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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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Spirituality Basics 3: The Liberated Life

As the third in my trilogy of posts on Spirituality Basics, this one will move our focus to the question of what the liberated life looks like. We grappled with the predicament of our human condition as off-center and caught in the delusion of separateness; and then spent some time on salvation as the breakthrough to unity consciousness where this veil of separation falls away and we truly understand that All is One.

We are left, then, with the challenge of trying to explain what this all is for: What kind of life is the liberated life?

Simply asking the question reveals a working assumption in my understanding of spirituality: that its ultimate value is manifested in our way of life. While the ecstasy of mystic union and the activation of higher consciousness, along with whatever special powers and abilities these might confer, are frequently highlighted as indicators of spiritual awakening, I think this leaves a still more important benefit out of the picture.

Not individual exceptionalism, but genuine community among free and creative individuals is where our evolution is leading, and community is a way of life.

The liberated life is necessarily a life with others. A solitary or hermitic existence, therefore, would deprive spirituality of its most important challenge – which is not preserving the soul for beatitude in the next life, cultivating esoteric revelations, or even joining an elite spiritual order of like-minded adepts, but rather putting wisdom into practice at home, in the office, and on the streets.

We should also extend this notion of community to include other species and the biosphere of Earth itself, since living with the big picture and long view in mind is a strong characteristic of wisdom.

For this post I will use the metric of clarity to help answer the question of what the liberated life entails, and clarity in two distinct senses. My diagram illustrates three differently colored horizontal rows transected by a vertical column, with key terms attached to each. Perspective, passion, and purpose (the rows) represent something of a complete set, and each one exemplifies some measure of clarity, as I’ll explain below.

The contribution of presence is to pull these three into alignment (as suggested by the vertical column) and thus provide an overall clarity to the set which I will call ‘superclarity’.

It should make sense as we step into it, so off we go.

The liberated life holds a perspective on reality that is informed by experience, based on evidence, and as large as the universe. Whereas the insecure ego prior to liberation is compelled to manage a very small frame around what matters – the personal horizon of “me, mine, and ours” (i.e., others like me) – a truly transpersonal perspective on reality excludes nothing from the All-that-is-One.

Clarity of perspective (or vision), therefore, can be defined simply as the degree in which our mental picture of things is an accurate representation of the way things really are.

Now, right away the point needs to be made that no representation, with even the greatest degree of clarity, is identical to the way things really are. There is an infinite qualitative difference between the present mystery of reality and the mental images, poetic metaphors, or more technical concepts we use to re-present it to ourselves. When we forget, it is like presuming to carry off the river in a bucket. Both popular religion and religious fundamentalism are notorious for this.

Whenever we take our perspective on reality from the standpoint of ego, our horizon of interest is just that small. The more neurotically insecure ego is, the smaller this horizon becomes.

A second scale of clarity is our passion for life. Passion here refers to a receptive openness to life as well as devotion to what truly matters. Clarity of passion is about having a heart-connection to people, places, and experiences that inspire in us feelings of peace, love, gratitude, and joy. Needless to say, neurotic insecurity prevents such connection because opening to life makes us vulnerable to pain, loss, and grief.

But closing ourselves to these also removes us from the happiness and wellbeing we desire. Our passion celebrates both the transient and eternal (timeless) value of being alive.

When I speak of purpose in this context, I am not referring to some objective plan or mission that we are expected to fulfill. An external assignment of this sort can be distinguished from what I mean if we name it the purpose of action, or the goal that our action is moving toward. A goal is objective and stands ahead of us in time, somewhere in the near or more distant future, and is something still to be accomplished.

The clarity of purpose which I have in mind here, however, is not anchored to something objective, nor can it be objectively measured. Purpose in action refers to the intention by which we live our life – a commitment to living ‘on purpose’, as we say. This doesn’t mean that the liberated life merely drifts along haphazardly from one moment to the next. There are still things to get done and goals to achieve!

The difference is that our action is not just a means for reaching a desired (or obligated) end, but is rather the very actualization of intention in each present moment – a sacred end in itself.

So we have three scales (perspective/vision, passion/devotion, and purpose/intention) with some measure of clarity in each. Even prior to our liberation we might demonstrate a fairly high degree of clarity in one or more of these. As a rule we can expect that highly insecure individuals (neurotically attached and lacking ego strength) will be low in clarity, and likely across all three scales.

The more anxious, frustrated, or depressed we become, our clarity plummets accordingly.

The liberated life, on the other hand, is one that has been set free from neurotic self-concern. We not only enjoy greater clarity in perspective, passion, and purpose, but we have gained freedom from the delusion of having a separate identity.

Because personal identity (ego) is what ties consciousness to the past and future – neither of which is real – this breakthrough to transpersonal awareness is the salvation in becoming fully present.

I’m suggesting that we are not more or less present, but fully present or not at all. We are either inside the delusion of separation or consciously present in communion – not somewhat or for the most part. What I call ‘superclarity’ is the conscious state where perspective, passion, and purpose are perfectly aligned in present-moment awareness.

This means, of course, that we can be in and out of superclarity numerous times a day, to the extent that we allow our attention to fall hostage to anything unreal: the past, the future, ambitions and enemies. All of these are merely extensions of ego, and ego is nothing more than a construct of our imagination, our pretending to be somebody.

At such moments we catch ourselves and come back to reality. The liberated life is a path and not a destination, leading always back and deeper into the here-and-now.

 

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Ultimate Concern

Tillich: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith.”

If Paul Tillich has recognition in popular culture it is probably for his term “ultimate concern,” which can refer both to the object of one’s highest commitment as well as to the subjective degree of devotion one has for it. The reformer Martin Luther made a similar claim back in the 16th century, when he defined “my god” as anything to which I am passionately and unconditionally devoted. Devotion, in the way it fuses feeling and behavior, elevates its object to a supreme position of value and inspires sacrifice on its behalf.

As a “formal definition of faith,” Tillich says that the object of ultimate concern is really secondary to the meaning it has for the believer. That sounds right: We have witnessed many wacky cults and fanatical sects that inspired their members to forsake the world and surrender their fortunes, strap bombs to their bodies and murder innocent civilians, or willingly take poison to end their lives for a better gig on some other planet or higher plane of existence. These true believers, however deluded, were filled with “ultimate concern” for the one thing that mattered most to them.

But what about truth? If something is entirely lacking the evidence to support it; if it contradicts logic and violates rationality; if it inspires a believer to commit violent acts against self and others – then when does it begin to matter whether or not the content of faith is true in a more objective and publicly verifiable sense? According to Tillich, faith is not a guarantee that the object of one’s ultimate concern is valid, worthy, or even real. The protection of religious liberty and the separation of church and state in American democracy allows an individual to put his or her faith in any and every kind of nonsense, so long as it doesn’t endanger others or encroach on their freedom not to believe, or to believe differently.

Once upon a time, when we were all metaphysical realists and simply assumed that religion’s ultimate concern was an actual entity separate and apart from us, we could entertain this question of truth in a spirit of quiet confidence – knowing that, in the end, the “real god” would be revealed. Those poor suckers who chase after comets, take dictation from ancient spirit-beings, or steer jetliners into skyscrapers will wake up before the judgment seat of the One True God – ours, of course! However meaningful their lives had been for all the passion, certainty and invested focus, they had put their faith in lies.

They probably hadn’t read their Bible, which tells us everything we need to know about the real God – the one who made the universe, sent his son to save us, and will one day catch us up into heaven or throw us down into hell. Too bad for them.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the actual existence of a nonphysical god – is itself a necessary corollary of mythological literalism, which takes the stories (or myths) of religion at face value. Whereas early cultures seem to have appreciated how the ritual recital and reenactment of a myth could transport participants out of the “broken time” of ordinary life and into the “deep time” of archetypal life, modernity encouraged a more detached reading of the stories, which then forced a critical distinction between fact (what is actual) and fiction (what is only imaginary).

What are we to do with these stories? Unless we are ready to admit their metaphorical status, the only choice we have is to either take them literally or dismiss them as “art” (or lies). Obviously, our stories must be based in fact while the myths of other religions are – well, myths. The Bible is literally true and its god actually exists. You either believe it – and believe all of it – or you don’t. The interesting thing is that we don’t really believe it; certainly not all of it. We just lack the courage it would take to give up and get past our need to believe it.

For many today faith is caught in a loop of irrelevancy. God exists because the Bible says so; the Bible is true because it’s the word of God. Giving up a literal Bible (mythological literalism) would be giving up on the real God (metaphysical realism), and there’s too much at stake to even consider it. So we settle for a god of our own making, an extraction from the countless masks of God in the Bible, selected and modified to fit our needs. Whether you need security or fulfillment, control or freedom, forgiveness or vengeance, power or love – there’s a god in the Bible waiting for work.

Whether we get it more or less right, we try to make up the difference in faith, passionately believing where we just can’t be sure. If we put enough energy into our devotion and make a big enough sacrifice on its behalf, our “ultimate concern” will be rewarded.

Suddenly faith becomes dangerous. But what is life without it?

 

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