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One Song

An important challenge for contemporary cosmology – referring to our present-day theory and general picture of reality – involves finding a place for the higher mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit. Like Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla the six-headed dragon on one side, and Charybdis the crushing whirlpool on the other, we need to be careful not to reduce these higher mysteries to “nothing more” than dead matter or exalt them into “nothing less” than divine immortals.

The startling fact is that our universe is alive, sentient, personal, and creative. Not every particle, nook, and cranny of it to be sure; but at least here in this moment, as we join in contemplation together, you and I.

We were not inserted into the universe from somewhere else, like alien beings or preexisting souls dropped into our bodies at conception. It’s necessary to keep in mind that any myth of religion that might suggest as much is itself an artifact of our human creative imagination.

All the evidence – and this word alone marks a decisive shift away from premodern and ancient cosmologies which were granted the status of revelations – indicates that we emerged from the universe and this remarkable garden planet of Earth. We are “of the earth” – earthlings then, having come forth by evolution out of its provident conditions.

It is a wonderful conceit of our species to have regarded those higher mysteries mentioned earlier – mind, ego, and spirit – as what set us apart, outstanding (and once more, alien) exceptions among Earth’s community of life.

But while reductionist materialism denies these mysteries as nothing more than complex accidents of base matter, and whereas metaphysical spiritualism wants to grant them an otherworldly nature, my hope is to steer a course between these two alternatives and chart a genuine “middle way.”

Even though my focus in this post will be the mysteries of mind, ego, and spirit, I hasten to celebrate the equally mysterious phenomena of matter and life. Modern science has analyzed, measured, classified, and explained an awful lot of it, but still hasn’t really “cracked the code” of how energy crystallizes into matter, or of how material forms came to life in the primordial history of our planet.

The key word “emergence” is useful, so long as we don’t mistake it to mean that what emerged was already present, perhaps dormant in the deeper registers and just awaiting its due season. Life wasn’t already present in matter before it emerged, just as the personality (ego) isn’t waiting to awaken out of a sentient nervous system (mind).

Certain conditions need to be present, both internal and environmental, for a boundary to become a threshold and the new thing to emerge.

For life to become conscious as mind, organisms needed to mutate (which simply means to “change”) in their sensitivity and response-ability to their environment. Over many millions of years, the complexity and sophistication of this evolving sentience formed nervous systems that could not only react to external stimuli but regulate their own internal states as well. Such organisms would have had a decisive survival advantage over others unable to adapt “in real time,” as it were.

Mind, then, is not something separate (or separable) from the life that supports it from below and deeper within.

This same dynamic of emergence eventually prepared conditions for mind to become aware of its own activity, as self-conscious mind, or ego. In our own species this reflexive talent of mind bending back upon itself made identity (the sense we have of ourselves as social actors) susceptible to the shaping influence of culture.

The “I” (Latin ego) that reflects on itself and addresses others is actually constructed out of numerous attachments by which we are “identified as” members of our tribe – American, Southerner, Christian, Democrat or Republican, etc. – each line of attachment anchoring us to a set of beliefs, values, roles and aims.

Just as mind doesn’t exist apart from living bodies, neither can ego separate itself entirely from the nervous system of mind. Indeed, the fantasy of doing as much is well-represented in the stories of religion and science fiction. But it’s not science. Which is to say, there is no evidence in support of the claim that self-conscious personalities (human, divine, or other species) can persist without a lifeline to living bodies with sentient nervous systems.

It is in fact right here, at the level of emergence where personal identity contemplates its place in the larger order along with the prospect of its own terminal destiny, that the worldwide reflections on human existence have entertained such fantasies as personal immortality, reincarnation, postmortem salvation, and everlasting life.

Since there is no evidence to validate them – except, of course, by the declarations of holy scripture, the testimonies of those privileged with a look behind the curtain or a voice from beyond (which cannot be counted as evidence in the scientific sense) – we might appreciate such claims for their therapeutic “truth.” In this sense, such fantasies work to calm our death anxiety, confirm our worth, clarify a purpose for our lives, and lift us into a sense of life’s higher meaning.

As someone who was raised on these fantasies and eventually got seminary-trained and ordained to promote them to others, I can actually affirm their therapeutic value, even as I push back on their factual truth. Death anxiety is real, and so is our vulnerability to feeling small and insignificant in the expanding universe.

An immortal ego who is not tied down to the sinking ship of time helps me dismiss all of that as nothing but a veil of tears, a brief sojourn on my Pilgrim’s Progress to another world.

The problem is that, in our zealous devotion and under the spell of religious orthodoxy, we have gotten tangled up in our anchor-lines of identity. The ego attachments that were meant to define us as belonging to this tribe and on earth for this purpose have become bonds of fear and conviction preventing our breakthrough to the liberated life.

Spirit is not the ego set free from its body. It is instead a mode of being where we are able, finally, to get over ourselves, to drop the charade and go beyond who we are pretending to be, so that what began so many billions of years ago can at last leap out to join the “one song” (uni-verse) and give its voice to the chorus.

 

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You, There

In the above illustration I have highlighted in orange a water droplet that has momentarily separated itself from the ocean below. On its brief arc through space-time, the water droplet exists (meaning literally to stand out) as a unique individual – if only by virtue of the fact that it occupies this exact point in space at this precise moment in time.

As a separate individual it is positioned among a cohort of other water droplets, their otherness partly a function of occupying different locations in space as they travel along distinct trajectories. Any relationship between and among them is predicated on their separate existence, on each existing apart from the others as a unique individual.

Together our cohort of water droplets inhabits a local environment of atmospheric conditions which is itself contained within a still-larger horizon that includes an unnumbered multitude of droplets arcing through space-time, along with some gliding birds overhead, drifting clouds higher still, nearby planets barely seen, distant stars and the far-flung galaxies.

Coming back to our water droplet, we know that its deeper nature is oceanic. Existentially – recalling that existence means to stand out as an individual – the droplet carries within itself something much more profound (a term whose original meaning had to do with the deep ocean). Its own identity as a separate individual in relationship with other individuals inside an infinite cosmic horizon is really a temporary enclosure of an essential mystery – from the Greek esse for being.

Our droplet of seawater has thus guided our contemplation along three distinct axes: (1) a self-other axis of separate individuals crossing, connecting, or colliding on their space-time trajectories; (2) a self-system axis, referencing the larger complexity to which it belongs; and (3) a self-essence axis dropping from the centered individual into its own deeper nature.

Each axis provides us with a lens and vocabulary by which to understand its full reality: in the encounter with others, as participating in a higher wholeness, and as a manifestation of being.


This analogy is a perfect introduction to understanding yourself as well. Just put yourself in the position of my orange droplet of water and the full picture will fall into place.

Let’s begin with your self-essence axis. Your deeper nature as a human being manifests the 14-billion-year history of our universe. The atomic structure of your physical body is composed of elements that were forged in the very beginning. The life-force in your cells is a few billion years ancient. The hum of sentience electrifying your brain, nervous system, and sense organs goes back a fraction that far (around 200 million years) and has a wide representation across the species of life on Earth.

Hovering above this grounding mystery of what you are is the separate “water droplet” of self-conscious identity – the individual ego (“I”) that looks out on reality from your unique location in space-time. Up here things can get dicey, and the management of personal identity necessarily involves the separate identities of others in your local cohort. Developmentally the formation of your ego was leveraged and shaped through encounters with others whose otherness receded further into obscurity as you became increasingly self-conscious.

While your deeper nature, following the self-essence axis, is marvelously profound and grounds your life in the evolving process of the universe itself, this self-conscious identity of yours is as complicated as it is transient. Because who you are – as distinct from what you are – was especially vulnerable in your early years to both the positive and negative influence of others, their ignorance, neuroses, and bad choices left lasting impressions on your own personality. (The same should be said of their more benevolent affections as well.)

In its suspended position of exposure, your self-conscious ego can manage to siphon the miracle of being alive into the spinning wheel of impossible cravings and unrealistic fears.

Lest you take the opinion of your own innocence in all of this, it needs to be said that you have been making choices (almost) all along the way. Many of those choices have simply repeated and reinforced the security strategies you learned as an infant and young child. Still today, you may occasionally (or frequently; maybe even chronically) “act out” these neurotic styles, which proceed to unload your childish insecurities on a cohort of innocent-enough bystanders and co-dependent dance partners.

Taking a close and honest look at the drama of your personal life will reveal why the principal obstacle to what the spiritual teachings call ‘awakening’ or ‘liberation’ is and has always been the ego.

The freedom to break past the mesh of self-obsession, codependency, and neurotic insecurity requires not the elimination of ego but its transcendence. As the grounding mystery of sentient life has become self-conscious in you, it must now reach out and go beyond your separate identity. Just as the self-system axis for our water droplet situates it within a local, regional, planetary and cosmic context, so does your own personal identity exist within and belong to a higher, transpersonal, wholeness.

As long as you remain enmeshed, however, and to the extent that your ego is locked inside its own convictions, this higher wholeness is not only beyond you, but is also outside your small horizon of self-interested awareness.

All the available evidence supports the idea that what the universe is evolving toward is ever-greater complexity, which is apparent in your own deeper nature as a physical, living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. A natural next step in this progression is the phenomenon in which self-conscious individuals connect and cooperate in genuine community.

If we were to regard genuine community – and by that I mean authentic, compassionate, dialogical, creative and radically inclusive community – as evolution’s next step, then your self-conscious personal identity should really be seen as a progression threshold rather than a final destination.


We might imagine our water droplet, now imbued with self-consciousness, pondering its place in the sprawling scheme of things, wondering if letting go and getting over itself is a worthy risk. Playing small and safe might be the better choice. But in the end the end will come and what will be left? What will be remembered? The 14-billion-year adventure is right now on the brink of breaking through to a truly liberated life.

Maybe this is the moment everything changes.

 

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Crossing Over

If you only knew what’s going on, what’s really going on, you’d probably live differently from the way you’re living now.

Not that your life is entirely enveloped in delusion, but it is the case nonetheless that the short story of your personal myth keeps your attention preoccupied with mostly small daily concerns.

As a self-conscious person, there are roles to play and rules to follow and responsibilties to stay on top of, as you manage your position within the ranks of society. Living inside this made-up world of roleplays and pretense, you are doing your best to hold on to security, find lasting love, to discover your purpose and make your life come true.

Everyone else around you is striving for the same aims and ends, but no one has your exact set, as yours is utterly unique and separate from the rest.

On a given day you will feel satisfied, anxious, frustrated, or depressed depending on how well or badly things are going inside your world.

With everyone else equally absorbed in and obsessed with their own pursuits, it can be a challenge some days to feel secure enough, loved enough, or successful enough to just relax into your life without the sneaking suspicion that someone or something, somewhere, is about to take it all away or expose you as a fake.

After all, when you really think about it, this personal identity of yours is just a mask. Who you are in the roleplay, the script you’re following, the story that’s playing out, and the larger stage of your personal world where all this drama is unfolding – none of it has substance, none of it is really real.

What’s behind the mask? What’s going on between the roles and off-stage?

Before you pick up your mask and step into the performance, what’s really going on? As I said, if you truly knew, you’d probably live differently from the way you’re living now.

The revelation that personal identity is a put-on is unacceptable for many, and you may be one of them. As the veil – and “revelation” is literally about pulling aside a veil of illusion – opens to the realization that your story is made up, that your world is a narrative construct spinning almost entirely in your head, and that the meaning of your life is not really “out there” in any objective sense, such disillusionment can be very disorienting.

If you’re like most, it’s preferable, if just for sanity’s sake, to laugh it off and dismiss such insights as ludicrous. Otherwise you might reject them as dangerous heresies.

Whether you laugh it off or try to discredit the assertion that what you have been working so hard to manage and defend is not even real but actually an elaborate stage production, the burden is still on you to prove me wrong. Social consensus is insufficient, of course, as you will find the majority of people around you equally spellbound in the trance of personal identity. Inside every roleplay is a set of roles; with every role comes a short menu of masks; behind every mask is an actor identifying with and “speaking through” it (from the Latin persona).

But what’s behind the actor? Nothing! It’s all make-believe.

To understand what’s really going on, you need to drop the charade. This isn’t to say that your personal identity and life pursuits are a complete sham. It’s all very urgent and meaningful – at least to you. And others whose storylines are woven into yours will agree on how significant it all is, or at least how significant it all seems at least to them.

Just for a few minutes, let’s take a look off-stage and outside the theater.

Your self-conscious center of personal identity (the actor, or what is named ego, meaning “I”) is a very recent arrival to the scene. It’s origins aren’t even as far back as you’ve been alive. Not long after you were born, your tribe got to work shaping you into a proper person, a well-behaved member of the group. Technically speaking, “you” (i.e., the self-conscious ego-actor) were not the substance they were working on, but the product of their work.

The substance they were shaping was a sentient mind, or what is generally named “consciousness.”

Consciousness has a past much deeper than your personal story, of course, going back not just decades but many millenniums into the history of life on Earth. This same fundamental structure and neurological design of sentience – of the capacity of consciousness to sense and respond, to feel and to think, to desire, enjoy, and to suffer – is present right now, humming beneath and supporting the stage-play of your personal world.

Even older and much more primitive evolutionarily speaking than your sentient mind is a living body that pulses along the vital rhythms of respiration, metabolism, and energy exchange with your physical environment; not just thousands but millions of years, reaching back to the earliest life-forms on our planet. This ancient cradle of vital rhythms is also right here, undulating far below the surface where your ego frets and futzes, “standing on a whale” (as the Polynesian saying goes) “fishing for minnows.”

And beneath that? What lies below and serves as foundation to even these largely unconscious cycles and urgencies of life? The material ground of existence itself: physical matter and its quantum bubbles crystallizing and dissolving spontaneously out of the abyss of dark energy. Yes, that is going on not only all around you, but beneath you and as the physical, living, sentient being you are.

By comparison, all of that business transpiring on stage is nothing (really) but images reflected in a hall of mirrors.

Once you see this, when you realize finally that the separate center of self-conscious personal identity you have believed yourself to be is only a construct of language, a social convention, an admittedly serious game of make-believe, the veil will then completely fall away – or perhaps it will go up in the flames of apocalyptic disenchantment.

But rather than cast if all off and exit the stage in shame, resentment, or self-disgust, you have an opportunity now to step fully (and, as paradoxical as it sounds, self-consciously) into a still-higher realization.

All of that primeval and ancient history in the evolution of matter from energy, of life from matter, of mind from life, and out of your mind this unique person you are pretending to be – all of that has arrived here, now, with the universe contemplating itself.

This theater and stage, your personal story and character, your script and the mark where you presently stand have become the springboard to an awareness – the “Shining Truth” – that All is One.

This truth is older than humanity but it awaits the fresh discovery of each new generation. Until all of that make-shift scaffolding was in place for you to take your own separate center of self-conscious personal identity, and until you were ready to break through the delusion of who you are, the transpersonal spirit of your human nature awaited its moment, like a butterfly asleep inside its chrysalis.

Now it’s time to take wing, and maybe live differently than before.

 

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One to Another

Now that you’ve completed the major work of becoming somebody – (I realize it’s an ongoing project and that construction may be stuck in a phase right now, but let’s pretend anyway) – the question of what’s next needs your attention.

Of course, popular culture wants you to believe in yourself as an end-game: the highest goal and most significant achievement of a human career. From this point it’s nothing more than some ongoing identity maintenance, love-and-power struggles on the field with others like you, getting the most out of the time you have left, and maybe securing a forever home in heaven when you die.

In other words, stop asking.

To the extent that it has signed a deal with popular culture, religion plays right along. The doctrines of a personal deity, personal salvation, and personal immortality have conspired to create a veritable personality cult, with ego its focal obsession. It needs to be said straightway that this was not religion’s preoccupation for the longest time, when the primary concern was about linking personal identity to a deeper, larger, more enduring, and transpersonal reality.

In other words, it’s not all about you.

In the interest of moving our conversation out of the sticky web of orthodoxy, I want to put ego and personality in proper context. The evolution of personality and its executive center of identity is a very late achievement in the history of homo sapiens. Actually its deeper prehistory charts the development of early hominid species, while the emergence of a self-conscious personal identity marks the formal beginning of our own unique line.

Our history since its emergence has been characterized by all the predictable complications that attend an experience of separation, exposure, insecurity, and alienation.

In other posts I have explored how insecurity drives neurotic attachment and unrealistic expectations, which in turn lead to inevitable disappointment, deepening resentment, and finally existential despair. Along the way we are compelled to compete for what we need, pick fights with others, and grab for ourselves whatever we hope will make us happy – which nothing can, so we’re doomed.

In order to break past this vortex of consumption, let’s try to open our frame wide enough to get all this nervous futzing in perspective. My diagram positions you (“One”) in relation to “Another,” where the other might be anyone or anything at all. As our task here is to better understand how a self-conscious personal identity fits into the bigger picture, we’ll begin our reflections at that level.


Across from you, then, stands another more-or-less centered personality, with many of the the same quirks, hangups, and ambitions as you. This is properly the interpersonal plane of engagement, with your relationship carried in and complicated by the reciprocal influence of each of you on the other, and upon both of you by the general role play of society along with your respective family inheritances.

Purely on this plane, your mutual concerns have to do with identity, recognition, agreement and belonging. If we imagine a horizon including both of you in this interaction, it would only be large enough to contain your unique and shared interests as self-conscious persons.

If your self-identification is fully represented inside this interpersonal horizon, then nothing else really matters. It’s you and another, working out the meaning of life in your mutual struggle to be somebody.

But as my diagram shows, your center of self-conscious identity (i.e., your ego) is only the surface manifestation of a much deeper process. Supporting personality from farther below is a sentient nervous system managing the flow of information from your body’s interior and the external environment. This is where the feeling of what happens is registered.

You are not only a person on a uniquely human social stage, but if you can release those concerns for a moment and become more mindful, you’ll find suddenly that your horizon of awareness opens by an exponential degree. Now included are not just human egos but all sentient beings – all other creatures that sense, desire, respond, and suffer. Notice how dropping down (or deeper within) to identify yourself as a sentient being opens your capacity to identify with other sentient beings.

This was a fundamental insight of Siddhārtha Gautama, later named the Buddha (from budh, to wake up) for his breakthrough realization.

Each subsequent drop to a deeper center, then, opens a still greater capacity of awareness, compassion, and goodwill on behalf of others like you. This inward descent corresponds to a transcendence of awareness through larger and larger horizons of identity – from interpersonal (ego), sentient (mind), and organic (life) communities, until it opens out to include the material universe itself.

Lest we leave you out there floating weightless among the galaxies, our reflections can now return to your regard for and interactions with that other person. With your enlarged sense of identity as (quite literally) a personification of the universe, you are also witness to this self-same miracle in the other. Their true identity so radically transcends the masks, roles, and role plays defining who they are, as to lie almost entirely beyond their ability to imagine or accept.

The other person’s enlightenment in this respect may seem utterly improbable to you. And yet, you managed to get over yourself and see the truth – did you not? What would happen if you both came to see the truth and started to live your lives with this higher wholeness in mind? How would it change what you care for, what you worry about, what you chase after, or what you hide from?

In realizing that you are not separate in fact but only seem so by the delusion of ego consciousness, your next thought, your next choice, and the very next thing you do might serve as a light in the darkness, illumining the path of a liberated life.

Maybe others will join you, or maybe you’ll walk alone for a while. And then again, it’s impossible to be alone when the universe is your home.

 

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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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The Leaders We Need Now

Every age and generation has a need for capable leaders, for those who are able to see a bigger picture, understand what’s happening, and help the rest of us through the doors of necessary change. A leader is not always the one up front, with the loudest voice and getting all the attention. A true leader might not even be the one who was elected.

Go figure.

When I think about the kind of leaders we need today, three critical principles of leadership come to mind. Each principle corresponds to a dimension of our existence as human beings: (1) as individuals who (2) interact with others in (3) systems of various kinds and complexity. Not only effective leaders, but proficient human beings – that is to say, those who are skilled in the art and wisdom of being human – must learn how to manage and nurture the consilient unity of these three dimensions.

When we don’t (can’t or won’t) hold them in balance, we quickly succumb to frustration, disorientation, foolishness, and crazy-making dumbfuckery.

In this post I’ll lay out three critical principles of leadership that we sorely need today. Each principle is the sun-center to an orbiting set of values, which will only be mentioned but not explored in much detail here. I don’t believe there is a fixed number to each set of values, and we should allow for the way these principles get interpreted and play out in any given context. The principles themselves, however, are universally valid, and I would argue that no culture can flourish long or well without holding them as sacred commitments.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: We are all part of a turning mega-system of existence called the Universe. This universal system can be analyzed into smaller and deeper star systems, solar systems, and planetary ecosystems; into regional cultural systems, more local social systems, and family systems; into individual organisms and the internal subsystems that conspire in keeping them alive; and deeper still into the molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems of matter and energy.

As far as we know, nothing exists except as and within systems.

Stewardship

The principle that orients a set of values applying specifically to living as and in systems is stewardship. In the conventional sense, a steward has the responsibility of managing and caring for the resources of a household, which is a family system where several individuals live together in community. Stewards aren’t owners, and what they look after is not their personal property. Instead, we might say that a steward and everything he or she looks after belongs to the household.

As a kind of manager, a steward helps to sustain a healthy household economy and promote harmonious community among its inhabitants. This web of resources, interactions, and shared experience is a more local instance of what we commonly name the Web of Life – still another term for the Universe considered from the vantage of living things. To view human beings through the lens of stewardship – as many religious traditions have long done – is to regard them not as owners or externally positioned “masters of the universe,” but as members of this one magnificent household of life.

With our evolutionary grant of self-awareness and creative freedom, humans possess a unique ability in contemplating our place and role within, as well as our special responsibility to, our planetary home. As many myths suggest, coming into this responsibility as stewards follows a certain path – the archetypal Hero’s Journey – of separating from our source, establishing an individual center of identity (ego), and then releasing this hard-won identity for a deeper and larger experience of oneness.

Empathy

Whether leaders and the rest of us can lead and live by the principle of stewardship is dependent on the quality of connection we enjoy with others. If individuals have difficulty identifying themselves as partners in a system (the relationship itself), the cause is often rooted in a lack of empathy. When we cannot connect in deep and meaningful ways, the higher systems of our life together go unseen.

The best way I know of properly defining empathy is by comparing it to its sound-alike: sympathy. Literally ‘sympathy’ means “to suffer with” (or alongside) another, to be affected by their pain or misfortune. The different prefix “em” (or en) denotes a critical shift in position, from alongside to within. In other words, the individual transcends his or her separate identity – this time not outward to the larger system encompassing them both, but inward to a place of essential oneness prior to their differentiation as individuals.

By virtue of their identical natures as living, sentient, and self-conscious human beings, individuals are capable of an empathetic connection.

Our first experience of empathy was when we lived literally inside our mother and our developing nature drew its life from hers. Once we were born and officially began our own Hero’s Journey, the formation of a separate identity slowly (but at times dramatically: think of adolescence) pushed our self-center out and away from the source.

Even though we continued to carry within ourselves those deeper registers of sentient life, and with them at least the capacity for empathetic connection, the degree in which our ego formation got hooked into neurotic hangups made much of this natural capacity unavailable.

The leaders we need today are individuals who are grounded, centered, and open empathically to the experience of others. They are the ones who truly understand that we’re all in this together.

Integrity

This brings us to my third principle of leadership, which actually comes first in the evolutionary sequence and serves as the basis of human proficiency in a general sense. Integrity refers to a state whereby two or more elements hold together as one. In this case, psychosomatic integrity speaks to a unity of mind and body – or more accurately of soul and body, where ‘soul’ names our deep inner life rather than an immortal entity (the so-called true self or “real me”) residing in the body.

The integral balance of soul/mind and body is a growing fascination in psychology, which is coming to regard this balance as a key to understanding a large number of disorders, illnesses, and troubles afflicting our species. When early life experiences get us hooked into neurotic patterns of insecurity and defensiveness, mistrust and self-doubt, suspicion and resentment, our restless mind doesn’t let our body calm down and recover. Instead, our animal nature loses its resilience, succumbs to the stress, and even starts to attack itself.

The leaders we need today are individuals who successfully manage their psychosomatic integrity, who express strong interpersonal empathy with others, and who live in stewardship of the systems on which our lives, health, community, and human future depend.

When given the opportunity, let’s try to elect more of them.

 

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