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Out of Depression

The most significant accomplishment for any human being is to become fully human.

That may sound redundant to some, and like a downgrade to others, but those who are most in touch with the human adventure have long insisted that we are still a long way from the evolutionary ideal of our species. And they’ve been saying this for a few thousand years.

By evolutionary ideal they mean something akin to what the philosopher Aristotle named “entelechy,” the intrinsic aim of development which is evident in all living things. With every species of life above the microbes, an individual’s development advances to maturity through formal stages and transitional phases of growth. Reaching maturity involves more than just getting bigger, of course, as numerous capacities for survival, self-control, reproduction, intelligence, creativity, and self-awareness gradually awaken and come “online.”

Our human “growth chart” tracks four distinct kinds of intelligence:

  • a visceral intelligence (VQ) that regulates the internal state and health of our body
  • an emotional intelligence (EQ) that manages our engagement with the changing situations of life
  • a rational intelligence (RQ) that constructs and regularly refreshes our model of reality, and
  • a spiritual intelligence (SQ) that orients us within the unity of existence and grounds us in being

That last one, our spiritual intelligence, is also the last to come online in a fully conscious way – if it comes online at all. Its awakening depends on the successful development of the others, for they are needed to provide the steady platform of a self-conscious identity (ego), from which we might leap into the unity of existence or drop into the ground of being.

The tragedy of our human experience, then, is tightly bound to the question of how well-established we are as self-conscious (and self-aware) individuals.

My diagram illustrates the dual-yet-complementary trajectories of successful development, in the self-actualization of our human nature and our self-transcendence into the higher wholeness of things: fulfillment and wellbeing. According to the special “language” of our soul (SQ), this duality is paradoxical – both/and, yin and yang, not separate things coming together but an essential polarity manifesting “the Tao that cannot be named” (Lao Tzu).

Whether we are speaking of the actualization or transcendence of self, a healthy formation of ego is critical to our spiritual fulfillment and wellbeing.

Let’s follow this dual trajectory without consideration of any complications, impediments, or failures it will ordinarily confront along the way. Only with such an abstract and depersonalized picture in mind, can we see with accuracy what unfolds inevitably for all of us.

Consciousness begins life fully immersed in the visceral intelligence of our animal nature. The urgencies of survival (breathing, ingesting, excreting, sleeping) are all that matters. Even into the first months and years of life, our primary concern – although this is almost entirely unconscious – is with getting what we need to stay alive and safe. Attentive and provident caretakers enabled our nervous system to settle into a baseline default mode called security: We have what we need to live, to love, and to grow.

This baseline security served as the “solid ground,” emotionally speaking, from which we could reach out, explore, and connect to the reality outside our skin. A literally sensational realm of delights and dangers quickly synced up with our primal sensitivities to pleasure and pain, shaping our behavior along a path of general good feeling, or happiness.

At this stage of development our emotional intelligence was forming memories and making connections that supported a positive sense of self and an optimistic outlook on life.

With a neurotically stable (VQ) and emotionally balanced (EQ) identity-in-formation, we were enabled to construct a mental model of reality that would further support our intellectual need for orientation and meaning. Our rational intelligence (RQ) is free to do this all-important and uniquely human work of making meaning only by virtue of the emotional balance provided from below. And with all three of these distinct threads of intelligence fully aligned, the beliefs we hold and the world they compose can be flexible, reality-oriented, and always open to update.

A truly meaningful world is one that encourages forays into the present mystery of reality, which is by defintion beyond belief and perfectly meaningless.

Such positive and healthy development, whether aided or impeded by the temporal conditions of our unique family history and social situation, is impelled by the “entelechy” of our evolutionary ideal as a human being. Much in the way we might say that an apple tree, by its nature, intends to produce apples, there is a similar intention in our own nature towards fulfillment and wellbeing, to actualize our full potential and transcend ourselves for a higher wholeness.

Each of us should be able to put a pin on the growth chart identifying where we are along this dual trajectory of human evolution. Just before we do that, however, let’s do a reality check. I earlier acknowledged that things don’t always go so well.

To be honest, I think we need to admit that they never go without a hitch – and that’s true of anyone who has ever lived.

While our visceral intelligence drives us to seek security, where we have enough of what we need to be safe, healthy, and strong, our taller powers and family environment might have been far from provident. Instead of a default state of security, our nervous system was calibrated to these unfavorable conditions in what we know as anxiety. Relaxing into our life just wasn’t an option. A chronic vigilance, nervous tension, and a deep distrust in reality became our basic mode of consciousness.

When anxiety (VQ) is taken up with us to the level of relationships and social interactions, we try desperately to manipulate others into making us feel secure. We latch on and grip down emotionally (EQ), begging or warning them not to leave us or let us down. Whereas our emotional intelligence ought to be connecting us in healthy bonds of intimacy and affiliation, instead it gets entangled in neurotic attachment.

For all the manipulation it requires, and with the unavoidable conflict it generates, any relationship forged around insecure attachment simply cannot support the happiness we seek.

And to the degree we are locked inside dysfunctional relationships, hanging on with our last hope, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us are correspondingly small, rigid, and unrealistic. When a belief we may once have held comes instead to take our mind hostage, it becomes a conviction. It is now the “only way” of seeing something, the absolute and unquestionable truth of the matter. Our rational intelligence (RQ), which would normally build and routinely revise its model of reality, has been made a prisoner (a convict) of its own invention.

If we happen to be caught in that self-reinforcing conspiracy of anxiety, attachment, and conviction – which, if you’ve been with me so far, can rightly be named the “spiritual pathology” of our species – there is one place it will predictably lead: depression.

On the way there, we are likely to cause or contribute to all kinds of damage, suffering, and violence; but that is where we are headed. Very aptly described, depression (a condition of being “pressed down” or made low) is where the human spirit languishes and may eventually die.

In that low place we feel hapless (“this is happening to me”), helpless (“there is nothing I can do”), and hopeless (“there’s no way out or through”).

But of course there is a way through, and it begins as we get grounded again and find our center.

 

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Human Progress

In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell says that “Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us.” He read the world’s mythologies as “magnified dreams” (ibid) projecting through metaphor and fiction the inner potentialities and evolutionary adventure of the human spirit. Even if the Hero of this journey typically returns home with boons (treasure, technology, virtue, or wisdom) for the society that he or she left behind in accepting the call, Campbell’s Jungian lens skewed his interpretation in favor of individual-psychic over communal-ethical values.

In a sense, what I’ve been working on in this blog is a model of human evolution and personal development that follows the Hero back home – but then continues the journey into the work of creative change where relationships are transformed and a New Reality comes into being. I call this New Reality “genuine community.” Not to be mistaken as just another synonym for the group, community represents a qualitative shift from the interpersonal to the transpersonal, where partners step into an altogether new mode of being-together.

But getting to that point involves a lot of formational work for the individual, which Campbell analyzed into a dozen or so elements that make up the Hero’s Journey. My diagram illustrates its major moves as well as normal complications that can pull ego formation off course and into the weeds. I’ve set the entire cycle over the image of Taoism, where the polar principles of Yin and Yang are honored for their respective contributions to the dynamic whole of reality.

It should make sense as we get into it, so let’s be on our way.

We begin – and now by “we” I mean each of us on our own Hero’s Journey – in a condition where consciousness is immersed in, contained by, and dependent on a kind of fluid matrix of countless relationships and interactive forces. This is the womb of our antepartum existence, although we can’t be said to “exist” (from Greek existere, to stand out) quite yet due to the fact that we cannot survive outside this protective and provident universe.

But it’s also true that even outside our mother’s womb we continue to depend for our survival and development on what surrounds and contains us.

This helps us understand the prevalence in mythology of a paradisaical womb-state of the first humans at the genesis of time; but also why the birth experience is represented in both religious myth and some transpersonal schools of Western psychology as the paradoxical moment when we fall out of oneness and into the realm of duality – where a liberated life awaits.

And because the actual birth experience is serving as a metaphor of our possible deliverance or awakening from the dark (unconscious, inscrutable, and ineffable) conditions of oneness which presently encompass us, our access to this “pre-ego” state of consciousness persists as a major theme in many mystical teachings and meditative practices.

Again paradoxically, the undifferentiated state of oneness (or communion) is both that from which consciousness seeks freedom, at the same moment it is also the ground and wellspring of consciousness itself.

Psychologically speaking, we need to “fall” out of oneness and into our own separate existence as individuals before we can find our way to genuine community. Even as we move out of communion – that is, out of the envelope of oneness in quest of ego identity – its web of provident conditions continues to sustain us, albeit below the threshold of our conscious awareness. (In More Than You Think I name this our “sympathic mind.”)

In other words, while the “separation consciousness” of ego is recognized (in Buddhism and Christianity, for instance) as the alienated state of our human condition prior to salvation (Buddhist enlightenment, Christian atonement), our breakthrough to that higher state of consciousness is made possible by our primordial fall from oneness.

A more “negative” view of ego formation identifies it not just with our fall from oneness, but also – and we might add inevitably – as the separatist principle that gets us hopelessly entangled in our fallen state. My diagram illustrates this further fall, which mythology depicts as a realm of perdition, estrangement, and profound suffering, as a tightening spiral that diverges from the proper path of the Hero’s Journey and pulls us down.

The insecurity of our separation is experienced psychologically as anxiety, and this in turn motivates us to latch onto whatever promises to make us feel better (i.e., less anxious). This attachment, however, becoming an object of our desperate need for succor, cannot satisfy the demand but instead only magnifies our frustration and drives us deeper into the despairing exhaustion of depression.

I happen to believe that this debilitating spiral of anxiety, attachment, frustration, and depression is the neurotic complex at the core of our modern mental health (and spiritual) crisis.

If we were fortunate to have been raised in a sufficiently provident home environment by good-enough taller powers, our personal identity and sense of self can find their center in a position of ego strength. Through our fall out of primordial oneness, consciousness has found a stable stage “east of Eden” (outside the garden paradise) where we are unique and self-conscious individuals.

Even if our early life wasn’t all that provident, we can still find our center and gain liberation from the spiral of suffering by coming in touch with our true self. This is what Carl Jung called “individuation”: the integration of personal identity around a center of ego strength.

This is also where the question “Who am I?” plays such a crucial role in our Hero’s Journey. Because what we identify “as” (e.g., tribe, class, sect, race, or species) is correlated to what we identify “with” (other members of our tribe, class, sect, race, or species), this question has the potential of breaking open those smaller identities we may have taken on as part of our security strategy.

We come to understand identity as a function of our affiliation with the human family (Judeo-Christian), all sentient beings (Buddhist), the web of life (native American), and even with the universe itself (e.g., the New Cosmology of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme).

As this larger and more inclusive identity begins to reshape our perspective, it also transforms our values and inspires a new way of life – in community. The undifferentiated consciousness at the beginning of our journey, which fell into separation and duality and gradually found itself (by healthy development or salvation) properly centered in ego-consciousness, breaks out and circles back to unity consciousness where “self” and “other” are together as one.

Our journey doesn’t end with this new awareness and self-understanding, but continues with our consideration of “the other” in the choices we make, as we live with greater intention for the prosperity and wellbeing of all.

 

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Beyond Ourselves

Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.

While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.

So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.

In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.

In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.

A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.

Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.

Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.

When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.

This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.

Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.

This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.

An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.

Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.

But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.

This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.

A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.

If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?

The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.

Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.

 

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Practicing Wisdom

In a recent post titled Living By Wisdom I reminded my reader of five principles that humans over many thousands of years have drawn from their experience and clarified, like pure gold from the dross of daily life, into a perennial tradition of deep insights into the nature of reality, authentic self, and genuine community. I say “reminded” because I believe we each have this same plumline of contemplative intuition whereby such wisdom is accessed, to whatever extent it may be obstructed by daily distractions, personal ambitions, and close-minded convictions.

The perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom is a shared project combining archetypes of our collective unconscious (C.G. Jung) and aspirations of a transcultural vision of our evolutionary fulfillment as one species within the great Web of Life. While the archetypes (e.g., Ground, Abyss, Self, Other, and God) drive our development from below conscious awareness and can only be brought to consciousness through the vehicles of metaphor and myth, the apirations of this transcultural wisdom (e.g., Presence, Communion, Awakening, Liberation, and Wholeness) depend for their propagation through the generations on constructive dialogue and intentional practice.

That earlier post briefly expounded on five wisdom principles in particular, perhaps the most universal and enduring insights our species has discovered over the past who knows how many thousands (maybe even millions) of years.

  1. Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

  2. Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

  3. Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

  4. Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

  5. Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

In this post I want to launch from that last one in particular, as it is really the ur-principle or “most essential truth” assumed in the other four. Simply put, we won’t appreciate or benefit from the other wisdom principles until we can manage to see beyond ourselves – both individually and as a species.

This meditation is especially timely now, as collectively we seem to be contracting into ever smaller and more defendable horizons of identity. The anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview of the last few thousand years has further collapsed to ethnocentric, nationalistic, ideological, and egocentric (self-centered) boundaries – each contraction seeking a patch of emotional real estate that feels more managable and secure.

An obvious problem with this quest for safety and control is that we have to separate ourselves from the greater communion of Life in order to find it. Nevertheless it continues to elude us. Indeed our insecurity only grows more intense and unmanageable the further into isolation we go.

If the nature of reality is communion (All is One), then separating ourselves from it will inevitably throw us into an untenable, and certainly not sustainable, situation.

In Living By Wisdom I referred to a spiritual pandemic that has been ravaging our species for some time now, described in Principle 5 as loneliness, hypertension, and early death. It may seem odd at first that hypertension and early death, which are obvious physiological maladies, should be identified as symptoms of a “spiritual” pandemic. The incongruity, however, is only in our minds, as they have been conditioned over many centuries of ideological brainwashing (conventionally called “education”) to divide “soul” and “body,” “self” and “other,” “human” and “nature.”

According to the perennial wisdom tradition, these dualisms are constructs of language and belief and have no basis in the true nature of things. Dividing and opposing them as we have, it should not surprise us if we are suffering for our “sin” (literally separating or dislocating ourselves from reality). Our suffering is not so much a punishment (ala theistic religion) as a certain consequence of our self-isolation.

Those consequences should then be read in reverse to reveal the real pathology of our spiritual pandemic: an early death is the fallout of hypertension (the internal effects of chronic frustration, anxiety, and autoimmunity), which is itself a manifestation of our profound loneliness – of feeling that we are estranged from the whole of life and utterly on our own in the world.

Despite the infinite variety of distractions at our fingertips, and even surrounded by countless others equally distracted, we are dying of loneliness.

So what can we do? Just jumping into a crowd or trying to fill our emptiness with comfort food, prescription medications, material possessions, self-improvement programs, or ‘heroic’ achievement won’t fix our problem because none of these strategies acknowledge or address the underlying cause. If you’ve fallen for any of these “sure fixes” to your existential loneliness, you can verify from personal experience the futility of the effort. With every failure, your feeling of isolation and hopelessness intensifies.

Reaching back into our collective heritage of shared wisdom, we will find the answer to our question. Here are four practices, validated by millions just like you over many thousands of years and across the world’s many cultures, both ancient and modern.

Wisdom Practice 1

Get grounded.

The metaphor of ground in the perennial wisdom tradition is used to represent the present mystery of reality as both source and support of your life. Ground is always beneath and within you, which means that it’s always and only here and now. Our loneliness is generated by the illusion of our separateness, that we are not actually in the here-and-now. But where else can we be?

When you say or think, “I feel lonely,” it is from the perspective of your self-conscious personal identity, or ego (Latin for “I”). Ego is conspicuous for its lack of reality, as it is merely a construct of personal self-reference and social agency shaped and installed by your tribe in early childhood and reinforced by society ever since. Its existence is suspended like a tightrope between “the past” and “the future,” neither of which has reality in the here-and-now. Your past and future are a highly curated selection of memories and fantasies composed into a personal myth that tells the story of who you are.

Just as the story itself is an edited compilation of what you (choose to) remember and expect, the “I” who is defined by the story is also a fictional construct.

Your ground is not in your ego for the simple reason that your ego is separated from the here-and-now by this highwire act of your personal myth. To get grounded requires that you drop out of your story and into your body, which is always present. The “you” that drops is not your ego, but rather your embodied mind, the living sentient center of present awareness. Getting grounded, then, means dropping into your living presence where the sentient life of your body is experienced as both source and support.

A simple breathing meditation – attending to your breath, counting its rhythm, feeling the gentle expansion and relaxation, the deepening calm of inner peace – is the easiest, quickest, and most common wisdom practice for getting grounded.

Wisdom Practice 2

Find your center.

This wisdom practice follows very naturally on the first one, but whereas getting grounded is about dropping out of your story and into your body, finding your center shifts the intention from letting go to gathering consciousness around a deeper locus of contemplative awareness. Now, free of all identity contracts and future projects, without beliefs to hold everything at a distance, a sense of boundless presence radiates outward from where you are.

From that deep center of boundless presence nothing is separate, everything is connected, and All is One. Consciousness is not tethered to and limited by a personal identity, nor is it domesticated and contained inside a world where you pretend to be somebody.

The center of awareness deep within you, taking in the vast reality all around you, is the universe becoming conscious of itself.

Wisdom Practice 3

Connect to what matters.

While still fully identified with your ego and its managed world, the dual drives of craving and fear magnetize everything around you as either “for me” or “against me.” Your values and choices fall in line with your ambitions in life, and anything that doesn’t fit on one side or the other is either dismissed, ignored, or goes unnoticed.

When you live in the delusion of your separateness, what ultimately matters is determined by how safe, loved, capable, or worthy something or someone makes you feel. And because ego consciousness is inherently insecure, your attachments, fantasies, and concerns only conspire to make you more anxious, motivating you to shrink your world-horizon even further so as to reduce exposure and tighten your control.

In this state you cannot see anything for what it is in itself, and anyone in relationship with you feels trapped by the snares of your selfish and unrealistic demands.

From your deeper contemplative center of boundless presence, however, your perspective is unbiased and clear-sighted. You can consider your human journey and life-arrangement and ask, “What truly matters? What do I want to cultivate from the fertile ground of what I am and what I might still become? Where are my anchors of timeless (i.e., eternal) value? What ideals shall I live my life by, and what higher virtues still call to me?”

Wisdom Practice 4

Be the change you want to see.

The four wisdom practices finally culminate in this one, which exhorts us to actualize the noble intentions and higher ideals we have just clarified. There’s no arguing against the therapeutic benefits of reciting inspirational thoughts to ourselves. By putting them in our journals, taping them to our bathroom mirrors, and sticking them on refrigerator doors, we create timely reminders of the New Reality we aspire to and hope to inhabit some day.

Here is one more example of a division generated out of the delusion of our separateness, this time between knowledge and action, theory and practice, truth (on the side of knowledge and theory) and power (in practical action). Wisdom does not recognize this division, teaching instead that an enlightened understanding of the way things really are will manifest directly – we might even say spontaneously – in how we live and what we do.

So, take anything from the list of what matters most to you and convert it into an action. If it’s kindness, then be kind. If it’s love, then be loving. If it’s peace, then become a peacemaker. If it’s inclusion, then open your life to a stranger. The world around you will start to change as you put into it the virtues you hope to find.

It may take some time, so be patient and keep practicing!

 

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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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God and COVID-19

Times like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in religion. On the “worse” side are declarations to the effect that the challenge we face is an instrument of god’s will. It has been sent for the divine purpose of punishing sinners, testing the righteous, or maybe just as a demonstration of god’s awesome power.

Just now, some conservative Christians are spinning stories classifying the coronavirus pandemic as god’s judgment on globalism, with its tendency toward moral promiscuity and contaminating his revealed truth (given to us, not them) with worldly deceptions. That’s frequently how children, as well as full-grown adults who are stuck inside an an obedience-based morality, try to justify their taller/higher Power’s presumed omnipotence in the face of tragic experience. They screwed up, or somebody else did, and now they are paying the price.

Of course, it’s not the conservative Christians themselves who have sinned. Or maybe they did, by making too many compromises. Now their faith is being tested and purified. Hopefully they will learn their lesson and get it together, which means tightening the orthodoxy, strengthening defenses, and protecting their membership against future lapses.

You see? It’s possible to spin the narrative any which way – “the narrative” referring to how human beings try to find meaning in the midst or in the wake of undeserved pain and catastrophic loss.

Our big brain pitches experience into the future, in the form of expectations and predictions of what’s next. So when the unexpected and unpredictable tragic thing happens, we are compelled to find – or else spontaneously create – a story that connects it to the past or present we think we know, or to a future we believe is coming.

One problem with trying to put a theological (god-narrative) spin around our suffering is in the way it pulls us out of the present experience itself and into our heads, where this and every kind of story is spun. You might think that the therapeutic benefit of escaping raw suffering for a story that explains it, justifies it, downplays it, or even takes it personally would outweigh any value there might be in simply taking it as it comes.

When human beings become clinically unhappy, it’s either because we are stuck inside a story that’s preventing us from a realistic engagement with and healthy adaptation to the world, or because we are lacking a coherent story to make sense of our suffering. The Jungian psychologist James Hillman believed that a client in therapy is really seeking a case history, a narrative account that gives their suffering a context and assigns it a meaning.

And then there are those who can’t seem to break out of a story that is contextually irrelevant or maladaptive to the changes and challenges of real life. When the mind is so locked inside its beliefs, we call it “conviction,” and this is the true source of our suffering.

Once upon a time – a very long time ago – religion provided people with stories that engaged them imaginatively with reality and helped them adapt creatively to the vicissitudes of actual life. Although many of its “classical” stories, called myths, seem quaint now and out of touch with our modern sensibilities, back then at least – when a culture’s model of reality (cosmology), guiding stories (mythology), and way of life (morality) were fully aligned – people were enabled by religion to find grounding and orientation amidst suffering and in the wake of tragedy.

But no longer today.

The devastation and hardship brought on by COVID-19 cannot be reconciled with a god up in heaven. Where is that anyway, in a universe which has no “up”? To declare that “god has a plan” and “everything happens for a reason” (meaning to serve some objective) may calm our anxiety for a moment by the presumption of someone “out there” who has it all under control.

But such reassurances no longer work to give us grounding in life, center us emotionally in our experience, connect us compassionately to the suffering of others, and inspire us to act responsibly for the greater good.

One thing we can learn from the coronavirus is how deeply involved we are in the web of life, how connected we all are to each other, and how much we need each other’s company, kind hospitality, and warm loving touch to be healthy, happy, and whole.

If you have the virus right now, it’s not because you are a sinner. God is not putting you through this to test your faith. It’s not even part of some larger plan or higher purpose.

In the West especially we tend to confuse the use of god as an explanation of why we suffer with the gracious Presence, or grace-to-be-present, that we long for most deeply in life.

But it is possible for you to be present to your experience, to simply and fully be in this moment.

Every true religion cautions against using your god as a mechanism for denying mortality, escaping suffering, or otherwise explaining it away. Rather than tying your pain or loss to something external to it, try to relax more deeply into it. Instead of allowing yourself to be overtaken by suffering, open your awareness so as to include it within the present mystery of being alive.

God isn’t an explanation, but a metaphor of the present mystery that eludes every explanation. The coronavirus may be happening to you, but this profound mystery is the deeper truth of what you are.

Take care of yourself, and let others care for you. Sometimes the way through is just letting it be.

 

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Are You (Truly) Happy?

We’re supposed to be pursuing happiness in this liberal democracy of ours, or at least have the right to pursue it. We don’t have to, if we’d rather not. We also have the right to be unhappy. The choice is finally ours.

I think our problem is not that we don’t want to be happy, but that we’re confused over what happiness really is. What does it mean to “be happy”?

We’ve been duped by the advertising industry into equating happiness with pleasure – the buzz, the rush, the kick, the tingle. Pleasure stimulates a reward pathway in our brain that can never get enough, which means if an ad company can link their product with our craving for the buzz, rush, kick, or tingle, we’re going to buy – and keep paying until we’re either addicted or depressed, and maybe both. What could be called “consumer exhaustion” is the apocalypse for advertisers and Big Business, and they work hard to keep us in the game.

With a little reflection, however, it’s not hard discern the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness isn’t merely enduring pleasure or a steady, life-long dopamine rush. It doesn’t always come with the buzz, kick, or tingle – and quite often it’s absent these altogether.

Neuroscience has revealed that happiness flows along a different pathway than pleasure, depending more on serotonin than dopamine. Big Pharma and drug doctors have managed to turn this discovery into huge profits as well, hooking millions on the lure that more serotonin in their brains will magically make them happier. It doesn’t work that way. While pleasure is a product of our body and brain’s biochemistry, with what’s going on between nerve cells, happiness has more to do with our engagement with reality as persons.

The “synapse” of greater interest here is what presently separates us from three things: the grounding mystery deep within ourselves, the vibrant world all around us, and the evolutionary ideal of our higher human nature.

I’m going to name these dimensions of happiness contentment, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Each dimension might be considered a “type” of happiness, but I’d rather keep them together as a dynamic unit – as the three facets or faces of true happiness. We can focus on one or another of these facets, but losing sight of their unity could lead us into obsession and inevitable disappointment. Let’s spend some time on each dimension of happiness, and then bring them all together for the full picture.

Contentment

Contentment is the feeling that we have all we really need and all is well. While it may seem synonymous with satisfaction, contentment isn’t just about having our needs satisfied. It goes deeper than that. I connect it with our “grounding mystery,” referring to that deeper reality supporting our self-conscious experience from within by a physical, living, and sentient animal nature.

Our “first nature” is where the journey of life begins. In the best of all possible worlds and a perfect family, our body was able to settle into reality and relax into being. An inner clearing of peace and calm opened up inside us, allowing awareness to very naturally orient outward to the world around us. Our inner life became a place of solitude and quiet reflection, a deep center of strength and resolve, as well as a refuge of solace and surrender.

When we can simply be in this moment, without wanting for anything but resting entirely in the support of our grounding mystery, we are profoundly happy – even in the absence of emotions and the running script of our chattering thoughts.

This is nirvana, the placid and undisturbed (literally “no wind”) condition of a still pond. This is happiness as contentment.

Enjoyment

Hearing the words side-by-side – contentment and enjoyment – confirms their distinct connotations. If contentment is inner peace, enjoyment is more about our relationship to the world around us. When we are content, we want for nothing. When we are enjoying something, we tend to want more – not crave it or desperately need it like an addiction, but to stay with it because we find it amusing, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring.

Enjoyment probably comes closest to pleasure and is typically where our confusion starts. Relating to what’s around us involves our senses and sensations – how this, that, and all of it makes us feel. And aren’t our feelings encoded upon the primary dichotomy of pain and pleasure? It’s an easy mistake. And it’s just where the advertisers find their opportunity.

The difference becomes more clear when we acknowledge how many times our greatest enjoyments in life ride in the balance of pain and pleasure, of sacrifice and bliss.

Our true enjoyment is not merely in how something “makes us feel,” but in what it means to us, how precious, serendipitous, and grace-given it is.

I won’t go very deep into it here, but anyone could guess what consequences for enjoyment are brought into the picture when we lack contentment. The emptiness within is not cultivated as an inner clearing for surrender and repose, but is instead a void that must be filled. When we look to the world around us for things to devour – food and drink, possessions and relationships, titles and achievements, even religion and its god – whatever joy we may find in gulping them down will be short-lived. It will also be followed by resentment, which is the very antithesis of enjoyment in its true sense.

Some Christians speak of “a god-shaped hole” at our center, which turns god into a commodity that churches can peddle to consumer-believers. But again, we will never get enough of a god we have to swallow.

Fulfillment

The third facet and dimension of genuine happiness is named fulfillment. As with the other terms, this one has gotten lost in our contemporary pursuit of the buzz, the rush, the kick, and the tingle. In popular culture, “fulfillment” is the ultimate feel-good. If something isn’t fulfilling, we are excused for putting it aside and looking elsewhere for “the real thing” – what the ads promise in exchange for our money.

As I’m using it, however, fulfillment is associated with capacity, completion, and realizing our true potential as human beings. In this sense, fulfillment is always “above and ahead” of us, orienting us to what we are still in the process of becoming. We get tastes of it when we dig deeper into ourselves, step outside our comfort zone, and leap for the ring just out of reach.

The history of our species is the long story of latent talents, dormant powers, and “godly” virtues coming awake, driving our further progress in the direction of a more humane and self-actualized human being.

Ultimately – and fulfillment is about what is ultimate or “highest” – this facet of happiness doesn’t let us just settle for mediocrity and the half-assed life. Many of us do live this way, of course, but the fact that we possess an inner drive and aim (what Aristotle called “entelechy”) which seeks our self-actualization helps explain why we are always living just short of being truly happy.

It’s likely our existential insecurity (i.e., our lack of contentment) that motivates us to grab on and grip down on life rather than whole-heartedly enjoy it, which attachment then holds us back from the fulfilling and liberated life that could be ours.


So here we are, on this “Happy Thanksgiving” day. If we are gathering with family and friends at a table, perhaps we can take a few moments to contemplate whether we are truly happy. We can indeed be thankful if we are, since genuine happiness is not a solo project but a conspiracy involving countless others and some good luck besides.

And if we’re not so happy right now, then we have an idea about where to begin.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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Coming to Terms

To exist is to “stand out” (Latin existere) as an individual ego or “I,” centered in yourself and tracking on your own timeline. Of course, this timeline is not interminable, meaning that it will not continue forever. One day you will die and pass into extinction. Nothing in time is permanent; nothing is everlasting.

Now, I hear you thinking: What do you mean, nothing is everlasting? What about god? What about my soul? What about … me?!

Self-conscious human beings have suffered psychological torment for many thousands of years by the awareness of mortality, that “I” will not be around indefinitely. Most of us have lost loved ones and cherished pets along the way, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to realize that your time is also running out.

As a kind of therapeutic response to this existential realization, our species has invented many cultural variations of what we can call a “departure narrative” – stories about leave-taking, about getting out of this mortal condition, and securing your continued existence on the other side of death.

This is probably not where “god stories” got their start, since the idea of a personified intention behind the arrangement and events of our lives is historically much older than a belief in our own immortality.

In earliest religion, known as animism, humans related to their natural environment in a kind of ritual dialogue whereby nature was acknowledged and petitioned for its provident support of what they needed to live and prosper. These rituals coordinated human concerns with the seasons, cycles, and natural forces they relied on.

Even the gods at this stage were not immortal. They were not everlasting beings regarded as separate from the temporal realm of life, death, and rebirth. The purpose of religion was not departure but participation in the Great Round. Gods served the essential function of personifying the intention humans perceived (and imagined) behind the natural events impinging on their existence.

Eventually these invisible agencies were conceived as separate from the phenomena and realms they supervised.

Heaven, not just the starry firmament above Earth but the place where these superintendents resided, where they waited around and occasionally descended to take in the worship and earnest prayers of their devotees down below, was given a place in the emerging imaginarium of a new type (and stage) of religion, known as theism.

If these invisible (and now independent) personalities exist apart from the physical fields they oversee and control, then why not us? Actually it was more likely that the further development of ego formation in humans prompted this new idea of the gods as existing separate from their “body of work” (i.e., the realm of material existence).

Maybe “I” am also separate from this body. Perhaps “I” am not subject to mortality after all. When the body dies, “I” will go on to live elsewhere …

Thus was the departure narrative invented, to comfort you by dismissing death as not really happening to (“the real”) you – to this separate, independent, and immortal “I.” Since then, religions have been redirecting the focus of devotees away from time and towards eternity, away from physical reality and towards metaphysical ideals, away from this life to an imagined life-to-come.

It was all supposedly for the therapeutic benefit of dis-identifying yourself with what is impermanent and passing away. Very soon, however, it became a way of enforcing morality upon insiders as well. If you behave yourself, follow the rules, and obey those in authority, it will go well for you on the “other side.” If you don’t – well, there’s something else in store, and it’s not pleasant.

And to think how much of this was originally inspired out of human anxiety over the prospect of extinction. An independent and detachable personality that will survive death and be with god in a heaven far above and away from here – all designed to save you from the body, time, and a final extinction.

Religion’s departure narrative may bring some consolation and reassurance, but it does so by stripping away the profound (even sacred) value of your life in time and distracting you from the present mystery of being alive.

So far, we have been meditating on the axis of Time, and on your life in time. As a reminder, one day you will die and pass into extinction. But as you contemplate this fact, rather than resolving the anxiety that naturally arises by reaching for some departure narrative, there is an invitation here for you to shift awareness to a second axis, that of Being.

An experience far more exquisite and transformative than your departure for heaven is available right here and now, in this passing moment of your life. This experience is “post-ego,” meaning that it is possible only by virtue of the fact that you have already formed a separate and self-conscious “I,” and are at least capable now of dropping beneath or leaping beyond its hard-won and well-defended identity.

While the departure narrative promises a way out of Now and away from Here, this “fulfillment narrative” invites you into the fullness of life here-and-now.

Begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths: let your body relax into being. There’s nothing here that needs to be clung to or pushed away. All of the identity contracts that identify you with this tribe or that party; this rank or that role; this, that, or another label of distinction defining who you are and where you belong – drop it all, at least for now.

Imagine all of those things as tie-lines anchoring you to your place in society, and now you are unhooking from them one at a time.

As you do this, it will gradually become easier to quietly drop into your body. Here, deeper below all those crisscrossing tie-lines at the surface of who you are, your awareness opens to the feeling of being alive. Down through the nervous system and beneath the biorhythms of breathing, thrumming, pulsing, and resting, you at last come to a place that is no place, a “where” that is nowhere – the Nowhere, or here-and-now as we like to call it.

Each deeper layer in the architecture of your inner life requires a letting-go of what is above.

Each successive intentional release further empties your consciousness of content – first beliefs and the “I” who believes; then thoughts and the emotions attached to thoughts – until nothing is left to think about or even to name. I call this descending-inward path to an ineffable Emptiness the “kenotic” path, from the Greek word (kenosis) for “an emptying.”

The inward descent of Being and the letting-go or self-emptying it entails is also a highly effective practice in preparing you for a second path, of outward ascent into the greater reality that includes so many others and much else besides you. I call this ascending path “ecstatic,” also from the Greek, meaning “to stand out.”

But whereas “to exist” means to stand out as an individual ego, the ecstatic path is about stepping out or going beyond your individual ego in transpersonal communion with others – and ultimately with Everything, with the All-that-is-One.

In this same timeless moment, therefore, a profound and ineffable Emptiness invites you within and beneath who you think you are, as an expansive and manifold Communion invites you out and beyond yourself. Your awakening to this present mystery is at once the fullness of time and the fulfillment of your human nature.

There’s no need to leave.

 

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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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The Four Hells

The idea of the “liberated life” is a big theme in this blog on creative change. It’s my best label for what we are all seeking as human beings, and is probably one of the more easily misunderstood themes I write about. We are socially conditioned to think of “liberation” as the experience of being set free from something, which inevitably fixes our focus on what we’re moving out of or away from.

But the liberated life is much more than that. It is also about how we live, what we live for, and the joie de vivre that opens to us when we are fully present to the moment.

For the most part, most of us most of the time are probably not fully present to the moment – and for good reasons, or at least they seem legitimate to us. And yet, for a large majority these reasons aren’t all that easy to articulate, must less identify. We’ve just taken this position – or were we put in this position? – and now we aren’t sure how to get back to what’s real.

Let’s review how we manage to remove ourselves from the present moment, why we do it, and where we end up spending (really, wasting) much of our lives. As a map I will use what we can think of as “the four hells” – hell as the place we go when we’re not fully present and living the liberated life. 

In classical theistic theology, hell is understood as “separation from god.” And if god is taken as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality (or the real presence of mystery) then this definition can still be deeply relevant to a post-theistic spirituality in our day. 

Soul PeaceThe first and deepest hell is named Soul without Peace. By “soul” I simply mean our inner life, not some metaphysical entity residing in the body. In my lexicon, soul is not separate (or separable) from body but includes it – all the way “down” from our self-conscious identity (ego), through a sentient nervous system, into the metabolic urgencies and provident rhythms of organismic life, to the very edge of the dark abyss of matter itself.

Early trauma and chronic stress agitate this “inner state” of our soul. Instead of relaxing into being, we are insecure, anxious, and restless.

My diagram depicts our restless soul, a soul without peace, as a scribbling spiral that can’t stop spinning. There’s too much to worry about, too much to be on our guard against. We are neurotically unstable and emotionally imbalanced, which motivates us to reach for, lean on, and cling to whatever can pacify our fears.

Love FreedomWhen we’re like this, grabbing onto anything and anyone to help us feel secure, our relationships can’t grow. And because much early trauma and chronic stress is perpetrated on us by abusive or neglectful parents and other taller powers, our continued dependency on them despite such conditions means that our earliest relationships provided no real freedom for us to be ourselves.

Of course, Love without Freedom (the second hell) is not really love, since genuine love will always respect and accommodate the needs, the voice, and the will of each partner. When we are neurotically attached to someone who manages their insecurity (restless soul) by controlling us, we are both demanding something from each other that neither can satisfy.

Such co-dependent relationships are profoundly dysfunctional, and in our desperate quest for inner peace we end up locking ourselves inside.

Work PurposeWhen we are captives in the second hell, falling into the third hell – Work without Purpose – is inevitable. The obvious reason is that work, which can be defined as any activity that requires effort, is focused on an objective, takes time, and draws on our knowledge and skill, will involve our interaction and often our strategic collaboration with others.

So, if we don’t appreciate – and some of us actually can’t tolerate – the need for freedom in healthy human relationships, then we probably won’t be able to work well with others, either.

Purposeful work doesn’t have to be big-scale, world changing work. “Purpose” here has more to do with the creative intention and focused dedication we bring to whatever we do. When we can’t work well with others, partnerships, teams, and committees get tangled up in “second hell complications,” making it necessary at times to disengage for the sake of keeping our sanity and preventing burnout.

Life MeaningSo what happens when we lack inner peace (first hell), are trapped in dysfunctional relationships (second hell), and languish in work that is stressful and pointless (third hell)? The answer is that life itself becomes meaningless. Life without Meaning (the fourth hell) afflicts a large number of us, and its signature experience is what we know as depression.

Without higher purpose, personal freedom, or inner peace, everything around us seems absurd and insignificant.

At such times, we don’t realize that life is meaningless precisely because we are so preoccupied with managing things in the first three hells. Our anxiety (first hell) is damaging our relationships (second hell), which is making it impossible to cooperate with others and achieve meaningful goals (third hell).

4 HellsIf we step back to take in the entire map of the four hells, we get a clear view of how the anxiety of our inner life is really the deep source of the depression in which all of life seems meaningless.

It is well known – at least among research psychologists, if not the larger public where there’s money to be made on keeping it a secret – that anxiety (Soul without Peace) and depression (Life without Meaning) are two poles of a binary (comorbid) condition that could just as well be named “clinical unhappiness.”

It is the human condition which has inspired much of the brooding expressions in our art, literature, religion, and philosophy throughout history. It’s also what has pushed our species to the brink of self-destruction time and again.

Once in hell, we have a hell of a time getting out, and all our desperate efforts only manage to cast us deeper in.

What’s needed is simply that we come back to the present moment and learn how to relax into being. The really real is always and already right where we are. When we cultivate inner peace, we can enjoy freedom in our relationships, bring a mindful purpose to our work, and create a beautiful life of meaning.

The very place that our anxiety and depression are most palpable and overwhelming (the body) is sacred ground, where the liberated life begins. With each breath we can surrender ourselves to the present mystery of being alive.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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