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Human and Fully Alive

The attraction of any so-called unified theory is in its claim to bring several previously disparate and unreconciled things into a single all-inclusive picture or account. One of my abiding aspirations over the years has been to clarify a unifed theory of human nature, an “anthropology” that doesn’t reduce us to dumb matter or deify us as immortal spirits. Somewhere in between those hopeless abstractions is what we really are – human manifestations of being, or human beings.

Somewhat in the spirit of existentialist philosophy, my interest is not in reductions or abstractions, but rather in the human experience of being alive and somewhere on the path to realizing the potential of what we are and still might become.

If we’re going to figure this out, we have just this one lifetime to do it – however long or short it turns out to be. Extending this project over numerous lifetimes or into infinite time may calm our insecurities to some extent, but with the urgency also suspended it becomes easier to stay in bed and only dream our life away.

In my effort toward a unified theory of human nature and its evolutionary prospects, I offer the above diagram as something of a mandala or “sacred design” to orient our meditation. Its central image is an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, ready to launch into whatever is next. For now, however, it is intended to capture the tensive character of our nature as in a state of perpetual near-release, always becoming and never finally arrived.

Positioned at the cardinal points of my mandala are four attractors, each pulling us into its unique field of possibilities and concerns, as it simulaneously pulls against those opposite to it.

This helps us to quickly appreciate the tension inherent in human nature, seeking some kind of balance between animal instinct and spiritual wisdom, between tribal conscience and personal ambition. A human being strives for survival and longs for wellbeing; seeks affiliation with others of its kind and pursues its own individual achievement.

Jumping into the details of the mandala, we will keep this overall tension in mind as we trace the developmental path that each of us follows on our “hero’s journey.” Necessarily, then, we begin our meditation where each of us begins life: as newborns supported in the rhythms, urgencies, and drives of an animal nature. Our instincts are millions of years deep in the evolutionary design of the body, compelling our searching behavior for what the life-force in us requires: air, water, nourishment, warmth, refuge and loving touch.

This is our “first nature,” referring to what comes first in development as well as what supports everything else from its primal depths.

The prehistory of our species is the long road into Eden, as living forms and nervous systems progressed through the gauntlet of chance, opportunity, catastrophe and extinction. Any theory of human nature, it seems to me, must acknowledge our first nature as essential to what we are – not as some “mortal coil” by which we are temporarily bound, but as a marvel of biological intelligence and our guest pass to the grand ball of our living planet.

Following upward now that lower angle of the bowstring, we come to what first welcomes us to our human adventure: our tribe of family and familiars, a peculiar society comprised of mother and all the others. This is where the social construction project of our “second nature” begins, with the concern of our tribe being to shape the impulses and inclinations of our first nature into something that both reflects and compliments its collective identity.

What I call the moral frame refers to a shared understanding, if not quite universal agreement, of what makes an action “right” and a person “good.” Every tribe has one, and each of us was brought up to follow this code and honor the norms of a moral life. The bonds of attachment that sustained us as newborns gradually expanded and differentiated into a network of tribal affiliations, and it is in this “second womb” of our tribe that our personal identity was forged and fashioned.

If all went reasonably well, we took on the shared wisdom (literally a con-science) of morality that would prompt, censure, and guide our interactions with others.

But it didn’t go entirely without complications. And this reminds us again of the tension in our nature as human beings – following now the shaft of my arrow rightwards to its point. Another aspect of our second nature, of our emerging personal identity, is an individual will that wants us to stand on our own and fulfill our desires.

If our prehistory as a species was a long road into Eden, then the seduction of ego-gratification represents the “fall” of separation consciousness and the loss of our nursery paradise. Many of the mythological accounts of how we got into our present predicament characterize this “tragedy” as the necessary precursor to a more mature, adult, and self-possessed mode of being in the world.

Where it left us was in the middle of two powerful and countervailing forces: a tribal conscience pulling us into conformity with the moral status quo on one side, and on the other a personal ambition to be somebody, to achieve something momentous, and to procure for ourselves the elusive elixir of happiness. This tension – or is it a contradiction? – seems to be built right into our word “ambition,” where two things (ambi) compete for the upper hand: approval and fulfillment, fear and desire, obedience or freedom.

We can get caught here, not fully on one side or the other but suspended in a sticky web of guilt for falling short of social expectations, and self-reproach for giving up on our dreams.

But let’s go back again to that second womb of our tribal identity, and this time take the upper angle of the bowstring to the top cardinal point of my mandala. This is our “higher nature,” commonly confused these days with the glorified and exalted ego, which is really just one way the tension of our second nature can snap, the other being toward a self-negating sense of depravity over never being good enough. What I mean by our higher nature is the liberated life made available to us as we are able to transcend ego and its conflicting motivations to please others and gratify ourselves.

Only as we can drop from our separate center of personal identity and identify with a larger horizon of membership – not just “my tribe” or “our people” or even the human species alone, but with everyone and life itself: the whole shebang – will we finally understand, from experience, that All is One and we are all in this together. The spiritual wisdom traditions are remarkably unanimous in their agreement concerning our place in, and responsibility to, the community of beings that is our universe.

Seeking wholeness, making peace, and promoting the wellbeing of our planetary home circles back to us in the joy of being human and fully alive.

 

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Breaking the Frame

Let’s play a game, called “Breaking the Frame.”

The Frame refers to what defines right behavior and good character for a specific group of people. For each of us, The Frame began to take shape when we were very young and the family was our original group. As we got older and more involved in the world around us, The Frame expanded to include many more group members – most of whom we don’t know by name and will never meet in person.

Our American nation is an obvious example: we all live together inside The Frame of what in America is defined as right behavior and good character.

You should be saying to yourself, “What definition? There is no consensus in the U.S. regarding what makes an action ‘right’ or what makes a person ‘good’.” And of course, you are correct.

In most traditional societies exemplary behavior and character are represented in their deities, heroes, saints, and governmental leaders. For millenniums, not in every society but in the most stable and peaceable ones, a certain lineage of virtue was acknowledged as bestowed by the gods, advanced by heroes, incarnated in saints, and finally manifested in the present day by those in national leadership whose principal charge was to convey divine beatitude to the people.

Well, not so much in America.

Our current president is not godly in any sense – unless god is a glory-seeking, vengeful, and self-righteous megalomaniac (which I think isn’t far off the mark for a lot of evangelical Christians) – and he’s far from being saintly or heroic. If there ever was a lineage of virtue in the United States, Donald Trump and his deputies have completely brought it to ruin.

So the fact that the United States of America doesn’t really have a Frame inside of which we all hold a common understanding of ‘right action’ and a ‘good person’ makes our game a bit more challenging, though not impossible.

Instead of looking around ourselves for extant models of virtue, we’ll need to imagine them for now.

Because The Frame contains a group’s shared understanding of what makes an action “right” and a person “good,” I am using it as a metaphor for morality. I’m arguing that every group, however small or large, monochromatic or multicolored, needs a morality to have any hope of securing a stable and humane fellowship among its members.

To help our game move forward, I will ask you to drop down from the national level of your identity as an American (or whatever nationality you are), to the group membership you currently hold where insiders abide by and aspire to a shared morality together. Your agreement over what makes an action ‘right’ and a person ‘good’ serves to manage your mutual engagements in the interest of genuine community.

You and your fellows are separate individuals with unique identities, and the purpose of morality (The Frame) is to correlate self and world by a common set of values so that what (or who) you identify “as” relates you meaningfully to what (or whom) you identify “with.”

In other words, in identifying yourself “as” an American, you are also identifying yourself “with” other Americans. If you identify yourself “as” white, brown, or black, you are thereby identifying yourself “with” others of the same color. If you identify yourself “as” a Christian, you are ipso facto identifying yourself with other Christians – not with Jews or Buddhists or secular humanists.

It should be clear that identifying yourself “as” something places you inside a corresponding horizon of membership which includes others like you. What may not be as obvious is how this same horizon excludes – or at least ignores, screens out, or neglects – whatever (or whomever) you don’t identify with. If you identify yourself “as” an American white evangelical Christian, then you are also separating yourself from other nationalities, other races, other religions, and even from other sects of your own religion.

These “others” do not belong to your world, and they do not share your Frame. It might even be difficult, if not impossible, for you to acknowledge them as truly good persons who are doing the right things, since good character and right behavior are defined by your morality, in the service of your group.

History provides too many examples of what tends to happen when life conditions become stressful and the insecurity of insiders escalates: psychologically their horizon of membership shrinks until it includes only those with whom they feel safe. All others – even once fellow insiders – are now excluded, condemned, or even attacked.

Conceivably your horizon of membership can be so small as to include only yourself. No one else can be trusted, and you are the only righteous person left on the planet.

This scenario sheds light on what has happened to our American Frame, and why our nation is currently so divided against itself. In better times, perhaps, a diverse group of individuals were inspired to identify themselves as more than what made them different from others. Together they sought freedom, opportunity, and a genuine community that could include different races, both genders, every class, all ages, and any background, under the rule of constitutional law and human rights.

True enough, progress has been slow on more than one of these fronts, with frequent setbacks along the way. Just now, in fact, as The Frame collapses around us, our insecurities are driving us further apart.

In such times as these, “Breaking the Frame” sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be doing. But what I mean by this has nothing to do with discarding your notions of right action and a good person. It is not about destroying The Frame but rather expanding your horizon of membership in order to include more – more others, more differences,  more possibilities, and more reality.

What we call “ethics” can be distinguished from morality in the sense we’ve been using it here, in how ethics moves our inquiry beyond merely personal interests and into transpersonal horizons.

Before you can break The Frame and engage with a larger reality, however, something needs to happen within yourself. If you are going to consciously and ethically participate in transpersonal horizons, you have to stop identifying yourself “as” a person. This doesn’t mean that you forsake your present identity, abandon your roles in society, and renounce who you are.

All you need to do is stop defining yourself by what makes you separate and unique.

This is what mystical-contemplative traditions have been encouraging for thousands of years: drop out of your self-conscious personal identity (ego) and into your deeper nature as a living, sentient being. Let go of your labels, personal ambitions, and persistent concerns. Let thoughts float above you; allow feelings to come and go.

Just give attention to your breath. Sink into your body and rest quietly in the cradle of rhythms keeping you alive in this moment.

After descending to deeper centers of your grounding mystery and coming back again to the surface, you will find that identifying yourself as a living sentient being has enabled you to identify with other living sentient beings. Not only with other Americans, but people from other nations as well. Not just with your race, but all races of humankind. And not with humans alone, but with all species and with every living thing.

The whole web of life has become your horizon of membership.

Inside this expanded horizon of identity, your understanding of right action and what it means to be a good person is radically transformed. The fellowship to which you now consciously belong transcends personal ambitions and even exclusively human concerns.

Earth is your home, life is your community, and the global wellbeing of our planet is the principle inspiring and critiquing all that you do.

Don’t expect those who have pulled inside smaller frames of identity to support your newfound vision. They won’t agree with you because they can’t understand. Your values and intentions make no sense to them.

Just remember that they too live inside your larger horizon, and they need your compassion and kindness as much as the rest – maybe even more.

 

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