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Category Archives: Timely and Random

Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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Becoming a Person of Influence

A video version of this blog post can be found here


Here’s the backstory:

You work in a company that manufactures technology goods for the public market. Your job entails oversight of product quality and safety, ensuring that the manufactured goods meet or exceed industry standards. Your product line is highly innovative, but other companies are rising fast and challenging your share of the market.

And here’s your challenge:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

The first level of ethical reasoning doesn’t really use much reasoning in making a choice. It is called Self-interest, and its primary value is in the pleasure, satisfaction, or advantage it brings to ‘me’ – as quickly and risk-free as possible. As the one faced with this challenge, your interest is the only one that counts.adam-smith

Individuals who make choices and take action on the values of Self-interest typically assume that others are choosing and acting on the same basis. They believe that deepest-down people are looking out for themselves and their own interests. The economist-philosopher Adam Smith put forth the theory that market competition among self-interested actors serves to strengthen and improve the economy, by eliminating those who lack ambition or who produce goods and services of inferior quality or at too high a cost.

The next level of ethical deliberation broadens the scope of concern beyond self-interest alone, to include the local groups, teams, classes and organizations in which individuals are members. At this level you understand that social endeavors in which individuals must interact and somehow cooperate for common goals require a set of rules for everyone to follow. The primary value at this level is in the success I can have as a player, employee, member, or citizen in helping my team be its best.

We’re used to thinking of Game Rules as the codes for “right” and “wrong” behavior in the field of sports. Each sport has its own set of rules, and anyone who wants to compete and succeed in a given sport must follow the rules. By definition Game Rules are known as conventions – not absolute laws that apply across all of life, but guidelines and consequences invented for the purpose of defining what it means to win and how to play fair.thomas-hobbes

Game Rules can be found across the social landscape – not only in sports and leisure games, but in school, business, and civilian life as well. Your first exposure to Game Rules was likely in your family of origin where you learned how to behave yourself, wait your turn, do your part, and take only your share. Following the rules doesn’t always mean that you get your way. But overall, when your team succeeds, so do you. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that Game Rules, or what he called the Social Contract, are necessary in order to get self-interested individuals to cooperate and not destroy each other.

In addition to Self-interest and Game Rules as stages of ethical reasoning, a third level has to do with a standard of Moral Character. The primary value is in keeping my integrity and staying true to the person I want to be.

Integrity literally refers to the state of being whole, not falling to pieces or changing your values from one situation to the next, but remaining consistent in your Moral Character. A ‘character’ in story is a figure that may grow and develop as the narrative mlkprogresses, but whose core identity is consistent from one scene to the next.

In the same way, Moral Character holds to a standard of self-consistency – presumably as someone who is responsible, trustworthy, and committed to being a ‘good’ person. Understandably, this is also known as Virtue Ethics.

At this level, you are less concerned with how others view you than how you see yourself. In fact, an individual may refuse to play by the Game Rules because one or more rules violate moral values that he or she is committed to live by. An example from history is Martin Luther King, Jr., whose belief in racial equality and human rights motivated him to protest by civil disobedience the Game Rules of white privilege.

You have probably noticed how each higher level in ethical reasoning holds a larger context in mind. First it’s only you and your Self-interest. Next, you take into consideration the various groups, teams, and organizations you belong to, and the Game Rules that govern behavior inside them. With Moral Character the frame expanded still farther, to take in the longer view of your life and the responsible person you are aspiring to be.

So you may be thinking, Is it possible to expand the frame any farther? What else is there beyond me, the groups where I’m a jeremy-benthammember, and the moral core of who I am? One more level of ethical reasoning invites you to be mindful of everyone, anywhere, who could be impacted by your choices and actions. This concern over the ‘utility’ or usefulness of your action in producing consequences that matter is central to Jeremy Bentham’s ethical theory known as Utilitarianism.

At the level of Maximal Benefit, the primary value is in contributing to the health, happiness, and well-being of myself and all those affected by my actions. Me, but not only me. The groups, teams, and organizations I belong to, but more than these as well. An aspiration to stay true to my character as a moral being, but going beyond even that.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit takes into consideration the fact that nothing is really separate from anything else, and that what we call The Universe is essentially a complex system of relationships between and among countless individuals. Some of these individuals are like you, but a vast majority are very different from you. And yet you and they exist in a web of connections, actions, and consequences.

ethical-reasoningIn this diagram, the outer circle and lines projecting from the center are dashed and not solid, to signify an ever-outward expansion. If your action is thought of as a stone tossed into a pond, how far out does the outermost ripple go? If your choices and behaviors are affecting the larger system, what will the consequences be for other forms of life and the generations still to come? Really, how big is the ‘pond’ you live in?

Ethical development refers to your growing capacity for acting deliberately within an expanding horizon of values.

With ALL OF THAT in mind, what is the best thing to do in a given situation? What action will benefit the maximum number of stakeholders – all those who will be, are likely to be, or one day might be affected? That’s what is meant by Maximal Benefit.

Now let’s come back to the ethical challenge posed at the beginning:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

An ethic of Self-interest disregards any values that have no obvious and direct gain to you. Your decision will be determined by whether you feel that the personal payoff outweighs the risk of getting caught. If you can get away with it and there’s a chance for a pay-raise, then you will allow the safety compromise without much hesitation.

An ethic of Game Rules is most interested in rules and shared expectations governing your behavior. Your decision will be determined by a desire to play fair and help your team succeed. The dilemma is complicated by the fact that other companies competing with you in the bigger game called the Free Market are not playing by the rules. Even though safety standards have been in place for a while, perhaps the times are changing and your company needs to keep up.

An ethic of Moral Character strives to stay true to yourself by acting in a way that is consistent with your understanding of a ‘good person’. Your decision will be determined by this inner voice of conscience. One complication here has to do with the matter of whether one’s conscience is inherent to human nature or a product of social upbringing. To the degree that it is learned and reinforced by society, some individuals go into adult life without much of an inner moral compass.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit considers what effect your action is likely to have in the bigger picture and longer view of things. Your decision will be determined by a pursuit of greatest well-being. In the case of your decision over product safety standards, a possible salary raise, the competitive advantage of your company, and even whether or not a compromise would break your commitment to moral integrity are secondary to the bigger question of what consequences your decision might have farther out and later on for all concerned.

 

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The Universe as Your Self

self

A coworker recently confessed to a change of mind on the question of whether people are fundamentally generous or selfish. The election of a new US president who is an outspoken advocate of capitalism, and equally outspoken with his opinions against certain demographics and protecting the biosphere, has made her wonder if maybe the darker side of people now coming out is closer to the core of human nature than a consequence of our conditioning. She has held a brighter view on the topic, but perhaps that was naive.

As existence in the global context of international affairs and climate change becomes less secure, our tendency is to pull in the horizon of what contains our centered experience of self. When we were newborns there was no horizon, no outer limit and containing boundary, but neither did we occupy a centered sense of self. The ensuing social construction project of identity that was managed and supervised by our tribe effectively pushed us into our center and set the horizon wherein our identity would have value and clout.

Essentially identity is a function of identifying-with, and our handlers (parents, teachers, and other taller powers) shaped us with both good counsel and moral prejudices as we linked our identity outward. Depending on our actual conditions of life, along with this mixture of wisdom and bigotry, we established our sense of self and set out to make our way in the world.

In reflecting on my friend’s ethical conundrum – whether human beings deepest down are generous or selfish (in classical terms, good or evil) – it strikes me as one important place where spirituality comes into play. By that I am not referring to whether or not one is religious in the conventional sense, by belonging to a faith tradition or believing in god. As I use it, spirituality names a more or less disciplined way of being where certain practices and habits nurture a deep sense of one’s grounding mystery, serving to inspire an individual response (and responsibility) to the higher wholeness (or community) of life.

When we are centered in the grounding mystery – my name for that gracious uplift of existence in the present moment sensed in the provident support of each breath – our horizon of identity expands and we realize that we belong to a much larger experience. Even more than belonging to it, we are manifestations of it.

We experience this expansion of self to the degree that we are able (and willing) to drop the smaller identity contracts defining our personal ego. If we happen to be neurotically insecure, defensive, ambitious, and caught in our convictions, the challenge of letting go of this self and dropping into a larger experience of reality will be too much. As Jesus said to a rich young man who almost got it, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This experience of liberation is not something we can render adequately into words, which is why the mystical traditions that cultivate it prefer to keep silent on the matter. (Both ‘mystery’ and ‘mystical’ are derived from the Greek root muein, meaning ‘to close’ the mouth in speechless wonder.) But we can come at it conceptually with a contemplative tool something like my diagram above. Let’s give it a try.

You, an individual and separate center of personal identity (ego), are there at the top. Congratulations. At this level you stand alone, unique with your personality, autobiography, attachments, and special circumstances of life. As we step down a level, you become aware of belonging to a class of others similar to you. Maybe this is your family or gang of familiars who share your skin color, ethnicity, economic status, moral values, or whatever. The point is, even though there are more of you, your personal identity remains fairly provincial and small.

Of course, beyond the field of local attachments, common beliefs, and shared lifestyle there are many others – and many different types of others. In my diagram the different colors of human form represent the remarkable diversity of humankind: living in different places, different cultures, and carrying on in very different ways. But they are all human, which means that if you cared to, you could allow your horizon of identity expand so as to include everyone else, regardless of what makes them different from you.

‘Human’ rather than some set of subcategories has become the horizon of your self-identity. Now “love your neighbor as yourself” makes better sense as “love your neighbor as your self.”

But what if we didn’t stop at the horizon of our human species, however much larger that boundary of inclusion is than the contracted ego? The next step downward in my diagram holds an image of Earth, representing the riot of life in all its variety on our planet. We need to remember that humans weren’t dropped onto the earth from outside; instead we emerged from the earth as one strand in its evolution of life. In a very direct and concrete way – that is, not merely metaphorical – humankind is an expression of Earth energy, a product of its planetary process, a manifestation and latter-day articulation of ‘geo-intelligence’.

Engaging our grounding mystery at deeper and more elementary levels, we begin to realize that being human doesn’t separate us from the community of life on our planet, which necessarily includes the animal, vegetal, fungal, microbial, and inorganic substrates. Our new ethical mandate now becomes, “Love the earth as your self.” Considerations of our human future must take the planet into account, along with the countless species that are also expressions and contributing members of its biosphere.

In the words of Chief Seathl (or Seattle), “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Why stop there? Earth, too, is a product of a 14-billion-year process called the universe – the single (uni) turning (verse) mystery of all things. So if the earth formed inside this universal process; and if life emerged out of the earth; and if humans evolved within the streaming adventure of life on our planet; and, last but by all means not least, you came to consciousness as a unique human individual, then the horizon of your centered experience of self includes it all!

You are the universe – again, not the contracted personal ego caught in its delusion of separateness, but your deeply centered experience of self. So, love the universe as your self.

 

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