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Category Archives: Timely and Random

On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Leaders We Need Now

Every age and generation has a need for capable leaders, for those who are able to see a bigger picture, understand what’s happening, and help the rest of us through the doors of necessary change. A leader is not always the one up front, with the loudest voice and getting all the attention. A true leader might not even be the one who was elected.

Go figure.

When I think about the kind of leaders we need today, three critical principles of leadership come to mind. Each principle corresponds to a dimension of our existence as human beings: (1) as individuals who (2) interact with others in (3) systems of various kinds and complexity. Not only effective leaders, but proficient human beings – that is to say, those who are skilled in the art and wisdom of being human – must learn how to manage and nurture the consilient unity of these three dimensions.

When we don’t (can’t or won’t) hold them in balance, we quickly succumb to frustration, disorientation, foolishness, and crazy-making dumbfuckery.

In this post I’ll lay out three critical principles of leadership that we sorely need today. Each principle is the sun-center to an orbiting set of values, which will only be mentioned but not explored in much detail here. I don’t believe there is a fixed number to each set of values, and we should allow for the way these principles get interpreted and play out in any given context. The principles themselves, however, are universally valid, and I would argue that no culture can flourish long or well without holding them as sacred commitments.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: We are all part of a turning mega-system of existence called the Universe. This universal system can be analyzed into smaller and deeper star systems, solar systems, and planetary ecosystems; into regional cultural systems, more local social systems, and family systems; into individual organisms and the internal subsystems that conspire in keeping them alive; and deeper still into the molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems of matter and energy.

As far as we know, nothing exists except as and within systems.

Stewardship

The principle that orients a set of values applying specifically to living as and in systems is stewardship. In the conventional sense, a steward has the responsibility of managing and caring for the resources of a household, which is a family system where several individuals live together in community. Stewards aren’t owners, and what they look after is not their personal property. Instead, we might say that a steward and everything he or she looks after belongs to the household.

As a kind of manager, a steward helps to sustain a healthy household economy and promote harmonious community among its inhabitants. This web of resources, interactions, and shared experience is a more local instance of what we commonly name the Web of Life – still another term for the Universe considered from the vantage of living things. To view human beings through the lens of stewardship – as many religious traditions have long done – is to regard them not as owners or externally positioned “masters of the universe,” but as members of this one magnificent household of life.

With our evolutionary grant of self-awareness and creative freedom, humans possess a unique ability in contemplating our place and role within, as well as our special responsibility to, our planetary home. As many myths suggest, coming into this responsibility as stewards follows a certain path – the archetypal Hero’s Journey – of separating from our source, establishing an individual center of identity (ego), and then releasing this hard-won identity for a deeper and larger experience of oneness.

Empathy

Whether leaders and the rest of us can lead and live by the principle of stewardship is dependent on the quality of connection we enjoy with others. If individuals have difficulty identifying themselves as partners in a system (the relationship itself), the cause is often rooted in a lack of empathy. When we cannot connect in deep and meaningful ways, the higher systems of our life together go unseen.

The best way I know of properly defining empathy is by comparing it to its sound-alike: sympathy. Literally ‘sympathy’ means “to suffer with” (or alongside) another, to be affected by their pain or misfortune. The different prefix “em” (or en) denotes a critical shift in position, from alongside to within. In other words, the individual transcends his or her separate identity – this time not outward to the larger system encompassing them both, but inward to a place of essential oneness prior to their differentiation as individuals.

By virtue of their identical natures as living, sentient, and self-conscious human beings, individuals are capable of an empathetic connection.

Our first experience of empathy was when we lived literally inside our mother and our developing nature drew its life from hers. Once we were born and officially began our own Hero’s Journey, the formation of a separate identity slowly (but at times dramatically: think of adolescence) pushed our self-center out and away from the source.

Even though we continued to carry within ourselves those deeper registers of sentient life, and with them at least the capacity for empathetic connection, the degree in which our ego formation got hooked into neurotic hangups made much of this natural capacity unavailable.

The leaders we need today are individuals who are grounded, centered, and open empathically to the experience of others. They are the ones who truly understand that we’re all in this together.

Integrity

This brings us to my third principle of leadership, which actually comes first in the evolutionary sequence and serves as the basis of human proficiency in a general sense. Integrity refers to a state whereby two or more elements hold together as one. In this case, psychosomatic integrity speaks to a unity of mind and body – or more accurately of soul and body, where ‘soul’ names our deep inner life rather than an immortal entity (the so-called true self or “real me”) residing in the body.

The integral balance of soul/mind and body is a growing fascination in psychology, which is coming to regard this balance as a key to understanding a large number of disorders, illnesses, and troubles afflicting our species. When early life experiences get us hooked into neurotic patterns of insecurity and defensiveness, mistrust and self-doubt, suspicion and resentment, our restless mind doesn’t let our body calm down and recover. Instead, our animal nature loses its resilience, succumbs to the stress, and even starts to attack itself.

The leaders we need today are individuals who successfully manage their psychosomatic integrity, who express strong interpersonal empathy with others, and who live in stewardship of the systems on which our lives, health, community, and human future depend.

When given the opportunity, let’s try to elect more of them.

 

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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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It’s Not All About You

The holiday season affords fresh opportunities for us to get poked, when others get to see sides of us that, in normal and less stressful times, we manage to keep off-stage. A combination of spending money we don’t really have, fighting traffic on the streets and in stores, and gathering with family members who know best where to poke, puts us in that peculiar holiday mood of excitement, fatigue, annoyance, and regret.

Of course, things would probably go better for us (and for those around us) if we understood what it is inside us that gets triggered, causing us (at least that’s how it feels) to act out in ways we later wish we hadn’t. But this would require some serious and honest self-reflection, when our habit is not to look too closely at what’s going on inside.

To what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living, we could add, with the Buddha, that it also perpetuates needless suffering.

In this post I will guide you on a tour of your personality’s interior – yes, it’s true, of mine as well, along with everyone else’s. My constructivist approach to psychology takes the view that our personality, including its executive center of identity (ego, Latin for “I”), is an illusory architecture of social codes, reflexes, attitudes, and defenses that seems very real but is utterly lacking in substance. Who you are, as distinct from what you are as a human being, is purely a construct, a configuration held together by the pretense of being somebody.

The part of your personality that ego presents to the world, also called your ‘on-stage’ self or mask (Latin persona), is confronted with the challenge of negotiating the satisfaction of your needs in an environment of limited resources and the competing interests of other actors. As long as there are no major surprises, emergencies, or unknowns you can manage this negotiation from day to day without much trouble. But when conditions change unexpectedly or you’re forced into situations where you feel threatened, this ‘thin skin’ of who you’re pretending to be can tear open under the stress.

At this point, still deeper and heretofore hidden vulnerabilities are exposed, and these activate more severe defenses – what Wilhelm Reich named ‘character armor’.

My diagram has taken an illustration of Earth’s interior and adapted it to represent the interior of your personality, with its distinct layers of character armor and the vulnerabilities they are meant to protect. The general idea is that deeper pokes (i.e., assaults or threats that penetrate the surface pretense of who you are), provoke more aggressive and extreme defense reactions, presumably because what’s being defended is closer to the core of who you (believe you) are. My guided tour will begin at the very core and then move out from there into layers higher up and closer to the surface of your managed identity.

I’ve made the point numerous times in this blog that all of us without exception have some degree of insecurity at the core. This is inevitable, given our imperfect parents and the unavoidable mis-timing between the urgency and satisfaction of our basic needs in infancy. So it’s not whether we are insecure, but to what extent our deeper insecurity wreaks neurotic havoc in our personality.

We can think of insecurity – although importantly it insinuates itself into the personality before we have acquired language to name or think about it – as an ineffable (unspeakable) sense of risk attached to existence itself. To some extent we all hold a lingering doubt regarding the provident nature of reality.

When external conditions and events make you feel at risk, it’s this character armor around your core insecurity that gets poked. While in most situations of this kind your very existence is not in question, the effect of such surface signals is to arouse a suspicion against reality and its full support. Perhaps there is a memory of an actual past trauma that your present situation is evoking, or it might simply be pressing upon your general anxiety over the prospect of falling into The Abyss.

For mystics, meditation amounts to an intentional descent (what ego fears as a fall) past the personality and deeper into the grounding mystery of being (ego’s Abyss). In popular religion this release of surrender is called faith – commonly confused with belief, and consequently corrupted.

You need to remember that your personality was formed partly by a conspiracy of taller powers (parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults), but also by the strategies you used to get what you needed. Some of these strategies worked marvelously, while others failed miserably. A complicating factor was the insecurity you carried into each new challenge or opportunity.

Even though the challenge or opportunity was directly about your ability to resolve, overcome, or move through it successfully, a sense that reality might not provide the support you needed undermined your self-confidence. The next layer up from the core of insecurity, then, is all about inadequacy: not being enough or having what it takes.

When you feel inadequate, you are willing to let opportunities slip by. This is because you don’t regard them as genuine opportunities – doors opening to possibility, growth, or improvement – but instead as challenges, in the sense that they require something from you and carry a risk of failure.

Your sense of inadequacy, with its roots in insecurity, quickly re-frames such challenges as problems, which you want less of, not more. You trick yourself into believing that you are avoiding a problem when you are actually turning down an opportunity.

One more layer and our picture is complete. Personalities that lack faith in reality and confidence in themselves commonly employ strategies whereby they compare themselves to others – but also to the ideals of perfection they have in mind – and consistently see themselves as not measuring up. In this way, inadequacy translates into inferiority.

The French psychologist Alfred Adler believed that a sense of inferiority is an early driving factor in human development, as youngsters measure themselves against their taller powers (literally superior, as in above them) who seem so omnipotent.

According to Adler’s theory we can come to adopt an inferiority complex where not only are our efforts never good enough, but we ourselves aren’t good enough as compared with others or our mental ideal. As compensation we may insist on our own self-importance, or push others down so we can feel better about ourselves.

With this stratified model of the personality in front of us you can better understand how identity is constructed, at least in part to sustain the illusion that you are somebody. You have it all together, and you show others only what you want them to see. But be ready. As you gather at the table or around the tree this holiday season, you just might get poked.

It will be a good time to remember that it’s not all about you.

 

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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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