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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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A Culture of Dependency

Consumer_Patient_VictimAs I see it, the ultimate aim of human self-actualization is not some godlike state of disembodied transcendence, but a mode of consciousness and active life that I call creative authority. This mode of existence is, in fact, one of the outstanding powers attributed to, and glorified in, our numerous representations of god through the millenniums. However, more consistent with a constructivist and evolutionary approach to religion, the construct of god (as metaphor and literary figure) has served to project and focus our aspirations on what is waking within us. The creative authority depicted in our gods, then, is really the higher self calling us forward.

In this post I will not criticize the various ways that corrupt religion has actually interfered with our evolutionary progress as a species, but rather how certain developments in our larger culture have managed to push us away from the ideal of creative authority and deeper into a mindset of dependency. As long as we persist in this mindset – and there are seductive incentives for doing so – we will be prevented from becoming fully human.

Creative authority is about choosing our response to life as it comes, and making choices that move us deeper into the life we really want. Choice (as my diagram shows) combines the freedom to choose with responsibility for the choices we make. While freedom without responsibility may be the fantasy of adolescence, creative authority keeps the two always together.

It is a mark of maturity – and, I would add, self-actualization – when the individual begins freely choosing and taking responsibility for the life he or she chooses.

The general trend of Western culture, however, especially in the last hundred years, has been to convert the individual away from creative authority and into a very different mode of consciousness. Instead of cultivating the identity of one whose inner life is filled with creative energy, talent, intelligence and possibility, a product of this conversion regards him- or herself as empty inside, an energy sink that must perpetually be filled as it becomes depleted. What would otherwise mature in the direction of a self-identified creator gets identified by the culture as a consumer.

A consumer, therefore, is the exact opposite of a creator: not inside-out but outside-in defines the flow of energy, life, spirit and value. A creator enjoys the freedom and accepts responsibility for constructing meaning, making connections, and managing a personal world. Under the spell of the Great Machine, a consumer by contrast looks outward (since there’s nothing inside anyway) for what will fill the void within, satisfy the craving, and make him or her whole again.

There is an obvious marketing strategy in all of this: as long as an individual believes that something essential is missing inside, and that his or her only option is to look outside the self for completion, the retail possibilities are limitless.

Once the trance of consumer identity is accomplished, the next (and logical) step is to take on the role of patient. From the Latin pati, a patient is not just someone who suffers, but who passively suffers – someone to whom unfortunate things happen. Again, we should note the divergence of this idea from the self-concept of a creator who takes responsibility for the meaning constructed around pain and loss, as well as for the path back to health. While a patient waits on salvation from outside, a creator is actively engaged as a co-operator in the process.

As long as the individual remains passive in the treatment process, the Great Machine and its retinue of ‘experts’ can diagnose, prescribe, and perform their magic – for that is the mystique it has to the patient’s mind – on their inert subject. The patient is needy, not resourceful; and the goal of treatment is palliative (bringing temporary relief), not really curative (promoting chronic health). Once brought into the system as a patient, an individual can be expected to remain in this compliant state indefinitely – at least until the symptoms are gone.

Oftentimes the underlying problem is rooted in a patient’s mind-body balance, personal lifestyle, stage of life, or philosophy of existence – in other words, things in which the individual really does have options and should take an active role. Making the necessary changes here would truly make a lasting difference. This would suggest that the patient somehow has a choice in the matter, that he or she has some measure of creative authority in the way things are. But let’s not forget: the passive sufferer is empty inside and utterly dependent upon salvation from beyond.

It’s one more fateful step that lands an individual in the self-identity of a victim. I’m not talking about obvious cases where innocent and defenseless persons are abused, exploited, or attacked. Terrorists are partly empowered by our anxiety over not being made victims, and unsuspecting bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are victims in a straightforward sense.

Just as our self-identity as patients is implicit to our identity as consumers, so too is a belief in our own helplessness as victims implied in our passive mode of waiting on help from outside. When the required assistance or promised solution doesn’t come, in the expected form and on time, we are ready to cry out our protest as victims of malpractice, discrimination, or criminal neglect. Never mind that our demand was exaggerated and unrealistic to begin with, given that it came out of the conviction of our own impotence. We are entitled to what reality owes us, and reality owes us a lot.

By this slow and steady slide, then, we have been converted from creators to consumers, from consumers to patients, and from patients to victims: mired in a culture of dependency. Whereas our creative authority would put us in a very different relationship to life, others, and the world around us, this increasing dependency has only managed to cut us off from our own true nature, from one another, and from the present mystery of reality.

The truth is, we are not empty, needy, and helpless. Our self-actualization intends to move us into greater freedom and responsibility, into a wider empathy and a larger community, into a deeper center and a higher wisdom. In the process we become more fully human.

 

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Inside-Out

Peace_Joy_LoveThe Great Machine of consumerism is always at work, spinning the gauzy web of illusion that enthralls much of modern consciousness. It persuades us to look outward for the secret to happiness, which today might be contained in a new-and-improved formula of this, tomorrow as an upgraded model of that, next year in some revolutionary medicine coming to market, or the new lease on life promised at retirement. Maybe it’s this sexy thing, or that job promotion.

But it never comes.

Make no mistake: we end up spending or sacrificing what we have to in order to acquire the key that will unlock our truest joy. But now it sits in the garage or on the shelf and under a pile of other keys that have let us down. The problem is, we can never know for sure if the real problem was that we tried too hard, or not hard enough; that we started too late or quit too soon; that the dosage wasn’t quite right, or that we didn’t have things in the right combination. Maybe it’s our own damned fault after all.

And that’s how it works.

It gets going very early, long before we’re old enough to have money in our pockets or sense in our heads. The first trick of the Great Machine of consumerism is to convince us that we are empty inside, that we’re ‘not enough’ and need something else to make us complete and full-filled. We can’t be happy in and of ourselves since, left to ourselves, we are lacking what it takes – whatever it takes to make us happy.

When we find our answer and place our bet, the desperate need that it be the key we’ve been looking for puts upon it an impossible expectation: “Complete me.” For a little while, the novelty and excitement seem to do the trick (this is the second trick of the Great Machine). And if our key to happiness happens to be another person, all our lavish affection is received with equal fervor – particularly if that other person is empty inside and believes she has found her key in you.

But (you know the story) our impossible expectations cannot be realized. Disappointment is inevitable, our frustration mounts, and we grow increasingly anxious as this latest secret to happiness is exposed for the counterfeit it is. The fault, contra Shakespeare’s Cassius, must be in our stars, certainly not in ourselves. So … it’s time to find the real thing.

And off we go.

In the dark wake of our programmed bereavement, many are ready to agree that this so-called ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a misguided pipe dream. Who told us that we always needed a smile on our face and a lift in our spirit? Why do we have to always be of good cheer and turn our frowns upside-down? Let’s just take happiness as it comes, if it comes, along with everything else. If we need to talk with someone or take medication to help us stay in the game, then maybe this prophylactic margin of cynicism (how about we call it ‘realism’?) will keep us from having to suffer … very much.

Of course, you see the real problem, don’t you? It’s neither in the stars (out there), nor exactly in ourselves. The joy we’re looking for cannot be found, because it’s already ours. It is a spontaneous expression of inner peace, of our spiritual release to the grounding mystery of being itself. This ability to simply relax into being and rest in the rise-and-fall of the life process is what we naturally did in our mother’s womb, and for a short time afterwards.

Then we got pulled under the spell of our own emptiness and helplessness, and of our need for a salvation from outside us. Unhooked from our inner peace in this way, the secret to happiness could only be out there. From that moment, the natural inside-out flow of our self actualization got reversed to an outside-in program of gulping consumerism; we were re-hooked, but now to the Great Machine.

The good news – the gospel, dharma, or whatever you want to call it – is that we don’t have to stay under the spell. True enough, we have a choice between a genuine joy arising from inner peace and the cheap thrills (though much of it ain’t cheap) beckoning to us from the TV screen. But when we do choose to turn off the Tube and let our focus sink into the Real Presence of mystery within, we find ourselves resting in a provident universe – from the circling stars in their galaxies overhead to the quantum oscillations of consciousness inside our cells. The still center of this turning magnitude resides right there, in you; and the other one is right here, in me.

When we live out of this center, an inner sense of wellbeing rises and fills us with joy. This is not the fleeting thrill and spasmodic cheer we often mistake for true happiness. Joy is a perennial bloom whose secret source is not outside us, but not exactly inside us, either. A better term would be ‘within’ us – with and in and deep beneath the persons we are pretending to be. Joy is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’, but is rather the lift of being and fullness of life in us, manifesting as us, and flowing through us.

Perhaps it is another name for the human spirit.

Joy, or genuine happiness, is inwardly rooted, deep in the peace of our grounding mystery. We don’t need to look for it because we already have it. Once we realize this – the moment we really get it, our understanding of love makes a radical shift. What had been our lust and longing for what will complete us and make us happy is transformed into an outflow of creative goodwill and selfless generosity.

Because we no longer need something or someone else to make us happy, the deep contentment of inner peace and our spiritually grounded joie de vivre can move us into the world without this complication. We can reach out and give of ourselves with no strings attached, no demand for reciprocity, no expectation of reward.

Love which is as joyously free as that, is a love that can save the world.

 

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