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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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A Method of Dialogue, Step Three: Deliberation

Making meaning in community can be difficult work. Even in what I call ‘genuine community’ there will be misunderstandings and occasional conflict. Partners in community don’t always get along, but when they find themselves at odds they know how to work together for resolution.

In this mini-series of blog posts I am describing the steps or phases of a method for engaging dialogue, building community, and resolving conflict. My Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue is based on a therapeutic approach that empowers individuals to take creative control of their lives.

Much about life is beyond our control, but where we put our focus – what we think about, what beliefs we hold, what feelings we have, and what we do with all this internal mentallurgy – is ours to decide.

So far, we’ve explored the phases of preparation and consideration. Individuals need to be fully present before they can engage each other as partners in creative dialogue. Once engaged, they need to focus their work on opening a space where each can feel safe, welcome, and included. As I explained, the phase of consideration is ‘considerate’ of the differences that partners bring to the table; but it also helps them transcend their differences in a quest for common ground.

Only by staying on the narrow path between urgency (Scylla) and conviction (Charybdis) can we identify the mutual interests and shared values that will lead us to resolution. In this post we will look deeper into the third phase of creative dialogue, DELIBERATION, where partners enjoin a strategy for clarifying their desired outcome.

In Mentallurgy we give a color-code to four primary attitudes or energy states of human beings. Green represents desire, gratitude, and hope. Yellow stands for fear, anxiety, and worry. Red means anger, frustration, and resentment. Finally, Blue is our color-code for sadness, disappointment, and grief. An aim of therapy is to help the client (called a “creator”) to more consistently ‘lean into green’ – or in other words, keep their focus on what they really want.

Individuals often seek therapy in the first place because their focus has gotten stuck on things that make them feel anxious, frustrated, or disappointed. In short, they’re focusing on what they don’t want and can’t get unstuck.

In the DELIBERATION phase of creative dialogue partners clarify their desired result, commonly called the goal (‘G’ in the diagram above). The goal is what they want to reach, accomplish, or achieve. It’s not merely getting to the box and checking it off, however, for the partners anticipate some kind of positive gain upon reaching the goal. This gain is the reward, payoff, benefit, or advantage their success will bring about.

Simply put, it’s not the goal itself, which is just a mark for measuring progress, but the gain expected through its achievement that partners really want. That’s why ‘gain’ is color-coded green.

From Latin for “to balance or weigh,” DELIBERATION in this context is about weighing a desired result and its anticipated gain against three other factors – all while maintaining focus on the goal. It may be tempting to simply ignore these other factors and fixate only on what we want. But this is the ignórance I mentioned in an earlier post, which is a willful disregard of things that we should be taking into account.

So, what are these other factors?

Risk

In any important endeavor there will always be some factor of risk, referring to the probability of failure – that we won’t reach our goal and get what we want (gain). Partners in dialogue who are working to clarify a truly meaningful goal need to understand that the risk of failure or falling short of their goal is one of the factors that actually elevate its value.

If there’s no risk whatsoever, the goal will fail to inspire and motivate, which is a failure of much greater consequence than merely falling short of a target. In DELIBERATION partners conspire to factor manageable risk into their strategy, not out of it. But then again, if there’s too much risk attached to their goal, the high probability of failure will likely distract partners from their creative work. That’s why the risk needs to be ‘manageable’: neither overwhelming nor nonexistent.

Cost

Any meaningful goal will take time; it may also take money or other resources to make it a reality. In this calculus of success, cost is what we need to give up, sacrifice, or lose in the process. So if gain is the anticipated value added, cost is the value we are willing to give over for its sake. Of course, we run the risk of this trade going badly, of losing more than we gain. Giving time to the collaborative pursuit of a goal at least means that partners are taking time away from other interests and commitments.

Just as with risk, however, if what partners really want costs them nothing, their goal will have little attraction or value. It won’t motivate or inspire their best effort. Cost-free ventures are generally not very interesting or fulfilling. Partners should work to minimize the cost but not discount it so much as to render their goal worthless.

Work

The third factor that needs to be weighed against the anticipated gain of achieving a goal addresses the effort it takes to get there. There should always be a challenge gradient or degree of difficulty associated with worthwhile projects. Otherwise, if a goal is effortless, it won’t be worth much. In many cases, the degree of satisfaction partners feel upon reaching a goal is proportional to the amount of effort they put into its pursuit.

When we lower the challenge gradient – as schools have been doing for students in order to show more impressive success statistics to external funders and state legislatures – we end up diminishing the factor that might otherwise help individuals discover and develop their true potential.


DELIBERATION in creative dialogue is the serious business where partners define their goal, clarify the gain they anticipate with its accomplishment, and carefully weigh this gain against the probability of failure (risk), what they will need to give up for its sake (cost), and how much effort it will require (work).

By keeping all these factors in balance, all the while ‘leaning into green’, partners will be able to draw on the strength of their synergy and grow into genuine community.

 

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A Method of Dialogue, Step One: Preparation

A method is not like a machine, where once you get it going you can step back and leave it alone. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a method of dialogue and community formation. To step back from dialogue is to abort the process and abandon community.

Furthermore, dialogue and community simply do not happen where individuals are not invested in the work.

That’s why PREPARATION is the first step or phase in the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue that we’re exploring in this five-part series of blog posts (Introduction + each of the four steps). If individuals and would-be partners in dialogue mistakenly think that they are stepping into some kind of automatic machine for making community and cranking out creative resolutions, the process doesn’t stand a chance.

The higher consciousness represented in the spiritual phenomenon of community does not (and cannot) exist separate from the individuals whose creative intentions combine and fuse in its consilient effect.

Neither is PREPARATION for dialogue a simple routine that we do as a way of getting ready for the really important stuff. As an organic process, community awakens and unfolds out of the deeper presence that partners bring to the encounter. And although I am analyzing my method of dialogue into four steps, we shouldn’t think of these as stacking blocks or even as stepping stones where we leave one for the next in line.

It’s preferable to regard them as phases, as in the developmental transformations from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Just as the butterfly doesn’t stack on top of these earlier manifestations or leave them behind, but rather incorporates and emerges out of them, our individual PREPARATION for dialogue is the interior source out of which community grows. No egg, no butterfly. No intentional presence of individual partners, no dialogue and no genuine community.

What I’m calling intentional presence can be further analyzed into three virtues, by which I don’t mean moral qualities but actuated powers, as when we speak of the potency of medicine as its virtue. In the case of our intentional presence as individuals, the virtues in our intention to be fully present can be differentiated in terms of our being grounded in existence, centered in ourselves, and open to reality.

When we are grounded, centered, and open, we are becoming more fully present.

It’s important to understand that these virtues of intentional presence are not the result of effort, as if we must work to become grounded in being, centered in ourselves, and open to reality. The truth is that we are already these, but our mind gets distracted or lured away from this truth, tangled up and captivated inside its own designs.

Each form of existence is grounded in being; if not, it wouldn’t be. Each individual is centered in itself; if not, it wouldn’t be one. And it’s also true that we are always open to reality – to the turning cosmos (or ‘universe’) and vibrant web of life; if not, we would instantly perish.

So we require some sort of practice – a technique, a ritual, a simple meditative exercise – that can help refocus our conscious attention on this place and this moment, commonly called the here-and-now. There is no single and set way of doing this, but the counsel from our numerous wisdom traditions is pretty straightforward: Be still. Be quiet. Close your eyes and just breathe. Let yourself simply relax into being.

If a focal object in front of you helps orient your attention; if soothing music and soft light help you calm down; if counting your breath occupies your mind and keeps it from wandering away, then include these supports as needed.

The purpose of such a practice is to allow all your insecurities, all your concerns, all your judgments, and all your expectations to just fall away. What’s left is boundless presence: grounded in being, centered right where you are, and open to it all.

As we should expect, such practices of intentional presence take on the character of our local cultures and traditions. And because historically it has been the enterprise responsible for mediating our minds to the present mystery of reality, we should neither be surprised nor offended if such practices still carry some of the formal features of religion.

It is possible to ‘liberate’ intentional presence from these traditional accouterments, however; which is what we must do if our aspiration is to engage dialogue and create community across cultures in this increasingly secular and global age.

Individual PREPARATION ensures – or more accurately, makes it more likely – that the productive dialogue and consilient effect of genuine community can arise. When partners take the time to be fully present (grounded, centered, and open), the dialogical phase of consideration can begin. We’ll explore that next.

 

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A Method of Dialogue (Introduction)

For our future to be long and prosperous, our species needs to learn better ways of getting along. Our growing population, along with the steady increase in the pluralization of global culture, is making it impossible to stay inside our provincial bubbles of meaning.

More and more, we are confronted with the differences that characterize our remarkable diversity, but we’re still struggling with how to negotiate these differences and peacefully coexist. The high ideal would be that we develop methods, skills, and practices that will foster genuine community – not only in small pockets of intentional practitioners, but across the planet.

We’ve made some headway, but there’s much work to be done.

In this post and the next four, I will present a method which is highly effective when it comes to working toward resolution – whether it’s reaching agreement on a proposal, building mutual understanding, or resolving conflict between and among ourselves.

The method is based in a therapeutic approach to health and happiness that I’ve been developing for a decade and a half, called Mentallurgy, which helps individuals take creative control inside the ‘mental theater’ of their own brain. It is importantly different from – and much more effective than – both talk therapy and drug therapy (the conventional forms of therapy most common today).

Because the process for dialogue presented here uses many of the same skills introduced in my Braintracts blog, I’m naming it the Mentallurgy Method of Dialogue.

For now we’ll only take a summary overview of the Method in order to get a sense of its process. In subsequent posts I will open up each of its four phases and dig into the details. As the diagram above illustrates, effective dialogue moves through a developing sequence of steps, none of which can be skipped if we truly want to reach resolution (i.e., agreement, understanding, reconciliation, and unity).

We should start by making a critical distinction between dialogue on the one hand, and conversation, discussion, or debate on the other. The latter are either too unstructured (conversation), topic-driven (discussion), or gladiatorial in pressing for a win-lose outcome (debate). Dialogue literally refers to the collaborative process of finding common ground and making meaning in which all partners are invested.

This obviously requires some individual PREPARATION to ensure that dialogue partners come to the table in a creative, resourceful, and optimistic frame of mind. Individuals can’t do this for one another; each is responsible for doing the necessary “work before the work.” It’s common in everyday relationships for us to take a more passive, casual, or reactive role, so this step is essential for the Method to get successfully underway.

With partners thus engaged in the process, the next step of CONSIDERATION can begin to cultivate the conditions in which healthy and productive dialogue takes root. We’ll look more closely at the art of dialogue, in the way it carefully navigates a middle path between urgency and conviction – the Scylla and Charybdis that have wrecked many a ship seeking successful passage to the island paradise of genuine community.

Effective dialogue protects the space where each partner feels safe, welcome, and included.

As partners clarify their common interests and values, DELIBERATION guides them through a simple system of factors that helps focus their work together on a goal that matters to everyone. Built into the term is the idea of balance (Latin līberāre), which speaks to the importance of staying aligned with our desired outcome even as we honestly appraise the serious effort required in getting to what we want, what we may have to give up for its sake, and the possibility of falling short of our goal.

Realistic assessment, rather than starry-eyed wishful thinking, is intrinsic to the dialogical process. This careful balance of work, cost, and risk in pursuit of what we hope to gain by reaching our goal is the basic calculus of success.

RESOLUTION is where partners come to agreement, understanding, and reconciliation around the matter of concern. The goal that was clarified during the deliberation phase might still lie in the future, but there is now a shared commitment to its realization. This distinction between project (a future objective) and process (an organic unfolding) is what makes dialogue different from a mere strategy meeting.

Partners may well leave with specific task assignments, but the true resolution is a transformation by which separate individuals are lifted into the higher wholeness of genuine community.

These four steps or phases in the process of creative dialogue together comprise a method that can help move us into a more peaceful and prosperous future. In coming posts we’ll look deeper into each phase, arriving eventually at a full understanding of how we can flourish together, and not merely get along.

 

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Human Evolution

In a post from long ago entitled Humanism in a New Key, I offered an interpretation of post-theism where the re-absorption of higher virtues formerly projected in the deities of religion opens up a new era in our evolving spirituality as a species. If the idea of an external god is understood in terms of an intentional object (i.e., as a construct of our mythopoetic imagination) rather than a metaphysical one (i.e., as a being existing outside and separate from us), this critical step can be welcomed and celebrated.

I don’t presume that all theists will embrace the notion, but for many (including myself as a former theist) it can mark the breakthrough to a liberated life.

I find it helpful to view this process in the time-frame of human evolution as it has unfolded over many millenniums. Our species itself emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago, a late product of the natural evolution of life on Earth. Upon arriving, we proceeded to evolve still further under the shaping influence of culture – a construct system of language, symbols, stories, and technologies that continues to lift us by our own bootstraps.

If the evolution of nature brought about our uniquely complex nervous system and social intelligence, this gear-shift of cultural evolution will lead either to our fulfillment as a species or to our self-destruction. Because human culture is a work in progress, which direction we go remains an open question.

When our theory lacks imagination and insight, the purpose of culture gets reduced to little more than managing nature – our own as well as the natural order around us. In this view, with all its clever innovations and sophisticated methods, culture is just a fancy, interesting, but problematic way of keeping us alive and making copies of our genes – like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’, as we say. Cultures rise and fall, come and go, but we can only fall and go once from the scene of nature to be gone for good. Religion and science fiction can muse over angels and androids and faraway realms, but our real business is survival on this third rock from the sun.

On the other hand, it could be that our fulfillment as a species depends on something original to culture, something not merely derived from or sublimated out of our nature as highly evolved animals. I call this original element community – or more specifically, genuine community – and I’ve tried to show in numerous posts how religion plays a key role in its formation. Genuine community is not merely a society of individuals who get along; something much more transformative is going on.

The larger trajectory towards fulfillment is still unfolding after these many thousands of years, and we today stand on a critical threshold where our next step will bring about a breakthrough or (almost just as likely) a breakdown.

There is a debate over whether human evolution will reach its fulfillment with genuine community (as I argue) or instead with the rise of extraordinary individuals who possess super-human powers and abilities. The ‘exceptionalists’ focus their hopes on such paranormal abilities as levitation, mind-reading, bending spoons, or turning water into wine. They talk of higher consciousness, perfected nature, and immortality, but their specimens are typically from another time and quarter, or else ‘presently unavailable’ for closer examination.

When serving as a Christian pastor, I was frequently taken by how believers’ regard for Jesus as just such an exception kept him safely at a distance and released them of any obligation to be like him. Maybe the possibility was there, but only for the spiritually gifted, not the rest of us.

By shifting our focus to the evolution of community, we don’t have the option of worshiping perfection from a distance. As I see it, our advancement as individuals and the formation of genuine community are deeply correlated. Community provides the supportive environment where identity is constructed and personal commitment to the health of the whole is empowered in the individual. The individual then adds his or her creative influence to the community, which continues to foster a still higher realization of wellbeing. Thus a provident community and personal commitment progressively co-elevate the project of human evolution.

My diagram gives an illustration of this laddering dynamic. Again, a provident community instills in the newborn and young child a deep sense that she belongs. As she matures, the youngster is encouraged to participate in the community as a contributing member. And eventually, if all goes well, the young adult will take a responsible role in creating the new reality of an even stronger, more provident community for all.

This would amount to little more than a redundant cycling of new generations taking their place in society, except for the fact that it has been evolving. And the direction of this evolution – despite occasional setbacks and derailments along the way – has been steadily toward what I call the human ideal, by which I mean the fully self-actualized human being.

Like all living things, we humans have a potential locked up in our genes, but also encoded in the memes (symbols, stories, and folk wisdom) of culture, that gradually opens and develops in the direction of our maturity and fulfillment.

Beyond our physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity as individuals, there are still higher aims that have to do with our life together in community. In a recent post I identified five ethical virtues in particular that are recognized across all cultures as representing this human ideal.

My diagram displays these five virtues at the apex of an ascending arrow, which makes the point that this ideal is always ‘above and ahead’ of us, igniting our aspirations as well as measuring our progress or lack of it.

Theistic religion early on took up the task of focusing human contemplation on the higher virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, which it personified in metaphorical figures of deities – humanlike but more perfect, bending their providential powers in the interest of a cohesive community. In myths that were regularly recited and performed in ritual settings of worship, the gods ‘characterized’ how devotees were expected to behave. (As projections, they could also deify our cruder and more violent tendencies as well.)

First by obedience, and gradually more and more by way of aspiration and endeavoring to be ‘like god’, the community of believers began to demonstrate the virtues in their interactions and way of life. This inward activation of what had been externally represented marks the evolutionary threshold where theism transforms into post-theism, where god relocates, as it were, from heaven into the heart, becoming the sacred center of an awakened and liberated life.

 

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The Underground to Community

Today more than ever our planet needs us in community. Our species is so careless and disorderly, so thoughtless and destructive, so self-involved and unconcerned over the catastrophic impact our behavior is having on the larger web of life – upon which our own viability and well-being depend, it seems necessary to point out – that I wonder how far from the edge we currently are.

Or have we already gone over?

Human and nature, self and other, soul and body have fallen into pernicious divisions, to the point where nature is reacting violently to our longstanding disregard for her balance and capacity, individuals are committing violence against others they don’t even know, and even our bodies are destroying themselves as a consequence of our inattention to matters of the soul. Even if we can see this evidence, the truly concerning thing is that we are feeling increasingly powerless to do anything about it.

We need to come together for solutions, but we seem to have forgotten how.

Our solutions will need to heal the pernicious divisions just mentioned. Humans must awaken to their place in and responsibility to the living system of nature. Neighbors and nations must remember their common humanity.

But both of these breakthroughs depend on our success as individuals in managing a more holistic alignment of our inner (soul) and outer (body) life.

Our task, as illustrated in my diagram, is one of breaking through the meaningless noise of the crowd and engaging in the meaningful dialogue of genuine community. As I will use the term, crowd refers to a kind of herd consciousness that lets us be passive and anonymous, mindlessly conforming to the fashions of the majority. As mood and movement roll like waves through the herd, we let it take us and take us over.

In the crowd we are not responsible. When something sudden and shocking happens, we look up at each other and blink.

Obviously no creative solutions to the challenges we face will come from the crowd. The constant noise – which in communications theory is the absence of signal or useful information – interferes with our ability to speak intelligibly or think intelligently, damaging the inner ear that could tune our attention to a hidden wholeness. In the crowd we don’t have the distance and detachment to even regard our challenges with any clarity, so penned in are we by the commotion around us.

Joseph Campbell analyzed the ‘hero’s journey’ into three distinct yet continuous phases, beginning with a departure from the realm of ordinary life; proceeding to a stage of trials, ordeals, and revelations; and returning home again, but now with gifts and wisdom to share. In this post I will rename Campbell’s phases to correlate with the critical steps leading from herd consciousness (the crowd) to genuine community: solitude, silence, and serenity.

As mentioned earlier, this inner quest of the individual for a more centered and unified life is the journey each of us needs to make.

The hero’s departure, whether for a wilderness, desert waste, dark forest, the open sea, or a distant land, invariably moves him or her into a period of solitude. The revelation or discovery of what changes everything cannot be found in the crowd where the trance of familiarity and group-think dull our spiritual intuitions. It’s necessary to get away from the noise and out of the conditions in which our current assumptions were shaped.

Before attention can shift on its axis to a more inward and contemplative orientation, it must be freed of the usual fixations.

Taking leave of the crowd isn’t always easy. As Erich Fromm pointed out, it offers an “escape from freedom” that might otherwise require us to take responsibility for ourselves.

The cover of anonymity and herd consciousness gives us a sense of belonging to something larger, a place where we can go along with the group and not be individually accountable for our lives.

Even after we’ve left behind the noise of the crowd, however, we still have inner noise to resolve. This isn’t just an echo of group-think in our heads but includes the incessant and frequently judgmental self-talk that ego churns out. We can be sitting by ourselves in silence as the ‘monkey mind’ chatters away.

Much effort might be invested in the work of managing this nervous resident in our head – perhaps giving it something to play with, like a phrase to repeat or an object to fix its focus upon – when the real goal is to preoccupy the ego so that consciousness can make its way quietly to the stairwell.

By an underground passage we enter a vast inner silence, what I call boundless presence – away from herd consciousness and far below ego consciousness. Here we realize how much of all that is just an illusion, a consensus trance where identity is merely a role we’ve been playing and the world only a projection of meaning upon the present mystery of reality.

In the deep, slow rhythm of our breathing body, consciousness can rest in its proper ground. Here there is nothing to worry about and nothing to think about, for there is no “I” to worry or think.

This is serenity: centered, calm, open, and free.

Upon reaching the treasure of this realization, our hero’s next challenge is deciding whether to remain here forever or else bring something back to the herd, in hopes that others – even just one other – might wake from the spell. To our surprise and relief, however, we find that some are already enjoying the liberated life.

Although they still may not see things exactly as we do, we share a mutual appreciation of the fact that truth itself is beyond belief. And while our different beliefs are precious in the way they provide us with standpoints in reality, the crucial task before us is in constructing meaning that can include us all.

Such co-construction of meaning is known as dialogue, and it is the most important enterprise of genuine community. The resulting coherent system of shared meaning is the world that supports our identities, connects us to one another, orients us together in reality, and promotes our creative authority as agents of compassion, understanding, peace, and well-being.

 

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The Illusion of Who You Are

Post-theism doesn’t deny our need for salvation, only that we should expect it from elsewhere. Moreover, it’s not about getting rescued or delivered to a better place, free of enemies or bodies to drag us down. Such themes are common in so-called popular religion, particularly its theistic varieties, where believers are conditioned to anticipate the liberated life as a future and otherworldly glory. In the meantime they are expected to stand with the congregation, honor tradition, and stick to the script.

It’s not that post-theism opposes these as a “new evil” from which we now need to be saved, as when religion is made into the enemy by secular modernists who condemn it as backward and closed-minded. If we even use the term, salvation – literally referring to a process of being set free and made whole – has to do with the liberated life right now for the one who has dropped the illusion of being somebody special and getting it right.

Post-theists are more likely to seek genuine community than merely stand with the congregation, to press for contemporary relevance over turning the wheel of tradition, and to flip the script from final answers to more profound questions.

Our task, then, is to refocus our human quest (with the secularists) on the present world, but also (with some theists) on what is beyond the world we currently have in view. My returning reader is familiar with the view of constructivism that regards ‘the world’ as our shared construction of meaning, inside of which we all manage our individual worlds of more personal meaning. The world we have in view, in other words, refers to our current perspective on reality, not to reality itself.

The really real is beyond our collective and individual worlds, but it is in our worlds (not in reality) where our predicament is located.

Rather than trying to illustrate this in the abstract, let’s make it personal. Reflect for a moment on your personal world, or more accurately, on your worldview. It’s not exactly the same as anyone else’s, is it? Your worldview overlaps and agrees with some others, but there are critical differences as well.

The unique elements in your personal world are reflective of your individual lifestory – referring to the autobiographical narrative (or personal myth) that you identify yourself by. Your lifestory is a reductive selection from the stream of experience which is your life: arranged, modified, and much of it invented in the work of constructing a coherent sense of who you are.

The personal identity carried in your lifestory is therefore less than what you are in your totality – the human being of a certain genetic makeup, temperament, background, aspirations, and life experiences. In fact, it is nothing more than the persona you project to others and reflect back to yourself for validation and judgment. From Latin, persona refers to an actor’s mask through which she animates a character on stage. The mask is just an assumed identity, but it lives in a story and interacts with other actors in the progression of scenes.

Good actors make us forget that they are acting a part. You, too, have become so good at acting through the persona of identity that you sometimes forget it’s just somebody you’re pretending to be. Or maybe you’re like the majority of us and haven’t yet caught on to the game we’re all playing together.

In my diagram I have put your persona (what you project to others), your lifestory (that highly filtered and refashioned personal myth), and your worldview (the construction of meaning you use to make sense of things) inside a bubble which is meant to represent the illusion of your personal identity. I also use a fancy font to remind you that all of this is one big somewhat magical fantasy. You should be able to analyze each ‘level’ of this fantasy and confirm how illusory it all really is.

But here’s the thing: most of us don’t understand that our identity is just an illusion. To understand that, we would have to see through the illusion instead of merely looking at it and mistaking it for reality. What might otherwise serve as a ‘positive illusion’ – referring to a belief system that positively orients us in reality, connects us meaningfully to others, and supports our evolution as free, creative, and responsible individuals – becomes instead a delusion in which we are stuck. This is the predicament that our salvation resolves.

As a delusion, the unrecognized illusion of identity devolves into a profound sense of separateness from each other and everything else. Our frame of perception collapses to the horizon of personal concerns, only to what affects us and our own interests. Because the project of identity is not self-standing but depends on the assent and approval of other actors equally deluded, ego (the part of us that is pretending to be somebody) is inevitably insecure to some extent.

Of course, we want to be secure, so we form attachments to the world around us, which we hope will make us feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I name the four ‘feeling-needs’. We all have these feeling-needs, and it’s only a secondary question whether we might be safe, loved, capable, and worthy in fact. The point is that we need to feel these in some positive degree in order to have security in who we are. The deeper our insecurity, however, the stronger our attachments need to be, since they are supposed to pacify us and make us feel good about ourselves.

And as attachments require that we give up some of our own center in order to identify with them, the delusion grows more captivating the more scattered our devotion becomes.

In the diagram we have moved from in/security to attachment, and from what’s been said about attachments it should not be difficult to see where ambition comes into the picture. An ambition has a dual (ambi) motivation, combining a desire for the object and its anticipated benefit (feeling safe, loved, capable, or worthy) with a fear that the object might not be there as expected, might not stay around, might be taken away, or in the end might not be enough. Ambitious individuals are praised and rewarded in our society, which goes to show how deep in delusion a family, tribe, or nation can get.

A system of meaning called an ideology (or on a smaller scale, an orthodoxy) enchants an entire culture into believing that this is the way to authentic life.

As we come full circle in my diagram, we need to remember that meaning is not a property of reality but merely a construct of human minds. Your world is one construct of meaning, mine is another; and together along with millions of other ambitious persons we spin a web that holds us hostage in a world of our own making. Our salvation is not a matter of throwing ourselves with full commitment into this world (the secularist mistake), but neither is it about getting delivered from this world to another one somewhere else (the theistic mistake).

Instead, salvation comes as we awaken from delusion and begin to see through the illusion of who we think we are. Only then can we get over ourselves and fully embrace our creative authority, working together for genuine community and the wellbeing of all.

 

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