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Staying Safe, Playing Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hang on to that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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