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Taking Leave of Reality

The principal discipline of spirituality known as meditation is the practiced skill of living mindfully in the present moment. The here-and-now, or what is sometimes perceptively called “now/here” or “nowhere” since it can’t be located or held onto, is inhabited only by a very few.

The rest of us spend our time out of touch with the Really Real – another name for reality.

Where we go when we leave reality depends on our preferred method of escape – we’ll come back to this in a bit. But why we leave reality needs to be addressed first; otherwise we won’t appreciate the importance as well as the great challenge of strengthening our ability to live mindfully in the present.

The here-and-now holds in store such experiences as pain, loss, failure, and rejection – and these are what we are seeking to avoid when we make our escape from reality.

Of course, we can dream of an alternative reality where these negative experiences have been sponged away and only an everlasting bliss remains. This happens to be one of the methods of escape, and its widespread popularity especially among the other-worldly religions testifies to the extent in which humans find “suffering” – if I can throw those four distinct varieties of negative experience just mentioned under a single label – extremely difficult to negotiate, much less accept.

As sentient beings equipped with a conscious nervous system, we sense pain and very naturally regard it as a warning that something is wrong. Pain is an indicator, a message to our brain, that we need to change our position or do something different so as to avoid injury and maybe worse.

For its part, loss converts into emotional pain as we are separated from something or someone we have come to depend on for security, intimacy, companionship, and support. Losing such anchors leaves us feeling bereft and lonely – an extremely intolerable condition for any human being.

Our failure to attain, achieve, or realize our goals and expectations in life is another form of suffering. But it needs to be acknowledged that failure makes us suffer mostly because we have tied our performance to an audience whose opinion of us matters more than anything.

Our first audience was our parents and other taller powers who weren’t necessarily, or certainly not always, provident in their care of us. Nevertheless, we needed their attention and approval, which motivated us to do everything possible to win it – and then, should we be lucky or good enough to get it, not to lose it again.

Being rejected by others whose approval we need is a second way we can lose them.

The hard fact is that real life will bring us many experiences of pain, loss, failure and rejection. Such experiences are not at all pleasant, and if we had the choice we’d prefer not to be there when they happen. This is why we take leave of reality, seeking our escape from the here-and-now.

Whenever we leave the present moment to avoid suffering, we go to one of four places.

Of course you see the obvious fact right away, don’t you? Anything we do and anywhere we may go will always be in the present moment. Even if we physically move somewhere else, or merely manage an escape in our minds only, everything is always happening in the here-and-now.

The escape, then, is purely an illusion consisting of mental false floors and angled mirrors which makes us believe we are in touch with the way things really are, when it is really nothing more than make-believe.

So where do we go? Each of the four escapes is best characterized as a type of thinking, which I will distinguish as anxious thinking, depressed thinking, wishful thinking, and dogmatic thinking. Each type of thinking effectively separates our mind from reality – or more accurately, it throws up a screen between our mind and reality.

The trick is to get us focused on the screen to the point where the present mystery of reality is concealed, dismissed, and finally forgotten.

The Shell

Anxious thinking pulls us inside a protective shell of vigilance and worry, like a spooked tortoise. If the anxiety doesn’t panic or paralyze us, its “therapy” lies in the way our worry makes us feel responsible, with a super-ability to see the future and anticipate bad things before they happen.

If and when the terrible thing comes to pass, it’s not because we foresaw the future event but rather because our anxious thinking and associated behavior conspire to bring it about.

It’s nearly impossible to convince someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that they are actually creating the experience with their thoughts, which then trigger and elicit the physiological reactions in the body that they identify with their anxiety. As strange as it sounds, worrying about the future is preferable to engaging with the present because the future is a construct of our imagination – which means that we are really in control, even when we feel like things are out of control and happening to us.

It just happens that the experience we are creating is not all that fun!

The Hole

It is well known to psychological researchers and a few therapists that anxious thinking cycles inevitably into depressed thinking, where we find ourselves in a hole. Our word depression literally refers to a place that has been “pressed down” into a concave low point. The hole is another place we go to escape reality.

Depressed thinking is where we tell ourselves things like, “What’s the use? Nothing matters. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not ______ enough. No one cares. I quit.” Depression, like anxiety, convinces us that something or someone else is doing this to us.

Or rather I should say that depression and anxiety are perpetuated so long as we can convince ourselves that this is so.

As anxious thinking characteristically looks to the future, depressed thinking gets hung up on the past, regretting what we may once have had but no longer do. But these scenarios of the past are actually reconstructed memories, fashioned for the purpose of making the present seem less interesting or even meaningless by comparison. This gives us the excuse not to engage with what’s really going on, and thus protects us from the risk of being rejected since we said “No” first.

The Bubble

Wishful thinking fixes attention on an alternative reality to the way things really are, where suffering – at least our own – is absent and everything is as it should be. This can have a future orientation, but not necessarily. In our fantasy we can make ourselves into avatars of pleasure, wealth, success, and fame – the perfected opposites of the pain, loss, failure and rejection we are hoping to escape.

Wishful thinking persists so long as these ideals can float high enough above the way things really are, in order to avoid a closer analysis that might otherwise expose their lack of substance.

This distance between our fantasy and reality is critical to its therapeutic effect, which is to distract our attention away from the here-and-now and into some other there-and-then. Our suffering now is endurable in light of our anticipated salvation then; the persistent ambiguity of life here is bearable as we contemplate its final resolution there.

We are familiar with this line of thinking from religions that train the focus of devotees away from this world and into the next; but wishful thinking is not peculiar to religion.

The Box

Also in religion but not limited to it is the dogmatic thinking that puts us in a box. Inside the box the persistent ambiguity of life is resolved into a binary logic of black-and-white; better yet, into black-or-white or black-versus-white. Religion is also notorious for dogmatic thinking, where an orthodoxy of absolute truths is imposed upon believers. But as in the case of wishful thinking, dogmatic thinking isn’t only a religious preference for taking leave of reality.

My returning reader will be familiar with my paradoxical intolerance of conviction, which is where dogmatic thinking irresistibly leads. As the word implies, conviction takes our mind prisoner (like a convict) to beliefs that must be true because so much hangs on them. The certainty they provide translates deeper down into a security we crave but can never have enough of – since life itself is not all that secure.

It is not sound logic, clear evidence, or direct experience that gives a conviction its strength, but rather our desperate need that it be true. We can be ready to die and even kill in its defense, which reveals just how far out of touch with reality dogmatic thinking can put us.

Some religions (and probably all cults) turn this unfalsifiable character of convictions into a virtue, as the faith upon which our salvation (the ultimate escape) is said to depend.


In my description of the four methods for taking leave of reality you should have identified your preference (mine is wishful thinking). The point is not to feel badly or guilty for what we’re doing, but rather to take it as an invitation back to the here-and-now, to live mindfully in the present moment.

Instead of resisting life as it comes, with all the pain and loss and failure and rejection it may bring, we can open ourselves to the present mystery of reality, relax into being, and accept the universe – just as it is.

 

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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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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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It’s Not All About You

The holiday season affords fresh opportunities for us to get poked, when others get to see sides of us that, in normal and less stressful times, we manage to keep off-stage. A combination of spending money we don’t really have, fighting traffic on the streets and in stores, and gathering with family members who know best where to poke, puts us in that peculiar holiday mood of excitement, fatigue, annoyance, and regret.

Of course, things would probably go better for us (and for those around us) if we understood what it is inside us that gets triggered, causing us (at least that’s how it feels) to act out in ways we later wish we hadn’t. But this would require some serious and honest self-reflection, when our habit is not to look too closely at what’s going on inside.

To what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living, we could add, with the Buddha, that it also perpetuates needless suffering.

In this post I will guide you on a tour of your personality’s interior – yes, it’s true, of mine as well, along with everyone else’s. My constructivist approach to psychology takes the view that our personality, including its executive center of identity (ego, Latin for “I”), is an illusory architecture of social codes, reflexes, attitudes, and defenses that seems very real but is utterly lacking in substance. Who you are, as distinct from what you are as a human being, is purely a construct, a configuration held together by the pretense of being somebody.

The part of your personality that ego presents to the world, also called your ‘on-stage’ self or mask (Latin persona), is confronted with the challenge of negotiating the satisfaction of your needs in an environment of limited resources and the competing interests of other actors. As long as there are no major surprises, emergencies, or unknowns you can manage this negotiation from day to day without much trouble. But when conditions change unexpectedly or you’re forced into situations where you feel threatened, this ‘thin skin’ of who you’re pretending to be can tear open under the stress.

At this point, still deeper and heretofore hidden vulnerabilities are exposed, and these activate more severe defenses – what Wilhelm Reich named ‘character armor’.

My diagram has taken an illustration of Earth’s interior and adapted it to represent the interior of your personality, with its distinct layers of character armor and the vulnerabilities they are meant to protect. The general idea is that deeper pokes (i.e., assaults or threats that penetrate the surface pretense of who you are), provoke more aggressive and extreme defense reactions, presumably because what’s being defended is closer to the core of who you (believe you) are. My guided tour will begin at the very core and then move out from there into layers higher up and closer to the surface of your managed identity.

I’ve made the point numerous times in this blog that all of us without exception have some degree of insecurity at the core. This is inevitable, given our imperfect parents and the unavoidable mis-timing between the urgency and satisfaction of our basic needs in infancy. So it’s not whether we are insecure, but to what extent our deeper insecurity wreaks neurotic havoc in our personality.

We can think of insecurity – although importantly it insinuates itself into the personality before we have acquired language to name or think about it – as an ineffable (unspeakable) sense of risk attached to existence itself. To some extent we all hold a lingering doubt regarding the provident nature of reality.

When external conditions and events make you feel at risk, it’s this character armor around your core insecurity that gets poked. While in most situations of this kind your very existence is not in question, the effect of such surface signals is to arouse a suspicion against reality and its full support. Perhaps there is a memory of an actual past trauma that your present situation is evoking, or it might simply be pressing upon your general anxiety over the prospect of falling into The Abyss.

For mystics, meditation amounts to an intentional descent (what ego fears as a fall) past the personality and deeper into the grounding mystery of being (ego’s Abyss). In popular religion this release of surrender is called faith – commonly confused with belief, and consequently corrupted.

You need to remember that your personality was formed partly by a conspiracy of taller powers (parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults), but also by the strategies you used to get what you needed. Some of these strategies worked marvelously, while others failed miserably. A complicating factor was the insecurity you carried into each new challenge or opportunity.

Even though the challenge or opportunity was directly about your ability to resolve, overcome, or move through it successfully, a sense that reality might not provide the support you needed undermined your self-confidence. The next layer up from the core of insecurity, then, is all about inadequacy: not being enough or having what it takes.

When you feel inadequate, you are willing to let opportunities slip by. This is because you don’t regard them as genuine opportunities – doors opening to possibility, growth, or improvement – but instead as challenges, in the sense that they require something from you and carry a risk of failure.

Your sense of inadequacy, with its roots in insecurity, quickly re-frames such challenges as problems, which you want less of, not more. You trick yourself into believing that you are avoiding a problem when you are actually turning down an opportunity.

One more layer and our picture is complete. Personalities that lack faith in reality and confidence in themselves commonly employ strategies whereby they compare themselves to others – but also to the ideals of perfection they have in mind – and consistently see themselves as not measuring up. In this way, inadequacy translates into inferiority.

The French psychologist Alfred Adler believed that a sense of inferiority is an early driving factor in human development, as youngsters measure themselves against their taller powers (literally superior, as in above them) who seem so omnipotent.

According to Adler’s theory we can come to adopt an inferiority complex where not only are our efforts never good enough, but we ourselves aren’t good enough as compared with others or our mental ideal. As compensation we may insist on our own self-importance, or push others down so we can feel better about ourselves.

With this stratified model of the personality in front of us you can better understand how identity is constructed, at least in part to sustain the illusion that you are somebody. You have it all together, and you show others only what you want them to see. But be ready. As you gather at the table or around the tree this holiday season, you just might get poked.

It will be a good time to remember that it’s not all about you.

 

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Liberated to Serve

Back In There

I promised myself that I would pick up where I left off in my last post, which was at the point of having broken through the consensus trance that holds individuals under the spell of groupthink. As I explained, consensus trances are seductive forces in your life because they provide the (feeling of) security that you’ve needed from the moment you were born. (See Life Outside the Consensus Trance for background.)

To the degree that your family system wasn’t safe and nurturing, you compensated by attaching yourself to whomever or whatever could keep you from falling headlong into the abyss – referring to the dark and fathomless urgency of your anxious state. You could survive and stay clear of this eventuality so long as the object of your attachment didn’t abandon you, become displeased with you, or change from what you desperately needed her (or him or it) to be for your sake.

To keep her close, you unconsciously adopted her general mood in life, her outlook on reality, the particular beliefs she held, and the manner in which she engaged with (or disengaged from) the world around you. So there you were: secure in the familiarity of each other, co-dependently attached, and firmly locked inside the convictions of what you both knew for certain. This mutual bond operated as a collective consciousness (even though there may have only been the two of you at first), wrapping the construct of your shared world around you like an illusion, which it was. And your inability to distinguish between the way things appeared to you and how they were in reality meant that you were under a delusion as well.

From this quiet nursery scene, the same mystifying trance spread outward as you got older – not out into reality, but farther across the social landscape with the enlarging horizon of your carefully managed world. Strangely your adolescent and adult relationships seemed to repeat many of those early behaviors, especially whenever you felt unsure of yourself or threatened by something unfamiliar, or when your defenses got worn down by the daily stress of life. If you were attached to abusers as a young child, you found yourself irresistibly attracted to abusers in your adulthood. Whatever neurotic style had helped you adapt to those dysfunctional family dynamics back then, so that you could get at least some of what you needed, tends to turn on and take over when you find yourself under pressure today.

So my definition of the consensus trance adds to Tart’s characterization of the shared delusion of groupthink across the various memberships in which our personal identity (ego) is managed, to include also the persistence and reactivation of earlier trances when our views of self and reality were just starting to emerge. If the consensus trance of a particular partnership or tribe only held its pattern by virtue of present conditions alone, it would be much easier to break (if we cared to). But in fact, these patterns, and the curtain they drape over awareness, are energized by much older and deeper (i.e., more primitive) impulses – reaching back behind our rational higher self to our emotional inner child, and even into the visceral urgencies of our animal nature.

Our full liberation from the consensus trance will involve an awakening of spiritual intelligence, to the ‘power within’ and the ‘truth beyond’ the self-world construct of personal identity. The critical question, of course, is how. If we are so far under the spell, how do we stand any chance of being set free? Well, we might ‘graduate’ or take our exit from a web of relationships in the normal process of growing up and moving on. Or something can happen that shocks us momentarily from our trance state: a crisis or setback can disrupt the pattern, or a primary attachment might call it quits, walk out on us, or pass away. We need to remember, though, that even in such instances the insecurity and cravings that held us in that particular co-dependency will likely drive us to find another just like it.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait for a shock event to wake us up. Meditation practices of various kinds have been used for centuries with the intention of assisting consciousness past the construct of personal identity. As this construct has two principal aspects, self and world, a practice of ‘getting over yourself’ can proceed along an inward descent (the mystical turn) whereby self is released to its grounding mystery (‘the power within’), or along an outward ascent (the ethical turn) that lifts awareness beyond “my world” to the higher wholeness of a universal order (‘the truth beyond’). This higher inclusion prompts us to reconsider how we ought to live, given that we are part of a much larger web of life.

It is wise not to wait for the jolt of disillusionment, but instead to cultivate a more or less disciplined daily practice that will gradually strengthen the ego to the point where it is no longer the neurotic center of everything. When you go back to the partnerships and tribes that hold your identity contracts – those masks and performance scripts that define your place in the role-play of social interactions – you will be a more stable and creative influence than before. You won’t take everything personally. You’ll be able to catch the retributive reflex before it springs back against the insult or criticism that someone else just slapped on you, opening a space in the exchange where you can do something outrageous, creative, and kind instead.

The challenge for anyone waking up from the consensus trance is focused in finding creative ways to stay awake. Prepare yourself for the scolding glances and more direct resistance from those who are still under the spell. No one that is comfortably asleep enjoys the flood of light when bedroom curtains are flung open to the morning sun. You are not superior to them. You are not better than they are.

Who knows, but maybe your liberation has now placed you in position to be a servant of their freedom. Yes of course, you could take your light and get as far as possible from the frustrations of this or that relationship. Or you might work out your salvation in a way that shares your light with the rest of us, helping us as well get just a little farther along the path.

 

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The Rupture of Meaning and The Life to Come

Normal everyday operations of your computer at home or work takes into your system a slow accumulation of data in the form of user preferences, security patches and protections, new applications and saved files, internet tracking and downloads – all of which, unless periodically consolidated and cleaned up, will end up oppressing your computer’s memory capacity and slowing its processing speed. Everything gets encumbered and takes longer to respond as your poor computer is trying its best to coordinate all those bits and bytes while still following your commands.

Assuming an adequate operating system is buried somewhere under all that code, what needs to happen is a periodic adjustment where files can be discarded or compressed, programs can be updated to run more efficiently, and that accumulated weight of junk data can be scraped away like barnacles from the hull of a ship. Of course it’s always a good idea to sweep your system for malware (worms, bugs, viruses, and spyware) since that stuff can be terminal (pun noted).

As a metaphor of life, this need to regularly clean out and update your computer system translates directly to the theory of constructivism. This theory holds that human beings are meaning-makers and, further, that meaning is in our minds, not in reality. As distinct from the physical environment where we live, our “world” consists in the overlay of values, associations, and references that our minds spin like a spider’s web across and beyond the given facts of existence. The picture we get from constructivism, then, is of multiple layers (or worlds) of meaning that human beings spin around themselves as persons, partners, families, teams, organizations, tribes, societies, and cultures.

Let’s briefly explore this construction of meaning as it advances across an individual lifespan. This will prepare us to better understand the life transition that I name the “midlife reset,” when this accumulated meaning ruptures and our mental system needs attention.Life StagesThe above diagram illustrates a human lifespan, represented by a magenta-colored arrow arcing from left (past) to right (future). Consistent with a more general theory I’ve been developing, depending on where you are in the lifespan, the segment of time on your left also corresponds to deeper evolutionary layers of your “operating system,” while the segment on your right signals possibilities (and new layers) still to come online.

In the womb and following our birth, individual consciousness is completely “embodied,” which is to say that it is fully immersed in the animal urgencies essential to staying alive. It will be many months before we are capable of thinking about our experience – using words, formulating thoughts, making abstractions, and drawing conclusions. In those earliest days and months we are responding to life as it happens, intent all the while on the degree in which the provision of reality matches the urgency of our need.

The word “passion” derives from the same root as “passive” and is related to “patient,” referring to one who is in a basically receptive and reactive attitude with respect to what’s going on. Our passions (or to use the more modern term, our emotions) have evolved around the challenge of situational adaptation, giving us an ability to meet external objects and events with an attitude that befits the situation and will motivate an adaptive response from us. Desire/Hope, Despair/Sorrow, Disgust/Anger, and Distress/Fear are the four powerful emotional programs that simultaneously simplify and complicate our lives.

You’ll notice that central to my diagram and pivotal to the turning arc of time through the lifespan is what I’m calling “faith.” This shouldn’t be confused with a religion’s orthodox collection of truth statements, or doctrines. Here faith refers to something much deeper and much more important than doctrines; it is the individual’s primal mode (or mood) of being, carried in the nervous system as a resting state of basic trust and openness to reality. And since the nervous system is not digital (“on or off”) but analog (“more or less”), each of us embodies an existential mood located somewhere on the continuum between very secure (grounded, calm, trusting, composed) and very insecure (unsettled, restless, wary, anxious).

It should be obvious that an individual’s foundational mood or mode of being will be determined to a great extent by the nature of his or her early life experience. A hospitable womb and nurturing home environment will elicit more positive passions (confidence, joy, hope, optimism) and help to set a mood of resting assurance that is open and trustful. Negative events such as neglect, privation, abuse or abandonment will have the opposite effect, closing the nervous system against reality for the sake of survival. This passion-faith axis is where the individual’s general outlook on life is set, as happy, depressed, hostile, or phobic.

Farther along the arc of development brings the activation of a more cognitive (thoughtful, intellectual, rational) approach to things. Reason is about causality, relation, intention, and purpose, and with this capacity, significantly assisted by the acquisition and growing mastery of language, our mind goes to work constructing meaning. A key insight of constructivism, as already mentioned, is that meaning is a product of the mind rather than inherent to reality. What is and what happens are the givens of reality; what it means depends on a mind to ask questions and come up with answers.

We construct meaning under the supervision and guidance of our tribe, and great care is taken so that our individual worldview is congruent with the collective worldview of our primary group. The intended outcome is a deep and broad agreement between our minds, an agreement that insures a conservative advancement of the larger cultural heritage wherein our identities are mutually defined and managed.

We are expected to graduate through a series of life accomplishments, completing each assignment at the right time and in the proper order. Lollipops, gold stars, ribbons, trophies, certificates, diplomas, degrees, bonuses, promotions, licenses, property, real estate, social status, and finally dependents of our own that we will support and shape into “one of us” – all along the way we are making agreements, constructing meaning, and loading our operating system with more data. It is generally true that the first half of life is oriented outward in pursuit of accomplishments that our tribe insists are critical to our success, happiness, and good standing in the community.

And then something happens. Our system takes longer and longer to boot up. Our decisions (like key-commands) get bogged down in lag time. Even more concerning, the pursuits and accomplishments that had previously inspired our personal commitment and sacrifice feel increasingly like an exercise in futility. This is a crisis of meaning, and its principal symptoms – as reported in memoirs, case studies, and popular literature – are feelings of emptiness and disorientation: Nothing (or very little) seems to matter, and it feels like everything is reeling off course.

Welcome to the Midlife Reset.

This rupture in life’s meaning forms a fracture that typically reaches down into the foundations of security. Consequently for many this amounts to a “faith emergency” where reality no longer feels provident or trustworthy. To a once-confident theist it can seem as if god has vanished into nonexistence, leaving him or her utterly bereft and forsaken. A percentage of them will conclude (accurately) that the god they believed in never really did exist as they assumed, that he was a figment of their imagination, a mere figure of myth, a construct of the mind, a convention of orthodoxy. This realization leads some into a disenchanted atheism, others get pulled into a desperate and dogmatic fundamentalism, while a few step through the veil in search of a relevant spirituality “after god” (post-theism).

The shift or life transition pressing in at this point of the Midlife Reset was interpreted by C.G. Jung as a radical reorientation, moving through the harrowing yet necessary phase of disorientation, from an outward investment of consciousness to an inward reorientation on something more esoteric (“inner”) and reality-based. We can characterize this as a breakthrough from a life dedicated to worldly accomplishments, to a new life in quest of genuine fulfillment – for the path that will lead to a more grounded experience, a more authentic presence, greater well-being, and a deeper love for life.

Ultimately this is preparation for engaging life in a more “soulful” way, less concerned with proving ourselves and getting ahead, than simply being ourselves and sinking deeper into the grounding mystery of existence. Wisdom seeks to reconnect to the faith that may have gotten buried beneath the accumulated “junk data” of convictions, beliefs, and opinions. In taking up a practice of mindful meditation, physical discipline, or creative art we can successfully clarify attention to the degree that our practice becomes a selfless vessel of spiritual life.

If reason is involved in meaning-making, then wisdom is what we come to know about life after our assumptions, preferences, judgments, and expectations have been dropped or stripped away. It’s not that we stop thinking about or responding passionately to what’s going on around us. Putting a judgment on something (or someone) and boxing it up in meaning may be a way we can learn something about ourselves, but the neatly labeled package only separates us from what is really real and unique in each situation. Wisdom picks up essential lessons from life without having to haul along the heavy megabyte files containing countless bits of nonessential or even corrupt (exaggerated, embellished, or misremembered) information.

My diagram might suggest that a more soulful, spiritually grounded, and liberated life is only available to us in our later years. But in fact the turning-point of what I’ve called the Midlife Reset can come at just about any time. Presumably (in keeping with my theory) it coincides with an accumulated critical mass of irrelevant meaning (junk data), which would make an early incident very unlikely and much less common. It’s also possible that it never comes: the conditions are right for awakening to occur but the individual “successfully” resists, or else reverts to old certainties with a new-found devotion.

In the end, perhaps the most desirable outcome is that we are able to rest again in the provident mystery of reality.

 

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Why Religion Can’t Advance

Working from the root meaning of the word “religion” (from Latin religare) I’ve been making a case for it as a necessary and essential dimension of human cultural life. Even theism, which I don’t regard as the only model of religion worth considering, occupies a critical place in the development and “awakening” of human consciousness to the present mystery of reality. So when I say that “religion can’t advance,” I am not advocating for its abandonment (finally) for the sake of progress and other modern values. I’m saying that it presently can’t but needs to advance.

If religion can be liberated from its current deadlock, it stands a good chance of fulfilling its primary function as incubator of the human spirit. I don’t use the words spirit or spirituality with any metaphysical associations – as something that inhabits and survives the body – but rather as metaphor of the mystical intuition and creative intelligence that links us, as the rhythmic urgency of breathing from which the metaphor of spirit derives (Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus), to the deeper and larger reality in which we (hopefully) find ourselves.

In its current condition religion isn’t serving our spiritual incubation as a species, but is rather holding the human spirit captive. Instead of lifting us up and setting us free, it is holding us down and locking us inside toxic convictions. The polarization between complacency and terrorism, between those who use religion to cultivate security and privilege and those who use it to justify resentment and violence, is setting the stage for our likely extinction – one way or the other.

A fast-growing third party, which I’ll call the unaffiliated commonsense liberals, is working hard to throw god down and expose the underlying pathology in religion. They take a “surgical” approach to the solution: Cut it out and move on. It’s time to grow up. No more sleeping in mommy’s lap or pleading with daddy to save us. We need to leave religion in the nursery with our pacifiers and security blankets. We’re on our own, folks.

But religion isn’t a product of infantile dependency – or at least it’s not only that. To those who sit in church pews or strap on explosives it must also be said that religion is not about getting “it” right or proving “them” wrong. It’s not really about you at all. In fact, the widespread assumption that religion is about me and my security, my meaning, my purpose, or my destiny in the next life is precisely where religion today is stuck. So if I’m going to clear some space for a fourth option – not complacency, not terrorism, and not atheism either – then we need to spend a little time trying to understand what’s in the way.

Ego 1Taking an historical and evolutionary perspective on the phenomenon of religion reveals it as something that has developed over time. This development of religion is correlated to the emergence of individual consciousness – of the growing awareness in the individual of himself or herself as an individual, an irreducible center of identity. This is what is meant by the term “ego,” or I: an anchoring reference point of a self-conscious orientation in reality.

Identity has to do with being a part of something, at the same time as you are apart from other things. This is the dynamic of attachment (a part of, belonging) and separation (apart from, distinction) that each of us must negotiate – or I should rather say, the negotiation of which results in who each of us comes to be.

Archetypally we can associate our attachment need with Mother and our separation need with Father, regardless of who actually plays these primary roles in our early life. What in psychology is called “ego strength” is the centered, stable, and healthy balance in the personality between our ego needs to fit in and feel secure on the one hand, and to stand out and feel special on the other.

Ego 2Now, let’s pretend that this all goes reasonably well. We are enabled to occupy our own center of identity, as the tether for an expanding perspective on reality, a widening sphere of concerns, values, and choices. With maturity we understand ourselves within the increasing complexity of our situation, managing the balance between our dependency and responsibility.

A healthy and stable identity provide us with two critical points of access to the present mystery of reality, one opening downward to what is within us, and the other opening upward to what is beyond us. I call these two orientations communion and transcendence, respectively, and together they represent the farther reaches of our human nature.

They are complementary principles like Yin and Yang, with communion inviting awareness to sink below the consciousness of self, in a gradual and steady release of identity until all reference to “me and mine” has dissolved away. Transcendence works in the opposite direction, not releasing the ego but going beyond it across an extended web of relationships.

A religion that affirms and supports ego strength in this healthy sense will encourage the practitioner to “go within” for communion with the grounding mystery and “go beyond” in transcendence to the universe that is our home. Healthy religion – not the kind that is stuck with the ego and can’t advance – should thus be the outspoken advocate for both “mystical” (ground) and “scientific” (universe) research. In that case, each of us would regularly practice meditation (whatever helps you descend the rhythms of your body and enter that deep clearing of a calm presence) and build out a rational model of reality based on the evidence of careful observation.

If we stop pretending for a moment and instead take account of how things have actually gone with religion, we can begin to appreciate where it gets hung up. For whatever reason, ego strength isn’t established and the functional balance in our need for attachment and separation is thrown off-center. Because our personal histories are unique, how it happens for you will be different from how it happens for me, but the consequences of our dislocation (Buddhist dukha) will be predictably similar.Ego 3When our insecurity overwhelms the need to separate and become our own person, any number of “attachment disorders” may result. To some extent, however, they all have to do with our desperate drive to put ourselves beneath what (or whom) we hope will dispel our anxiety. Submission, in the sense of throwing ourselves on the mercy of god (or whatever) out of a sense of guilt, shame, or depravity, regards “the other” as everything and the self as nothing. Typically “the other” – represented in an external deity perhaps – is really an externalization of the sick ego’s own self-condemnation. Confessing our unworthiness and inability to change brings a brief but temporary relief of the burden, as the shameful part of ourselves is admitted to be seen. But it won’t last, and we’ll soon be back for another “fix.”

A different set of problems emerges when our need for attachment is not adequately met and we are left to establish ourselves by showing off and chasing fame. Whereas healthy development would give us the strength to go beyond “me” and “mine” for the sake of cooperation, participation, and even self-sacrifice for a greater good, an inability to get beyond ourselves compels us to self-inflation instead. Now it really is all about me. Individuals with “separation disorders” crave recognition, are fixated on self-importance, seek their own glory, and have to be better than others. (This sounds a bit like the biblical deity Yahweh in his adolescent phase.) Tragically, their passionate drive to stand out and be recognized too often alienates the very audience whose praise and approval they so desperately need, and they end up alone.

                                                                                  

So where does all of this lead me, as it concerns the present predicament of religion? Once again, I don’t think the answer is to “be done” with religion and finally grow up. Clearly the lukewarm and sentimental religion in many of our churches won’t help us much, nor is violence in god’s name (whichever god) our way through. We don’t need to condemn the ego or glorify it. But we can drop it from time to time and sink into an ineffable mystery; we can leap off its shoulders into a larger experience of what is going on all around us.

Of course, to let go of ourselves requires an ability to let go of some other things as well. One step at a time …

 

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