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A Psychology of Wholeness

I’m sure that no other species of life, on Earth at least, is as obsessed with understanding itself as are we. We’ve been trying to figure out this human experience for millenniums now, but time and again we get tangled up in our own reflection. Realistically speaking, there really is no hope of ever reaching a completely objective picture since we are both the object under study and the ones conducting the examination.

Over the last 125 years or so, Western psychology has made some impressive advances in our understanding of psyche – the Greek term meaning “self.” The lack of a unified theory is largely due to the fact that the self can be defined in (at least) three distinct ways. In this post I will offer a model that incorporates these distinctions and outlines a Western psychology of wholeness – a way of understanding ourselves holistically.

These “pieces” have been floating out here for some time now, and the various schools and therapies of Western psychology have promoted their alternative visions in the marketplace. Inevitably one “piece” is made central as the others are subordinated to it, dismissed as nonessential, or entirely ignored.

As is the case in Western philosophy, science, and medicine, our penchant for analyzing reality – in this case the reality of the human psyche – into its deeper elements frequently leaves us without Ariadne’s Thread back to where we can appreciate the higher wholeness of it all.

Instead of “pieces” or even “elements,” we should regard these aspects of self as distinct loci that connect us to reality in three dimensions: to our living body, to other persons, and to the ground of being. The loci themselves are named, respectively, mind, ego, and soul. Again, these are not three pieces or parts of the self, but three modes of existence that engage us psychologically with reality and the fullness of life.

Self as Embodied Mind

In Western psychology a great deal of research has demonstrated the psychosomatic (mind-body) dimension of our experience. “Mind” here refers to the autonomic, instinctual, emotional, cognitive and sentient awareness supported by the body’s nervous system. Without the nervous system and its central ganglion (the brain) there is no mind. This is not to say that mind is “nothing more” than the brain and its nervous system, however.

A psychosomatic perspective regards the self as embodied mind, not as a mind “inside” a body but as a living organism imbued with the power to sense and desire, to feel and to think, to attend, wonder, and reflect. Thoughts in our mind activate feelings in our body. Our visceral state both prompts and reacts to the stories we tell ourselves. An anxious or agitated nervous system translates spontaneously into verbal narratives of worry, confusion, or outrage. A story of shame and self-doubt can upset our stomach and make it difficult to breathe.

Many forms of modern dysfunction and disease in the body have their origin in the mind. They are maladies of the mind-body.

As it relates to a psychology of wholeness, the balance of health in the mind-body nexus can be summarized as composure. In this state the self is internally stable and fully capable of maintaining, or quickly recovering, equilibrium. Composure allows attention to “look out” on reality through a clear lens: centered, undisturbed, and free of internal distractions. As a benefit of composure, we can also see more clearly into the experience of others and understand what they are going through.

Self as Personal Ego

The psychosocial dimension of self is about our relationships with others, along with the personal identity we struggle to manage in the social exchange. From the Latin for “I,” ego only gradually comes into itself, supervised and shaped by the family, tribe, and culture in which we are members. By a series of separations – first the physical separation of birth, followed by years of emotional and intellectual moves – we differentiate ourselves as an individual person, one who “speaks through” (Latin persona) the roles and masks we are provided.

During this rather long ordeal, ego consciousness – the sense we have of ourselves as a separate person and social actor – becomes increasingly involved in its own security schemes and strategies. Because the personal ego is by definition separate from all that is “not me,” this constant exposure often motivates us to find cover inside collective identities like cults, sects, parties, and clubs where we can blend in and feel safe.

One of the key indicators of Western cultural progress has been this rise of individual rights and personal values, occasionally snapped back into conformity by authoritarian societies but persisting in its long campaign for autonomy.

In Asia and the Orient, this rise of individualism has been restrained for the most part by strong traditions of deference to authority and by philosophies that regard the individual as a degenerate from the anonymous collective (e.g., in China) or impersonal absolute (e.g., in India).

Self as Mystical Soul

Psychospiritual interests in Western psychology have typically resulted in so-called New Age metaphysics, where the self is seen as an immortal and absolute identity – the “true Self” – utterly separate and apart from the body, time, and material existence. If things don’t go in this direction, then the interest in spirituality will often get annexed to one of the “classic” schools of twentieth-century psychology, as a set of concerns (“religious development” or “crises of faith”) a client may be working through. In either case, the focus of attention is on the personal ego and its quest for enlightenment, salvation, lasting happiness and a more meaningful existence.

Self-as-soul is distinct from self-as-ego, however, and confusing the two effectively forecloses on our human progress into wholeness.

The confusion has roots in Western (Judeo-Christian) monotheism, where the supreme being is conceived in terms of an immortal personal ego. This same principle in humans is consequently regarded as the precious thing to be saved from sin and worldly bondage. Our soul is thus the true center of our personality, the “I” (ego) that longs for deliverance – a final separation from our body, the world, and the ravages of time.

But soul is not another name for the immortal ego. Instead, it invites the self into a deeper contemplation of its own ground.

A contemplative descent of this sort drops below the personal ego and its preoccupation with identity management. In a way, it follows the stem of consciousness through the floor of mind-body composure and deeper into the present mystery of reality. Dropping from the separate ego is also dropping beneath its web of dualities, to a place that is now/here (nowhere) and All is One. This is the mystical (literally ineffable, indescribable, and unspeakable) experience of communion.


As my diagram illustrates, soul-ground communion produces mind-body composure, which in turn inspires ego-other compassion and awakens us to the spirit of genuine community. It is in genuine community that we can fully enjoy the liberated life.

 

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How Do You Lean Into Reality?

Compass MandalaWho among us can resist the invitation to identify ourselves on some grid or scale or chart of personality characteristics? As long as we don’t have to feel as if we are being stuffed inside a box or stabbed to a pin-board, classified and labeled as only this, the exercise can be endlessly fascinating. There’s nothing ego enjoys more than gazing into a mirror. The mystery of what we are, underneath who we think we are, lures us into contemplation, willing to check boxes or circle numbers that promise to unveil “the real me.”

There is a strong industry in personality testing designed to help us understand ourselves, get along with others, and find the secret to a happy (or happier, since it’s never enough) and more successful life. To be honest, Americans probably top the chart when it comes to vanity and self-obsession. We spend more money and effort on improving ourselves – enhancements, reductions, tucks, infusions, exotic therapies, and best-selling self-help programs – perhaps mostly because we’ve been conditioned to measure ourselves against the perfect fakes of celebrity culture.

So, I appreciate you stopping at my booth to see what I have to offer. You’ll be glad to hear that I have no questionnaire for you to fill out or pre-cut “types” for you to try on. What I offer is a simple way to identify how you lean into reality and make sense of life. Similar to the popular personality type-finders, we will begin with some key terms that distinguish major ways that all human beings engage with the Big Show. What It’s All About will vary across interpretations according to our individual preferences, inclinations, and concerns – that is to say, how we lean into reality.

My use of a compass analogy (see the illustration) is intended to make the point that we lean into reality not only by virtue of the way we have been wired and conditioned, but also in response to the situational and developmental challenges that life brings our way. Regardless of where you’re going, a compass can provide reference and orientation, although it can’t tell you where to go or how to get there. It will faithfully tell you where north is, without insisting that you always (or ever) travel in that direction. In the same way, my compass model can help clarify your preference for leaning into reality, but it won’t point you to a goal and prescribe your path.

Let’s begin with some definition around the cardinal terms of my compass model.

Reason (North)

You might be someone who leans into reality with Reason, which means that you have a preference for rational, logical, and objective modes of engagement. To look for the “reason” in things is to search for causes, patterns, principles and ideas that correlate and unify the myriad data-points of experience.

Urgency (South)

Standing opposite of Reason is Urgency, which is all about what needs to happen NOW. Urgency is rooted in urges, in the pulsing, throbbing, and driving desire of life itself. If you lean into reality with Urgency, you have a preference for embodied, visceral, and instinctive modes of engagement.

Passion (West)

If you lean into reality with Passion, your preference is to be moved – attracted, enticed, inspired, provoked – to an experience of intense feeling. Passion doesn’t typically initiate the experience it seeks, but opens to reality in an attitude of expectancy, excitement, and romantic adventure.

Purpose (East)

Standing opposite of Passion is Purpose, which is more about intention than objective. In other words, leaning into reality with Purpose – or as we say, “on purpose” – speaks to a kind of mindful engagement with what’s going on, at least as much as where it’s going or whether a goal is reached.


You might notice how the cardinal terms on my compass match up in interesting ways to the geographical orientation of world cultures, with northern zones tending to be more rational, southern zones more sensual, western zones more romantic, and eastern zones more meditative. Once again we need to be careful not to pigeon-hole entire cultures and ethnic groups, just as we want to keep our options open as individuals. But the correlation is at least a curious one.

As you consider these four general preferences, you will probably realize that one term alone is insufficient in representing how you lean into reality. For instance, you might see yourself as oriented by a combination of Reason and Purpose, in which case your preference would be more of a northeast (NE) style (or EN, if Purpose is stronger than Reason) than a straightforward North or East. Or maybe you tend to combine Passion and Urgency, in which case your preference would be more of a southwest (SW) style (or WS, if Passion is stronger than Urgency) than a straightforward South or West.

My personal observation is that if we strictly identify ourselves by one cardinal preference alone, the term opposite to it on the compass will often haunt our happiness and success as a menacing “shadow” principle. This doesn’t imply that it is sinister or diabolical, necessarily (although it can show up in such guises as the Trickster, Devil, or Adversary), but only that its status as a denied or excluded part of ourselves forces it to break in where it’s not welcome. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that such unreconciled splits within ourselves are ultimately behind the conflicts we have with each other.

The ideal, I suppose, would be a dynamic balance among all four orientations. By that I don’t mean that we should strive to occupy the center of my compass, in an imperturbable state of absolute neutrality – which is a pretty good definition of what it means to be dead. Rather, a dynamic balance would mean we still have our preferred way of leaning into reality, but that we are not so “convicted” (held captive) by it that we can’t shift and adapt our mode of engagement to creatively meet the challenge of a new situation.

Finally, there is the question of how this idea of leaning into reality and the four cardinal preferences might help us better understand why we click or clash with the other people in our lives. Does an “opposite type” (across the compass) or an “adjacent type” (in a position next to ours) make a better life partner, coworker, teammate, or friend? Or should we be looking for associates just like ourselves, who hold essentially the same beliefs, values, and motives as we do?

Personally, I don’t vote for that last one.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2015 in The Creative Life

 

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