We all have to negotiate a reality that isn’t always interested in our personal happiness or human fulfillment. Distracted, absent, or abusive parents, a dysfunctional family system, and a larger society that operates under the spell of what Charles Tart called a “consensus trance,” conspire to make our journey of self-actualization complicated, to say the least.
Many of us don’t make it through. Instead, we end up stuck inside a dense and sticky web of neurotic insecurities, emotional attachments, and dogmatic convictions that try to stuff the complexity of our human experience into a tight little box of absolute truths.
Shrinking our world-horizon in this way gives the illusion of having things under control, when in reality – well, we are not very much in reality at all. We are neither in touch with what’s really real, nor very real ourselves.
In this blog I aim to search out and expose the forces and conditions that hold us back from our deepest potential as human beings. And while most of these have to do with that near-and-dear center of self-conscious personal identity each of us knows as “I-myself,” I persist in my defense of ego as a developmental achievement of penultimate importance. I say “penultimate” because a well-formed ego is not our ultimate aim but rather a necessary step toward the realization of that aim, which is to become fully human.
My diagram depicts the intended path of our fulfillment as human beings, in that vertical axis extending upwards from “Ground” to “Ideal.” By ground I am referring specifically to the grounding mystery of our physical life as sentient beings. The path of our individual development, as well as of our collective evolution as a species, follows the gradual awakening of consciousness (sentience) to self-consciousness in the formation of an ego.
Even after this higher perch has been attained, of course, the deeper mystery of our animal nature continues with its business below the threshold of conscious awareness, and far below ego itself.
This process of growth, development, and maturity would very naturally unfold in the direction of our fulfillment or self-actualization, following the intrinsic aim of our nature – what I am calling our ideal. I don’t mean by this term to suggest that our destiny is to become perfect, except to become perfectly human. It’s instructive that our word “perfect” literally refers to what is finished or carried to completion, nothing at all like the air-brushed magazine model whose perfection is fake and superficial.
Just as an apple seedling develops toward its species ideal of a mature apple-bearing tree, so do human beings grow and gradually awaken as fully conscious, freely creative, self-transcending, socially responsible, and ethically engaged members in community. I regard those five qualities as the virtues of our human ideal.
Because we are a profoundly social species, the perfection of our nature requires the provident support and guiding wisdom of our tribe, earliest on from our family of origin. This support – and interference, as we’ll see – is represented by the horizontal axis in my diagram, intersecting the natural course of our self-actualization.
The major focus and shaping force of our self-conscious identity (ego) is our interactions with others.
We are given implicit and explicit instructions on how to behave in these interactions: where to sit, when to stand, how to speak, and what to do. These codes constitute our tribe’s morality, the primary concern of which is to forge group cohesion and enforce individual compliance. Depending on how liberal or strict our moral system was growing up, as to its balance of freedom and constraint, some aspects of our human nature had to be screened before they were permitted on stage.
To be approved, stroked and promoted into our social roles (remembering that ego is first of all an impersonator), we found it necessary to keep aspects of our natural self off-stage and hidden from public view. This wasn’t something we ourselves were deciding along the way, mind you. In order to receive from others what we needed to feel safe, loved, capable and worthy, we did our best to make ourselves acceptable to them.
And this meant leaving parts of ourselves – not the constructed social self (ego) but our natural-born self – out of the group picture, so to speak.
You might consider this a terrible and inhumane program of systematic brainwashing, and of course you would be correct – in a way. In fact, it’s the socializing process basic to every human family, organization, nation and culture. Aspects of our natural self, the evolutionary gifts and capacities we are born with, have to be trained and shaped to fit the moral landscape of our tribe. Psychologically it is called sublimation: pulling back on these natural propensities in order to regulate and redirect them along socially acceptable channels of expression.
Some of them simply aren’t permitted, which meant that we had to push them behind us and keep them there, where they became the shadow of our personality.
The popular concept of our shadow identifies it as the “Mr. Hyde” lurking behind the “Dr. Jekyll” of our socialized persona; as the dark, deviant, and destructive part of ourselves – the beast inside just waiting for its opportunity to break out and wreak havoc on our tidy moral arrangements. I find it more meaningful, and useful, to think of our shadow as those aspects of our natural-born self that we had to suppress in the interest of being recognized, accepted, and respected by others as “one of us.”
There are five evolutionary gifts in particular which we all bring with us at birth, but that get screened off stage to become our shadow. If we think of these “screens” according to how much of our natural light they filter out or allow through, then we might further identify various densities or degrees of opacity. A denser or more opaque screen prevents a greater portion of light from passing through and onto the social stage where ego is busy winning friends and influencing people.
The more opaque the screen, the darker our shadow becomes.
Paradoxically a darker shadow withholds more of our light. Like Lucifer of Christian mythology whose name, interestingly enough, means “light-bearer,” our shadow is where the suppressed, disowned, and forgotten light of our natural self can be recovered and reintegrated with our personal identity. By such reconciliation with our shadow we can regain our integrity and be made whole again, which means, psychologically speaking, that we need to stop running from and fighting with Lucifer, if we have any hope of taking back our light.
To the left of Shadow in my diagram I’ve illustrated how these screens block or filter the light of our evolutionary gifts, again referring to what we bring with us as our natural endowment at birth. The five gifts I propose are faith, spontaneity, imagination, curiosity, and wonder. To varying degrees these capacities are gradually modulated, or traumatically closed off, during the process of ego formation.
When Jesus counseled his disciples to be “like little children,” saying that the kingdom of god belongs to such as them (Matthew 18:2-4), he was challenging all of us to take back our light and live …
In an existential posture of basic trust and openness to life (Faith)
Fully present to the opportunity of each moment (Spontaneity)
With our creative mind actively engaged (Imagination)
Always seeking to explore, discover, and learn new things (Curiosity), and
In an attitude of radical amazement before the mystery of being (Wonder)
The work of taking back our light, reclaiming our evolutionary gifts, and becoming whole again starts now.