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Breaking the Frame

Let’s play a game, called “Breaking the Frame.”

The Frame refers to what defines right behavior and good character for a specific group of people. For each of us, The Frame began to take shape when we were very young and the family was our original group. As we got older and more involved in the world around us, The Frame expanded to include many more group members – most of whom we don’t know by name and will never meet in person.

Our American nation is an obvious example: we all live together inside The Frame of what in America is defined as right behavior and good character.

You should be saying to yourself, “What definition? There is no consensus in the U.S. regarding what makes an action ‘right’ or what makes a person ‘good’.” And of course, you are correct.

In most traditional societies exemplary behavior and character are represented in their deities, heroes, saints, and governmental leaders. For millenniums, not in every society but in the most stable and peaceable ones, a certain lineage of virtue was acknowledged as bestowed by the gods, advanced by heroes, incarnated in saints, and finally manifested in the present day by those in national leadership whose principal charge was to convey divine beatitude to the people.

Well, not so much in America.

Our current president is not godly in any sense – unless god is a glory-seeking, vengeful, and self-righteous megalomaniac (which I think isn’t far off the mark for a lot of evangelical Christians) – and he’s far from being saintly or heroic. If there ever was a lineage of virtue in the United States, Donald Trump and his deputies have completely brought it to ruin.

So the fact that the United States of America doesn’t really have a Frame inside of which we all hold a common understanding of ‘right action’ and a ‘good person’ makes our game a bit more challenging, though not impossible.

Instead of looking around ourselves for extant models of virtue, we’ll need to imagine them for now.

Because The Frame contains a group’s shared understanding of what makes an action “right” and a person “good,” I am using it as a metaphor for morality. I’m arguing that every group, however small or large, monochromatic or multicolored, needs a morality to have any hope of securing a stable and humane fellowship among its members.

To help our game move forward, I will ask you to drop down from the national level of your identity as an American (or whatever nationality you are), to the group membership you currently hold where insiders abide by and aspire to a shared morality together. Your agreement over what makes an action ‘right’ and a person ‘good’ serves to manage your mutual engagements in the interest of genuine community.

You and your fellows are separate individuals with unique identities, and the purpose of morality (The Frame) is to correlate self and world by a common set of values so that what (or who) you identify “as” relates you meaningfully to what (or whom) you identify “with.”

In other words, in identifying yourself “as” an American, you are also identifying yourself “with” other Americans. If you identify yourself “as” white, brown, or black, you are thereby identifying yourself “with” others of the same color. If you identify yourself “as” a Christian, you are ipso facto identifying yourself with other Christians – not with Jews or Buddhists or secular humanists.

It should be clear that identifying yourself “as” something places you inside a corresponding horizon of membership which includes others like you. What may not be as obvious is how this same horizon excludes – or at least ignores, screens out, or neglects – whatever (or whomever) you don’t identify with. If you identify yourself “as” an American white evangelical Christian, then you are also separating yourself from other nationalities, other races, other religions, and even from other sects of your own religion.

These “others” do not belong to your world, and they do not share your Frame. It might even be difficult, if not impossible, for you to acknowledge them as truly good persons who are doing the right things, since good character and right behavior are defined by your morality, in the service of your group.

History provides too many examples of what tends to happen when life conditions become stressful and the insecurity of insiders escalates: psychologically their horizon of membership shrinks until it includes only those with whom they feel safe. All others – even once fellow insiders – are now excluded, condemned, or even attacked.

Conceivably your horizon of membership can be so small as to include only yourself. No one else can be trusted, and you are the only righteous person left on the planet.

This scenario sheds light on what has happened to our American Frame, and why our nation is currently so divided against itself. In better times, perhaps, a diverse group of individuals were inspired to identify themselves as more than what made them different from others. Together they sought freedom, opportunity, and a genuine community that could include different races, both genders, every class, all ages, and any background, under the rule of constitutional law and human rights.

True enough, progress has been slow on more than one of these fronts, with frequent setbacks along the way. Just now, in fact, as The Frame collapses around us, our insecurities are driving us further apart.

In such times as these, “Breaking the Frame” sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be doing. But what I mean by this has nothing to do with discarding your notions of right action and a good person. It is not about destroying The Frame but rather expanding your horizon of membership in order to include more – more others, more differences,  more possibilities, and more reality.

What we call “ethics” can be distinguished from morality in the sense we’ve been using it here, in how ethics moves our inquiry beyond merely personal interests and into transpersonal horizons.

Before you can break The Frame and engage with a larger reality, however, something needs to happen within yourself. If you are going to consciously and ethically participate in transpersonal horizons, you have to stop identifying yourself “as” a person. This doesn’t mean that you forsake your present identity, abandon your roles in society, and renounce who you are.

All you need to do is stop defining yourself by what makes you separate and unique.

This is what mystical-contemplative traditions have been encouraging for thousands of years: drop out of your self-conscious personal identity (ego) and into your deeper nature as a living, sentient being. Let go of your labels, personal ambitions, and persistent concerns. Let thoughts float above you; allow feelings to come and go.

Just give attention to your breath. Sink into your body and rest quietly in the cradle of rhythms keeping you alive in this moment.

After descending to deeper centers of your grounding mystery and coming back again to the surface, you will find that identifying yourself as a living sentient being has enabled you to identify with other living sentient beings. Not only with other Americans, but people from other nations as well. Not just with your race, but all races of humankind. And not with humans alone, but with all species and with every living thing.

The whole web of life has become your horizon of membership.

Inside this expanded horizon of identity, your understanding of right action and what it means to be a good person is radically transformed. The fellowship to which you now consciously belong transcends personal ambitions and even exclusively human concerns.

Earth is your home, life is your community, and the global wellbeing of our planet is the principle inspiring and critiquing all that you do.

Don’t expect those who have pulled inside smaller frames of identity to support your newfound vision. They won’t agree with you because they can’t understand. Your values and intentions make no sense to them.

Just remember that they too live inside your larger horizon, and they need your compassion and kindness as much as the rest – maybe even more.

 

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The Heart and Hope of Democracy

Let’s begin this meditation on the heart and hope of democracy with you identifying yourself with either the Blue or Red sphere in the diagram above. Then let’s pretend that all of your life you’ve been training to be the best Blue or Red you can be. From an early age your tribe was actively shaping and colorizing you, giving you careful instructions, applying timely discipline, and downloading all the necessary codes that would eventually get you to the point where, today, you don’t regard Blue or Red as one option among two (or many) but as who you are.

Beyond that, Blue or Red is also how you see the world around you. The meaning of things and the issues that grab your attention hold a strong correspondence to the perceptual filter of your identity. Blue or Red concerns just feel more important to you, and you make friends more easily with other Blues or Reds. Having the same values and beliefs about the world helps your conversations stay in tracks that are familiar and predictable.

If you are Blue, then those Reds are way off base. If you’re Red, then those Blues have no clue what’s going on.

Being sure of your identity as Blue or Red, you are vigilant to keep reddish or bluish tendencies in check. In fact, quite often it’s easier to determine where you stand on something by checking out the other color and then taking the opposite position. If your tribe has done its job and you remain strong in your convictions, the separation between you might as well be another feature of reality itself. You are Blue or you are Red, and they are way over there, outsiders to the one and true way of being in the world.

Democracy will always be challenged by the duality of opposites.

Blues and Reds might relish the fantasy of living out their days in a land exclusively Blue or Red, where everyone believes and behaves the same way – the right way, their way. But such a fantasy amounts to nothing more than what Joseph Campbell called a “utopiate”: a utopia or “no place” in the imagined future that sedates the mind like opium and keeps consciousness, now in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

As long as Blues and Reds see color as essential to the nature of what and who they are, ideology will continue to be mistaken for reality.

Indeed, living in a fantasy is not far from a true description of what’s going on for you as a Blue or Red. A better word perhaps might be trance, seeing as how your identity, beliefs, values and way of life were “put on you” starting at a very early age, like someone put under a spell by a hypnotist. We could justifiably call this entranced state “separation consciousness,” since its principal effect is in convincing you that you and that Red or Blue over there are entirely separate and have absolutely nothing in common.

Now, I’m not suggesting that who you are and what you believe are meaningless, for clearly they mean everything to you.

However, if we pause to consider how the meaning of anything is not found in the thing itself – Where exactly is the meaning of a flower or a star? – but is rather put on it by our mind, usually in agreement with other minds, then the notion of meaning as a spell and belief as a kind of trance might start to make more sense.

As long as Blues honor and respect only other Blues and bluish values, and as long as Reds honor and respect only other Reds and reddish values, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

We need to arrive at a place – which is no utopia but actually a step closer to reality – where Blues and Reds can listen to each other, ask questions that seek understanding, confirm this understanding by paraphrasing it back to the owner, and then join the work of constructing a world where they can coexist in peace, but even more where they can thrive in mutual honor and respect.

According to the dictionary, being worthy of honor and respect is the definition of ‘dignity’. The heart of a healthy and vibrant democracy lies in the dignity individuals recognize in each other. If we ask where this worth resides or attaches itself, it can’t be with those socially conditioned, culturally relative, autobiographical factors that define your identity as a Blue or Red.

When we assign dignity to anything at this more superficial level, we end up amplifying things that separate individuals rather than connect them.

For a healthy democracy, dignity must be acknowledged as attaching to human nature itself. Underneath all of that overlay of personal identity and far below the trance-state where Blues and Reds contend for supremacy, you are a living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. Every human being is worthy of honor and respect, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ideology, socioeconomic status, and even moral character.

If you are a human being that happens to be Blue or Red, your humanity makes you equal with everyone else. That Red or Blue over there is not your enemy but your potential partner in dialogue, referring to that disciplined process described earlier where we listen to each other, ask questions to gain a better understanding, confirm our understanding by paraphrasing each other’s perspective, and then engage in the work of constructing a world where we can live and flourish together.

When we can do this, when Blues and Reds can become partners in a process rather than enemies across an ideological divide, the trance of separation consciousness will drop from our minds like a veil. This revelation is what is meant by “awakening,” as your spiritual intelligence sees through the illusion of separateness (and of identity as well) and becomes aware of, or wakes up to, the unity of all things.

As the hope of democracy, genuine community is characterized by unity consciousness.

But community isn’t only about a change in awareness. If All is One, as unity consciousness bears witness, then there is no ‘outside’ and therefore no ‘outsiders’. This ethic of radical inclusion is the flowering manifestation of that deep realization in the heart of democracy, of each person’s dignity as a human being. At the very least it means there are absolute limits to what Blues and Reds can do to each other.

It also means that everyone, of whatever color, needs an invitation to the table if democracy is to work.

Finally, a spiritually awakened community that is radically inclusive will be thoroughly humane. In the English language our word ‘human’ was originally spelled with an ‘e’, but over time it bifurcated into ‘human’ which frequently means ‘only human’ (i.e., weak and fallible), and ‘humane’ which describes the tender virtues of grace, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and the like.

As a mark of genuine community, the commitment to a shared life that is thoroughly humane is absolutely critical to the health and longevity of democracy.

So if you are Blue or Red, remember that this not what you are most basically. The construction of your identity as Blue or Red doesn’t have to make every other color a threat and enemy. Hold your beliefs but don’t let them take your mind hostage. As best you can, try to see through the veil of who you are and of the world as you presently conceive it, to what is really real.

The heart of democracy is inside every Blue and Red, and its hope is a world that includes us all.

 

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Your Psychic Reading

Please, have a seat.

I am about to reveal what’s going on in your life – not just around you, but to you and within you. Many things will fall into place and the path ahead will be made clear. When I’m finished and you realize that my reading was on the money, you can send me what you owe. Otherwise, on the chance that I had it completely wrong, just keep your money and don’t bother coming back.


Let’s begin with your age. How old are you? In my “magic window” (see diagram) you will find three numbers comprising four age ranges: birth to age 10, 11 to 25 years old, 26 to 60 years, and any age 61 and above. Don’t get confused over how things are displayed in the window. For now, simply identify yourself as a Child, Youth, Adult, or Elder using the age ranges just provided.

Now I will start my reading, beginning with the earliest and moving through all four life frames in turn. As you might guess, each life frame offers a distinct lens on reality, on the world in which you live, the concerns that focus your experience, and on your unique sense of self.

If you are already some distance into your life story, feel free to compare my descriptions of earlier frames with what you remember, just as you might use later frames to anticipate what is still to come.

CHILD (birth to 10 years old)

This life frame corresponds to the Age of Faith, when basic trust in the provident support of reality is your primary concern. When this support is present, your experience is one of security – that what you need to feel safe and loved is provided to you by taller powers who care for you.

A sense of existential security will underlie – or undermine, if not sufficiently established – every challenge and opportunity of your journey ahead.

Upon this foundational impression of reality in your nervous system, your taller powers have also been busy at work shaping the attitudes, beliefs, roles and behaviors that together carry your identity in the family system. If your early years were characterized by warm regard and positive support, that foundation of security is allowing for healthy flexibility in the formation of your identity.

As a result, you are generally secure in who you are and don’t stress out when the situation needs you to adapt. Another benefit is that, as situations and relationships change, that same security in who you are enables you to hold your integrity – or as we say, to remain true to yourself.

If, on the other hand, your early reality wasn’t so provident, existential insecurity predisposed you to be less confident in who you are. In your effort to please, placate, flatter, or impress your taller powers for the love and support you still need, you have learned how to “alter your ego” to match their attitudes and expectations. Today you continue to struggle for integrity in your relationships, all too ready to surrender who you are to what others want and expect from you.

YOUTH (11 to 25 years old)

If this is your present phase of life, then you are in the Age of Passion. You have strong feelings about things that matter to you. In this life frame, working out your identity as it connects you to peer groups, vocational preparation, and romantic partners is foremost on your mind.

You share this concern over identity with your younger self (Child), but now it’s more about agency and influence than safety and belonging.

Added to this question of identity is thus one of purpose: What’s expected of you? What is required for you to pass through the various qualifying rounds on your way to securing a position (status, title, occupation) in the world? In other words, purpose is mostly about external objectives: things to accomplish, goals to achieve, social expectations to satisfy, benchmarks of success to reach.

If you carry some insecurity in your nervous system from early on, you probably try especially hard to live up to the expectations of others, or at least not to disappoint them. And because the adult world you’re moving into is one built around stereotyped roles, perfectionism may be your preferred strategy for winning the recognition you feel you deserve – or is it a craving?

If this is true of you, then there is also something in you that avoids too much spotlight and even pulls back on your own success, since the risk of being exposed as you really are is unbearable. Youth is a time of heightened self-consciousness, which doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy self-awareness but can frequently spiral into varying degrees of self-obsession. Whether you are seeking attention or trying to evade scrutiny, you may be stuck in this spiral – but there is a way out!

ADULT (26 to 60 years old)

Adulthood is the Age of Reason, and if this is your current life frame, it’s important to you that things make logical sense and fit together in a rational worldview. You have enjoyed some success in your pursuits of life partners, a career path, and social prestige. You are learning how much of adult life is really a ‘daily grind’, and have even wondered at times whether it ultimately matters.

If you are somewhere around 40 years old, this question of relevance has become especially haunting. Just fitting into the schemes of others isn’t as exciting as it once was, and you’re even starting to feel yourself disengage in parts of your life where you have less freedom. The external objectives that had gotten you up early and kept you up late now can barely hold your interest.

The so-called midlife transition (or “crisis”) marks this psychological shift where purpose becomes less about duties, assignments, and shared missions than about personal intention – not living for a purpose but rather living “on purpose” or “with purpose.” You have also started to realize that perhaps your most important intention is to create a life of meaning.

If you deny this realization and simply redouble your efforts at conforming to the world around you, you are at risk of losing your soul – so be careful!

Whether it comes early or later in the Age of Reason, you will also be confronted with the fact of mortality, as the funerals of close friends, parents, and other family members remind you. And once again, if you are carrying some insecurity inside yourself, this will be a time of significant temptations, where it’s easier to throw yourself into a job, bounce across relationships, get lost in distractions, or fall into addictions of one kind or another.

ELDER (61 years old and older)

Having lived this long means that you have a lot of experience behind you, regardless of how much time may remain. The Age of Wisdom is your opportunity to integrate that vast library of personal experiences and lessons learned along the way into a more grounded way of life. Despite the losses, disappointments, and numerous failures, and however short of the youthful ideal your actual life has turned out to be, you are beginning to understand that it really is about the journey and not the destination.

Picking up those lessons and incorporating them into the running script of your life story is what wisdom is all about.

The “meaning of life,” which you had come to appreciate in your adult years as your creative purpose and responsibility, is now opening out to include not just your individual life but all of life, not just your existence but being itself. You are coming to know “All is One” as an experiential reality and not only a conceptual idea.

Even though from a societal perspective the later years of many are characterized by retirement, withdrawal, and increasing isolation, the deep discovery of this age is that nothing stands utterly alone. The universe is one vast network of coexistence, cooperation, and communion – and you belong to it. Not only that, but each individual is a manifestation of the whole. In this moment, the universe is self-conscious and contemplating this very truth – in you!

Perhaps the most precious realization the Age of Wisdom has to offer is that your own self-actualization as a human being and unique person is what the universal process is intending. With roots anchored in the grounding mystery and branches reaching out to everything else, your individual life is – just now! – pressing outward in the full blossom of your true nature. This is what is meant by fulfillment.

A word of caution from someone who can see into your life: Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security. This is not the time to fall asleep inside your daily routine!


There you have my reading of your life so far, and of what’s still to come. Please gather your things and see your way out.

I’ll be looking for your check in the mail.

 

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A New Hierarchy of Needs

Back when Abraham Maslow formulated his hierarchy of human needs, the science of psychology hadn’t yet clarified what I have come to name our subjective or “feeling-needs.” At that time the concept of need was still equated with a dependency on something external to the individual which is required for healthy development.

As we move up his hierarchy we advance across physiological, safety, relational and self-esteem needs, until we come to the threshold of self-actualization and realizing our highest potential.

My ‘new hierarchy of needs’ includes much of Maslow’s model but rearranges elements according to a stage theory of human development that I’ve been working to clarify in this blog. It also adds what I’m calling our spiritual needs, which isn’t suggesting that we have a need for heaven, immortality, or even god as most religions claim. Our spiritual needs are very real, but not at all metaphysical or supernatural in orientation.

I agree with Maslow that the entire scheme culminates in self-actualization, or what I name ‘fulfillment’ in the sense of realizing our full capacity as human beings.

To appreciate how my rearrangement and new category of needs matters to our self-understanding, as well as to an ethics of engagement with other human beings, let’s take a tour through my diagram. We’ll begin at the base of the hierarchy and work our way upward, taking a little more time on those elements that Maslow didn’t include but which determine to a great extent how high into what he called “the farther reaches of human nature” any of us are capable of going.

Our survival needs are what we require in our animal nature to stay alive: clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and protective refuge where we can rest in safety. Of course, we are more than a mere body and its organic urgencies, and there are some higher needs such as social connection, and I would even argue spiritual peace, deprived of which a human animal will suffer and prematurely die.

While Maslow’s model proceeds from our physical (physiological and safety) needs into needs of love and belonging, I have inserted between these the category of our subjective needs. I actually prefer to call them our “feeling-needs,” referring specifically to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To understand their place in the hierarchy of needs, just think about how your survival need for refuge, for example, translates subjectively into the felt sense of being safe (or not). Or consider how your social need for connection translates subjectively into the felt sense of being loved (or not). In each case, that felt sense is a crucial reference in your self-appraisal and of what’s going on.

Subjective needs are not survival needs, but they register the degree in which your material environment provides for your animal life. And neither are subjective needs the same as your social needs, but they register the internal impression of how supportive your social web is to your developing personality.

The subjective needs – your need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – is where your experiences of reality as provident or otherwise are translated into deep impressions regarding your existential security.

In other words, it’s not enough that you are in fact safe, loved, capable, and/or worthy; if you don’t feel safe (etc.), then that unsatisfied need to feel safe will dominate your attention and drive your behavior. Anxiety is our name for the feeling of threat or danger, and if you are taken over by anxiety it doesn’t matter if your actual circumstances happen to be perfectly safe.

You are constantly checking in on this register of subjective needs and how secure you feel.

Calling the feeling-needs subjective rather than internal emphasizes the point that they are “thrown under” the center of personal identity known as ego. A construct of identity is the highest of your social needs, and regarding it as a construct – something that is not a fact of natural formation but instead a cultural fiction composed out of numerous “I am ______” storylines – is a breakthrough discovery of social psychology in the last 100 years.

Think of the social needs as correlated around your emerging identity as a member of your tribe. Outwardly you perform this identity across countless role plays, while inwardly – or better yet, subjectively – you carry a felt sense of how safe, loved, capable, and worthy you are. When your feeling-needs have been adequately met, the construct of personal identity is said to possess “ego strength.”

The virtues of ego strength are that personality is stably grounded in your animal nature (i.e., the body), is emotionally balanced, and is unified under the executive management of self-control.

My returning reader will anticipate what I say next, which is that ego strength in this ideal sense is vanishingly rare. Because we were born to imperfect parents, raised in uniquely dysfunctional families, and had to find our way in a chronically mess-up world, each of us carries some insecurity associated with our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

To whatever degree we fall short of the ideal, just about everything in life will be caught up in our schemes to find what we feel we don’t have enough of. We have a compulsion to fill the emptiness within ourselves. And what do you know, there are all kinds of ideologies, agencies, products, and services out there that promise just what we crave.

So we bite, buy, and believe – but nothing can make our insecurity go away.

As you contemplate the Hierarchy of Needs, it should be easy to imagine how the frustration of subjective needs and the various compensations, substitutes, and distractions you employ to feel better (i.e., happier and more secure) end up interfering with your social needs as well.

Instead of healthy connection, you’re caught in attachment and codependency. Instead of belonging, you struggle desperately for acceptance and approval. Instead of enjoying the benefits of membership, you have to fight for what you feel is yours. And all of that together conspires to make you more confused than ever about who you are.

The resulting identity confusion, with its source in your subjective insecurity, presses you urgently into the chase, the quest, and the hope for salvation – for something, someone, somewhere else. 

Deepest down there is no peace, just this inner void and restless craving. Tangled up in the storylines of your confused identity, stuck in the past and striving for a way out, you can’t be fully present to the here and now. Instead of lifted into an awareness of your communion with all things, you feel isolated and lonely.

But the great evolutionary tragedy is that the priceless treasure of your true nature is locked behind a heavy door of fear and neurotic self-interest. Your spiritual wealth is left undiscovered and your unique contribution to the commonwealth of beings cannot be released.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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The Leaders We Need Now

Every age and generation has a need for capable leaders, for those who are able to see a bigger picture, understand what’s happening, and help the rest of us through the doors of necessary change. A leader is not always the one up front, with the loudest voice and getting all the attention. A true leader might not even be the one who was elected.

Go figure.

When I think about the kind of leaders we need today, three critical principles of leadership come to mind. Each principle corresponds to a dimension of our existence as human beings: (1) as individuals who (2) interact with others in (3) systems of various kinds and complexity. Not only effective leaders, but proficient human beings – that is to say, those who are skilled in the art and wisdom of being human – must learn how to manage and nurture the consilient unity of these three dimensions.

When we don’t (can’t or won’t) hold them in balance, we quickly succumb to frustration, disorientation, foolishness, and crazy-making dumbfuckery.

In this post I’ll lay out three critical principles of leadership that we sorely need today. Each principle is the sun-center to an orbiting set of values, which will only be mentioned but not explored in much detail here. I don’t believe there is a fixed number to each set of values, and we should allow for the way these principles get interpreted and play out in any given context. The principles themselves, however, are universally valid, and I would argue that no culture can flourish long or well without holding them as sacred commitments.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: We are all part of a turning mega-system of existence called the Universe. This universal system can be analyzed into smaller and deeper star systems, solar systems, and planetary ecosystems; into regional cultural systems, more local social systems, and family systems; into individual organisms and the internal subsystems that conspire in keeping them alive; and deeper still into the molecular, atomic, and nuclear systems of matter and energy.

As far as we know, nothing exists except as and within systems.

Stewardship

The principle that orients a set of values applying specifically to living as and in systems is stewardship. In the conventional sense, a steward has the responsibility of managing and caring for the resources of a household, which is a family system where several individuals live together in community. Stewards aren’t owners, and what they look after is not their personal property. Instead, we might say that a steward and everything he or she looks after belongs to the household.

As a kind of manager, a steward helps to sustain a healthy household economy and promote harmonious community among its inhabitants. This web of resources, interactions, and shared experience is a more local instance of what we commonly name the Web of Life – still another term for the Universe considered from the vantage of living things. To view human beings through the lens of stewardship – as many religious traditions have long done – is to regard them not as owners or externally positioned “masters of the universe,” but as members of this one magnificent household of life.

With our evolutionary grant of self-awareness and creative freedom, humans possess a unique ability in contemplating our place and role within, as well as our special responsibility to, our planetary home. As many myths suggest, coming into this responsibility as stewards follows a certain path – the archetypal Hero’s Journey – of separating from our source, establishing an individual center of identity (ego), and then releasing this hard-won identity for a deeper and larger experience of oneness.

Empathy

Whether leaders and the rest of us can lead and live by the principle of stewardship is dependent on the quality of connection we enjoy with others. If individuals have difficulty identifying themselves as partners in a system (the relationship itself), the cause is often rooted in a lack of empathy. When we cannot connect in deep and meaningful ways, the higher systems of our life together go unseen.

The best way I know of properly defining empathy is by comparing it to its sound-alike: sympathy. Literally ‘sympathy’ means “to suffer with” (or alongside) another, to be affected by their pain or misfortune. The different prefix “em” (or en) denotes a critical shift in position, from alongside to within. In other words, the individual transcends his or her separate identity – this time not outward to the larger system encompassing them both, but inward to a place of essential oneness prior to their differentiation as individuals.

By virtue of their identical natures as living, sentient, and self-conscious human beings, individuals are capable of an empathetic connection.

Our first experience of empathy was when we lived literally inside our mother and our developing nature drew its life from hers. Once we were born and officially began our own Hero’s Journey, the formation of a separate identity slowly (but at times dramatically: think of adolescence) pushed our self-center out and away from the source.

Even though we continued to carry within ourselves those deeper registers of sentient life, and with them at least the capacity for empathetic connection, the degree in which our ego formation got hooked into neurotic hangups made much of this natural capacity unavailable.

The leaders we need today are individuals who are grounded, centered, and open empathically to the experience of others. They are the ones who truly understand that we’re all in this together.

Integrity

This brings us to my third principle of leadership, which actually comes first in the evolutionary sequence and serves as the basis of human proficiency in a general sense. Integrity refers to a state whereby two or more elements hold together as one. In this case, psychosomatic integrity speaks to a unity of mind and body – or more accurately of soul and body, where ‘soul’ names our deep inner life rather than an immortal entity (the so-called true self or “real me”) residing in the body.

The integral balance of soul/mind and body is a growing fascination in psychology, which is coming to regard this balance as a key to understanding a large number of disorders, illnesses, and troubles afflicting our species. When early life experiences get us hooked into neurotic patterns of insecurity and defensiveness, mistrust and self-doubt, suspicion and resentment, our restless mind doesn’t let our body calm down and recover. Instead, our animal nature loses its resilience, succumbs to the stress, and even starts to attack itself.

The leaders we need today are individuals who successfully manage their psychosomatic integrity, who express strong interpersonal empathy with others, and who live in stewardship of the systems on which our lives, health, community, and human future depend.

When given the opportunity, let’s try to elect more of them.

 

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