Monthly Archives: May 2015

Telling Stories, Coming True

As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.

We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.

To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).

I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.

monomythThe diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.

The Monomyth

At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.

I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.

We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.

This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).


Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.


Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.


Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.


The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.

The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.

When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.

Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.


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Settling for Less

Evolutionary theory offers an explanation of how our human species emerged and adapted from simpler, more primitive life forms, and then proceeded to evolve, more psychologically and technologically than biologically, through a series of cultural revolutions. In the modern period, as individual development across the lifespan was more carefully studied, some theorists noted how individual stages of development seem to follow the same sequence as the evolutionary phases in human emergence.

Accordingly, primitive human culture was psychologically similar to early childhood today, where societies lived more in their bodies and closer to the guiding influence of animal instinct and the rhythms of nature. With the rise of the more advanced city-state came new concerns regarding national identity, the differentiation between insiders and outsiders, and the management of roles across the social scene – very much like an individual today during that embattled period between childhood and maturity called adolescence (literally “becoming adult”).

In the evolutionary history of human culture, just as in the developmental history of individuals today, the process of becoming a self-actualized human being has gotten hung up around fixations on security. In ideal (or good-enough) situations where basic needs are met and individuals internalize an assurance of reality as provident, security is adequately established and the higher challenges of maturity can be engaged. When this doesn’t happen, however, the need for security persists as a preoccupation, overriding and “out-competing” subsequent opportunities along the way to self-actualization.


The above diagram illustrates this “schedule of opportunities” in human self-actualization (which I also call fulfillment), along with the various ways that progress gets arrested when security is compromised. The schedule is comprised of four stages, which can be thought of as advancing steps that provide important stability for what is to come. Thus security itself is the stable foundation for healthy love. This in turn provides support for the adventure into freedom, which then serves the individual’s sense of higher purpose in life.

With each advancing step, more of the individual’s destiny is put into his or her own hands, where courageous and creative choice shapes the future. Along with this growing responsibility, however, comes increased risk, putting more in jeopardy – in the form of rejection, disorientation, and failure – as the path unfolds. You should be able to empathize with those who forfeit love or freedom or purpose for the sake of “playing it safe.” For all I know, you may be one of them. Most likely, we all struggle with this to some extent.

When the need for security during infancy and early childhood is compromised, the individual’s nervous system gets set at a higher “idle speed,” raising vigilance and sensitivity to signs of trouble. Of course, it’s likely advantageous to be hyper-aware of external threats or problems as they arise. But ordinary life is never without stress, which means that such individuals frequently overreact and end up making things worse for themselves. What might have simply floated down the stream of experience instead triggers alarms and initiates avoidance/protective/aggressive measures that can actually create a problem of pressing urgency.

In relationships a primary adaptive strategy that an insecure individual will commonly use is called attachment – not the quiet, oxytocin-infused tranquility of the nursing bond, but a neurotic gripping-down on one’s partner for the assurance that reality is safe, provident, predictable, and under control. As you might guess, no relationship can deepen and grow in positive ways when one or both partners are clinging to the other with such frantic intensity. The natural course of flux and change provokes high anxiety that pathologically interferes with the need of the partnership to evolve.

Whereas healthy relationships provide a necessary support for the individual’s forays into experimentation, autonomy, and personal choice (freedom), a critical shortage of internal security will often motivate him or her to surrender freedom to another’s control. This is what I mean by submission: putting oneself under the will and command of someone or something else in hopes that this external power will hold everything together and make it all right. Again, while a dependent and helpless newborn needs to surrender to the providence of caretakers, later on, by the time an individual ought to have developed some healthy autonomy, such security-seeking submission only fosters the conditions for co-dependence, exploitation, and abuse to occur.

Finally, deep-seated and chronic insecurity will undermine the individual’s liberation into a life of purpose – by which I mean a life lived with purpose, on purpose, for a purpose that is uniquely his or her own, and which is experienced as a high calling of universal import. My word for this neurotic alternative to a holy purpose is obedience, fittingly derived from the root-word for “servant or slave.” Just as with the other terms, we need to distinguish a normal and healthy kind of obedience from one where free will and personal responsibility are effectively canceled out and replaced by simply “doing what you’re told.”

A self-actualizing adult human being is not necessarily one who constantly challenges the rules and expectations of society, but neither does he or she blindly fall in line with what external authority dictates (including also the status quo, or what “everyone else” is doing). Just because some authority demands conformity with a certain way of thinking, believing, or behaving doesn’t mean that it’s true or right or just. And just because “God says it” in the pages of scripture doesn’t put it beyond debate or doubt or conscience.

This last point brings me to my chief complaint against theism: not in the way it personifies and locates God as the patron deity of one or another tribe of true believers, but how it promotes attachment, submission, and obedience in its devotees. Theism today has become for many a shelter of security where love is reserved for insiders, where individual freedom is discouraged or condemned, and where being “purpose-driven” amounts to living by the rules and doing what god wants you to do. Never mind that the job description is conveyed through a long line of all-too-human brokers, each borrowing on the authority of others long dead, out of this world, or metaphysically inaccessible to the rest of us.

Considered developmentally, theism ought to help establish in the individual a deep security in the grounding mystery; orient him or her on a personified ideal of love, freedom, and purpose; and consistently challenge the believer to “be like unto god,” to the point where the divine character is fully internalized and incarnated in daily life. Then (and really only then) can self-actualized parents, teachers, and community leaders conspire benevolently in demonstrating providence to the very young, encouraging faith and lifting up a new generation of holy human beings.


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The Flow of Being

Tree MandalaThe most important discovery we can make as human beings – infinitely more important than how to win friends and influence people or think and grow rich – is that we exist. While that may sound much less interesting than the quest for wealth, status, and fame, the discovery of our existence – the full mystery and glory of being alive – makes everything else pale by comparison.

Reflect for a moment on this most obvious of facts: You are a human being.

Human names the animal species to which you belong. Your gene lines stretch back generations, even thousands and millions of years, to earlier and more primitive life forms. The theory of evolution does not say that you are descended from monkeys, but rather that your species and other primate species share a common ancestor, some prehistoric mammal that lived in trees and foraged jungle floors, and before that climbed ashore from a primal sea, and before that worked alchemy with sunlight and salt water to harness energy as life.

Human also names the peculiar way you are related to the planetary environment. The vital urgencies of your body in its need for oxygen, water, nutrition, rest, and reproduction nestle you naturally in provident time grooves of daily, monthly, and annual rhythms where resources can be found. You breathe in oxygen and exhale the carbon dioxide byproduct of respiration, which the plants and trees around you breathe in for photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen for you to breathe in again.

Your senses connect you to vibrational fields of light and sound, gradients of temperature and molecular mass, variant densities and textures of material form. Gravitational interactions of the sun, the earth, and its moon hold you gently on the planet’s surface as together they swing in great arcing orbits through space. Lunar and tidal forces tug on your bloodstream and hypnotize you as you stand at the ocean’s edge. The very weight of your body is a function of its location aboard our solar system as it flings across the cosmic arena.

Considered merely on that level, where as a human animal you participate in a Provident Universe, with everything conspiring in such a way that you are here, breathing, reading these lines and contemplating your place in it all, the fact of your existence is astonishing and marvelous beyond words. It’s important to remember that you are not a “patient” in all of this, only a passive consumer of its abundance. You are one of “the many” that together comprise our universe, an individual expression if its providence through the contributions of your body and mind, receiving from its supply and offering your unique gift.

But you are also a human being, which moves our consideration in the opposite direction – not outward to the Provident Universe, but inward to the Grounding Mystery of existence itself. The extroversion of your animal body is thus counterbalanced by the introversion of your spiritual soul, although it should be clear that neither of these, body or soul, belongs to you or exists apart from the other. Together they are what you are.

The descending path of inward contemplation pulls attention away from the sensory-physical environment (from environ, what is “around” you) and opens it to a dimension of existence paradoxically empty of content but full of presence. Your access to this inner space is not sensory but intuitive – what is sometimes called your “sixth sense,” an awareness that draws on the Grounding Mystery below individual qualities and surface distinctions, which is also why we name it mystical-intuitive.

The “myst” in mystical and mystery derives from the Greek muein, originally referring to the imperative on a novitiate of a holy order to “close the mouth” – that is, to remain silent and simply observe in an attitude of reverence. At this level of depth there is nothing that language can “stick” to, nowhere that even thought can take hold; it is ineffable, indescribable, noetically elusive, beyond words.

And yet, the Grounding Mystery is the creative power of being in you, incarnating itself as you. As Alan Watts used to say, just as your eye cannot see itself and your teeth cannot bite themselves, neither can your mind reach down and grab the Grounding Mystery since you are not separate from it but essentially of it. As we read in the Upanishads, “Thou art That!”

We use the metaphor of ground because it carries the ineffable experience of mystery into language and meaning, just as the fertile soil germinates and supports living forms at the surface. However, because the Grounding Mystery defies all attempts to make it into an object – a being among and alongside other beings rather than Being-itself – we can also appreciate why Buddhists name it sunyata: emptiness, no-thingness, the infinite capacity in all things but not itself a thing.

So, as a human being you are outwardly engaged and reciprocally involved in the Provident Universe, at the same time as you are inwardly rooted in and a manifestation of the Grounding Mystery of being. These are not two realities but two aspects of one reality, what I call the present mystery of reality. As the illustration above shows, a tree (or you, or anything else) actualizes the ineffable Ground in its own being and opens outward to a local habitat, to the vibrant community of life, to the biosphere of Earth, and to the cosmic order.

The tree in my illustration is bearing fruit as its individual contribution to the Provident Universe, but also as evidence of its “self-actualization” and existential fulfillment. Of course, inside the circle are the innumerable other forms of existence which I cannot adequately depict, each one expressing outward from its depths in the Grounding Mystery and into the cosmic community where everything “co-arises” (another important Buddhist term).

You should be able to envision the “flow of being” surging into form, expressing through the myriad gifts or contributions of the ten thousand things, putting on the glory of heaven and earth. “Singing mountains and clapping trees,” as the biblical prophet put it (Isaiah 55:12).

And here you are. What is your gift?


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