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Tag Archives: Irenaeus

What’s Holding You Back?

security_self-esteem_fulfillmentIn recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of self-esteem. Our children will grow into unhappy adults unless we can build up their sense of specialness and unique importance. Young people should believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and that nobody has a right to get in their way. What this self-esteem campaign has produced is a generation of entitled and self-absorbed consumers. Whining, deserving, litigious little brats.

Okay, not all young people are this way, and it’s not just young people who are stuck on themselves. To some degree I am stuck as well, and so are you.

What might be an unimpeded path to the actualization of our true potential as human beings becomes instead an obstacle course where our time and energy are tied up with something much smaller, and much, much less important. As with all living things that develop according to a genetic ideal encoded in their DNA, human beings are destined to grow into maturity and express the essential nature of our species.

This developmental achievement is what I call fulfillment, which is not exactly the same as happiness or positive self-esteem, although these are highly correlated. When our progress to maturity is frustrated – blocked, undermined, or snagged – a fixation on being happy (or less unhappy) and admired (or at least respected) can drive us deeper into suffering. Critics of the term fulfillment tend to confuse it with a self-focused aim in life where the only outcome that matters is personal pleasure, success, and glory. But that’s not how I’m using it.

Again, our fulfillment as human beings is what comes about when our individual talents, creative intelligence, and deeper potential are actualized – discovered, expressed, and allowed to flourish.

To understand why so many of us don’t make it there, and what might be personally holding us back, we need to move our attention to where it all starts. At the other end of this developmental and evolutionary time-line is our primal need to know that reality is provident. This knowledge is not a conceptual understanding but instead plants itself in the basic workings of our nervous system.

From even before we were born, our brain and nervous system were picking up critical information from the environment and matching these with our body’s internal state. Survival was the primary concern, which meant that our baseline internal state needed to match those conditions so as to optimize our chances to live.

An impoverished, unstable, or hostile environment triggered our nervous system to assume a more vigilant baseline state, which turned up our sensitivity and decreased our reaction time to any sign of threat or danger. For some of us, this sensitivity was set so high as to keep us in a chronic state of anxiety. Most of us, however, were fortunate enough to have gotten what we needed not only to survive but to be fairly healthy and well-adjusted. But none of us came through the gauntlet of those prenatal, neonatal, and early childhood stages of life without some insecurity – not one of us.

It was this universal human anxiety that motivated our attachment: first to mother and other caregivers, then to pacifiers and favorite toys; later to friends, romantic interests, material possessions and titles of social influence. 

These attachments served to calm us down by giving us something to cling to, and we identified with them so closely that they became part of who we are. As we grew older, we simply ‘traded up’ from infantile attachments to juvenile attachments to adolescent attachments to adult attachments, but their value as anchors of security and extensions of our identity remained functionally unchanged.

The process of ego development, then, is deeply entangled with this dynamic of insecurity pacified by attachment, and the gradual construction of identity through our identification with whatever helps us feel better about ourselves. The self-esteem movement arose at a time when cultural change and uncertainty compelled many parents, teachers, coaches, and therapists to pacify us with whatever toys, accommodations, trophies, or pharmaceuticals we needed. We were the center of their attention, the consumer of all their best efforts.

We didn’t mind at all having these treasures laid at our feet, and it wasn’t long before we came to feel that we deserved it – and more!

As I said, attachment is inherent to the process of identity-formation. All of us have some insecurity over whether reality is sufficient to our needs. Is there enough of this? Will there be enough of that? Am I good enough to be loved? Will you leave me if I’m not enough for you? What if this new partner isn’t a perfect match, the next prize is less satisfying, or your promise to me doesn’t come true?

Our obsession with security, self-esteem, and looking for happiness in something, someone, or somewhere else, has us trapped in the rocks of our own altar. Each stone in our altar is an attachment we feel we can’t live without. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are. Worse yet, without this or that attachment in the construct of our identity we would succumb to meaninglessness and anxiety.

Because identity is the product of identifying with something or someone else, and because the ego looking out from this unique composition of attachments is so idolized in society and popular religion, we are entombed inside the altar of self-esteem.

Ego is everything. Or at least it’s the only thing that really matters.

Breaking free is a matter of getting over ourselves, finally realizing that our identity is nothing more than a confabulation of attachments and the outlook on reality we have from here. Everything is reduced to the frame of our convictions, filtered according to the prejudices and ambitions that define us. Once we see that, the moment when our disillusionment really sets in, is the breaking of a spell, the apocalyptic end of our world as we knew it.

Inevitably we find ourselves on the near edge of a depression, a deep hole that threatens to pull us in. If we should struggle to throw the covers back over our head and return to the trance of who we were, we likely will fall into profound anhedonia – the inability to find any pleasure, happiness, or meaning in life. We are hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it.

Wait! Maybe ______ can save me. I deserve to be saved, don’t I?

The spiritual wisdom teachings across higher cultures invite us to take a second look at this dreaded depression, whereupon we will notice that it is actually filled with water. We don’t have to fall helplessly to the bottom of a hole, for this water will bear us up and deliver us to the far shore. All we need to do is let go of who we think we are, release all attachments, and simply trust the process – or as we say, go with the flow.

In that instant we will be on the farther shore, now the starting point of a new beginning – apocalypse, resurrection, and genesis all in one.

Finally free of attachments, our relationships can become healthy; or maybe we accept the fact that we need to leave some of them behind. We take creative authority and start making choices with a much bigger picture in mind. We become more fully human as we relax into being. The deeper truth of what we are comes through, and we live it out with honesty, courage, and loving-kindness.

“The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus, “is a human being, fully alive.”

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Radiant Being

Look around and rest your gaze on something nearby. What do you see? A coffee cup. A potted plant. An old paint-peeled wooden fence outside the window. 

What if I told you that you are mistaken?

The things you just named are only concepts – meanings that your mind is putting around what you see. “Coffee cup,” for instance, only exists in your mind. As a concept, it links this thing into a web of associations primarily having to do with usefulness. This thing holds coffee and you can drink from it. It is an example of a semantic category that only makes sense within a general context of human purpose.mug

Constructivism holds that meaning is constructed by our minds and does not exist independent of a particular form of intelligence (our own) that is linguistic, conceptual, categorical and descriptive. Coffee cups wouldn’t exist if the intelligence that created and uses them never did.

But what about things that aren’t artifacts of human craft and technology?

That plant in the pot over there – certainly it exists independent of your mind, right? Look again.

“Plant” is also a concept that you are putting around that thing. It’s there on the “table” because it adds color to the “room” you’re in, as well as a hint of life in an otherwise artificial and sterile environment. The concept of “plant” and all its associations makes that thing meaningful.

But what is that thing without the concept of plant around it?

My word for it is mystery, which is about as nondescript a concept as our mind can manage before starting to spin a web and turning it into something for us. The present mystery of reality is concealed behind our conventions of meaning.

Once in a while this real presence breaks through the concepts we put around it, and when it does, our minds are typically stunned into a state of wonder, fascination, astonishment and awe. Another word for this real presence of mystery is radiant being or glory. In those moments of revelation (when the veil of meaning is pulled aside) the fullness of reality shines forth.

The practice of meditation can help us enter this state of present awareness where the radiant being and glory of reality is witnessed. Not a “coffee cup” or a “potted plant,” but this – the present-moment suchness of … this.

True enough, at some point we will need to exit this ecstatic state of mind and get back into that very complicated web of meaning called our world. We tend to be more comfortable there, more confident in what we think we know, more in control of what’s going on.

Ego much prefers to look in a mirror than through a clear window.

And what is ego but a tangled knot of personal preferences and convictions, ambitions and defenses, occasional embarrassment and tenacious conceit? Ego is our self-concept, the concept that has been put around our essential suchness. It is the conditioned self as distinct from the essential self, commonly called the soul.

Of course, once this essential self and concealed glory of the soul is named, it’s almost impossible to resist its further definition into something separate from the body – metaphysical, immortal, and belonging to another realm. When this happens, the soul is identified with the ego – as “my true identity” or “who I really am” – and a mystical realization is quickly and fatally corrupted into a heavy sediment of religious dogma.

An unfortunate consequence is that a genuine experience of mystery gets shrouded by concepts and shredded into meaning. What might have expanded into a “new mind” (metanoia) with “no-self” (anatta) to take control and make it meaningful, instead gets pulled into a neurotic orbit around me and mine. The grace and glory of radiant being is compressed into words, spun into creeds, and enforced as saving doctrine upon the minds of true believers.

When it comes down to it, ego craves tight spaces and there is no tighter space than the inside of a fervently held belief. Ironically, while ego-centered religion aggressively advances its message of escape, it makes itself a hostage of its own convictions.

If the human spirit longs for freedom and expansion – and I think it does – this constricting force of religion is largely responsible for the spiritual frustration driving our present civilization into a deepening spiral of tribal violence and rampant consumerism.

                                                                       

Whoa! Back to that coffee cup.

Take another look. What do you see? Suchness. Mystery. Real presence. Radiant being. Glory. This is the present mystery of reality. It is not a “cup,” just a means of carrying “coffee” so you can make it through the reading of this blog post.

Pick it up. Feel its weight and balance in your hand. Observe its color and contours. Tap it lightly and listenSurrender your labels and concepts. Forget about what this thing is for, what use it has to you. Instead of closing your mind down on its meaning, allow attention to open out to its mystery. Give up the idea for a moment that this thing is here for your sake.

When you release the present mystery of anything from the constraints of meaning, you’ll be surprised at how centered and grounded it reveals itself to be. When you can let go of your conditioned self – although admittedly this can be terrifying when you’ve been playing safe inside its narrow space – the glory of your human nature can touch the radiant being all around you.

The glory of that present mystery in your hands calls to the mystery of your own being. As the concept drops away, so too does the part of you that craves the illusion of security, control, and distance that meaning can provide.

The early Greek Christian bishop Irenaeus once wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of a human being consists in beholding divinity.” Although orthodoxy would take off in a very different direction, this confession, this mystical witness to the glory of radiant being, is, as they say, on the books.

Now that’s a satisfying cup of coffee.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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