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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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Diving Deep, Flying High

A lot has happened to get us to this point, where I have written something for you to read and think about.

Fourteen or so billion years ago a quantum singularity broke open to release a burst of infinite energy and give birth to our universe. Within seconds this highly unstable state began to collapse into the first forms of physical matter: superstrings of light, crystalline lattices, and quarkish free radicals that would soon (over the next 150 million years) cool, combine, and form into thermonuclear furnaces of the first stars.

Much, much farther into the future (only about 4 billion years ago) the conditions of organic chemistry necessary for life to emerge gave rise to the first single-celled organisms. Since that point, life has continued to evolve into microbial, plant, and animal forms, developing ever more sophisticated sensory apparatuses and nervous systems among the animals to support an awakening of consciousness.

In the primates, and particularly the hereditary line leading to our own species, this power of sentience acquired the talent of self-awareness, where the formation and management of a personal identity (ego) has now become our constant preoccupation.

So here I am and there you are.

We are just conceited enough to half-believe the rumor which says that we’ve made it to the end, that our species has finally reached self-actualization with the arrival of ego consciousness. The great universal process has been evolving all this time with the aim of achieving an intellectual comprehension of itself in us. This is what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed at any rate.

With the rise of consumerism we’ve managed to put a twist on Hegel’s idea: our special gift is not so much intellectual curiosity as an insatiable craving for what will make us happy. And nothing can make us happy (such is the open secret of our wisdom traditions) which is why we can’t seem to get over ourselves.

It’s like we’re this black hole at the finishing end of evolution, fourteen billion years after the birth of the universe from a primordial black hole. But whereas that one was a spring of creative energy, we have become a sucking drain on the resources of our planet and its fragile web of life.

As long as we continue to regard ego consciousness as the cosmic endgame we won’t be able to change course from a tragic conclusion in global intoxication and our own extinction. If we can’t shift from our present condition to something more liberated and life-affirming, the final outcome decidedly won’t be in our favor.

In other posts I have described what I call the three pernicious divisions currently compromising wellbeing and threatening our future. A psychosomatic (soul-body), interpersonal (self-other), and ecological (human-nature) division that breaks the creative polarities of our existence and sets them in opposition (soul without body, self against other, human above nature) undermines our essential wholeness.

I’ve argued as well for seeing theism as a necessary stage in the construction of personal identity (ego) and the social system around it. In its central statement concerning the nature of ultimate reality in terms of personality and will (i.e., the concept of deity), theism provides a stage for our individuation as self-conscious centers of personal identity.

Just as a healthy family system lends provident support and inspiring role models for children in the taller powers who manage the household, so in theism this same arrangement – at least by design – is projected at the societal level. In this household we (first and foremost the insiders) are siblings with one another and children of a god whose will is that we live peaceably together, contribute to the greater good, and grow in virtue.

I characterize theism this way and not as a belief system based in supernatural revelations and miraculous events – which is how it is typically spun by orthodoxy to insiders – for three reasons. First, my characterization is deeply consistent with the evidence we have from the history of religion itself. Secondly it saves theists from having to abandon their common sense, moral conscience, and modern worldview for the sake of holding to a literal reading of their myths.

And finally this model of theism allows for a more responsible and well-reasoned interpretation of a spirituality that thrives beyond the ego, after theism, and on the other side of god – what is named post-theism.

Where does this post-theistic spirituality lead? Not to a hard-line atheism or secular humanism. I’ve clarified these distinctions in other posts, so we’ll move directly to what is unique to post-theism.

Post-theism is transpersonal, which means that it engages with reality beyond ego consciousness. Rather than eliminating ego from the picture, however, this spirituality focuses on making personal identity sufficiently strong (i.e., stable, balanced, and unified) to support the breakthrough experience of a liberated life.

Personal identity continues to be important here as it was in theism. But whereas theism – particularly, I should qualify, in its healthy forms – made ego strength its primary concern, post-theistic spirituality invites us to an experience of reality below the center and beyond the horizon of ego consciousness.

These terms “center” and “horizon” are important to understanding post-theism because they serve to define membership – how we identify ourselves and where our obligations lie. We can clarify them further by saying that our center is what we identify as, while our horizon represents (or contains) what we identify with.

At the level of ego consciousness we identify ourselves as individual persons with unique histories, personalities, and interests: I am a person. Taking this identification means that we also identify with other egos: they are our companions, colleagues, rivals, opponents, and enemies inside the horizon of specifically egoic concerns.

As just mentioned, theism is a social system constructed for the purpose of forming personal identity and developing its potential. Even though it conceives a deity who brought the entire cosmos into being, theism’s primary investment is still in shaping the beliefs, values, and aims of our interpersonal life together in society. Its notion of salvation is centered on our need as persons to be accepted, recognized, forgiven, and reconciled to the tribe that holds our membership.

Below our center of personal identity (or ‘down and within’) are deeper centers corresponding to larger horizons of identity (‘out and beyond’). Whereas we are unique individuals at the egoic level, by dropping to the deeper center of our life as sentient beings who can sense and feel and suffer, we also identify with all sentient beings. The values and concerns that orient our existence now include much more than other egos.

Drop another level to a still-deeper center and we identify ourselves as organisms, or living beings that exist interdependently with countless others in a great web of life. Now our values and concerns open transpersonally to an even larger horizon where we recognize our influence, for good or ill, as well as our responsibility within the biosphere of our living planet.

From this center of our life as organisms we can only contemplate the material and quantum realms farther below (and within) as the ineffable ground of being itself. And altogether, from this dark abyss of energy and matter, focusing upward through the realms of life and sentience whose rhythms and animal intuitions support our unique center of personal identity, is what I name the grounding mystery.

With each center up or down, our awareness expands or collapses to its corresponding horizon. The capacity for diving deep and flying high in this manner is a transpersonal capacity, and it takes ego strength to make it possible.

 

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Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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