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Taking Back Our Light

We all have to negotiate a reality that isn’t always interested in our personal happiness or human fulfillment. Distracted, absent, or abusive parents, a dysfunctional family system, and a larger society that operates under the spell of what Charles Tart called a “consensus trance,” conspire to make our journey of self-actualization complicated, to say the least.

Many of us don’t make it through. Instead, we end up stuck inside a dense and sticky web of neurotic insecurities, emotional attachments, and dogmatic convictions that try to stuff the complexity of our human experience into a tight little box of absolute truths.

Shrinking our world-horizon in this way gives the illusion of having things under control, when in reality – well, we are not very much in reality at all. We are neither in touch with what’s really real, nor very real ourselves.

In this blog I aim to search out and expose the forces and conditions that hold us back from our deepest potential as human beings. And while most of these have to do with that near-and-dear center of self-conscious personal identity each of us knows as “I-myself,” I persist in my defense of ego as a developmental achievement of penultimate importance. I say “penultimate” because a well-formed ego is not our ultimate aim but rather a necessary step toward the realization of that aim, which is to become fully human.

My diagram depicts the intended path of our fulfillment as human beings, in that vertical axis extending upwards from “Ground” to “Ideal.” By ground I am referring specifically to the grounding mystery of our physical life as sentient beings. The path of our individual development, as well as of our collective evolution as a species, follows the gradual awakening of consciousness (sentience) to self-consciousness in the formation of an ego.

Even after this higher perch has been attained, of course, the deeper mystery of our animal nature continues with its business below the threshold of conscious awareness, and far below ego itself.

This process of growth, development, and maturity would very naturally unfold in the direction of our fulfillment or self-actualization, following the intrinsic aim of our nature – what I am calling our ideal. I don’t mean by this term to suggest that our destiny is to become perfect, except to become perfectly human. It’s instructive that our word “perfect” literally refers to what is finished or carried to completion, nothing at all like the air-brushed magazine model whose perfection is fake and superficial.

Just as an apple seedling develops toward its species ideal of a mature apple-bearing tree, so do human beings grow and gradually awaken as fully conscious, freely creative, self-transcending, socially responsible, and ethically engaged members in community. I regard those five qualities as the virtues of our human ideal.

Because we are a profoundly social species, the perfection of our nature requires the provident support and guiding wisdom of our tribe, earliest on from our family of origin. This support – and interference, as we’ll see – is represented by the horizontal axis in my diagram, intersecting the natural course of our self-actualization.

The major focus and shaping force of our self-conscious identity (ego) is our interactions with others.

We are given implicit and explicit instructions on how to behave in these interactions: where to sit, when to stand, how to speak, and what to do. These codes constitute our tribe’s morality, the primary concern of which is to forge group cohesion and enforce individual compliance. Depending on how liberal or strict our moral system was growing up, as to its balance of freedom and constraint, some aspects of our human nature had to be screened before they were permitted on stage.

To be approved, stroked and promoted into our social roles (remembering that ego is first of all an impersonator), we found it necessary to keep aspects of our natural self off-stage and hidden from public view. This wasn’t something we ourselves were deciding along the way, mind you. In order to receive from others what we needed to feel safe, loved, capable and worthy, we did our best to make ourselves acceptable to them.

And this meant leaving parts of ourselves – not the constructed social self (ego) but our natural-born self – out of the group picture, so to speak.

You might consider this a terrible and inhumane program of systematic brainwashing, and of course you would be correct – in a way. In fact, it’s the socializing process basic to every human family, organization, nation and culture. Aspects of our natural self, the evolutionary gifts and capacities we are born with, have to be trained and shaped to fit the moral landscape of our tribe. Psychologically it is called sublimation: pulling back on these natural propensities in order to regulate and redirect them along socially acceptable channels of expression.

Some of them simply aren’t permitted, which meant that we had to push them behind us and keep them there, where they became the shadow of our personality.

The popular concept of our shadow identifies it as the “Mr. Hyde” lurking behind the “Dr. Jekyll” of our socialized persona; as the dark, deviant, and destructive part of ourselves – the beast inside just waiting for its opportunity to break out and wreak havoc on our tidy moral arrangements. I find it more meaningful, and useful, to think of our shadow as those aspects of our natural-born self that we had to suppress in the interest of being recognized, accepted, and respected by others as “one of us.”

There are five evolutionary gifts in particular which we all bring with us at birth, but that get screened off stage to become our shadow. If we think of these “screens” according to how much of our natural light they filter out or allow through, then we might further identify various densities or degrees of opacity. A denser or more opaque screen prevents a greater portion of light from passing through and onto the social stage where ego is busy winning friends and influencing people.

The more opaque the screen, the darker our shadow becomes.

Paradoxically a darker shadow withholds more of our light. Like Lucifer of Christian mythology whose name, interestingly enough, means “light-bearer,” our shadow is where the suppressed, disowned, and forgotten light of our natural self can be recovered and reintegrated with our personal identity. By such reconciliation with our shadow we can regain our integrity and be made whole again, which means, psychologically speaking, that we need to stop running from and fighting with Lucifer, if we have any hope of taking back our light.

To the left of Shadow in my diagram I’ve illustrated how these screens block or filter the light of our evolutionary gifts, again referring to what we bring with us as our natural endowment at birth. The five gifts I propose are faith, spontaneity, imagination, curiosity, and wonder. To varying degrees these capacities are gradually modulated, or traumatically closed off, during the process of ego formation.

When Jesus counseled his disciples to be “like little children,” saying that the kingdom of god belongs to such as them (Matthew 18:2-4), he was challenging all of us to take back our light and live …

  • In an existential posture of basic trust and openness to life (Faith)

  • Fully present to the opportunity of each moment (Spontaneity)

  • With our creative mind actively engaged (Imagination)

  • Always seeking to explore, discover, and learn new things (Curiosity), and

  • In an attitude of radical amazement before the mystery of being (Wonder)

The work of taking back our light, reclaiming our evolutionary gifts, and becoming whole again starts now.

 

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Out of Depression

The most significant accomplishment for any human being is to become fully human.

That may sound redundant to some, and like a downgrade to others, but those who are most in touch with the human adventure have long insisted that we are still a long way from the evolutionary ideal of our species. And they’ve been saying this for a few thousand years.

By evolutionary ideal they mean something akin to what the philosopher Aristotle named “entelechy,” the intrinsic aim of development which is evident in all living things. With every species of life above the microbes, an individual’s development advances to maturity through formal stages and transitional phases of growth. Reaching maturity involves more than just getting bigger, of course, as numerous capacities for survival, self-control, reproduction, intelligence, creativity, and self-awareness gradually awaken and come “online.”

Our human “growth chart” tracks four distinct kinds of intelligence:

  • a visceral intelligence (VQ) that regulates the internal state and health of our body
  • an emotional intelligence (EQ) that manages our engagement with the changing situations of life
  • a rational intelligence (RQ) that constructs and regularly refreshes our model of reality, and
  • a spiritual intelligence (SQ) that orients us within the unity of existence and grounds us in being

That last one, our spiritual intelligence, is also the last to come online in a fully conscious way – if it comes online at all. Its awakening depends on the successful development of the others, for they are needed to provide the steady platform of a self-conscious identity (ego), from which we might leap into the unity of existence or drop into the ground of being.

The tragedy of our human experience, then, is tightly bound to the question of how well-established we are as self-conscious (and self-aware) individuals.

My diagram illustrates the dual-yet-complementary trajectories of successful development, in the self-actualization of our human nature and our self-transcendence into the higher wholeness of things: fulfillment and wellbeing. According to the special “language” of our soul (SQ), this duality is paradoxical – both/and, yin and yang, not separate things coming together but an essential polarity manifesting “the Tao that cannot be named” (Lao Tzu).

Whether we are speaking of the actualization or transcendence of self, a healthy formation of ego is critical to our spiritual fulfillment and wellbeing.

Let’s follow this dual trajectory without consideration of any complications, impediments, or failures it will ordinarily confront along the way. Only with such an abstract and depersonalized picture in mind, can we see with accuracy what unfolds inevitably for all of us.

Consciousness begins life fully immersed in the visceral intelligence of our animal nature. The urgencies of survival (breathing, ingesting, excreting, sleeping) are all that matters. Even into the first months and years of life, our primary concern – although this is almost entirely unconscious – is with getting what we need to stay alive and safe. Attentive and provident caretakers enabled our nervous system to settle into a baseline default mode called security: We have what we need to live, to love, and to grow.

This baseline security served as the “solid ground,” emotionally speaking, from which we could reach out, explore, and connect to the reality outside our skin. A literally sensational realm of delights and dangers quickly synced up with our primal sensitivities to pleasure and pain, shaping our behavior along a path of general good feeling, or happiness.

At this stage of development our emotional intelligence was forming memories and making connections that supported a positive sense of self and an optimistic outlook on life.

With a neurotically stable (VQ) and emotionally balanced (EQ) identity-in-formation, we were enabled to construct a mental model of reality that would further support our intellectual need for orientation and meaning. Our rational intelligence (RQ) is free to do this all-important and uniquely human work of making meaning only by virtue of the emotional balance provided from below. And with all three of these distinct threads of intelligence fully aligned, the beliefs we hold and the world they compose can be flexible, reality-oriented, and always open to update.

A truly meaningful world is one that encourages forays into the present mystery of reality, which is by defintion beyond belief and perfectly meaningless.

Such positive and healthy development, whether aided or impeded by the temporal conditions of our unique family history and social situation, is impelled by the “entelechy” of our evolutionary ideal as a human being. Much in the way we might say that an apple tree, by its nature, intends to produce apples, there is a similar intention in our own nature towards fulfillment and wellbeing, to actualize our full potential and transcend ourselves for a higher wholeness.

Each of us should be able to put a pin on the growth chart identifying where we are along this dual trajectory of human evolution. Just before we do that, however, let’s do a reality check. I earlier acknowledged that things don’t always go so well.

To be honest, I think we need to admit that they never go without a hitch – and that’s true of anyone who has ever lived.

While our visceral intelligence drives us to seek security, where we have enough of what we need to be safe, healthy, and strong, our taller powers and family environment might have been far from provident. Instead of a default state of security, our nervous system was calibrated to these unfavorable conditions in what we know as anxiety. Relaxing into our life just wasn’t an option. A chronic vigilance, nervous tension, and a deep distrust in reality became our basic mode of consciousness.

When anxiety (VQ) is taken up with us to the level of relationships and social interactions, we try desperately to manipulate others into making us feel secure. We latch on and grip down emotionally (EQ), begging or warning them not to leave us or let us down. Whereas our emotional intelligence ought to be connecting us in healthy bonds of intimacy and affiliation, instead it gets entangled in neurotic attachment.

For all the manipulation it requires, and with the unavoidable conflict it generates, any relationship forged around insecure attachment simply cannot support the happiness we seek.

And to the degree we are locked inside dysfunctional relationships, hanging on with our last hope, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us are correspondingly small, rigid, and unrealistic. When a belief we may once have held comes instead to take our mind hostage, it becomes a conviction. It is now the “only way” of seeing something, the absolute and unquestionable truth of the matter. Our rational intelligence (RQ), which would normally build and routinely revise its model of reality, has been made a prisoner (a convict) of its own invention.

If we happen to be caught in that self-reinforcing conspiracy of anxiety, attachment, and conviction – which, if you’ve been with me so far, can rightly be named the “spiritual pathology” of our species – there is one place it will predictably lead: depression.

On the way there, we are likely to cause or contribute to all kinds of damage, suffering, and violence; but that is where we are headed. Very aptly described, depression (a condition of being “pressed down” or made low) is where the human spirit languishes and may eventually die.

In that low place we feel hapless (“this is happening to me”), helpless (“there is nothing I can do”), and hopeless (“there’s no way out or through”).

But of course there is a way through, and it begins as we get grounded again and find our center.

 

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Are You (Truly) Happy?

We’re supposed to be pursuing happiness in this liberal democracy of ours, or at least have the right to pursue it. We don’t have to, if we’d rather not. We also have the right to be unhappy. The choice is finally ours.

I think our problem is not that we don’t want to be happy, but that we’re confused over what happiness really is. What does it mean to “be happy”?

We’ve been duped by the advertising industry into equating happiness with pleasure – the buzz, the rush, the kick, the tingle. Pleasure stimulates a reward pathway in our brain that can never get enough, which means if an ad company can link their product with our craving for the buzz, rush, kick, or tingle, we’re going to buy – and keep paying until we’re either addicted or depressed, and maybe both. What could be called “consumer exhaustion” is the apocalypse for advertisers and Big Business, and they work hard to keep us in the game.

With a little reflection, however, it’s not hard discern the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness isn’t merely enduring pleasure or a steady, life-long dopamine rush. It doesn’t always come with the buzz, kick, or tingle – and quite often it’s absent these altogether.

Neuroscience has revealed that happiness flows along a different pathway than pleasure, depending more on serotonin than dopamine. Big Pharma and drug doctors have managed to turn this discovery into huge profits as well, hooking millions on the lure that more serotonin in their brains will magically make them happier. It doesn’t work that way. While pleasure is a product of our body and brain’s biochemistry, with what’s going on between nerve cells, happiness has more to do with our engagement with reality as persons.

The “synapse” of greater interest here is what presently separates us from three things: the grounding mystery deep within ourselves, the vibrant world all around us, and the evolutionary ideal of our higher human nature.

I’m going to name these dimensions of happiness contentment, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Each dimension might be considered a “type” of happiness, but I’d rather keep them together as a dynamic unit – as the three facets or faces of true happiness. We can focus on one or another of these facets, but losing sight of their unity could lead us into obsession and inevitable disappointment. Let’s spend some time on each dimension of happiness, and then bring them all together for the full picture.

Contentment

Contentment is the feeling that we have all we really need and all is well. While it may seem synonymous with satisfaction, contentment isn’t just about having our needs satisfied. It goes deeper than that. I connect it with our “grounding mystery,” referring to that deeper reality supporting our self-conscious experience from within by a physical, living, and sentient animal nature.

Our “first nature” is where the journey of life begins. In the best of all possible worlds and a perfect family, our body was able to settle into reality and relax into being. An inner clearing of peace and calm opened up inside us, allowing awareness to very naturally orient outward to the world around us. Our inner life became a place of solitude and quiet reflection, a deep center of strength and resolve, as well as a refuge of solace and surrender.

When we can simply be in this moment, without wanting for anything but resting entirely in the support of our grounding mystery, we are profoundly happy – even in the absence of emotions and the running script of our chattering thoughts.

This is nirvana, the placid and undisturbed (literally “no wind”) condition of a still pond. This is happiness as contentment.

Enjoyment

Hearing the words side-by-side – contentment and enjoyment – confirms their distinct connotations. If contentment is inner peace, enjoyment is more about our relationship to the world around us. When we are content, we want for nothing. When we are enjoying something, we tend to want more – not crave it or desperately need it like an addiction, but to stay with it because we find it amusing, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring.

Enjoyment probably comes closest to pleasure and is typically where our confusion starts. Relating to what’s around us involves our senses and sensations – how this, that, and all of it makes us feel. And aren’t our feelings encoded upon the primary dichotomy of pain and pleasure? It’s an easy mistake. And it’s just where the advertisers find their opportunity.

The difference becomes more clear when we acknowledge how many times our greatest enjoyments in life ride in the balance of pain and pleasure, of sacrifice and bliss.

Our true enjoyment is not merely in how something “makes us feel,” but in what it means to us, how precious, serendipitous, and grace-given it is.

I won’t go very deep into it here, but anyone could guess what consequences for enjoyment are brought into the picture when we lack contentment. The emptiness within is not cultivated as an inner clearing for surrender and repose, but is instead a void that must be filled. When we look to the world around us for things to devour – food and drink, possessions and relationships, titles and achievements, even religion and its god – whatever joy we may find in gulping them down will be short-lived. It will also be followed by resentment, which is the very antithesis of enjoyment in its true sense.

Some Christians speak of “a god-shaped hole” at our center, which turns god into a commodity that churches can peddle to consumer-believers. But again, we will never get enough of a god we have to swallow.

Fulfillment

The third facet and dimension of genuine happiness is named fulfillment. As with the other terms, this one has gotten lost in our contemporary pursuit of the buzz, the rush, the kick, and the tingle. In popular culture, “fulfillment” is the ultimate feel-good. If something isn’t fulfilling, we are excused for putting it aside and looking elsewhere for “the real thing” – what the ads promise in exchange for our money.

As I’m using it, however, fulfillment is associated with capacity, completion, and realizing our true potential as human beings. In this sense, fulfillment is always “above and ahead” of us, orienting us to what we are still in the process of becoming. We get tastes of it when we dig deeper into ourselves, step outside our comfort zone, and leap for the ring just out of reach.

The history of our species is the long story of latent talents, dormant powers, and “godly” virtues coming awake, driving our further progress in the direction of a more humane and self-actualized human being.

Ultimately – and fulfillment is about what is ultimate or “highest” – this facet of happiness doesn’t let us just settle for mediocrity and the half-assed life. Many of us do live this way, of course, but the fact that we possess an inner drive and aim (what Aristotle called “entelechy”) which seeks our self-actualization helps explain why we are always living just short of being truly happy.

It’s likely our existential insecurity (i.e., our lack of contentment) that motivates us to grab on and grip down on life rather than whole-heartedly enjoy it, which attachment then holds us back from the fulfilling and liberated life that could be ours.


So here we are, on this “Happy Thanksgiving” day. If we are gathering with family and friends at a table, perhaps we can take a few moments to contemplate whether we are truly happy. We can indeed be thankful if we are, since genuine happiness is not a solo project but a conspiracy involving countless others and some good luck besides.

And if we’re not so happy right now, then we have an idea about where to begin.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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