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The Wheel of Fortune

Our noses are pressed so far into the business of everyday life, that we rarely push our chair away from the desk far enough to take in the bigger picture. The demands on our time and attention leave us too exhausted at the end of the day to contemplate anything “bigger” than a glass of wine, online distractions, or the prospect of a decent night’s sleep.

We might diagnose our times as suffering from “commotion fatigue,” referring not just to the disturbances happening around us, but even more to the agitation and upheavals going on within. If you were to spin a raw chicken egg on the table, stop it momentarily with your finger and then pull away, the still-spinning insides will get it moving again without your assistance. It’s like that. The inner vortex of frustration, irritation, and anxiety has us spinning even when to all outward appearances we are sitting quietly alone. Eventually all this inner commotion wears us out and leaves us depleted.

Popular forms of therapy include sedation, either self-administered by the glass or in the form of prescription medication, mental distraction, entertainment, or saying “no” to some of the things crowding in on us. Less often do we consider the benefits of opening the window of perception to a reality larger than the set of concerns we are trying to manage.

If asked What’s going on? our answer will likely be limited to the stuff that’s on our personal plate. But, of course, there is much, much more going on than only that.

Getting a sense of our place in the grand scheme of things could provide us with the perspective we need to distinguish between what really deserves our attention and what matters less. If you don’t know where you are, anything might offer the clue you’re looking for; and without a sense of the whole, any clue is as good as another.

Most cultures have – or at least had at some point in the past – a grand-scheme picture of being and time which serves to situate human existence and the individual’s life journey. While this picture is not identical across the cultures and historical periods, for the most part its major components form a constant pattern – something like a transcultural mandala of our species. In this post I’ll adopt a name commonly used for it: The Wheel of Fortune.

Religious myths represent our first efforts at contemplating the Wheel of Fortune. Much later, scientific theories worked out the picture in a more impersonal and abstract language. Myth and theory are really just two ways of approaching the same mystery, one looking through the screen of personality, and the other with this screen methodologically removed. One sees intentionality behind and throughout reality, while the other is committed to regarding it all as a marvelous accident, devoid of purpose or final goal.

Religion positions intelligent volition at the start, center, and end; science lets mindless chance evolve over inconceivable intervals of time and space. The plain fact, which neither one can ignore, is that conditions have indeed provided for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-awareness in the universe. By intention or by accident?

Is it legitimate for human beings to ask why we are here – to search out our purpose, deciphering clues to our possible fulfillment and responsibility to the whole? Or are we limited only to asking how we got here – the random causality leading up to our arrival over countless eons of time? Religious myths offer revelations into the provident intelligence behind everything. Scientific theories offer explanations that make reality intelligible, but only to us.

It’s helpful to remember that these two storytelling enterprises, religion and science, are contemplating the same reality. Whether it uses metaphorical archetypes or metalogical algorithms in its preferred narrative, one doesn’t have to be right and the other wrong. They can both be right (or wrong), but from different angles of approach.

That is to say, the Wheel of Fortune is a shared fascination of both religion and science, and both historically have been interested in understanding the big picture and our place in the universe. Each component of the Wheel can be represented mythologically or theoretically, as we’ll see.

The cosmic order issued from the preconditions of chaos, personified in myth as a monster (e.g., the serpent Tiamat or the dragon Leviathan) whose body enveloped the primordial stuff of existence. By the sword or command of a god its body was opened up to release this energy and then subsequently dissected into the sky, earth, sea, and underworld.

According to scientific theory, this primordial state was a singularity of infinite potential that exploded outward in expanding waves of energy that quickly crystallized into the elements of matter. Hydrogen and helium fused first to become the center of nascent stars, where stellar nucleosynthesis proceeded to form the heavier elements of outlying matter and solar systems.

According to both narratives, the energy of chaos is paradoxically the ground of existence. While both myth and theory depict the decisive event as having occurred at the beginning of all things, the chaos, whether divided and portioned, or expanding and transformed, continues even now to fuel the creative process. In fact, the creation or ‘big bang’ of our universe wasn’t just an event in the distant past, but is presently ongoing.

Cosmic order continuously arises by the dismemberment of the dragon, by the out-pouring differentiation of chaos into the relatively stable forms of matter.

What we are calling the ground of existence, then, refers to the spontaneous uprising of energy into matter, of matter into organism, of organic life into sentience, and of awareness into egoic self-awareness. The ground is not outside of these, but deeply internal to each existing thing.

For a self-aware human being, the grounding mystery is accessed by descending within, through the centers of personal identity (ego) and a sentient nervous system, from which threshold consciousness releases to the organic rhythms of the animal body. Unconscious matter and (deeper still) quantum chaos support everything from still farther down/within, but awareness can only contemplate these ineffable depths from the drop-off of its own center.

The Wheel of Fortune’s upward swing follows the rise of cosmos (order) out of chaos, a coming-into-existence (genesis) of all things. To exist is to ‘stand out’ of this purely potential state, taking form and finding a place in the grand scheme. It is happening all the time; or we might also say, its happening is the very definition of time.

Religious myth and scientific theory are both narrative constructions by which human minds have contemplated the mystery of a provident universe. Whether we ask why we are here (an inquiry into purpose and destiny) or how we got here (exploring causality and evolution), we are seeking to understand our place in the whole.

But the Wheel continues to turn, and as it swings downward this cosmic complexity begins to come loose at the seams. In the myths we hear of the breakdown of order, a worldwide deluge, the fall into mortality and the collapse of virtue, an apocalyptic catastrophe – all archetypes, once again, of what we can perceive going on around us in countless small and larger ways.

Because it looks through the veil of personality, religion sees intention, purpose, and will operating behind things. If gods and heroes are the agents in the Wheel’s upturn, on its downturn the myths feature devils and anti-heroes who conspire in the universe’s unraveling.

Science names this demonic intention toward disorder entropy, which refers to the tendency or “law” that pulls complexity down toward more stable arrangements. Complex systems require more energy to hold together and they function relatively far from equilibrium.

Our brains, for instance, are made of material nerve cells capable of conducting electrical impulses, forming circuits and networks of interaction that give rise to consciousness. Consciousness itself is a highly complex process and inherently unstable; it is dynamic and not static. Entropy is experienced as mental fatigue, and as the brain loses energy its functions collapse to lower, slower, and more stable states.

From a vantage-point higher up in the organizational complexity such as a personal ego, this downward pull toward stability threatens existence and will eventually bring about its end. On the Wheel of Fortune this is where reality is perceived not as the supportive ground of existence but rather as the abyss of extinction – the dragon once again, but now in its aspect as world-devourer and ultimate solvent of forms. The pouring-forth of genesis has its counterbalance on the Wheel in kenosis (from Greek, to empty out).

In the language of science, chaos is not only the quantum field that gives rise to the physical universe. It is also a dark sea of probability and indeterminate fluctuations that is quite literally nothing, in that it has no objective existence of its own. The very act of measuring these fluctuations determines whether they show up as particles or waves, but their behavior is intrinsically unpredictable. A methodological detachment of our research intention from the supposed object of study, which is how science proceeds above the quantum level, is just not possible down here.

Not only do all the qualifications of the Newtonian universe dissolve into nothingness as we approach the quantum field, but even the sacrosanct division of mind and reality folds in upon itself.

Thus the Wheel of Fortune turns – not one time only, but again and again in unceasing revolution. And not only at the highest level, either, where the whole thing turns as the mystery of our universe, but in every quarter, niche, and speck. The great uprising of matter into life, of life into sentience, and of sentience into the self-conscious ego reading these words right now, is circling back around to begin again.

 

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The Rupture of Meaning and The Life to Come

Normal everyday operations of your computer at home or work takes into your system a slow accumulation of data in the form of user preferences, security patches and protections, new applications and saved files, internet tracking and downloads – all of which, unless periodically consolidated and cleaned up, will end up oppressing your computer’s memory capacity and slowing its processing speed. Everything gets encumbered and takes longer to respond as your poor computer is trying its best to coordinate all those bits and bytes while still following your commands.

Assuming an adequate operating system is buried somewhere under all that code, what needs to happen is a periodic adjustment where files can be discarded or compressed, programs can be updated to run more efficiently, and that accumulated weight of junk data can be scraped away like barnacles from the hull of a ship. Of course it’s always a good idea to sweep your system for malware (worms, bugs, viruses, and spyware) since that stuff can be terminal (pun noted).

As a metaphor of life, this need to regularly clean out and update your computer system translates directly to the theory of constructivism. This theory holds that human beings are meaning-makers and, further, that meaning is in our minds, not in reality. As distinct from the physical environment where we live, our “world” consists in the overlay of values, associations, and references that our minds spin like a spider’s web across and beyond the given facts of existence. The picture we get from constructivism, then, is of multiple layers (or worlds) of meaning that human beings spin around themselves as persons, partners, families, teams, organizations, tribes, societies, and cultures.

Let’s briefly explore this construction of meaning as it advances across an individual lifespan. This will prepare us to better understand the life transition that I name the “midlife reset,” when this accumulated meaning ruptures and our mental system needs attention.Life StagesThe above diagram illustrates a human lifespan, represented by a magenta-colored arrow arcing from left (past) to right (future). Consistent with a more general theory I’ve been developing, depending on where you are in the lifespan, the segment of time on your left also corresponds to deeper evolutionary layers of your “operating system,” while the segment on your right signals possibilities (and new layers) still to come online.

In the womb and following our birth, individual consciousness is completely “embodied,” which is to say that it is fully immersed in the animal urgencies essential to staying alive. It will be many months before we are capable of thinking about our experience – using words, formulating thoughts, making abstractions, and drawing conclusions. In those earliest days and months we are responding to life as it happens, intent all the while on the degree in which the provision of reality matches the urgency of our need.

The word “passion” derives from the same root as “passive” and is related to “patient,” referring to one who is in a basically receptive and reactive attitude with respect to what’s going on. Our passions (or to use the more modern term, our emotions) have evolved around the challenge of situational adaptation, giving us an ability to meet external objects and events with an attitude that befits the situation and will motivate an adaptive response from us. Desire/Hope, Despair/Sorrow, Disgust/Anger, and Distress/Fear are the four powerful emotional programs that simultaneously simplify and complicate our lives.

You’ll notice that central to my diagram and pivotal to the turning arc of time through the lifespan is what I’m calling “faith.” This shouldn’t be confused with a religion’s orthodox collection of truth statements, or doctrines. Here faith refers to something much deeper and much more important than doctrines; it is the individual’s primal mode (or mood) of being, carried in the nervous system as a resting state of basic trust and openness to reality. And since the nervous system is not digital (“on or off”) but analog (“more or less”), each of us embodies an existential mood located somewhere on the continuum between very secure (grounded, calm, trusting, composed) and very insecure (unsettled, restless, wary, anxious).

It should be obvious that an individual’s foundational mood or mode of being will be determined to a great extent by the nature of his or her early life experience. A hospitable womb and nurturing home environment will elicit more positive passions (confidence, joy, hope, optimism) and help to set a mood of resting assurance that is open and trustful. Negative events such as neglect, privation, abuse or abandonment will have the opposite effect, closing the nervous system against reality for the sake of survival. This passion-faith axis is where the individual’s general outlook on life is set, as happy, depressed, hostile, or phobic.

Farther along the arc of development brings the activation of a more cognitive (thoughtful, intellectual, rational) approach to things. Reason is about causality, relation, intention, and purpose, and with this capacity, significantly assisted by the acquisition and growing mastery of language, our mind goes to work constructing meaning. A key insight of constructivism, as already mentioned, is that meaning is a product of the mind rather than inherent to reality. What is and what happens are the givens of reality; what it means depends on a mind to ask questions and come up with answers.

We construct meaning under the supervision and guidance of our tribe, and great care is taken so that our individual worldview is congruent with the collective worldview of our primary group. The intended outcome is a deep and broad agreement between our minds, an agreement that insures a conservative advancement of the larger cultural heritage wherein our identities are mutually defined and managed.

We are expected to graduate through a series of life accomplishments, completing each assignment at the right time and in the proper order. Lollipops, gold stars, ribbons, trophies, certificates, diplomas, degrees, bonuses, promotions, licenses, property, real estate, social status, and finally dependents of our own that we will support and shape into “one of us” – all along the way we are making agreements, constructing meaning, and loading our operating system with more data. It is generally true that the first half of life is oriented outward in pursuit of accomplishments that our tribe insists are critical to our success, happiness, and good standing in the community.

And then something happens. Our system takes longer and longer to boot up. Our decisions (like key-commands) get bogged down in lag time. Even more concerning, the pursuits and accomplishments that had previously inspired our personal commitment and sacrifice feel increasingly like an exercise in futility. This is a crisis of meaning, and its principal symptoms – as reported in memoirs, case studies, and popular literature – are feelings of emptiness and disorientation: Nothing (or very little) seems to matter, and it feels like everything is reeling off course.

Welcome to the Midlife Reset.

This rupture in life’s meaning forms a fracture that typically reaches down into the foundations of security. Consequently for many this amounts to a “faith emergency” where reality no longer feels provident or trustworthy. To a once-confident theist it can seem as if god has vanished into nonexistence, leaving him or her utterly bereft and forsaken. A percentage of them will conclude (accurately) that the god they believed in never really did exist as they assumed, that he was a figment of their imagination, a mere figure of myth, a construct of the mind, a convention of orthodoxy. This realization leads some into a disenchanted atheism, others get pulled into a desperate and dogmatic fundamentalism, while a few step through the veil in search of a relevant spirituality “after god” (post-theism).

The shift or life transition pressing in at this point of the Midlife Reset was interpreted by C.G. Jung as a radical reorientation, moving through the harrowing yet necessary phase of disorientation, from an outward investment of consciousness to an inward reorientation on something more esoteric (“inner”) and reality-based. We can characterize this as a breakthrough from a life dedicated to worldly accomplishments, to a new life in quest of genuine fulfillment – for the path that will lead to a more grounded experience, a more authentic presence, greater well-being, and a deeper love for life.

Ultimately this is preparation for engaging life in a more “soulful” way, less concerned with proving ourselves and getting ahead, than simply being ourselves and sinking deeper into the grounding mystery of existence. Wisdom seeks to reconnect to the faith that may have gotten buried beneath the accumulated “junk data” of convictions, beliefs, and opinions. In taking up a practice of mindful meditation, physical discipline, or creative art we can successfully clarify attention to the degree that our practice becomes a selfless vessel of spiritual life.

If reason is involved in meaning-making, then wisdom is what we come to know about life after our assumptions, preferences, judgments, and expectations have been dropped or stripped away. It’s not that we stop thinking about or responding passionately to what’s going on around us. Putting a judgment on something (or someone) and boxing it up in meaning may be a way we can learn something about ourselves, but the neatly labeled package only separates us from what is really real and unique in each situation. Wisdom picks up essential lessons from life without having to haul along the heavy megabyte files containing countless bits of nonessential or even corrupt (exaggerated, embellished, or misremembered) information.

My diagram might suggest that a more soulful, spiritually grounded, and liberated life is only available to us in our later years. But in fact the turning-point of what I’ve called the Midlife Reset can come at just about any time. Presumably (in keeping with my theory) it coincides with an accumulated critical mass of irrelevant meaning (junk data), which would make an early incident very unlikely and much less common. It’s also possible that it never comes: the conditions are right for awakening to occur but the individual “successfully” resists, or else reverts to old certainties with a new-found devotion.

In the end, perhaps the most desirable outcome is that we are able to rest again in the provident mystery of reality.

 

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