Our health, happiness, and fulfillment as human beings are based in, and therefore dependent on, how deeply we understand ourselves. By that I mean something more than what we think of ourselves, or what general theory of human nature we happen to hold.
Understanding is by definition a deep (“under”) position (“standing”) that accommodates a full or complete view of something – not a mere glimpse or even just an angle, but what in psychology is called a gestalt, a spontaneous intuition of the whole thing.
What I’ve been working with all these years is just such a spontaneous intuition of being human. Not what it means to be human or where humans fit within the great taxonomy of living things, but what the human experience is in essence, beneath all our genetic variations, cultural backgrounds, time periods, personality traits, and life conditions.
Rather than conceiving of it in terms of some foundational substance or basic “stuff” that all of us are made of, however, I have found it much more useful to regard being human (or human be-ing) in terms of the long arc of consciousness on its journey through evolutionary time.
Whereas anthropological science seeks to unearth our nature in the distant past, and supernatural religion insists that being human begins and ends in unearthly realms, I think the German philosopher of Existentialism, Martin Heidegger, was correct to observe that a genuine understanding of ourselves has only one place to start: right where we are (Dasein) as we wake up to the question of our life’s meaning, purpose, and destiny.
As we read in the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy,
In the middle of our life might refer to the developmental transition of midlife, but more likely what Dante had in mind was this “existential moment” where each of us comes to the more or less shocking realization that we are on our own (to pick up with Dante again) “in a dark wood where the straight way [is] lost.”
Even if our tribe has successfully enveloped us inside its moral conscience – referring not to the Romantic notion of an individual’s innate sense of right and wrong, but rather to the system of agreements and common assumptions that defines (or enframes: what I call the “moral frame“) what its members accept as “right behavior” and a “good person” – our existential moment can throw all of that into question.
The “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Where am I going?” and “What really matters?” questions break open all our social securities and invite us to reset our orientation in life. This is the middle of our life where we have an opportunity to really make it our own.
We got into this position of standing in our own separate center of self-conscious identity by a process of individuation, and it’s here, as we come to ourselves amid the tangled branches of a “dark wood,” that the whole arc of our life might be grasped as a single gestalt.
The above diagram is my best rendering of that gestalt, and it illustrates the wonderful irony that such a “whole picture” of being human requires us to first find ourselves out of the picture.
In a sense, it’s similar to the way that separating ourselves from Earth and standing on the Moon afforded us a position from which we could grasp the magnificent gestalt of our planet for the first time.
Personal consciousness, the offspring of tribal consciousness, gradually differentiated itself out of the herd sympathies of our group and gave us a way of participating in the society of individuals. Differentiation and participation, then, mark the critical thresholds of our individuation – the lower threshold (differentiation) serving to establish our identity as distinct from our body (in the sense that “I have a body”), and the upper threshold providing for the possibility of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
When our individuation is healthy and successful, ego consciousness can be fully present in our body (the experience of embodiment), as well as fully capable of going beyond itself (the experience of transcendence) for the sake of, and in service to, a higher wholeness.
From here we can understand ourselves as grounded in a present mystery (by our body and its visceral intelligence), on a journey of personal self-discovery (as a developing ego), all the while advancing farther into more inclusive harmonies and deeper into communion with being itself (through the spiritual intelligence of our soul).
This, then, is the long arc of consciousness alluded to earlier. The observational distance needed for a spontaneous intuition (gestalt) and true understanding of being human is made possible by the delusion of our separate self, whose function, developmentally speaking, is to provide consciousness a point from which it can drop into the ground of being (embodiment) and leap into the web of life (transcendence).
By virtue of our delusional separation, we are in a place where we can come to ourselves, take creative authority in the construction of meaning (our world), and live our lives with intention (Dante’s “straight way”).
There’s a chance, though – even a fairly high probability – that our journey of individuation didn’t go all that smoothly. For any number of reasons, our ego’s differentiation from the body was more traumatic than it might have been, perhaps complicated by abuse or a morally repressive tribal conscience. The result was that our body is not a place where we feel grounded. Its chronic anxiety, locked-up frustration, and exhausted depression is not for us a refuge of quiet solitude and inner peace.
Outwardly the situation is no better. Instead of a secure center of social identity, personal agency, and relational freedom, our insecurity motivates us into neurotic attachment and codependent entanglements. Unable to “come to ourselves,” we end up in submission to whomever and whatever promises – or we hope will provide – a safe identity to hide inside.
Whether it is a political party, a religious denomination, or some more radical and sectarian cult that holds our loyalty, we find that we cannot even think for ourselves or make our own decisions outside its control.
Too many are under the spell of an authoritarian idol or absolutist ideology, ready to kill and die on its command, or at least willing to put our one precious life on hold for the promise of a better one later on – after the revolution, or in heaven when it’s all over.
This alienated condition of somatic and relational dissociation is where a large number of us are presently stuck. We can’t even come to ourselves enough to realize that we are in a “dark wood,” and that our “straight way” is lost to us until we decide to commit ourselves to living authentically – on purpose – and for the sake of what truly matters.