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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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Creatures and Creators

nature_cultureHuman beings are creatures of nature. Our physiology and complex nervous system are products of the evolution of life on planet Earth, and the roots of our genetic code are entwined with countless other life-forms. Some mythological accounts notwithstanding, our species evolved over many millions of years and we are utterly dependent on the web of life which is our home.

Human beings are also creators of culture. Our advanced brain and nervous system have endowed us with exceptional social, cognitive, and artistic abilities by which we have erected a profoundly complex habitat of meaning – symbols, language, architecture, technology, commerce, and worldviews. Culture wasn’t here before we arrived, but emerged gradually as this creative synergy continued to evolve. As distinct from the web of life mentioned earlier, culture is the web of meaning that we humans spin out of our minds and then take up residence within.

In the long run of our evolution, then, we were first creatures (and still are) and over time became creators. The more invested and involved we became in the production of culture, the more we tended also to lose our sense of membership in, and responsibility to, the natural realm. On the big-picture scale of things, the reality of our living body and its provident environment is the grounding mystery out of which mind has emerged to construct a home and contemplate the turning mystery of the cosmos.

As beings we are expressions of being-itself; as human beings we are privileged to look out on the wonder of existence and participate in the great community of life.

In my diagram, a diagonal arrow ascends from the bottom-left signifying our evolutionary path toward self-actualization, by which I mean the activation-into-maturity of our full capacity as a species. As Alan Watts often said, just as an apple tree “apples,” so our planet (and the universe itself) “peoples.” Each of us is a late-arriving manifestation of the universal process, the cosmos both looking out on its own Great Body and looking into its own Deep Soul through the intelligence that we are.

I have elsewhere associated these two lenses of human intelligence – one looking out and the other looking within – as science and spirituality, respectively. For millenniums they have mutually confirmed our intuition that All is One and that We’re All in This Together.

This, I would say, is the prime discovery of our species, and all of our most important endeavors are in one way or another searching out, pondering on, and celebrating what it means. Instinct keeps us rooted in the life-force, Tradition conserves our identity and way of life, Innovation presses us into new possibilities, and Wisdom invites us to higher wholeness – or, as the times demand, it also warns us against damaging the whole and thereby foreclosing on our future.

The long course of our evolution stretches from survival to well-being, from self-preservation to self-actualization, and our challenge has been to hold these very different value systems in balance.

In my diagram again, “nature” and “culture” are depicted as comprising a color gradient between them. Across my many blog posts and graphics, black represents the animal nature of our body, purple represents the higher self of our soul, and the orange in between them stands for our inner child, ego consciousness, and personal identity – depending on the context of consideration. It is in this ‘orange zone’ that we get hung up, held back, pushed down or pulled apart by the various neuroses of insecurity.

All of the great spiritual teachings share a suspicion against this nervous bundle of personal identity, as somehow the culprit responsible for our chronic suffering, strained relationships, intertribal violence, and life-degrading consumerism.

It is this cult of personal identity, centered around our altar to ego, that gets us so self-involved that we forget our essential nature as fellow creatures (siblings not masters) and world creators (artisans not shoppers). In the effort of managing our insecurity we cling to what (and to whom) we expect will make us feel better, but only really manage to entangle ourselves in these attachments and magnify our misery. For that we take medications, throw ourselves into distractions, or maybe sell our soul to some form of bigoted dogmatism.

What we can’t understand – and likely couldn’t accept even if we did understand – is that ego cannot be liberated. “I” am a prisoner of what defines me, as my identity is inextricably tied to those trappings of tribe, nation, ideology and ambition that make me who I am. In order to advance along the path of self-actualization to fulfillment and genuine well-being, this neurotic little tightwad must completely unwind, dying to its own seed-form (as Jesus taught) or dropping the illusion of its separate self (as the Buddha taught) for the sake of a larger and fuller experience of life.

Oftentimes, even when this shining truth is glimpsed, it has been immediately corrupted into a program for saving the ego rather than moving beyond it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should aspire to a life without identity, devoid of ego, and utterly detached inside some metaphysical bubble of bliss. That, too, is a gross misunderstanding and corruption of the shining truth, one that often leads into a labyrinth of esoteric nonsense and kitsch religion, lacking all relevance to daily life. To repeat, our challenge is neither to glorify the ego nor to pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather to rise above and move beyond its self-centered vantage on reality; to step through the curtain and rejoin the universe, already 14 billion years underway.


In my diagram are also represented the four strands of our Quadratic Intelligence – visceral (VQ: needs), emotional (EQ: feelings), rational (RQ: thoughts), and spiritual (SQ: intuitions). Even though I don’t focus on them explicitly in this post, they are included to provide some cross-reference for my returning reader. Go here for a deeper dig into Quadratic Intelligence. You can also search “quadratic intelligence” for additional posts on the topic.

 

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A Matter of Perspective

Ground_Other_Universe

Just now human beings are blustering and posturing across oceans and national borders, provoking each other to acts of violence in the name of their respective (and disrespected) gods. Whether a god goes by the name of Allah or Yahweh or Security or Prosperity or Supremacy, its devotees appear ready and willing to commit every conceivable atrocity on its behalf.

We stand opposite each other, egos and alter (other) egos, convinced we are essentially separate and irreconcilable enemies. ‘The other’ is always watching for the opportunity to push us off our square and take our stuff. And since our god ordains our right to our stuff, we are fully justified in waging violence in its defense. (If our square needs to be bigger, then god will manifest that destiny as well.)

Personal identity (ego) is inherently insecure to some extent, and the more insecure it is, the more aggressive its attachment to external stabilizers becomes. Such neurotic attachments inevitably collapse the ego’s horizon of meaning to those “absolute truths” which justify and protect them. Ego’s god, by whatever name, is both the patron deity and divine guarantor of this arrangement.

So we’re stuck. There’s no getting out alive, and some of us seem just fine with that prospect. There’s something better on the other side – either a future victory for our cause and inheritance for our children, or a posthumous reward in the next life. Winning.

As long as we only keep eyeballing our alter egos and rattling sabers, this situation will never change for the better – and I don’t mean better for ‘me’ only but better for us all. What needs to happen is that we change our perspective on what’s really going on. One aspect of it is this aggressive competition between egos for what will pacify our insecurity, protect our attachments, and preserve the meaning of life as we know it.

But if we were fully centered and at peace within ourselves, would we be conspiring to pull the rugs out from under each other? This notion of centeredness and inner peace serves to shift our perspective to a deeper mental location, one that’s not about our relationships to ‘the other’ and the world around us.

Each of us has an interior life where our existence reaches into the very ground of being and stands out (the literal meaning of exist) as its unique manifestation. At this level we are far below the staging area of personality and Captain Ego; and the deeper our contemplation goes, the less of ‘me’ there is. Within this being or that being, within me and within you is the grounding mystery – the possession of no one and creative source of all.

It’s important to understand that the grounding mystery (or ground of being) is not outside the self but profoundly interior to it. Although the religions may represent it as a cosmic creator, supreme provider, moral lawgiver, benevolent will, or governing intelligence, the grounding mystery is literally nowhere and is no thing – it does not ‘exist’! Because it is the inner essence of all things, our existence (including the ego) is its expression, and our only access to it is by the inward path of contemplative release. If we talk about it – just as, in a sense, our individual existence articulates the grounding mystery as you or me – we must be careful not to idolize our representations and mistake them for the mystery itself.

The inward descent of contemplation requires a surrender of ego (of the ‘I’ who is doing this) and involves a gradual dissolving-away of all distinctions, to the point where nothing remains but an unbounded present awareness. Here we come to the realization that this moment is eternal – not a mere interval in a possibly everlasting sequence of time, but outside of time altogether: an Eternal Now. There is neither ‘me’ nor ‘you,’ here nor there, past nor future; only … this.

From this vantage point we also become aware of the fact – we might call it the Fact of facts – that All is One, that because all things are individually grounded in the present mystery of reality, together they manifest its creative energy in the manifold (“many folds”) of a universal order (or universe). As we allow our contemplation to open out and ascend in this fashion, we enter yet another mental location of consciousness: not an inward and mystical release to the grounding mystery, but not the personal (and interpersonal) perspective of ego, either.

What we call “universe” is the unity of existence, not merely the sum total of all things but a consilience of higher wholeness, in which each thing participates and to which each thing contributes a unique expression of being-itself. I have advocated for this term consilience as an urgently needed and therefore timely notion that can foster a shared understanding and responsibility for our place in the greater web of life (or any system). This is where we see that all our aggressive competition and reckless consumerism, while perhaps hurting our enemy or keeping us comfortably in fashion, is actually compromising the health of living systems on which we depend.

But how can we think like the universe and act out of a higher wisdom if we are mired in these local conflicts over security, attachments, and meaning? As long as we persist in pushing on each other, reacting and provoking further reactions, how will we ever find the solitude where we can drop into being and behold our communion with all things? Is it possible to keep one eye open and fixed on our enemy, as we contemplate the present mystery of reality with the other? In some sense, this is precisely what our religions are trying to do. But it doesn’t work, and never will.

Each of us must take the initiative by going within to the grounding mystery and beyond to the provident universe. Only as we are able to reconnect consciousness to the reality on either side (so to speak) of this fantasy of ‘me and mine’ will we stand a chance of moving together into a brighter future for us all.

With a change of perspective, new opportunities become available. But not until then.

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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Our Creative Brain

I am fascinated with the human brain, and since I own one, I try as best I can to understand how it works. Without reducing all that I am to my brain and what goes on inside it, I nevertheless have a strong suspicion that everything I am is deeply dependent on this three-pound wonder between my ears. In reflecting further on the matrix of meaning and the myths by which we construct our worlds, I’ve come to a revelation concerning how all of this might be brain-based after all.

Web of Meaning_MatrixHere is my illustration of what I call the matrix of meaning – the crisscrossing polarities of primary concerns (orange) and narrative motifs (black) – and the web we construct on its frame as we weave the pattern known as our world. A deeper exploration of the matrix itself can be found in my post “Myth and the Matrix of Meaning” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2), while more about the peculiar construction of the web and its zones of meaning is in “Meaning and Paradox” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-sv). The opposition inherent to the four polarities gives the matrix its creative energy, which in turn compels this incessant human activity of meaning-making.

As I reflect on the matrix and particularly on the zones of meaning with the brain in the back of my mind (how’s that for a twist?), I begin to see how the three zones correspond to three main evolutionary divisions in our brain’s anatomy: (1) the primitive brain stem enfolded by (2) the limbic system and crowned with (3) a cerebral cortex. Each division evolved with specific responsibilities to the whole, and all of them work together for the survival, adaptation, and fulfillment of our potential as a species.

NeutralityThe brain stem (informally known as our “reptilian brain”) is responsible for the internal state and basic life-support of our body. Activities such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature and the countless visceral events that must be coordinated in regulating the dynamic balance called homeostasis are monitored and adjusted from the autonomic control center of the brain stem.

Notice how the first zone of meaning, neutrality, is deeply similar to the brain stem’s preoccupation with homeostasis. Could it be that this natural balance-point in the body’s internal state is at the root of our preference for familiarity, comfort, and living on “autopilot”?

We like to stay where things are manageable, where the situational demands on our attention and effort are minimal. If we could, a part of us would prefer lounging in the warm sun as long as our animal nature is content.

Meaning-making begins, then, with our basic needs for safety, warmth, and nourishment. Once the channels of provision are flowing, it’s easy for us to stay in those grooves and succumb to the sleepy rhythm of the day-to-day.

Conflict

But as we know, we can’t stay there indefinitely. Life throws us curve balls and our automatic routines are upset. In addition to a brain stem that
works compulsively to keep us alive, humans (and all other mammals) possess a limbic system, which gives us the ability to respond emotionally to our environment.

Obviously any organism that can link up an association between an external object or event and its own internal state, so that the merest stimulus suggesting that object or event in the future elicits an anticipatory response, will have a survival advantage over an organism lacking this emotional talent.

Once again we can see a correlation between the brain and meaning-making. Emotion is equipped for life in the “conflict” zone, where the polarities in the matrix generate stress and strain. The limbic brain is also the niche in our nervous system where ego begins its career, also known as our inner child. In our quest for identity (ego = “I”) – typically most desperate and dramatic during adolescence – we are trying to figure out where we belong and how we are special.

Stories of privilege, entitlement, and superiority serve to bolster the ego and make us feel that everything revolves around “me and mine.” If the body seeks homeostasis and validates our narratives of contentment and the status quo, ego frequently instigates conflict in its ambition to be first, highest, and best. There’s no need to recount the damage done to ourselves, our relationships, and our planet as ego tries to exploit conflict in its favor, whatever the cost. I want to win, don’t you?

Paradox

The most recently evolved division of our brain is the cerebral cortex – all those billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections that carry the impulses of experience into conscious thought. At this level the brain is further organized into lobes, circuits, and nuclei specialized to process specific kinds of information coming across our senses.

Beyond this sifting-and-sorting business, however, the cortex also gives us the ability to restrain our urges and reflexes, to extract general ideas from concrete examples, to think critically and strategically, to imagine what’s possible and to transcend opposites. The farthest forward of specialized structures and last to come fully online is our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, rationality, forethought, and responsible behavior.

Another interesting feature of the cerebral cortex is its lateral division into left and right hemispheres. While the differences between the two hemispheres are commonly misrepresented in popular literature, research has revealed the left side (above and behind our left eye) as more gifted in abstraction and analysis, while the right side tends to be better with information that is concrete and intuitive. In the “conversation” between the hemispheres, conducted across a structure called the corpus callosum, our higher brain is able to reconcile opposites as paradoxes rather than have to come down on one side or the other (dualism).Zones_Brain

What we’re talking about here is our higher self, also known as the soul, which is where our adult intelligence resides. Only as we are able to move out of neutrality and rise above the conflict can we refine our appreciation for the complex nature of experience. The greatest paradox of them all – the timeless mystery within us and the turning cosmos around us – is home to the soul, the zone where we construct and celebrate ultimate meaning.

 

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Meaning and Paradox

A while back in a post entitled Myth and the Matrix of Meaning I offered a way of understanding our personal and cultural myths (referring simply to a narrative plot, from the Greek mythos) as constructed upon a deep system of codes (matrix) which generate the concerns and motifs that preoccupy us as human beings. If our lives are to have meaning, the stories we tell and put into action must orient us meaningfully inside this matrix.

Meaning is not something we look for and find in reality, but rather something we as humans project onto reality. We spin meaning like a spider spins a web: it comes out of us, anchors to the matrix at specific points (which I’ll review in a moment), stretches across the present mystery of reality, and serves as a habitat. So the popular notion of our “search for meaning” is fundamentally mistaken. If we find meaning, it’s only because someone else put it there. Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a floor clipping of our own or an unpublished draft we don’t remember setting aside long ago.

The belief that meaning is out there to be discovered is part of the heritage of theism, which, particularly in its monotheistic variant, promotes the myth that (a) god purposefully created the universe and made it meaning-full. Our “search for meaning,” then, is coming behind god and finding what he put there beforehand. Conceivably there is nothing that does not “have” meaning; we just need the intelligence and wisdom to discover it, or else count on some angel or ordained expert to reveal it to us. As theism loses currency these days, more and more people are having to come to terms with the responsibility of making the meaningful life they want.

The matrix of meaning consists of four primary human concerns and four narrative motifs. Each concern and motif exists in polarity with another concern or motif. Thus the concern of Security stands in opposition to that of Suffering, while Freedom stands opposite of Fate. Other creative and interesting relationships among the primary concerns are the more lateral associations of each concern with its neighbors on either side. Similarly the motifs comprise oppositions of Love and War, Work and Play. This dynamic of polarity – opposites that are connected along a continuum – gives the matrix its creative energy.

For a deeper dig into the primary concerns and narrative motifs making up the matrix, you might be interested in the post referenced earlier. At this point, however, I want to explore the composition of meaning as it is spun around, between, and across these supercharged polarities of the matrix.

Web of Meaning_MatrixFirst Zone of Meaning: Neutrality

The design of the matrix, as illustrated in the above diagram and already mentioned, is all about polarity. If we could go to the very center of all this creative opposition we would arrive at a point where each polarity is effectively neutralized, approaching a kind of perfect and non-energetic equilibrium. One set of stories that human beings weave defines a zone in the web of meaning (colored bronze in the diagram) which I will name neutrality. This is where we feel comfortable and things are “manageable” – stress and conflict are minimal, we are holding it together, and things are copacetic.

When life is fairly predictable and we know our way around, a trance state can start to set in. Living our lives doesn’t require much deliberation, as the routine pushes us along and behavior becomes automatic. Humans perhaps have a natural preference for neutrality, where the situational requirements on our active attention and focused effort are reduced and we can accomplish our daily tasks without too much mental investment.

It is also in this first zone of meaning that the more profound insights into reality picked up by sage philosophers and mystics are “dumbed down” into the platitudes and catchphrases of pop-culture. We think that repeating a fifty-cent affirmation at the beginning of each day will fill us with spiritual vitality, or that going to church will add significance to our lives. We glorify our messiahs and turn shamans into celebrities, then give them book deals and send them into early retirement.

Second Zone of Meaning: Conflict

Moving out from the center puts us deeper into the countervailing forces of polarity, where the strain of this-against-that is acutely felt. This zone of meaning (defined by a mauve strand in the web) is definitely not comfortable and our well-practiced habits of life don’t move us very effectively through the stress. Consequently it amplifies into distress, interfering with our ability to manage well, think straight, and accomplish our goals. Quite often our disturbed state will upset the status quo in our relationships, stirring up miscommunication and discord.

One short-term value of conflict is that it can focus us in an instant, which makes it a common tactic of politicians and preachers when they want to jolt their constituents and congregations out of complacency. Conflict just feels electric and alive. Occasionally we will actually seek it out as a kind of therapy for lethargy and boredom with life-as-usual. Antagonism – directing our energy in opposition to something we hate or can’t stand – can be a quick fix when irrelevance starts seeping under the floor-boards of our world. If it goes on interminably, however, we can lose hope and start looking elsewhere for purpose.

Many of us at this point (or in this zone) take steps to relieve our distress by self-medicating (with food and intoxicants), seeking help from medical or mental health professionals, or using exercise to burn off our nervous energy. If we do nothing, then our nervous system is at risk of crashing into depression. We might try a meditation technique for a while and experience some initial benefits, but it’s not long before the strain of life – or in a more existentialist vein, the “burden of existence” – turns the discipline into one more demand on our precious and shrinking resource of time.

Third Zone of Meaning: Paradox

While popular wisdom, which turns out not always so wise, calls us back from the strain of daily life into the zone of neutrality where meaning is flat and predictable once again, our real challenge at this point is to step through the strain and into the higher tension of paradox (violet strand). But whereas the tension of the second zone is merely unproductive and exhausting strain, the tension of paradox is creative. This is where a dualism such as freedom versus fate is finally understood as a proper polarity: freedom in fate, and fate in freedom.

Creativity is itself paradoxical, as a marriage of freedom and fate, chaos and order, wild energy and fixed form, raging waters and the stable riverbed. Each of the four polarities in the matrix can be appreciated in this same way (as paradox), but only as we are able to push above the neurotic dualism of everyday life strain. It’s not freedom or fate, security or suffering, love or war, play or work but all of these currents swirling together in the vibrant stream of reality.

We come to learn that our moral campaigns and utopian ideals where fate, suffering, war, and work are eradicated and the world returns to its original paradisaical state of bliss, are nothing more than fantasies – and sometimes dangerous delusions. It’s at this stage, in fact, that we become aware of our human responsibility in constructing meaning and creating the worlds we want to live in.

The present mystery of reality is transparent and opaque, random and provident, the ground of being and the abyss of extinction. And just as in quantum physics, reality will “show up” according to what we set out to prove.

                                                                               

Imagine that each of the zones in my diagram outlines a world we have constructed and inhabit. Each step outward across the web of meaning translates the tension inherent to the matrix into a larger and more complex (and also complicated) worldview.

We can choose to live small and stay where the tension is minimal, where our daily habits allow us to sleepwalk through life.

Or we might sign our allegiance to one dogmatic orthodoxy or another, drawing excitement, purpose, and hope from a crusade we believe in.

We also have the option of stepping through the veil of conflict and taking in a bigger picture, where the world (our world) is not such a simple place – for neutrality and dualism are both simplistic constructs. As our web of meaning is capable of supporting an appreciation for polarity and paradox, we can live with ever-greater fidelity to the way things really are.

 

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