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Romancing the Inner Child

Jesus is said to have held up the model of a child in helping his audience appreciate what is required to “enter the kingdom of God,” by which he did not mean an afterlife in heaven but the liberated life here and now. Preachers have been exhorting their congregations to be like children ever since, which turns out not to be such good advice after all.

The misunderstanding has to do with the difference between being childlike and acting childish. Jesus was elevating the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity: engaging with life in this way keeps us present to what’s really going on. On the other hand, when we behave childishly we are decidedly not present to the mystery of the moment, but rather disengaged and spinning neurotically inside ourselves.

Our Western romance of childhood regards it as a time of enchantment, freewheeling fantasy, and simple innocence. Growing up caused our disenchantment and introduced us to the world of adult preoccupations, not to mention the moral ambiguity we often find ourselves in. (We’ll come back to that in a bit.)

In many of us there is a longing to return to that idyllic state, and perhaps not a few Christians regard our getting there a precondition of salvation itself (cf., the saying of Jesus).

To put things in perspective, my diagram illustrates three ‘dimensions’ of human psychology. Our Animal Nature is where psychology is rooted in biology and the sentient organism of our body. At the other end of the continuum is our Higher Self where psychology opens toward self-actualization and ‘unity consciousness’ (i.e., our sense of All-as-One). The development into maturity proceeds through a third dimension, where the personality individuates upon a separate center of self-conscious identity – the “I” (Latin ego) from which we take a uniquely personal perspective on things.

This third dimension of ego consciousness is strategically important to the awakening of our Higher Self, as it is from the vantage point of its center that we are enabled to look ‘down’ (or inward) to the grounding mystery of being, and ‘up’ (or outward) to the prospect of genuine community. The distinction of these two ‘poles’ of the continuum of consciousness – a ground within that simply is and a community beyond that only might be – is necessary to keep in mind, as our successful transit will depend on how well things go with ego formation.

For it to go well, each of us needs to achieve ego strength, which isn’t really an individual achievement so much as the outcome of a larger conspiracy of other social agents and forces, like our mother, father, other taller powers, siblings and peers. When this conspiracy is provident, our subjective need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy is adequately met, resulting in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under an executive center of identity (or ego).

As we continue our growth into maturity, our centered personality gradually takes for itself the responsibility of constructing its own ‘habitat of meaning’ or personal world. Now the story of who we are (i.e., our personal myth) is ours to determine, at least to some extent, and we have full authorial rights. This is what I mean by creative authority.

With a healthy individuated identity in place, possessed of ego strength and creative authority, we can choose to ‘drop’ from this center and into the grounding mystery within, or ‘leap’ from it in the interest of connecting in genuine community.

Either move depends on an ability to get over ourselves, which in turn is a function of that emotional complex in our personality that was our primary mode of engaging with reality in those early years, but which is now our Inner Child.

When things have gone well for us, the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity continue to orient and inspire our adult life. We can surrender ourselves in existential trust, behold the present mystery of reality in wide-eyed astonishment, and explore its myriad features with an insatiable desire to understand.

Such virtues are at the heart of not only healthy religion, but of our best science and art as well. We are less prone to confuse our constructs of goodness, truth, and beauty with the mystery that is beyond names and forms. Instead, they can serve as symbols and guidelines leading us deeper into that mystery where All is One.

But if our early environment as actual children did not support our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy, we devised ways of still getting at least some of what we needed in spite of the circumstances. A profound insecurity made us neurotically self-centered and motivated our manipulation of others for the sake of getting what we needed. For a while perhaps, it worked – but never entirely or for very long.

These childish stratagems of behavior: pitching tantrums, sulking under the covers, telling lies, intimidating our rivals, cheating the system – whatever it takes to get what we want (“Trumpence”) – are now tucked away in the repertoire of our Inner Child. Whenever our insecurity gets poked, triggered, or hooked, our adult Higher Self gets pushed offline and this emotional terrorist takes over.

This is the part of us that actually prevents our entrance to the kingdom of God. When we are in this childish mode, not only is our own grounding mystery inaccessible to us, but genuine community is an utter impossibility. Indeed, we have become its diabolical adversary.

Not really if, but to the degree that we have this diabolical Inner Child inside us just waiting to get poked, it is of critical importance that we give sufficient time and mindful practice to the activation of our Higher Self. Scolding, blaming, shaming, and punishing ourselves and each other will only keep us stuck in the neurotic spiral.

To make progress on the path, we need to remind ourselves – and occasionally be reminded – that it’s not all about us.

 

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A Closer Look at Growing Up

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Michelangelo’s scene in the Sistine Chapel of the temptation and expulsion of the First Couple from Eden follows the mythic narrative of Genesis 3 fairly closely – except perhaps for their depiction as meaty white Europeans. But we can forgive the artist for creating in his own likeness, as we all tend to do that.

Myths of creation and of how we humans found ourselves in, or brought about, our present predicament are widespread among the world cultures. Typically things start off in a paradisaical state and then some act of ignorance, stupidity, or disobedience breaks the spell and we find ourselves on the outs. The orthodox Christian interpretation has long taken this as historical, which soon enough ran up against the findings of anthropology and evolutionary science.

The Church authorities made the mistake of insisting on the literal-historical meaning of this and other biblical myths, making it today impossible for an orthodox Christian to also be a well-informed and reality-oriented world citizen. If the Bible isn’t telling the literal truth, they worry, then nothing in it can be trusted. If the story of our expulsion from the garden didn’t really happen, then why do we need to be saved? Finally, if the Bible is the “word of God” but turns out to be more myth than history, then what the hell … and heaven, for that matter?!

There is a way to understand this Bible story without having to reject science, logic, and common sense. But it requires that we loosen up on our insistence that truth can only be literal. It can also be metaphorical, referring to the way a word, scene, or entire story reveals a mystery that can only be experienced, not explained. When you read or hear such a story not as an explanation of prehistorical facts but rather as a veil drawn aside on your own human experience, that is truth in another sense.

So how does the Genesis story show us what’s really going on, about what’s true of our human experience? Let’s take a closer look.

Serpents make appearances in many world myths and their metaphorical meaning will be different depending on the cultural and historical context. They might represent the principle of time, in the way they slither in lines and shed their skin to be reborn. There’s probably an acquired reflex deep in our hominid genes that jumps at snakes but reveres their lethal power.

To observe a slithering serpent as a “traveling esophagus” (Joseph Campbell) is to identify it with the most elementary of survival drives. We know from science that our body is not a spontaneous and unique expression of biology, but instead has genetic roots deep in life’s adventure on Earth. Over many millions of years this organism and its nervous system evolved by seeking out niches of nourishment, safety, mastery, and procreation. These are the survival drives of our animal nature, represented by a serpent in the Genesis myth.

It takes at least a second reading for Christians, especially, to realize that the garden serpent is not an evil principle but rather belongs to Yahweh’s created order which he declared “very good.” In other words, this isn’t the devil (or Satan) as later orthodoxy would insist. (When the myth was first invented, there was as yet no such absolute principle of personified evil working in opposition to an absolute good.) The serpent merely tempts Eve to seize an opportunity that might work to her advantage – that she will be “like god, knowing good and evil.”

At this stage of the story, Adam and Eve are still innocent and naive. They only know what they’ve been told by their higher power. Their world was created by someone else, is managed by someone else, and the way they should behave is dictated by someone else. Sound familiar? In other words, Adam and Eve are children – not literally children in the story, but serving as archetypes of “the child.”

When we are young children, our own animal nature and its survival drives compels behavior that inevitably runs up against the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of morality, that is to say, of the rule system that lays down the code of what sorts of behavior are commanded or prohibited. Because our animal nature has been at it for millions of years already, it takes time and repeated disciplinary actions for our tribe to bring these impulses in line.

In those early years when our animal nature is ‘tempting’ us to cheat, lie, and manipulate others for what we need, our sense of right and wrong is contained by what we might call a morality of obedience. It’s not necessary that we understand why some action is right or wrong, only that we obey the rule that tells us how to behave. Our taller powers said it, they call the shots, and we must do as they say. When we obey there might be a reward, but more certain still is the penalty (both physical and emotional) that follows our disobedience. The psychological consequence of disobedience is called a guilty conscience.

Part of growing into a mature adult involves breaking free of this morality of obedience where our behavior is motivated by external incentives. While it’s a social necessity that the animal natures of children are brought into compliance with the rule system of the tribe, adults are expected to take responsibility for their own lives and behavior. In one sense, it’s nice to have everything laid out for us, with all the “shalts” and “nots,” lollipops and paddles at the ready.

But our adult experience is not so simplistic or clear-cut. We need to accept the full burden of our existence along with its unresolved, and in many cases unresolvable, ambiguity. To merely “trust and obey,” as the orthodox hymn goes, would be to refuse the responsibility of being an adult. It becomes imperative, then, that we shift from a morality of obedience to an ethic of responsibility.

There will be times when our own higher adult self sees the inherent egoism of obedience – doing something for a reward, refraining to avoid punishment, thinking all the while “what’s in it for me?” In the adult world more variables have to be considered, differing perspectives allowed, and in some cases doing the right thing puts us in conflict with the morality of our tribe. We need to be willing to bear some conscientious guilt by departing from the norm or disobeying a rule when these are enforcing oppression, exploitation, and privilege.

So what does the Genesis myth tell us? That we all need to grow up. That we need to listen to our animal nature as we obey those in charge. But that eventually we will have to step from under the authority of those telling us how to live and figure it out on our own. Taking for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil,” making our own decisions and accepting the consequences, constructing a world that is safe, stable, and provident for those young Adams and Eves now depending on us – this is our destiny as responsible adults, making our way just “East of Eden.”

 

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A Nation of Children

I see and hear comments in the media, about how we have elected “a toddler” to the White House. Obviously what they mean to say is that our president behaves like a child – not imaginative and playful and innocent, but reactive and manipulative and narcissistic; not so much childlike as childish.

It does strike me as odd how long-standing Republicans and reluctant Trump supporters that I know are willing to overlook these traits. We would have been even worse off, they say, had we elected Hillary as president. Apparently Donald Trump was the lesser of two evils. While all politicians have a shadow – and of course we need to admit that each one of us has a shadow side as well – I wonder if Trump’s “dark side” is something our nation and the world can bear for very much longer.

Trump supporters frequently say they voted for him because he “tells it like it is” and that he’s not afraid to “take what belongs to him” – which presumably, with him acting on our behalf, will also translate into taking (back) what is ours. And that may be true … for wealthy, white, heterosexual male citizens and corporate executives in these United States.

That’s not all of us, for sure; indeed it’s only a very small percentage of our population. And the fact that Trump himself belongs to that exclusive and elite group doesn’t seem to matter.

Putting partisan politics aside, I’d like to analyze the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency not in terms of political philosophies, moral values, or as the final ascendancy of capitalism (wealth, individualism, private ownership) over democracy (equity, communalism, public access) out of the historically creative tension of these two ideologies. Instead I will contemplate how this kind of person arrived at the helm of our nation’s leadership.

My theory is that Trump’s election is symptomatic of something going on in each of us – or at least in most of us, even if “most of us” (i.e., the majority) didn’t actually vote him into office. I’m thinking of our nation on the analogy of an individual human being: each of us has an animal nature (our biophysical body), an inner child where we process life experiences and respond emotionally, and a higher self that enables us to take a more rational perspective in constructing a larger and longer meaning of life.

Now as adults, the pattern of reflexes, moods, strategies, and beliefs that formed when we were children is still carried within us, in an emotional complex called our inner child. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that part of us that gets triggered by stress, illness, hunger, pain, and loss (or the threat of these). Our emotional inner child is oriented and motivated by a desire for security, that there is enough of what we need and we can trust those around us.

Because we weren’t in control of the world back then, we relied on our taller powers for what we needed. And because they had their own inner children that got triggered occasionally (or chronically), we had to devise means of getting our way when they didn’t deliver, interfered, or weren’t around to help.

These ‘adaptive strategies’ soon became our modi operandi when things didn’t go our way, and for the most part they worked, if not entirely or all the time.

As our strategies were really intended to manipulate the outer world in order to get what we needed and feel secure (safe, loved, capable, and worthy), I prefer to call them neurotic styles. It is these which partly make up that emotional complex of our inner child. When we feel threatened somehow, our insecurity is triggered and those old patterns turn on and take over. From the perspective of other adults around us, we are suddenly being childish, unreasonable, selfish, and neurotic. And it’s true.

When life is manageably stable and we have enough of what we need, our higher self can lead the way. We can take in the larger picture and see farther down the road. We can project alternative scenarios of the future, consider different sides of an issue, include others in our decisions, take responsibility for our actions, and be mindful of how our choices affect the systems to which we belong.

When our higher self is engaged, we tend to vote for candidates who demonstrate these same virtues of adult rationality.

But when our security is threatened, whether by changing conditions and actual events, or because some alarmist has triggered our fear response, it’s more challenging to keep our higher self online. Instead, our inner child takes over. The inner child of candidate Trump said just the right things to make a large swathe of American voters believe that their America had been stolen from them and they had the right to take it back.

Back from China and its cheap tricks. Back from Mexico and its drug lords. Back from cheating trade partners. Back from Big Government regulators. Back from Blacks, from women, and from homosexuals. Back from the poor, insofar as they are freeloaders on our wealth and freedom.

Soon America will be “great again.”

His tantrums sounded bold and confident. He could be guilty of narcissism, if he didn’t have our best interests at heart. Finally, someone showed up who could speak power to truth and confirm what we had been afraid of all along. Does it matter that he says and does whatever it takes to get his way – what I coined “Trumpence”? Well, no (says our inner child); getting what you want is really all that matters.

So, my theory goes: The American people elected Donald Trump as president because – at least at the time, and probably still – we were a nation of (inner) children. Traumatic, global, infrastructural, and systemic changes had pitched us off-balance, prompting us to imagine any number of apocalyptic scenarios where we would never again get what we needed.

With our security threatened, what choice did we have? More of the same? Complicated plans that would take years to realize and all of us working together? Unacceptable! There’s no time for that.

Like other emotional terrorists, candidate Trump poked our insecurities and promised that we could get back what we (never) had. Our body was old enough to vote, but the part of us that penciled in the bubbles and pulled the lever was much less mature.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2019 in Timely and Random

 

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A New Hierarchy of Needs

Back when Abraham Maslow formulated his hierarchy of human needs, the science of psychology hadn’t yet clarified what I have come to name our subjective or “feeling-needs.” At that time the concept of need was still equated with a dependency on something external to the individual which is required for healthy development.

As we move up his hierarchy we advance across physiological, safety, relational and self-esteem needs, until we come to the threshold of self-actualization and realizing our highest potential.

My ‘new hierarchy of needs’ includes much of Maslow’s model but rearranges elements according to a stage theory of human development that I’ve been working to clarify in this blog. It also adds what I’m calling our spiritual needs, which isn’t suggesting that we have a need for heaven, immortality, or even god as most religions claim. Our spiritual needs are very real, but not at all metaphysical or supernatural in orientation.

I agree with Maslow that the entire scheme culminates in self-actualization, or what I name ‘fulfillment’ in the sense of realizing our full capacity as human beings.

To appreciate how my rearrangement and new category of needs matters to our self-understanding, as well as to an ethics of engagement with other human beings, let’s take a tour through my diagram. We’ll begin at the base of the hierarchy and work our way upward, taking a little more time on those elements that Maslow didn’t include but which determine to a great extent how high into what he called “the farther reaches of human nature” any of us are capable of going.

Our survival needs are what we require in our animal nature to stay alive: clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and protective refuge where we can rest in safety. Of course, we are more than a mere body and its organic urgencies, and there are some higher needs such as social connection, and I would even argue spiritual peace, deprived of which a human animal will suffer and prematurely die.

While Maslow’s model proceeds from our physical (physiological and safety) needs into needs of love and belonging, I have inserted between these the category of our subjective needs. I actually prefer to call them our “feeling-needs,” referring specifically to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To understand their place in the hierarchy of needs, just think about how your survival need for refuge, for example, translates subjectively into the felt sense of being safe (or not). Or consider how your social need for connection translates subjectively into the felt sense of being loved (or not). In each case, that felt sense is a crucial reference in your self-appraisal and of what’s going on.

Subjective needs are not survival needs, but they register the degree in which your material environment provides for your animal life. And neither are subjective needs the same as your social needs, but they register the internal impression of how supportive your social web is to your developing personality.

The subjective needs – your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – is where your experiences of reality as provident or otherwise are translated into deep impressions regarding your existential security.

In other words, it’s not enough that you are in fact safe, loved, capable, and/or worthy; if you don’t feel safe (etc.), then that unsatisfied need to feel safe will dominate your attention and drive your behavior. Anxiety is our name for the feeling of threat or danger, and if you are taken over by anxiety it doesn’t matter if your actual circumstances happen to be perfectly safe.

You are constantly checking in on this register of subjective needs and how secure you feel.

Calling the feeling-needs subjective rather than internal emphasizes the point that they are “thrown under” the center of personal identity known as ego. A construct of identity is the highest of your social needs, and regarding it as a construct – something that is not a fact of natural formation but instead a cultural fiction composed out of numerous “I am ______” storylines – is a breakthrough discovery of social psychology in the last 100 years.

Think of the social needs as correlated around your emerging identity as a member of your tribe. Outwardly you perform this identity across countless role plays, while inwardly – or better yet, subjectively – you carry a felt sense of how safe, loved, capable, and worthy you are. When your feeling-needs have been adequately met, the construct of personal identity is said to possess “ego strength.”

The virtues of ego strength are that personality is stably grounded in your animal nature (i.e., the body), is emotionally balanced, and is unified under the executive management of self-control.

My returning reader will anticipate what I say next, which is that ego strength in this ideal sense is vanishingly rare. Because we were born to imperfect parents, raised in uniquely dysfunctional families, and had to find our way in a chronically mess-up world, each of us carries some insecurity associated with our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To whatever degree we fall short of the ideal, just about everything in life will be caught up in our schemes to find what we feel we don’t have enough of. We have a compulsion to fill the emptiness within ourselves. And what do you know, there are all kinds of ideologies, agencies, products, and services out there that promise just what we crave.

So we bite, buy, and believe – but nothing can make our insecurity go away.

As you contemplate the Hierarchy of Needs, it should be easy to imagine how the frustration of subjective needs and the various compensations, substitutes, and distractions you employ to feel better (i.e., happier and more secure) end up interfering with your social needs as well.

Instead of healthy connection, you’re caught in attachment and codependency. Instead of belonging, you struggle desperately for acceptance and approval. Instead of enjoying the benefits of membership, you have to fight for what you feel is yours. And all of that together conspires to make you more confused than ever about who you are.

The resulting identity confusion, with its source in your subjective insecurity, presses you urgently into the chase, the quest, and the hope for salvation – for something, someone, somewhere else. 

Deepest down there is no peace, just this inner void and restless craving. Tangled up in the storylines of your confused identity, stuck in the past and striving for a way out, you can’t be fully present to the here and now. Instead of lifted into an awareness of your communion with all things, you feel isolated and lonely.

But the great evolutionary tragedy is that the priceless treasure of your true nature is locked behind a heavy door of fear and neurotic self-interest. Your spiritual wealth is left undiscovered and your unique contribution to the commonwealth of beings cannot be released.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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Being You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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