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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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Staying Safe, Playing Small

map-of-egoOne of the odd and wonderful things about us humans is how an extended period of juvenile dependency, which makes us impressionable to social shaping like no other species, also leaves us exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of social abuse. What could open the path for creative evolution and human progress often ends up shutting us down inside neurotic hangups and rigid convictions. Odd and wonderful, but tragic as well.

My diagram is fairly complex, but hopefully not overly complicated. Let’s take a tour by starting with that smaller break-out frame to the bottom-right. Since we were very young, each of us has been on a vigilant quest for three things: security, attachment, and meaning. I reversed their order from how they are presented in the break-out frame to acknowledge their developmental sequence in our early formation.

Our deepest and most pressing concern is for an assurance that reality is provident, that what we need to feel safe, included, and nourished is actually there for us when we need it. If it is, then our sense of security functions to open us further to reality. But if we don’t feel secure, our generalized anxiety motivates us to compensate somehow for the missing assurance, which we engineer by attaching ourselves to others with the demand that they keep us safe and satisfied.

I’m using the term attachment in a way more consistent with the Buddhist notion than how it’s used in Western developmental psychology, where it commonly refers to the close and intimate bond between infant and caregiver. But let’s keep both definitions together as representing a deep paradox we have all experienced time and again: our closest relationships are often ‘the ties that bind’ us and prevent our necessary freedom and growth.

To the degree that attachments compensate for a deeper insecurity – which they are incapable of resolving, by the way – the meaning that we construct around ourselves and those we depend on to manage our anxiety tends to be small, rigid, and closed. It’s small because we can’t risk extending our horizon beyond what we can see and control. Our meaning is rigid in that it lacks flexibility and real-time relevance. And it is closed, which is to say that our mental box excludes discrepant information and alternative views, as it inhibits healthy doubt and intellectual curiosity.

Each of us, then, lives inside a narrative construction called a world, and our world both reflects and addresses our historical quest for security, attachment, and meaning. Whether our quest went well or badly in childhood, even now as adults we inhabit a world built on those early emotional codes. Inside our world is where we came to a sense of ourselves as somebody special, with an identity of our own. Despite having reached physical maturity as an adult, this deeper and more primitive part of our personality – what is named our ‘inner child’ – still comes out and takes over whenever we get poked, hooked, or stressed.

Let’s move from the break-out frame to the center of my diagram, where a larger representation of that same box is displayed. At the top and bottom of the world frame are two important insights to keep in mind. First, every world is an exercise in make-believe. (I put the word “make” in parentheses to indicate our widespread unwillingness to admit that we are doing it.) In another post I defined belief as pretending to know something and then forgetting that we’re pretending.

In other words, we act ‘as if’ our judgments about reality are straightforward descriptions of the way it really is, when there is always an element of our need or wish that it be that way.

It’s easy to forget that reality is not made up of words, or that our words – however connected and stretched into broad fabrics of meaning – are not the reality we presume to define. Reality itself, or what I call the present mystery of reality, is just that, something that eludes our mind and its dragnet of language. Of course, so far as we have closed ourselves up inside a small, rigid, and closed frame of meaning (or world), this realization will be vigorously resisted. If meaning is relative and our world is make-believe, then perhaps our identity is a fantasy as well!

Hang on to that thought.

Those who share our world – or, more accurately, whose constructions of meaning significantly overlap and fuse with our own – are just as committed to the conviction of its truth. We are exactly the somebody special we believe we are, and each of us has our place and plays our role in the web of social interactions that contains and validates our identity. Every scenario is a role-play, every player has a role, and each role comes with a script that seems to drive our behavior without us even thinking about it.

And that’s precisely the point: this thoughtless and scripted performance of social role-plays is what keeps our world turning, as it keeps us under its spell.

Welcome to the consensus trance. The word ‘trance’ is in parentheses because no one wants to admit that much of our life in society (and even in privacy) is lived in a state of robotic stupor, enacting programs that have been installed in our brains.

Moving our attention to the center of the frame we find ego, that separate center of personal identity who’s the star of our show. One aspect of personal identity faces the other – other egos, objects, and even the whole shebang of what’s going on (so-called ‘objective reality’). Particularly in our social interactions – which, we must keep in mind, are role-plays in make-believe – ego takes on what we might call ‘modal identities’, referring to who I am in this or that social context. The Latin word persona (“to speak through”) describes the mask a stage actor would wear in personifying a character in a play, usually equipped with a small fluted mouthpiece to amplify volume and aid in voice projection.

A persona might also be thought of as a kind of socially approved deception. As long as we perform our roles according to script and in conformity with the consensus trance, we can lead others to believe that we are the roles we play. Because others who share our world are already susceptible to being duped in this socially acceptable way, we sometimes take advantage of the opportunity by leading them to believe something about us that is neither honest nor true. (As we are not typically eager to confess this, I’ve put the word ‘deceive’ in parentheses.)

While our ego’s persona (one of many) displays and projects only what we want others to know about us, there is a corresponding but opposite aspect that stays out of view – or at least we try hard to keep it hidden. This is what Carl Jung named our shadow, and its dark shade covers not only the things we don’t want others to see, but also things about ourselves we have neglected or ignored. In addition to those inclinations and tendencies in ourselves that had to be pushed down and out of sight (i.e., repressed) so we could be accepted and included – and which, as Jung insisted, are frequently projected onto others who then serve as our enemies and scapegoats – there are deeper treasures like creative intelligence, artistic talents, and dormant potential that go undiscovered.

Now it should be obvious that when we are profoundly insecure, co-dependently attached, and held hostage by our convictions, the parts of ourselves we are repressing and the social deception we have to carry on just to stay in control (or so we believe) conspire to cut us off from others and from our true self. You might think that since everyone is playing along, what’s the harm?

As it turns out, the harm of staying safe and playing small is significant indeed. According to the spiritual wisdom traditions, the serenity we’re seeking as human beings, and which conventionally gets confused with the security we can’t get enough of, is only accessible by a descending path of surrender through the self. The grounding mystery is only found within, as we are able to release our need to be somebody special and simply relax into anonymous being.

And the harmony we long for, which gets confused with a quality of attachment that is not even possible, calls us to transcend the demand that others play to our script and take the ascending path to genuine communion instead. What I like to call the turning mystery of unity is beautifully exemplified in the nature of our universe (“turning as one”), but it can be found wherever individual egos can get over themselves and join in togetherness.

If we can’t – or won’t – surrender inwardly to the grounding mystery and transcend outwardly to the turning mystery, the consequence is that we end up sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security; we forfeit community for the sake of our attachments; and we come to despair inside a world that is far too small for our spirit.

 

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Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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