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Human and Fully Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.

 

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Creative Choice

The creative life is not simply a life without limits, but is more about freely choosing the limits that define your desire. Without definition, the creative desire that Nietzsche called the human spirit splashes out and seeps away, falling short of realization. The other side of it for Nietzsche was the degree in which our limits can strangle the spirit and pull us down into mediocrity.

When I sit with a client, one of the things I’m interested in is his or her behavior. What are you doing? How are you conducting your life? Quite frequently we will discover that the individual isn’t really “conducting” it at all. Instead, the client feels pinned down under the weight of social duty and moral expectations. “I’ve been doing what I’m told, and now I feel like a fake. I’m not living my own life.”

Sometimes it becomes obvious that the individual’s behavior is on automatic pilot. Perhaps it’s not so much the obligations attaching to his or her social roles as it is the dead inertia of habit, trudging on without passion or engagement. This is really Nietzsche’s point, even though he’s most misunderstood here. The individual, moved for so long out of obedience, never truly awakens to his or her own freedom to choose life. It’s not that “morality” is bad, but that it can put us to sleep inside its neat little boxes.

Impulse

Desire originates as an impulse, rooted in the urgencies of our biological life. The natural aim of desire is to find satisfaction by gratifying this impulse. At this level consciousness is fully contained in our animal nature. A newborn baby exemplifies the impulsive life, in the way its behavior spontaneously seeks out the satisfaction of basic needs.

But a human being is also “hard wired” for relationships, not only by virtue of our early dependency on providers but also because these social bonds are necessary to the formation of identity. In the construction of ego, the tribe shapes an animal nature into an obedient and cooperative member of society – or at least that’s the intended outcome. The tribe accomplishes this through the imposition of various constraints; think of them as the “hold” and “push” that gradually train an animal nature into something more domesticated and well-behaved.

Constraint

Don’t do that. Do this instead. That’s what I mean by a “push” constraint. A “hold” constraint is when the instruction is more simply about not doing something, at least not here, not now. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it. Hold that impulse and keep it to yourself. “Hold” constraints often carry the tribe’s shadow, in the fear, condemnation, and consequent shame that get attached to certain animal impulses.

For a while this force of social constraint needs to prevail over the individual’s impulse for immediate gratification. Tribal order and the common good require that some impulses get trained into compliance, some get sublimated in more refined outlets, and some others are kept in the closet. Nietzsche had some trouble with that, as you might expect, but his real complaint was with what typically happens next.

Over time, the control system of social constraints gets internalized, in what Freud would later name the “superego.” Not to be confused with conscience, which refers to an inner sense of how we can best get along together in community, the superego is the pressure of the group on the individual to conform. The real danger is that this “inner parent” will supervene on the individual’s evolutionary need to take control and live his or her own life.

Habit

Habit is a marvelous adaptation in the way it submerges routine behaviors into “thoughtless” performance, in order to liberate conscious attention for higher pursuits. But habit is also the rut where we can curl up and fall asleep to the challenge and mystery of being alive. As social duty is pressed upon the individual and gradually insinuated as the superego, this rut of moral obligation can become the permanent “depression” of the spirit.

This is what Nietzsche (and many others) saw all around him, but it’s not merely a nineteenth-century problem. In his opinion it is the dilemma that represents a critical break-point in human evolution. We will either wake up and start living the life we really want, or we will die in the rut of our daily grind. For Nietzsche it was fulfillment or obedience. After doing what we’re told for long enough, it comes time to choose.

But you need to be awake to choose.

Restraint

The control system of tribal morality is necessary to the construction of personal identity (ego). Our animal nature with its powerful and insistent impulses needs to be domesticated and trained into a cooperative member of society. The way it should work is that these external constraints (“hold” and “push”) gradually assist the individual in developing internal restraint, where he or she is able to “pull” back on impulse and give opportunity for the consideration of options.

What I’m calling internal restraint is not repression, which is about “push” again, this time back and down into a shadow of shame. Restraint is that critical piece of self-control where the individual is able to do something with the impulse, rather than be done by it. Paradoxically restraint is the birthplace of freedom – the evolutionary threshold that Nietzsche announced and prophesied about.

Consideration

Self-restraint thus opens the field of awareness to at least two options: act now or wait til later. But almost always there is a variety of other options that present themselves as well. Maybe you don’t act on your impulse at all. Maybe instead of swinging back you choose to let go. Maybe you find a more compassionate or courageous way to move your life forward.

The point here is that restraint makes consideration possible. Once you have options, you need to weigh them against each other to figure out which one has the best feel and fit. If you are truly free to live the life you want, then your choice cannot be coerced – not by god, government, church or superego. A forced choice is not a choice.

Vision

Finally, this foreground of consideration begins to clarify some future goals – outcomes and consequences that are likely to follow upon one option or another. At this point the individual is stretched in his or her thinking to imagine a preferred future. As the picture becomes more vivid and compelling, some ideals grow in strength as priorities and illumine the path ahead.

Nietzsche’s ideal was of the fully awakened and self-responsible creator. There’s no room here to expand on it further – I have in fact explored the idea in previous posts; see http://wp.me/p2tkek-5q – but this is what I see in the mythological god. This principal figure of religious myth can be observed evolving over many centuries and across cultures, into a “fully awakened and self-responsible creator.” In other words, the mythological god is the literary representation of our human ideal, the Great Attractor of our higher potential as a species.

Unfortunately – and as Nietzsche saw it, tragically – whereas religion might have been the midwife of this spiritual birth, it too often goes the other way. The tribal control system refuses to let the child grow up and take the lead in his or her own life. The god of dogmatic orthodoxy regresses back into an authoritarian, jealous and vindictive anti-ideal. True believers strive almost neurotically to please, placate, flatter and impress their god. Just don’t piss him off, or it will surely be curtains for you.

Sun

Choice

More than ever – and this has always been true – our future as a species hangs in the balance. And as in all other times, now is the time to choose.

It’s time to step creatively into the life we really want.

 

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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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The Truth of Symbols

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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Learning to Dance

Nietzsche: “There are sufficient idiotic friends and corrupters of woman among the learned asses of the male sex who advise woman to defeminize herself … and to imitate all the stupidities with which ‘man’ … is sick. Almost everywhere her nerves are being shattered … and she is being rendered more and more hysterical with every day that passes and more and more incapable of her first and last profession, which is to bear strong children. There is a desire to make her in general more ‘cultivated’ and, as they say, to make the ‘weak sex’ strong through culture: as if history did not teach in the most emphatic manner possible that making human beings ‘cultivated’ and making them weaker – that is to say, enfeebling, fragmenting, contaminating, the force of the will, have always gone hand in hand.”

The rise of human culture is the story of how a primate animal nature was gradually trained into a well-behaved and proper civilian – or maybe we’re  not quite there yet. At any rate, an evolutionary perspective regards human civilization as a long series of negotiations with our instinctual intelligence – our impulsive tendencies around selfishness, sex and aggression. I’ve already noted how Nietzsche speaks against the general opinion that sees this cultivation of our animal passions – in a word, culture – as the proper end-point of human evolution. Instead he regards it as a staging area or transition space between our (animal) past and our (spiritual) future.

Of course, our animal past is still with us, as body; and our spiritual future is already present, as soul – and both are under the tyranny of that control freak called ego. This dynamic tension in human experience between body and soul, animal and spiritual, where we’ve been and where we might be going on this long arc of evolution, is the seedbed of magic, metaphor and mythology. Whereas the religious aspiration of ego – as revealed in tribal orthodoxy – is commonly to leave the body behind and live forever as a soul in paradise, the reality of our experience is this tension and its inescapable ambiguity. Our primary task as humans is not to become escape artists, but amphibians.

The thought and writings of Nietzsche spring directly out of his creative imagination, from that part of the mind the psychologist Carl Jung later called our collective unconscious. The images that emerge from this mental underground represent our earliest and most basic impressions of reality; Jung named them archetypes (or “first forms”).

All of this is important for understanding Nietzsche’s references to “man” and “woman” throughout his writings. As a creative philosopher, he was not so much commenting on individual men and women of his day – though he did some of that as well. Man and Woman for him are archetypes, first forms or basic patterns in the evolution of our species. They are present in each human individual as propensities in our development, expressing in powers and qualities that are more or less masculine and feminine.

For Nietzsche, Woman is part of a cluster of associations including Nature, Animal, Body and Time; Man is included in the cluster of Culture, Person, Ego and Space. Think of a ‘T’ where the ascending energy of the first cluster is capped and splayed out horizontally into the second cluster. We could add further polarities, like passion and reason, feeling and thinking, instinct and conscience, organismic and mechanistic. These terms are not intended to be seen as mutually exclusive opposites, but instead as complementary and creative counterparts in a higher dance of sort. Only as we identify exclusively with one or the other, do they become antagonistic and competitive.

We should remember that culture for Nietzsche is not the end-point of human evolution. The “cultivation” of our animal passions in the obedient morality of tribal life involves too much denial, repression and condemnation of our most important drives – “making them weaker” on their way to becoming more domesticated. Archetypally, Man has made too much an end-game of harnessing and controlling the powers of Woman. As the personal Ego caps off and flattens out the creative life of our animal Body, the intended channel of our higher progress as a species is blocked. Man-against-Woman is an endless conflict and waste of energy. According to Nietzsche’s vision, if we can’t get past this battlefront it will also be our tragic demise.

What’s beyond this point? If it’s not Man holding down Woman, Ego managing Body, Personal values overriding and repressing Animal drives, the rational mind over the passionate heart, then what is the frontier of the human spirit that patiently – but not indefinitely – awaits our foreground squabbling and wrangling over opposites?

Just as in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Man and Woman are reconciled only as we are able to shift focus to a point “above” the apparent conflict. This does not mean that the opposition is neutralized in an agreeable blend of powers – this, too, would represent a tragic end for Nietzsche. Rather, Man (Chinese yang) and Woman (yin) must be comprehended as necessary counterforces of a dynamic interplay (swirling together as in the yang-yin symbol). The “T” must break through and transcend the intersection of either/or.

This is the domain of Soul – not apart from and outside the perpetual struggle of Ego and Body, Man and Woman, but inside-and-beyond it. Each must contribute its (his or her) primary power to the dance, if the dance is to continue. And we will only break through and ascend to authentic life as we are able to keep dancing.

 

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Frontier of the Future

Nietzsche: “Actual philosophers are commanders and law-givers: they say ‘thus it shall be!’, it is they who determine the Wherefore and Whither of humankind, and they possess for this task the preliminary work of all the philosophical laborers, of all those who have subdued the past – they reach for the future with creative hand, and everything that is or has been becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is – will to power. Are there such philosophers today? Have there been such philosophers? Must there not be such philosophers?

I’ve already commented on Nietzsche’s self-appointed role as advocate of the body and its animal drives. He felt that morality and “the herd conscience” effectively block our path to a higher human actualization by condemning, censuring and repressing the life impulses that have served our evolution for millions of years. What should rather happen, as he saw it, is that these drives are channeled and guided to the fulfillment of human nature, not extinguished (which isn’t possible anyway) or domesticated (which only makes them docile, weak and skittish).

The model of self that I’ve been working with identifies three centers of experience connecting us to three distinct aspects or dimensions of reality. Physical reality is experienced by the body which has both an inward orientation (to an internal state) and an outward orientation (to the sensory environment). Social reality is experienced by the ego, and it too has an inward orientation (me-identity) and an outward orientation (other-object). Spiritual reality is experienced by the soul, also with an inward orientation (to the ground of being) and an outward orientation (to the unity of existence).

Again, we don’t have a body, ego, and soul; we are these. Our “real self” is not a metaphysical and immortal subject underneath or above them, but is rather their evolving relationships and dynamic interplay over the course of our lifetime.

Prior to the construction of ego, it seems reasonable to suppose that an individual’s experience of reality is a two-way flow: down through the internal state of the body and into the soul’s ground, and also out through the sensory pathways of the body and into the universal whole. As ego becomes more defined and established as the center of our personality, this spontaneous flow of experience is interrupted by commentary, judgment and belief – in short, by meaning-making.

Ego isn’t performing this work alone, however, but is supported, instructed and supervised by the tribe. The individual’s need for belonging (to fit in) and significance (to stand out) is manipulated by the tribe to ensure moral compliance – to make the individual into “one of us” who thinks and behaves according to the rules.

Stepping back a bit from this model of self, we begin to see the thresholds and potential conflicts of development. As our life energy gets generated in our cells and organs, the animal intelligence of instinct coordinates the urgencies, reflexes and drives that keep us alive. As a member of the tribe, however, you cannot be allowed to gratify every impulse, so the rules and expectations are gradually instructed into you (internalized) as the moral intelligence of conscience.

We might hope that the deeper life energy of the body would move freely along these channels of morality, connecting us to each other in healthy and creative ways, but this isn’t the norm – at least as Nietzsche saw it in his day. Instead, our impulses get blamed and repressed. Pushed back and driven underground by the “herd conscience,” this animal instinct doesn’t simply dissipate or timidly obey. It will break out eventually, and when it does, the tribe is likely to push even harder and pinch the channels even tighter. For Nietzsche, this is where the human evolutionary journey meets its tragic end: with everyone well-behaved but energetically constipated, stuck on the wheel of chronic frustration and neurosis, dying before we even had the chance to really live.

What ought to happen – and if that sounds too much like a moral “ought,” then what needs to happen – is that the individual lets go of morality and proceeds to live “beyond good and evil,” on the far side of obedient conformity to the herd. This free range of the higher life is where Nietzsche’s “philosophers” live – or will live one day. As the “passionate pursuit of wisdom,” philosophy for Nietzsche isn’t about symbolic logic and abstract thinking. Wisdom is the spiritual intelligence of the soul. It involves an understanding of one’s place in the greater whole, orienting by the big picture and the long view. Wisdom is not about how smart we are, but whether we have a large enough vision and sufficient courage to live creatively into this moment.

When the social system of tribal morality, the personal ego and the mythological god can be transcended, the future of humanity will begin. The webs of meaning that we have collectively and individually constructed must either support this creative transformation or be torn down. If it served us for a while, giving us security and a sense of purpose, we have now reached the point where the box is too small, the cage too limiting.

It is time to cut the lock and push open the door. Can we trust ourselves?

 

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