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Category Archives: Philosophical Underpinnings

And So It Goes

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on what makes grownups act like children, but with the US presidential campaigns kicking into high gear, this seems like a good time. Our conventional idea of an “adult” is a person who is rational and reasonable, reflective and responsible, who is emotionally centered, well-adjusted, and gets along with others.

We have a general expectation that children will grow into adults and act less like children as they enter maturity.

And our expectation is disappointed, again and again, not just by other people but even ourselves. Something happens that is hard to explain; and when it’s over we prefer not to spend time reflecting on what the hell just went down. Once the dust has settled, we’d rather move on and try to forget about it.

But then it happens again … and again, and again.

These strange behavioral episodes are what I call Neurotic Styles. Think of them as coping strategies we learned when we were children, ways of working around the dysfunction and deficiencies in our family system. From infancy and onward through the early years of childhood we needed to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I have named our “feeling-needs” or “subjective needs.”

The taller powers responsible for our health and wellbeing were either first-time parents who didn’t know better, distracted parents who didn’t notice, absent parents who weren’t around, or abusive parents who violated our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Even the most attentive and caring parents slip up once in a while.

But it wasn’t all on them. We had our own selfish impulses and impossible demands that every conscientious parent has to somehow manage and train into socially acceptable behavior. We might have been particularly ungovernable, which would have taxed their patience and parenting skills, provoking responses that added new layers to the mess.

After all, domesticating an animal nature into a well-behaved socialite was no simple process – and never has been.

Our subjective needs were not negotiable. We couldn’t just skip over our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because they are about our need to feel a certain way in our nervous system and emotions (together generating our mood), it is possible that our external circumstances were fully adequate but still not enough because we had become so discontent, distressed, or depressed.

If there was in fact a sufficient supply of loving care provided to us, we might have had the additional demand that our parent (or whomever) make us feel safe because of some deeper insecurities we were carrying. This value-add of our anxiety motivated us to reach out and grab on to the other person in neurotic attachment, which are not conditions where love can take root and grow.

So our insistence that the other person make us feel safe actually interfered with our need to feel loved. See how that works – or doesn’t?

That behavior strategy of replacing love with attachment so we can feel safe is one common example of how we used our power to manipulate others. We may also have used our power to flatter and impress others in a misguided pursuit of feeling loved. Or we discovered that we could use our power to intimidate or seduce them and get what we wanted.

These are various “power plays” which, when successful enough and repeated on subsequent occasions, eventually got coded into our behavioral repertoire. They became our Neurotic Styles. Other Styles have less to do with manipulating other people than engaging in behaviors that helped us manage our anxiety, stay vigilant to potential threats, or retreat into ourselves for safety.

The important thing to understand is that, at least to some extent, these strategies worked in satisfying our feeling-needs, even if our family system wasn’t all that provident.

We were children back then: small, dependent, vulnerable, and weak in comparison with our taller powers. In order to get our needs met we found our way around. Our individual set of Neurotic Styles were incorporated into our developing personality, and we used them whenever we felt the situation warranted – although they were not really consciously selected as “triggered” by events around us.

But here’s the problem. Our personality as children was a complex of playful imagination, magical thinking, emotional reasoning, and these Neurotic Styles. Today this same complex lives on beneath higher processes of instrumental reason, logical thinking, and adult self-control – that is, until our “button” is pushed.

When that happens, our Inner Child breaks out and deploys a tactic of childish behavior, which may have worked when we were children but now only manages to turn heads, roll eyes, and convince others that we aren’t safe to be around.

For the past four years, Donald Trump’s Inner Child has manipulated the Grand Ole Party, a good swath of the American population, and undermined the establishment of democracy itself. In one interview after another, he shirks responsibility and passes blame, ignores or outright dismisses empirical science and objective data, loses his temper and calls people names. He seduces others into his inner circle and then excommunicates them with dishonor if they should dare contradict or challenge his opinion.

As the campaigns ramp up to November, the stress of it all – our tipping toward fascism, the ravaging waves of COVID-19 and continuing collapse of our economy, the rise of bigotry, prejudice, and violence on our streets, along with the now unmistakable (and undeniable) signs of unraveling ecosystems across our planet – all of it is making us feel threatened and helpless.

Our Inner Child is peaking out from under the covers, hoping that some taller power will arrive with a reassuring promise to protect us from the monster.

This is precisely when we need to get our own Higher Self into the game. There is real work to be done, including the repair of some serious damage to our race relations, community welfare, ethical integrity, and self-confidence. In November we must elect a fully functioning adult to presidential leadership, one who is self-possessed and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of our families, neighborhoods, cities, states, nation and international commons, including the fragile yet still resilient web of life on our planet.

For this to happen, we need to be adults and do our part.

 

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Beyond Ourselves

Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.

While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.

So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.

In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.

In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.

A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.

Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.

Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.

When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.

This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.

Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.

This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.

An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.

Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.

But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.

This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.

A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.

If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?

The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.

Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.

 

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The Arc of Spiritual Evolution

Times like these challenge us to examine the path that got us here, orient ourselves in the current situation, and consider our possible futures ahead. Racial tension, police brutality, the erosion of democracy, the degradation of our planet, the widening divide between rich and poor, and, just now, a coronavirus pandemic that is shaking the world economies to their foundations – all of it is conspiring in a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions.

Alarmists and dooms-day prophets want us to believe that these are the End Times, and they are urging everyone to change their ways and get on the right side.

Half of what they are saying is correct: If we don’t change our ways, things are likely to only get worse and the world as we know it will be destroyed. Our lack of understanding when it comes to the nature and dynamics of living systems has prevented us from seeing how each of those vectors mentioned above is not merely correlated with the others, but is itself a symptom of the same underlying pathology.

Where I think they have it wrong, however, is in their prognostication of these “last days” as marking the terminal end of history and our human residence on Earth. True enough, the current upheaval is perhaps unprecedented in the history of our species, in being disruptive (breaking the routines and structures of daily life), protracted (still unfolding with no definite end in sight), and chaotic (the ‘perfect storm’ outside our control) – and all at once. With all of that going on, it’s easy to conclude that its conclusion will be hopeless and final.

When you feel powerless to do anything about the situation you’re in, giving up is the easiest thing to do.

I don’t want to suggest that our times aren’t so bad, that we just need to look on the bright side of things. They are bad. Many people are suffering and dying, and our planet itself is careening through seismic and systemic shifts that are pushing entire species into extinction almost daily. If ‘bad’ means painful, harmful, difficult, and serious, then these times are bad – maybe worse than they’ve ever been.

So am I just whistling in the dark?

I’m not ready to give up just yet because of one variable in particular, one factor in play that can make the difference between a final catastrophe and a breakthrough to something new – not just in terms of a unique arrangement of catastrophic leftovers, but as a next stage in our evolution as a species. This creative element is the human spirit.

And so, in what follows I want to dig deeper and reach higher into our spiritual intelligence and imagine a possible future for us, together.

When I speak of the human spirit, I don’t mean something that is separate from our animal nature, like a metaphysical soul riding inside our mortal body. Rather, I mean to identify an evolved type of intelligence (SQ) that has emerged with our developing brain and nervous system over the millenniums of hominid evolution, along with its construction of symbol systems that are the foundation of our world cultures and their webs of meaning.

Our spiritual intelligence gives us a way of engaging with the environment, each other, and ourselves that really does set humans apart from the rest of Earth’s species. And yet, one of its astonishing virtues is in how it enables us to understand the essential interdependence of life, the unity of existence, and our communion with all things. My diagram identifies a four-dimensional vision that our spiritual intelligence makes possible.

I will suggest that a successful transit through the disruptive, protracted, and chaotic change of these times requires a full activation of the human spirit; and further, that this moment is a decisive phase in the spiritual awakening of our species.

The terms of this vision – faith, love, purpose, and hope – are familiar to us. Nevertheless, or maybe because that is so, we will have to carefully define these terms and refresh their meaning. Their overuse and abuse in religion, business, and everyday life makes it necessary, every now and then, to trace them back to their metaphorical roots.

Deeper Faith

In the West, faith is understood as a willingness to believe something that lacks evidence or seems to contradict commonsense logic. “You’ve got to have faith” has come to mean “just believe it anyway” – that something is true or will come to pass, even (or especially) if nothing presently substantiates your belief. Under this definition, faith has frequently been used as encouragement to suspend or set aside thoughtful consideration and dismiss all evidence to the contrary.

In its deeper history, however, faith has nothing directly to do with beliefs. Essentially faith is trust, a letting-go or release of our ego identity to the deeper support and generative source of being, represented in religion by the metaphor of God. From ego (the separate center of “I”) we drop into the contemplative experience of embodied mind, and from there into an open space of boundless presence.

The deeper we go, the less ego there is, and the more immediate our awareness of resting in the present mystery of Being itself.

Wider Love

When faith deepens to the point where no separate “I” remains, our communion with everything else as manifestations of the same essential reality awakens in us a compassionate regard for these others “as myself.” With the judgments and contractions of ego identity gradually relaxed and released, our own boundary opens ever wider to include more and more of what had earlier been perceived as “not me” or even “against me.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that the boundary which had formerly separated our identity from others now becomes a threshold for compassionate engagement.

Our current crisis is providing us an opportunity to reverse ego’s inclination to contract and withdraw where we seek smaller zones of safety and control, and instead to transcend those security limits in the interest of reaching out to, connecting with, and including the other.

Higher Purpose

The idea of purpose and having a purpose is used in religion as a way of personalizing “god’s plan” for one’s life. According to this conception, god is in control of everything and has predetermined (predestined according to Calvinist doctrine) all things for his glory. Our lives will make more sense, work better, and end up in the right place as we are willing to commit ourselves to god’s plan and purpose for us.

But because theistic religion is focused on the identity and destiny of individual believers – that is to say, on ego – the impulse to contract inside smaller and safer identities where our insecurity can be better managed (or so we believe) tends to hyper-individualize this notion of purpose in theism and the societies it has influenced.

As I’m using the term here, higher purpose is not another name for “god’s plan and purpose for my life.” Higher denotes larger horizons of space and time, and purpose is more about intention than objective. In other words, it’s more about living on purpose than achieving goals or accomplishing a mission. A wider love by definition includes more, and as we are enabled by a deeper faith to transcend our separate identity for a larger communion, our investment of caring attention and mindful behavior (i.e., intention) shifts into that higher and larger – transpersonal – field of concerns.

Longer Hope

Our time horizon, referring to how deep into the past and far into the future the awareness of our present situation extends, is necessarily as small as our ego insecurity will allow. When it’s “all about me,” and this “me” has contracted inside an identity that is separatist, defensive, and insatiably discontent, our time horizon is very small indeed. We don’t identify ourselves with a family, a people, a species, or with a larger community of life.

Our relevant past goes back only as far as we can remember, and only to those events and experiences that have shaped our individual (ego) sense of self. And as the retrospectus of our life is what sets the forward range of our life’s prospectus, we simply cannot see beyond our own death into the longer destinies of our family, our people, our species, and of life on Earth.

It should be clear by now that hope is not wishful thinking, a kind of closing the eyes and “hoping for the best.”

Instead, as we consider our possible futures from the elevation of a transpersonal higher purpose, taking in the full communion of our life with others and grounded faithfully in the present mystery of reality, hope is what enables us to envision a future that includes us all, one that will be an inheritance of wellbeing for future generations.


This critical moment in human history and in the history of our planet has placed us at a choice point. On one side is the option of persisting in our current way of life, continuing to push our agendas and promote our beliefs. But let’s not forget: this is precisely the path that’s brought us to this point.

On the other side is the option of breaking through and moving beyond our current mindset, into a new way of being together. When the routines and structures of daily life break down, when the stress of change seems unrelenting, and when it’s no longer possible to simply return to the world as it was, transformation is our way through.

 

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Practicing Wisdom

In a recent post titled Living By Wisdom I reminded my reader of five principles that humans over many thousands of years have drawn from their experience and clarified, like pure gold from the dross of daily life, into a perennial tradition of deep insights into the nature of reality, authentic self, and genuine community. I say “reminded” because I believe we each have this same plumline of contemplative intuition whereby such wisdom is accessed, to whatever extent it may be obstructed by daily distractions, personal ambitions, and close-minded convictions.

The perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom is a shared project combining archetypes of our collective unconscious (C.G. Jung) and aspirations of a transcultural vision of our evolutionary fulfillment as one species within the great Web of Life. While the archetypes (e.g., Ground, Abyss, Self, Other, and God) drive our development from below conscious awareness and can only be brought to consciousness through the vehicles of metaphor and myth, the apirations of this transcultural wisdom (e.g., Presence, Communion, Awakening, Liberation, and Wholeness) depend for their propagation through the generations on constructive dialogue and intentional practice.

That earlier post briefly expounded on five wisdom principles in particular, perhaps the most universal and enduring insights our species has discovered over the past who knows how many thousands (maybe even millions) of years.

  1. Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

  2. Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

  3. Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

  4. Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

  5. Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

In this post I want to launch from that last one in particular, as it is really the ur-principle or “most essential truth” assumed in the other four. Simply put, we won’t appreciate or benefit from the other wisdom principles until we can manage to see beyond ourselves – both individually and as a species.

This meditation is especially timely now, as collectively we seem to be contracting into ever smaller and more defendable horizons of identity. The anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview of the last few thousand years has further collapsed to ethnocentric, nationalistic, ideological, and egocentric (self-centered) boundaries – each contraction seeking a patch of emotional real estate that feels more managable and secure.

An obvious problem with this quest for safety and control is that we have to separate ourselves from the greater communion of Life in order to find it. Nevertheless it continues to elude us. Indeed our insecurity only grows more intense and unmanageable the further into isolation we go.

If the nature of reality is communion (All is One), then separating ourselves from it will inevitably throw us into an untenable, and certainly not sustainable, situation.

In Living By Wisdom I referred to a spiritual pandemic that has been ravaging our species for some time now, described in Principle 5 as loneliness, hypertension, and early death. It may seem odd at first that hypertension and early death, which are obvious physiological maladies, should be identified as symptoms of a “spiritual” pandemic. The incongruity, however, is only in our minds, as they have been conditioned over many centuries of ideological brainwashing (conventionally called “education”) to divide “soul” and “body,” “self” and “other,” “human” and “nature.”

According to the perennial wisdom tradition, these dualisms are constructs of language and belief and have no basis in the true nature of things. Dividing and opposing them as we have, it should not surprise us if we are suffering for our “sin” (literally separating or dislocating ourselves from reality). Our suffering is not so much a punishment (ala theistic religion) as a certain consequence of our self-isolation.

Those consequences should then be read in reverse to reveal the real pathology of our spiritual pandemic: an early death is the fallout of hypertension (the internal effects of chronic frustration, anxiety, and autoimmunity), which is itself a manifestation of our profound loneliness – of feeling that we are estranged from the whole of life and utterly on our own in the world.

Despite the infinite variety of distractions at our fingertips, and even surrounded by countless others equally distracted, we are dying of loneliness.

So what can we do? Just jumping into a crowd or trying to fill our emptiness with comfort food, prescription medications, material possessions, self-improvement programs, or ‘heroic’ achievement won’t fix our problem because none of these strategies acknowledge or address the underlying cause. If you’ve fallen for any of these “sure fixes” to your existential loneliness, you can verify from personal experience the futility of the effort. With every failure, your feeling of isolation and hopelessness intensifies.

Reaching back into our collective heritage of shared wisdom, we will find the answer to our question. Here are four practices, validated by millions just like you over many thousands of years and across the world’s many cultures, both ancient and modern.

Wisdom Practice 1

Get grounded.

The metaphor of ground in the perennial wisdom tradition is used to represent the present mystery of reality as both source and support of your life. Ground is always beneath and within you, which means that it’s always and only here and now. Our loneliness is generated by the illusion of our separateness, that we are not actually in the here-and-now. But where else can we be?

When you say or think, “I feel lonely,” it is from the perspective of your self-conscious personal identity, or ego (Latin for “I”). Ego is conspicuous for its lack of reality, as it is merely a construct of personal self-reference and social agency shaped and installed by your tribe in early childhood and reinforced by society ever since. Its existence is suspended like a tightrope between “the past” and “the future,” neither of which has reality in the here-and-now. Your past and future are a highly curated selection of memories and fantasies composed into a personal myth that tells the story of who you are.

Just as the story itself is an edited compilation of what you (choose to) remember and expect, the “I” who is defined by the story is also a fictional construct.

Your ground is not in your ego for the simple reason that your ego is separated from the here-and-now by this highwire act of your personal myth. To get grounded requires that you drop out of your story and into your body, which is always present. The “you” that drops is not your ego, but rather your embodied mind, the living sentient center of present awareness. Getting grounded, then, means dropping into your living presence where the sentient life of your body is experienced as both source and support.

A simple breathing meditation – attending to your breath, counting its rhythm, feeling the gentle expansion and relaxation, the deepening calm of inner peace – is the easiest, quickest, and most common wisdom practice for getting grounded.

Wisdom Practice 2

Find your center.

This wisdom practice follows very naturally on the first one, but whereas getting grounded is about dropping out of your story and into your body, finding your center shifts the intention from letting go to gathering consciousness around a deeper locus of contemplative awareness. Now, free of all identity contracts and future projects, without beliefs to hold everything at a distance, a sense of boundless presence radiates outward from where you are.

From that deep center of boundless presence nothing is separate, everything is connected, and All is One. Consciousness is not tethered to and limited by a personal identity, nor is it domesticated and contained inside a world where you pretend to be somebody.

The center of awareness deep within you, taking in the vast reality all around you, is the universe becoming conscious of itself.

Wisdom Practice 3

Connect to what matters.

While still fully identified with your ego and its managed world, the dual drives of craving and fear magnetize everything around you as either “for me” or “against me.” Your values and choices fall in line with your ambitions in life, and anything that doesn’t fit on one side or the other is either dismissed, ignored, or goes unnoticed.

When you live in the delusion of your separateness, what ultimately matters is determined by how safe, loved, capable, or worthy something or someone makes you feel. And because ego consciousness is inherently insecure, your attachments, fantasies, and concerns only conspire to make you more anxious, motivating you to shrink your world-horizon even further so as to reduce exposure and tighten your control.

In this state you cannot see anything for what it is in itself, and anyone in relationship with you feels trapped by the snares of your selfish and unrealistic demands.

From your deeper contemplative center of boundless presence, however, your perspective is unbiased and clear-sighted. You can consider your human journey and life-arrangement and ask, “What truly matters? What do I want to cultivate from the fertile ground of what I am and what I might still become? Where are my anchors of timeless (i.e., eternal) value? What ideals shall I live my life by, and what higher virtues still call to me?”

Wisdom Practice 4

Be the change you want to see.

The four wisdom practices finally culminate in this one, which exhorts us to actualize the noble intentions and higher ideals we have just clarified. There’s no arguing against the therapeutic benefits of reciting inspirational thoughts to ourselves. By putting them in our journals, taping them to our bathroom mirrors, and sticking them on refrigerator doors, we create timely reminders of the New Reality we aspire to and hope to inhabit some day.

Here is one more example of a division generated out of the delusion of our separateness, this time between knowledge and action, theory and practice, truth (on the side of knowledge and theory) and power (in practical action). Wisdom does not recognize this division, teaching instead that an enlightened understanding of the way things really are will manifest directly – we might even say spontaneously – in how we live and what we do.

So, take anything from the list of what matters most to you and convert it into an action. If it’s kindness, then be kind. If it’s love, then be loving. If it’s peace, then become a peacemaker. If it’s inclusion, then open your life to a stranger. The world around you will start to change as you put into it the virtues you hope to find.

It may take some time, so be patient and keep practicing!

 

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Becoming Homo Sapiens

When modern science organized the taxonomy of living things on Earth, it placed our own species in position with an almost religious confidence, as the “wise one” (Latin homo sapiens) among all the creatures. At the time there seemed good reason for such high regard, as we clearly possessed traits and abilities that put us above the rest. It remains an open question, however, whether self-selecting as “wise” was more of an aspirational reach than evidence-based assessment.

Wisdom is not a new interest of ours by any stretch. It can be argued that homo sapiens began its unique advance in evolution as we applied our speculative (outward-looking) and contemplative (inward-looking) intelligence to the mysteries of existence. Since prehistoric times humans have had a keen interest in understanding our place in the wonder of it all.

The so-called wisdom traditions of our separate world cultures are so many tributaries of one ancient stream, bubbling up from the same wellspring – not so much “back there” as “in here,” deep in our individual psyche.

At times along the way, this living stream of spiritual wisdom has gotten blocked by other forces which seem more pressing and urgent. It’s always tempting to temporarily suspend our consideration of interests farther out and later on, of anything that is not inside the immediate circle of “me and mine,” in order that we can address and hopefully resolve the urgency.

We possess a deep knowing, for instance, that All is OneEverything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – three wisdom principles that are not mere logical conclusions, but rather intuitive insights drawn from our direct experience of reality. We know these truths, and yet we frequently choose to ignore them in the choices we make.

Such willful disregard is what Alan Watts called ignórance, referring not to something we don’t know but to our habit of disregarding what we know so we can do what we want.

My diagram places wisdom (sapiens) in what Abraham Maslow called the “farther reaches of human nature” – as the future fulfillment of our deepest potential as a species. It stands at the higher pole of a continuum opposite to instinct, which we have in common with all the other animals. Between the two poles and serving as a kind of phase transition from instinct to wisdom is belief.

Each of these is a kind of behavior program, a distinct set of codes that motivates humans to behave and actively engage with our environment.

In Darwinian terms we can further say that our behavior will either fit us adaptively to our environment or else put us (and our environment) at risk of damage and possible extinction.

For its part, instinct is unthinking and compulsive, driven by codes deep-set in our animal nature. At the other end, wisdom is exquisitely thoughtful and visionary, lifting consciousness to transpersonal ideals, larger horizons, and longer aims.

As the transitional stage between instinct and wisdom, beliefs and belief systems have dominated the human experience for thousands of years.

Homo credulitas is probably a more fitting nomenclature, since this long historical epoch of our evolutionary rise into tribes, cities, nation-states, civilizations, and the contemporary pan-global culture is made possible by a unique ability of our mind to construct around us an envelope of meaning called a world.

A world is a more or less personal construction of language that helps us feel secure, serves as context for our identity, orients us in reality, and clarifies a meaning for life.

These four functions of our world – security, identity, orientation, and meaning – connect neatly at the corners to form a box containing everything that matters to us. We live for what’s inside the box, we obsess over what’s inside the box, and if it comes down to it, we will kill defending what’s inside the box. The American box is different in big ways from the Iranian box, and inside each of these are many more boxes – religious traditions, political parties, social classes – which further contain millions more individual worlds, each unique in lesser but still exceptional ways.

Smaller boxes contained in bigger boxes, contained in still bigger boxes, until we come to the biggest box of all where all of us are insisting to the rest of us that our world is the real world, the way things really are.

And of course, we have to believe this, since it is believing which makes it so, recalling that all of these boxes, from the small-scale individual to the large-scale global, are made of beliefs, are quite literally make-believe.

That such a claim sounds ludicrous and is itself unbelievable actually substantiates its validity, insofar as our mind cannot believe “outside the box.” We can indeed think outside our box, but it takes both practice and courage since breaking past the outer boundary of belief also requires that we move beyond the security, identity, orientation and meaning of life inside the box. If all these things are constructions of belief, then reality – not the “real world” but the really real, existence as such – is beyond belief, indescribably perfect in itself, transcendent even of meaning and therefore perfectly meaningless.

If you can’t believe this, then, in the words of Jesus, you are not far from the kingdom of God. Maybe very close, but not quite.

Recalling those wisdom principles from earlier – All is One, Everything is Connected, and We are All in this Together – we get a sense of how their truth stands beyond belief. It doesn’t matter which boxes you happen to occupy (or that hold you captive), whether you are rich or poor, white, black, brown, or green. They are not articles of belief, much in the same way that gravity is independent of whether or what you may believe about it. They don’t need validation from any source other than your own direct experience.

If you let yourself, these timeless insights into reality will resonate with your own true nature and lift your consciousness far above the ego concerns of “me and mine.”

Now ask yourself, How shall I live in light of these self-evident truths? If you’re not going to ignore them and do what you want, then what difference will they make? How will the full acceptance of their truth inspire you to leave your box and live a truly liberated life?

Welcome, “wise one.” Your higher adventure is now ready to begin.

 

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Now and Again

Sequestering at home, I was sitting with my wife under the gazebo in our backyard just the other morning as the sun was coming through the trees. The sweet smell of burning piñon wood from our chiminea and birdsong in the tree overhead made for an enchanted experience. There were other things we could be doing, like cleaning up the kitchen or straightening a closet, but those could wait. This would only be here a few moments longer.

In Greek there are two very different concepts of time. Kronos is the measured time of our clocks. It is the “again and again” of cycles by which we measure time’s elapse: clock hands, moon phases, Earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. Inside these smaller and larger cycles we track the sequence of events that make up a recipe, a work project, the history of anything, including a human lifetime.

I can schedule a time to clean up the kitchen by placing the appointment somewhere in these nested cycles of chronic time. If I miss the appointment, I’ll just reschedule it. No big deal.

Another Greek word, kairos, carries a very different concept of time. Its meaning is something like “the opportune moment,” or as we commonly say, when the time is right or at the right time. Even though the sun rises at a certain hour and minute according to the clock, we don’t normally say that the sun is rising “on time” – as if we have the earth and Sun on a schedule.

The sun rising through trees provides a fascinating intersection among physical events happening, including not just astronomical events but me getting out to the gazebo at precisely the right time.

But there’s more. I could be sitting out there with all that going on, totally absorbed in my thoughts, futzing with my chair, or still just waking up and not yet paying attention. The sunrise could happen without me even noticing. A kairotic event is actually a conspiracy of things coming together all at once: the earth turning, the sky and clouds just so, the temperature and breeze as they are, birds singing in the tree standing there, wood smoke from my chiminea – and me here, a quiet and observant witness to the wonder of it all.

If I don’t show up or pay attention as it’s happening, this conspiracy fails to fully come together.

When Jesus called out to anyone who would listen, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” he was talking about kairos. The kingdom of God coming near was his chosen metaphor of a power that lurks just below the threshold of ordinary awareness, but which, if really seen and taken in by the fully observant mind, will change everything. To repent literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction, out of the trance of conventional life and into what he also called “abundant life” – liberated, authentic, and fully awake.

While Jesus’ metaphors reflect his heritage and worldview, the invitation to wake up and break free from the mental enclosures of tradition, habit, and belief in order that we can really see the present mystery of reality, has been essential to “true religion” ever since the Axial Age (beginning in the 8th century BCE). This critical insight has frequently put those who are waking up at odds with the belief systems and departure narratives that characterize most forms of theism. To identify it with true religion, then, is admittedly a value judgment on my part.

We shouldn’t forget that orthodox theism was one of the social forces that collaborated in Jesus’ death, along with colonial politics and neurotic egoism.

But this is the essential truth: right now is the only opportunity any of us has to be fully present and awake to what’s really going on. In Jesus’ words, time is fulfilled in every Now, but if we don’t wake up and open ourselves to what has “come near,” we might end up sleeping as the mystery passes us by, and keep missing it – again and again. We might say that ordinary consciousness (or the trance state) is a condition where “again and again” (or more of the same) conceals the ever-present mystery of “here and now.”

The real tragedy is that, over time, our capacity for mindful awareness and creative response can become so buried under the habits and demands of daily life (chronos), that we may never wake up to Life in its fullness. The time is always now and we are always here, but how much of our life is deeply engaged in conscious living?

So I realized that the morning sun through trees – as an experience and not merely a physical event – is exquisitely for me in the sense that it won’t happen if I’m not here, not paying attention, or distracted with other things. I don’t mean this to sound self-centered, but if I’m not centered in myself and present to what’s going on, the morning sun through trees won’t happen either.

If I come out again tomorrow morning, the kingdom of God will once again be present at the threshold of my awareness, but only because it is always there, waiting on me to show up and be a witness. If the spiritual life is anything, it is the devoted practice of showing up and learning to be fully present.

 

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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a vale of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.

 

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World Creator

In this post I will propose that there are just four basic narrative plots upon which we – each of us, any of us, all of us – construct a meaningful life and the world we live in. The Greek word for this basic narrative plot is mythos, referring not to one story or another but to the structural “spine” upon which all stories are composed. Setting, characters, rising action, climax, and denouement are countless in their variety, but these basic plots are just four in number.

Further, I will propose that these four myths “awaken” in our psyche during specific periods of development, designated across cultures in the archetypes of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. In other posts I have named these The Four Ages of Life and identified the chronological thresholds as the years 10 (between Child and Youth), 25 (between Youth and Adult), and 60 (between Adult and Elder).

By the time a threshold is reached, the critical work of world creation as it anchors to the myths of previous Ages will either facilitate or complicate the work of the coming Age. In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, I will assume that things go reasonably well, and that the project of world-creation is allowed to advance more or less without a hitch.

Each of the four myths is a central organizing structure around which countless stories are composed.

The many stories arranged around a common myth will take its principal theme into a wide variety of expressions, but they will all address, in one way or another, its focal concern. Let’s look at the four Myths more closely and try to appreciate how they get weaved together into the larger story of our life and the world we create.

The Myth of Grounding and Orientation

As young children we have a deep existential need to know, not intellectually but viscerally, that where we are is safe and provident. Stories of Grounding and Orientation answer what is perhaps the most fundamental question: Where am I, and what’s going on here? This is not yet the question of identity (which comes next), but rather of security. Is this a place where we can relax, reach out, and find what we need to live, grow, and be happy?

As implied in the name, this myth is foundational to all the others. Our impression of reality during the first decade of life is recorded in our nervous system, calibrated by our brain to match and adapt to the conditions of our early environment. Our need for security, to feel safe and that we belong, overrides every other emotional need.

All subsequent experiences will be evaluated according to whether they confirm or challenge this most basic sense we have of reality as provident.

On the cultural level, the Myth of Grounding and Orientation inspired primordial stories of provident beings who brought the world into existence and created the first humans. The gods themselves are not the focus of such stories, but are rather mediating agencies that serve to project intentional design into the cosmos and our human place within it. If some stories give account of how a once-perfect order fell into disarray, there nevertheless remains the relatively stable vantage-point from which this perspective is taken and the story is told.

The Myth of Identity and Purpose

After our first decade we are thrown into the quest for who we are and why we are here. The Myth of Identity and Purpose inspires stories of heroes who move out from zones of security in search of adventure, discovery, achievement, and conquest. Just as the earlier stories about gods are not really about the gods so much as the world order they set in place, these hero stories are less about the characters themselves than the formation – and various transformations – of Identity and Purpose.

The Age of Youth is powerfully anchored to this Myth. As adolescents we are frequently confused over who we are, and we busy ourselves with trying on one identity after another. We are sure that “no one knows me,” but in truth we don’t even know ourself.

Our experimentation with different identities exposes the constructed nature of identity itself, as something that can be put on and off, made up and changed on a whim – but it’s the most urgent and serious thing we care about!

What we probably can’t appreciate so much at the time is how personal Identity and Purpose are codified into social roles, and how every role is situated in a role play. In other words, identity is essentially about who we are on the performance stage of society. If we happen to be less secure in our sense of Grounding and Orientation from childhood, the quest for Identity and Purpose can be straight-out tortuous as we try to find security in something that isn’t even real!

The Myth of Love and Sacrifice

The Age of Adulthood is about settling down and establishing ourselves in society. A sense of being supported in a provident reality and curating a competent personal identity eventually facilitate our landing in more enduring partnerships, professional responsibilities, and maybe a family to manage. The Myth of Love and Sacrifice inspires stories of commitment, fidelity, and devotion. Life is now about investing ourselves in things that are worthwhile and more lasting.

“Sacrifice” refers to the act of giving up something of value for the sake of something more highly esteemed.

Commitment to one thing implies the surrendered pursuit of other things. Along with that, a sacrifice of our individual freedom for the sake of a married relationship is a declaration of our preference for what we deem a higher value. Lest we think that adulthood is only about “giving up” on the pleasures and excitement of life, such intentional acts of sacrifice actually serve to make life ultimately meaningful.

The many stories composed on this Myth of Love and Sacrifice include those of Jesus on his cross, Mother Teresa serving in the slums of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell. These individuals willingly surrendered their own freedom, entitlements, and life itself in devotion to what they considered a transcendent value.

The Myth of Suffering and Hope

When we reach the Age of the Elder after 60 years, our experience of life is deep, wide, and rich in both many joys and countless pains. The lessons we’ve learned along the way are translated into a wisdom concerning what truly matters, the precious value of little things, and how to see through (or past) the distractions of everyday life. Stories of Suffering and Hope give full acknowledgement to the burdens of existence – to the hardships, the losses, the betrayals, and the personal failures – but without giving them the last word.

In traditional cultures, elders are the respected guides and advisers of society, honored for having lived so long and learning so much.

If we don’t always have “the” answer to a question, we have likely observed or undergone things that can shed some light on the matter. In the very least, life has taught us that absolute answers – answers that are final, beyond question and not open to doubt – are more often irrelevant, and usually deceptive.

A familiar story of Suffering and Hope is one we can find in every culture, holding a vision for what lies beyond this life. Once again, however, just as with the earlier stories of gods and heroes, stories of heaven and the afterlife are not really about these things at all. Their truth is therapeutic rather than literal, encouraging us not to fixate or be consumed by life’s pains and losses, but instead to keep them in perspective as only part of a much larger picture and longer view.


Throughout our life we are creating a world that carries and reflects our deepest concerns as human beings. The stories we tell are anchored in the timeless myths of Grounding and Orientation, Identity and Purpose, Love and Sacrifice, Suffering and Hope. The best of all worlds is one that makes room for others, as it gives us the support we need to become fully human.

 

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