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A New Hierarchy of Needs

Back when Abraham Maslow formulated his hierarchy of human needs, the science of psychology hadn’t yet clarified what I have come to name our subjective or “feeling-needs.” At that time the concept of need was still equated with a dependency on something external to the individual which is required for healthy development.

As we move up his hierarchy we advance across physiological, safety, relational and self-esteem needs, until we come to the threshold of self-actualization and realizing our highest potential.

My ‘new hierarchy of needs’ includes much of Maslow’s model but rearranges elements according to a stage theory of human development that I’ve been working to clarify in this blog. It also adds what I’m calling our spiritual needs, which isn’t suggesting that we have a need for heaven, immortality, or even god as most religions claim. Our spiritual needs are very real, but not at all metaphysical or supernatural in orientation.

I agree with Maslow that the entire scheme culminates in self-actualization, or what I name ‘fulfillment’ in the sense of realizing our full capacity as human beings.

To appreciate how my rearrangement and new category of needs matters to our self-understanding, as well as to an ethics of engagement with other human beings, let’s take a tour through my diagram. We’ll begin at the base of the hierarchy and work our way upward, taking a little more time on those elements that Maslow didn’t include but which determine to a great extent how high into what he called “the farther reaches of human nature” any of us are capable of going.

Our survival needs are what we require in our animal nature to stay alive: clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and protective refuge where we can rest in safety. Of course, we are more than a mere body and its organic urgencies, and there are some higher needs such as social connection, and I would even argue spiritual peace, deprived of which a human animal will suffer and prematurely die.

While Maslow’s model proceeds from our physical (physiological and safety) needs into needs of love and belonging, I have inserted between these the category of our subjective needs. I actually prefer to call them our “feeling-needs,” referring specifically to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To understand their place in the hierarchy of needs, just think about how your survival need for refuge, for example, translates subjectively into the felt sense of being safe (or not). Or consider how your social need for connection translates subjectively into the felt sense of being loved (or not). In each case, that felt sense is a crucial reference in your self-appraisal and of what’s going on.

Subjective needs are not survival needs, but they register the degree in which your material environment provides for your animal life. And neither are subjective needs the same as your social needs, but they register the internal impression of how supportive your social web is to your developing personality.

The subjective needs – your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – is where your experiences of reality as provident or otherwise are translated into deep impressions regarding your existential security.

In other words, it’s not enough that you are in fact safe, loved, capable, and/or worthy; if you don’t feel safe (etc.), then that unsatisfied need to feel safe will dominate your attention and drive your behavior. Anxiety is our name for the feeling of threat or danger, and if you are taken over by anxiety it doesn’t matter if your actual circumstances happen to be perfectly safe.

You are constantly checking in on this register of subjective needs and how secure you feel.

Calling the feeling-needs subjective rather than internal emphasizes the point that they are “thrown under” the center of personal identity known as ego. A construct of identity is the highest of your social needs, and regarding it as a construct – something that is not a fact of natural formation but instead a cultural fiction composed out of numerous “I am ______” storylines – is a breakthrough discovery of social psychology in the last 100 years.

Think of the social needs as correlated around your emerging identity as a member of your tribe. Outwardly you perform this identity across countless role plays, while inwardly – or better yet, subjectively – you carry a felt sense of how safe, loved, capable, and worthy you are. When your feeling-needs have been adequately met, the construct of personal identity is said to possess “ego strength.”

The virtues of ego strength are that personality is stably grounded in your animal nature (i.e., the body), is emotionally balanced, and is unified under the executive management of self-control.

My returning reader will anticipate what I say next, which is that ego strength in this ideal sense is vanishingly rare. Because we were born to imperfect parents, raised in uniquely dysfunctional families, and had to find our way in a chronically mess-up world, each of us carries some insecurity associated with our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To whatever degree we fall short of the ideal, just about everything in life will be caught up in our schemes to find what we feel we don’t have enough of. We have a compulsion to fill the emptiness within ourselves. And what do you know, there are all kinds of ideologies, agencies, products, and services out there that promise just what we crave.

So we bite, buy, and believe – but nothing can make our insecurity go away.

As you contemplate the Hierarchy of Needs, it should be easy to imagine how the frustration of subjective needs and the various compensations, substitutes, and distractions you employ to feel better (i.e., happier and more secure) end up interfering with your social needs as well.

Instead of healthy connection, you’re caught in attachment and codependency. Instead of belonging, you struggle desperately for acceptance and approval. Instead of enjoying the benefits of membership, you have to fight for what you feel is yours. And all of that together conspires to make you more confused than ever about who you are.

The resulting identity confusion, with its source in your subjective insecurity, presses you urgently into the chase, the quest, and the hope for salvation – for something, someone, somewhere else. 

Deepest down there is no peace, just this inner void and restless craving. Tangled up in the storylines of your confused identity, stuck in the past and striving for a way out, you can’t be fully present to the here and now. Instead of lifted into an awareness of your communion with all things, you feel isolated and lonely.

But the great evolutionary tragedy is that the priceless treasure of your true nature is locked behind a heavy door of fear and neurotic self-interest. Your spiritual wealth is left undiscovered and your unique contribution to the commonwealth of beings cannot be released.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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