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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 close-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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