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The Three Stages of Consciousness

In this post I want to play with a big backgrounding idea that’s been shaping my thoughts on human nature and creative change for some time now. It’s about consciousness and how our human evolution and individual development can be understood as progressing through three distinct stages.

I’m using this term in both its temporal and spatial connotations: as a relatively stable period in the process of growth and change, and as a kind of platform from which a distinct perspective is taken on reality.

The best way I know to clarify these three stages of consciousness is by appealing to our own individual experience. Each of us is somewhere on the path to what I call human fulfillment, to a fully self-actualized expression of our human nature. And from this particular stage on the path, we engage with reality and experience life in a distinctive way.

This is the “hero’s journey” featured so prominently in world mythology, classical literature, and contemporary cinema. The “truth” of such stories is less about their basis in plain fact than the degree in which we find ourselves reflected in their grounding metaphors and archetypal events.

Our Great Work is to become fully human, and the one thing complicating this work is the requirement on each of us that we accept responsibility in making our story “come true.”

Let’s name the three stages of consciousness first, and then spend more time with each one. I call these stages Animal Faith, Ego Strength, and Creative Authority, and they appear in precisely that order over the course of our lifetime – assuming things go by design. But keeping in mind the spatial meaning of “stage,” I want to point out that each earlier stage persists as a platform in the evolving architecture of consciousness where we can go for the unique perspective on reality it offers.

Animal Faith is a stage of consciousness anchored in the nervous system and internal state of our body (i.e., our animal nature). From very early on, our brain and its nervous system was busy collecting sensory information from the environment in order to set a matching baseline internal state that would be most adaptive to our circumstances.

If the womb and family environments of our early life were sufficiently provident – meaning safe, supportive, and enriched with what we needed for healthy development – our internal state was calibrated to be calm, relaxed, open and receptive.

This ability to rest back into a provident reality is Animal Faith, where faith is to be understood according to its etymological root meaning “to trust.”

As our deepest stage of consciousness, Animal Faith is foundational to everything else in our life: our experience in the moment, our manner of connecting with others and the world around us, as well as to our personal worldview.

With an adequate Animal Faith, our personality had a stable nervous state on which to grow and develop. This stable internal foundation allowed for a healthy balance of moods and emotions, which in turn facilitated our gradual individuation into a unified sense of self, the sense of ourself as an individual ego (Latin for “I”).

When these three marks of healthy personality development are present – stable, balanced, and unified – we have reached the stage of consciousness known as Ego Strength. From this stage we are able to engage with others and the world around us with the understanding that we are one of many, and that we participate in a shared reality together.

By this time also, a lot of effort has been invested by our family and tribe in shaping our identity to the general role-play of society. We are expected to behave ourselves, wait our turn, share our toys, clean up when we’re done, and be helpful to others, just as we would want others to do for us.

Our identity in the role-play of society, the role-play itself and its collective world of meaning – all of it is a construct of human language and shared beliefs. Meaning, that is to say, is not found in reality but projected by our minds and sustained only by the stories we recite and enact.

Positive Ego Strength is intended to serve as a launch point for such transcendent experiences as selfless love, creative freedom, contemplative inner peace, joyful gratitude, and genuine community. Without it we would not have the requisite fortitude and self-confidence to leap beyond our separate identity and into the higher wholeness implied in each the experiences just mentioned.

I name this stage of consciousness Creative Authority because it is where we become aware that we have full authorial rights over the story we are telling – of the story we are living out. In Creative Authority we realize that each moment offers the opportunity to choose whether we will be fully present, mindfully engaged, and creatively involved in our life’s unfolding. If we want a meaningful life, then we need to make it meaningful by telling stories – maybe new stories – that heal, redeem, reconcile, sanctify and transform our world into the New Reality we want to see.

The liberated life thrives up here on the stage of Creative Authority, in the realization that the world is composed of stories, that our beliefs condense like raindrops out of the stories we hold and tell, and that we can tell better stories if we so choose.

Reality looks very different depending on whether we’re taking our perspective from the stage of Ego Strength where our separate identity is the fixed center around which everything turns, or if we are looking out from a vantage point “whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (quoted by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By and taken from a 12th-century meditation entitled The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers).

The shift requires a breaking-free and transcendence of who we think we are, as well as a surrender of all that is “me and mine.” It is at the heart of the Buddha’s dharma, Jesus’ gospel, King’s Dream and every other New Story about humanity’s higher calling. The essential message is that the fulfillment of what we are as human beings is beyond who we think we are as separate identities in pursuit of what will make us happy.

To rise into that resurrected space of the liberated life we have to die to the small, separate self we spend so much of our life defining and defending.

That’s the Hero’s Journey each of us is on: Learning to release our life in trust to a provident reality; coming into ourself as a unique individual on our own sacred journey; and at last breaking past this stage in the realization that All is One, everything belongs, and that this timeless moment is too holy for words.

 

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Creative Authority

A friend in an engagement community that I weekly attend asked recently, “What, exactly, goes into this idea of ‘creative authority’?” – an idea (or ideal, really) that occupies a strategic position in the theory of human fulfillment that I’ve been working to clarify in a conversation on post-theism.

It is critically important that post-theism not be defined as a reactionary movement, as an effort to throw off theism and its antiquated god for the sake of something like secular materialism or atheistic humanism. Quite the contrary, post-theism holds a vision for what life is like after (“post”) theism – not after theism has been discredited and finally abandoned, but when it has served its evolutionary function and releases the self-transcending human spirit into a new existence as an enlightened partner and co-creator in the great community of life.

Before I offer a response to my friend’s question, let’s quickly recall where “creative authority” fits into my broader theory of human fulfillment. We started life fully immersed in an animal nature (body), with all its biological requirements and urgencies keeping consciousness oriented outward to the resources we need. Gradually, and with success in satisfying our basic needs, awareness began to open inwardly as well – not just to this pang or that urgency inside the body, but deeper into a sense of our grounding in a provident mystery. This sense of provident grounding is registered in the nervous system at an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level, which is why I call it animal faith.

Immediately with our birth our tribe went to work shaping our identity (ego). Through guidance, directives, feedback, and discipline we were given clear (but sometimes not so clear) messages about what it means to be a good boy or girl, a member in good standing, a person of value. Because the foundations of identity are constructed early on and are primarily emotional in character, I call the construct of identity itself our inner child.

With sufficient animal faith underneath us, supported by the caring and responsible influence of our tribe, identity can achieve a level of healthy development known as ego strength. Key attributes of ego strength are a stable personality, balanced mood, and a unified sense of self.

This is where things really get interesting, since social security, group membership, shared purpose, and personal value are like four sides of the box containing a meaningful existence. Why would we ever want to leave? Where else would we possibly go anyway? Outside the box is meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, and certain despair – or at least the heresy of someone else’s meaning. This is a necessary part of our programming.

An essential part of this project of identity construction is the tribe’s representation to the youngster of what a “good person” looks like – not in physical appearance necessarily, but how a good person behaves, how they treat other people (insiders and outsiders), what values they hold, how they handle conflict and common challenges of life.

Beyond merely listing these features in something like a bullet-point format, this ideal of a good person is represented in the role models of parents and other respected adults, but also in stories that depict super-human, supernatural superegos who are engaged to the tribe as divine protectors and providers.

Theism is a religious system that orients the individual to taller powers (adults) and higher powers (gods) that exemplify the character of a “good person.” These role models are intended to inspire similar developments in youngsters and devotees, but typically in theism the deity demonstrates the virtues in their more or less pure form. (We must not forget that this is a “dramatic” demonstration, since the god lives only in the fictional space of sacred dramas or myths.)

The deity, for example, who is worshiped for having shown compassion to the tribe when they or their ancestors were lost and without hope, exemplifies this degree of loving concern and will typically have expectations (in the form of injunctions or commandments) on the community to aspire toward a similar level of compassion for others in need. In this way, worship, as the exaltation into collective aspiration of the deity’s praiseworthy virtues, flows naturally into morality and obedience for the tribe.

We should acknowledge a flow in the opposite direction as well. The particular historical concerns currently pressing upon a tribe’s existence will “select” those divine attributes most needed in the moment, or possibly even alter the portrait of god in story and theology in order to provide some timely justification. Neglect of the needy, persecution of outsiders, and violence against unbelievers are either dug up from the mythological archives – you can always find a verse for that in the Bible – or else insinuated into the script of orthodoxy from the local church pulpit.

A similar dynamic as what we find in parental role models with their children is also present in theism proper: When a virtue demonstrated by the exemplar is imitated successfully by the aspirant (child, devotee) and internalized – which means integrated into the individual’s ethical character and way of life – an external representation is no longer required and can be transcended. Because the virtue (say, of forgiveness) now informs life from within as an authentic expression rather than from outside by imitation, we might say that the individual has progressed to a post-parental, post-theistic mode of being.

True enough, there are complications that can slow this process down and even arrest it altogether, but in this post I want to pretend as if development has advanced according to design – and by “design” I mean according to the inherent tendency of a human being to mature into a self-actualized adult.

When this sequence of obedience, aspiration, internalization, and authentic expression reaches fulfillment in the stable, balanced, and unified personality, ego strength is achieved and the individual is finally capable of a new mode of being and a higher way of life. Earlier concerns over belonging and recognition, security and freedom, of maintaining membership in the tribe as a person of value, are no longer the preoccupations they once were.

Consciousness has shifted to a new and higher mental location, one that supports a realization of deep communion and universal participation – or more simply stated, the realization that All is One. At this point the tribe has given up custodial possession of the individual (as ego), and the individual begins a new life “after god” (the lower-case ‘g’ referring to the patron deity of the local tribe). This higher mental location for consciousness is what I understand by soul – not “the real me” inside a body or just a new (spiritual) name for the ego, but the individual’s existence as grounded in mystery and connected to all things.

A perfect word for this new arena of life, combining deep communion and universal participation, is community – from com (with, together) and unity (as one). Here the awakened soul understands, by direct intuition and not hearsay, that the separation so important to establishing a clear identity for the ego was really a delusion of consciousness at that level. In some sense, the entire tribe is under this same spell, which is probably why spiritual awakening is frequently described as the breaking of a trance and coming to see things as they really are.

So this is what I mean by “creative authority”: the individual taking for him- or herself the authorial rights to a new story. Siddhartha’s new story was the dharma of his Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path. Jesus’ new story was his gospel of forgiveness and solidarity with the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr’s new story was about a world where our children won’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Each of them stepped intentionally and courageously into creative authority, come what may.

With that, I can finally respond to my friend’s question about what creative authority entails. In the diagram below are listed five virtues that I find in the dharma, gospel, and Dream stories just mentioned; but they are also well represented across countless others. Since the diagram depicts the path of human fulfillment organically, as growing up from a body-centered mode, through an ego-centered (and theistic) mode, and into a soul-centered (post-theistic) mode of being, my visual display of these five terms is meant to be interpreted in a similar bottom-up fashion.

Creative Authority_virtuesContemplative

Even though “contemplation” is commonly used in the West as a synonym for “meditation,” I want to avoid this confusion. While a meditation practice is essential for descending the inward path to the grounding mystery of being, contemplation is closer to the idea of “mindfulness.”

Creative authority is contemplative in the way it holds a mindful perspective on reality. This includes a big picture and long view on one’s place in the great community of life. Contemplatively the individual acknowledges that s/he is both a participant in and a manifestation of oneness.

The opposite of contemplative mindfulness would be something like conviction, where one’s beliefs about reality actually separate the mind from reality. A conviction is a belief that holds its owner hostage. Contemplation, on the other hand, opens the mind to the present mystery of reality.

Empathetic

With “reality in mind,” creative authority is open at deep levels to the connectedness of things. As a cell in the great body of community, an individual feels the dynamics of well-being or deterioration in the connective tissue of relationships. Empathy is similar to “sympathy” and “compassion,” but adds to these a degree of rational understanding to the direct and spontaneous feeling.

In the profession of counseling today empathy is what the helper needs in order to truly help the one who is suffering. Drawing on the big picture and long view afforded by contemplation, the helper can offer perspective and recommendations that have a larger context in mind. The helper is careful not to jump down into the dark hole of suffering for the sake of merely providing some company in the misery, but instead confirms genuine care and understanding while holding open the horizon of possibility and hope.

Responsible

Whereas in the ego realm of the tribe responsibility is about following through on what’s assigned or expected, for creative authority this element of obligation is transcended. The self-actualized adult doesn’t act or refrain from acting because of what someone else (human or divine) might think. In this way, the motivation of responsibility is not externally coerced but rooted in empathy, coming directly out of a grounded and connected life.

Within a much broader and deeper context than ego consciousness is capable of grasping, soul-centered responsibility understands that “the right thing” is not always what feels good, gets rewarded, or even promotes individual self-interest. Sometimes, in fact, doing the responsible thing involves transgressing on tribal rules (or divine commands) that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, bigotry, oppression or violence against others. The resulting “conscientious guilt” – willingly bearing the indictment for the sake of a higher good – is something the individual must learn to live with (and care less about).

Benevolent

I said just now that the soul-centered responsible adult commits his or her life to a higher good, which is to say that this individual wills the good, chooses the path of well-being, and puts it into action. Benevolence continues the organic progression of creative authority – as one who mindfully holds the big picture (contemplative), deeply understands what is going on (empathetic), uses his or her influence for the benefit of the whole (responsible), and now wills that greater good into an intentional way of life.

Most likely the ego was instructed in the importance of having “good will” toward others. The so-called “golden rule” of Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself (quoted by Jesus but originating in the Jewish book of Leviticus), are typically limited in their practical application to the in-group where ego is a member.

Jesus’ exhortation to Love your enemies and do good to those who commit evil against you (Matthew 5:44) represents a decidedly post-theistic direction, which neither the patron deity of the Judaism of his day nor the patron deity of later Christian orthodoxy was capable of fulfilling. Theism will always have “outsiders,” who necessarily live and perish outside the saving mercy of (the insiders’) god.

Forgiving

This, I suppose, is where the real test lies. How far does the benevolent life of creative authority reach? Where is the edge, where is the boundary that defines the extent of lovingkindness? For the ego there must be a limit, past which it is not only dangerous and foolhardy, but positively blasphemous to go. If god will finally cast his enemies into everlasting torment – even if it is out of a reluctant obligation to condemn the sinner – who am I (asks the ego) to presume that god might be outdone?

I have made a case that this was precisely the message (new story, gospel) of Jesus, summarized in the simple yet revolutionary appeal of “unconditional forgiveness” – loving anyway, doing good anyway, choosing benevolence over retribution, letting go of the past and moving into a shared future. (For more on that, see “Jesus Against Christianity“)

Forgiveness, as “letting go,” concerns more than just our relationships with others, even if that’s where it is most difficult and most urgently needed. Releasing the past allows the individual to take from it the valuable lessons that constitute wisdom, without having to drag an unexamined life behind him or her like – in the wonderful metaphor of Robert Bly’s – “a long, black bag.” We forgive so we can be free to grow and learn and fulfill our creativity authority in the great community of life.

 

 

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