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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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The Enjoyment of Wellbeing

A large number, maybe even the majority of us are managing unhappiness from day to day. We have hope that the script will flip and we’ll break through to something more satisfying, but the wheel turns again and we find ourselves in the same old cage as before. By god, we want to be happy, but there are just so many things that seem to get in the way.

There’s always tomorrow.

If we understood the cause of our unhappiness, perhaps we could snap out of it. Our tendency is to blame things and other people outside ourselves for how we feel. Our circumstances are the reason we’re stuck; that’s why we’re unhappy. Which of course means that our hope for happiness awaits a better job, a different spouse, a new set of circumstances. If the problem is outside of us, the solution must be as well … or so we tend to believe.

But it isn’t outside of us, neither the problem nor the solution. Understanding our unhappiness and why we spend all this time and energy trying to manage it is the only way through. Otherwise all we’re left with is hanging curtains in our prison cell to make it seem more like home.

The question we need to ask is how we got into this cage in the first place. Logically if we reverse our steps and unwind the script that landed us here, we should be able to make some different choices.

Let me start this process by distinguishing between what I’ll name primary concerns and ultimate concerns. Primary concerns arrived at our door even before we had the capacity to reflect on them. In fact, the deepest of these primary concerns pokes our nervous system far below conscious thought, at the very roots of self-consciousness.

Security is our sense of being supported in a reality that is safe and provident. As this spontaneous feeling depends to a great extent on the nurturing love and attention we received as newborns, our sense of security – and of reality at large – is a function of having caring and able parents.

But you know what? No parent is perfect, and every family system has endemic dysfunctions with histories trailing back into ancestral generations. Our mother couldn’t be present every time a pang, ache, or startle announced itself. Our father didn’t always respond with the motherly compassion we were expecting. As a result, insecurity gained a foothold in our nervous system – just a toe perhaps, or some greater degree of magnitude. But there it was. Maybe reality wasn’t so safe and provident after all.

The thing that makes a sense of security problematic, of course, is the fact that reality is not all that secure. Accidents do happen. Normal processes stray into abnormalities. We don’t get what we need right when we need it. Sometimes we just don’t get what we need, period.

When this misalignment between our needs and reality occurs at a level where we are most dependent on what’s outside ourselves, the insecurity can be overwhelming and debilitating.

When we feel sufficiently secure – not perfectly, but sufficiently – we are enabled to begin taking control in our life where necessary and appropriate. Gradually we find our center and begin relying less on our taller powers and other props. We learn how to control our sphincters, our movement, our fingers, our tongue, our temper, our thoughts, and our actions. This primary concern of control is essential to our sense of integrity: of how well our identity and our life hold together, persisting through time and across circumstances as a unified system.

But when we are insecure, this natural progress toward control gets complicated. The feeling that we are not safe and that reality is not provident may compel us to grab on for relief to whatever is nearby. Or we might insist on clinging to our supports longer so we can continue borrowing on the stability they provide.

In either case, our insistence on control (but not in the healthy sense) locks us up inside a web of neurotic attachments, with an unrealistic expectation and impossible demand that they deliver on our need to feel secure. That’s what the cage represents in my diagram above.

In this condition, freedom, the third of our primary concerns, is simply not possible. Besides, the very idea of freedom provokes anxiety in us since it would mean being without all these safety strings attached. The prospect of living outside the cage is terrifying when we’re convinced that reality is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Having all we need to feel secure in our prison (though not really), we may only dream of freedom. But we will sure as hell never leave what we have for its sake. This is what I mean by “managing unhappiness.”

The short dotted arrow extending vertically from primary concerns to ultimate concerns indicates that while the process of development would normally cross this threshold, many of us choose to stay inside the bars. True enough, we probably don’t see this as a choice we’re making but simply as the way things are.

We are just making our way as best we can, except that this ‘way’ is going nowhere. Time’s circle finds us in the same state of mind as the day before, as the year before. And even if we manage to exchange one disappointing relationship for another, the same neurotic insecurity soon enough makes it just another prison.

Before we leave this tragic condition, I should make the point that all our chronic troubles as a species can be traced to this preoccupation with managing unhappiness. All of them. It’s even likely that a majority of our medical ailments and diseases are psychosomatic – not merely comorbid with our neurotic insecurity, but caused by it.

Think of all the economic, political, and religious strife over the millenniums with its cost in terms of hopes trashed, lives lost, futures foreclosed. All because we are convicts of our own convictions, hostages to ideologies we have ourselves created in the expectation that maybe this, maybe that will bring us what we presently lack.

A few have found liberation, though not from the insecurity of existence. They realize that life is not perfectly secure, and neither is their longevity or individual prosperity guaranteed. Their key realization, however, has to do with the difference between the inherent insecurity of our situation and the open option of allowing that fact to shake our nerves to shreds.

There is always the option (which is why it is qualified as ‘open’) of releasing the anxiety, recovering our center, taking control where we need to, and choosing another way. Not a different partner or profession, but something that ultimately matters.

Only when freedom is embraced and not abandoned for the false security of a cage, are we able to direct our creativity and devotion beyond the management of unhappiness. The first of our ultimate concerns is purpose, which refers not to someone else’s agenda for us – even a patron deity of religion – but to our own commitment to live intentionally. When we live ‘on purpose’ we are more aware of where we are, not just our physical location but more importantly where we are in the moving stream of our life.

Opportunity reveals itself only to the one who is paying attention, who is purposefully engaged.

Perhaps the most important engagement of a life lived on purpose is with the construction of meaning. Whereas the millions who are managing unhappiness believe that life is meaningful or meaningless as a matter of fact, those living on purpose understand that life just is what it is, and that its meaning is up for us to decide. In this respect meaning is a function of the value, identity, and significance we link to things, to other people, and to the events of life.

This entire system of linkages constitutes what we call our world. Worlds are human constructions, and each of us is responsible for our own.

Meaning isn’t only an individual affair, however, since our personal worlds are nested inside larger tribal and cultural worlds. The overlaps and intersections are places where we find agreements, differences, misunderstandings, or conflicts, as the case may be. Obviously – or I should say, what is obvious to the person who is living on purpose and taking responsibility for the meaning of his or her life – whether this greater scene is a marketplace, a wilderness, or a battlefield depends a lot on our guiding principle of truth.

Is there an absolute and final meaning of life? Many who are managing unhappiness inside their prisons believe so. Indeed they must so believe because life is only bearable if there is a meaning beyond question – an infallible, absolute, fixed and transcendent meaning that makes our searching, fighting, dying, and killing for its sake worthwhile.

Or maybe meaning is never final. Maybe our world construction project will never be finished. Maybe it’s not just about how reality-oriented (i.e., factual and evidence-based) our world is, but also how effectively it facilitates our fulfillment as individuals. By this I don’t mean just another synonym for feeling happy. To be ‘filled full’ is about reaching our capacity, realizing our full potential, filling out into a fully self-actualized human being.

Because meaning and world are anchored to us as persons, fulfillment is necessarily apocalyptic: we see that our world is not the last word, that there is life (authentic life) on the other side of meaning, and that this larger experience is profoundly transpersonal – bigger than us, beyond us, including us but not revolving around us as we once believed.

Our quality of life at this level can be described as enjoying wellbeing, where being well and being whole inspire a deep joy in being alive. This doesn’t mean that things always go our way or that we always get what we want. Existence is still inherently insecure and nobody’s perfect. But we have released our demand that it be otherwise.

Happiness will come and go. Our circumstances and life conditions will inevitably change. Only now we can let it be. In time, more of us will leave our prisons where we manage unhappiness from day to day, to take responsibility for our lives, stepping mindfully and with gratitude into each moment we are given.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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The Human Journey

In my previous post The Four Ages of Life I offered a model for understanding spirituality as a deeply interior experience that evolves through the lifespan. The entire arc progresses – or more commonly, meanders – through Four Ages, different in duration but organized in such a way that each one builds on those before it, carrying forward also their shortfalls and incorporating them into the developing whole. A stage model is nothing new, but as far as I know the specific themes that I associate with the Four Ages comprise a unique theoretical arrangement.

By following the progress of spirituality – instead of, say, physical maturity, emotional, intellectual, or ethical development – I am also hoping that this scheme of Four Ages of Life will open a constructive dialogue on the topic of religion. I’ve made a case elsewhere, and many times, that religion should not be identified only with the organized brands evident around us (Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.).

As a system of utilities (stories, values, practices and beliefs) which connects us to the grounding mystery within, to others in community, and to the turning mystery of our universe, religion is everywhere. But most importantly it’s how you put it all together. You may borrow from the tradition, mythology, and symbols of a name-brand world religion (or more than one), but however you keep the concerns of existence, meaning, and daily life aligned together in a working system is your religion.

Another application of my Four Ages model has to do with that gold standard of transpersonal psychology known as self-actualization (A. Maslow). The conventional understanding of self-actualization regards it as a rather distant goal of psychological development, where the fulfillment of lower needs (survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem) provide conditions for a breakthrough beyond the limited experience and perspective of ego.

The fact that self-actualization is defined as the salient marker of transpersonal consciousness restricts its meaningful application to that point (and beyond) where an ego is securely in place, since ‘going beyond’ (trans) the personal presupposes a separate center of identity as the person we are.

Instead of a later-in-life achievement, self-actualization could be measured as the degree in which an individual is realizing his or her human capacity at each Age of Life. In addition to a transpersonal variety, then, we can also give attention to pre-personal self-actualization – achievements in the progress of spirituality that precede the formation of a personal identity. In that case, a young child might be self-actualized not in terms of wisdom but of faith.

And not only pre-personal, but even personal modes of consciousness could be interpreted according to whether and what degree one’s ego facilitates the realization of his or her human capacity at that time in life.

The above diagram pulls forward the lifespan arc model of my previous post, but with an important change. Besides conceiving the different Ages of Life in terms of chronological periods of time, each Age is depicted as a circle (or cycle) turning continuously in its own phase space. In other words, even after you have become an adult and are building out the meaning of your life, the dynamic of Faith continues to turn deeper below. Just because the critical period for a trusting release to reality is behind you doesn’t mean that the primary concern of that Age of Life isn’t continuing to affect everything about your adult engagement with reality now.

In the same way, each previous Age of Life continues to shape the development of spirituality over the lifespan.

You should notice a purple meandering line coursing across the Four Ages, making for a less schematic trajectory than the arc in the background. If you follow the meandering line, you’ll notice that its forward progress moves through alternating clockwise and counterclockwise revolutions of the Ages themselves. This is meant to suggest that, while progress is propelled by a gearing-together of our four themes (faith, passion, reason, and wisdom), it is possible for us to lose forward momentum and get ‘stuck’ inside the centripetal spin of one or another.

We’re back to the example where insufficient faith in reality keeps us obsessing over concerns around security and trust. So, even though our chronological age indicates where we perhaps ought to be in terms of our developing spirituality, complications and difficulties earlier in life can persist in holding us captive.

This allows the model to be individualized according to our unique path through life. More free-moving here, a little hung up there. Advancing toward self-actualization in this aspect, but somewhat impeded in another. If we use a simple value metric such as 1=low, 2=moderate, and 3=high to identify our degree of self-actualization in each of the Four Ages, we end up with a series of numbers (e.g., 2-3-2-1) that represents our “self-actualization profile.” The purpose would not be to compare ourselves with others, but rather to bring to light where our human journey to fulfillment needs creative attention.

It could be that traumatic events or inhospitable conditions of life early on got us hung up with anxiety over whether reality is resourceful, responsive, or reliable in any profound sense. A low value here would likely interfere with our self-actualization in subsequent Ages of Life. An insecure and defensive juvenile ego might completely eclipse a transpersonal intuition of oneness beyond the construct of identity in our later years (Age of Wisdom).

I’ve argued that the obsession in some forms of theism with glorifying the (divine) ego and saving the (human) ego from extinction actually prevents the progress of spirituality in those religions from our soul’s true destiny, which is to release ourselves to the present mystery of reality. Despite such teachings in the tradition regarding the necessity of dropping the illusion of a separate self or dying to our seed-form so that the fullness of life can spring forth, a persistent concern with personal identity and what we deserve only intensifies the conceit and strengthens the illusion.

Obviously it’s rather shortsighted to lay all the blame for our ego fixations at the doorstep of dysfunctional theism. An entire society, from religion to politics, from art to morality, from commercial interests to domestic initiatives, from its management of resources and consumption of goods to its disposal of toxins and waste, can be caught in the delusion of ego-grandiosity.

The human journey begins in the uplift of a provident mystery, comes to unique expression in our personal aspirations, and finally passes through the veil of meaning where All is One.

Where are you on the path?

 

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What’s Holding You Back?

security_self-esteem_fulfillmentIn recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of self-esteem. Our children will grow into unhappy adults unless we can build up their sense of specialness and unique importance. Young people should believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and that nobody has a right to get in their way. What this self-esteem campaign has produced is a generation of entitled and self-absorbed consumers. Whining, deserving, litigious little brats.

Okay, not all young people are this way, and it’s not just young people who are stuck on themselves. To some degree I am stuck as well, and so are you.

What might be an unimpeded path to the actualization of our true potential as human beings becomes instead an obstacle course where our time and energy are tied up with something much smaller, and much, much less important. As with all living things that develop according to a genetic ideal encoded in their DNA, human beings are destined to grow into maturity and express the essential nature of our species.

This developmental achievement is what I call fulfillment, which is not exactly the same as happiness or positive self-esteem, although these are highly correlated. When our progress to maturity is frustrated – blocked, undermined, or snagged – a fixation on being happy (or less unhappy) and admired (or at least respected) can drive us deeper into suffering. Critics of the term fulfillment tend to confuse it with a self-focused aim in life where the only outcome that matters is personal pleasure, success, and glory. But that’s not how I’m using it.

Again, our fulfillment as human beings is what comes about when our individual talents, creative intelligence, and deeper potential are actualized – discovered, expressed, and allowed to flourish.

To understand why so many of us don’t make it there, and what might be personally holding us back, we need to move our attention to where it all starts. At the other end of this developmental and evolutionary time-line is our primal need to know that reality is provident. This knowledge is not a conceptual understanding but instead plants itself in the basic workings of our nervous system.

From even before we were born, our brain and nervous system were picking up critical information from the environment and matching these with our body’s internal state. Survival was the primary concern, which meant that our baseline internal state needed to match those conditions so as to optimize our chances to live.

An impoverished, unstable, or hostile environment triggered our nervous system to assume a more vigilant baseline state, which turned up our sensitivity and decreased our reaction time to any sign of threat or danger. For some of us, this sensitivity was set so high as to keep us in a chronic state of anxiety. Most of us, however, were fortunate enough to have gotten what we needed not only to survive but to be fairly healthy and well-adjusted. But none of us came through the gauntlet of those prenatal, neonatal, and early childhood stages of life without some insecurity – not one of us.

It was this universal human anxiety that motivated our attachment: first to mother and other caregivers, then to pacifiers and favorite toys; later to friends, romantic interests, material possessions and titles of social influence. 

These attachments served to calm us down by giving us something to cling to, and we identified with them so closely that they became part of who we are. As we grew older, we simply ‘traded up’ from infantile attachments to juvenile attachments to adolescent attachments to adult attachments, but their value as anchors of security and extensions of our identity remained functionally unchanged.

The process of ego development, then, is deeply entangled with this dynamic of insecurity pacified by attachment, and the gradual construction of identity through our identification with whatever helps us feel better about ourselves. The self-esteem movement arose at a time when cultural change and uncertainty compelled many parents, teachers, coaches, and therapists to pacify us with whatever toys, accommodations, trophies, or pharmaceuticals we needed. We were the center of their attention, the consumer of all their best efforts.

We didn’t mind at all having these treasures laid at our feet, and it wasn’t long before we came to feel that we deserved it – and more!

As I said, attachment is inherent to the process of identity-formation. All of us have some insecurity over whether reality is sufficient to our needs. Is there enough of this? Will there be enough of that? Am I good enough to be loved? Will you leave me if I’m not enough for you? What if this new partner isn’t a perfect match, the next prize is less satisfying, or your promise to me doesn’t come true?

Our obsession with security, self-esteem, and looking for happiness in something, someone, or somewhere else, has us trapped in the rocks of our own altar. Each stone in our altar is an attachment we feel we can’t live without. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are. Worse yet, without this or that attachment in the construct of our identity we would succumb to meaninglessness and anxiety.

Because identity is the product of identifying with something or someone else, and because the ego looking out from this unique composition of attachments is so idolized in society and popular religion, we are entombed inside the altar of self-esteem.

Ego is everything. Or at least it’s the only thing that really matters.

Breaking free is a matter of getting over ourselves, finally realizing that our identity is nothing more than a confabulation of attachments and the outlook on reality we have from here. Everything is reduced to the frame of our convictions, filtered according to the prejudices and ambitions that define us. Once we see that, the moment when our disillusionment really sets in, is the breaking of a spell, the apocalyptic end of our world as we knew it.

Inevitably we find ourselves on the near edge of a depression, a deep hole that threatens to pull us in. If we should struggle to throw the covers back over our head and return to the trance of who we were, we likely will fall into profound anhedonia – the inability to find any pleasure, happiness, or meaning in life. We are hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it.

Wait! Maybe ______ can save me. I deserve to be saved, don’t I?

The spiritual wisdom teachings across higher cultures invite us to take a second look at this dreaded depression, whereupon we will notice that it is actually filled with water. We don’t have to fall helplessly to the bottom of a hole, for this water will bear us up and deliver us to the far shore. All we need to do is let go of who we think we are, release all attachments, and simply trust the process – or as we say, go with the flow.

In that instant we will be on the farther shore, now the starting point of a new beginning – apocalypse, resurrection, and genesis all in one.

Finally free of attachments, our relationships can become healthy; or maybe we accept the fact that we need to leave some of them behind. We take creative authority and start making choices with a much bigger picture in mind. We become more fully human as we relax into being. The deeper truth of what we are comes through, and we live it out with honesty, courage, and loving-kindness.

“The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus, “is a human being, fully alive.”

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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One Life

ego-estrangementEach of us lives inside a box where things make sense, we feel we belong, and the meaning of life is managed. We got here through a long process of socialization as our tribe shaped us into a proper member. Our identity may seem more substantial than that, but actually who I am and who you are is a social construction that has absolutely no validity outside our box. Identity and membership always go together.

Our experience inside the box has both an objective dimension, referred to as our world, and a subjective dimension, affectionately known as our self. Each of us has a self and a world, and our separate worlds periodically click together and overlap in places where our perspectives on reality are in agreement. We also disagree at times, and our disagreements can turn into conflicts – even violent conflicts as we strive to keep our different worlds intact. If my world should lose its credibility, my self is also in jeopardy since each is implied in the other.

Self is my centered experience of having an identity. Everything that is unique to who I am – my fantasies, insecurities, and ambitions; my personal myth (i.e., the story of who I am), secret aspirations, and the records I keep on those who owe me something or deserve a favor – is kept in this inner room of mirrors.

Objectively my world is not boundless, for that would imply it has no closure, and meaning requires closure. Meaning is contained and defined inside a world horizon, and anything beyond my horizon of meaning is meaningless – at least to me, and I’m the only one that really matters. (Of course you do, too, inside your world.)

Try to imagine your box, my box, and the almost countless number of other boxes that comprise the mosaic of culture: each of us trying desperately to defend our ‘truth space’ as we stay connected to (or try to avoid) the others. There’s no denying that we need each other, and that the great project of human culture somehow depends on our ability to get along, but managing the meaning of life is demanding work!

If we were fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family where we could develop our talents and potential and were positively assisted toward the achievement of ego strength, then the transpersonal experiences of communion (an inward mystical path to the grounding mystery) and community (an outward ethical path to the turning mystery) opened us to present reality outside our box. Such experiences are not about enlarging our box or magnifying the meaning of life, but instead they engage us with a present mystery that is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect). It very simply is.

It’s not about “my” security, identity, or significance at this point. Whether it comes to us as a rational observation or a mystical intuition, we are spontaneously aware that All is One; or as an ethical realization, that We’re All in This Together. I am grounded in being itself, a manifestation of the provident universe, and a participant in the higher wholeness of all things. Healthy religion has the purpose of bringing us to this position of centered strength (or personal integrity) so that we can drop inwardly or leap outwardly into the One Life.

I have to insert that qualifier “healthy” in acknowledgement of the fact that religion can also interfere with our progress to the transpersonal mystery of holy oneness. This happens when religion gets hijacked by leaders and other influencers who have failed to progress in their own psychospiritual development. Their insecurities, attachments, ambitions, and convictions have them locked inside a box that, for them, is the way – the one and only way of salvation. Yet it’s not a way at all, but a cul-de-sac, a spiritual death trap, a closed and rigid box.

When religion ordains and institutionalizes the arrested development of such individuals, eventually the orthodox portrait of deity gets twisted and corrupted into a projection of their neurotic personalities. Others under their leadership and influence contract this same sickness, and the entire company can spin into dogmatism, bigotry, violent aggression, or even suicide.

If this sounds like a description of the way things are in the Big Box of our global situation, then we have some insight both into how we got here and where the path of liberation leads. You should know, also, that there are many thousands of others who are presently waking up to the One Life all around our planet, and their percentage of the human population is steadily growing. Perhaps you and I can be instrumental in accelerating the process of awakening, by understanding its unfolding in ourselves and serving its advent in others around us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the current pathology, and then remind ourselves of the way out.

Paul Tillich was one of the most important Christian theologians of the twentieth century, and his one-word assessment of our human condition (in this stuck, sick, and fallen sense) was that we are estranged from ultimate reality, which he named being-itself or the ground of being. Estrangement is defined as the state of being removed or kept at a distance, as in the case where an individual is estranged from his or her family. Along with this separation, then, are attitudes and feelings of distrust, condemnation, shame, and hostility.

Tillich wasn’t implying that human beings are condemned by a god, but that our ‘fall’ into a separate ego has infected our general outlook on reality as something set apart and over-against us, menacing and unfriendly.

This anxious outlook on reality can take hold of a religion, as I mentioned above, but religion isn’t its only victim. Other cultural institutions, most crucially the family where the shaping of our personal identity begins, are also taken over. Whereas the gradual differentiation of a separate identity would normally lead to a stable, balanced, and unified personality under the executive management of a healthy ego, when this process isn’t conducted by a caring and supportive community, our insecurity overwhelms us and we shrink our box to stay safe and in control.

In my diagram above, estrangement is connected with two other terms which correspond to the self and world dimensions of personal identity. The fallen condition of estrangement (pathologically separate from reality) is felt internally as emptiness. Synonyms might be discontent, insatiable craving, and the belief that we are deficient or profoundly defective. Externally we are confronted by absurdity, by the nature of reality as ‘absolutely mute’ – indifferent to our needs, unresponsive, cold and uncaring. Tillich believed that the modern era could be characterized as suffering from a spiritual malady of meaninglessness (as earlier eras had struggled with guilt or death).

The condition of estrangement, then, signals our abrupt removal from unity consciousness – from both the grounding mystery within (instead, we are empty inside) and the turning mystery beyond (instead, the cosmos is absurd). This is when we are especially susceptible to religions that promise to save us from this world and reward us with life everlasting.

Where is our true liberation, then? Not in an other-worldly paradise of some kind – although even in this mythological image there is a kernel of insight, since what we seek is engagement with the present mystery of reality, which awaits us outside our box and on the other side of meaning.

 

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Inside-Out

Peace_Joy_LoveThe Great Machine of consumerism is always at work, spinning the gauzy web of illusion that enthralls much of modern consciousness. It persuades us to look outward for the secret to happiness, which today might be contained in a new-and-improved formula of this, tomorrow as an upgraded model of that, next year in some revolutionary medicine coming to market, or the new lease on life promised at retirement. Maybe it’s this sexy thing, or that job promotion.

But it never comes.

Make no mistake: we end up spending or sacrificing what we have to in order to acquire the key that will unlock our truest joy. But now it sits in the garage or on the shelf and under a pile of other keys that have let us down. The problem is, we can never know for sure if the real problem was that we tried too hard, or not hard enough; that we started too late or quit too soon; that the dosage wasn’t quite right, or that we didn’t have things in the right combination. Maybe it’s our own damned fault after all.

And that’s how it works.

It gets going very early, long before we’re old enough to have money in our pockets or sense in our heads. The first trick of the Great Machine of consumerism is to convince us that we are empty inside, that we’re ‘not enough’ and need something else to make us complete and full-filled. We can’t be happy in and of ourselves since, left to ourselves, we are lacking what it takes – whatever it takes to make us happy.

When we find our answer and place our bet, the desperate need that it be the key we’ve been looking for puts upon it an impossible expectation: “Complete me.” For a little while, the novelty and excitement seem to do the trick (this is the second trick of the Great Machine). And if our key to happiness happens to be another person, all our lavish affection is received with equal fervor – particularly if that other person is empty inside and believes she has found her key in you.

But (you know the story) our impossible expectations cannot be realized. Disappointment is inevitable, our frustration mounts, and we grow increasingly anxious as this latest secret to happiness is exposed for the counterfeit it is. The fault, contra Shakespeare’s Cassius, must be in our stars, certainly not in ourselves. So … it’s time to find the real thing.

And off we go.

In the dark wake of our programmed bereavement, many are ready to agree that this so-called ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a misguided pipe dream. Who told us that we always needed a smile on our face and a lift in our spirit? Why do we have to always be of good cheer and turn our frowns upside-down? Let’s just take happiness as it comes, if it comes, along with everything else. If we need to talk with someone or take medication to help us stay in the game, then maybe this prophylactic margin of cynicism (how about we call it ‘realism’?) will keep us from having to suffer … very much.

Of course, you see the real problem, don’t you? It’s neither in the stars (out there), nor exactly in ourselves. The joy we’re looking for cannot be found, because it’s already ours. It is a spontaneous expression of inner peace, of our spiritual release to the grounding mystery of being itself. This ability to simply relax into being and rest in the rise-and-fall of the life process is what we naturally did in our mother’s womb, and for a short time afterwards.

Then we got pulled under the spell of our own emptiness and helplessness, and of our need for a salvation from outside us. Unhooked from our inner peace in this way, the secret to happiness could only be out there. From that moment, the natural inside-out flow of our self actualization got reversed to an outside-in program of gulping consumerism; we were re-hooked, but now to the Great Machine.

The good news – the gospel, dharma, or whatever you want to call it – is that we don’t have to stay under the spell. True enough, we have a choice between a genuine joy arising from inner peace and the cheap thrills (though much of it ain’t cheap) beckoning to us from the TV screen. But when we do choose to turn off the Tube and let our focus sink into the Real Presence of mystery within, we find ourselves resting in a provident universe – from the circling stars in their galaxies overhead to the quantum oscillations of consciousness inside our cells. The still center of this turning magnitude resides right there, in you; and the other one is right here, in me.

When we live out of this center, an inner sense of wellbeing rises and fills us with joy. This is not the fleeting thrill and spasmodic cheer we often mistake for true happiness. Joy is a perennial bloom whose secret source is not outside us, but not exactly inside us, either. A better term would be ‘within’ us – with and in and deep beneath the persons we are pretending to be. Joy is not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’, but is rather the lift of being and fullness of life in us, manifesting as us, and flowing through us.

Perhaps it is another name for the human spirit.

Joy, or genuine happiness, is inwardly rooted, deep in the peace of our grounding mystery. We don’t need to look for it because we already have it. Once we realize this – the moment we really get it, our understanding of love makes a radical shift. What had been our lust and longing for what will complete us and make us happy is transformed into an outflow of creative goodwill and selfless generosity.

Because we no longer need something or someone else to make us happy, the deep contentment of inner peace and our spiritually grounded joie de vivre can move us into the world without this complication. We can reach out and give of ourselves with no strings attached, no demand for reciprocity, no expectation of reward.

Love which is as joyously free as that, is a love that can save the world.

 

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Impossibly Human

Schedule of NeedsI spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of human beings and what we need to be fully human. In that quest is an acknowledgment that humans don’t always live up to their potential – that, in fact, we frequently underachieve or leave unrealized what is in our nature to become.

Perhaps due to the ambivalent “gift” bestowed on us by God or evolution, referring to our ability as self-conscious choosers to determine our own destiny, ours might be the only species on this planet that routinely frustrates its natural design. There is in the apple seedling an impetus or inherent purpose that drives development towards becoming a mature fruit-bearing apple tree. Nature has provided us with something similar, but our self-actualization takes us far beyond physical maturity and reproductive fitness.

The analogy is still provocative, however: If apple seeds are intended to become apple trees, what is the analogous evolutionary ideal that is even now tugging at our genes, shaping our personalities, and luring us in the direction of human fulfillment? Almost two and a half millenniums ago, Aristotle named this internal impetus or inherent purpose the entelechy of a living thing, an inner aim that guides development to its natural completion. Apple trees just “go with the flow” and attain self-actualization practically every time, while human beings, with our self-conscious free will, end up getting in our own way and almost always make a mess of ourselves.

In this post I will present a theory of human needs, about what we need to be fully human. Instead of categorizing these needs according to where they fit among the “stacking” intelligences of our physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects – exemplified most famously in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – I will consider the possibility that our needs as human beings are not so stackable and complementary, but are rather inherently in tension with each other.

To satisfy one need puts a strain on other needs; and to hold on to satisfaction – or to think that we can “get it” and be done – around any of our needs will tend to generate anxiety and ultimately depression, insofar as the latter is a state where we lose hope of ever finding what we really need. This inherent tension among our needs, along with our tendency to get hung up in anxiety or pulled down into depression, might make us wonder whether our species represents a failed experiment of nature. We got loaded with a set of needs that is impossible to satisfy as a whole. Maybe.

My diagram above lays out what I regard as our evolutionary needs as human beings. The “stair-step” design is an effort to avoid the limitations of the stacking model, which is too vertical and static, while retaining a developmental perspective. Needs to the left are both deeper and earlier than those to their right, just as needs to the right are higher and later than those more leftward. I don’t want to dispose entirely of the idea that our needs open up in some kind of sequence (thus the left-to-right progression up the stairs). But with each “step” a new element of tension is added to the mix, further complicating the prospect of self-actualization as we go along.

So let’s dig a little deeper into each of these five human needs, and try to get a feel for how impossibly human we really are.

SecurityI define security as the assurance an individual is encouraged to have by virtue of being grounded in a reality experienced as provident and supportive. By identifying it with an inner assurance I am deliberating separating security from the question of whether the individual’s reality is actually provident and supportive. In other words, security is an internal perception more than it is a description of external conditions.

Typically when our biological urgencies for air, nourishment, protection, and bonding are met, the “idle speed” of our nervous system gets set to an RPM that is relaxed, calm, and open to our surroundings. The organism-environment duality is perceived as auspicious and favorable to life – in Einstein’s words, the universe is friendly. We needed security – this assurance – when we were born (even before), and we haven’t stopped needing it ever since.

EnjoymentBut soon we need more than just to feel secure – not just more secure, but something more than security alone. Our developing nature opened out to reality in quest of enjoyment: pleasure, amusement, happiness, and excitement. To enjoy something is to find joy in it, or to take joy from our experience of it. While security has to do with the mood or mode of being as calibrated in our nervous system (anxious or calm, recoiled or open to reality), enjoyment is about emotional engagement with what has our attention.

Because enjoyment requires an open engagement with reality, this need introduces “competition” with our need for security. While security is basically passive in seeking confirmation that reality is provident to the animal urgencies of our body, our need for enjoyment compels us to actively seek what will bring pleasure and excitement. Opening ourselves in this way to reality, however, exposes us to pain and harm as well. It seems we can’t have total security and real enjoyment at the same time.

MeaningPerhaps the first efforts at meaning-making in humans were inspired by a need of consciousness to ascend to a vantage-point on reality where the inevitable suffering of life can somehow be reconciled and included in a single worldview. We need to know that the pain, hardship, and bereavement that haunt our happiness are somehow worth it.

Beyond this therapeutic function of meaning, though, is the way it crisscrosses reality with threads of causality and purpose, value and significance, identity and reference that our minds can inhabit. This web of meaning gives us a way of connecting the dots of experience, imagining patterns across the complex features of existence and otherwise confusing events of our lives. We have only recently begun to appreciate to what extent meaning is in the eye of the beholder – not “out there” in reality but projected by our minds for the purpose of making sense of things.

TranscendenceWhy can’t human beings just be content in our webs and worldviews? Why do we grow bored with the agreements and interpretations that once contained our experience so neatly? Why do we keep asking questions and challenging the answers? What is it that compels us to look over the wall, push the envelope, and try new things?

I think the answer is that we have a need for transcendence, to “go beyond” whatever boundaries and horizons define our current reality. (Let’s not forget that these boundaries and horizons are not actually in reality itself but projected onto it by our minds.) Perhaps something in us knows that meaning is a self-made illusion, and that genuine contact with reality requires a daring outreach into the unknown. Perhaps the fact that we are dynamically alive and continuously evolving beings makes it unavoidable that our comfortable castles in the air eventually become too small to contain our spirit.

I don’t want to confuse this need for transcendence with a metaphysical interest in the so-called Transcendent. This isn’t a “need for god” or for the supernatural in our lives. The compulsion to go beyond meaning is an implicit acknowledgment that humans need not simply more meaning, but something more than meaning. Since even our highest and most sacred meanings are still only qualifications on the present mystery of reality, we need to go beyond even these in our quest for authentic being.

FulfillmentI am using the term “fulfillment” here to get at the idea of self-actualization, where nature is perfected, as it were, in the mature and fully developed individual. It is common in the traditions to envision this ideal state as the liberated, exalted, and glorified personality, depicted in theism as a deity who actively expresses and models the virtues of our higher nature.

This is one of theism’s important contributions to our human adventure: What we might call “the moral character of god” (again, referring to the mythological deity) serves to attract and inspire our ethical formation in the direction of those qualities upon which human well-being and genuine community depend. With fulfillment, these virtues and attributes are gradually internalized by (or awakened in) the aspirant, opening out into new varieties of post-theism where the need for an external role-model is finally transcended.Schedule of NeedsThe question remains whether this destiny of human fulfillment is even possible, given the inherent tension among our developmental (and evolutionary) needs. Inevitably, it seems, tension produces conflict, and conflict – internal and interpersonal – gets us tangled in neurotic contradictions, chronic frustration, inter-tribal hostilities and more suffering. We grip down on the wrong things for security. Our craving for enjoyment becomes addiction. We surrender truth for meaning. We opt for self-improvement over transcendence. And in the end we sacrifice fulfillment on the altar of security, forfeiting our higher nature for the sake of a few petty ego conceits.

Perhaps we are impossibly human.

 

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