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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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The Last Delusion

If you ask most people “Who are you?,” after their proper name you’re likely to get a short list of roles they perform in the various social niches of their life. As I use the term, ‘niche’ refers to a particular environment of social interaction where individual members carry identities assigned and scripted by a coherent narrative which they all accept as the story of what’s going on.

Every time we step into a niche, we do so at the entry point of a role – unless we are a stranger or an intruder; but even then we will be regarded as a stranger or intruder, which is a kind of role as well. Roles can be thought of as personas (from Greek theater for the ‘masks’ worn by stage actors), and every persona comes with a script that we need to learn and personalize (or make our own). Depending on the niche, a particular role will be more or less flexible in allowing such personalization, but in some cases there is no flexibility whatsoever.

The coherent narrative mentioned above is an essential aspect of a niche; you might think of this ‘story of what’s going on’ as the temporal (time) counterpart to the contextual (space) aspect of a niche. All of the smaller interactions unfolding between and among the member roles are contained and validated by the bigger story, and it would not be a misuse of the term to call this bigger story a myth. Myths are narrative compositions that serve to construct our concepts and images of what really matters to us – or, which is more likely, myths make certain things matter to us.

A myth establishes what it means to live and act inside its niche: who we are, where we’re going, why it matters, and even what we want.

In our family niche, for example, the myth tells us that what we want is security, love, and belonging; these are values we associate with what a family should be (or ideally is). Our own family is a ‘true family’ to the degree it matches this archetype as established in the myth. In a different niche – say, the workplace – other values may attach to what it means to be a member, how we should live and act in that setting according to its primary myth. Maybe not security, but risk-taking; not love, but power; not belonging as much as standing out and getting noticed.

Another term important to understand is World, which is not a synonym for the global environment, planet Earth, or the universe at large, but designates the total set of niches where our identity is constructed and negotiated. As each niche has its primary story, or myth, we can call this total set of big stories our mythology – simply the collection of myths that orient us in reality and determine our perspective on what matters.

A mythology, in other words, is to our world as each myth is to its niche. The world is therefore a narrative complex of many stories that projects a logosphere or ‘sphere of meaning’ around us, inside of which we wear the masks and perform the roles that define who we are.

The normal course of socialization aims at our full identification with the roles we play. This is why the average person you ask will tell you “I am ______” by naming the different roles they play in life. But they’ll probably not use or even think of who they are in terms of role-play. In a simple and straightforward sense they are the personae that the niches of daily life require them to be.

This is what I call the First Delusion.

Historically our wisdom traditions – referring to the ancient heritage of mystical insights, life principles, and ethical ideals – have served to liberate individuals from this trap of mistaken identity. You are not the roles you play in life but the actor who is playing the roles. Your true self is distinct from the masks, scripts, stories, and stages on which you perform. When you realize this, you will no longer be subject to the vagaries of your ‘audience’ – all those others whose approval, praise, or criticism have been your driving motivation. From now on you can live your life not as a role-performance but in the spirit of freedom and creative authority.

The message might continue, however, telling you that just as your roles are temporal (in time), temporary (for a time), and relative to the roles of other players in the niches of your world, your true self is eternal (outside time), everlasting (for all time), and separate from all the drama. There may even be some nonsense about this true self making a ‘contract’ with destiny to incarnate in the fleshy vehicle of your mortal body, perhaps cycling through numerous such incarnations until the moment you see the truth, the truth sets you free, and you can reclaim your divine nature.

This I will call the Last Delusion.

That added twist on the message – the whole thing about your true self being metaphysically transcendent, immortal, and divine – plays well to an audience that is world-weary, chronically anxious, and self-obsessed. Just like us.

Its character as a delusion is focused in the way it diverts liberation from the First Delusion (“I am the roles I play”) by conceiving our ego (the actor) as an absolute center of personal identity, separate and separable from the body, an essentially indestructible unit of pure consciousness from an altogether different realm. The healthy and necessary deconstruction of identity encouraged by our wisdom traditions gets aborted in the interest of saving the ego from extinction.

But what’s wrong with that?

It’s not necessary to attach a moral judgment (wrong or bad) to this maneuver, but maybe a therapeutic one will make sense. Therapy is concerned with healing, health, wholeness, and well-being – values that are central to a developing spirituality as well. In the early stages of development individuals are guided by society into the First Delusion, where we are expected to carry on with our assigned roles. Thus engaged, we are most susceptible to the instructional download of cultural assumptions, priorities, and aims which are critical to social stability and cohesion.

Living by such programs is what Nietzsche lambasted as ‘morality’: getting in line, following the rules, and effectively subordinating our creative spirit to the value-orthodoxy of the tribe. For roughly the first half of life this is how it goes for most of us. The structure and sequence of incentives offered to us – hugs, stickers, trophies, awards, certificates, promotions, and titles – fuel our motivation to play along and do our best.

At some point, however, the luster starts to fade and we find ourselves having to muster the effort to keep at it. Only now we are getting a sense that it is all, indeed, a play. Granted, a very serious theatrical production in ‘let’s pretend’, but a pretense nonetheless. And those who really get caught up in it tend to be the most pretentious among us!

Lots of research correlates this disillusionment with the transition of mid-life, when all those prizes for conforming begin to feel less interesting or important. Or at least they don’t connect as much to the authentic self we more deeply aspire to be.

Regardless of when it comes about, our developing spirituality has brought us to the threshold of genuine self-discovery and liberation. This where the wisdom teachings drive home the message:


It’s not all about you. The life you have is transient, and each moment is profoundly precious. Get over yourself and invest in what really matters – not for the reward or recognition, but because in so doing you are fulfilling your reason for being, which is to give your life as a ransom for many. They need to know this shining truth as well, so be a light on their path in the time you have left.


And this is also where we might get lured into the Last Delusion, taking to believe that we are above it all, just passing through and on our way to live forever, somewhere else.

 

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Holding Up the Mirror

BES Big Picture

Okay, so it’s time for another check-in. We need to do this every so often, just to be sure that my various thought streams are staying congruent with the big picture. Too easily, analysis can chase down the pieces and forget that all these finer distinctions are elements and features of a greater whole. We become widget specialists and lose our appreciation (if we ever had it) of how all of it seamlessly fits and flows together.

I’ll take you on a tour through the diagram above, first moving vertically up the center axis and then left-to-right. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, the symbols and terms should be familiar, though I’ll do my best to give concise summaries where I can.

Arranged along the center axis are three mental locations where human consciousness engages reality: in the body (sensory-physical realm), the ego (socio-moral realm), and the soul (mystical-intuitive realm). Notice the correlations along each side of the three mental locations, the way consciousness turns inward on the left side and outward on the right. “Inward” and “outward” take on very different connotations, however, depending on the location being considered. Internal, subjective, and existential (left side), or external, objective, and transcendent (right side) are not synonyms but fundamentally distinct orientations of consciousness.

This isn’t really a controversial idea. Just take a moment to notice how the physical environment around you now is accessible to your physical senses, but how the assigned values and meanings that incorporate parts of the environment into your personal world are not. Stepping up one more level to the mental location of soul, you should be able to appreciate the extent in which the transcendent unity of existence is not something you can detect with your senses, and neither is it a mere construct of meaning contained within the horizons of your personal world.

Again, notice how the physical organs and urgencies in your body stand in a distinct dimension from the beliefs and prejudices carried in your ego. And then contemplate the ground of your existence as it opens within you and rises in the quiet presence of being-itself. There are no organs or beliefs inside the soul, only an expansive clearing of present awareness and inner peace. Your existential ground and the transcendent unity of existence are not somewhere inside or outside of you, but instead are the mystical-intuitive dimension of reality as accessed through the mental location of soul.

Then why are we accustomed to speaking of body and soul as “mine,” and as separable from each other? Why do I live “in a body” and “have a soul”? Come to think of it, who is this “I” that presumes ownership of a body and identification with a soul?

The answer brings us to the center of my diagram, to that mental location of consciousness known as ego. While body and soul are considered primary to what you are as a human being, your identity is something that was (and still is) constructed in the interpersonal context of society. It’s helpful to distinguish between essence (what you are in your being) and identity (who you are in the world). Whereas essence (body/soul) is what makes you human, identity (ego) is how you define yourself as a person. This notion of ego as a social construct wonderfully complicates the human adventure, since every individual ego is a product to some extent of the society that shapes it.

I’ll just give a summary account of the process as it relates to the left-to-right horizontal axis of my diagram. Your identity – and I’m referring not just to the roles you play in the world, but to yourself as a performer of roles – got started in the awareness that your tribe expected certain things of you. Earliest on, these expectations were focused around the need to take control of bodily impulses, and not merely to gratify them spontaneously whenever the urge arose. The morality of your tribe at this stage was simple and binary: Do this, and Don’t do that. Your options were clear between good and bad, right and wrong, yes and no.

The challenge of membership was not settled by the mere fact of your birth or adoption into a family. To be “one of us” and a good boy or girl, some mechanism of restraint was imposed on the urgencies of the body, and in the pause or delay opened up by that restraint, a quantum of consciousness was harnessed and steadily shaped into Captain Ego. Since you were dependent on your provident taller powers for protection, nourishment, and support, this discipline of repression – literally pressing those spontaneous impulses back into the body (or what is also called “holding it”) – eventually produced the illusion of an ego as separate from the body, as well as from the rest of reality.

As we now swing over to the left side of my diagram, we see how your developing ego was conditioned from the very beginning by a need for security, represented by a triangle. I’ve positioned the triangle on an arc stretching between the internal organism of body and the existential ground of soul, making the point that your need for security has both animal and spiritual implications. Already from the time in your mother’s womb, the body’s nervous system was fulfilling one of its primary functions, which is to match your body’s internal state to the perceived conditions of its external environment. (The obvious evolutionary purpose in this rapport-building is to initiate adjustments that will maximize your survival chances.)

Though the uterine conditions of your mother’s womb may have been optimal, the situation changed dramatically once you were delivered (or expelled, depending on the myth) into the social womb of a family. There, whatever distress your nervous system took along with it was either mitigated or magnified by the relative health and attentiveness of your family system. Security, then, is the sense that reality is supportive, provident, and sufficient to your needs. It has both an animal aspect, in the relative composure of your nervous system, as well as a spiritual aspect, to the degree that you are able to rest in the grounding mystery of existence.

And wouldn’t you know it, but nobody gets through this gauntlet without some insecurity – not even you. This brings us back to the center of my diagram, to the circle that surrounds ego, a shape representing attachment. This is how you compensated for whatever lack of security you may have felt: you reached out and latched on to whatever could help calm you down. Not surprisingly, the greater your insecurity, the more desperately you gripped down and held on. Along with this behavioral holding-on came emotional identification with the objects of your attachment, as well as increasingly unrealistic expectations (and expressed demands) that your objects never let you down.

Perhaps it was a combination of this imperial claim on reality along with a vigorous dis-identification with the body, that first inspired ego to impersonate the soul and insist on its own immortality. We should note that it likely wasn’t some keen insight into the evergreen nature of soul but a consequence of its own opposition to the mortal body, that motivated ego to regard personal identity as something that must live forever. Personal immortality is quite a late development in religion, but once it took hold as a doctrine, religion (in particular, theism) became increasingly preoccupied with ego’s escape plan.

But let’s stay in the world a bit longer as we move one more step to the right in my diagram, to a square which represents the ego’s need for meaning. Actually “world” and “meaning” are deeply synonymous, since your world is a personal system of meaning that you are busy constructing and maintaining in cooperation with your tribe. I have placed the square, with its four sides for boxing up reality, on an arc stretching between body’s external environment and soul’s transcendent unity of existence. This makes the point that your world is neither a simple arrangement of empirical facts, nor an infinite horizon containing all of reality. It is a very selective, biased, and egocentric work-in-progress.

Indeed, stronger attachment to the objects (other people, things, ideas, events) that compensate for your insecurity requires a system of meaning (personal world) where all of it makes perfect sense. A way of stating the consistency across the horizontal axis we’ve been considering is this:

A primary function of your world is to justify and protect the attachments which in turn pacify your deeper insecurity.

Ego’s subjective self and objective world are thus the inside and outside of “me.” But in truth both are constructions, two sides to a complicated role play, a lifelong project of make-believe. I’m using the word “truth” here as a reference to the way things really are, to the reality beneath and beyond the illusion of meaning, which may shine through or break apart your tidy system in moments of epiphany or apocalypse. That famous line from the film A Few Good Men (1992) – “You can’t handle the truth!” – applies to most of us, most of the time.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Why hold up the mirror this way and a take an honest look at yourself? Very simply – and this is the ultimate aim of what is called “awakening” – to help you realize what you’re up to.

As the morning sun fills your curtains, perhaps this will be the first day of the rest of your life.

 
 

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Stuck On God

Low_High TheismThe rise of theism and the reign of god correlates exactly with the emergence of our separate center of identity as human beings, with what is known as ego consciousness. In other words, the provident forces active in the universe were personified as humanlike (as personalities) at the same time as humans were coming to self-consciousness as standing out somehow from the spontaneous instincts of our animal nature.

The opportunity – and to some extent the survival necessity – of living together in larger and more sophisticated social groups required constraints around our natural impulses and inclinations. Certain drives, reactions, and behaviors had to be domesticated, tempered and refined for life in society, while others were ruled out as unacceptable for members. It was in fact this shift of concern from survival to membership that prompted the creation of an authority structure which could impose and reinforce this tribal morality, presided over by the patron deity.

Whereas animism – the form of religion preceding theism – had been more about maintaining (succoring, celebrating, and reciprocating) a relationship with the provident forces active in the universe (i.e., the power in the storm, the fruiting tree, the spirit of the bear and other totem animals, etc.), theism made these secondary to the moral function, as conditional blessings and rewards for obedience to god’s will. The exact correspondence between the “will of god” and the system of morality was interpreted to mean that the rules of society had originated with god, and not the other way around.

I’m deeply interested in this correlation between theism and humanism (which of course includes egoism), of how the conception of a supernatural ego (the patron deity) served to authorize and justify a moral system in which human beings could further evolve. The challenges and opportunities of society, in the way it pulled us out of communion with nature and into the role-plays of identity and membership, was (and still is) a necessary stage on our way to becoming fully actualized.

My diagram above illustrates the career of the patron deity, ascending with our growing need for moral orientation in society, reaching its peak in what might be called “high theism,” and then descending – or as I will argue, dissolving – into a new mode of spirituality where god is no longer regarded as separate, “up there” and over all. The terms underneath the arcing career of the patron deity (obedience, worship, and aspiration) represent the primary investments of theism in its function of upholding the “sacred canopy” of morality (Peter Berger).

I’ve also divided the arc of theism and its patron deity into “early” and “late” phases, both still focused in the activity of worship where the deity is exalted and glorified in the congregation of devotees, but sharply distinguished by a shift of accent from obedience (early theism) to aspiration (late theism). In early theism the preoccupation is on the task of shaping behavior to the values and aims of society, or more specifically to those of membership.

God’s will and command are represented as putting constraints on our natural impulses, inducing guilt or inspiring altruism as the case may be. Because the patron deity speaks against something in us that must be overcome, or alternately calls out of us behavior that is still to some degree unnatural, god is positioned in early theism as strictly outside and apart from us. We still need to be told how to behave, and this moral instruction implies a source of authority outside ourselves.

In late theism we can hear the message shifting from “Do this, or else” to “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” – to take an example from the teachings of Jesus, whose spirituality marked a key transition beyond the conventional theism of his day. Here we move from objective commands to the more subjectively oriented virtues of moral life. Along the way, god is becoming increasingly more patient, compassionate, gracious, and forgiving than he was in his early life. Correspondingly the focus in theism shifts from obedience (i.e., following rules and doing what we’re told) to aspiration, where the challenge is to become more like god.

The culmination of late theism would accomplish the complete assimilation of god into a fully awakened and self-actualized humanity. While from a naive perspective this might look just like secular atheism, the difference between them in the quality and depth of spiritual life is profound. Whereas atheism seeks to dismiss or argue god out of existence, post-theism affirms the patron deity’s role even as it releases and transcends the need for his separate existence. Secular atheism throws god out, and with him all moral authority; post-theism takes god in and intentionally promotes the spread of inclusive community, unconditional forgiveness, and reverence for life.

Theism of one form or another is necessary (but not sufficient!) to a fully developed human being. (I should remind my reader here that every family system is a form of theism, with its higher (or taller) powers supervising the emerging identities of a new generation.) Problems arise when the proper arc of theism and its patron deity is prevented from advancing; functionally (or I should say dysfunctionally) it gets stuck in its early phase. Obedience is a persistent preoccupation, which is correlated with a deep mistrust of oneself and others. God is worshiped as the rule-giver, moral supervisor, end-time judge and executioner.

As theism fixates itself on our need for correction – to be straightened out, made clean, redeemed from sin, and ultimately rescued from final destruction – it effectively holds the human spirit captive and unable to progress. (This is the dogmatic, authoritarian, and militant religion that atheists rightly reject.) Tangled in its dragnet of obligations, believers are given no liberty to think outside the box or reach beyond the circle to a larger mystery. The higher virtues of human nature are closed off from us, relegated to second position in the character of god and heavily qualified by his supreme demand for repentance, righteousness, and retribution. Ego remains in control.

But we must advance. Forces of an arrested and corrupt theism around our planet today must not dissuade the waking (and growing!) minority from growing fully into god.

We have a job to do.

 
 

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Metaphors of Life

Metaphors operate at a level where experience first breaks over the threshold into expression, the real presence of mystery into representations of meaning. At a very deep level – just short of the very deepest – human beings orient themselves according to a guiding metaphor of life itself.

What is life, and what is your place in it?

Western culture is organized around a guiding metaphor of life that we could name circling the drain. With its accent on the individual, everything tends to be oriented according to the individual’s perspective, more specifically to the perspective of that separate identity called ego. drain

This is who I am. This is my tribe. These are the things that belong to me. Such are the ambitions I have for myself. I have a limited amount of time to realize my dreams, and finite resources to exploit before my time is done.

I do my best to hold and protect my own, to get what I need and have enough of what I want, but it’s very apparent that life is leaking away from me all the while.

This drain metaphor of life spawns other secondary metaphors, which are more enmeshed in language and hence more meaning-full. The farther out and dependent our minds become on this web of meaning, the more dogmatic we get in our beliefs, the more convicted of our certainties, and the more vulnerable we become to anxiety and depression. We worry over many things, sink into fatigue and discouragement, and get just enough rest to rush out and try it again.

Western religion has compensated for this inherent bipolarity in egoism with its invention of an afterlife fantasy where the ego will live on forever once the body expires. Physically my body is trickling down the drain with each passing minute, but I (ego) will not die. Instead I will pop out on the other side, fully intact and without the drag of a mortal frame. Over there, I will be reunited with my loved ones who went down the drain before me, and I will be everlastingly happy.

The metaphor of circling the drain, therefore, is what inspired our familiar and highly defended notion of salvation as a rescue project. What we’re looking for cannot be here, for the obvious reason that everything is going down the drain. Our only hope is to find the way out – out of this world, out of our bodies. Not really out of time, exactly, since heaven is supposed to be everlasting, but at least in time without a drain to worry about.

Outside of religion, the metaphor of life as circling the drain has stimulated a view of the individual as consumer – needing, demanding, taking, devouring, using, spending, wasting and casting aside the leftover junk. We have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as chronically empty – of what exactly, no one knows for sure. But there are countless fillers on display in the marketplace that we are encouraged to try out. Keep your credit card handy.

So we oblige by filling ourselves up with all manner of “stuff” and in the process have become discontent and possessive, malnourished and overweight, popular and lonely, renting storage and buying insurance policies to keep it all safe as we inwardly waste away.

                                                                                  

There is another metaphor of life, one that predates our Western notion of the drain by thousands of years. Its roots are in the organic intelligence of the body – the very problem from which the ego seeks escape. It is central to a grounded and mystical spirituality. Instead of circling the drain, this metaphor invites you to join the stream.

riverLife is a flowing river, and you are part of the mystery. There’s no need to throw yourself into a tightening spiral of anxiety, craving, attachment, frustration, disappointment, desperation and depression.

True enough, since the larger culture has been constructed around the drain metaphor, you will be tempted to regard this idea as something else you need to take and make your own. But that’s just ego again. 

By its nature, a stream cannot be possessed. If you should try to dam it up and turn it into a reservoir, you might achieve the illusion of ownership and control, but your entire perspective will have shifted to a vertical axis centered on leakage and loss prevention – the drain again.

Joining the stream promotes a very different outlook on reality, a different way of orienting oneself in the world. As a metaphor, it counteracts the ego’s tendency towards nervous consumption and the grip-down on me and mine. Rather than closing focus down into a spiraling anxiety around the drain hole of mortality, the stream metaphor opens our focus up to the larger reality to which we belong.

Our separation from reality and antagonism to life is only a delusion of ego consciousness. I (ego) am not really separate from everything else, but my insecurities and defenses make it seem so. And yet, this mistaken sense of separateness is what alienates me from my body and hence also from life itself.

The metaphor of life as a stream is also a gentle reminder that it’s not about me. Admittedly it can be a considerable – perhaps even traumatic – change in perspective that’s required, and one that isn’t supported by the general culture we live in. To some extent this has always been the case.

Even though their teachings were later turned into programs of escape from mortality and its complications, Siddhartha and Jesus were really speaking about the opportunity afforded in each moment of life to release the neurotic compulsions of “me” and “mine” for the sake of a larger and more participative experience. The Buddhist “no-self” (anatta) and the Christian “new mind” (metanoia) are early concepts that get at this idea of joining the stream.chart

The above chart sets in contrast these two different images, identifying the points where each guiding metaphor works its way into our worldview, our fundamental attitudes toward life and the values we uphold, as well as our approach to the mysteries of death and dying.

Everything changes as you learn to give in to the greater reality, rather than stubbornly insist that reality deliver on your demands. You are wonderfully free of convictions and the need to be right. You begin to understand that nothing belongs to you, that there is only One Thing going on here and you are part of it.

In life and death, you can be fully present and trust the process. This is the essence of faith.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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