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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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Whole Picture, Whole Brain

I’ll start with a proposition, and then work it out in more detail below:

The meaning of life is an ongoing construction project involving two parallel processes, communion and knowledge.

Communion refers to an experience of no-separation, where your existence is felt as not just connected to but as “one with” the rest of it. The present mystery of reality rises into manifestation as you, but also as that other, which means that both (and all) of you express into form something which is itself formless.

If that sounds overly mystical, then you should at least be able to agree that anytime you touch this thing or that thing you are touching the universe, since these (along with countless other things, both nearby and far-flung) are symptoms of a single universal event.

Knowledge, on the other hand, presupposes a separation between you and the object you presume to know (or know about). Outside and all around you revolves that same universe, but now you are looking at the qualities that differentiate one thing from another, and you from the rest. Whereas your existence manifests the grounding mystery, it also participates in a turning mystery which includes you and everything else.

From your vantage point, each thing is apprehended according to what distinguishes it and sets it apart. Gathering this information and representing it in your mind, then testing your conclusions by repeated experiences (or more rigorously by repeated experiments) is what we call knowledge.

The construction of meaning involves both processes: (1) a deep sense of communion or oneness with reality, and (2) a conceptual representation of the objective qualities that distinguish things and allow for the classifications of knowledge.

If this also sounds like the difference between spirituality and science, then you’re on to me. For the past several years, I’ve been building a case for regarding spirituality and science as inherently complementary, non-competing enterprises in our construction of meaning. They both tell stories – the myths of religion and the theories of science – but they are not telling the same kind of story.

Myths are stories of communion, and theories are stories of knowledge. One constructs meaning out of a primary experience of oneness with reality, while the other constructs meaning as a system of explanations by which reality is increasingly known.

As I tried to show in The Wheel of Fortune, a scientific theory of the primordial singularity that released energy into matter, and a religious myth of the primordial dragon whose dismemberment by a god formed the cosmic order, are not competing explanations for how the universe came to be. The theory is an explanation about how it came to be (a question of causality and evolution), while the myth is a revelation of why (a question of intention and purpose).

Today’s science still doesn’t permit any serious consideration of intentionality in the universe, most likely because that’s the step which historically has put careless scientists on a slippery slope toward the necessary postulate of god’s existence.

In fact, religious myths are not better explanations, nor do they require a belief in the objective existence of god. Myths are narrative tapestries constructed from the dramatic elements of setting, character, intention, agency, and outcome. They were designed for traditional occasions of sacred performance, when this veil (i.e., the tapestry of words and images) would be pulled aside and the community suddenly found itself in a universe awaiting their response.

Scientific theories are not composed for sacred recital, and they don’t presume any kind of back-and-forth dialogue between human intelligence and the greater universe. Knowledge without communion produces something less than meaning, something meaningless, what Albert Camus in The Rebel named “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Camus’ nihilism was an understandable conclusion at a time (following the Second World War) when many had lost faith in human nature and hope for the future.

The modern West has been bereft of a sense of communion for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to a feeling of homelessness in the universe. An exponential increase in our knowledge registry over the past 500 years has coincided with a steady decline in our general report on the meaning of existence.

I’m not suggesting that while science sends us into despair, our only salvation is to believe in the objective existence of god, the immortality of the soul, or the literal realities of heaven and hell. The qualifying terms “objective” and “literal” indicate that what had begun as metaphors of sacred fiction are no longer appreciated as such, but have been pressed instead into service as referents to supernatural facts.

Those who believe and defend their religion as an infallible source of knowledge are responsible for its inevitable degradation to a catalog of superstitions. Once again, the point I’m making is that spirituality – along with the form it takes in healthy religion – seeks to cultivate an experience of communion with reality, not knowledge about reality.

The best analogue of this relationship between spirituality and science is the bicameral nature of the human brain. In fact, I will contend that our best way of overcoming the current impasse with respect to defunct religion and meaningless science is to consider what goes on in our brain on the path to maturity.

My diagram places a graphic of a brain at the center of the universe, the ultimate meaning of which is the shared project of spirituality and science (as earlier proposed). The right (peach colored) hemisphere corresponds to key terms on the left side of the picture, as the left (blue colored) hemisphere corresponds to the terms on the right – in the crossover of functions characteristic of our brain.

The right hemisphere has more downward-projecting nerve pathways into lower (more primitive) brain centers and the body’s internal state. Consequently it is more “somatically gifted” than its neighbor to the left (from the Greek soma for body). It houses the neural anatomy (nerve nuclei, circuits, and networks) that facilitates our gut feelings, intuitions, hunches, and premonitions. Since our language centers are located in the left hemisphere, such experiences facilitated by the right are essentially ineffable (beyond words, indescribable, speechless).

Developmental neuroscience discovered that from the time we’re born until about age ten our right hemisphere is dominant. This doesn’t mean that nothing’s going on to the left, but that our primary mode of engaging with reality is somatic – through our body, from our gut, more emotional than rational. As newborns our right hemisphere entrained with our mother’s right hemisphere to form the empathic bond that would serve as our secure base.

The experience of communion, and hence the inspiration of spirituality and many of the earliest, most enduring metaphors of religious mythology, has its roots in this resonance of brain and body (via the right hemisphere), of our body with our mother’s body, and still deeper into the rhythms of life, “Mother Earth” and the provident universe.

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11, the average human brain makes a dramatic shift from the right hemisphere and into the left. The talents of our left hemisphere are semantic, focused in language, logic, analysis, reasoning, and rationality. Just as the right hemisphere communicates with, by, and through our body, the left hemisphere uses the conventions of language to participate in the collective mind of our tribe and culture. In this way we acquire a knowledge of reality that builds on the theories of others as well as on our own observations.

That word “observe” helps to distinguish the strength of our left hemisphere from that of our right. Observation presupposes a critical separation between observer and object, a separation brought about by the right-to-left shift mentioned above – a shift away but not apart from the right. Our right hemisphere takes in reality from its unique position of communion with it, which is what is meant when we “behold” something. We don’t gather intel on a separate object with our five physical senses, but rather we grasp something by our sixth sense of intuition prior to its separation as an object.

Our brain’s leftward shift can be mismanaged by culture (as it has in the modern West) into more of a severance, where the values of observing, analyzing, and explaining reality not only outweigh but drive out the right-sided virtues of beholding, contemplating, and revealing its mystery.

I suspect that our Western conflict between science and spirituality – which, I need to stress, is distinct from that between reason and superstition, or between ethical responsibility and religiously motivated terrorism – is really the cultural manifestation of our failure to integrate the two hemispheres of our brain.

What could (and would) be a normal developmental process of drawing an intuitive sense of communion with reality (right hemisphere) into our empirical knowledge about reality (left hemisphere), has instead collapsed into a sense of being adrift in an indifferent and meaningless universe. Our knowledge won’t ultimately matter – that is, it won’t support and enrich the meaning of existence – unless we can recover our communion with reality.

 

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The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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The Human Path

Full Picture EvolutionHuman beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.

Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.

As far as we know, only human beings have egos.

My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.

Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.

These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.

Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.

Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.

This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.

But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.

As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.

It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!

One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.

When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.

Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.

My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.

Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.

 

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Here You Are

BES_Personality CodeOnce upon a time you fell out of union with maternal providence and exited to a realm of bright light, sharp noises, cold air, and hard surfaces. In an instant your animal instincts were activated in the business of keeping you alive. If all had been well in the womb, then in all likelihood this new blooming, buzzing environment soon resolved into the soft warm skin and cooing face of your mother. Her (or your caretaker’s) attentive presence quickly calmed your nervous system and helped you feel assured that reality was sufficient to your needs.

This assurance, imperfect as it is and without guarantees, is known as security. I symbolize it in my diagram above with a triangle, stable with a wide base and balancing everything else on its tip, suggesting that under conditions of insecurity the higher system might not hold together so well. When the nervous system registers a hostile reality instead of a provident one, the resulting pathology can be a borderline personality chronically at risk of falling through the floor and into the body’s urgency.

Your adequate care outside the womb provided an attachment bond which partly pacified your lingering insecurity, as well as served to shape your brain for life in relationships. Research confirms the vital significance of that primal bond, as a mother’s right (intuitive, emotional, and empathic) hemisphere entrains the infant’s brain into a coherent state. I have symbolized this need for attachment with a circle, with its suggestion of inclusion and belonging. If you imagine a vertical energy axis anchored in your gut where the environment is metabolized into the mass and energy of the body, then with attachment our focus has shifted upward to the heart-center.

While we’re on those shape symbols, let’s complete the set by adding a square to represent your emerging need for meaning – to have a mental model that makes sense of reality as you experience it. We’ve moved now from the heart to the head. The frame of your square tends to be as large as your attachments allow, which is simply to say that stronger attachments have the effect of shrinking the scope of relevance only to what is urgent or useful in keeping the bond intact. As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings construct rather than “discover” in reality. You are always busy making meaning that protects your attachments and calms your insecurity.

All of this goes into what I have called your Personality Code, referring to the preferred way you orient yourself in reality (gut/security, heart/attachment, or head/meaning) and the relative clarity of consciousness across the three centers. A high degree of clarity correlates with “ego strength,” where your personality is sufficiently stable, balanced, and unified to support experiences of ego-transcendence known as power, love, and truth. For more on the Personality Code, see http://wp.me/p2tkek-DE.

Almost imperceptibly we started with your birth once upon a time and followed the path of early development into your personal identity as an ego. The steps along the way to a fully established sense of who you are – all the drama around your need for security, attachment, and meaning – shaped part of your personality that sits just beneath and behind Captain Ego, called your inner child. I’ve put the term in square brackets to make the point that your inner child, which was who you were during your actual childhood, is today kept inside and out of your adult affairs.

However, still today as an adult whenever you get pinched, triggered, or poked emotionally, to the extent that you feel your security, attachments, and meaning threatened, something very “childish” comes out of you. You become reactive, impulsive, defensive, aggressive, manipulative, or sullen. The particular forms of expression this takes for you is what I have named your neurotic styles, which evolved as adaptive strategies for getting your way. For more on that, see http://wp.me/p3e1Rr-5Y.

It’s important to see that your ego is not some thing, like a metaphysical entity living inside your body. It is simply the self-referencing center of executive control that inhabits the roles provided by your tribe (family, peer group, professional community, political party, nation, etc.). Not only is your ego an actor playing a variety of roles in the realm of relationships, it also serves the function of managing the numerous “sub-personalities” that live inside you. You know these sub-personalities as distinct trajectories of impulse, mood, and motivation that come out and drive your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. One of ego’s principal contributions is to provide some executive management over these various (and occasionally competing) aspects of your personality.

For the most part your ego does a decent job managing this crew and steering through the role plays that comprise your daily life. Somehow through it all you want to keep your identity intact, feel secure, stay connected to the people who matter to you, and live a meaningful life. The system that makes this possible is called your world. In previous posts I have described this concept of a world on the analogy of a spider web. The spider (your ego) spins out a design of thread (your world) across The Void and proceeds to live inside it. Your world is your personal “spin” on things, the peculiar way by which you construct meaning, connect to others, and maintain your sanity.

In my diagram you’ll notice that ego isn’t the crowning achievement or last word on what a human being is or can become. While experience at this level is very dramatic and seemingly all-important, ego and its world are really nothing more than a delusion of consciousness. The neurotic styles of your inner child, the role plays where so much of your attention is invested, and even that executive center of identity called “I, myself” (ego) are a kind of reaction-formation entirely conditioned by your upbringing, your socioeconomic location, your life circumstances, and the somebody you’re trying to be. It’s not only possible but highly likely that most people spend an entire lifetime (in the Orient, numerous lifetimes) striving to keep it together, hold on to what matters, and reach a better station at some point in the future.

The spiritual life is ultimately about an awakening of consciousness beyond ego and its world. While this idea is too often conveyed in mythic-literal language as an out-of-body, end-of-life deliverance to a heavenly paradise, it is actually all about here and now. In fact, because the ego-world duality effectively cuts out a genuine present-moment awareness of existence, awakening from this trance (earlier I called it a delusion) brings you to the very ground of your being, where “I” dissolves away and All is One. This is what I name the present mystery of reality.

Your higher self, then, not only refers to your taller adult self that is capable of taking a more rational and responsible perspective on things. It also names your creative authority for transcending (“going beyond”) me and mine (as well as beyond the tribal us and ours) in a larger, more inclusive, interconnected, and holistic understanding. It is in this spirit that the term “universe” is used to speak of all things turning as one. Rather than merely naming a scientific fact, this concept expresses a spiritual realization, which is to say, a realization reached by your spiritual intelligence (SQ) of the unity of being. In other words, as I’m using it here, “universe” is not simply what’s out there and all around us, but a sacred name for the breakthrough intuition that here and now is all there is.

The universe is not only infinitely larger than your personal world, insofar as it exists on the other side of meaning; it is also prior to all meaning, deeper than words, and nothing (no thing) to speak of. It is: this – farther out than you can see, and That which quietly contemplates it all through your eyes …

 

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Your Personality Code

Gut_TriangleThe triangle symbolizes security and power. Its broad base gives it stability, while the ascending peak anchors its energy to a central axis that keeps it from tipping or being easily moved. This might be a favored shape in your own personality code – referring to the preferred way you orient yourself in reality and engage the world around you. If it does represent your modus operandi in life, this doesn’t have to imply that you are a power monger or tend to push others around, but you probably do enjoy having influence in what’s going on.

Heart_CircleThe circle symbolizes attachment and love. Its round enclosure suggests wholeness and inclusion, while the endlessness of its curve speaks of rhythm and eternal recurrence. If this is the favored shape in your personality code, then you probably place high value on connection, inclusiveness, and intimacy. It doesn’t have to mean that you are sappy or an emotional pushover – although you could be. You might guess correctly that Triangle people and Circle people sometimes don’t get along well, or else they get stuck together in co-dependent relationships.

Head_Square

The square symbolizes meaning and truth. Its boxy shape suggests containment and conclusion, where things are packaged up and put away. The four sides also connote wholeness – not by inclusion (as the circle) but through bringing together different aspects, dimensions, or viewpoints (as in the four cardinal directions and the “four corners of the world”). If your personality code favors the square, then you are a person who engages the world rationally, who wants things to fit together and make logical sense.

I started our review of personality-code shapes with the triangle and ended with the square because that particular order reflects the actual sequence of stages in human development. Our need for security dominates early infancy, when we are forming our deepest impression concerning the provident nature of reality. This impression is registered in our nervous system as a set-point to which our mood, mindset, outlook on life, and emerging worldview will be tethered as we develop.

Depending on whether we feel secure in the care of our higher powers, attachment proceeds either in a healthy direction (infant-mother bonding) or else we attempt to pacify our anxiety by desperately clinging to mother and insisting on being comforted. If our mother (and the family system overall) is anxious and insecure, our insistence on keeping her close will regulate somewhat her anxiety, thereby pulling us both (or all of us) into a co-dependent web of mutual support.

If our family system was characterized by a general insecurity and these co-dependent attachment strategies, our personal construction of meaning was probably closely monitored and prescribed by the higher powers in charge. It was necessary that our mental picture of reality (or worldview) conform to their “orthodoxy.” The stories we told about others and ourselves, our beliefs concerning good and evil, right and wrong – along with the metaphysical backdrop of supernatural forces and principalities – all of them had to match up and justify our shared outlook on things. To belong was to be a confessing member of this orthodoxy, “one of us.”

3 ChakrasWhat I’m calling your personality code, then, might be thought of as the way your individual history (especially your early history) programmed your engagement with reality along an axis of three coordinates situated at points corresponding to your gut (security/power), your heart (attachment/love), and your head (meaning/truth). If the triangle, circle, or square represents your preferred way of engaging reality, then the values associated with that shape (as briefly described above) are what typically orient and motivate your choices in life. Thus we might speak of “triangle types” (or T-types), “circle types” (or C-types), and “square types” (or S-types) in naming how individual personalities operate in the world.

The physical location of these centers in the body is easily verified in ordinary experience. When we feel that our support is being threatened or taken away, when we don’t feel prepared or confident in our ability to meet a challenge, when we are required to stand in front of a group and give a speech – in such times, don’t we typically experience upset in our gut? And when a loved one betrays our trust, abandons us in our need, or is taken from us by death, don’t we commonly speak of this as heartbreak? Finally, when we are unable to make sense of something, when life throws us a curve and our working theory of how it all holds together no longer works, don’t we often experience the disorientation as tension around our eyes and a dull throbbing headache?

Instead of reading the “/” (forward slash) in the word-pair as “and,” as in security and power, the terms actually comprise an opposition of sorts. In fact, a real appreciation of the difference between security and power, attachment and love, meaning and truth might dawn for most of us only later in life, at that critical time when our spiritual awakening is pushing against the boundaries of who we think we are. Our identity up to that point is a summation of numerous identity contracts we hold with ourselves and negotiate with others around us, going way back into our infancy when we formed that deep impression regarding the provident nature of reality.

If we can allow the realization to rise within us, we will come to understand the extent in which our authentic power has been relinquished for the sake of a false sense of security. We will understand how our attachment to possessions, other people, and tribal identities has closed down our capacity for empathy and genuine love. It will become clear to us how our commitment to meaning actually removes us from direct contact with reality, with the truth of things. When we are locked up as convicts inside our convictions, the true nature of existence and its ineffable mystery is inaccessible to us.

The point here is that, while security, attachment, and meaning are necessary to our healthy development, these very developmental achievements can interfere with the full activation of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). This interference can be particularly strong if our personality code is complicated by early trauma, chronic adversity, and tribal mind control.

But the good news is that our innate drive toward self-actualization – what propels every organism into maturity (Aristotle’s entelechy) – continues to seek fulfillment. The day hopefully comes when we discover our power, embrace all things in love, and allow our veils of meaning to fall away before the present mystery of reality.

 

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Human Doing and Human Being

Morality (from the Latin mos, custom): Folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.

Ethics (from the Greek ethos, custom): The body of moral principles or values governing or distinctive of a particular culture or group.

My description of the ethical function of religion has prompted a few of my readers to request a more careful definition of what I mean by the term “ethical,” and how (or whether) it differs from another word, “moral,” that is commonly used in this regard. Before I answer this question, I’d like to put the ethical function of religion back into context where it serves as the fulfillment-in-behavior of an experience that begins in the (sometimes shocking) awareness of the grounding mystery in which All is One (i.e., the mystical function).Four Functions of Religion_TreeIt’s helpful to consider the system of religion’s four functions on the analogy of a tree. The mystical function corresponds to the tree’s roots reaching deep into the silent ground, while the ethical function is symbolized in the fruit, which is where the mystical nourishment from down within finds productive expression and fulfillment. As I see it, this flow from mystical experience to ethical behavior is not direct, but is rather mediated through the other two functions of religion.

The articulate structure of the tree’s trunk and branches represents the doctrinal function, which is where the spontaneous realization of oneness is converted into meaning. (Don’t we still talk about the various “branches” of knowledge?) Ultimately, the behavioral product (or produce) of ethical conduct calls on the support of inquiry, judgment, reasons, and justifications – in other words, it depends on a context of meaning. We don’t just “automatically” do the right thing; ethics is about intentional behavior that involves a reasonably articulate understanding of what really (and ultimately) matters in a given situation.

In my illustration above, the leaves of the tree are opened out to the light of the sun from whence they draw the energy necessary for photosynthesis. Both the sun and the outreaching leaves symbolize the devotional function of religion – the sun as a representation of the deity, and the sunward orientation of the leaves representing the aspiration of devotees. In religion the deity isn’t only “above” the community as the object of its worship; he or she is also “ahead” of the community as its aspirational ideal, depicting the higher virtues (compassion, kindness, fidelity, forgiveness, etc.) into which human nature is evolving. As they elevate a merciful god in their worship, the community is really glorifying the virtue of mercy itself as an ideal worthy of worship …

… and worthy of ethical pursuit. This is where in theism the devotional and ethical functions connect. And whereas in theism proper this connection operates under the radar of explicit awareness, in post-theism the literary character of the deity is appreciated as a construct of the mythic imagination which has been evolving in an ego-transcending and humanitarian direction over its long career.

This distinction between behavior that is pre-reflective – “under the radar of explicit awareness” – and behavior that is guided by critical reflection is the most helpful way of distinguishing morality and ethics. As can be seen in the dictionary definitions above, both words trace back to the same basic idea (a “custom” or way of doing something), one deriving from Latin and the other from Greek.

As their meanings later merged and developed in common usage, morality and ethics became differentiated to where morality now refers to the “unquestioned” rules and value-judgments that group members live by, while ethics entails a higher level of philosophical reflection on the principles that (perhaps should) govern human behavior.

This difference corresponds exactly, I would argue, with the phases of “early” and “late” theism, where early theism enjoins right behavior “because god commands it and will punish you if you don’t” and late theism exhorts followers to “be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful” (Jesus in Luke 6:36). This is the shift from obedience to aspiration, which I have suggested is a leading indicator in the genuine progress of theism into post-theism (see “Stuck on God“).

We all know that Nietzsche was bitterly critical of what he called “morality,” urging his generation towards the ideal of his “Overman” or ethical superman who throws off the chains of unquestioned moral customs – especially if these are placed beyond question by ecclesiastic orthodoxy – in order to take up their own lives in world-affirming passion. He didn’t believe that taking away the moral prescriptions of childhood would leave grownups without ethical purpose or direction. In this respect Nietzsche sounds a lot like the apostle Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Our continuing challenge, as I see it, is to urge adults to grow up and not stay in that comfortable groove where because I said so – the “I” here being the parent, the police, or the patron deity – is the motive force behind our actions. True enough, actual children need this supervisory incentive for pro-social behavior, as their brains and social worldview are still in the process of opening up beyond the limited range of self-interest.

What we need are adult caregivers and educators who have advanced sufficiently into their own self-actualization and expanded horizons-of-life to support and encourage youngsters into maturity with “reasonable urgency.” We can still speak to them of provident reality in personal terms, as god’s benevolent care for all creatures, even as god’s loving concern for each of us. But at some point, the adolescent needs to be invited to take up his or her creative authority and become a self-responsible benefactor of the greater good, to embrace life on the other side of god (post theos).

So we progress, however slowly and by fits and starts, from morality to ethics.

 

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