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The View from Where You Are

The power of language as a tool for constructing meaning and making sense of things is painfully evident when we lack the words to build narratives and fashion lenses for taking our perspective on reality. One of the consequences of religion’s fall from relevance is that its historically deep toolbox of symbols and terms has also been left in the ditch.

If by chance religion’s aboriginal preoccupation is more than the metaphors and poetic fictions that have, time and again, distracted its attention into rabbit holes of literalism, fundamentalism, obscurantism, sectarianism, and terrorism, then the loss of its tools amounts to a serious – perhaps even catastrophic – setback for humanity, even as we gain a certain liberation from those pathological forms.

One of the important challenges for post-theism lies in this search-and-recovery for insights of authentic spirituality from the debris field of religious history.

It’s not necessary to revive a dying religion in order to pick its pockets for the genuine experience that may have gotten it started so long ago and infused it with life for a time. Religions are historical phenomena, and like everything else in time they will inevitably change and one day pass into extinction.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is concerned with our human experience of a timeless truth, of the present mystery of reality as it opens to us, here and now. It has more to do, then, with our perspective on reality and engagement with it – not as “something else” but as the essential nature and encompassing grandeur of being, and of our own very being.

Religion involves the subsequent task of relating this primary experience of being alive and immersed in a mystery we cannot fully grasp, to the ordinary and mundane features of everyday life. Such “linking back” (Latin religare) is the basic design and purpose of religion, constantly working against its tendency of obsessing over the linkages and losing sight of the primal mystery itself.

In this post we will try to refresh this view on and engagement with reality. We won’t talk of gods or saviors or special revelations granted to a privileged few so many millenniums ago. Religion is typically focused on the past and future, spending the present “religiously” reciting prayers, telling stories, and getting ready for the coming departure.

And yet, this very present is where the true mystery might be found, buried under the surface of all that religious business, to use one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, like a priceless treasure hidden in a dirt field.

So then, there’s no better – really, no other – place to begin than right where you are. And where is that, exactly? If you say right here and now, in this spacious center of the essential mystery, you would of course be correct – in a way. It’s true that you are always here and now (where and when else might you possibly be?), if by “you” we are referring to this individual human being that you affectionately name “I, myself.”

But the one who takes this assignment and performs the roles of your identity in the world is something other than your essential nature as a human manifestation of being.

Ego (Latin for “I”) is a separate center of self-conscious identity which was gradually split off from your essential nature through the process of socialization. Its unique location is really nothing more than the roles and scripts, instructions and feedback, preferences and beliefs that were assigned to you by your tribe. The conspiracy of these factors constructed a kind of negative space, as the soapy film separates and defines a bubble from what’s around it, into which you withdrew and slowly became conscious of yourself as “one of us.”

This process of ego formation also included a massive stage production of context, backdrop, setting and a supporting cast, for which I will use William Glasser’s term “quality world.” Your quality world, then, is equally as real – or we should say “unreal” – as your ego identity, given that both are social constructions. It all seems very real to you, this objective “world” around you and the subjective “self” who is playing on stage. But none of it really is.

This, by the way, is where religion does its work of keeping all of that daily and lifelong drama connected to the timeless mystery of being, by its choreography of symbols, sanctuaries, stories, and sacraments (ritual enactments of sacred stories).

You might live your entire life inside this elaborate construct of ego identity and its quality world, never suspecting that “something more” lies beyond its boundaries. In fact, each of its primary correlates – “self” and “world” – is delimited by a threshold that opens outward or inward to this “more.” Beyond your quality world is an external realm, not “thrown over” (ob-jective) your identity as its context of meaning, but literally and altogether outside (ex-ternal) of meaning.

Before a name is put to something, before a value is assigned, and prior to the overlay of story that decides what it shall mean, external reality simply is – unconcerned with your identity, quite apart from your mind, and transcendent to your thoughts.

A second threshold separates your “thrown-under” (sub-jective) identity from the inner mystery of your existence as a human being. At the risk of becoming instantly irrelevant, I will use the term esoteric (from Greek referring to what is within) for this inner realm far below identity and the stage of your quality world. I don’t mean to suggest that it is some kind of secret stash of erudite metaphysical doctrines, which is what “esoteric” has come to mean in religion.

It is instead deeper than words and doctrines can reach, which is to say that this inner grounding mystery of your existence is ineffable – undefinable, inexpressible, unspeakable.

The mystery unfolds each moment in rhythms of life and cycles of consciousness as they ebb and flow, rise and fall, gather up and softly relax again into the ground of your being. Descending into the esoteric realm of your inner life, and now passing through it, you enter the existential dimension where you “stand out” (Greek ex-istere) from the quantum field of pure potentiality, which in the mystic traditions is called “the abyss” since it is paradoxically source and solvent of your existence, both the generative wellspring and dark fathomless depths of No-thing.

Having plumbed the esoteric and existential registers of your inner life (or soul), we can now swing back outward and upward, through the external realm of things as they are and into the universal dimension where it all “turns as/into one” (uni-verse). But whereas your descent of the grounding mystery required you to release your makeshift identity (ego) and the theater stage of your quality world, this ascent into the cosmic environment involves not subtraction but your addition as a participant in its turning unity.

And with all the countless other additions – you’re not the only one up here, you know – the web of relationships expands infinitely outward, shifting into exponential effects where 1 + 1 = 3.

Welcome to the view from where you are.

 

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Beyond Ourselves

Every human society has a moral order it expects its members to uphold and obey. Evolution pushed us as a species into group sizes large enough where animal instincts were no longer sufficient guidance for this new and emotionally complicated situation, and we needed something “from above” to govern our behavior with each other.

While instinct is unconscious and compulsive, driving us to behave in certain predetermined ways, this higher government of rules, values, duties, and aims requires our thoughtful consideration, mutual agreement, and willing cooperation.

So whereas other species can live more or less spontaneously from their animal nature, humans, by virtue of the way sentient mind (or consciousness) bends back reflexively upon itself in self-conscious awareness, need a secondary system of codes to help us negotiate the challenges, opportunities, and obligations of social life.

In this post I will make an even more radical argument, proposing that our higher nature as spiritual animals – that is, as animals with a capacity for contemplative, creative, and transpersonal experiences – depends for its full realization on our successful passage through the moral order of our tribe. And obviously a successful passage will necessarily reflect how conservative, liberal, and enlightened this morality really is.

In its conservative aspect, morality anchors our emerging identity in the heritage of our people, with its traditions for gathering, celebrating, and maintaining community. In its liberal aspect, morality increasingly sets us free to choose and take responsibility for our own lives. And in its enlightened aspect, morality opens consciousness to the transpersonal realm where we understand ourselves (and each other) as belonging to a vast communion of life.

A telling symptom of our current moral crisis is the mutual condemnation of conservatives and liberals in their fight for control. But another symptom is far more ominous, and is to some extent a consequence of all that locked-horns animosity between those fighting to keep things the same and others who want them to change.

Distracted and exhausted by the debate, we can’t get over ourselves to thoughtfully consider where our moral development might otherwise lead us, if we could only lift our meditation to the bigger and longer view. Consequently our morality is not enlightened, and instead of inspiring better versions of ourselves, it is provoking our animal aggressions, driving us to destroy the very foundations of moral society upon which our fulfillment as a species depends.

Let’s rewind things a bit in order to better understand just how vulnerable we are as self-conscious individuals to the exploits and machinations of others who want to control us.

When we are infants and young children, our taller powers have the responsibility of teaching us, training us, shaping us, and installing in our mind the beliefs that will form our sense of self and the world around us.

This emerging ego (Latin for “I”) has no substance of its own but is purely a construct of all these codes, restraints, social prompts, and subjective feelings, spun together in a conspiracy of personal identity.

Our tribe fashions this construct of identity by conditioning us to identify with particular roles, role plays, and staged settings where our interactions with others play out. Just one more step beyond all these theater stages of social life brings us to the outer horizon of our personal world.

This is not just another name for objective reality, for our personal world is just as imaginary (made up and projected outward) as the identity we have taken on. “Who I am” (ego) and “where I belong” (world) are correlates of each other, and neither can be understood without reference to the other.

An important dynamic of this correlation of ego and world is tethered to the problem of security. When we feel insecure, we tend to make our world smaller by contracting its horizon to a more manageable size. By identifying with a smaller range of “me, mine, and other people like me,” we reduce our exposure to what might harm us.

Anxious egos inhabit small worlds, and the more insecure we feel, the more exclusive and isolating our world must become.

But with every successive collapse of our world horizon, we relinquish as well whatever influence we had in those larger realms of communion. Eventually our insecurity can motivate us to shrink our world so small and to contract so far into self-isolation – all in the hopes of keeping ourselves safe, mind you – that we feel utterly powerless and alone.

This happens to be the tactic of authoritarian demagogues like president Donald Trump, who exploit our ego insecurity by painting the world around us as dangerous and threatening, exhorting us to shrink our horizon of identity to the point where we are finally powerless to resist but can only watch as our resources, our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity get taken away.

A revolutionary discovery that signals our spiritual awakening, but which frequently comes as an unsettling shock of disillusionment, is when we see this identity construction of ego-and-world for what it is. Whether it’s our corrosive anxiety that drives us to the edge of revelation, or rather as a function of a positive ego strength that has prepared us to transcend ourselves for a larger and more inclusive experience, the illusion of personal identity begins to lose its enchantment.

If we are not, really, the roles we play and the masks we wear; if our in-group loyalties and shared convictions are social constructions (perhaps cultural hallucinations) and lack any basis in reality, then what’s left? Is this the “nothing matters” of nihilism that our orthodoxies warn us against?

The answer to the question of what’s left after the spell of ego-and-world is broken is … everything! When the construct that separates consciousness into self-consciousness, and further isolates self-consciousness into smaller and more exclusive identities – when this is released and transcended, we can finally see that we are not separate and alone after all.

Rooted again in the grounding mystery of life – but let’s remember that our separation was only a delusional episode – we can now clearly see, lovingly connect, and creatively act with the whole universe in mind.

 

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The Arc of Spiritual Evolution

Times like these challenge us to examine the path that got us here, orient ourselves in the current situation, and consider our possible futures ahead. Racial tension, police brutality, the erosion of democracy, the degradation of our planet, the widening divide between rich and poor, and, just now, a coronavirus pandemic that is shaking the world economies to their foundations – all of it is conspiring in a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions.

Alarmists and dooms-day prophets want us to believe that these are the End Times, and they are urging everyone to change their ways and get on the right side.

Half of what they are saying is correct: If we don’t change our ways, things are likely to only get worse and the world as we know it will be destroyed. Our lack of understanding when it comes to the nature and dynamics of living systems has prevented us from seeing how each of those vectors mentioned above is not merely correlated with the others, but is itself a symptom of the same underlying pathology.

Where I think they have it wrong, however, is in their prognostication of these “last days” as marking the terminal end of history and our human residence on Earth. True enough, the current upheaval is perhaps unprecedented in the history of our species, in being disruptive (breaking the routines and structures of daily life), protracted (still unfolding with no definite end in sight), and chaotic (the ‘perfect storm’ outside our control) – and all at once. With all of that going on, it’s easy to conclude that its conclusion will be hopeless and final.

When you feel powerless to do anything about the situation you’re in, giving up is the easiest thing to do.

I don’t want to suggest that our times aren’t so bad, that we just need to look on the bright side of things. They are bad. Many people are suffering and dying, and our planet itself is careening through seismic and systemic shifts that are pushing entire species into extinction almost daily. If ‘bad’ means painful, harmful, difficult, and serious, then these times are bad – maybe worse than they’ve ever been.

So am I just whistling in the dark?

I’m not ready to give up just yet because of one variable in particular, one factor in play that can make the difference between a final catastrophe and a breakthrough to something new – not just in terms of a unique arrangement of catastrophic leftovers, but as a next stage in our evolution as a species. This creative element is the human spirit.

And so, in what follows I want to dig deeper and reach higher into our spiritual intelligence and imagine a possible future for us, together.

When I speak of the human spirit, I don’t mean something that is separate from our animal nature, like a metaphysical soul riding inside our mortal body. Rather, I mean to identify an evolved type of intelligence (SQ) that has emerged with our developing brain and nervous system over the millenniums of hominid evolution, along with its construction of symbol systems that are the foundation of our world cultures and their webs of meaning.

Our spiritual intelligence gives us a way of engaging with the environment, each other, and ourselves that really does set humans apart from the rest of Earth’s species. And yet, one of its astonishing virtues is in how it enables us to understand the essential interdependence of life, the unity of existence, and our communion with all things. My diagram identifies a four-dimensional vision that our spiritual intelligence makes possible.

I will suggest that a successful transit through the disruptive, protracted, and chaotic change of these times requires a full activation of the human spirit; and further, that this moment is a decisive phase in the spiritual awakening of our species.

The terms of this vision – faith, love, purpose, and hope – are familiar to us. Nevertheless, or maybe because that is so, we will have to carefully define these terms and refresh their meaning. Their overuse and abuse in religion, business, and everyday life makes it necessary, every now and then, to trace them back to their metaphorical roots.

Deeper Faith

In the West, faith is understood as a willingness to believe something that lacks evidence or seems to contradict commonsense logic. “You’ve got to have faith” has come to mean “just believe it anyway” – that something is true or will come to pass, even (or especially) if nothing presently substantiates your belief. Under this definition, faith has frequently been used as encouragement to suspend or set aside thoughtful consideration and dismiss all evidence to the contrary.

In its deeper history, however, faith has nothing directly to do with beliefs. Essentially faith is trust, a letting-go or release of our ego identity to the deeper support and generative source of being, represented in religion by the metaphor of God. From ego (the separate center of “I”) we drop into the contemplative experience of embodied mind, and from there into an open space of boundless presence.

The deeper we go, the less ego there is, and the more immediate our awareness of resting in the present mystery of Being itself.

Wider Love

When faith deepens to the point where no separate “I” remains, our communion with everything else as manifestations of the same essential reality awakens in us a compassionate regard for these others “as myself.” With the judgments and contractions of ego identity gradually relaxed and released, our own boundary opens ever wider to include more and more of what had earlier been perceived as “not me” or even “against me.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that the boundary which had formerly separated our identity from others now becomes a threshold for compassionate engagement.

Our current crisis is providing us an opportunity to reverse ego’s inclination to contract and withdraw where we seek smaller zones of safety and control, and instead to transcend those security limits in the interest of reaching out to, connecting with, and including the other.

Higher Purpose

The idea of purpose and having a purpose is used in religion as a way of personalizing “god’s plan” for one’s life. According to this conception, god is in control of everything and has predetermined (predestined according to Calvinist doctrine) all things for his glory. Our lives will make more sense, work better, and end up in the right place as we are willing to commit ourselves to god’s plan and purpose for us.

But because theistic religion is focused on the identity and destiny of individual believers – that is to say, on ego – the impulse to contract inside smaller and safer identities where our insecurity can be better managed (or so we believe) tends to hyper-individualize this notion of purpose in theism and the societies it has influenced.

As I’m using the term here, higher purpose is not another name for “god’s plan and purpose for my life.” Higher denotes larger horizons of space and time, and purpose is more about intention than objective. In other words, it’s more about living on purpose than achieving goals or accomplishing a mission. A wider love by definition includes more, and as we are enabled by a deeper faith to transcend our separate identity for a larger communion, our investment of caring attention and mindful behavior (i.e., intention) shifts into that higher and larger – transpersonal – field of concerns.

Longer Hope

Our time horizon, referring to how deep into the past and far into the future the awareness of our present situation extends, is necessarily as small as our ego insecurity will allow. When it’s “all about me,” and this “me” has contracted inside an identity that is separatist, defensive, and insatiably discontent, our time horizon is very small indeed. We don’t identify ourselves with a family, a people, a species, or with a larger community of life.

Our relevant past goes back only as far as we can remember, and only to those events and experiences that have shaped our individual (ego) sense of self. And as the retrospectus of our life is what sets the forward range of our life’s prospectus, we simply cannot see beyond our own death into the longer destinies of our family, our people, our species, and of life on Earth.

It should be clear by now that hope is not wishful thinking, a kind of closing the eyes and “hoping for the best.”

Instead, as we consider our possible futures from the elevation of a transpersonal higher purpose, taking in the full communion of our life with others and grounded faithfully in the present mystery of reality, hope is what enables us to envision a future that includes us all, one that will be an inheritance of wellbeing for future generations.


This critical moment in human history and in the history of our planet has placed us at a choice point. On one side is the option of persisting in our current way of life, continuing to push our agendas and promote our beliefs. But let’s not forget: this is precisely the path that’s brought us to this point.

On the other side is the option of breaking through and moving beyond our current mindset, into a new way of being together. When the routines and structures of daily life break down, when the stress of change seems unrelenting, and when it’s no longer possible to simply return to the world as it was, transformation is our way through.

 

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Four Burning Questions

Many are looking all around for the clues to understand our present predicament. They look on the stage of national and global politics. They look at the deteriorating conditions of Earth’s climate and habitats. They look upon the cracking infrastructures of civil society. They look out the window at their neighbors. They look everywhere except the one place all of these concerns are rooted: in themselves.

Yes, even the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is just a symptom of what’s going on inside us.

I’m not suggesting that everything can be reduced to psychology. A gradual but steady increase in Earth’s average mean temperature is not merely in our heads – not “fake news” in other words – but constitutes a real fact external to human minds and behaviors. But this and just about everything else is what it is as a consequence of our human beliefs, values, and choices as moral agents.

Even if we don’t mean to do it but are acting under the influence of habit, urgency, or conviction, we are responsible – even if we are not willing to take responsibility.

To really understand what’s going on and how we got here, we need to unlock the black box of psychology: of how our sense of self comes into shape and then determines our action in the fields of life.

In this post I will propose that there are four questions – four burning questions – that each of us must answer on our human journey. These questions are pressing and unavoidable, which is one reason I call them burning. They are also catalysts in our personal transformation over time, as fire changes matter from one form into another. Finally, these four burning questions are themselves transient, active for time but eventually exhausted as fuel for the work they make possible.

This work is the human journey – the process and adventure of becoming fully human.

Each of the four burning questions has its critical time window on the arc of our journey, and we’ll explore them according to the sequence in which they press themselves onto our evolving self-consciousness.

Whom Can I Trust?

In the beginning, after our eviction from the garden of our mother’s body, the second priority of our nervous system (the first being to keep us alive) was to determine whether and to what degree our new situation was safe and provident. Was it a place where we could rest, grow, and thrive? From the start, although this question was ineffable for us as we did not yet have a proper language to formulate it, the answer was delivered by persons responsible for our care.

It was, therefore, personified: conveyed by persons and made personal in our earliest experience.

This is likely where the ancient sense of being watched over and cared for by someone who loves us has its origin. Again, at such an early age (and in that primitive time) we didn’t have a clear picture of this provident power, and certainly no idea of its separate autonomous existence. Nevertheless, the foundational experience to our emerging sense of self was a kind of intuitive assurance or deep faith that reality could be trusted.

Otherwise, in the exact degree of its absence or inconsistency, a profound insecurity became our prevailing existential mood.

The burning question of whom we can trust is the oldest and most persistent of the four. Still today as adults, when we meet and are getting to know someone, our inner child is asking, “Can I trust you? Can I relax in your presence? Do you care about me? Are you safe?” And because our own sense of self, our own emerging identity, is itself a function of those earliest reflexes of trust or distrust, our answer to this question necessarily translated into self-trust or self-doubt.

Where Do I Belong?

In later childhood and adolescence a second burning question presents itself, establishing a protective boundary around that early nucleus of faith or anxiety. Identity is not only about what’s at the core of “me” (what I identify as), but also includes by association what’s inside this boundary (what I identify with). In this way, the work of identity formation is the critical linchpin of our world construction – referring to the tapestry of stories and beliefs that serves as a veil of meaning to orient us in reality.

Psychologically, our world can only be as large as our insecurity allows.

This helps explain the recent rocket-rise in egoism, including all forms of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, racism, sexism; every -ism that shrinks our horizon of identity in an effort to manage anxiety and establish a “safe zone.” When we feel threatened, we make ourselves smaller by separating from what we don’t know, can’t control, and won’t trust.

Mathematically such reduction will finally terminate in a membership of one, since any difference contains the shadow of what is unfamiliar, other, and potentially dangerous.

It is possible, of course, to enlarge our horizon of membership, to expand the boundary of identity so as to include our own shadow, human differences, as well as the extra-human sphere of living and nonliving things. This is one of the perennial teachings of the spiritual wisdom traditions: When we open up to include “the other” in our self-understanding, we will eventually come to see that All is One.

What Really Matters?

After and out of the questions of security and identity comes the burning question of meaning. Already implied in our consideration of where we belong is the contextual construct of our world, the collection of myths (or mythology) that sets the boundary and encloses what matters to us.

Only what is included really matters, and only what matters is meaningful.

As recent as a hundred years ago it was a widespread and unquestioned assumption that meaning is “out there,” to be searched for and discovered in the way things are (i.e., in reality). Since that time, we have been slowly and painfully breaking into the realization that meaning is what we put onto things, the significance we spin like webs across reality, a great deal of which consist of fantasies, fictions, ideas, and beliefs that exist only in our minds.

If late childhood and adolescence is when the burning question of identity (“Where do I belong?”) confronts us, sometime around middle age is when we start to realize how much of life’s meaning is only a veil of illusion suspended by social convention and make-believe.

To deeply inquire into what really matters is not about uncovering an absolute meaning beneath or behind these mental fabrications, but rather to courageously ask ourselves, “What kind of world do I want to live in? What stories are most worth telling, and which ones can serve to clarify a fulfilling purpose for my life?” 

Stories that do this have long been honored as true stories.

Why Am I Here?

The burning question of purpose is where our human journey culminates. And although it might be contemplated at any point along the arc of our lifetime, it burns hottest – and also generates the most light – in later life, after we have come to terms with the preconscious fictions that had been screening our present attention, and are finally ready to take responsibility for our life’s meaning.

Before that, any consideration of purpose tends to fasten too quickly on external goals and future objectives: things to work toward and hopefully accomplish.

But when all of that is finally seen for the veil it is, we realize that accomplishing one goal is just a setup for pursuing another, upon which achievement we again look to the future for the elusive answer to Why am I here? This question shouldn’t be confused with How did I get here? – which is a question of history. And it’s not quite the same as Where am I going? – which is the question of destiny. These questions are important, but they are not burning questions.

It is rather the question of intention. If my entire life till now has led up to this moment, and if this moment is the beginning of the rest of my life, how can I live it on purpose, with purpose, opening the lens of wonder, wisdom, gratitude and love upon the present mystery, right where I am?

 

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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a vale of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.

 

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World Creator

In this post I will propose that there are just four basic narrative plots upon which we – each of us, any of us, all of us – construct a meaningful life and the world we live in. The Greek word for this basic narrative plot is mythos, referring not to one story or another but to the structural “spine” upon which all stories are composed. Setting, characters, rising action, climax, and denouement are countless in their variety, but these basic plots are just four in number.

Further, I will propose that these four myths “awaken” in our psyche during specific periods of development, designated across cultures in the archetypes of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. In other posts I have named these The Four Ages of Life and identified the chronological thresholds as the years 10 (between Child and Youth), 25 (between Youth and Adult), and 60 (between Adult and Elder).

By the time a threshold is reached, the critical work of world creation as it anchors to the myths of previous Ages will either facilitate or complicate the work of the coming Age. In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, I will assume that things go reasonably well, and that the project of world-creation is allowed to advance more or less without a hitch.

Each of the four myths is a central organizing structure around which countless stories are composed.

The many stories arranged around a common myth will take its principal theme into a wide variety of expressions, but they will all address, in one way or another, its focal concern. Let’s look at the four Myths more closely and try to appreciate how they get weaved together into the larger story of our life and the world we create.

The Myth of Grounding and Orientation

As young children we have a deep existential need to know, not intellectually but viscerally, that where we are is safe and provident. Stories of Grounding and Orientation answer what is perhaps the most fundamental question: Where am I, and what’s going on here? This is not yet the question of identity (which comes next), but rather of security. Is this a place where we can relax, reach out, and find what we need to live, grow, and be happy?

As implied in the name, this myth is foundational to all the others. Our impression of reality during the first decade of life is recorded in our nervous system, calibrated by our brain to match and adapt to the conditions of our early environment. Our need for security, to feel safe and that we belong, overrides every other emotional need.

All subsequent experiences will be evaluated according to whether they confirm or challenge this most basic sense we have of reality as provident.

On the cultural level, the Myth of Grounding and Orientation inspired primordial stories of provident beings who brought the world into existence and created the first humans. The gods themselves are not the focus of such stories, but are rather mediating agencies that serve to project intentional design into the cosmos and our human place within it. If some stories give account of how a once-perfect order fell into disarray, there nevertheless remains the relatively stable vantage-point from which this perspective is taken and the story is told.

The Myth of Identity and Purpose

After our first decade we are thrown into the quest for who we are and why we are here. The Myth of Identity and Purpose inspires stories of heroes who move out from zones of security in search of adventure, discovery, achievement, and conquest. Just as the earlier stories about gods are not really about the gods so much as the world order they set in place, these hero stories are less about the characters themselves than the formation – and various transformations – of Identity and Purpose.

The Age of Youth is powerfully anchored to this Myth. As adolescents we are frequently confused over who we are, and we busy ourselves with trying on one identity after another. We are sure that “no one knows me,” but in truth we don’t even know ourself.

Our experimentation with different identities exposes the constructed nature of identity itself, as something that can be put on and off, made up and changed on a whim – but it’s the most urgent and serious thing we care about!

What we probably can’t appreciate so much at the time is how personal Identity and Purpose are codified into social roles, and how every role is situated in a role play. In other words, identity is essentially about who we are on the performance stage of society. If we happen to be less secure in our sense of Grounding and Orientation from childhood, the quest for Identity and Purpose can be straight-out tortuous as we try to find security in something that isn’t even real!

The Myth of Love and Sacrifice

The Age of Adulthood is about settling down and establishing ourselves in society. A sense of being supported in a provident reality and curating a competent personal identity eventually facilitate our landing in more enduring partnerships, professional responsibilities, and maybe a family to manage. The Myth of Love and Sacrifice inspires stories of commitment, fidelity, and devotion. Life is now about investing ourselves in things that are worthwhile and more lasting.

“Sacrifice” refers to the act of giving up something of value for the sake of something more highly esteemed.

Commitment to one thing implies the surrendered pursuit of other things. Along with that, a sacrifice of our individual freedom for the sake of a married relationship is a declaration of our preference for what we deem a higher value. Lest we think that adulthood is only about “giving up” on the pleasures and excitement of life, such intentional acts of sacrifice actually serve to make life ultimately meaningful.

The many stories composed on this Myth of Love and Sacrifice include those of Jesus on his cross, Mother Teresa serving in the slums of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell. These individuals willingly surrendered their own freedom, entitlements, and life itself in devotion to what they considered a transcendent value.

The Myth of Suffering and Hope

When we reach the Age of the Elder after 60 years, our experience of life is deep, wide, and rich in both many joys and countless pains. The lessons we’ve learned along the way are translated into a wisdom concerning what truly matters, the precious value of little things, and how to see through (or past) the distractions of everyday life. Stories of Suffering and Hope give full acknowledgement to the burdens of existence – to the hardships, the losses, the betrayals, and the personal failures – but without giving them the last word.

In traditional cultures, elders are the respected guides and advisers of society, honored for having lived so long and learning so much.

If we don’t always have “the” answer to a question, we have likely observed or undergone things that can shed some light on the matter. In the very least, life has taught us that absolute answers – answers that are final, beyond question and not open to doubt – are more often irrelevant, and usually deceptive.

A familiar story of Suffering and Hope is one we can find in every culture, holding a vision for what lies beyond this life. Once again, however, just as with the earlier stories of gods and heroes, stories of heaven and the afterlife are not really about these things at all. Their truth is therapeutic rather than literal, encouraging us not to fixate or be consumed by life’s pains and losses, but instead to keep them in perspective as only part of a much larger picture and longer view.


Throughout our life we are creating a world that carries and reflects our deepest concerns as human beings. The stories we tell are anchored in the timeless myths of Grounding and Orientation, Identity and Purpose, Love and Sacrifice, Suffering and Hope. The best of all worlds is one that makes room for others, as it gives us the support we need to become fully human.

 

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A Psychology of Wholeness

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

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

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

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

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

Self as Embodied Mind

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

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

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

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

Self as Personal Ego

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

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

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

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

Self as Mystical Soul

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Crossing Over

If you only knew what’s going on, what’s really going on, you’d probably live differently from the way you’re living now.

Not that your life is entirely enveloped in delusion, but it is the case nonetheless that the short story of your personal myth keeps your attention preoccupied with mostly small daily concerns.

As a self-conscious person, there are roles to play and rules to follow and responsibilties to stay on top of, as you manage your position within the ranks of society. Living inside this made-up world of roleplays and pretense, you are doing your best to hold on to security, find lasting love, to discover your purpose and make your life come true.

Everyone else around you is striving for the same aims and ends, but no one has your exact set, as yours is utterly unique and separate from the rest.

On a given day you will feel satisfied, anxious, frustrated, or depressed depending on how well or badly things are going inside your world.

With everyone else equally absorbed in and obsessed with their own pursuits, it can be a challenge some days to feel secure enough, loved enough, or successful enough to just relax into your life without the sneaking suspicion that someone or something, somewhere, is about to take it all away or expose you as a fake.

After all, when you really think about it, this personal identity of yours is just a mask. Who you are in the roleplay, the script you’re following, the story that’s playing out, and the larger stage of your personal world where all this drama is unfolding – none of it has substance, none of it is really real.

What’s behind the mask? What’s going on between the roles and off-stage?

Before you pick up your mask and step into the performance, what’s really going on? As I said, if you truly knew, you’d probably live differently from the way you’re living now.

The revelation that personal identity is a put-on is unacceptable for many, and you may be one of them. As the veil – and “revelation” is literally about pulling aside a veil of illusion – opens to the realization that your story is made up, that your world is a narrative construct spinning almost entirely in your head, and that the meaning of your life is not really “out there” in any objective sense, such disillusionment can be very disorienting.

If you’re like most, it’s preferable, if just for sanity’s sake, to laugh it off and dismiss such insights as ludicrous. Otherwise you might reject them as dangerous heresies.

Whether you laugh it off or try to discredit the assertion that what you have been working so hard to manage and defend is not even real but actually an elaborate stage production, the burden is still on you to prove me wrong. Social consensus is insufficient, of course, as you will find the majority of people around you equally spellbound in the trance of personal identity. Inside every roleplay is a set of roles; with every role comes a short menu of masks; behind every mask is an actor identifying with and “speaking through” it (from the Latin persona).

But what’s behind the actor? Nothing! It’s all make-believe.

To understand what’s really going on, you need to drop the charade. This isn’t to say that your personal identity and life pursuits are a complete sham. It’s all very urgent and meaningful – at least to you. And others whose storylines are woven into yours will agree on how significant it all is, or at least how significant it all seems at least to them.

Just for a few minutes, let’s take a look off-stage and outside the theater.

Your self-conscious center of personal identity (the actor, or what is named ego, meaning “I”) is a very recent arrival to the scene. It’s origins aren’t even as far back as you’ve been alive. Not long after you were born, your tribe got to work shaping you into a proper person, a well-behaved member of the group. Technically speaking, “you” (i.e., the self-conscious ego-actor) were not the substance they were working on, but the product of their work.

The substance they were shaping was a sentient mind, or what is generally named “consciousness.”

Consciousness has a past much deeper than your personal story, of course, going back not just decades but many millenniums into the history of life on Earth. This same fundamental structure and neurological design of sentience – of the capacity of consciousness to sense and respond, to feel and to think, to desire, enjoy, and to suffer – is present right now, humming beneath and supporting the stage-play of your personal world.

Even older and much more primitive evolutionarily speaking than your sentient mind is a living body that pulses along the vital rhythms of respiration, metabolism, and energy exchange with your physical environment; not just thousands but millions of years, reaching back to the earliest life-forms on our planet. This ancient cradle of vital rhythms is also right here, undulating far below the surface where your ego frets and futzes, “standing on a whale” (as the Polynesian saying goes) “fishing for minnows.”

And beneath that? What lies below and serves as foundation to even these largely unconscious cycles and urgencies of life? The material ground of existence itself: physical matter and its quantum bubbles crystallizing and dissolving spontaneously out of the abyss of dark energy. Yes, that is going on not only all around you, but beneath you and as the physical, living, sentient being you are.

By comparison, all of that business transpiring on stage is nothing (really) but images reflected in a hall of mirrors.

Once you see this, when you realize finally that the separate center of self-conscious personal identity you have believed yourself to be is only a construct of language, a social convention, an admittedly serious game of make-believe, the veil will then completely fall away – or perhaps it will go up in the flames of apocalyptic disenchantment.

But rather than cast if all off and exit the stage in shame, resentment, or self-disgust, you have an opportunity now to step fully (and, as paradoxical as it sounds, self-consciously) into a still-higher realization.

All of that primeval and ancient history in the evolution of matter from energy, of life from matter, of mind from life, and out of your mind this unique person you are pretending to be – all of that has arrived here, now, with the universe contemplating itself.

This theater and stage, your personal story and character, your script and the mark where you presently stand have become the springboard to an awareness – the “Shining Truth” – that All is One.

This truth is older than humanity but it awaits the fresh discovery of each new generation. Until all of that make-shift scaffolding was in place for you to take your own separate center of self-conscious personal identity, and until you were ready to break through the delusion of who you are, the transpersonal spirit of your human nature awaited its moment, like a butterfly asleep inside its chrysalis.

Now it’s time to take wing, and maybe live differently than before.

 

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The Story That Got You Here

Here’s what I already know about you, even if we’ve never met. You were conceived and developed in your mother’s womb, during which time you were physically attached to her by an umbilical cord that delivered the oxygen and nutrients you needed. That was your paradisal “garden of Eden,” where everything you required was instantly provided and you wanted for nothing.

Eventually you were expelled from Eden, detached from its provident environment and deposited in a very different space with cold air, bright lights, and loud noises all around you. It wasn’t long before someone took you in their warm embrace (likely your mother) and gave you breast milk or formula to drink. This is the true origin of “comfort food.”

Thus began a new era of attachment, this time emotional rather than physical. Your mother or principal caregiver would be your secure base for years to come, serving archetypally to shape and condition your primal impressions associated with intimacy. Your own emotions were entrained with hers, and you wouldn’t even regard her as “someone else” for quite some time.

Gradually you did detach sufficiently from mother to establish your own center of agency and self-control. Those early feelings and reflexes around intimacy, however, have continued to support and complicate your adventures in relationship ever since. If one or both of you had trouble letting go, or if you tried to manipulate each other emotionally in a codependent relationship, those same habits have likely caused trouble for you over the years.

We all tend to default to our Inner Child when we feel stressed, tired, threatened, or in pain – and relationships can be very stressful.

During this same time, your tribe – including other taller powers, possible siblings, and a growing society of peers – was busy downloading and installing in you all the ideas, values and judgments that comprised their collective worldview and way of life. This ideology functioned to frame your perspective and filter your experience of reality. So, just as you were gaining some detachment emotionally from mother and others, you were also attaching intellectually to this shared ideology and finding your place in the world.

Even though ideology sounds very heady and abstract, it is actually rooted in just a few very deep stories or “foundational myths” that you and others around you constantly recite. You do this in formal and informal gatherings, but even when you are by yourself these stories circulate as the “self-talk” in your mind.

They filter out anything in reality that’s not compatible with your running script, or else they spin meaning around it in order to make it so.

At base, this recycled anthology of stories – let’s call it your mythology – both reflects and helps you negotiate your relationships with others. And just as the branches of a tree reach up and conspire to create an overarching canopy, all of these stories intertwine overhead, so to speak, in the construction of your world, the habitat of meaning where your personal identity and tribal memberships are held.

So far, so good? You lived for nine months or so inside the primordial paradise of your mother’s womb, physically attached to her by an umbilical cord. Then you were born and proceeded to attach yourself emotionally to her and others around you. By the narrative technology of stories recited to you, with you, and eventually by you, an intellectual attachment – which I will now call belief – was formed to the ideas, values, and judgments of your tribe.

The energy that binds your intellectual attachment to some idea or other is a carry-up from the emotional dynamics of your Inner Child, a personality complex with roots in those deep unconscious reflexes around intimacy and belonging. There is the idea or formal statement of the idea, and then there is your emotional commitment to its truth. Your commitment is what makes it a belief.

For a reason you probably can’t explain, you simply need it to be true.

Some beliefs are so strongly anchored to the foundational myths of your tribe (and thus also to who you are as a member of your tribe), that defending them is not really a matter of how realistic, reasonable, or relevant they happen to be, but how “confessional” they are of your shared identity as insiders.

To question them would tamper with the very meaning of your existence; and challenging their validity is tantamount to committing apostasy.

Besides, your canopy of meaning works well enough, right? It maintains your membership, confirms who you are in the world, and allows you to carry on with your daily affairs. But does it facilitate your contact with reality, with what is really real?

Those especially strong beliefs, so strong that they prohibit you from questioning or even recognizing them as constructs of meaning and not the way things really are, go by the name “convictions.” They hold your mind captive, just like a convict in a prison cell. And because such beliefs tie you back to your Inner Child – not your trusting innocence in this moment but to an “old” pattern of insecurity and feelings of helplessness – convictions are by definition intellectually primitive and pragmatically obsolete.

There is a part of you – we’ll call it your Higher Self – that is aware of the fact that your beliefs and the stories behind them are constructions of meaning and not the way things really are. Reality itself is beyond words and explanations, a present mystery that eludes every attempt of your mind to pin it down and box it up. Naturally, your Inner Child wants to keep this realization from entering conscious awareness, as it threatens to unravel the world you have weaved together so meticulously over the years.

If it should be true that your identity and life’s meaning are only “made up,” then what would be left? Your existence would be perfectly meaningless.

Another way of saying this is that reality is indescribably perfect, just as it is: without words, transcendent of your thoughts and stories about it. It’s not just that words can never fully capture its mystery, but that its mystery is ineffable – unspeakable, prior to language, and always Now.

To throw your words and stories around it is like dipping a bucket in a river. What you have is a mere bucket of water: while perhaps useful for something, it is not the river itself. Furthermore, your bucket-shaped extraction is already nothing more than a tiny sample record of the river as it was then, not as it is right now.

This realization is both a spiritual breakthrough of present awareness and a kind of apocalypse for the world you’ve constructed around yourself. Whether it’s more breakthrough or breakdown will depend largely on the strength of your convictions, how persistent they are in making you intolerant of reality.

But not to worry: when the curtain opens or goes up in flames, you will finally see things just as they are.

Once you’re on the other side of meaning, life just makes a lot more sense.

 

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The Force of Character

For the longest time the debate was between Nature and Nurture as to which shaping force was greater in determining human personality, behavior, and destiny. Genetic determinism or social engineering (aka behaviorism) each argued for the larger role, with pretty much everybody agreeing that both were somehow in the mix.

Had anyone bothered to ask the therapists, counselors, or your reputable “good listening friend,” they would have learned that more than nature and nurture is in play on this question. There’s also the force of momentum as it builds through our repeated beliefs and behaviors over time. The first enactment requires focused deliberation, but with each repetition it becomes a little easier, a little more automatic, using less and less conscious effort as this momentum starts to take over.

What we’re describing can be called the force of Character, borrowing directly from the way the identity of a narrative character becomes more “solid” and predictable as the story progresses. It belongs with Nature and Nurture in our best understanding of what shapes and determines human experience.

In addition to our genetic predispositions and social conditioning, then, our cumulative habits of thought, judgment, behavior and belief – that is to say, our character – make us who we are.

The references to story are especially fitting in this discussion, since our personal identity is also a narrative construct. Who we are – as distinct from what we are as human beings – is something put together, literally composed out of numerous storylines that tie us to roles, anchor us in role plays, and shape our identity to the groups where we belong.

Inside those external storylines are others that define us internally, to ourselves. These conspire to form our self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, referring to how secure, capable, creative, and resilient we see ourselves as being. Our internal storylines are ever-present as our continuous self-talk, in the steady stream of thoughts and opinions we repeat to ourselves.

As my diagram illustrates, with repeated performances of these external and internal scripts our character becomes more solid and predictable. Our identity eventually gets so determined by our past that it can seem impossible to break the habit of who we are.

It helps me to think of this using the principle of complementarity from elementary physics. Also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it states that quantum reality will “behave” as a particle or a wave depending on how the researcher sets up the experiment. At that level, energy can either be defined by its discrete position (as a particle) or measured for its dynamic flow (as a wave) – but never both at once.

These both turn out to be true representations of quantum reality, but we must choose which way we see it.

Another analogy is the Rabbit-Duck Illusion. Looking at the image, you can see the head of a rabbit or the head of a duck, but not both at once. The image “behaves” according to what you are expecting to see.

All of this relates back to our discussion on character in the following way. Character itself – our personal identity as composed of multiple intersecting external and internal storylines – corresponds to Heisenberg’s particle: discrete, holding its position, and apparently solid.

But if we choose, we can also understand personal identity as a “wave” of countless interweaving narratives. And the dominant storyline, which I will call our “active story,” is the one we are telling ourselves and others right now. It’s also likely the one we’ve been telling ourselves for quite some time, qualifying it as our personal myth.

Back to my diagram. A correlation exists between our character (particle, rabbit) and active story (wave, duck) such that early on, when character is still getting set, our active story has a broad scope. A broader scope to our story means a wider spread of possibilities before us. When we are young and the momentum of character is still relatively undefined, the future ahead of us seems broad with many options and we frequently engage in imagining what we will one day grow up to be.

As our repeated thoughts, judgments, behaviors and beliefs take on a more solid and predictable shape (i.e., character), however, the scope of our active story begins to narrow down. Our choices effectively eliminate or close down some possibilities as we commit ourselves to our personal quality world. A benefit of this narrowing effect on the scope of our active story is that its range also starts to lengthen.

As we enter adulthood, our active story provides a longer view on the future, even as our options are reduced in number. We get a stronger sense of direction and purpose, which is another way of saying that our character becomes more set: we know who we are, where we’re going, and why it matters.

Morality at this point is less about following rules and obeying authority than behaving and believing in a way that’s consistent with who we are – being true to ourselves, as we say. Now, if our identity is one of positive belonging, social responsibility, and ethical commitment to the greater good, then being true to ourselves is a good thing indeed.

It can happen, though, that our character gets formed by negative storylines, such as abuse, insecurity, shame, resentment, and self-doubt. Once it gets set, being true to ourselves can be pathologically self-centered and socially destructive. To us it feels like righteousness and living by the strength of our convictions, when our active story is actually bringing down the Apocalypse.

My returning reader is familiar with my characterization of conviction as belief that holds the mind hostage (like a convict). Now we can see how character-formation and conviction go together. Our active story narrows down to just one line of truth (“the only way”), and our conviction prevents us from even seeing alternatives, much less considering them.

This is how we bring down the Apocalypse. The most destructive human actions in history have been driven by conviction, committed for the sake of and in devotion to some absolute truth.

The rest of my diagram shows how the construction of identity (ego) requires our separation from all that is “not me.” From this vantage-point, we can look outward at the objective world, literally “thrown over” and around us, as well as inward to our subjective ground, “thrown under” or beneath us. It’s important to understand that these two realms and our access to them are conditioned upon a stable, balanced, and unified sense of self (called ego strength).

If our character has been set by negative storylines and our convictions are righteously inflexible, we are unable to engage the objective world responsibly or cultivate our subjective ground for inner peace and wellbeing. In this case, the force of character trumps (pun intended) nature and nurture, committing us to a path of suffering and self-destruction.

Hell, we might as well bring everybody else down with us.

 

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