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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 Final Recession

Democracy is based philosophically on a belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings. Think about it: if you believe otherwise, that human beings are not basically good – i.e., prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic by nature – but rather selfish, malicious, and vengeful, then why would you support the idea of giving them the power to self-govern?

Democracy’s most vocal detractors over the centuries, including the Greek philosopher Plato, have harbored serious doubts and some deep convictions on the topic. Instead of having no government at all, which would result in a vicious anarchy, they have usually advocated for some form of aristocracy where a few brighter minds, deeper pockets, or bigger clubs run the show and keep the rabble in check.

Not in the American Experiment, however. Its early stages were characterized by a majority (though admittedly not unanimous) vote for basic human goodness.

Granted, American democracy is of the republican (representational) variety and doesn’t give ‘the people’ authority to do whatever they want – which is likely what worried Plato most. But still, in the minds of its principal framers, and eventually in the charter documents they authored as its Constitution, there was a profound confidence in human nature as endowed with certain inalienable rights and communal propensities.

Especially of late, we’ve been seeing less evidence of those supposed communal propensities, and more of what surely seems like a dark side to human nature. The “Me First” campaign of Donald Trump, spun and stitched into his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has activated different impulses in our citizens: suspicion of neighbors, retribution against enemies and those we believe have wronged us, and a readiness to use deception or even violence to get our way. What I coined as “Trumpence” back in 2016 is the resolve to do whatever it takes to put ourselves first.

In a popular sovereignty like American democracy, the elected leader is really a symptom of what’s going on in the nation.

If democracy is to work, its citizens and leaders need to be engaged in recognizing, awakening, empowering, and developing the good in ourselves and each other. If we simply stay back on our heels in shock over what our president has said or done most recently (which is probably right where he wants us), our otherwise creative and communal energies will be caught up in cycles of reaction and effectively neutralized. It’s this backward distancing from what democracy requires that I am calling the Final Recession.

The qualifier ‘final’ makes the point that, should we continue very much longer in this disengaged state, the American Experiment will be over.

So let’s takes stock of what’s falling back and away from the front lines where democracy lives or dies. I have three terms to offer for your reflection. Each one is a vital ingredient to successful democracy, and all together they comprise a complete picture reaching from our overt actions in public life, to the personal discipline of perspective-taking, and deeper into what I regard as our spiritual intelligence as a species.

Just like a plant growing up from its roots, when the vigor underground is compromised or diseased, the whole self is in danger. Our spiritual intelligence is what enables us to reach with awareness into the grounding mystery of existence, circling thence out and around us into the larger contexts of life with an experience-based understanding of our communion with it all. Because of its critical position among my three terms – and since everything higher up expresses and depends on this spiritual health within us – we’ll start here.

Empathy

Not to be confused with pity, sympathy, or even compassion, empathy is our innate ability to identify with and understand another person’s experience. We have this ability by virtue of the fact that the human experience is so similar across historical periods and social realms. You may never have had the experience of being forcibly separated from your parent or child, but you can empathize with what another individual is going through because you have experienced what it’s like to lose contact with someone you love and depend on, to have something you need taken away, or to be prevented from being the support that someone else desperately needs.

Despite the differences among our numerous body features and attributes, the human nervous system is essentially identical across the categories of ethnicity, gender, and age. Because you have known separation and loss in your life, you don’t have to guess what it must be like for a child and parent to be forcibly separated. Yes, to some extent the difference between that human experience and your own may need to be filled in by your imagination – and be grateful if that’s true – but the registration of separation anxiety on a human nervous system is universally the same.

What this means, of course, is that you must check in with your human experience in order to identify with and understand the experience of another. Sure, you can ‘feel badly’ for them in their situation, and even wish it didn’t have to be that way. It must be awful to be separated from the one person you most depend on, you think to yourself. But until you go deep enough into your own experience of separation, isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and loss, you may be said to have pity, sympathy, or compassion for that poor soul, but not empathy – not yet.

Once your nervous system fully identifies with what that other person is going through, then and only then do you realize in a fully experiential way that you and that other person are truly one.

Consideration

From the root meaning “with the stars,” consideration refers to a disciplined practice of looking at your choices within a larger frame of reference. The stars indicate a cosmic frame of reference, which is as large and far out as this frame can go. As the contextual frame is expanded, we also find our view of time lengthening, stretching through the predictable near-future consequences of a considered choice to its foreseeable and likely effects farther out and ahead in time.

Of course, a literal consideration throws the horizon beyond even Earth time, including therefore not only the direct outcome you may be wanting, but the repercussions and collateral effects of a choice on your own life in the longer run, as well as on future generations and other species of life.

Now, you should be able to see how a recession of empathy, a lost connection to your own inner depths, will tend to shrink your frame of reference. Since you cannot really identify with what parent-child separation feels like, your optional futures don’t need to take them into consideration. Indeed your world – referring to the web of meaning you have constructed around yourself – doesn’t include them because they have nothing in common with you.

You probably won’t admit this aloud, but the gap between your life and theirs is enough to make you suspect them as not even fully human. Our president refers to the arrival of Central American families at our border as an “infestation,” which leaves us with one course of action: pest control.

Responsibility

True democracy requires its citizens to exercise self-control, to take care of their property and look after their families, to be informed and involved in their government, considerate of their neighbors, and daily devoted to the greater good. Responsibility is literally the ability to respond, referring specifically to a thoughtful reply in word and action instead of merely reacting impulsively to what happens.

Your ability to respond thus depends on your degree of success in opening a frame of reference beyond the reflex actions and emotional reactions provoked in the moment.

This is where the final recession is most evident today in American democracy. Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote. More and more of us are allowing the media to curate our picture of the world around us. We feel like things are spinning along their own predetermined courses and that our voices and choices don’t really matter.

If Earth’s mean temperature is rising, what can I do about that? If the government is channeling resources away from education and into defense, then it probably means that we’re vulnerable to hostile takeover (or an ‘infestation’) and just need more bombs than books right now.

If our president is gifted in one thing, it’s in spinning a script to the American people that is on topic with our greatest fears but far out from the actual facts. Many of his executive orders are based in reaction more than genuine responsibility. His “Make America Great Again” campaign shows that his frame of reference is dangerously small and surreptitiously focused in favor of only a very small minority of Americans.

And on the question of whether he truly identifies with and deeply understands the human experience, whether American or Mexican, white or black or brown, rich or poor, here in this country or on the other side of the world – well, what do you think?

In the end – but hopefully before the end – it’s up to you and me. Voters who are more empathically grounded in the human experience, who are more aware of what’s really going on around them, and who take responsibility for their lives, their happiness, and for the wellbeing of everyone, will elect leaders who can truly lead our way forward as a nation.

 

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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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The Mandala of Four Aims

In a recent post entitled Refresh and Restart I introduced the idea of religion as having four aims, considered on the analogy of computer software applications. While every program needs to be compatible with the computer’s deeper operating system, it will also have a specific design objective in what it does – organize data, calculate numbers, generate text, create graphics, edit videos, play games, and so forth. You won’t get a spreadsheet to trim and splice segments of video; it wasn’t designed for that.

Similarly, a given religion (take your pick) needs to be compatible with and supported by the operating system of human spiritual intelligence. This is the thread of our quadratic intelligence that intuits the deeper ground and higher wholeness of existence, as well as our communion with all things.

When religion loses this thread – by that peculiar combination of ignórance, conviction, and dogmatism so common today – it ceases to be true in the sense of expressing and speaking to our spiritual quest for oneness.

Assuming fidelity to this deeper register of spirituality, a religion can also be evaluated according to how effectively it accomplishes one or more of four aims. Even though a given religion will carry all four, certain historical, social, and psychological conditions will focus its preference on one more than the others.

The danger is that these others will be pushed out of the frame altogether by a growing obsession with this one, now absolute truth. This is a second way that religion ceases to be true: when it makes one way (or aim) the only way of salvation.

The diagram above illustrates the four aims of religion arranged as a mandala or sacred design. I also want to make a case for arranging them just as I have, as a polarity of opposites on a horizontal and vertical axis. This particular arrangement shifts our contemplation from a mere two-dimensional pattern to the mandala of four aims as also a matrix of meaning.

The four aims, I am suggesting, are basic to our construction of meaning in the way they orient our quest into four major fields (or zones) of human concern.

First Zone: Tribal Solidarity

Because humans depend on social bonding not only to survive infancy but to ‘be somebody’ and live a meaningful life, the social concerns of belonging, intimacy, trust, and group loyalty continue to figure prominently throughout our lifespan. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is one of our severest punishments.

As the personality individuates a unique identity (ego), the process of differentiation must be counterbalanced by affiliation in order to keep us properly connected to our tribe. Person, personal, and personality are all forms of the basic idea of persona, referring to the ‘masks’ we put on (or roles we play) in our interactions with others.

The arc of a human career – through the changing roles of family, work, and service to our community – is profoundly affected by the nature and quality of relationships that sustain us in tribal solidarity.

Second Zone: Worldly Success

Still, the prosperity of every society depends on more than strong bonds among its members. Our young must not only be loved, supported, and encouraged in their development as individuals, but they also require the necessary education, training, resources, and opportunities to take their place in our shared economy.

As parents, we work and hope that our children will themselves grow up to work and hope the same for their children. No parent has ever dreamed of having bums and freeloaders as descendants. Instead, we want them to do their best, to accomplish the goals set before them, to one day be successful and responsible adults.

Across the cultures worldly success has been measured in terms of material prosperity, a healthy family, good reputation, and a long life.

Third Zone: Heavenly Hope

While not all religions hold the same view of what happens or where we go when we die, they all articulate visions of life that expand the frame beyond our fourscore-and-ten (if we’re lucky on that metric of worldly success). Even if we’re not believers, most of us have at least contemplated our short measure of life against a backdrop of the generations and even cosmic time.

Regardless of whether we ascribe to a doctrine of personal immortality, we all hold the hope that our lives matter, that good behavior counts for something, and that not everything about us will simply rot away to nothing after we die.

‘Heavenly’, then, implies the larger context and longer view of our life which serves to amplify (rather than extinguish) the precious value of each moment, up to and including the very last one.

Zone Four: Mystical Union

Even if many religions don’t promote it as a bona fide orientation or aim, they all – that is, the ones that are true in the two senses mentioned earlier – acknowledge a fundamental distinction between our beliefs about god and our experience of God. The case change is meant to reflect this difference, between a present mystery (‘G’) and the names, concepts, attributes, and personality we may attach to it in our mind (‘g’).

When a religion’s concept of god gets authorized and fixed in place as orthodoxy, the availability of that mystery to our present experience is closed off – or veiled – by the meaning draped over it.

That drape or veil creates the illusion of God as an object (god), separate from us as a being among beings rather than the Being of beings – that is to say, as the ground of being-itself. The aim of mystical union is to lift away the veil of separation for a present experience of the mystery.


With the four aims now in view and more fully defined, we can briefly take note of some creative tensions among them – and of the entire mandala as a matrix of meaning.

The horizontal axis sets tribal solidarity and worldly success in opposition, insofar as the process of ego formation and ‘making a name for ourselves’ involves separating from those primary bonds where our sense of security first took root.

For its part, the tribe can pull back on this process too hard with its expectations of obedience and conformity, traditionally presided over by the patron deities of theism. From the other side, an unrestrained egoism will brashly disregard tribal values for the sake of individual gain and glory, as is widespread today especially in the North Atlantic societies of the modern West.

The vertical axis between the aims of heavenly hope and mystical union carries a tension of positive and negative attitudes, respectively, as they relate to the conventional arrangement of those horizontal concerns. On the positive side, heavenly hope anticipates a final reunion (accent on community) with those heroes, saints, and loved ones who departed before us. It also holds the promised reward for our faith, virtue, and sacrifice in this life.

With our ‘treasure in heaven’, we can more easily share our time and possessions with others who need them, as well as find strength to endure hardship and loss.

Negatively, the path to mystical union is universally depicted as necessitating a retreat into solitude (apart from community) where we surrender our attachments, ambitions, and finally our personal identity (i.e., our worldly success) to the essential mystery of oneness.

It’s important to understand that ‘heavenly destiny’ and ‘ground of being’ are both operating in the matrix of meaning as metaphors which serve to open awareness beyond the limits of tribal affections (us and ours) and egoic entanglement (me and mine). A literal reading of these metaphors turns them into distant and esoteric locations, stripping them of their power to facilitate the breakthrough of consciousness that true religion makes possible.

 
 

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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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