Tag Archives: ambition

Adventures On The Way

I make the case frequently in this blog, that our development as individuals and evolution as a species has the aim of preparing us for the liberated life in community. The liberated life is not really “about” the individual set free from all constraints that might hinder his or her personal fulfillment, but rather that the individual is liberated from all neurotic self-concern and empowered with creative authority to live for the wellbeing of all.

Just as the evolution of life leads to increasingly complex ecosystems where “all is one,” we have every reason to believe the same for ourselves.

The path to getting there, however, is fraught with hangups and pitfalls. Even given an internal aim (Aristotle’s entelechy) in humans for the liberated life in community, we have managed to bungle things up to such a degree that now, after 200,000 years of “modern” human (homo sapiens sapiens) evolution, we are still a long way from its realization in any but a very few.

Tragically, as quickly as these inspiring exceptions have arisen in our collective history as a herd, the rest of us have pulled them down, cut them up, burned them at stakes or pinned them to crosses. Only afterwards do we give them honor – when honoring a memory is safer than honoring a living example and joining the cause. Where exactly they are going and how the rest of us get stuck is the topic of this post.

My diagram illustrates the path of our human adventure, where we have been busy forming stable societies, cultivating the healthy self-conscious awareness of individuals, and following the lead of those enlightened few along the Shining Way to genuine community.

Let’s take a few moments to contemplate the distinctive wisdom of this higher state of communal life.

  1. In genuine community individuals are fully self-conscious and deeply invested in the wellbeing of others.
  2. They understand that what they do to, and for, the Whole comes back on themselves, for good or ill.
  3. They are committed to a shared vision of peace, freedom, compassion, justice, and goodwill.
  4. Whether as individuals, partnerships, teams, organizations, or in larger “markets” of the human enterprise, they respect the fact that no one, no generation or other species of life, can flourish apart from the Whole.
  5. Accordingly they take responsibility, individually and as a community, for the consequences of their choices across the entire web of life and its concourse of generations.
  6. As a community, their ultimate concern is with raising up children who are spiritually grounded, well-centered, and mindfully engaged with reality and in their life with others.
  7. Each individual accepts creative authority in the co-construction of meaning and strives to create a world that is provident, welcoming, and radically inclusive.

Wouldn’t that be something? It’s encouraging that we can imagine what it would be like, since even if the path from vision to reality is long, at least it’s conceivable. The best (and truest) religions have kept vigil near this ideal, providing inspiration and guidance for whatever slow progress we have been able to manage. But even religion has largely lost its way, where instead of inspiring virtue it has fomented violence, and instead of offering guidance for a more humane and liberated life in the world, it has become an escape route for a believer’s abandonment of the world.

To understand how this happened to religion – but more importantly, since religions are only human constructions, how this happens to you and me – we need to pause our reverie on the liberated life and take a closer look at the process leading up to the point where individuals are empowered to transcend themselves and join each other in genuine community.

You and I came to life with a new generation of higher primates known as homo sapiens. We did not drop in from somewhere else, and neither is our species separate from Earth’s magnificent web of life. Evolutionary science has confirmed with overwhelming evidence and beyond all doubt that our human animal nature has descended – and ascended – from the 3.7-billion-year-old matrix of biological life on this planet.

Its tidal rhythms and ancient sea brine still pulse through our veins. The gill slits of a primordial ocean-dwelling ancestor are still visible in the human fetus.

We also carry in our animal nature powerful codes of behavior called instincts. These too have evolved for the purpose of securing survival and a chance at procreation. Our animal instincts are not interested in being polite and waiting our turn. When the urge comes, our body has evolved with a compulsive need to gratify it. We arrived on the scene thanks to the many before us, both human and pre-human, who were successful to that end.

This instinct-driven animal nature is what our tribe had the responsibility of shaping and steering into a well-behaved member of society. It did this through a process of sublimation, where the code of instinctive behavior is overwritten with a new directive that works to restrain the impulse and then redirect it into an expression which is socially acceptable. That override of social constraints is what we know as morality, with its principal goal of conditioning and downloading a set of rules (“shalts” and “shalt nots”) that would predispose our social deference to the authority of taller powers.

To close off any potential uprise of rebellion in us, we may have also gotten the message that behind the authority of our taller powers was a Higher Power, who was not to be questioned but fearfully obeyed and devoutly worshiped.

In some cases, depending on the household and tribe where we came into the light of a self-conscious identity (ego), this shaping and motivating force of morality exercised more repression than restraint. Instead of a healthy interest in the social scene, we brooded a dark self-image of insecurity, shame, depravity, guilt, distrust and resentment. What should have developed into “ego strength” under the provident influence of caring and responsible adults, deformed instead into a personality riddled by anxiety, saddled with depression, neurotically attached, and chronically discontent.

If that diagnostic profile doesn’t accurately describe you, then you can be thankful. But you should also know that none of us get through the gauntlet of early childhood without our share of insecurity and its complications. Many of those complications are caused by a craving for whatever can fill our gnawing emptiness, contending at the same time with a persistent fear that it won’t be enough. This polarity of craving and fear is at the root of our word “ambition” (ambi = two), as a drive that exhausts its own energy and undermines its fulfillment.

The wisdom teachings invite us to reframe our ambition – this insatiable craving for what cannot satisfy us – using the principle of paradox.

Also with roots in the idea of duality, paradox is a form of “both/and” thinking. Paradoxically, the emptiness we have been trying to fill is also (both/and) the grounding mystery of our existence. In the separation of self-conscious identity (ego: “I”) from the sentient life of our animal nature, the vacancy we leave behind – simply because “I” am not there – is not a void but the very ground of our being, a generative (life-giving) emptiness and not a sucking drain.

The other essential paradox we need to understand is that our hard-won identity is both the end (as in finale) of our development as separate individuals and the beginning of our liberated life in genuine community (literally “together as one”). Our ego is embraced yet transcended; we “die” to our separate self and are “resurrected” into the communal spirit of a transpersonal reality.

The metaphorical language used here has obvious roots in the mythology of world religions, where the full paradoxical nature of the human journey has been explored and celebrated for millenniums.


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Human and Fully Alive

The attraction of any so-called unified theory is in its claim to bring several previously disparate and unreconciled things into a single all-inclusive picture or account. One of my abiding aspirations over the years has been to clarify a unifed theory of human nature, an “anthropology” that doesn’t reduce us to dumb matter or deify us as immortal spirits. Somewhere in between those hopeless abstractions is what we really are – human manifestations of being, or human beings.

Somewhat in the spirit of existentialist philosophy, my interest is not in reductions or abstractions, but rather in the human experience of being alive and somewhere on the path to realizing the potential of what we are and still might become.

If we’re going to figure this out, we have just this one lifetime to do it – however long or short it turns out to be. Extending this project over numerous lifetimes or into infinite time may calm our insecurities to some extent, but with the urgency also suspended it becomes easier to stay in bed and only dream our life away.

In my effort toward a unified theory of human nature and its evolutionary prospects, I offer the above diagram as something of a mandala or “sacred design” to orient our meditation. Its central image is an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, ready to launch into whatever is next. For now, however, it is intended to capture the tensive character of our nature as in a state of perpetual near-release, always becoming and never finally arrived.

Positioned at the cardinal points of my mandala are four attractors, each pulling us into its unique field of possibilities and concerns, as it simulaneously pulls against those opposite to it.

This helps us to quickly appreciate the tension inherent in human nature, seeking some kind of balance between animal instinct and spiritual wisdom, between tribal conscience and personal ambition. A human being strives for survival and longs for wellbeing; seeks affiliation with others of its kind and pursues its own individual achievement.

Jumping into the details of the mandala, we will keep this overall tension in mind as we trace the developmental path that each of us follows on our “hero’s journey.” Necessarily, then, we begin our meditation where each of us begins life: as newborns supported in the rhythms, urgencies, and drives of an animal nature. Our instincts are millions of years deep in the evolutionary design of the body, compelling our searching behavior for what the life-force in us requires: air, water, nourishment, warmth, refuge and loving touch.

This is our “first nature,” referring to what comes first in development as well as what supports everything else from its primal depths.

The prehistory of our species is the long road into Eden, as living forms and nervous systems progressed through the gauntlet of chance, opportunity, catastrophe and extinction. Any theory of human nature, it seems to me, must acknowledge our first nature as essential to what we are – not as some “mortal coil” by which we are temporarily bound, but as a marvel of biological intelligence and our guest pass to the grand ball of our living planet.

Following upward now that lower angle of the bowstring, we come to what first welcomes us to our human adventure: our tribe of family and familiars, a peculiar society comprised of mother and all the others. This is where the social construction project of our “second nature” begins, with the concern of our tribe being to shape the impulses and inclinations of our first nature into something that both reflects and compliments its collective identity.

What I call the moral frame refers to a shared understanding, if not quite universal agreement, of what makes an action “right” and a person “good.” Every tribe has one, and each of us was brought up to follow this code and honor the norms of a moral life. The bonds of attachment that sustained us as newborns gradually expanded and differentiated into a network of tribal affiliations, and it is in this “second womb” of our tribe that our personal identity was forged and fashioned.

If all went reasonably well, we took on the shared wisdom (literally a con-science) of morality that would prompt, censure, and guide our interactions with others.

But it didn’t go entirely without complications. And this reminds us again of the tension in our nature as human beings – following now the shaft of my arrow rightwards to its point. Another aspect of our second nature, of our emerging personal identity, is an individual will that wants us to stand on our own and fulfill our desires.

If our prehistory as a species was a long road into Eden, then the seduction of ego-gratification represents the “fall” of separation consciousness and the loss of our nursery paradise. Many of the mythological accounts of how we got into our present predicament characterize this “tragedy” as the necessary precursor to a more mature, adult, and self-possessed mode of being in the world.

Where it left us was in the middle of two powerful and countervailing forces: a tribal conscience pulling us into conformity with the moral status quo on one side, and on the other a personal ambition to be somebody, to achieve something momentous, and to procure for ourselves the elusive elixir of happiness. This tension – or is it a contradiction? – seems to be built right into our word “ambition,” where two things (ambi) compete for the upper hand: approval and fulfillment, fear and desire, obedience or freedom.

We can get caught here, not fully on one side or the other but suspended in a sticky web of guilt for falling short of social expectations, and self-reproach for giving up on our dreams.

But let’s go back again to that second womb of our tribal identity, and this time take the upper angle of the bowstring to the top cardinal point of my mandala. This is our “higher nature,” commonly confused these days with the glorified and exalted ego, which is really just one way the tension of our second nature can snap, the other being toward a self-negating sense of depravity over never being good enough. What I mean by our higher nature is the liberated life made available to us as we are able to transcend ego and its conflicting motivations to please others and gratify ourselves.

Only as we can drop from our separate center of personal identity and identify with a larger horizon of membership – not just “my tribe” or “our people” or even the human species alone, but with everyone and life itself: the whole shebang – will we finally understand, from experience, that All is One and we are all in this together. The spiritual wisdom traditions are remarkably unanimous in their agreement concerning our place in, and responsibility to, the community of beings that is our universe.

Seeking wholeness, making peace, and promoting the wellbeing of our planetary home circles back to us in the joy of being human and fully alive.


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Living From Our Higher Nature

I would say the major reason why humans suffer so much and project their suffering onto each other is that we don’t understand ourselves. There is indeed a truth that can set us free, but it involves more than just getting our facts straight.

This truth has to do with waking up to what we are.

Let’s begin where much of our suffering is focused – in the cycle of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression we spin through as we chase after whatever society tells us should make us happy. We feel anxious that it might not work out, frustrated when it doesn’t go our way, and depressed after our hopeful expectations lie deflated at our feet. This dual motivation of desiring after something and fearing that it won’t work out or be enough is at the heart of what we call “ambition” (ambi = two or both).

But society doesn’t just say, “Go, be happy.” It provides us with roles to play, scripts to follow, and masks to wear.

Each role connects us to a social system called a role-play, where others are playing their part as well. Connecting in this choreographed way ensures that everyone belongs and has a purpose. The roles, scripts, and masks just mentioned are preserved and passed along by traditions, rituals, and customs. Altogether, these comprise the objective components of morality.

Morality isn’t only around us, however, for it also has a subjective dimension. This includes the values, preferences, aims and beliefs that society downloads to our identity, serving to direct consciousness to those things that will support and promote the ambitions of those in control.

Uh, oh. You can see where this entire illusion folds back and zips into itself, can’t you? As long as we are brainwashed (downloaded) early, we will stay in line, play our part, follow the script, and passionately defend the tribal orthodoxy.

All of what we’ve been talking about so far is what I name our “second nature.” It’s not something we’re born with, but must be constructed for us by those in charge. Our taller powers at home eventually are replaced by higher-ups in society, and for some of us by a higher power in heaven overseeing it all. These are the ones who tell us what to do, what not to do, and how we can secure the happiness we seek.

We can summarize the work of socialization – referring to the process of turning us into well-behaved members of the tribe – in the activities of blocking, shaping, guiding and inspiring. Those last two activities of socialization should, in the best of all possible worlds, help us make wise choices and discover our own creative potential as unique persons.

But sadly and too often this doesn’t happen, largely because the blocking and shaping in those early years ends up crimping down on our “first nature” and filling us with shame and self-doubt. Blocking can be repressive and shaping coercive, with the outcome being that we can’t trust the body we were born with.

Of course, if society happens to be morally puritanical and authoritarian, this is right where they want us. Seeing that we cannot trust ourselves, we have no choice but to put our faith in those who claim to have all the answers.

Our second nature is therefore all about fitting in and going along with the collective role-play currently in session. Each role gives us a place to stand, a script to follow, and a small collection of socially approved, context-appropriate masks to wear. It also connects us to others, but mostly in this more or less formalized way. To “be somebody” is to have the recognition of others in the same play, and we maintain that recognition as long as we responsibly perform our role.

It may sound a bit harsh, perhaps, to characterize our second nature – the traditions, rituals, and customs; the roles, scripts, and masks; our values, aims, and beliefs; tribal morality, personal identity, and our driving ambitions; in short, who we think we are and what the tribe expects of us – as living in a trance, but that’s actually what it is. All of it is made up, put on, and acted out on the cultural stage as if it were the way things really are.

When consciousness is fully invested in this performance, it is under a spell – and most of us don’t realize it!

Dutifully performing our roles and managing our identity, following the rules and doing our part: Sure seems like it’s where everything is supposed to end up, right? What else is there? Maybe we can just quit, fall back into our first nature and live like animals. Or we could foment a revolution by redefining some roles, changing the scripts, and replacing backdrops on the stage. Some of us crave more recognition, as others deserve to be demoted or dismissed from the cast.

But all of that drama is still … well, drama. If all our solutions to the unhappiness we feel have to do with either dropping out, getting promoted, or suing for benefits, we remain fully entranced.

This, by the way, is where many children and most adolescents live, which is why I also name our second nature our “inner child.” It’s the part of us that tries desperately to please, placate, flatter, and impress the taller powers, higher-ups, and god himself in hopes we can get things to go our way.

It’s also where a lot of adults live – not in their higher nature but stuck deep in their insecurity and attachments, caught on the wheel of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression.

The good news is that we don’t have to remain stuck here. The bad news is that our way out will require us to wake up from the trance. Depending on how deeply entangled we are, this breakthrough will come as an insightful epiphany, a troubling disillusionment, or an outright apocalypse – a complete conflagration and end of the world as we know it.

If the blocking and shaping action of our early socialization was not oppressive but provident, it is likely that we were also provided the guidance and inspiration we needed to discover our true talents and potential. We were given roles to play, rules to follow, and beliefs to hold, but they came with a message assuring us of something more beyond the role-play of tribal life.

The spell was a little weaker and the delusion less captivating. Instead of merely performing our roles we we empowered to transcend them.

When we are encouraged to contemplate the higher wholeness of things; when we are challenged to act with the wellbeing of everyone in mind; and when we are free to get over ourselves for the sake of genuine community and the greater good, we are living from our spiritual higher nature.

Fully awake, we have found liberation from suffering. Now we can be the provident taller powers that our children need.


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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.


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The Illusion of Who You Are

Post-theism doesn’t deny our need for salvation, only that we should expect it from elsewhere. Moreover, it’s not about getting rescued or delivered to a better place, free of enemies or bodies to drag us down. Such themes are common in so-called popular religion, particularly its theistic varieties, where believers are conditioned to anticipate the liberated life as a future and otherworldly glory. In the meantime they are expected to stand with the congregation, honor tradition, and stick to the script.

It’s not that post-theism opposes these as a “new evil” from which we now need to be saved, as when religion is made into the enemy by secular modernists who condemn it as backward and closed-minded. If we even use the term, salvation – literally referring to a process of being set free and made whole – has to do with the liberated life right now for the one who has dropped the illusion of being somebody special and getting it right.

Post-theists are more likely to seek genuine community than merely stand with the congregation, to press for contemporary relevance over turning the wheel of tradition, and to flip the script from final answers to more profound questions.

Our task, then, is to refocus our human quest (with the secularists) on the present world, but also (with some theists) on what is beyond the world we currently have in view. My returning reader is familiar with the view of constructivism that regards ‘the world’ as our shared construction of meaning, inside of which we all manage our individual worlds of more personal meaning. The world we have in view, in other words, refers to our current perspective on reality, not to reality itself.

The really real is beyond our collective and individual worlds, but it is in our worlds (not in reality) where our predicament is located.

Rather than trying to illustrate this in the abstract, let’s make it personal. Reflect for a moment on your personal world, or more accurately, on your worldview. It’s not exactly the same as anyone else’s, is it? Your worldview overlaps and agrees with some others, but there are critical differences as well.

The unique elements in your personal world are reflective of your individual lifestory – referring to the autobiographical narrative (or personal myth) that you identify yourself by. Your lifestory is a reductive selection from the stream of experience which is your life: arranged, modified, and much of it invented in the work of constructing a coherent sense of who you are.

The personal identity carried in your lifestory is therefore less than what you are in your totality – the human being of a certain genetic makeup, temperament, background, aspirations, and life experiences. In fact, it is nothing more than the persona you project to others and reflect back to yourself for validation and judgment. From Latin, persona refers to an actor’s mask through which she animates a character on stage. The mask is just an assumed identity, but it lives in a story and interacts with other actors in the progression of scenes.

Good actors make us forget that they are acting a part. You, too, have become so good at acting through the persona of identity that you sometimes forget it’s just somebody you’re pretending to be. Or maybe you’re like the majority of us and haven’t yet caught on to the game we’re all playing together.

In my diagram I have put your persona (what you project to others), your lifestory (that highly filtered and refashioned personal myth), and your worldview (the construction of meaning you use to make sense of things) inside a bubble which is meant to represent the illusion of your personal identity. I also use a fancy font to remind you that all of this is one big somewhat magical fantasy. You should be able to analyze each ‘level’ of this fantasy and confirm how illusory it all really is.

But here’s the thing: most of us don’t understand that our identity is just an illusion. To understand that, we would have to see through the illusion instead of merely looking at it and mistaking it for reality. What might otherwise serve as a ‘positive illusion’ – referring to a belief system that positively orients us in reality, connects us meaningfully to others, and supports our evolution as free, creative, and responsible individuals – becomes instead a delusion in which we are stuck. This is the predicament that our salvation resolves.

As a delusion, the unrecognized illusion of identity devolves into a profound sense of separateness from each other and everything else. Our frame of perception collapses to the horizon of personal concerns, only to what affects us and our own interests. Because the project of identity is not self-standing but depends on the assent and approval of other actors equally deluded, ego (the part of us that is pretending to be somebody) is inevitably insecure to some extent.

Of course, we want to be secure, so we form attachments to the world around us, which we hope will make us feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I name the four ‘feeling-needs’. We all have these feeling-needs, and it’s only a secondary question whether we might be safe, loved, capable, and worthy in fact. The point is that we need to feel these in some positive degree in order to have security in who we are. The deeper our insecurity, however, the stronger our attachments need to be, since they are supposed to pacify us and make us feel good about ourselves.

And as attachments require that we give up some of our own center in order to identify with them, the delusion grows more captivating the more scattered our devotion becomes.

In the diagram we have moved from in/security to attachment, and from what’s been said about attachments it should not be difficult to see where ambition comes into the picture. An ambition has a dual (ambi) motivation, combining a desire for the object and its anticipated benefit (feeling safe, loved, capable, or worthy) with a fear that the object might not be there as expected, might not stay around, might be taken away, or in the end might not be enough. Ambitious individuals are praised and rewarded in our society, which goes to show how deep in delusion a family, tribe, or nation can get.

A system of meaning called an ideology (or on a smaller scale, an orthodoxy) enchants an entire culture into believing that this is the way to authentic life.

As we come full circle in my diagram, we need to remember that meaning is not a property of reality but merely a construct of human minds. Your world is one construct of meaning, mine is another; and together along with millions of other ambitious persons we spin a web that holds us hostage in a world of our own making. Our salvation is not a matter of throwing ourselves with full commitment into this world (the secularist mistake), but neither is it about getting delivered from this world to another one somewhere else (the theistic mistake).

Instead, salvation comes as we awaken from delusion and begin to see through the illusion of who we think we are. Only then can we get over ourselves and fully embrace our creative authority, working together for genuine community and the wellbeing of all.


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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.


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The Consilient Leader

Reality Process

Reality is not a thing, but a process comprised of three interacting forces which are universal throughout the Great Process we call ‘the universe’. Consilient leaders understand this process, working with rather than against it.

Not long ago I made a case for taking a little-known term out of seclusion and applying it in a fresh way to the realm of education. The term is consilience, and it speaks to what we hope will happen in every classroom (as well as outside them), where individual teachers and students are inspired to “leap together,” each beyond the self and together in community, caught up and transformed in the experience, returning to their individual centers of consciousness with deeper insight, better understanding, informed wonder, and a passion for more.

Now I want to move consilience outside of education proper, to explore its relevance for leadership. The most effective leader, I propose, is a consilient leader who understands and works with the forces that everywhere interact in the process of reality affectionately known as our universe. Consilient leaders are more effective than nonconsilient ones, and individuals who cooperate with the universe tend to be healthier, happier, and more successful than those who strive against it, or who try to exploit its provident nature for selfish gain.

I don’t mean to suggest that consilient leaders own more property or occupy higher social classes than these others. ‘Success’ here is not measured by status but by skill; consilient leaders are more skillful in what they do because they know how to move with the forces of reality rather than against them. In providing for the emergence of life and the ignition of consciousness, for a fertile culture of social support and our own self-actualization as human beings, the universe has set the stage for consilient leaders – indeed, the universe is a manifestation of consilience on the largest scale.

One more qualification on this term ‘consilient leader’ before we jump into the diagram above. By leader I am not necessarily referring to an individual who leads others – a boss, manager, director, principal, president, general, prophet or pastor. I realize that I am crossing against a conventional assumption when it comes to what makes a leader, but I have a much bigger vision in mind. Seeing as how the universe has provided for the rise of creative authority (also known as self-actualization in human beings), a consilient leader is one who uses this creative authority to harness and channel its three forces for the ongoing evolution of genuine community. Others may or may not follow, but the consilient leader is still on the leading edge of human evolution.

Let me give you a guided tour through my diagram, beginning with those three rounded rectangles arranged along the vertical axis. The first term in each rectangle names a level of organization in reality, while the second term identifies the force behind it. It will be easier to understand if we start with the middle set of terms: individual and integrity. By individual I mean any thing that more or less stands on its own – not in some absolute sense, since essentially All is One (as the name ‘universe’ implies), but relatively, in its own individual center while still in relationship with other things. The force that keeps the individual intact is integrity, literally holding together as a whole.

Individuals exist (taking a step upward in my diagram) in systems, which are higher-level organizations that illustrate consilience in an obvious way: a system is more than the mere sum of its parts (individuals). A second force, called synergy, connects individuals together and lifts them into a more energetic and complex web of influence. Synergy, then, is not merely additive (1+1) but exponential, with the higher circuit created in their connection capable of containing the energy jump (the force of integrity at this higher level), multiplying its value, and sharing power across the system.

As we swing down to the bottom of my diagram we begin to feel the effect of reality’s third force, entropy, which refers to the tendency in any organization to collapse into more stable energy states, approaching a state of critical stability called the ground. As the metaphor suggests, ground is the deepest support, a baseline value that represents a threshold between order and chaos, between the intact individual and its disintegration. (In the context of spirituality, what I name the ‘grounding mystery’ is the threshold and lower limit where self-consciousness dissolves into unconscious life, which is the deepest register to which our contemplative awareness can descend.) 

We might be tempted to imagine a universe where entropy is not in play. Isn’t it a depressing thought, all this breaking down, falling apart, and collapsing toward nothingness? Who needs it? Actually, we do. The whole universe would be impossible without the down-pulling force of entropy and its stabilizing ground. Of course from the individual’s perspective entropy is a major buzz harsher. But systems would burn themselves out in limitless synergy if it weren’t for the counterbalancing effect of entropy, bringing things down for rest and regeneration. And right in the middle of this cosmic tug-of-war, the force of integrity does its best to keep the individual intact.

So, my definition of a consilient leader is one who understands that reality is a process manifesting from the interaction of three forces, which contain energy (integrity of the individual), connect individuals (synergy of the system), and collapse systems into more stable states (entropy and the ground). It should be clear from my diagram that reality is not a simple three-layer cake, but that these three forces interact throughout the universe, making nearly every speck an individual, caught up in systems and eventually dissolving into its ground. Look around and you’ll see evidence of their interaction everywhere. Learn how to work with these forces and you are on your way to becoming a consilient leader.

There remains one part of my diagram to be explained: that box of four terms to the right of center. I’ve added these as a reminder that even consilient leaders are individual centers of personal identity, or egos, and their most important work is with other egos, as we all make our way, by fits and starts and frequent setbacks, into that most consilient and highly complex of systems known as genuine community. Egos complicate the work considerably, and the consilient leader must have a self-honest and perspicuous understanding of the challenge they represent. I’ll move down the list fairly quickly, encouraging my interested reader to explore other posts of mine where I analyze ego in greater depth.

Every self-conscious center of personal identity (ego for short) holds certain ambitions for itself. True to the word’s etymology, ambition involves the twin drives (ambi) of desire and fear, one (desire) straining for an imagined or promised reward, while the other (fear) harbors doubt and a growing anxiety around the prospect of failure or falling short of the goal. The insight that desire and fear lock the ego inside an interminable wheel of suffering is a central tenet of Buddhism. Nevertheless this is where ego is bound to stay – which is also why, for the Buddha, the only way out is through the realization that ego is without substance and simply dropping out of the wheel.

These ambitions of ego are really the out-working effort of strong beliefs concerning the nature of things, the meaning of life, and the prospect of happiness. So strong are these beliefs, in fact, that they hold the mind captive and prevent the individual from “thinking outside the box.” Such beliefs – not held by the mind but holding the mind hostage in this way – are called convictions. As their prisoner (literally a convict), the mind is unable to entertain differing points of view, consider evidence against its own absolute truth, or even imagine any truth outside its precious orthodoxy.

Through a combination of ruthless self-examination and social observation, a consilient leader understands that convictions are really just a defensive measure for the protection of certain attachments by which ego identifies itself. Attachments may be about nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or whatever, but basically they are ways that individuals identify themselves with (or against) the world around them. The earlier they form, the deeper and more powerful they tend to be, pulling ego into the delusion that without them it is nothing. And again, but from a position of clarity rather than delusion, the Buddha would agree: the ego is really nothing.

Inside even these attachments, then, is a persistent anxiety over the insecurity of ego’s condition. Because it is a construct of social experience and merely the managerial function (lacking substance) of personality, ego is inherently insecure – not only in feeling but in fact. This insecurity seeks compensation in attachments; attachments build justification behind convictions; and convictions drive the ambition for supremacy, perfection, retribution, salvation, glory, or whatever will finally make it better.

I should emphasize the point that every ego has this neurotic architecture – even the ego of a consilient leader. The difference between the consilient leader and the rest is that he or she understands this and is vigilant to the occasions when ego conceit is posing as true integrity.


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