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Learning to Trust Ourselves

At this same time four years ago I published a post that introduced what I called The Two Systems, referring to two sets of values and concerns that profoundly shape human culture and our individual lives. These two systems are like the Yin and Yang of Taoism, where the creative tension between them informs our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions – the very structure of our personality, interpersonal relationships, and our engagement with reality as a whole.

According to the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

What we can know and say about the Tao is only what is manifested in the dance of Yin and Yang (soft and hard, moist and dry, quiet and active, female and male are a few of the metaphors that Lao-Tzu uses in speaking of them). It’s not that one or the other is the ultimate reality of Tao, but rather their interactive unity presents us with an epiphany (an “appearing through”) of what cannot be named.

Similarly when it comes to understanding the Tao of human relationships, it’s necessary to understand and honor the creative tension between two forces, which I call the love of power and the power of love, or supremacy and communion. If this tension should snap, the love of power and the power of love will become pathological, where power devolves into domination and love deteriorates into submission.

Of course I realized even back then that representing supremacy or the love of power as anything but pathological would stir suspicion in my readers, particularly those who are or have been victims of someone else’s love of power. How can the love of power be good in any sense?

First of all, I don’t want to say that either supremacy or communion are good in and of themselves, since this would be breaking their creative tension to exclude one system in favor of the other. Power is not ‘bad’ and love is not ‘good’, but great benefit is to be found in their dynamic balance. My diagram illustrates this dynamic balance by complementary values distributed across the two systems.

At the farther poles of the arc of supremacy are virtue (Greek areté, excellence) and competition, both of which are clearly evident in athletics and capitalism. In competition we test and strengthen our abilities, improve our products and services, and become more proficient in our discipline. The desire for excellence in sport, business, art or craft is what I mean by the love of power; and a competitive drive can push us to always be improving our game.

Approaching closer to the axis of dynamic balance with communion, influence and responsibility continue this accent on power. To have influence is to use our power to effect a wanted or necessary change, and taking responsibility is about applying our knowledge, skill, and authority toward accomplishing or ensuring some end.

At the very center of balance is trust, where power is at one with love.

Shifting over to the side of communion we can follow a similar, and complementary, set of values. At the far ends are equality, which stands opposite to virtue on the side of supremacy, and the ‘working together’ of cooperation across from competition. Closer to the central axis are relationship and connection, moving the accent of interaction more to the bond and rapport between individuals than their individual contributions.

The point of all of this is really to offer a meditation on the critical importance of trust in our personal, interpersonal, and larger social life together. To the vertical axis of my earlier model I have added the dimensions of peace (being inwardly rooted in the ground of being) and truth (being outwardly oriented to the reality beyond us).

When we honor the dynamic balance of supremacy and communion in our lives we are in a position of trust. From that position we can drop below ego concerns for a deeper peace within, as we are also able to look through our constructs of meaning for the truth of what’s really real.

On the other hand, when we choose power instead of love or love instead of power – effectively snapping the creative tension of supremacy and communion – this access point is closed to us. Domination and submission alike block our path to the deeper and higher experiences of the spiritual life. When we lose the balance and fall to one side or the other of the middle way, the flow of our human spirit gets diverted to pathological extremes.

Our ability to trust each other is a function of our individual capacity to trust ourselves.

I’ve written a lot about what makes trusting ourselves problematic. A chronic nervous state of anxiety (or the inner feeling of insecurity) can get set early in life if our environment doesn’t provide what we need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (what I name our subjective needs).

Psychologically our developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) must disassociate from the anxious body to keep from falling into it. Here the body is not to be trusted, which means that we cannot trust ourselves. This self-distrust works out into our relationships as harbored suspicion, withheld love, emotional manipulation, and a negative opinion of another’s nature and intentions.

You might agree with me that this condition is widespread in our world today.

If we are generally anxious and insecure, what can we do about it? Is this ‘just the way I am’? Do we simply need to find ways of gratifying our craving for security and accommodate the same in others? This is what we are doing currently, and it is obviously not helping. So what then?

We could put effort into working things out between us, in the hope we can reach a place where mutual trust is finally established. Using a method of dialogue or talk therapy might help us make some progress, but even here our self-distrust will get in the way.

As my model suggests, our mutual engagement in trust is made possible as each of us is able to verify and correct our constructs of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) so as to be more reality-oriented. Our strongest beliefs, called convictions because they hold our mind captive (like a convict) and prevent us from thinking outside their box, prevent us from seeing anything as it really is.

Or else they cause us to see things that aren’t really there or aren’t true because we can’t feel secure without them. Either way, our convictions blind us to the really real in each other.

But we have to go deeper still and make this very personal, for our convictions are compelled by anxiety, and this profound and chronic insecurity is what keeps us from trusting the grounding mystery of our own body. If we can’t be fully present in our body and relax into being, our security-seeking strategies (attachments and their protective convictions) will only amplify our suffering, as the Buddha discovered.

The self-described “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts posed a simple question: “If you can’t trust yourself, can you really trust this mistrust of yourself?” Contrary to much popular religion these days, our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will not be found in escape from the body, but only as we are willing to let go, free-fall, and become fully incarnate in its warm presence.

When we can trust ourselves again, we will be able to trust each other, and the world will be redeemed.

 

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The Price of Ignórance

We know for a fact that the pesticides we spray on our crops end up in our grocery stores. We know that rampant consumerism is unraveling the delicate web of life on our planet. We know that collateral losses of civilian casualties make wars criminally unjust. We know that teaching students what to think and not how to think is sterilizing their innate curiosity and creativity. And we know that exploiting the time and labor of our working class is eroding society from within.

But we do these things anyway.

When we go ahead and do something that we know is damaging the living systems we depend on for health, happiness, and a better future, we are demonstrating a willful disregard for the greater good. Alan Watts called it ignórance – where the accent signifies a deliberate intent to act (or not act) when we are fully aware that the consequences are (or will be) detrimental to the well-being of others and even of ourselves.

Genuine ignorance is when we don’t know what we need to know. Ignórance is knowing what we need to know but acting as if we don’t.

And yet, it must also be that something essential – some critical degree of understanding – is absent from the active knowledge set informing our way of life. Maybe this missing element is less about a comprehension of facts than an intuition of something else. I’m using intuition here as referring to understanding gained by direct insight rather than through a discursive process of logical reasoning or drawing inferences from available facts. To see into something means to grasp its inner essence or its place in some greater whole. Such intuition is spontaneous, and the insight it brings typically changes how we see everything else as well.

Our age is unprecedented for the amount of knowledge we possess – or at least for the amount of information we have access to. We can get facts on just about anything by searching the cloud with a smart phone. Whereas not long ago our questions would have stirred curiosity and wonder, maybe inspiring us to imagine what the answer might be or do some research ourselves, today we can get 160,000,000 search results in less than a second. 160,000,000! Who really needs to think anymore?

We’re at a place, however, where our ignórance is sending us, together with the entire planet, to the brink of disaster. Toxic chemicals in our food are switching the genetic code of our bodies and programming them to self-destruct. Byproducts of consumerism are choking the atmosphere, poisoning rivers and oceans, burning rich topsoil into sand, melting the ice caps, swamping seashores, and disrupting global weather patterns. Standardized testing and the industry of turning students into graduates has turned many students into depressed failures instead.

We haven’t been doing these things forever, but it’s as if we can’t not do them now since the landslide of consequences is moving too fast to jump off.

Behind our ignórance are convictions, beliefs about ourselves, others, and the nature of reality that are so closed and rigid as to hold our minds hostage. Something inside us knows that these cramped quarters are far too limited to contain the whole truth, not to mention what can’t even be rendered in language because it’s too fluid, dynamic, and impossible to pin down. But we’ve already made the agreement to trade away our access to reality for the security that convictions promise. The problem is that they can’t deliver on this promise, and no matter how tight and small our convictions become, the insecurity persists.

My diagram illustrates the four strands of human intelligence, what I name our Quadratic Intelligence. These strands come online during distinct critical periods, with physical (VQ) development leading the way, followed closely by the awakening of emotional (EQ) and then, later on, intellectual intelligence (RQ). A fourth strand of spiritual intelligence (SQ) is held open as a possibility, but depending on how things go at earlier stages, many of us may never enjoy the inner peace, creative freedom, and higher wisdom it makes possible. The reason for this will help us get beneath our convictions – which, remember, lie (sic) behind our ignórance.

The first challenge of existence was for our nervous system to match our external conditions with an internal state. A safe, stimulating, and resource-rich environment was matched with an internal state of security, confidence, and curiosity. Conversely, a harmful or resource-deprived environment was matched with an internal state of anxiety, which made our nervous system reactive and hypervigilant. This match of internal state to external conditions is all about calibrating sensitivity and motivating behavior that is adaptive. Anxiety motivates avoidance behavior, reducing exposure to danger and risk, which is nature’s way of helping us stay alive.

When the nervous system is set at higher levels of insecurity (i.e., anxiety) we tend to be overly sensitive to signs of threat. What might otherwise be a display of normal behavior in another individual is misperceived as guile, pretense, or aggression. An adaptive response in this case would be mistrust and suspicion, keeping distance and always ready to head for the exit.

For obvious reasons, an anxious nervous state severely affects the early development of emotional intelligence. We tried to manage our insecurity by clinging to things and people that made us feel safe, pushing away what was unfamiliar and different.

The above diagram depicts an in-turning spiral between the physical nervous system and our emotional intelligence, sucking the psychic energy of consciousness off its intended upward path and into a strangling vortex of insecurity. In some cases the anxiety can be so intense that we are sure our extinction is imminent. But most of us are just insecure enough to work hard at keeping our attachments close by.

So what happens when a large portion of our energy and attention is tied up in the things, people, and life arrangements that help us manage our deeper insecurity? The answer is that we form strong beliefs around them. Beliefs so strong, in fact, as to prevent us from thinking outside the box. Thinking is concrete, binary (either/or), and inflexible, crimping down on latent abilities for abstraction, paradoxical (both/and), and inclusive thought.

But then, in order to carry on with our mind in its box of convictions, we have to learn how to willfully disregard all evidence, logic, and common sense which suggests that what we’re doing is causing harm, or at least is counterproductive to what, deepest down, we really want for ourselves, our children, and the human future.

That’s the price of ignórance.

 

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In a Nutshell

I conclude my conversations with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel by summing up what I’ve learned. All of them were lights in their time, and each one spoke out of – and to – his particular cultural context. My re-reading of these authors has opened up a new insight, however, with regard to their respective places in human history. Whether they were German Lutheran, Anglican beatnik, or Hasidic Jew, these three thinkers have become portals of a new vision for humanity. Something deeper underground than what is specific to any given cultural moment breaks to the surface in their writings. Here are the main ideas.

We live like fish submerged in an unfathomable mystery called reality. Each moment offers a fresh experience of the ineffable wonder of being alive and part of it all. Humans have evolved an ability to reflect on our experience, to pull out the patterns – or put them in – in order to make sense of what’s going on. This business of meaning-making is our chief preoccupation as a species, and the products of our effort – identity, value, significance, and purpose – are vigorously defended as truth-itself.

In fact, for the longest time humans were not self-aware in this construction of meaning. That is to say, we were unselfconscious creators: the projections just came spontaneously out of our deeper imagination in the form of dance, art, symbol, poetry and myth – forming the web of meaning we call culture. We saw ourselves in these projected patterns of meaning, but we didn’t consciously recognize the intelligence “looking back” at us. In the ensuing dialogue of cultural development – over many millenniums – we have come to realize our role in all of this.

One place where our evolving intelligence looks back at us is in the mythological god. This term refers to the key figures of early narratives who are depicted as the primary agents in the creation, supervision, intervention and redemption of the world – focused mainly on the local worlds of the tribes that recited and passed on the stories. As we stretch out the history of mythology we notice that god has evolved over time, beginning as the intention within the forces of nature, becoming more interested in the moral foundations and government of tribal society, and eventually ascending to an absolute position outside the world-system as “the one in control of all things.”

A mythic-literal reading of the sacred narratives is confronted with this personal development in god, which is difficult to accept since god is supposed to be outside of time and essentially perfect. But what if, following the theory that the mythological god is really our own developing consciousness looking back at us, we use this growth chart as a leading indicator of human evolution? The evolution of our body is on a very long trajectory reaching back millions of years; but our ego development correlates exactly to the career of the mythological god. Coincidence?

The rise of ego (self-) consciousness begins in the visceral urgencies of biological life. Under the influence of the drives and reflexes that have secured our survival for countless generations, the infantile ego is powerless to resist. But over time and through the disciplines of tribal morality, “I” (ego) takes its place at the table as a civilized – Nietzsche would say, domesticated – member of the herd. At this point, our focus of value and concern has shifted from the biological imperative of survival to the task of maintaining a social identity, with its driving need to “fit in” (belonging) and “stand out” (recognition).

Remember that all of this world-construction activity is taking place on the ego, by the tribe, and under the divine supervision and final judgment of the mythological god. This gearing-together of who I am, who we are, and who’s in control of it all makes for a very captive audience. Once the doors are locked it’s nearly impossible to manage an escape – but who would want to leave anyway? Our god is the true god, we are the chosen people, and I will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven for being good (that is to say, obedient).

Remember, too, that all of this construction is taking place outside and around the present moment, where our soul swims in mystery. The erector set of culture makes for an exceedingly interesting, developmentally necessary, and magically entrancing game of distractions. Nietzsche wanted to pull it all down and clear the path to a higher humanity (Ubermensch), beyond good and evil. Watts taught that we can see through the cultural facade and step out of the role-play that is currently holding us hostage; we can wake up from the trance and find wisdom in our insecurity. And Heschel challenged us not to rest in this illusion of security, but rather to use the leverage-point of personal (ego) freedom to leap for the ring of responsibility.

This leads us back to “now” – which we never really left, nor can we. Having arched out of and away from the real presence of mystery and through our self-spun webs of meaning, we arrive once again in the living moment. Our awareness has been opened up and the focus of our attention now sees through what we once took as real. The seeds of creativity, compassion and wisdom, once the special possession of the mythological god, have begun to take root in their proper ground.

We are still becoming. The future is already being felt in the contractions. Don’t be afraid.

 

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A Second Look

Watts: “From this deeper point of view, religion is not a system of predictions. Its doctrines have to do, not with the future and the everlasting, but with the present and the eternal. They are not a set of beliefs and hopes but, on the contrary, a set of graphic symbols about present experience.”

I am sure that every one of us holds a deep intuition of what really matters in life. Not what is “most meaningful” but what is most real, and by implication where the true relevance of our life is grounded. The premise of Watts’ book – which concludes with this chapter – is that our ambition for security, motivated by the fear of extinction and the craving for permanence, is what keeps us looking outside this present moment for our salvation.

The fact of our insecurity – not simply the anxiety over it, but the naked reality of our passing life – cannot be escaped. However, much of what we do is for the purpose of diverting focus to things (attachments) that are fixed in space or defy the erosion of time. Whether as materialists or spiritualists, we hope that by holding on to what has weight or permanence our own existence will somehow be preserved.

But empirical science has discovered that matter is really just the momentary configuration of vibrant energy, coming together and falling apart at the joints through the dynamic interaction of elementary forces. And mystical spirituality has come to the realization – which also amounts to a disillusionment – that the gods of myth and theology are really representations and reflexes in our own minds of a profound, ineffable mystery. Standing on the edge of this mystery, ego is easily overwhelmed with vertigo.

In an effort to steady myself, I latch on to memories of the past or fantasies of the future, or else to something outside me, like another person, material possessions, or my patron deity (the mythological god). The result of all this grasping and clutching is really no less pleasant than the vertigo – anxiety, disappointment, frustration, regret, guilt, resentment, codependency, addiction and a soul-sick religion. But here’s the attraction: I (ego) am still at the center of all these states and circumstances. Life may suck, but it’s still my life.

In the practice of spiritual direction and transformational coaching, it always amounts to a breakthrough when the client finally understands what he’s doing in order to feel anxious or depressed, or how his habits and expectations are contributing to his relational conflicts and general disenchantment with life. Conventional psychotherapy will typically work to reconstruct the client’s past (in a case history), clarify a preferred future (the treatment objective), and modify his mood and behavior (using specific interventions) to help get him where he’d rather be.

Rarely will a client in therapy say, “I want to be more real.” That’s because most of our Western psychotherapies are not truly psycho (soul) therapies at all, but are instead based on our preoccupation with the personality and its pompous little captain, the ego. Personal identity is spun and suspended in the web of tribal culture, which makes the well-intentioned therapist an agent of the collective trance. Not that we don’t need addiction recovery, functional relationships, or more successful careers – we undoubtedly do. But if we just keep pulling along the past and pushing our way into the future, we will continue to squander our one chance at real life.

What does this mean for religion? I’ve been exploring a theory that regards religion as inherently paradoxical, a coordinated interplay between two evolutionary objectives – (1) providing support and aspirational focus to your developing ego by way of a projected ideal, the mythological god; and (2) awakening your soul to the ground of being, to the present mystery and mysterious presence of reality. The first objective encourages a literal reading of myth, with the action moving from left to right, through time and across the stage. In the Christian myth of salvation, for instance, Jesus Christ was an individual who came from god into the world, accomplished his work here and returned to god. One day he will come again. If you can believe this – and exactly what “this” is will depend on the denomination you ask – you may be considered a convert and become a member. When it all shakes out, you will be in heaven – ego intact.

The second objective requires a mystical reading, where the story is not about the past or future but is rather “a set of graphic symbols about present experience.” In this light, Jesus represents your separate ego, a personality defined by a past and directed toward a future. Christ (anointed one, the biblical equivalent to Buddha, awakened one) is your deeper self, or soul, ready to break forth in resurrection once this ego-momentum can be arrested, restrained and crucified. Now in the moment and fully present to life, your experience is one of authenticity and freedom. Salvation – the healing of your divided self – is here not a one-time accomplishment by someone else on your behalf, but rather the on-going challenge and invitation to be whole.

Now obviously the vertical axis and mystical reading will eventually “cost” more for the ego, which is partly why it’s the road less taken. But there’s also the tribe to think of, with its own organizational instincts and need for control. Remember that ego is simply a function of the tribe, the tribe is a role-play of morality, morality is a rule system derived from the tribe’s mythology, and mythology is the revealed word and will of god. It all ties together into a very tight web of meaning. The path of enlightenment and resurrection sets you free from fear and relaxes the grip of desire – the two motivational impulses that the tribe exploits to keep you captive. Threat of penalty and the lure of reward no longer matter, because now you are grounded in reality.

What else is there?

 

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Love and Self

Watts: “There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when [you are] convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love [yourself]. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”

I’ve broken my usual rhythm in this conversation so I can bring out a second quote of Watts, from the chapter entitled “Creative Morality.” His concluding remark “that one has no self to love” stands in obvious – which at this point only means apparent – opposition to our Western notion of the self as something solid and enduring. Besides, how can we make sense of Jesus’ “second greatest commandment,” to love your neighbor as yourself, if there is no self to love?

The answer to this question depends on the definition of self that we assume. My working assumption is that “self” designates a unity of three distinct centers of experience and their corresponding realms. Body involves us in the physical realm as a living organism inhabiting an environment. Ego involves us in the social realm as a member of a tribe, one of “us.” And soul involves us in the spiritual realm, which as I’m using the term isn’t something separate and apart from these other aspects of self, but instead opens us to the deeper ground and greater mystery of being.

These didn’t come together as my “self,” as in popular mythology where the soul preexists, briefly occupies, and eventually survives the body. Body, ego and soul are not separate “parts” but, once again, merely distinct centers of experience that evolve together through time. It is only because the language we use to make sense of all this is tethered to an ego, which is itself a social construction of the tribe, that we even presume to “have” a body and a soul.

In a fateful series of steps, ego, taking the dominant position, imagined an antagonism between body and soul, proceeded to scandalize the body and identify with the soul, and finally stepped fully into the role as a transcendent and heaven-bound immortal. Of course, this didn’t transpire in a vacuum, for we must remember that ego is itself only a construct and symptom of the tribe. In fact, this entire fantasy was very useful to the tribe, as it provided a way of managing the ego and enforcing a morality of obedience.

This was the situation in India 2,500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama saw through the trance and found a path of liberation. As the Buddha (awakened one) he came to the realization that ego’s self-designation as a metaphysically separate and permanent center of identity was not only lacking a basis in empirical experience but was also being exploited by the tribe to keep everyone in the game and awaiting their turn.

He stated his break from orthodoxy on this point in the doctrine of “no self” (anatta): The individual is a composite of mutually-arising conditions, just as a candle flame depends for its existence on the interplay of numerous elemental forces. Full enlightenment and perfect freedom come as we are able to quiet our cravings and allow the flame to “blow out” (nibbana). What comes after that? It’s not for us to know, he said, simply because it is unknowable. In other words, it’s a mystery.

Now we have sufficient background to understand where Watts is coming from, and what he means by saying “there is no self to love.” Though he never abandoned his Anglican roots, Watts became increasingly interested in the teachings of Buddhism and was convinced that it offered an effective alternative to the strangling orthodoxies of the West.

The idea of “no self” might even help us interpret the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (It was already part of the Hebrew scriptures that shaped the spirituality of Jesus). In this case, self is not the immortalized ego but merely a reflexive reference to what I am. I don’t have a self to love because I am this self, which makes self-love essentially spontaneous, unconditional and free-flowing.

And perhaps that’s the take-away message: Love creates and connects, and flows like a stream. We love ourselves when we can get out of the way and let its current move through us.

It’s not about me after all. What a bummer.

 

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The Divided Mind

Watts: “It is easy to see that most of the acts which, in conventional morals, are called evil can be traced to the divided mind. By far the greater part of these acts come from exaggerated desires, desires for things which are not even remotely necessary for the health of mind and body, granting that ‘health’ is a relative term. Such outlandish and insatiable desires come into being because man is exploiting his appetites to give the ‘I’ a sense of security.”

Security is an illusion. At any second an unsuspected bacterium could invade your immune system, a blood vessel in your brain could burst, a piece of space junk could fall out of the sky on your head, or a random act of violence could find you in the wrong place at the right time. Imagine what your life would become were you to make these slim probabilities your preoccupying focus.

Instead of fixating on them and driving yourself crazy, you do the responsible thing and build up a line of protection to keep any of it from happening. But now there’s a new worry over that monthly insurance payment, or a deepening sense of isolation as you keep yourself safe at home. So what can you do but see the doctor for a prescription drug that will take the edge off your anxiety or lift you off the floor of your depression. Then there’s the side-effects …

Our desperate quest for whatever can counteract or permanently transcend the inherent insecurity of existence actually creates new things to worry about. As we devote more resources to protecting our resources, eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. More is spent to keep from losing. Life becomes an exercise in circling the drain: put death off just a little longer and maybe you stand a chance of having a life. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.

We should be clear, it’s not the body that is driving this circus of absurdity. By following the rhythm of its natural life cycle, the body has evolved internal mechanisms to either heal or surrender to its inevitable fate. The ego, strapped to this eventual corpse, is the one who strives to slip the knot and live forever. We have developed all kinds of technologies and cosmetics to postpone or conceal the fact of mortality. And religion has done its part by promising everlasting security to the one who can delay gratification and remain obedient to the end.

Think of the evils that have been committed for the sake of security – or the sense of security, and the pursuit of it. The greed for “enough” can never be satisfied, simply because there can be no such thing as enough. How can you know for sure? Life conditions could change, the supply could run out, your neighbor could take more than his fair share. Insecurity produces discontent, discontent produces greed, greed motivates hoarding and theft, hoarding and theft (by others) require protection, protection requires insurance payments, insurance payments require more income, more income requires more time, and more time – oops, game over.

Let’s just agree for the moment that security is an illusion, something unreal, unrealistic, and unattainable. If we were to simply accept this fact, would we live any differently than we do now? We would worry less, there’s no doubt about that. And depression – the state of fatigue and discouragement that comes in the wake of anxiety – would be far rarer, indeed. We would certainly be more relaxed, even living on this edge of death, and probably feel more alive by virtue of its constant shadow.

Watts’ “divided mind” is another term for ego ambition, driven by the competing motivations of desire and fear. For its part, security, being an illusion, is not even something we can pursue – unless some clever advertising has attached it to a “must have” new product or service. To that end, we buy and replace, use and toss out, try and abandon one false promise after another.

The fear side of ambition is typically more concrete. While positive gains and happy progress may forever elude us, negative losses on the downward slope of mortality are inevitable. Ego ambition is about spending and stacking – or shooting – whatever is necessary to hold off the specter of death. But the more we clutch and stockpile, the greater our risk and pain in losing it, and the more we are willing to do to keep it a little longer.

Even if “Romeo and Juliet are [not] together in eternity,” in the words of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald Roeser, we don’t need to fear the reaper.

 

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Out of the Depths

Watts: “One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To ‘know’ reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.”

Think of a wave on the ocean. Its existence (existere means “to stand out”) is defined by the rolling swell of a much larger and deeper current of energy, but from its limited perspective “this” is all there is. From its peak can be seen countless others just like itself, some in the rise and others in the fall of their own lifecycles. From this vantage-point they are all separate formations, separate beings, existing apart from each other and essentially alone in the vast ocean.

Throughout its career, this wave is occasionally involved in competition with other waves nearby. Who is more lively and charismatic, who is more interesting or successful in “waving,” whose peak is highest? And now, having passed the meridian of its own crest and on its way down, a peculiar anxiety is beginning to take over. Still far out from a shoreline that no one has even seen, will its existence be for naught? Wasn’t the purpose to reach the other side? What has been the point to all this thrashing about?

At the surface all waves seem separate. The space between them and differences among them give the impression of an astonishing diversity – exciting at first, but more overwhelming as time goes by. What the wave doesn’t realize – especially during the phase of its swelling self-involvement – is that a greater reality lies beneath. If only its axis of vision could shift from the horizontal to the vertical it would see what’s really going on: all these waves are what the ocean is doing right now.

This shift from the horizontal (out) to the vertical (down) is the critical change in orientation between a rational and a mystical view of reality. One is based on the principle of separation and the meaningful arrangement of things (objects, ideas, values), while the other is grounded in an awareness that all things are the manifestation of a single, ineffable mystery. It is tempting to judge the first as “lesser” and fundamentally mistaken, but this would itself be a mistake.

As ego, an ancient and impulsive animal nature has been shaped into a domesticated and socially well-behaved member of my tribe. Here in the societal arena, separation/attachment is the name of the game: standing out to be recognized and fitting in to belong. As I look out from the perch of my individual wave, I can see you there, working things out for yourself. Others exist apart from me, the world is all around me, and god is above me – separation.

From this vantage-point, the effort of meaning-making involves composing classifications and explanations that describe reality, make sense of it, and thereby reduce the mystery to terms and values that make sense to us. Anything and everything becomes the subject of an “ology” – a study of, a science of, a theory of a something else. We have amassed a huge library of information and a technology of mastery that has enabled us to control forces which previous cultures worshiped or knew nothing about.

But we’re missing something. All of this horizontal separation-and-control has alienated us from the soul-center of awareness and the corresponding spiritual dimension of reality. Watts says that we’re missing reality entirely. To really know it we must understand that we are part of it, manifestations of it, individual waves on its surface. In addition to looking “out,” we must also look “down.” The rational is not replaced by the mystical, but deepened, expanded, and finally transcended.

Watts’ point, that “this is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart,” encourages us to hold on loosely to our theories, our “ologies.” It’s also fair warning of what will inevitably happen if we keep insisting on being right. To temper these dogmatic and fundamentalist tendencies, it is becoming increasingly urgent that we learn to release ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of being.

To know life from the inside, to live out of the depths, to see it all as One. This is wisdom, is it not?

 

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