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The Four Hells

The idea of the “liberated life” is a big theme in this blog on creative change. It’s my best label for what we are all seeking as human beings, and is probably one of the more easily misunderstood themes I write about. We are socially conditioned to think of “liberation” as the experience of being set free from something, which inevitably fixes our focus on what we’re moving out of or away from.

But the liberated life is much more than that. It is also about how we live, what we live for, and the joie de vivre that opens to us when we are fully present to the moment.

For the most part, most of us most of the time are probably not fully present to the moment – and for good reasons, or at least they seem legitimate to us. And yet, for a large majority these reasons aren’t all that easy to articulate, must less identify. We’ve just taken this position – or were we put in this position? – and now we aren’t sure how to get back to what’s real.

Let’s review how we manage to remove ourselves from the present moment, why we do it, and where we end up spending (really, wasting) much of our lives. As a map I will use what we can think of as “the four hells” – hell as the place we go when we’re not fully present and living the liberated life. 

In classical theistic theology, hell is understood as “separation from god.” And if god is taken as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality (or the real presence of mystery) then this definition can still be deeply relevant to a post-theistic spirituality in our day. 

Soul PeaceThe first and deepest hell is named Soul without Peace. By “soul” I simply mean our inner life, not some metaphysical entity residing in the body. In my lexicon, soul is not separate (or separable) from body but includes it – all the way “down” from our self-conscious identity (ego), through a sentient nervous system, into the metabolic urgencies and provident rhythms of organismic life, to the very edge of the dark abyss of matter itself.

Early trauma and chronic stress agitate this “inner state” of our soul. Instead of relaxing into being, we are insecure, anxious, and restless.

My diagram depicts our restless soul, a soul without peace, as a scribbling spiral that can’t stop spinning. There’s too much to worry about, too much to be on our guard against. We are neurotically unstable and emotionally imbalanced, which motivates us to reach for, lean on, and cling to whatever can pacify our fears.

Love FreedomWhen we’re like this, grabbing onto anything and anyone to help us feel secure, our relationships can’t grow. And because much early trauma and chronic stress is perpetrated on us by abusive or neglectful parents and other taller powers, our continued dependency on them despite such conditions means that our earliest relationships provided no real freedom for us to be ourselves.

Of course, Love without Freedom (the second hell) is not really love, since genuine love will always respect and accommodate the needs, the voice, and the will of each partner. When we are neurotically attached to someone who manages their insecurity (restless soul) by controlling us, we are both demanding something from each other that neither can satisfy.

Such co-dependent relationships are profoundly dysfunctional, and in our desperate quest for inner peace we end up locking ourselves inside.

Work PurposeWhen we are captives in the second hell, falling into the third hell – Work without Purpose – is inevitable. The obvious reason is that work, which can be defined as any activity that requires effort, is focused on an objective, takes time, and draws on our knowledge and skill, will involve our interaction and often our strategic collaboration with others.

So, if we don’t appreciate – and some of us actually can’t tolerate – the need for freedom in healthy human relationships, then we probably won’t be able to work well with others, either.

Purposeful work doesn’t have to be big-scale, world changing work. “Purpose” here has more to do with the creative intention and focused dedication we bring to whatever we do. When we can’t work well with others, partnerships, teams, and committees get tangled up in “second hell complications,” making it necessary at times to disengage for the sake of keeping our sanity and preventing burnout.

Life MeaningSo what happens when we lack inner peace (first hell), are trapped in dysfunctional relationships (second hell), and languish in work that is stressful and pointless (third hell)? The answer is that life itself becomes meaningless. Life without Meaning (the fourth hell) afflicts a large number of us, and its signature experience is what we know as depression.

Without higher purpose, personal freedom, or inner peace, everything around us seems absurd and insignificant.

At such times, we don’t realize that life is meaningless precisely because we are so preoccupied with managing things in the first three hells. Our anxiety (first hell) is damaging our relationships (second hell), which is making it impossible to cooperate with others and achieve meaningful goals (third hell).

4 HellsIf we step back to take in the entire map of the four hells, we get a clear view of how the anxiety of our inner life is really the deep source of the depression in which all of life seems meaningless.

It is well known – at least among research psychologists, if not the larger public where there’s money to be made on keeping it a secret – that anxiety (Soul without Peace) and depression (Life without Meaning) are two poles of a binary (comorbid) condition that could just as well be named “clinical unhappiness.”

It is the human condition which has inspired much of the brooding expressions in our art, literature, religion, and philosophy throughout history. It’s also what has pushed our species to the brink of self-destruction time and again.

Once in hell, we have a hell of a time getting out, and all our desperate efforts only manage to cast us deeper in.

What’s needed is simply that we come back to the present moment and learn how to relax into being. The really real is always and already right where we are. When we cultivate inner peace, we can enjoy freedom in our relationships, bring a mindful purpose to our work, and create a beautiful life of meaning.

The very place that our anxiety and depression are most palpable and overwhelming (the body) is sacred ground, where the liberated life begins. With each breath we can surrender ourselves to the present mystery of being alive.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Inside Terrorism

IdeologyOne approach in dealing with terrorism is to try and knock it out with even greater force. If we can just exterminate the terrorists, we can get back to normal life. The problem with this approach is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the individuals who perpetrate its horrors. Our longer term solution will come as we are able to get inside terrorism and see where (and how) it takes hold of otherwise sane and decent human beings. Launching counter-terror campaigns can quickly make terrorists of ourselves.

As soon as we can acknowledge the ease in which we slip into and are taken up by ideologies that control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, the closer we will be to a world free of terrorism. Once we understand the process as it takes hold of us, more creative, responsible, and wise solutions to the global problem of terrorism will become available. Ideology is a powerful spell that takes possession of our intelligence, radicalizes our attitudes, and compels us to act out of character with our better angels. How it does this is my topic here.

My diagram illustrates the process that produces a terrorist, but which also produces careless consumers who are currently devastating the biosphere of our planet. My challenge here is not to elucidate a particular type of terrorism (Muslim jihadism, rampant consumerism, or some other) but rather how any ideology makes us behave in ways that put living systems, and our own lives insofar as we depend on these systems, in jeopardy of extinction.

The process that slowly but inexorably leads us into the trance of ideology begins at a critical threshold where each of us manages the stress of life. By “stress” I am referring to anything in the environment – a challenge, crisis, difficulty, hazard or obstacle – that disrupts our equilibrium and must be addressed in the interest of regaining balance. Psychosomatic (mind-body) health is our capacity to identify the stressor, size it up, and work out a response that may involve some combination of overt action and mental adjustment. Success in any case will depend on an accurate appraisal of the stressor, along with a strategy for accepting it, overcoming it, reframing it, or perhaps exploiting it to our advantage.

What I’m calling a stressor (i.e., the cause of stress) is something “out there” in the external environment. The disturbance of our internal equilibrium is called distress. How we manage the threshold between stress and distress is a chief indicator of psychosomatic health. When the stress is more than we can handle, it provokes a “stress response” in the body that involves a syndrome of numerous physiological events, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased breathing rate and muscle tension, and the release of cortisol into the bloodstream which unlocks the energy stores in cells to mobilize stress-appropriate behavior. But of course, if the stress is already “more than we can handle,” something else must be done.

It is at this point that we try to separate ourselves from the internal distress we feel. An absent or ineffective behavioral response to stress leaves the distress unresolved, which further translates into chronic insecurity, flares of anxiety, growing agitation, and general unrest. When we were infants, our distress was pacified in the nurturing embrace of a caregiver. Our higher power helped us feel safe and supported, literally understood as he or she stood under us and calmed us down. When our higher power wasn’t immediately available, we probably found comfort in a transitional object like a blanket, teddy bear, or something to suck on – all of which can be called pacifiers, since they pacified us by alleviating our distress.

A pacifier is anything to which we attach ourselves for comfort. Since our first step was separating ourselves from the external stressor and fixating on how it was making us feel inside, pacifiers provided a way of reconnecting to the environment and recovering security. As adults we frequently seek security in membership, in joining groups and performing roles that help us feel accepted and valued. If our family of origin was not a strong community of support, or was maybe even dysfunctional and abusive, we might spend the rest of our lives looking for a partnership or society where we can belong. If we are desperate enough for security, we may be willing to sacrifice personal fulfillment and “sell our soul” for its sake.

Young people are especially vulnerable to the seduction of other misfits who have found identity in each other’s company. A distressed security-seeker finds consolation in knowing that others are similarly agitated, and joining a group pulls them into an identity contract where they take on obligations, are accepted as “one of us,” and may be given a special name or title. This identity contract anchors a worldview, and in turn energizes that worldview through the devotion and sacrifice it demands. For the insider such a construct of meaning offers refuge from “the rest of the world,” specifically from outsiders who lack understanding or sympathy.

Originally we needed an effective strategy for addressing the stressors of our environment and resolving the distress we felt internally. And ultimately this is what every ideology will drive us to, but now with an agenda that has divided reality into “us versus them.” If the pacifier is important enough to us, we will do anything to prevent it from being taken away. (Have you ever tried taking a security blanket from a toddler in distress?) Every attempt on the part of outsiders to destroy the society that gives our lives meaning only serves to strengthen that meaning as something to be defended at all cost.

When we have reached this point, terrorism as an ideology transcends the individuals possessed by it. Killing every terrorist will be impossible so long as the ideology of terrorism is alive, and only killing terrorists makes it stronger still. What needs to happen is for the ideology to get compromised inside its own logic. I propose that the “logic of terrorism” is a code made up of six elements.

1. Articulation of Grievance

Our distress is formulated into a complaint about the way things are.

2. Validation of Resentment

We need to feel that our distress (insecurity, anxiety, agitation, and unrest) is warranted.

3. Projection of Responsibility

Something in the external environment must be identified as the cause of our trouble.

4. Motivation of Vengeance

We are convinced that something must be done to retaliate and rectify the problem.

5. Justification of Violence

Any sacrifice, damage, or loss of life is interpreted as necessary to our cause.

6. Promise of Reward

A better life awaits, both on the other side of this conflict and in the world to come.

In our “war on terror” the rest of the world (we who are outsiders) have directed the major part of our aggression and criticism at the demonstration of this ideology, in acts of terrorism, but show little understanding of the soil where it takes root. In other words, we are trying to defeat terrorism in the theater of action when we should be disarming it farther down and far earlier in the process of its gestation.

I have argued that a terrorist ideology (as well as a consumerist ideology) is seeded by a grievance narrative, where a fundamental complaint about the way things are is articulated and takes command of our focus. This is what gets inside the minds of young people who are, even in normal development, searching for somewhere to belong that will pacify their insecurity, connect them to others who understand, and give them a meaningful outlook on reality.

But a grievance narrative will only take root in a personality that is unable to resolve internal distress. The narrative articulates what the young person only feels but can’t formulate into words. Once the grievance narrative takes hold, the individual feels supported, understood, and validated – and unwilling to give it up. With the individual’s full agreement, the grievance narrative anchors and drives all other elements of the ideology.

Rather than fighting violence with violence – or, if we must wage war on terror for the sake of our own security, then in addition to it – we would better help our young people learn how to manage that critical threshold between “out there” and “in here,” between self and world, where the stress of life can be met with composure, resilience, imagination, and responsibility. We will stop terrorism when we as parents, teachers, and other adult higher powers teach our children how to stay centered and just relax into being.

True enough, we cannot teach what we do not know. I guess the war on terror starts in me.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Timely and Random

 

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