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Virtues of the Centered Life

Western and Eastern approaches to spirituality differ in their accents on what to do with the ego – that separate center of personal identity that each of us cherishes as “I, myself.” The challenge in both cases is presented in the condition of duality, which is a consequence of separating into our own identity, known in psychology as individuation.

As long as the individuation process has been successful in forming a centered personality, ego can serve as a point of release into the grounding mystery of being within, as well as a launching point for transpersonal engagement in genuine community.

These two “options” for the well-centered individual are the Eastern and Western accents, respectively. In Western spirituality the (outward, extroverted) rise into community has been the favored way, while in Oriental spirituality it is the (inward, introverted) drop into the ground of being-itself.

In my diagram I have illustrated these two complementary paths of spirituality as they break through the duality of Ego and Other. One path takes identity up into relational unity (community) and the other releases it for a deeper experience of the grounding mystery (ground).

It’s important to see these as truly complementary and not mutually exclusive alternatives; both are equally available to the well-centered individual.

I won’t spend much time on it here, but that orange spiral is a reminder that not all of us get to this point. Instead, our chronic insecurity drives us to attachment, which in turn complicates into entanglement and ultimately a state of delusion where we are absolutely convicted in our belief that it’s all about us. All of our energy gets knotted up around (and around) these neurotic ambitions, making us anxious and frustrated, then leaving us exhausted … until it’s time to go at it all over again.

Because we are stuck on ourselves, the two spiritual paths are closed behind locked gates.

To the true believer of popular religion this will sound like esoteric code-speak, when it’s really they who have removed themselves from the simple truth at the center of their experience.

When we are properly centered, these deeper and higher dimensions of the spiritual life are open to us. We are secure enough within ourselves and consequently don’t need to latch on to others and wait for salvation. What we might call the virtues of a centered life are an inner calm and emotional balance, along with personal power and creative freedom.

The first pair of balance and calm can be summarized as “equanimity,” while the second pair of power and freedom combine in “autonomy.” Together, then, equanimity and autonomy are what the centered life enjoys.

My diagram also pulls forward from a recent post Peaceful Soul, Creative Spirit the idea that human spirituality is essential to our wellbeing. Instead of seeing these as parts of us, or as the “true self” separate from our body, I have been arguing for definitions that appreciate soul and spirit as the inward-existential and outward-transpersonal aspects, respectively, of a uniquely human spiritual intelligence (SQ).

I also regard our spiritual intelligence as activated or awakened only to the degree that we have achieved ego strength, where a stable center of identity provides the point from whence we can drop into the grounding mystery or rise into genuine community.

By this definition, a human newborn does not yet possess such an access point since an ego is still in its developmental future. A human adult who is neurotically self-involved will be prevented access for a different reason. For neither one is spirituality an active force in experience.

Just as the other threads of our Quadratic Intelligence (visceral, emotional, and rational) “come online” during critical periods of development, our spiritual intelligence is not only the last to awaken, but its full awakening depends on the successful formation of a well-centered ego. Only from there can we cultivate an inner calm, manage our internal balance, develop personal power, and express our creative freedom.

It is as if a well-centered identity opens a channel for our spiritual life to flow.

Stepping back out of the details for a broader view, it should be clear by now that what I earlier called the challenge of duality is crucial to understanding the human condition, our progress or arrest in ego development, the complications that spin us in neurotic directions, and the Shining Way to a liberated life.

Whether we take the ‘Western path’ to genuine community or the ‘Eastern path’ to the grounding mystery – ascending or descending, outward or inward, ethical or mystical, transpersonal or existential – we need to be secure enough and sufficiently centered in order to get over ourselves.

And whether we choose to take one path or the other, eventually we’ll need to come back to that center again. So let’s be mindful of keeping the porch swept and trash away from the door.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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The Topography of Myth

If you had three choices and you had to pick one, which of these words would you choose to name your core value: attachment, autonomy, or achievement? By ‘core value’ I mean a priority concern that is positioned at the solar center of a system of associated values. Attachment has connection, security, and belonging orbiting around it. Autonomy is anchor for the values of control, freedom, and self-determination. And Achievement is at the center of purpose, progress, and success.

Most likely you recognize the importance of all three core values, and we should more accurately think of them as comprising a cluster rather than as mutually exclusive alternatives. But still, you can probably identify one over the others – at least at this time in your life – as having priority. Which one?

My returning reader might hesitate in choosing attachment as a core value, since I tend to regard it as complicating factor in our development toward creative authority as individuals. The larger multicultural discussion around the topic of attachment acknowledges it as the positive bonding characteristic of healthy relationships (Western), but also as a compensatory maneuver whereby we cling to other people with the impossible expectation that they make us secure, happy, and whole (Eastern). In reality it’s both the connection that makes for positive partnerships and the latching-on that can ruin them. I’ll let it be a paradox (both/and) for you to sort out.

In this post I’d like to reflect on what Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s journey, the particular shape and pattern that myths from around the world share in common. Beyond their local differences and unique climes, these stories describe a path that is universal. As Campbell pointed out, we might attribute this similarity to cultural diffusion, where it moved outward from one (originating) society to the others by way of migration, conquest, commerce, or evangelism.

His own study inspired him to adopt a different explanation, however, which traces these universal themes, symbols, and storylines into the depths of human psychology. In this case, hero journeys across cultures trace a similar mythos (or narrative plot) because they emerge from and speak to what human beings everywhere experience in common. Another influence on my thinking was Northrop Frye, who in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature conducted an archaeological dig into Western literature, following the diamond vein still deeper into biblical myth, and there uncovered the archetypes of our storytelling imagination.

I will pick up here, in fact, by taking the major moves of the Bible as myth – not merely of the myths found in the Bible, but the Bible itself as constructed on a primary mythic pattern. Here we find three major moves anchored to geographical locations that serve more as timeless archetypes than specific places (here or there): the Garden, the Desert, and the City.

Genesis itself begins in a garden, and Revelation ends with the fulfillment of all things in a New Jerusalem, the city of God. In between is the desert, where the Hebrew slaves made their escape, the exiles reinvented Judaism, Jesus endured his temptations – and through which each of us must pass on our way to adulthood.

My proposal is that these three themes – Garden, Desert, and City – correspond to the three major phases in our growing up as human persons. Thus the Garden represents childhood, the Desert is the setting of youth, and the City stands for our establishment as adults. The storyline that links them together is the hero’s journey.

Part of the reason you selected the core value that you did has to do with your individual experience on this journey, a good portion of which was supervised by your parent(s) and other taller powers of the adult world. Your taller powers were responsible for you, and for your journey to be a success they needed to provide certain things to you early on.

The Garden is where (and when) your most basic needs for survival, comfort, and intimacy found their ‘answer’ in reality. You needed to experience reality as provident, as sufficient to your needs and a safe place to be. In a word, your parent(s) and other taller powers were responsible for your protection. In my diagram I have placed a triangle to symbolize what in psychology is called a secure base, which originally referred to mother and subsequently was transferred to other things, places, and people.

In the beginning it was natural for you to seek protection in your mother and attach yourself to her (in the positive, Western, sense of attachment). But eventually you needed to internalize your secure base, to self-soothe and rely more on your own ability instead of grabbing onto whatever and whomever could make you feel better (in the negative, Eastern, sense of attachment).

Just because you may have picked attachment as your core value doesn’t necessarily mean that you are insecure and emotionally dependent on others. You may have had a very positive and supportive experience in the Garden, which instilled in you a strong preference for connection, security, and belonging.

But as is required of every one of us in growing up, you eventually needed to let go of mother and leave the Garden for the journey ahead, on your way to becoming a self-standing and responsible adult. The Desert between Garden and City is a region of trials and tribulations, as we can find in hero myths all around the world. There is no ‘covering’ (the literal definition of protection) to hide beneath; exposure to the sun, extreme temperatures, and predators is a real danger.

As the Garden is associated with attachment, the Desert is about autonomy: learning how to take control, step into freedom, and strengthen your self-determination. Even before you formally left the Garden for the Desert, your parent(s) and other taller powers were encouraging you to “do it yourself.” Using the potty, tying your shoes, reading books on your own, and riding a bike: everyone had an interest in helping you become a less dependent member of the household.

Encouragement is a demonstration of love and is distinguished from compassion by its kind refusal on the part of the parent (or teacher, trainer, coach, or therapist) to take over and finish the task.

In addition to encouraging your effort, your parent(s) also had to empower you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources for what needed to be done. Again, empowerment is very different from the over-used tactic of intervention, where someone more capable steps in and helps the process along. Empowerment, on the other hand, typically takes more time and patience (which is why schools today prefer to intervene), but its far superior benefit is the individual’s self-confidence and inner strength.

Your autonomy therefore was a consequence of being both encouraged (“You can do it!”) and empowered (“Here’s how: Watch me, then you try”) in your progress toward taking control in your life. It’s associated with the Desert and its dangers because progress doesn’t always come easily, but is fraught with setbacks and numerous failed attempts. If your parent(s) and other taller powers – we should throw siblings and peers into the mix as well – were less helpful, patient, and forgiving, you may have learned that taking control was not safe. In failing to satisfy their expectations, you were risking the loss of their love and acceptance as well. Or it might be that their demands were impossible to ignore with impunity, so you became a “control freak” and perfectionist just to stay on their good side.

If the archetype of Mother (however close your actual mother came to incarnating it) represents a secure base where you could always go to to feel safe and loved, the archetype of Father (and to some degree your actual father or father figure) stands for what I call the proving circle. I’ve placed it in my diagram next to ‘achievement’ since it was (and still is) where your ability was tested and your accomplishments validated.

A critical part of becoming a responsible and productive adult involves submitting yourself to the judgment and feedback of others. Depending on how this feedback was delivered and how personally you took it, you came to regard yourself as an individual of worth with a valuable contribution to make. Or not so much.

The Desert, then, is where you learned how to accept the loss of having someone always looking after you, where you needed to be on your own in order to discover both your capacity and your limitations. It’s also where you learned the importance of determined effort (work) in getting where you want to go in life. And if all went well enough, you learned that risk – making yourself vulnerable to failure and rejection in your pursuit of what really matters – is a paradoxical amplifier of life’s meaning, for it is out of those experiences that we grow the most.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Moving Into Wholeness

My last post ended with the controversial statement that a religion which is organized around the goal of getting the individual ego safely to heaven is really a delusion from which we need to be saved. It is widely assumed that religion generally is about everlasting security in the next life, including all the obligations – moral, doctrinal, and devotional – a true believer must satisfy to be worthy of its reward. “True religion” (if I can dare use the term) is actually our path out of this delusion.

It’s insufficient, of course, to define true religion exclusively in this negative fashion – as breaking the spell, escaping the trance, exposing the delusion and leaving it behind. If a system in service of the ego, by which I mean the individual human ego as well as the Absolute Ego it projects as its god, interferes with our spiritual progress as a species, liberation is only a preliminary step – however strategic and urgently needed it is. We need to further ask: “So what? To what end?”

Central to my larger argument is a perspective on personal (ego) consciousness as a critical stage in our ongoing evolution as a species (and development as individuals), but as only a stage and not the goal. When religion, which had long been dedicated to keeping our inner being (soul) and outer life (body) in holistic balance, got distracted and then utterly derailed by the rising preoccupation with social identity (ego), this shift marked a “fall” of consciousness out of communion and into a state of self-conscious estrangement.

The entire scheme of mythology was subsequently reoriented on “the hero’s journey” and final atonement with the Absolute Ego of god. Personal salvation became the whole purpose and litmus test of “true” religion. If you ask true believers to contemplate for a moment what their religion would be if the award ceremony of heaven were out of the picture, certainly a large majority of them would protest: “Then what’s the point?”

This religion of ego, ego’s god, and personal salvation is precisely what Jesus (and Buddha before him) sought to leave behind. His parables and social conduct introduced a shock to the morality of his day – as they still would in ours – and effectively shook off the trance for a few who got the message. “It’s not about you,” he said in so many words. “Get over yourself.” 

And that is exactly what the ego seeking salvation cannot do.

So if it’s not about me (or you) and we need to get over ourselves, just what will that mean? Again, getting over ourselves is a requirement if we are to see what’s beyond us. But then the program needs to advance from disillusionment (breaking the spell) to a new vision of reality. Jesus (and Buddha) had a lot to say about that as well, but it only makes sense in the way he intended when consciousness has been liberated from the tightening spiral of “What’s in it for me?”

The diagram below is my attempt to map out the major components, trajectories, and possibilities of human fulfillment – of our evolution as a species in the way it prepares for and then “leap frogs” our development as individuals. For the sake of orientation in my diagram, we’ll begin at the bottom, zig-zagging left and then right as we move upward to the intended culmination of a life lived in conscious communion with others and all things – what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

Ego Quad

Human beings have a need to know, intuitively more than intellectually, that reality can be trusted. When conditions inside and outside the womb are provident and nurturing, our nervous system settles into a baseline state of calm and spontaneous release to What Is. This ability to relax into being, to let go and rest in reality, is precipitated by the real support that reality provides and is gradually strengthened (or compromised) as new challenges arise. Security may be the way things objectively are, but the individual (fetus, infant, child, adult) needs to feel that reality can be trusted in order for it to become the foundation we call “faith.”

If all goes well, security will undergird the next developmental opportunity, which involves the internalization of control. “Autonomy” doesn’t mean complete independence from external resources or absolute control over everything going on inside. It rather refers to an established center of freedom, perspective, intention, and choice in which the individual has some creative control. Autonomy isn’t the end-goal it has become in some Western therapeutic traditions, but its developmental achievement is arguably essential for progress to maturity.

And because it doesn’t always go well, we should pause a moment to reflect on what typically happens when security is compromised and autonomy fails. A reality that in general cannot be trusted will compel a coping strategy called attachment – not the healthy attachment between infant and mother, but a neurotic attachment where the insecure individual “submits” emotionally to someone or something with the expectation that security will be found there. Inevitably submission pulls development off a healthy path (to autonomy) and takes it hostage to codependent relationships, repressive ideologies, and damaging addictions.

A personality that is held captive by its “idols of security” will tend to take on an inferiority complex where shame – the conviction of being deeply flawed, stained, depraved and unworthy – attracts a dark shadow of helplessness and hopelessness. If it gets dark enough, the individual will go to any length to justify and promote the idol’s absolute authority – and violence is never out of the question.

As you might guess, I am of the opinion that much of the “redemptive violence” committed in the name of god and religion – human sacrifice and substitutionary atonement, persecution of minorities and heretics, acts of terrorism and holy wars – has insecurity and shame at its roots.

But let’s move on.

Assuming a healthy establishment of autonomy with the executive ego in control, an individual is prepared for higher experiences beyond the self. Think about such transcendent experiences as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love, and notice how each one “gets over” the ego for the sake of a higher truth of some kind. Indeed, if an individual is only calculating the prospect of personal advantage or reward in these experiences, they will simply not be available.

However, just as before, we need to say something about what happens when security and autonomy are not in place, yet the impetus of transcendence is nevertheless lifting the ego in that direction. What results is a pathology which seems to be the inverse of an inferiority complex, where the ego becomes inflated with conceit, glory-seeking, and self-importance. This is the lesser known superiority complex, and while it seems to be caught up on issues utterly opposite to feelings of shame and inadequacy, ego inflation is really just another coping strategy for the insecure personality.

Even if grandiosity is discouraged by religion in its members, the superiority complex can still be celebrated (and justified) in the patron deity who blusters and brags about being the best and greatest, the one and only, who deserves and demands all the worship, praise, and glory. As Absolute Ego, the deity who so comports himself is serving to sublimate otherwise deplorable behavior for human beings into something they can validate and promote through their god.

The way Yahweh carries on in some Bible stories has to make you wonder.

Before we take our final step of ascent in my diagram and contemplate at last the “so what” of true religion, I want to quickly comment on the telltale marks of ego strength, along with their opposite pathologies. Ego strength is a necessary and desirable achievement of healthy development and shouldn’t be confused with egoism, which is actually a symptom of its absence. In other words, personal identity (ego) becomes stuck on itself when it is weak – insecure, manipulative, and craving attention.

A “strong” ego by contrast serves to stabilize the personality, balance its moods, and unify its numerous substreams of impulse, affect, and perspective – what Roberto Assagioli named “subpersonalities.” When these strengths are not present, the individual can be flooded by rising urgencies in the body (borderline personality), swing uncontrollably between emotional extremes (bipolar), or get overrun from within by divergent attitudes and motivations (dissociative identity). I’m doing my best to save these terms from their classification as “clinical disorders” so that we can acknowledge and deal responsibly with them in normal life.

At last we can consider where all of this might be leading, assuming that our zig-zag progress from security to autonomy has gone reasonably well – which is not a safe assumption, as I’ve tried to show. So let’s just pretend that we are not caught in the trance of personal salvation, but have seen the vision and heard the invitation to our intended fulfillment. What sort of experience is that?

My word is communion: the awareness, the participation, the commitment, and the responsibility of living together as one. Importantly, the prefix “com” when added to the base word “union” prevents the couple, several, or many from dissolving into homogeneity where individual distinctions are annihilated. The valued gains of autonomy and ego strength are not canceled out in communion but instead are connected to other centers, in those higher experiences mentioned earlier: inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love.

That is where our liberation finds its fulfillment.

Communion doesn’t need to be defined in exclusively human terms of course, even though our most pressing challenge is in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Jesus understood the challenge as especially critical and urgent in our relations with our “enemies,” which doesn’t only – or even most importantly – mean our adversaries across the ocean, the picket line, or the political aisle.

The enemies we really need to love most are the ones who daily let us down, betray our trust, exploit our insecurity, abuse our generosity, and don’t even seem to care. They are our family members, our neighbors, our former friends.

But that’s another topic – kind of. 

 

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