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Unfinished Business

Unfinished BusinessI guess I write a lot about what I feel is most urgently needing our attention these days. Current events are interesting because they’re in the news and on our minds, but popular engagement with the news of the day tends to skim the surface of what’s really going on. It’s not nuclear proliferation, terrorist plots, melting ice caps, or the next election that we should be figuring out, but the deeper forces that are presently driving and shaping our reality.

We need a psychological model that reveals the truth about ourselves without reducing us to mindless matter, on one side, or elevating us to metaphysical dimensions, on the other. Importantly it should provide an honest accounting of both the promises and liabilities that attach to our human nature, in a way that makes sense in a secular and global age. The elements of my model are not new in themselves, but I offer definitions and relationships among the elements that are novel – and, I hope, relevant to the current challenges we face.

My diagram above draws an arc of development from a body-centered (early) phase, through an ego-centered (middle) phase, and reaching fulfillment in a soul-centered (late) phase. I’ve joined body and soul in something of a tensive image, stretching between the animal and spiritual aspects of our essential nature. A simple statement of this essential nature is that we are ‘spiritual animals’, animals with a capacity for imagination, creativity, contemplation, transcendence, and communion.

We are not ‘souls in bodies’ or ‘bodies with souls’, but rather a marvelous duality of consciousness that is at once centered in life (body) and grounded in being (soul).

Before we hitch a ride with ego along that rising and falling arc, let’s spend a little more time getting to know the body where its hero journey begins. In other posts I have characterized body as naturally extroverted, that is, as flexing consciousness outward to the surrounding environment and continuously regulating its own internal state (as an organism) according to those external cues and conditions. The body’s own internal urgencies operate for the most part below our conscious awareness and almost entirely outside our conscious control. We might regard the body itself as a highly evolved energy exchange between external resources and these internal urgencies, between the provident conditions of the environment and its own metabolic demands as a living organism.

Ego formation (the rising arc of personal development) entails some decisive negotiations with the body’s animal nature, a process that is motivated and supervised by our tribe. The expected outcome of this process is a centered identity that sees itself as belonging to ‘us’, obediently performing roles that contribute to the welfare of the group. What we call morality is the set of rules, values, incentives, and deterrents that constrain us to behave like a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’ and eventually as a compliant member of the tribe.

Psychologically ego formation is also where reality starts to divide in two, with an objective (‘thrown-over’) world on one side, and a subjective (‘thrown-under’) self on the other side of this line. World here is not a synonym for reality, as we sometimes speak of ‘the real world’ as a factual and nonfictional realm beyond us. As I use the term, world refers to the construct of symbols, language, meaning, and morality that ego, with the help of its tribe, builds around itself. Much of it is (in fact) fictional, in the sense of being a narrative construction of metaphors and stories that form a cross-referencing web of meaning where an individual feels secure.

Self is also a narrative construct made from strands of memory, preferences, beliefs, and ambitions that connect into a relatively continuous braid of character which ego identifies as ‘me’. As a construct, self is no more real than the world in which ego finds refuge and significance. Personal identity, therefore, represents a separate project from the deeper evolutionary one of becoming a mature and fully actualized human being. Indeed, the project of identity-formation can seriously impede and even completely undermine human progress in this larger sense.

Instead of an ego that is stable, balanced, and unified – together comprising a virtue known as ‘ego strength’ – development gets arrested in one or more spectrum disorders (borderline personality, bipolar mood, or dissociative identity).

Getting stuck here – arrested, hooked, fixated – is what lies behind so much suffering that individuals chronically endure and proceed to inflict on each other. Rather than operating from a position of creative authority where the adaptive compatibility between self and world affords the freedom and responsibility to be oneself, neurotic insecurity closes the mind inside rigid convictions and condemns the individual to a prison of shame and conceit, impotence and aggression, profound doubt and fundamentalist certainty, all or nothing.

Increasingly desperate bids for security turn into deadly campaigns for supremacy; or else, which in the long run amounts to the same thing, a final relief from torment through suicide.

A critical deficiency in ego strength prevents an individual from being able to ‘go beyond’, or transcend, the self-and-world construct for the sake of a larger and more authentic experience. Creative inspiration, mystical contemplation, empathic communion, genuinely open dialogue – such experiences are unavailable to the personality which is trapped inside itself.

These experiences, sought and celebrated in healthy cultures, are only possible as ego succeeds in letting go, dropping out, and moving beyond the conventional structures of meaning, deeper into the present mystery of reality.

And thus we have arrived at our consideration of soul, as that introspective turn of consciousness to its own grounding mystery. Even here, however, ego might attempt to take control and claim the inner life of soul as merely another name for subjectivity, for the permanent core of personal identity. I’ve suggested in other posts that this error of mistaken identity is behind the widespread religious doctrine of personal immortality. It’s essential to note, however, that the grounding mystery within is neither the ego, its personality, nor the self of ‘who I am.’

Despite the obvious popularity of the idea across cultures, the invention of personal immortality marks a serious corruption in our proper understanding of the soul.

When ego is transcended – not negated, rejected, renounced, or subjugated, but released and surpassed in a more inclusive, holistic, and unitive experience – consciousness sinks into its own grounding mystery and proceeds thence (or perhaps simultaneously) outwards along the expanding horizons of sensory awareness to the breakthrough insight that All is One. From deep within, far below the surface concerns of our historical situation, we find the grace to relax into being, open ourselves to reality, and ponder our place in the turning rhythms of a universal order (or universe).

This is the birthplace of philosophy, according to its original intention as the ‘love of wisdom’. Only as we achieve liberation from the centripetal (shrinking and tightening) constraints of personal identity can we appreciate the astonishing truth that, in us, the universe is contemplating itself. If we can be faithful in this practice, those chronic and intractable problems that are currently threatening to undo us will simply unwind and fall away.

 

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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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Human Purpose

In my last post I identified what can be thought of as the channel of creative life, summarized in the “upward-and-outward” flow from internal security, into skillful control, opening up in freedom, and fulfilling its purpose in accomplishment. These four are the positive illusions human beings must have in sufficient degree in order to keep from insanity (where we lose our minds) and inanity (where life loses significance). But there must be a complementarity and balance among them, or else this channel of creativity will get hooked or crimped along the way.

Human beings are animals – however justifiably we may see ourselves as “special” and “unique” among the animals. As such we possess an animal nature equipped with urges, drives, impulses and reflexes that have evolved for our survival and prosperity. The specialness of our species has to do with the fact that our development is socially dependent. Our brain continues to form itself throughout life, according to the challenges and opportunities of social interaction.

With the invention of language and tools, we have been able to adapt to our situation on this planet. But more than just accommodating ourselves to the circumstances, our big brain has enabled us to imagine possibilities, invent our own “socialsphere” of culture, innovating and improvising on reality in astonishing ways. All of this creative output is more than just a further extension of unconscious instinct. It is the expression and product of a certain disciplined, methodical, and technical kind of performance called “skill,” and skills must be learned.

In a skillful performance – of any kind, and it doesn’t have to be “artistic” in the narrow sense – you need to be centered and grounded within yourself. This is what I mean by security. If you don’t have the sense that you are deeply established in a reality that is supportive and provident, the consequent anxiety will interfere with your performance – if it doesn’t entirely block and frustrate your creative flow.

Once established and confident within yourself, the next step is to take up the tool or instrument that will serve as the means by which you will accomplish your outcome. This instrument doesn’t have to be physical or mechanical in nature; your own body (think of dancing) or a theoretical model that provides a way of “wrapping your mind” around something are also examples of instruments. Your skillfulness with such tools involves taking effective control in the movements (physical or mental) required for their intended function.

In the “learning phase” of skill acquisition, your attention is devoted almost exclusively to the mastery of these functional maneuvers. You must get familiar with how the instrument is designed to work. With practice, your movements will become increasingly precise and efficient, reducing the number of mistakes or “user errors.” Over time, your dedicated practice in taking control will get habituated, requiring less conscious attention as the technique becomes trained into memory.

This liberation of attention, made possible by refined and memorized control, is what we call freedom. As it is habituated and memorized, control sinks deeper below the threshold of conscious awareness, freeing your directed attention (focus) for other things. If your skill is perpetually under-practiced or gets “rusty” through lack of use, you are not likely to enjoy this higher freedom that mastery affords. Distraction, laziness, inconsistency and poor technique can keep you stuck in the learning phase. Because it takes concentrated focus and effort to master a skill, never quite getting there can become a slow drain into fatigue, discouragement, and depression.

Once mastered, however, a skill can open up an astonishing range of creative possibilities. Now you are free to express yourself by means of your instrument, leverage the change you desire, and accomplish your goal. Freedom itself is the liberation and expansion of consciousness, up and out from a dedicated attention to control, while purpose amounts to a reinvestment of this energy.

Purpose can be analyzed into its own “yin” and “yang,” as when you do something on purpose (let’s call that yin) and set out to accomplish a purpose or goal (that’s yang). Intention has to do with presence, mental focus, conscious investment and internal engagement with the here-and-now. If I ask you, “Did you do that on purpose?” what I’m wanting to know is whether you intended to do it – not by mistake, out of necessity, or because someone else told you to, but whether you did it freely, willfully, and with full presence of mind. That’s the yin of purpose.

Tao Symbol

The yang of purpose is its objective. Other terms that help fill out the definition are aim, goal, outcome and achievement. In order to accomplish something you need to have some kind of mental ideal or internal representation of what you want to bring about. The projection of that ideal into the future ahead then exerts a reciprocal force upon you by way of attraction, inspiration, or even a sense of “mission.” An objective is yang because of its built-out and externally positioned quality. It cannot be separated entirely from its yin counterpart of intention without becoming disassociated and rigid.

Creativity ultimately flows into purpose. When you are inwardly grounded and secure, masterfully in control of your instrument, and consequently free to explore the possibilities, you can engage the present moment with intention and envision your creative outcome.

A human being, like every other living organism, grows, develops and evolves according to a genetic template. This is not to suggest that life is genetically determined. In fact, science is discovering the surprising extent in which genes are responsive to the environment and experience, turning “on” and “off” in reaction to signals from outside. This is known as epigenetics. Throughout this constant interaction of genetic codes and environmental signals, an organism develops along a species-specific pathway to maturity and fulfillment.

Human beings are creators: this is perhaps the best way to characterize what “maturity and fulfillment” mean for our species. We are not simply driven by our instincts, but neither can we reach our full potential under the constraints of morality alone. I don’t mean to suggest that we should throw off all moral concern and live for our own selfish advancement. Rather we need to grow through our morality and into the higher creative life, living with embodied intention and reaching out with soulful purpose.

Each moment provides a new opportunity to embrace the present and live into what’s next.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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