is an even more dreadful danger: the loss of identity. We need to remember that the family is a second womb, and that escape of a “preterm” ego would result in a kind of social extinction, which is why it hangs on.

With time the individual engages the larger culture of his or her tribe. Long-standing traditions and conventions of a society are invariably rooted in a mythology of patron deities, cultural heroes, and legendary figures who secured the present world-order. These stories, together with their anchoring images and ritual observances, are summed up in my notion of “symbol systems” (see the diagram).

A tribe’s symbol system functions as a lens on reality, but also as a filter to keep out (or keep hidden) any threat to security, identity, and meaning. The intellectual horizon of meaning itself is maintained in the cultural worldview – projected, authorized, managed, and repaired by all those with a vested interest in its maintenance, which is everyone on the inside.

But the same spell of delusion is in force at this level as what we find entrancing the family deeper down, only in this case it is more intellectual than emotional. It grips down on the mind as powerful convictions concerning ultimate things: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation. The intellectual certainty carried in orthodoxy has an anchor-line descending into the dark foundations of emotional security, which is where orthodoxy’s real authority lies.

Even when a doctrine no longer makes sense intellectually, due perhaps to a shift in worldview and a loss of specific relevance, a conviction will remain strong – indeed, becoming even stronger than ever precisely because of its opacity and sacred mystique. Since it’s so difficult to understand, it must have been revealed by god, so who are we to question it or set it aside?

By now you should be able to feel the full enclosure of this tribal womb where ego is conceived and develops. Hemmed in emotionally by family patterns (which of course the individual internalizes and will perpetuate in his or her own future family), as well as hemmed in intellectually by the symbol systems of culture, ego identity now has a fully constructed web to inhabit. With ego formation complete, the stage is finally set for a “second birth.”

But not so fast. Those deep emotional fixations and god-given intellectual convictions will not let go so easily. Let’s not forget what will need to be surrendered should the spell be broken. What could life possibly be like without security and certainty – and without the identity that these together define? This would amount to an “ego death” for sure! For many, the security of knowing the hell they are in today, along with the predictive certainty that it will be waiting for them tomorrow, becomes an inescapable contract of identity.

The tribe is also working hard to keep its construction project under control. Friendly warnings and more stern reprimands are issued to the one who asks the wrong questions, challenges the orthodox answers, or dares to look behind the curtain at what’s on the other side. The threat of condemnation and excommunication are all too frequently enough to send the ego back to its seat.

But it is here, in the throes of emptiness and disorientation, that a few (compared to the multitude that obediently fall back in place) find the grace and courage to step through the veil. Attachments and fixations are surrendered. Convictions break open and release the mind. It is finally understood that the so-called security of hell is really no security at all, and that the so-called certainty of heaven is really a distraction from something infinitely more precious and real.

New mind, true sight, awakening, enlightenment: the once-dreaded breakdown turns out to be a breakthrough to a higher mode of being. The human spirit is liberated from its cage of identity, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, ego gives way to soul. Metaphors such as these endeavor to translate the experience of a “second birth” into the static nouns and verbs of language; but the experience itself is ineffable, beyond words.

Only after dying to ego and being resurrected as soul can the individual look back to see that those same symbol systems, which seemed so categorical from inside the tribal womb, are now transparent to a universal mystery. Gods and demons, saviors and villains, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, insiders and outsiders – each of these familiar components is part of a single drama that we carry within ourselves.

Or perhaps we should say, it carries us.

This was its design all along. Produced by the mythopoetic imagination and coming out a spiritual intelligence deeper and more ancient than the little ego can fathom, this entrancing web of illusion turns out to be the necessary architecture for our creative evolution. It is a bridge spanning the separation of body and soul – which, I should remind you, doesn’t really exist.

 

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