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Learning to Trust Ourselves

At this same time four years ago I published a post that introduced what I called The Two Systems, referring to two sets of values and concerns that profoundly shape human culture and our individual lives. These two systems are like the Yin and Yang of Taoism, where the creative tension between them informs our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions – the very structure of our personality, interpersonal relationships, and our engagement with reality as a whole.

According to the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

What we can know and say about the Tao is only what is manifested in the dance of Yin and Yang (soft and hard, moist and dry, quiet and active, female and male are a few of the metaphors that Lao-Tzu uses in speaking of them). It’s not that one or the other is the ultimate reality of Tao, but rather their interactive unity presents us with an epiphany (an “appearing through”) of what cannot be named.

Similarly when it comes to understanding the Tao of human relationships, it’s necessary to understand and honor the creative tension between two forces, which I call the love of power and the power of love, or supremacy and communion. If this tension should snap, the love of power and the power of love will become pathological, where power devolves into domination and love deteriorates into submission.

Of course I realized even back then that representing supremacy or the love of power as anything but pathological would stir suspicion in my readers, particularly those who are or have been victims of someone else’s love of power. How can the love of power be good in any sense?

First of all, I don’t want to say that either supremacy or communion are good in and of themselves, since this would be breaking their creative tension to exclude one system in favor of the other. Power is not ‘bad’ and love is not ‘good’, but great benefit is to be found in their dynamic balance. My diagram illustrates this dynamic balance by complementary values distributed across the two systems.

At the farther poles of the arc of supremacy are virtue (Greek areté, excellence) and competition, both of which are clearly evident in athletics and capitalism. In competition we test and strengthen our abilities, improve our products and services, and become more proficient in our discipline. The desire for excellence in sport, business, art or craft is what I mean by the love of power; and a competitive drive can push us to always be improving our game.

Approaching closer to the axis of dynamic balance with communion, influence and responsibility continue this accent on power. To have influence is to use our power to effect a wanted or necessary change, and taking responsibility is about applying our knowledge, skill, and authority toward accomplishing or ensuring some end.

At the very center of balance is trust, where power is at one with love.

Shifting over to the side of communion we can follow a similar, and complementary, set of values. At the far ends are equality, which stands opposite to virtue on the side of supremacy, and the ‘working together’ of cooperation across from competition. Closer to the central axis are relationship and connection, moving the accent of interaction more to the bond and rapport between individuals than their individual contributions.

The point of all of this is really to offer a meditation on the critical importance of trust in our personal, interpersonal, and larger social life together. To the vertical axis of my earlier model I have added the dimensions of peace (being inwardly rooted in the ground of being) and truth (being outwardly oriented to the reality beyond us).

When we honor the dynamic balance of supremacy and communion in our lives we are in a position of trust. From that position we can drop below ego concerns for a deeper peace within, as we are also able to look through our constructs of meaning for the truth of what’s really real.

On the other hand, when we choose power instead of love or love instead of power – effectively snapping the creative tension of supremacy and communion – this access point is closed to us. Domination and submission alike block our path to the deeper and higher experiences of the spiritual life. When we lose the balance and fall to one side or the other of the middle way, the flow of our human spirit gets diverted to pathological extremes.

Our ability to trust each other is a function of our individual capacity to trust ourselves.

I’ve written a lot about what makes trusting ourselves problematic. A chronic nervous state of anxiety (or the inner feeling of insecurity) can get set early in life if our environment doesn’t provide what we need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (what I name our subjective needs).

Psychologically our developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) must disassociate from the anxious body to keep from falling into it. Here the body is not to be trusted, which means that we cannot trust ourselves. This self-distrust works out into our relationships as harbored suspicion, withheld love, emotional manipulation, and a negative opinion of another’s nature and intentions.

You might agree with me that this condition is widespread in our world today.

If we are generally anxious and insecure, what can we do about it? Is this ‘just the way I am’? Do we simply need to find ways of gratifying our craving for security and accommodate the same in others? This is what we are doing currently, and it is obviously not helping. So what then?

We could put effort into working things out between us, in the hope we can reach a place where mutual trust is finally established. Using a method of dialogue or talk therapy might help us make some progress, but even here our self-distrust will get in the way.

As my model suggests, our mutual engagement in trust is made possible as each of us is able to verify and correct our constructs of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) so as to be more reality-oriented. Our strongest beliefs, called convictions because they hold our mind captive (like a convict) and prevent us from thinking outside their box, prevent us from seeing anything as it really is.

Or else they cause us to see things that aren’t really there or aren’t true because we can’t feel secure without them. Either way, our convictions blind us to the really real in each other.

But we have to go deeper still and make this very personal, for our convictions are compelled by anxiety, and this profound and chronic insecurity is what keeps us from trusting the grounding mystery of our own body. If we can’t be fully present in our body and relax into being, our security-seeking strategies (attachments and their protective convictions) will only amplify our suffering, as the Buddha discovered.

The self-described “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts posed a simple question: “If you can’t trust yourself, can you really trust this mistrust of yourself?” Contrary to much popular religion these days, our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will not be found in escape from the body, but only as we are willing to let go, free-fall, and become fully incarnate in its warm presence.

When we can trust ourselves again, we will be able to trust each other, and the world will be redeemed.

 

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A Religion That Matters

Two SystemsMy last post ended with the suggestion that what we call religion might best be understood as the way we manage the balance of love and power in our lives. The two systems of supremacy and communion which act like great attractors in the patterns of culture throughout history, also pull on our individual lives, causing us to lean more one way than the other in our personal choices and lifestyles.

The question I’m exploring is whether it is legitimate (and useful) to speak of this management of power and love – the particular set of rules, disciplines, methods, and practices we employ to “hold it together” (from the Latin religare) – as our religion. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then the salient features that get packaged together in our conventional definition of religion – sacred stories, communal rituals, devotional practices, belief in a supreme being, and the hope of an afterlife – end up as secondary to its principal function.

This would help explain not only why religion looks so different from culture to culture (i.e., its features are more locally dependent), but also why all religions can be classified as either oriented on supremacy (the love of power) or communion (the power of love). Even within a single religion (e.g., Christianity), this balance of power and love can shift from one generation to the next, from one community to another, even as the surface features remain ostensibly the same. What we find is a change of focus in the myths, doctrines, liturgy, and morality as one system recedes and the other moves into dominance.

At the heart of religion (as I am redefining it here) is the priority and challenge of trust, which is where power and love are held in balance or fall apart. In a sense, the whole two-system “mega-system” of supremacy and communion comes down to how we manage – cultivate, nourish, repair, and renew – the trust we have in reality, the earth, each other, and ourselves. This is the sacred bond that holds everything together. It will serve us well to appreciate what’s at stake in the management of trust.

As my diagram illustrates, the systems of supremacy and communion interact along two parabolic arcs that converge in “trust” and diverge again into their opposing values. Farthest out from center are the oppositions of virtue/competition and equality/cooperation, which is where the peculiar accent of a religion will be most obvious.

It’s important to remember that virtue is not about “being good” in the moral sense, but refers rather to the unique power (character strength, creative talent, uncommon intelligence) that makes the individual something special. In a supremacy system, priority is given to the discovery and development, typically in competition with others, of what makes us exceptional. On the other side is equality, where exceptions are downplayed in the interest of what makes us similar, of what we have in common. This common ground becomes the basis of cooperation and partnership in a communion system.

We can understand how major ideological differences would be easier to defend and maintain the farther out from center we identify ourselves. In a sense, it’s safer out there: we can stay in our heads and keep our distance from those “glory seekers” or “bleeding hearts” on the other side of the scale. But our religion only works for us at that point where we find ourselves face to face with “the other” – the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. The question of whom we can trust, whether we can (or should) let down our guard and open ourselves to the other, take a risk and be vulnerable for the sake of a genuinely human-spiritual interaction – that’s where it really matters.

Jesus understood this with laser clarity, it seems to me. What you may believe about God, or whether you even believe in one; whether or not you are a confessing member of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; whether you can recite scripture or pray before meals; whether you are preparing your soul for immortal beatitude in the next life or just living from one day to the next – none of this really matters if you close yourself off from others, if you refuse to build trust where it’s missing, or repair trust where it’s damaged or broken.

Ironically (and tragically) much of religion today has become a means of escape, not just from this coil of mortality at the end of life, but from the proving circle of exposure, vulnerability, and risk where so much is at stake. Our churches and denominations are protected memberships where we can sit alongside like-minded believers, feel confirmed in our truth, and carefully plan our engagement with the world outside. But if my theory holds, none of this is religion that matters. True religion – if I can dare use the term – has nothing to do with either monastic escape or strategic outreach to “save” the world.

Lest my readers who are former churchgoers, enlightened nonbelievers, or independent post-theists are thinking that religion can and should be left behind, I’ll remind you of my working definition, which has to do with the way you manage the balance of power and love in your life. How you cultivate trust and negotiate its challenges, how you use your influence to nourish connection, how you fulfill your responsibilities in the covenant of relationship – that is your religion. Leaving the church and giving up on its god doesn’t set you free from religion; it may indeed have been a necessary step in getting you more seriously invested in a religion that matters.

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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