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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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Creatures and Creators

nature_cultureHuman beings are creatures of nature. Our physiology and complex nervous system are products of the evolution of life on planet Earth, and the roots of our genetic code are entwined with countless other life-forms. Some mythological accounts notwithstanding, our species evolved over many millions of years and we are utterly dependent on the web of life which is our home.

Human beings are also creators of culture. Our advanced brain and nervous system have endowed us with exceptional social, cognitive, and artistic abilities by which we have erected a profoundly complex habitat of meaning – symbols, language, architecture, technology, commerce, and worldviews. Culture wasn’t here before we arrived, but emerged gradually as this creative synergy continued to evolve. As distinct from the web of life mentioned earlier, culture is the web of meaning that we humans spin out of our minds and then take up residence within.

In the long run of our evolution, then, we were first creatures (and still are) and over time became creators. The more invested and involved we became in the production of culture, the more we tended also to lose our sense of membership in, and responsibility to, the natural realm. On the big-picture scale of things, the reality of our living body and its provident environment is the grounding mystery out of which mind has emerged to construct a home and contemplate the turning mystery of the cosmos.

As beings we are expressions of being-itself; as human beings we are privileged to look out on the wonder of existence and participate in the great community of life.

In my diagram, a diagonal arrow ascends from the bottom-left signifying our evolutionary path toward self-actualization, by which I mean the activation-into-maturity of our full capacity as a species. As Alan Watts often said, just as an apple tree “apples,” so our planet (and the universe itself) “peoples.” Each of us is a late-arriving manifestation of the universal process, the cosmos both looking out on its own Great Body and looking into its own Deep Soul through the intelligence that we are.

I have elsewhere associated these two lenses of human intelligence – one looking out and the other looking within – as science and spirituality, respectively. For millenniums they have mutually confirmed our intuition that All is One and that We’re All in This Together.

This, I would say, is the prime discovery of our species, and all of our most important endeavors are in one way or another searching out, pondering on, and celebrating what it means. Instinct keeps us rooted in the life-force, Tradition conserves our identity and way of life, Innovation presses us into new possibilities, and Wisdom invites us to higher wholeness – or, as the times demand, it also warns us against damaging the whole and thereby foreclosing on our future.

The long course of our evolution stretches from survival to well-being, from self-preservation to self-actualization, and our challenge has been to hold these very different value systems in balance.

In my diagram again, “nature” and “culture” are depicted as comprising a color gradient between them. Across my many blog posts and graphics, black represents the animal nature of our body, purple represents the higher self of our soul, and the orange in between them stands for our inner child, ego consciousness, and personal identity – depending on the context of consideration. It is in this ‘orange zone’ that we get hung up, held back, pushed down or pulled apart by the various neuroses of insecurity.

All of the great spiritual teachings share a suspicion against this nervous bundle of personal identity, as somehow the culprit responsible for our chronic suffering, strained relationships, intertribal violence, and life-degrading consumerism.

It is this cult of personal identity, centered around our altar to ego, that gets us so self-involved that we forget our essential nature as fellow creatures (siblings not masters) and world creators (artisans not shoppers). In the effort of managing our insecurity we cling to what (and to whom) we expect will make us feel better, but only really manage to entangle ourselves in these attachments and magnify our misery. For that we take medications, throw ourselves into distractions, or maybe sell our soul to some form of bigoted dogmatism.

What we can’t understand – and likely couldn’t accept even if we did understand – is that ego cannot be liberated. “I” am a prisoner of what defines me, as my identity is inextricably tied to those trappings of tribe, nation, ideology and ambition that make me who I am. In order to advance along the path of self-actualization to fulfillment and genuine well-being, this neurotic little tightwad must completely unwind, dying to its own seed-form (as Jesus taught) or dropping the illusion of its separate self (as the Buddha taught) for the sake of a larger and fuller experience of life.

Oftentimes, even when this shining truth is glimpsed, it has been immediately corrupted into a program for saving the ego rather than moving beyond it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should aspire to a life without identity, devoid of ego, and utterly detached inside some metaphysical bubble of bliss. That, too, is a gross misunderstanding and corruption of the shining truth, one that often leads into a labyrinth of esoteric nonsense and kitsch religion, lacking all relevance to daily life. To repeat, our challenge is neither to glorify the ego nor to pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather to rise above and move beyond its self-centered vantage on reality; to step through the curtain and rejoin the universe, already 14 billion years underway.


In my diagram are also represented the four strands of our Quadratic Intelligence – visceral (VQ: needs), emotional (EQ: feelings), rational (RQ: thoughts), and spiritual (SQ: intuitions). Even though I don’t focus on them explicitly in this post, they are included to provide some cross-reference for my returning reader. Go here for a deeper dig into Quadratic Intelligence. You can also search “quadratic intelligence” for additional posts on the topic.

 

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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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