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Creative Spirit and the Invitation to Life in Its Fullness

matter_life_spiritMatter reacts. Life adapts. Spirit creates. 

With that, I have summarized the 14-billion-year cosmic process in three stages and just six words. I’m using the term ‘stage’ here less in its temporal sense than as a way of identifying distinct levels of complexity in the evolutionary architecture of our universe. True enough, energy first fused into matter, then stirred to life, and eventually awakened as spirit. But each preceding stage continued as foundation to subsequent ones, not just persisting underneath the others but taken up, incorporated, and transformed in the breakthroughs they represented.

You, for instance, are a rather remarkable synthesis of physical matter, animal life, and creative spirit. Your life is generated and sustained out of a deep economy of physical reactions going on in your body all the time. And as you move through the changing environments of your life, your body and mind are adapting so as to optimize your ‘fit’ to the way things are. The adaptation of life amounts to this constant quest for the niches where environmental stress is manageable, internal distress is minimized, and the opportunity for longevity and reproduction is greatest. Once life finds such niches, it settles in and makes itself at home.

Think about the various niches you have settled into, those safe corners and familiar grooves where “everyting irie.”

And this is our problem as human beings. Whereas the material processes that keep us alive are autonomic and unconscious; and while slipping into a best fit with our surroundings is a preconscious preference for the path of least resistance; that aspect which makes us most uniquely human – our creative spirit – must operate in full awareness and by conscious choice. For this reason, habit, convention, custom, orthodoxy, and even morality as the rules that determine our social affections and behavior, can keep us so deep in our grooves that spirit has no chance of waking up.

If my reader ever wonders why I am so critical of orthodoxy (not only in religion) and the mental bypass of conviction which closes the mind to everything but its own absolute truth, this is why. As the theme of this blog is ‘exploring creative change’, my passionate interest is in that transforming process whereby human beings break through the constraints of family patterns, tribal traditions, belief systems, and identity contracts that keep us asleep.

My message is not that we need to trash them all, necessarily, or leave them behind and go it alone through life. When the creative spirit awakens in us, some of these things will be dropped off and left behind, as their authority is no longer required. But others, like that literal god who comes to life again as a literary figure and metaphor of the grounding mystery, can light up with fresh relevance and illumine the path ahead. Creative spirit awakens ‘on the other side of god’ and invites us to live in conscious awareness of our place in the unity of existence.

In an interesting way, each of those three stages in the cosmic process surpasses the one immediately preceding it by breaking (through) a law that would prevent its progress. Life has to overcome the stabilizing force of entropy which is constantly pulling matter down into more steady states of equilibrium. By self-replication, sexual reproduction, and social bonding, life pushes upwards against this law of matter and thereby secures for itself a higher stage of existence. Life’s law is that niche-seeking survival mandate mentioned earlier: stay as deep inside those grooves of pleasure and avoid any pain that signals compromise, exposure, and a loss of security.

Habituate yourself to your surroundings, to the circumstances of your life, to the role-play and ideology of your tribe: that’s what the preconscious law of life will have you do. It’s safer inside the circle, where you can live closer to what you know and be assured of the resources you need to survive. Do what you’re told, don’t rock the boat, stay in line, wait your turn, look before you leap. If you’re still alive, it must be working. Why tempt fate? What’s the point in thinking outside the box, when the box contains all you need to know?

I could add more platitudes and proverbs of the status quo, but you probably have a pretty good feel for this law of adaptation that manages to keep so many of us spiritually asleep. If the creative spirit is to awaken in us, we will have to confront, break through, and rise above the trance of security and its delusion of meaning. The very identity that has been shaped for us by our taller powers and tribal handlers is now our greatest impediment, our most formidable obstacle to genuine liberty.

Just say to yourself, “I want to be free to live my own life, to follow my bliss, and realize the fullness of what I am” – merely let those words out of your mouth, and just as quickly will come rebuke and admonition for entertaining such a selfish fantasy. So insidious is this reproof against genuine self-actualization, that the script spins automatically inside your own head. What you don’t understand is that this script, together with its sponsoring tribal ideology, is itself a fantasy, and a selfish one of the highest order.

After all, this is the center of identity known as ego, which is really a mechanism of social adaptation by which the tribal mind replicates itself in the individual. You were disciplined, shaped, and instructed to hold certain things as self-evidently true. That’s just the way it is, you were told. Because I said so. It’s in the Bible. Your brainwashing was nearly complete before your rational and critical-thinking prefrontal cortex could come online to help you see through much of this so-called wisdom. If you grew up in a strict religious household, then the everlasting consequence of god’s judgment further secured your duty as carrier of your tribe’s memetic code (i.e., the cultural analogue of our genetic code, but constructed out of memes rather than genes).

Needless to say, the creative spirit doesn’t break (through) the rule of life in society as an act of belligerence, but as liberative and transpersonal, meaning that it breaks beyond the ego stage of consciousness and sets us free for a larger vision of where we really are, and where this great cosmic process is inviting us to go.

 

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Human Progress and the Four Forces

Four ForcesI write this on New Year’s Day, a traditional time when people around the world make resolutions to be more responsible, love each other more deeply, and finally do something about the dreams they’ve been procrastinating on. In 30-days time, which is about how long it takes for real change to get established or abandoned, we’ll check in again.

It doesn’t always or even typically go the way we had hoped it would.

I reflected on hope in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-AF) where I defended its importance against a trend in popular psychology which regards it essentially as yet another way human beings divert attention away from the present moment into things that aren’t real. As the expectancy of something to come, hope pulls us out of the here-and-now and thereby undermines our one genuine touchpoint in reality.

Of course, the hopeful person is still very much in the present moment, for there is nowhere else one can be, but the investment of awareness is being channeled away from what is to a future prospect of only what might be.

What this argument fails to take into consideration is the fact that our brains, particularly the most recent and uniquely human part called the prefrontal cortex, have evolved (quite literally) with the future in mind. Generally speaking, animals with more evolved brains and nervous systems are able to anticipate, predict, and plan their actions in view of future (i.e., hoped for) outcomes. Not only does this give them an advantage over animals lacking the talent, but such a future orientation allows for creative options denied to lesser brains.

Naturally the challenge is to live in touch with the present as we plan for the future. Each of us is familiar with the way that obsessing over tomorrow can cause us to overlook the priceless gift (present) of today.

As I see it, hope is one of those undeniable forces that shape human progress. As we prepare ourselves for another year, our anticipation of what it might bring and our plans for what we hope to accomplish exercise a powerful influence on what actually comes about.

But another force works in opposition to hope. I’m referring to the deep grooves of habit that hold us in well-established patterns of behavior and belief. Just like hope, habit is sometimes denigrated as a negative influence that prevents us from fully engaging in present experience. We do something long enough, or it was set in place early enough, that now we don’t even have to give it a second thought. Whether we learned it through repeated practice and discipline like a skill, or picked it up more or less spontaneously in reaction to trauma or chronic stress, habituated behavior and its associated beliefs constitute a good deal of what is meant by character.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” He was referring not to some magical power in belief itself, but to the power of habit in shaping our judgments regarding our own creative authority. If we routinely (i.e., habitually) dismiss or deny our capacity to change current reality and bring about something new, that deep and familiar groove will eventually deliver us to our grave.

The real danger in habit has to do with the way it locks us inside behavioral patterns and mental boxes that stifle our creativity. We become hostages of our own convictions, spellbound by the mystique of certainty, and dead to the creative intelligence that got us thinking in the first place.

Each of us has an ego, a separate center of personal identity that strives both to fit in and stand out at the same time. From birth our tribe began prodding and luring our behavior in the direction of communal aims, all the while giving support to the emergence of personal ambitions regarding our future goals. Some of those goals never crystallized out of the fantasy state, where they functioned more as a therapy of mental escape from the fixed conditions of everyday life than as motivators of actual progress. As we know, a habit of insecurity, entitlement, self-doubt, and procrastination can keep us perpetually stuck in the daydream of what we wish our lives could be.

In that daydream we tend to live out of touch with our body (since it is where our trauma and shame are stored) and equally alienated from our soul (which is where intuition and unity-awareness are found). If we could only pay attention, symptomatic messages in the body would reveal where our creative energy and higher human progress is currently blocked – in hang-ups around security and power (gut), attachment and love (heart), or meaning and truth (head).

The body itself is informed by a deep instinctual intelligence with roots reaching back into our evolutionary prehistory. Those urges, drives, and reflexes were formed over millenniums of symbiotic adaptation to the limits and opportunities of the environment. Even though the innovations of culture have liberated us somewhat from the force of instinct, we are foolish not to include our animal nature and its visceral intelligence in our New Year’s resolutions. No diet, whether endorsed by medical doctors or Hollywood movie stars, will produce a healthy body if we have lost attunement with the body’s own primal knowing of what is truly wholesome and beneficial to health.

Opposite the dark urgencies of instinct are the bright revelations of wisdom, guarded (or ignored) under the stewardship of our diverse cultures. The soul’s insight into the truth of things is like a transcendent light shining through the stained glass icons of meaning that our cultures honor and protect. Oftentimes this light illumines the genuine beauty and grace of those icons. But sometimes, particularly when they have become dogmatic, inflexible, and absolute in their claims on truth, it may inspire the birth of new images and metaphors in pursuit of a higher meaning.

Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge or “being smart.” Throughout its history, the evolving stream of human wisdom has been contemplated as carrying the ethical insights and mystical realizations that can help us live more authentically, more compassionately, and more peacefully together in community. Wisdom will always challenge us to sink deeper and open wider to the present mystery of reality, always beyond the moral judgments and doctrinal orthodoxies that currently divide us.

Our progress, both individually and collectively, will be short-lived so long as we continue to believe and behave as if we’re separate from (and superior to) the rest. Wellbeing – truly being well (a cognate of the term ‘whole’) – is about living with the Big Picture in mind and promoting wholeness in all we do.

In my diagram the double arrow between instinct and wisdom is bigger yet less distinct than the single-direction arrows from habit to hope, while the latter are more pronounced. This is to make the point that as long as we stay in the grooves defining who we are and what’s in it for me, access to the deeper force of instinct and the higher force of wisdom will be largely unavailable to us. And as long as that’s the case, our human progress, both in this coming year and in the decades still to come, will be questionable indeed.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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What’s Going On

world gridEach of us is responsible for creating and maintaining a personal system of meaning called a world. It isn’t entirely our invention, as much of it, including the foundational elements known as assumptions, were installed by our culture (family and society) even before we acquired language. These pre-verbal dimensions of our world – which I also refer to as our worldview – should not be confused with the ineffable mystery of existence that fascinates mystics and inspires artists across the cultures.

According to the theoretical perspective known as constructivism, “the world” is not just another name for the environment or the globe or our planet Earth. “The” world identifies the personal system of meaning in which live; it is the habitation of this separate center of identity called I-myself. You live in the world, and I live in the world, but our worlds are not exactly the same. We should also make the point that your world today is not the same world you inhabited when you were younger. The “meaning of (my) life” has changed over the years, sometimes dramatically as in response to hardship, trauma, or loss.

belief systemYour world, then, is a construct, the appearance of which is really a function of your assumptions, conclusions, opinions, and predictions about reality based on what you’ve been taught to believe, and of your adaptive strategies along the way. Indeed, what you perceive as your world might be more accurately regarded as a product of your beliefs than a perfect representation of reality.

Even though you may think of your world as arranged outside and around you, its objective existence is only an optical delusion. Behind your world, as a projector is behind the images projected on a screen, is your mindset – that framework of assumptions (etc.) concerning the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the value of persons, and so on. Constructivism suggests that by altering your mindset you can actually revise or recreate your world, in some cases bringing about an apocalyptic “new heavens and new earth” by virtue of an entirely new system of meaning.

The educational author Carol Dweck (2006) has defined the categories of “fixed” and “growth” mindset to distinguish how people tend to regard talent, intelligence, achievement, and excellence as either something we’re basically born with (fixed) or which instead can be developed with effort, practice, and persistence (growth).

outlookBesides its role in supporting a particular construction of meaning (i.e., the world), your mindset also works as a lens or filter setting an emotional tone or general outlook on life. In a therapeutic approach called Mentallurgy (see my blog http://www.braintracts.wordpress.com), I have identified four primary attitudes that color our outlook, selecting for “evidence” that confirms how we feel and screening out (or minimizing) what doesn’t. These primary attitudes are Confidence/optimism (green), Discouragement/melancholy (blue), Anxiety/paranoia (yellow), and Frustration/hostility (red).

We can distinguish worldview, mindset, and outlook by saying that your worldview represents the way things are (to you), your mindset consists of the beliefs you hold with respect to what it all means, and your outlook is how those beliefs cast reality and the future under an emotional tone – generally speaking, positive (green) or negative (blue, yellow, red). Your outlook sets up each situation as an opportunity or adversity, as opening new possibilities for growth and discovery or foreclosing on your happiness and making life hard.

brainMentallurgy is a brain-based therapeutic approach which seeks to empower individuals in taking creative control of their mental focus, storytelling (aka “meaning-making”), and behavior. Ultimately – and I’m making the point explicit here – your worldview is rooted in particular brainstates, referring to more or less persistent moods that link your nervous system to external reality.

When your brainstate is coherent you are able to interpret sensory information, access your feelings, organize your thoughts, understand your needs, and behave in situation-appropriate ways. Alternatively when your brainstate is confused, irritable, or depressed, the connection and flow among these faculties is disrupted or gets stuck. All you have to do is trace these brainstates into their associated mindsets, outlooks, and worldviews to get a feel for how this whole system spins out and feeds back upon itself.

With the technology to scan live working brains, neuroscience is helping us appreciate the wonderful benefits of a coherent brainstate, where the quantum field of consciousness flows in smooth waves across the regions and networks of the brain. We can also see where things tend to get hung up and go awry, depending on whether the brainstate is confused (prefrontal cortex), irritable (limbic system), or depressed (deep temporal lobes).

Because we are obviously talking about something (i.e., consciousness) presenting as a continuum, the positions chosen as distinct brainstates might seem somewhat arbitrary. My choices are persuaded by the frequency in which these particular brainstates manifest themselves in common behavior, as when we’re confidently engaged in what’s going on (coherent), uneasy and disoriented (confused), frustrated and over-reactive (irritable), or lethargic and disinterested (depressed). While all of these may be considered normal behaviors, the hope is that we can shift back into coherence when we feel ourselves slipping or on the way to getting hooked.BMOWAll of this helps us interpret “what’s going on” through a system of correlates – brainstate, mindset, outlook, and worldview. Depending on where in this system we undertake our analysis, a description of what’s going on will employ a vocabulary that is neurological, psychological, or sociological in orientation. When it comes to instigating transformative change (the general theme of this tracts blog), however, we will always have greater success by shifting into a coherent brainstate first.

What does all of this have to do with spirituality (another of my themes)? When our brainstate is coherent, our mindset is also more flexible, our outlook more positive, and our worldview is correspondingly more open and accommodating. We are able to live more intentionally and charitably in the face of what life brings our way.

We are also empowered to live more creatively as we take up the Deeper Process and Higher Purpose of existence itself, transcending the often petty concerns of ego and accepting our responsibility as authors of what’s going on.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2015 in Philosophical Underpinnings

 

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The Quadratics of Transformation

This is a blog about creative change. My posts on the whole have been exploring creative change along several distinct trajectories – personality and life experience, spirituality and religion, individual and community. Working the angles on transformational change has gradually clarified what I now take as the essential dynamics of what’s involved in the transformation of anything whatsoever. I’m going to call it the “quadratics of transformation.”

Behind its more technical mathematical definition from intermediate algebra, “quadratic” derives from quadratus, the Latin word for square. In the ancient world, the geometric form of a perfect square represented stability, symmetry, and wholeness. The four elements of earth, air, fire and water, for instance, were taken as the deep structure of reality itself. As I use the term here, quadratic transformation refers to the fourfold dynamic that plays out in transformational change – the way a given identity resists or undergoes alteration in form as it evolves over time.

QuadrixWe might take anything as our example, but let’s put a human being at the center of the Quadratic as our particular identity for consideration. As we follow the vertical axis upwards, we engage the context in which that person exists. Also called its environment or setting, we will use the more interesting term SYSTEM as a reminder that this person participates in a larger context of forces and conditions. From the perspective of our identity-in-focus (a person), the system is external – outside, around, enveloping and inclusive of identity itself.

If we start again with personal identity, we can take the vertical axis downwards, which moves us deeper into or within the person. Here we find internal forces and conditions such as the individual’s self awareness, his or her self-image, and a very interesting configuration of intelligence, talent, orientation and neurotic styles. When it comes to personal transformation, the tangles, fixations, and hooks in this internal configuration of the self represent a covert factor in the dynamic of change. Going “down” into the self pushes us deeper into its GROUND.

As we shift attention to the horizontal axis, we move to the left (in the Quadratic) where we are confronted with the power of HABIT. This refers to the routines and patterns that persist through time, somewhere along the sliding continuum into unconscious, reflexive, automatic and compulsive activity. By definition habit is conservative, keeping routines (including assumptions, preferences, and behavioral responses) that have been “working” to some extent. This so-called success of a routine might actually interfere with the individual’s personal achievement or pursuit of happiness, but still be conserved for its value in coping with stress.

Opposite to habit in the Quadratic of Transformation is the force of PURPOSE, which is progressive in the sense that it looks to what’s next or farther in the future and moves the person in that direction. In contrast to a rock, which is just about all habit, a human person has more potential to change (to grow and advance) – that is to say, the person has more purpose than the rock. Purpose here does not refer to a metaphysical plan or “mission from above,” but to the intention of identity, how creatively it leans into its options and stretches toward fulfillment. In human beings, purpose takes shape in strategies, goals, and the choices guided by intended outcomes.

So transformational change is the interplay of these four factors: a surrounding context (system), factors internal to the “self” (ground), the conservation of routines (habit), and an intention for the future (purpose). Eliminate just one of these quadratic factors and transformation will not happen. A weak or “shaky” internal ground makes identity unstable. An inadequate system (poor or missing resources) will put it at risk. Habit that has fallen out of date or is stuck in a blind repetition compulsion stifles creative freedom. And the lack of intention or directed purpose effectively forecloses on the future. Instead of transforming, identity will collapse on itself, become exhausted or obsolete, get stuck in its own ruts, or miss opportunities for progress.

                                                                                  

Relevance to Parenting and Education

In the field of education the Quadratics of Transformation can be immensely helpful in optimizing learning and supporting student success. Instead of simply pushing information at students, educators might become more deeply involved in the process of activating intelligence, promoting aptitude (rather than merely assessing it), and working with the unique quadratics of individual students.

In order to succeed in life and reach some degree of self-actualization, a human person needs a strong internal ground of faith, self-confidence, openness to experience, and encouraging self-talk (e.g., “I can do this!”). Such internal strength serves as the basis for resilience, adaptation, and the ability to exploit failure for the wisdom it can teach. Too many people struggle with a paralyzing sense of self-deficiency and unworthiness. Creative educators work early on to help establish in their students (and parents in their children) a provident foundation of self-efficacy.

In recent years, especially with the discoveries of neuroscience into how the brain develops, the value of “enriched environments” of learning has gained acceptance. Beyond just surrounding the student with an interesting variety of instructional media, student development is greatly enhanced as the individual becomes increasingly aware of his or her place in a larger system of resources and co-factors of learning. As a participant in a broader and richer context of knowledge, agencies, tools and services, the student can appreciate the excitement of learning as a cooperative achievement.

If they are reached soon enough, children can be taught the fundamental skills of effective learning and academic achievement. This goes beyond memorizing the alphabet and math tables, into techniques of setting up the problem, forecasting outcomes, identifying the steps, and constructing a strategy. These skills are gradually established as habits of effective learning and problem-solving through consistent practice. Routines become habitual and require less and less attentional effort as they are performed with consistency. Creative parents and educators understand the prime importance of helping youngsters practice and conserve the proven habits of success.

It’s difficult to reach a goal if one hasn’t been clarified and anchored in the future. When individuals are very young they need to borrow the prefrontal cortex of their adult advisors (parents, teachers, coaches), which is the region of the brain most involved in discriminating options, predicting possible outcomes, taking the long view, and making calculated decisions. Evolution has generated a very interesting situation for humans, where children need to rely on adult skills and abilities far into their development (late into the second decade of life).

If educators are fixated on instruction and assessment – unconcerned with education proper (educare refers to leading the student out into a broader or better understanding) – teaching will not awaken in students the aspiration toward higher ideals or the strategic intelligence for realizing them. Parents too, of course, can get overburdened and distracted by the stress of their responsibilities, interfering with their ability to model or encourage their children to look ahead and live with purpose.

If parents and educators can take a more holistic approach to bringing up our children, we can work together to support their development into internally grounded, intelligently connected, fully skilled and innovative leaders in life. The Quadratics of Transformation is a methodological tool that can help us better help our children.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Philosophy of Tears

Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.

Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).

His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.

Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.

The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.

A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.

The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Dynamics of LoveLong before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.

So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.

To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.

When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.

Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.

But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.

Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.

Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.

If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.

A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.

For now, however, we have an important choice to make.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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The View from Down Under

De Mello: “The trouble with people is that they’re busy fixing things they don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.”

“Problems” motivate our efforts to fix them. A problem means that something is wrong – at least in our everyday way of speaking. A math problem, interestingly enough, is not broken but waits to be solved or figured out. If you come out with the wrong answer, then you’ve got a real problem.

My favorite one-word synonym for reality is mystery – as in the present mystery of reality, or the real presence of mystery. This mystery is the deeper ground beneath/within us, as well as the greater whole around/beyond us. At the personal level this mystery turns up as you and me, doing our best to figure things out.

All of this could inspire contemplation and wonder, but what we seem to bump up against most often are problems. Whereas reality is a vibrant web of causes and conditions, effects and forces that seems to go “down” and “out” to infinity, our personal worlds are simple by comparison. Even though we want to believe – or do we have a need to believe? – that the mystery of our own lives is a problem to solve or perhaps even “fix,” chances are good that many of our problems are self-created. To paraphrase Nietzsche: If all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.

De Mello invites us to consider a different way of approaching reality – not with our tools but with intelligence. Specifically with a contemplative intelligence, one that takes in the Big Picture, sinks through appearances, and ponders the mystery in its depths. There will always be time to “figure it out” or “fix it up” the way you want it – or maybe there won’t, who knows?

But if we’re busy constantly trying to fix what we think is wrong or broken, the genuine mystery of being alive in this moment and somehow connected to all things passes by our blinders. The deeper ground and greater whole become invisible to us. Can we reach the point where they eventually become inaccessible to us as well – so tangled in problems that we lose our sensitivity to the mystery?

Our worlds have problems, but reality is a mystery. It’s when a natural force like a tornado comes into our world and upsets the arrangement, leaving damage and injury in its wake, that it becomes a problem. From a distance the weather phenomenon is fascinating and awesome. Just don’t come too close to me and mine.

Relationships have conflicts, and if these conflicts go on too long, we might say they’re broken and need fixing. I suppose it’s possible that many of my chronic troubles with others have to do with deeper or larger patterns that I don’t understand. It’s easier to point the finger of blame – at the other, of course. What if relational conflicts are really (that is, in reality) places where we come together at our differences, but just don’t understand the higher Tao that’s playing your Yin against my Yang?

As a constructivist, I appreciate the way in which our worlds provide the security, identity, significance and purpose we need to make life meaningful. Also as a constructivist, I accept these as “positive illusions” – things we need in order to keep our sanity and express our creative nature as a species.

We make it up, find problems in what we make, and spend our time and energy fixing the problems. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

What would happen if we took a more contemplative approach to our lives? Spending less time reacting to the problems we create – which only tends to generate more problems – and more time understanding our own creativity and its roots in reality, could make a real difference.

Understanding something doesn’t necessarily mean that we can explain it. The two metaphors are intriguing: explanation refers to “folding out” or opening up what is hidden in the deeper layers, while understanding involves “standing under” something and seeing it from the opposite angle of ordinary perception. The undersides of many things can be rather shocking.

Explanation is a kind of diagnosis, a necessary step toward fixing what’s wrong or broken. Moreover, it’s analytical, surgical and reductionistic in the way it spreads out the innards of something for closer examination. Once the frog is fully dissected, of course, all you have is frog parts. The living mystery is not just the parts in working order and functioning properly. It’s something more, something else, which vanished when Kermit went kaput.

This is not to say that explanation has no place in our quest for knowledge. Western science and philosophy have built up quite a library over the centuries – picking reality apart, cutting it up, breaking it down, charting its innards. We have come to know a lot about the composition of things, how they can be re-engineered, genetically modified, and synthetically replicated to do more for us.

But what if the real problem is our present discontent, our greed for more, a chronic frustration that fuels unrealistic expectations and set us up for disappointment? The deeper the disappointment, the harder we poke. The harder we poke, the more inflamed things become. Smaller problems multiply from the Big Problem.

Perhaps we need to get a different perspective on things. Before we start pulling them apart to fix them, let’s try to understand what’s really going on.

 

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Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one,  you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

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