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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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Our Quest for Identity, and What’s Beyond

ego-careerOne of the critical achievements on the long arc to human fulfillment is a capacity for getting over ourselves. Our chronic problems and pathologies are complications of a failure in this regard. We get tangled up, hooked, and held back from our true potential and end up settling for something we aren’t. Instead of focusing on the problem, however, I would rather look more closely at what fulfillment entails.

The exquisite and sought-after experience across the spiritual wisdom traditions of higher culture is a direct realization that All is One, and that, further, the self is not separate from this oneness but belongs to it – or rather, that they are two aspects of the same mystery, contemplating itself. This isn’t merely a conclusion of logical thinking, where ‘all’ is the inclusive class of everything that exists, in which the self is necessarily a member.

What is also called unitive consciousness is not a decision at the end of syllogistic argument, but rather a spontaneous intuition, an ecstasy of awareness in which the deepest center of oneself is known in perfect correlation with the infinite horizon of all things.

Great spiritual lights of our species – again, without deference to culture or religion – have been taken by this mystical realization, and a few of them attempted to communicate the kernel of its insight to their contemporaries. They apprehended the translucent nature of reality where even ordinary things are epiphanies of the Holy One, and their personalities conveyed this self-same light. Witnesses and disciples praised them as unique revelations, glorifying and elevating them to the status of saviors, angels, and gods.

Their message wasn’t from somewhere else, however; not one of them preached an ethic of separation and other-worldly escape. The ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Jesus’ teachings is nowhere but in the very midst of things, at the sacred center of life in this world.

Unitive consciousness does not require the abolition of ego, of the sense each one of us has of our personal identity as an individual. It’s not by an erasure of self that the spontaneous intuition of oneness is gained, but rather by transcending it – affirming it, finding center, and then going beyond our individual self into a deeper and larger experience of wholeness. Again, the genuine mystics have long understood this.

It is the rest of us – insecure and uncertain in our identity, entangled in neurotic attachments and stuck in our convictions – who mistake their message for one of ego annihilation, or, which is merely the opposite side of the same fundamental error, for one of ego salvation and life everlasting.

In my diagram above, the middle segment of an arcing arrow involves the process whereby our essential nature as a human being is socially conditioned to the tribal conspiracy of groupthink, also known as the consensus trance. The natural inclinations and urgencies of our animal body are gradually trained into behaviors that complement rather than disrupt the rhythms of social life. If all goes well, our personal identity (or ego) will carry forward a positive sense of embodiment, of being centered in an organism that itself rides in a stream of primal intelligence we can trust.

If it goes otherwise – and I promised that I wouldn’t focus on the problem, so it only gets a mention for now – ego lacks embodiment and we are dissociated from the body’s natural wisdom. The many symptoms of this dissociation are not appreciated as messages and revelations, but instead are medicated or simply ignored.

The responsibility of the tribe, then, is to shape our identity through the assignment of social roles and then provide us with the necessary recognition that will reflect back to us the person we are. We are validated as an insider, as one who belongs. All the perks of membership are offered to us: security, attachment, and meaning give our life orientation and purpose. And these can be enough to keep us inside, fully identified with our roles and dutifully chasing the awards and promotions that make them worthwhile.

I’ve reflected elsewhere, and many times, on this axis of security, attachment, and meaning in both our fulfillment and pathology as persons. The inherent and inescapable lack of perfect security in life – especially when we are young – motivates our attachment to those who might make up for what’s missing. We can end up locked inside a set of convictions about the way things must be, which allows us to ignore if not outright deny the fact that our shared agreements concerning the meaning of life are also a screen against the present mystery of reality, or the way things really are.

Most of us stay right here, for the rest of our lives. With enough distractions, diversions, and intoxicants – perhaps throwing in the anticipation of another, better life later on, next year or after we die – this daily round at playing the person we’re supposed to be can keep us clinging to the carousel and pretending that all of it really, truly matters. When someone comes along who seems not to take the game as seriously, who seems lighter somehow but still deeply centered in him- or herself, we might look on admiringly, feel threatened by the apparent nonchalance, or else elevate the individual as a glorious exception.

In any case, we misinterpret his or her translucence as a special possession or extraordinary gift. The light, in other words, is degraded into a unique property of the individual which sets him or her apart from the rest of us.

Actually, what we are witnessing is a capacity for transcendence, an ability in that person to go beyond him- or herself for the sake of a deeper and larger experience of life. In our quest for identity, success is measured in ego strength, in our socially supported achievement of a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under the executive management of a healthy sense of self (ego). Such individuals have it, and this virtue of ego strength allows her to drop the mask for a deeper center of identity, which in turn opens her consciousness to a larger horizon of membership. He doesn’t need to defend his beliefs or clutch at attachments, for he has nothing to lose.

These individuals are transparent to reality, like parting veils on the present mystery, glimpses into our own true nature as human manifestations of being.

It is to this critical threshold of ego-transcendence that our quest for identity is taking us. Find your center, drop your attachments, and get over yourself.

 

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Supremacy and Communion

Quick, before you start thinking too much, give your spontaneous response to the following question.

Which of the two combinations of geometric shapes do you find more appealing?

Sup_ComNow that I have your attention (though perhaps for only one more paragraph), let me do a little “psychic reading” of your life.

SupremacyThis preference means that you hold power at a higher value than love. Not that you don’t love or know how to love, but that you value influence over belonging, winning over sharing, competition over cooperation, control over freedom, management over creativity, hierarchy over holarchy, capitalism over communism, and you tend to live your life down from the top rather than out from the center.

If this is you – maybe not on every check-box but across a majority of the subvalues just listed – then your organizing principle in life is supremacy, the love of power. The archetypal symbol of power is the triangle or three-dimensional pyramid. This shape is well-based and centered along a vertical axis, rising up through distinct levels or “ranks” of value. Triangles and pyramids are cultural symbols of superior strength and lock-tight stability. They have a vibrational value that is highly energetic and resistant to entropy, which is the tendency of any system toward equilibrium.

CommunionThis preference means that you hold love at a higher value than power. Not that you don’t have power or know what to do with it, but that you value belonging over influence, sharing over winning, cooperation over competition, freedom over control, creativity over management, holarchy over hierarchy, communism over capitalism, and you tend to live your life out from the center rather than down from the top.

If this is you – again, across most of the listed subvalues – then your organizing principle in life is communion, the power of love. The archetypal symbol of love is the circle or three-dimensional sphere. This shape is balanced around a pivotal center-point, radiating outward from there along a continuum of concentric (nested) bands. Circles and spheres are cultural symbols of inclusion and dynamic wholeness. Arthur Koestler’s term “holarchy” refers to a holistic arrangement of smaller wholes, rather than of parts or pieces.

Supremacy and Communion sound like they should be diametrical opposites, opponents in a battle for … supremacy (oops, did I give myself away?). In reality, however, they are complementary principles, which is why I have combined them in the different icons. They are, if you will, the Yang and Yin of the Tao, respectively. Neither one (according to Taoism) exists without the interplay of the other, although certain aspects of reality – such as individual personalities – will tend to demonstrate and prefer one to the other at various times.

Going a bit further on that insight, we can expect that anyone who strives for only one principle to the exclusion of the other will (1) be out of alignment with the nature of reality, (2) grow increasingly neurotic, and (3) become a danger to the rest of us. By “alignment with reality” I mean in accord with the true nature of things: firmly grounded but flexibly connected, resilient yet adaptable, dedicated yet open to change.

So as you look at yourself with these principles in mind, can you recall times when your preference for power or love made you overlook or dismiss the other? Individuals, families, communities, nation-states, and the emerging global network of regional economies frequently fall to the error of promoting one principle at the expense of the other. The world cultures are presently ascending into values of supremacy – pushing on each other, contending for resources (perceived as limited), gripping down on minorities, and closing their borders.

Love without the complementary balance of power lacks initiative, leverage, and the courage to stand up for what is right. But power without the counterbalance of love often rides roughshod over the feelings, dignity, and genuine needs of others. You can probably see this playing out in the history of your family, tribe, and religion as well. Christianity, for instance, has cycled through a number of alterations between communion and supremacy, often pursued to damaging extremes.

Certainly Jesus was an advocate of communion, with its values of kindness, compassion, goodwill and forgiveness. Some Gospel narratives have him confronting (power) his disciples on their competition for rank and authority, telling them that true greatness is in reaching out and serving others (Mark 9:33-37). It didn’t take long, however, for the movement he left behind to swing toward supremacy. Too soon, he was reconstructed in the emerging orthodoxy as Lord, Judge and Executioner, battle general of the Crusades and divine sponsor of Christian exceptionalism around the world.

Before we make the true “essence of Christianity” into a slush-pond of sentimentality and glorified suffering, we need to remember that in its better days this religion did inspire the establishment of hospitals and schools, not to mention the modern rise of liberal democracy where at least on principle every citizen is given rights and the power to vote. But once again, without the check-and-balance of communion to keep these efforts directed toward the good of all, runaway supremacy in our businesses, schools, and courtrooms is steadily pulling apart the fabric of community.

It’s easy to stand back and criticize the abuses around us. Rather than exercise power in the interest of putting our institutions back into alignment with the true way of things (the Tao), more and more people are throwing wrenches into gears, digging up dirt on the competition, polishing their rifles, or just giving up in disgust. The solution won’t be love OR power, but love AND power – benevolent strength and relentless kindness. How different would things be if we had the wisdom to guide us through the adversities we face?

But don’t leave me yet, because nothing much will change unless we make this deeply personal. If you earlier identified yourself as preferring supremacy or communion, and then were honest enough to look at where in your life you’ve leaned too far into your preference (and what damage it has caused), then our challenge is to restore balance in our individual lives first.

If the thought comes back to you later in the day, ask yourself whether it’s making a difference.

 
 

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