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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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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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