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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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Lifelines

AwakeningSoon after you were born your family got to work, training you into a well-behaved member of the tribe (a “good boy” or “good girl”). Although you were already related to others in the circle by genes or adoption, the process of turning you into “one of us” involved the force of culture, as distinct from that of nature. A human society is more than a collective for mate-pairing, reproduction, protecting the young, and sharing resources. Again, at the cultural level it is also a system of morality and ideology – an orthodoxy that shapes the consciousness of its members into a common agreement concerning the meaning of life.

You weren’t born with a preconception of life’s meaning. What something means is a matter of making numerous associations within a coherent reference system, between that thing and other things, from that thing to antecedent causes, symptomatic effects, and prospective ends or outcomes. The meaning of something is about linking it into a web of proximal and distant, similar and different, identical and opposite, previous and subsequent other things. Putting this mental picture together takes time and experience, as well as some pretty serious construction work. Your tribe didn’t leave you alone on the job. It provided you with the materials and tools that meaning-making requires, as well as the blueprints and inspection codes you were expected to follow.

All of this mind-shaping, meaning-making, and world-building activity of culture conspires to put its members into a TRANCE, which has at its core that common agreement concerning the meaning of life mentioned earlier. By definition, a trance is a “passage” or transitional phase to somewhere else. A hypnotist puts his subject into a trance so that he or she will unquestioningly obey the hypnotist’s suggestions. The collective culture puts its members under a similar spell, for the purpose of seducing them with the suggestion that they are separate individuals and incomplete without what the tribe has to offer.

As you slowly slipped under, the dream of your separate existence – variously judged as special, flawed, ignorant, unworthy, or depraved – started to take on the feel of reality. You really were all those things! As you looked out the window from your solitary confinement, you saw other egos obeying the same commands, which only confirmed and validated what you felt. The moment you gave your full agreement to the orthodoxy of egoism you fell completely into the DREAM.

Across the wisdom traditions of the world, the word “awakening” is widely used in reference to the event (or process) that leads to liberation. This term also carries a diagnosis regarding the human condition, which is that you are caught in the dream state of ordinary consciousness – and you don’t even know it. As you look around it all seems very real, when you are really just looking at a dreamscape of your own making.

Let’s spend a little more time with this concept, as it is easily (and often) misunderstood. We are not saying necessarily that what we see around us is only an illusion – not actually there, but only appearing real. Leafy trees, clouds overhead, other people walking about: these are real facts in the external environment, even if their appearance, orientation, and proximity to you are an obvious function of perspective and depend on your relative position as an observer.

These same objects take on an illusory effect when we add your appraisals of them as good or bad, pretty or plain, useful or worthless, yours or mine – all labels rather than actual properties, opinions and not facts, projections of yours onto reality and not at all real. Such judgments concerning the value and meaning of things are part of the fantasy you believe. They are ego extensions; and just as your sense of being a separate self is a construct of cultural orthodoxy, everything that carries this doctrine of separation into your general outlook on reality serves to promote the dream and keep you asleep.

So all those labels, judgments, and opinions are projected onto the reality of things. During childhood you were steadily lured into a trance, taught to believe that you are separate and special, that everything else stands in some relation of value and meaning to you. As this whole process was a slow seduction, you gave your agreement without really knowing what was going on. At times even now you may catch a glimpse through the veil hanging over your mind and be momentarily startled by the realization that your worldview is a cultural incantation – a tribal convention, a mental construct, a fantasy of meaning. But pretty soon the sleepy smoke dulls your focus, the trance takes over, and you are comfortably back in the dream.

The thing is, this dream isn’t all candy canes and rainbows. Inevitably, as in the movie The Truman Show (1998) where the bowsprit of a runaway sailboat carrying Truman (Jim Carrey) tears into the fabricated sky at the edge of the world he believed was real, the social conventions that keep the veil of meaning in place slip out of position or fall into tatters. It might be the sudden death of a loved one, the collapse of a career, the breakup of a friendship, or what I like to call “consumer fatigue”: the progressive exhaustion of hope in chasing fulfillment through something outside yourself.

The Western – specifically North American – ego is powerfully conditioned to regard itself as empty inside, entitled and demanding, and in need of being filled up. Of course there’s no filling-up to any kind of lasting satisfaction, for the simple reason that the consumer ego is a fast open drain.

By whatever means the disturbance comes, the deeper fall from dream into NIGHTMARE can be devastating. Value and meaning have collapsed or leaked away, leaving you disoriented and grief-stricken. For some people this might be the end; seeing no reason to go on, they take their own lives. A few will survive the nightmare and slowly repair their damaged dreamscape, adjusting back into an egocentric existence, though tempered perhaps by a sharp edge of cynicism. And there are those who will endeavor to spread their nightmare onto others, becoming apocalyptic alarmists, militant crusaders, violent terrorists, or convicted fanatics.

If you happen to find yourself in a nightmare, you may be closer to AWAKENING than ever before. As I’m using the term, awakening is not a destination but a process; in this way we might think of it as the reversal of a trance. Just as trance is a passage into the dream state, awakening is the path of disillusionment that leads out. Awakening is ongoing. It can come dramatically or by increments, but the process never ends. Enlightenment can make it sound as if an end has been reached, but once any attempt is made to construct meaning around it, what we have is another illusion and not the persistent commitment to clear-sighted awareness that awakening signifies.

Nightmares are conducive to awakening because the work of disillusionment – the stripping away of illusion – has begun against your will, without your consent, and despite your best efforts at keeping the dream intact. The dream itself has built-in safeguards against awakening, with its 24/7 propaganda machine and seductive promises. In a nightmare, however, the gravity of your loss and the distress of your situation veritably scream a call for change. Sometimes pain can be your most effective teacher, and grief your most precious companion.

Upon awakening you can see things as they really are – without labels, without judgment, and completely free of meaning. You realize that reality is one, everything is interconnected, and nothing (listen up, ego) is separate from the whole. You can relax into being, observe without opinions, and love without fear.

It’s not really about you.

 
 

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Second Birth

The higher religions share many things in common, even as devotees strive so desperately to promote what makes theirs distinct and superior to the others. These common elements are emphasized and celebrated in the more mystically oriented currents, while the orthodox mainstreams either downplay them or interpret them tightly around their core doctrines.

Mystics of all religions tend to resonate with the myths, symbols, and ideals of spiritual life regardless of cultural origin or theistic attachments. They seem to have an ability for seeing through the historical conditions and local inflections that make one religion so different from the others. And while this depth-vision of theirs commits them to a stance that is commonly condemned as heretical (which it is), blasphemous and atheistic (which it isn’t), mystics aren’t really so interested in challenging doctrines as they are in seeding human transformation.

An example of something you’ll find across the higher religions is the metaphor of a “second birth,” which is said to conduct the believer into a new mode of being characterized by expanded awareness, a transpersonal orientation, and a profound intuition regarding the unity of existence. Whatever it may be called – metanoia (new mind), satori (true sight), buddhi (awakening), or the more common enlightenment – this idea of breaking through to a more grounded experience of reality (the way things really are) is the central insight.First_Second Birth

In the present post I offer an interpretation of this “second birth” experience, using the terms that have become important in my ongoing explorations into human transformation: body, ego, and soul. Critical to my use of these terms is an effort to redefine them as names for distinct “mental locations” of consciousness rather than separate parts of a human being.

Body and soul, for instance, are not from two different realms and yoked for the length of an earthly lifespan, only to uncouple and go back to their separate realms. Instead, and more in line with a postmodern reading, “body” and “soul” name distinct mental locations from which consciousness engages the surrounding sensory-physical environment (as body) and its own grounding mystery within (as soul).

Ego introduces a third term, which I take as literally introduced (inserted) into the primary duality of body and soul. Indeed the popular separation of body and soul as opposing forces is actually an ego delusion. By inserting itself between the mental locations of body (outward oriented) and soul (inward oriented), ego pushes them apart (as parts) and then gets caught in its own illusion.

Interestingly enough, this illusion – and to the extent that an individual is utterly entranced by it, this delusion – is a necessary step in human development. Society (aka “the tribe”) must work to shape an animal nature into an obedient member of the group, with all its roles and rules for getting along. Some of those impulses just need a little domestication, while others require stronger sanctions. But the individual submits for the most part, since security and belonging are the coveted benefits of membership.

My diagram above illustrates this insertion of the ego in that cultural workspace of the tribe, where nature is socially conditioned and personal identity is constructed. A physical (or “first”) birth delivered the individual out of a maternal womb and into a tribal womb, in which a sense of self (ego identity) will form. The demanded constraint on animal impulses and a socially required modicum of self-control are what eventually establish an ego identity above the body (often represented as a rider atop its horse).

We can distinguish at least two levels or phases in this process of identity construction, the first taking place inside a family system into which the individual is born or adopted, and the second involving cultural influences farther out. A family is more than just a group of people who live together and share a household. It is a present manifestation of deep generational codes, prevailing moods, and social reflexes that move individuals to behave in ways they don’t fully understand or feel capable of altering.

What we call “family patterns,” then, are the deep emotional conditioning that bind members in relationships of attachment and antagonism, perpetuating various co-dependencies and dysfunctions that make every family so wonderfully complicated. This correlates directly to the fact that ego identity is emotionally based, and it also explains why family patterns are impossible to fully understand.

Even if these primary relationships are abusive, the emotional bonding they provide can hold the individual captive – just as the entire family system is captive to its patterns – and unwilling to leave. What else is there? Where might a young child go for a better life? Outside the family is an even more dreadful danger: the loss of identity. We need to remember that the family is a second womb, and that escape of a “preterm” ego would result in a kind of social extinction, which is why it hangs on.

With time the individual engages the larger culture of his or her tribe. Long-standing traditions and conventions of a society are invariably rooted in a mythology of patron deities, cultural heroes, and legendary figures who secured the present world-order. These stories, together with their anchoring images and ritual observances, are summed up in my notion of “symbol systems” (see the diagram).

A tribe’s symbol system functions as a lens on reality, but also as a filter to keep out (or keep hidden) any threat to security, identity, and meaning. The intellectual horizon of meaning itself is maintained in the cultural worldview – projected, authorized, managed, and repaired by all those with a vested interest in its maintenance, which is everyone on the inside.

But the same spell of delusion is in force at this level as what we find entrancing the family deeper down, only in this case it is more intellectual than emotional. It grips down on the mind as powerful convictions concerning ultimate things: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation. The intellectual certainty carried in orthodoxy has an anchor-line descending into the dark foundations of emotional security, which is where orthodoxy’s real authority lies.

Even when a doctrine no longer makes sense intellectually, due perhaps to a shift in worldview and a loss of specific relevance, a conviction will remain strong – indeed, becoming even stronger than ever precisely because of its opacity and sacred mystique. Since it’s so difficult to understand, it must have been revealed by god, so who are we to question it or set it aside?

By now you should be able to feel the full enclosure of this tribal womb where ego is conceived and develops. Hemmed in emotionally by family patterns (which of course the individual internalizes and will perpetuate in his or her own future family), as well as hemmed in intellectually by the symbol systems of culture, ego identity now has a fully constructed web to inhabit. With ego formation complete, the stage is finally set for a “second birth.”

But not so fast. Those deep emotional fixations and god-given intellectual convictions will not let go so easily. Let’s not forget what will need to be surrendered should the spell be broken. What could life possibly be like without security and certainty – and without the identity that these together define? This would amount to an “ego death” for sure! For many, the security of knowing the hell they are in today, along with the predictive certainty that it will be waiting for them tomorrow, becomes an inescapable contract of identity.

The tribe is also working hard to keep its construction project under control. Friendly warnings and more stern reprimands are issued to the one who asks the wrong questions, challenges the orthodox answers, or dares to look behind the curtain at what’s on the other side. The threat of condemnation and excommunication are all too frequently enough to send the ego back to its seat.

But it is here, in the throes of emptiness and disorientation, that a few (compared to the multitude that obediently fall back in place) find the grace and courage to step through the veil. Attachments and fixations are surrendered. Convictions break open and release the mind. It is finally understood that the so-called security of hell is really no security at all, and that the so-called certainty of heaven is really a distraction from something infinitely more precious and real.

New mind, true sight, awakening, enlightenment: the once-dreaded breakdown turns out to be a breakthrough to a higher mode of being. The human spirit is liberated from its cage of identity, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, ego gives way to soul. Metaphors such as these endeavor to translate the experience of a “second birth” into the static nouns and verbs of language; but the experience itself is ineffable, beyond words.

Only after dying to ego and being resurrected as soul can the individual look back to see that those same symbol systems, which seemed so categorical from inside the tribal womb, are now transparent to a universal mystery. Gods and demons, saviors and villains, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, insiders and outsiders – each of these familiar components is part of a single drama that we carry within ourselves.

Or perhaps we should say, it carries us.

This was its design all along. Produced by the mythopoetic imagination and coming out a spiritual intelligence deeper and more ancient than the little ego can fathom, this entrancing web of illusion turns out to be the necessary architecture for our creative evolution. It is a bridge spanning the separation of body and soul – which, I should remind you, doesn’t really exist.

 

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The Divided Mind

Watts: “It is easy to see that most of the acts which, in conventional morals, are called evil can be traced to the divided mind. By far the greater part of these acts come from exaggerated desires, desires for things which are not even remotely necessary for the health of mind and body, granting that ‘health’ is a relative term. Such outlandish and insatiable desires come into being because man is exploiting his appetites to give the ‘I’ a sense of security.”

Security is an illusion. At any second an unsuspected bacterium could invade your immune system, a blood vessel in your brain could burst, a piece of space junk could fall out of the sky on your head, or a random act of violence could find you in the wrong place at the right time. Imagine what your life would become were you to make these slim probabilities your preoccupying focus.

Instead of fixating on them and driving yourself crazy, you do the responsible thing and build up a line of protection to keep any of it from happening. But now there’s a new worry over that monthly insurance payment, or a deepening sense of isolation as you keep yourself safe at home. So what can you do but see the doctor for a prescription drug that will take the edge off your anxiety or lift you off the floor of your depression. Then there’s the side-effects …

Our desperate quest for whatever can counteract or permanently transcend the inherent insecurity of existence actually creates new things to worry about. As we devote more resources to protecting our resources, eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. More is spent to keep from losing. Life becomes an exercise in circling the drain: put death off just a little longer and maybe you stand a chance of having a life. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.

We should be clear, it’s not the body that is driving this circus of absurdity. By following the rhythm of its natural life cycle, the body has evolved internal mechanisms to either heal or surrender to its inevitable fate. The ego, strapped to this eventual corpse, is the one who strives to slip the knot and live forever. We have developed all kinds of technologies and cosmetics to postpone or conceal the fact of mortality. And religion has done its part by promising everlasting security to the one who can delay gratification and remain obedient to the end.

Think of the evils that have been committed for the sake of security – or the sense of security, and the pursuit of it. The greed for “enough” can never be satisfied, simply because there can be no such thing as enough. How can you know for sure? Life conditions could change, the supply could run out, your neighbor could take more than his fair share. Insecurity produces discontent, discontent produces greed, greed motivates hoarding and theft, hoarding and theft (by others) require protection, protection requires insurance payments, insurance payments require more income, more income requires more time, and more time – oops, game over.

Let’s just agree for the moment that security is an illusion, something unreal, unrealistic, and unattainable. If we were to simply accept this fact, would we live any differently than we do now? We would worry less, there’s no doubt about that. And depression – the state of fatigue and discouragement that comes in the wake of anxiety – would be far rarer, indeed. We would certainly be more relaxed, even living on this edge of death, and probably feel more alive by virtue of its constant shadow.

Watts’ “divided mind” is another term for ego ambition, driven by the competing motivations of desire and fear. For its part, security, being an illusion, is not even something we can pursue – unless some clever advertising has attached it to a “must have” new product or service. To that end, we buy and replace, use and toss out, try and abandon one false promise after another.

The fear side of ambition is typically more concrete. While positive gains and happy progress may forever elude us, negative losses on the downward slope of mortality are inevitable. Ego ambition is about spending and stacking – or shooting – whatever is necessary to hold off the specter of death. But the more we clutch and stockpile, the greater our risk and pain in losing it, and the more we are willing to do to keep it a little longer.

Even if “Romeo and Juliet are [not] together in eternity,” in the words of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald Roeser, we don’t need to fear the reaper.

 

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