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A Psychology of Wholeness

I’m sure that no other species of life, on Earth at least, is as obsessed with understanding itself as are we. We’ve been trying to figure out this human experience for millenniums now, but time and again we get tangled up in our own reflection. Realistically speaking, there really is no hope of ever reaching a completely objective picture since we are both the object under study and the ones conducting the examination.

Over the last 125 years or so, Western psychology has made some impressive advances in our understanding of psyche – the Greek term meaning “self.” The lack of a unified theory is largely due to the fact that the self can be defined in (at least) three distinct ways. In this post I will offer a model that incorporates these distinctions and outlines a Western psychology of wholeness – a way of understanding ourselves holistically.

These “pieces” have been floating out here for some time now, and the various schools and therapies of Western psychology have promoted their alternative visions in the marketplace. Inevitably one “piece” is made central as the others are subordinated to it, dismissed as nonessential, or entirely ignored.

As is the case in Western philosophy, science, and medicine, our penchant for analyzing reality – in this case the reality of the human psyche – into its deeper elements frequently leaves us without Ariadne’s Thread back to where we can appreciate the higher wholeness of it all.

Instead of “pieces” or even “elements,” we should regard these aspects of self as distinct loci that connect us to reality in three dimensions: to our living body, to other persons, and to the ground of being. The loci themselves are named, respectively, mind, ego, and soul. Again, these are not three pieces or parts of the self, but three modes of existence that engage us psychologically with reality and the fullness of life.

Self as Embodied Mind

In Western psychology a great deal of research has demonstrated the psychosomatic (mind-body) dimension of our experience. “Mind” here refers to the autonomic, instinctual, emotional, cognitive and sentient awareness supported by the body’s nervous system. Without the nervous system and its central ganglion (the brain) there is no mind. This is not to say that mind is “nothing more” than the brain and its nervous system, however.

A psychosomatic perspective regards the self as embodied mind, not as a mind “inside” a body but as a living organism imbued with the power to sense and desire, to feel and to think, to attend, wonder, and reflect. Thoughts in our mind activate feelings in our body. Our visceral state both prompts and reacts to the stories we tell ourselves. An anxious or agitated nervous system translates spontaneously into verbal narratives of worry, confusion, or outrage. A story of shame and self-doubt can upset our stomach and make it difficult to breathe.

Many forms of modern dysfunction and disease in the body have their origin in the mind. They are maladies of the mind-body.

As it relates to a psychology of wholeness, the balance of health in the mind-body nexus can be summarized as composure. In this state the self is internally stable and fully capable of maintaining, or quickly recovering, equilibrium. Composure allows attention to “look out” on reality through a clear lens: centered, undisturbed, and free of internal distractions. As a benefit of composure, we can also see more clearly into the experience of others and understand what they are going through.

Self as Personal Ego

The psychosocial dimension of self is about our relationships with others, along with the personal identity we struggle to manage in the social exchange. From the Latin for “I,” ego only gradually comes into itself, supervised and shaped by the family, tribe, and culture in which we are members. By a series of separations – first the physical separation of birth, followed by years of emotional and intellectual moves – we differentiate ourselves as an individual person, one who “speaks through” (Latin persona) the roles and masks we are provided.

During this rather long ordeal, ego consciousness – the sense we have of ourselves as a separate person and social actor – becomes increasingly involved in its own security schemes and strategies. Because the personal ego is by definition separate from all that is “not me,” this constant exposure often motivates us to find cover inside collective identities like cults, sects, parties, and clubs where we can blend in and feel safe.

One of the key indicators of Western cultural progress has been this rise of individual rights and personal values, occasionally snapped back into conformity by authoritarian societies but persisting in its long campaign for autonomy.

In Asia and the Orient, this rise of individualism has been restrained for the most part by strong traditions of deference to authority and by philosophies that regard the individual as a degenerate from the anonymous collective (e.g., in China) or impersonal absolute (e.g., in India).

Self as Mystical Soul

Psychospiritual interests in Western psychology have typically resulted in so-called New Age metaphysics, where the self is seen as an immortal and absolute identity – the “true Self” – utterly separate and apart from the body, time, and material existence. If things don’t go in this direction, then the interest in spirituality will often get annexed to one of the “classic” schools of twentieth-century psychology, as a set of concerns (“religious development” or “crises of faith”) a client may be working through. In either case, the focus of attention is on the personal ego and its quest for enlightenment, salvation, lasting happiness and a more meaningful existence.

Self-as-soul is distinct from self-as-ego, however, and confusing the two effectively forecloses on our human progress into wholeness.

The confusion has roots in Western (Judeo-Christian) monotheism, where the supreme being is conceived in terms of an immortal personal ego. This same principle in humans is consequently regarded as the precious thing to be saved from sin and worldly bondage. Our soul is thus the true center of our personality, the “I” (ego) that longs for deliverance – a final separation from our body, the world, and the ravages of time.

But soul is not another name for the immortal ego. Instead, it invites the self into a deeper contemplation of its own ground.

A contemplative descent of this sort drops below the personal ego and its preoccupation with identity management. In a way, it follows the stem of consciousness through the floor of mind-body composure and deeper into the present mystery of reality. Dropping from the separate ego is also dropping beneath its web of dualities, to a place that is now/here (nowhere) and All is One. This is the mystical (literally ineffable, indescribable, and unspeakable) experience of communion.


As my diagram illustrates, soul-ground communion produces mind-body composure, which in turn inspires ego-other compassion and awakens us to the spirit of genuine community. It is in genuine community that we can fully enjoy the liberated life.

 

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Change Your Lens, Change Your World

phoropterMost of us have had the experience of getting our vision diagnosed by an optician. A fancy instrument, called a phoropter, is maneuvered in front of our face and positioned on the bridge of our nose. As the technician clicks various lenses over each eye and we try to read some letters or view a scene, we are asked to judge which of two clicks makes the picture more distinct. Eventually we arrive at the specific power of refraction that will compensate for the weakness and astigmatism of our unaided eyesight.

If we think of the phoropter as a metaphor for culture and the way it clicks various lenses between our minds and reality, we have a useful illustration of constructivism. The basic idea is that our minds do not merely look for and find meaning in reality, but instead they make meaning by constructing a model of reality and using this model as a frame for draping the stories, theories, judgments and expectations that constitute our personal worlds. I’m using ‘worlds’ in the plural because each of us manages a world unique to us (so we all have one), and we also progress through a variety of distinct worlds (or worldviews) over the course of our lifetime.

In a recent discussion with others in the wisdom circle I attend, we were reflecting on the different worlds of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, and the profound differences between our Western world and the worlds of other cultures and nations. From the ancient Greeks we inherited our accent on the individual as a separate and irreducible center of identity, dignity, sentiment, and agency. Perhaps as an effect of the fact that the Greco-Roman culture overarched a wide region of numerous indigenous societies, the detached and self-standing individual became the locus of supreme value. After the ‘dark age’ of medieval Europe, this priority of the individual reasserted itself with the Renaissance ideal of the hero-artist.

lensesOther cultures, both ancient and contemporary, view reality through a different lens from that of Western individualism. Instead of looking at the collective through a preference for the individual, they define an individual through the lens of community. It’s not that the individual is unimportant; rather, the individual only makes sense as a function of the whole. Self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s community takes precedence over competition among individuals for self-advancement.

Not only might competition of this sort be discouraged in community-oriented cultures, such a mentality and behavior will likely be condemned, even punished by banishment from the group. A Western individual is apt to condemn this attitude in turn as both repressive and ignorant, since a community exists for the sake of individuals and not the other way around.

Not all Westerners are individualists, and we could surely find many individualists within the more community-oriented cultures of our day. The point is not to draw a geographical or even a cultural boundary between the two types, but to reflect for ourselves as to which lens holds priority for us. As we view reality and construct our worlds, which lens is in front of the other? Our first lens (the one in front) will automatically filter and qualify the other, as the core beliefs by which we construct our worlds and live our lives.

The answer is probably more complicated than my question leads us to think.

When the individual is before (i.e., in front of the lens of the) community, typically the rights of the individual will take precedence over his or her responsibilities to the community. In my recent post The Great American Divide I suggested that capitalism, as one of the seedbed traditions beneath the American world(view), is based on a philosophical preference for the individual over the community. According to this view, a community is essentially a collective of individuals seeking economic opportunities that will support and promote their personal ambitions. This is not to say that capitalism necessarily breeds selfishness in its devotees, but Adam Smith did affirm ‘rational self-interest’ as one of its driving forces (competition being the other).

A preference for the individual over community keeps the tether of moral values firmly staked to a concern for the benefits and risks to the self. If altruism plays any part, then it’s in the form of what the communitarian philosopher Philip Selznick calls ‘bounded altruism’ (The Moral Commonwealth, 1994). Here the outreach of individuals extends to familiars and fellow members, but not to strangers or outsiders. The reciprocal turnaround of value back to the individual needs to be fairly short in order to justify one’s investment, charity, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Generally speaking, commitments of this kind to strangers or outsiders do not bring reciprocal value to the benefactor – a liability for which American capitalism offers compensation in its provision of tax write-offs for donations.

On the other hand, when community is before (i.e., in front of the lens of) the individual, a responsibility to the greater good sets constraints around individual rights. This doesn’t mean that individuals can be arbitrarily stripped of property and freedoms whenever it serves the collective interest, which is how individualists often paint the problem. Granted, when the collective is really little more than an aggregate of individuals under the control of a dictator or special-interest bureaucracy, the individual – particularly those at the bottom or outside the circle of power – is, we might say, perfectly expendable. History has shown this time and again.

So obviously we need to be more careful in the way we define ‘community’. It is decidedly not merely a synonym for the collective, that essentially disconnected aggregate of individuals mentioned above. A community (literally “together as one”) represents a qualitative shift in consciousness where the self-other reciprocity and competition of capitalism is transcended (included and surpassed) in the experience of empathy, advocacy, and communion. The individual is not subtracted or subordinated, but rather honored and lifted into this higher consciousness of community life.

Again, in my post The Great American Divide I made a case that democracy, as the second seedbed tradition beneath our American worldview, is based on a philosophical preference for the community over the individual. For Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, this order of priority meant that individuals are not essentially competing units of self-interest; rather they are self-transcending agents in the synergy of ‘a more perfect union’. With its emphasis on our individual responsibilities to the community, this tradition of American liberal democracy insists that our rights as individual citizens are only defensible within a larger culture where individuals work together for the common good.

So what I earlier called the ‘great American divide’ turns out to be a fundamental dilemma posed to each of us. As we step into our creative authority, it is up to us to decide which of these lenses has priority to the other. Each commitment provides some counterbalance to the other, and in their tension is where we must construct a life of meaning.

 

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