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Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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A Dangerous Certainty

BES CycleIt’s good to pause every so often as you are trying to make a point, if only to ensure that your latest statement is consistent with what got you going in the first place. You might well be making a worthwhile claim, but if in the meantime you have wandered so far off the path and run out of breadcrumbs, your audience will grow tired and let you go.

My starting point was the question about the role of religion in human development, and how religion itself evolves with the advancement of individual consciousness over the lifespan. One of my basic claims is that individual consciousness engages reality at three distinct mental locations, each location opening out to a realm of experience corresponding to this point of contact.

Thus body, ego, and soul are not pieces or separate parts of a human being, but mental locations where individual consciousness opens out to the animal, personal, and spiritual realms. I’ve done my best to head off the tendency of regarding these so-called realms as metaphysical planes of existence. Alas, metaphysical realism is a sticky trance to shake off. Another gross misreading identifies the ego-soul (a disastrous conflation that leads to numerous corruptions) as “the real me,” literally throwing off the body like a cheap coat or temporal costume.

Body is our animal nature, animated by the life-force (anima), and the mental location where consciousness is involved in animality (i.e., in the dynamics of animal life). Ego is our personal identity, which is acted out through a variety of personae (social roles and masks), and serves as the executive center of our personality. And soul is our spiritual presence, the inner wellspring of spirituality and deep ground of the human spirit. Their associated realms comprise the sensory-physical (body), socio-cultural (ego), and intuitive-esoteric (soul) – as long as I can rescue the term “esoteric” (literally inner) from the secret-knowledge (gnostic) spiritualists and crackpot metaphysicians.

As the above diagram illustrates, these three mental locations are oriented respectively on the three concerns of life (body), self (ego), and being (soul), with each concern attracting secondary concerns and values into a coherent system of motivation and behavior. We are interested in different things depending on where (at what mental location) we are engaging reality at the moment. It’s also important to see that this arrangement of concerns is not static, but rather evolves dynamically over the course of a lifespan.

Infancy and early childhood is a “body-dominant” developmental period that gives rise to an “ego-dominant” period in later childhood and adolescence, which may in turn break through to a “soul-dominant” mode of being. To a certain degree the success of each of these transitions is a function of how well things went in preceding periods. A body that wasn’t providently supported in early life, for instance, will become an insecure base for the developing personality.

As a way of compensating for and coping with a jittery (and alternately exhausted) nervous system, the ego will adopt a neurotic style to get its needs met. Examples of such adaptive strategies are the common passive-aggressive, phobic-avoidant, explosive-aggressive, and obsessive-compulsive neurotic styles. (For a deeper dig into these and other neurotic styles, see http://wp.me/p2tkek-cU.)

The neurotic styles are “adaptive” not because they support higher health and wholeness, but because they help our juvenile personality resolve the body’s underlying insecurity by taking control – “acting childish” in some way. Throw a tantrum and a higher power will pay attention and try to pacify you: that’s how you get your way. Of course, the effectiveness of such tactics drops off dramatically as we enter the adult sphere of relationships and responsibilities.

Needless to say, ego formation is a complicated business and none of us comes through the gauntlet without some emotional bruises, scars, hooks, and quirks to show for it. One way that we compensate for insecurity is by gripping down on what we believe – about ourselves, others, or god; about the way it was, is now, or will be. Cognitive certainty, as unshakable confidence in the absolute truth of our statements about reality, doesn’t really address the insecurity knotted up inside us. But with time and practice we can eventually fall under the spell of our own convictions.

In my post “God Above and The Ground of Being” I took a closer look at the phases through which personal identity develops, along with the type of religion (theism) that orients, guides, spurs and attracts its development. Those phases are labeled in the diagram above: the dawn of identity in storytelling (imagination, fantasy, role-play), through the midday of ceremony where the broken time of secular life is ritually joined to the deep time of sacred story, and at last entering that twilight phase of orthodoxy, with its blessed certainty concerning the ultimate nature of things.

While this cognitive certainty (or dogmatic orthodoxy) might serve as adjustment therapy for the insecure ego, it is dangerous indeed in the way it blocks progress into a more spiritually grounded existence. Holding fast to belief may calm anxiety and shush our doubts, but it also pumps more energy into something that needs to be dropped and left behind: the ego itself. As a legitimate mental location of consciousness, ego engages us with the realm of tribal membership, conventional morality, and social recognition. It’s here that we work out who we are and hope that God Above is pleased with us.

But what happens when the deeper impetus of our human development, which must ultimately transgress the boundaries of social identity to engage the soul and its grounding mystery – what happens when this gets held up and pulled back into the ego? My word is inflation: the ego becomes even more dogmatic, conceited, bigoted, and defensive. At this point, its counterpart in God Above starts to take on the character of a judgmental, glory-seeking, and vengeful deity. Coincidence? I bet you can look down through history to those periods when God Above was especially stern, vindictive, unforgiving and merciless, and you will find insecurity and ego-inflation running rampant among his devotees.

This is where orthodoxy, that twilight phase of theism, is ready and willing to burn down the world for the sake of its truth. It has no qualms consigning unbelievers (technically any who don’t agree with it) to everlasting torment, driving out heretics, and crucifying those who challenge its authority. Even as its own are starving for relevancy inside, a dying theism will throw all its resources into buildings, publicity, and “outreach.” (I feel I’m on the verge of a rant, so I’ll stop there.)

Don’t get me wrong, as a system of religious support and orientation theism promotes human fulfillment – or I should say, healthy theism does this. As long as egos are around and people live in societies where membership means something, theism and its patron deity are here to stay.

In the best of all possible worlds, orthodoxy wouldn’t exist. Believers would be encouraged to the edge of certainty and allowed to contemplate the mystery that can’t be named. They would be challenged to let go of their need to be right, to let go of their need for assurance, to let go even of their god.

And with a gentle push, they would learn that they can fly.

 
 

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Flow in the Creative Life

I am of the opinion that a human being desires. Before this desire gets directed along a particular channel and attached to a specific object, it is life in its purest form. Life, desire, creativity and spirit – these are deeply synonymous terms in the vocabulary of what it is to be human.

Think of desire as the current that activates and inspires our experience at different levels. Oriental philosophy offers the idea of chi or energy and the various chakras or activation points along the vertical axis of the spine. Each center opens out to reality at a unique frequency of intelligence and concern. When the chakras are fully aligned and activated, an individual experiences “flow,” fulfillment and well-being.

The West has its own chakra system, although it hasn’t been developed to the degree of detail and sophistication as in the East. Typically these activation points go by the names “mind,” “heart,” and “will” – where mind thinks, heart feels, and will moves you to act. Medieval philosophy in many ways is best understood as a sustained contemplation and dialogue on these three energy-centers in human experience.

For their part, soul and body are not regarded as additional centers but refer rather to the deep interior (soul) and animal nature (body) of a human being. It was only later that a third dimension was clarified – not a “power” or energy center but what I have elsewhere characterized as a standpoint in reality – named ego. This is the socially constructed and self-conscious identity of an individual person.

As a construct, ego lacks the “substantiality” of the soul and body, and for that reason it would be acceptable to say – with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a project and projection, a rather neurotic contraction of defenses, attachments and delusions.

In the language of liberation, awakening, and the creative life, ego is our primary obstacle. It’s what needs to “die” – in the words of Jesus (the Christ) – so that our deeper life can rise up and find its wings.

Back to the energy centers. This idea has become particularly interesting to me of late, as I reflect on creativity, desire, and spirit. I am appreciating more how the truly creative individual is one whose mind, heart and will are perfectly aligned and fully activated. In order to work out the implications of this, let’s look more closely at each of these Western chakras.

For our purposes I will use the organs of the brain, heart and gut as visual representations of mind, heart and will. And even though we are born with all our organs intact – with the brain nevertheless continuing to mature still into our third decade – I am going to begin this reflection at the gut level and move upwards, following the direction of development.

GutWhy is it that you feel sick to your stomach or have issues with your intestines when you feel distressed or threatened? Your gut is a system of organs working together to metabolize nutrients and remove toxins. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, your gut gets thrown into high gear so that you can have all the energy you need to get out of danger.

Your gut is the energy point where you feel either securely grounded or dangerously at risk of not getting what you need to stay alive. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as provident and supportive, something greater in which you can trust and have faith.

Of course, the indisputable fact that you are alive is proof enough that you live in a provident universe. Not only “this place,” but this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, and the entire cosmos are conspiring at this moment to provide what you need to stay alive and flourish.

  • Key words here are: Providence, Support, Security, Trust and Faith.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to points above. If it’s uncertain, or if you were raised in a home where there was lots of deprivation, neglect, abuse and repression, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your gut. You can expect your health and happiness issues to be centered there.

HeartBut let’s say you are faithfully grounded in a reality that is provident and supportive. This sense of security is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your heart.

Why is it that when someone close to you decides to leave or is suddenly taken away, you feel “brokenhearted”? Why do so many people suffer from heartache? Your heart, more than any other organ, is connected to every other organ and outpost in your body. By its very nature it is about cooperation. When the connection between your heart and another organ is lost or obstructed, that organ will die.

Your heart is the energy point where you feel either intimately connected or coldly removed from the web of mutual interdependence. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as relational and loving, something in which you can belong and find love.

A distinction between Western and Oriental cosmology is that while the latter regards the multiplicity of separately existing things as an illusion, Western philosophy and science affirm it as foundational to what the universe is. A corollary of this idea is the view that being is essentially relational and dynamic rather than monistic and unchanging.

  • Key words here are: Relationship, Communion, Intimacy, Belonging and Love.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to the next point above. If it’s absent or doubtful, if your experience has involved more than your share of exploitation, rejection, betrayal or dysfunctional relationships, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your heart. Your health issues might be centered here, in the physical consequences (or early symptoms) of losing your passion, compassion, and communion with life.

BrainBut let’s say you do feel a strong sense of belonging and healthy rapport in your relationships. This sense of intimacy is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your brain/mind.

Why is it that a lack of clarity in your efforts to make sense of something gives you a headache? Why are people so ready to trade their lack of meaning and purpose for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment plan? Your brain is your “executive” organ, the seat of conscious awareness, and the worktable in your construction of meaning. Its dual responsibilities are to regulate the internal processes of your body and articulate the neural platform of your mind (thinking self).

Your brain is the energy point where the certainty of your life’s meaning is managed. With its unique cognitive powers you are constantly sounding a transcendent reality for echos of significance. At this level of intelligence, reality is scanned for patterns, rhythms, and correlations, which are then analyzed, synthesized, and fantasized into a cross-referencing system of meaning known as your world.

What you seek is understanding, and as you are busy with the process of constructing meaning, various checkpoints along the way (conventionally called “facts”) challenge your brain to update its world-picture.

Key words here are: Transcendence, Meaning, Certainty, Understanding and Truth.

Now, if the ascending path of desire has gotten tangled up and caught on hooks farther down, leaving only a trickle of energy by the time it reaches this point, your personal meaning can become extremely rigid, awkwardly outdated, and curiously dogmatic. When your intellectual guidance system is out of sync with the actual coordinates of reality, you should expect headaches – physical and otherwise.

                                                                           

Okay, so there you have my interpretation of the Western “chakra system.” Human creativity is an inverse function of the “impedance” in this flow of energy/desire/spirit through the primary centers of the gut, heart and brain.

The more impedance – that is to say, the greater degree in which this creative flow gets “hung up” and pulled off center into the various ailments, demons, and neuroses of our predicament – the less creative we are. (I suppose it’s obvious to also say, the more destructive we tend to become.)

The creative life is grounded in the provident mystery of reality. It flows outward into communion with all things. It strives to ask better questions, ones that will deepen understanding and open up a larger vision for our lives.

I think this model has a lot to commend it. Philosophy, theology, politics, business, commerce, art, science, medicine, ethics – we stand a chance of getting our cultural system back on track and centered again.

And just to think, it all begins with you and me.

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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