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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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The Gospel According to The Eagles

So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.

The Eagles, “Already Gone”

I have been developing a theory that explains our human experience as the consilience of four distinct threads of intelligence, in what I name Quadratic Intelligence. While the threads themselves were identified long before I got to the drawing board, the quadratic model is my own innovation.

My preferred way of reading the model is organic, starting from the most primitive thread and proceeding along their evolutionary line of development until the full set is in view. Thus we begin in visceral intelligence (VQ), grow into emotional intelligence (EQ), articulate and expand rational intelligence (RQ; the conventional ‘IQ’), and at last awaken to the higher virtues of spiritual intelligence (SQ).

It’s important to understand that the four threads are not stacked on top of each other, but rather together comprise the braid of quadratic intelligence. There is a hierarchy among them nonetheless, with higher/later threads dependent upon the integrity of deeper/earlier ones. This same evolutionary sequence can be observed more broadly in the “tree” of animal life on earth: rooted in instinct (VQ), branching into feeling (EQ), flowering in thought (RQ), and bearing fruit in wisdom (SQ).

My model provides a useful way of representing the ideal of ‘self-actualization’ across the species and especially in our own.

As illustrated in my diagram, each thread of intelligence has its own focus and aim. Visceral health, emotional happiness, rational meaning, and spiritual well-being name these four ‘driving aims’ in humans, none of which can be neglected or removed without serious consequences to our overall quality of life.

Once again, each emerges out of and weaves strength back into the braid – although it is possible for the braid to get ‘knotted up’ in places, creating complications and dysfunctions throughout the system. My interest in the present post is to elucidate a particular kind of tangle among the threads of quadratic intelligence, in the formation of convictions.

My returning reader is likely acquainted with my working definition of conviction, as a belief that has taken the mind hostage and prevents it from thinking “outside the box.” It’s helpful to picture an otherwise curious, creative, and perfectly capable mind caught like a prisoner in a cage: a convict of its own conviction.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a cage at the threshold between our emotional and rational strands of intelligence, in order to represent the composition of conviction. It possesses a rational element, insofar as it is a meaningful proposition about something. It is logical, if not necessarily reasonable. It makes sense, even if it’s not very sensible. Other minds can understand what it means, although it may be completely without basis in reality or actual experience.

The reason we hold convictions – or rather I should say the reason our convictions hold us – really has little or nothing to do with their rational character as meaningful propositions. It’s from deeper down in the structure of intelligence that convictions draw their energy, in that all or nothing, black or white, one and only way commitment we make to them emotionally.

Whereas an otherwise reasonable proposition of opinion or fact remains open for verification  because we are letting rational curiosity move us closer to reality, a conviction closes our mind off from reality in recital and defense of what must be true regardless.

In one way or another, every conviction is a passionate insistence on the conditions of our happiness – that we can’t be happy without this or that in our life, unless it is for us exactly what we need it to be, or not until some future time when our demands have been fully met. Partly out of ignorance and partly by deceit, we will often argue and fight for the truth of our claim without admitting our underlying unhappiness and desperate need to be right.

An all-or-nothing, black-or-white, one-and-only-way manner of thinking (RQ), therefore, is merely a rationalization of our unresolved emotional insecurity (EQ). We need to feel less vulnerable and exposed, so we insist that something or someone, somewhere or upon some future day, will make our insecurity go away for good.

Conviction, in other words, is perhaps the most obvious symptom of our chronic unhappiness.

If this wasn’t tragic enough – since nothing outside us, anywhere, can deliver on our demands and truly make us happy – the tangled knot of strong convictions further prevents the fruiting of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). Not only is energy tied up in forging those cages of belief, but it is siphoned away from the deeper insights and higher aspirations that would support our genuine well-being.

To understand these deeper insights and higher aspirations, we can take the two roots of our word “well-being” and follow each in a different direction. Well derives from the root meaning “whole,” so I’ll name that set our holistic aspirations for wholeness, harmony, unity, and fulfillment (as in “filled full”).

Our holistic aspirations open us to the revelation that All is One, and that the present mystery of reality lies beyond the meanings we construct and drape in front of it.

Being is the present participle of the verb “to be,” so I’ll name this second set our existential insights into presence, release, emptiness, and serenity. Our existential insights invite us into a deeper experience of the grounding mystery which is be-ing itself, and into the profound realization (or disillusionment depending on how difficult it is for us to let go) that our own identity is also but a construct without substance.

As we consider the existential insights and holistic aspirations of spiritual intelligence, an interesting paradox is revealed particularly in that curious juxtaposition of emptiness and fulfillment. From the perspective of ego this paradox appears as a self-canceling opposition or meaningless contradiction, for how can we experience emptiness and fulfillment at the same time?

But of course, this apparent dualism is only a function of ego consciousness itself, separated from reality by the convictions that simultaneously give us refuge and hold us captive.

As the spiritual wisdom traditions have been reminding us, all we need to do is drop the illusion and stop pretending, and this truth alone will set us free.

When our spiritual intelligence (SQ) is awakened we also become healthier (VQ), happier (EQ), and live more meaningful (RQ) lives. The good news is that, while we may struggle and suffer for a long time inside our small cages of conviction, the key to liberation is already in our possession.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2018 in The Creative Life

 

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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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The Supreme Paradox

Supreme ParadoxI’ve written before on what I call the Matrix of Meaning, referring to a deep code of primary concerns and narrative motifs that generates the very fabric of our worldview. A sense of self and reality is the central construct in our personal myth, orienting us on the pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in our journey through life. The Matrix is deceptively simple in design, but the patterns of meaning it can produce are beyond number. Your life story and personal worldview are very different from mine, but the same Matrix of concerns and motifs is behind them both.

My first-time reader needs to know that I am a constructivist and employ the term ‘myth’ in its more technical (rather than popular) sense, as a narrative plot that holds the body of a story together and drives its action. Although we may have authorial liberties regarding the style and idiosyncratic features of our personal myth, the deeper structure is determined by what the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Ananke, or Necessity. In other words, how you respond to adversity, hardship, pain and loss is unique to you as an individual, but the inevitability of suffering is universal for human beings. This was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

My diagram depicts the Four Ages of individual development, and these, too, are universal archetypes in mythology: the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. I’ve indicated the average years over a lifetime when we transition from one to the next, but these shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors. The developmental challenge of a given Age might not be successfully negotiated, in which case our neurotic hangups around its primary concern will be carried into the next challenge, compounding our difficulty in making it through. Indeed, the fact that none of us gets out of childhood without some insecurity throws light on the question of why the human journey can be so damned complicated.

Northup Frye’s four literary types are also included in my diagram, each one corresponding to an Age and its driving concern. Comedy is the up-swing to ‘happily ever after’. Romance follows the heroic quest for an ideal. Tragedy descends the plunge-line of misfortune. Irony provides a double-vision between what is said at the surface and what is meant underneath. Our personal myth will predictably move through these distinct narrative frames, forcing us to adapt our construction of meaning to the shifting focus of our life in time. Although many have tried, any attempt to impose a frame of comedy over the reality of suffering only ends up forfeiting a potentially life-changing insight behind a veil of denial and make-believe. Needless to say, otherworldly religion is especially good at this.

The multicolored arc across my diagram represents the progression of consciousness through an ‘animistic’ body-centered stage (color-coded black), through a ‘theistic’ ego-centered stage (orange), and farther into a ‘post-theistic’ soul-centered mode of life (purple). Only a small minority are willing, or even able, to release personal identity (ego) for a deeper mystical realization and larger ethical vision. The rest of us fall in line with the status quo, take refuge inside our convictions, and succumb to the consensus trance. This is when theism can become pathological and our god starts looking like a glorified version of ourselves – a moody, judgmental, and self-righteous bigot.

My purpose in touring through the diagram in such detail is to lift into view the paradoxes in play throughout. The security of early childhood is in polar tension with the suffering that comes on as we mature. Much of suffering has to do with the loss of attachments that anchor identity and meaning for us, but which also represent for us a reality that is safe and supportive. Security and suffering, as primary concerns coded into the Matrix of Meaning, are paradoxically related. It’s not security or suffering, but the tension between security and suffering that drives our construction of meaning. Similarly, freedom and fate are polar opposites, making the interplay of our control in life and the conditions outside our control a second creative opposition. Freedom and fate only seem to exclude each other, while real wisdom involves learning to live inside and with their polarity.

This consideration of the paradoxes inherent to the Matrix of Meaning, and how these concerns compel us to make meaning that is at once relevant to our situation in life and capable of orienting us successfully throughout our journey, brings me to what I’ll call the supreme paradox. I refer my reader back to the diagram, specifically to that arrow arcing across from left to right. This represents the arc of our lifespan, tracking through the Four Ages (if we live long enough) from birth to death.

Especially during the first half of life, and most critically in those early years, we experience the uplifting support of reality in our growing body, a nurturing family system, and a wide world of opportunity. Such a conspiracy of virtuous forces instills in us a deep assurance of reality as the ground of our existence. We are the living manifestations of a 14 billion year-old process, a flower of consciousness emerged from this magnificent universe, the cosmos contemplating itself in wonder. Surely this is the root inspiration of true religion: the ineffable sense of being sustained by a provident reality, coming to be and living our days under the watchful intention of a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. All the mythological gods who provide us with nourishment, protection, guidance, and solace are metaphorical personifications of this provident ground of existence.

There are other gods as well, who begin peeking in as our exposure to reality becomes more complicated and challenging. These are dark forces – tricksters, shadowy forms, and unseen solvents that slowly erode the foundations of our neat and tidy worlds. Yes, reality is the provident ground of existence, but it is also the inescapable abyss of extinction. Coming-to-be and passing-away are the paradoxical reality of our life in time. We may want only a reality that supports and promotes our rise into identity, safekeeping our existence forever and ever, but that’s not how it is.

As Carl Jung pointed out many times and Lao Tzu made the central insight of his reflections on the way (Tao), light and dark are not absolutely exclusive of each other. Rather, they swirl together, pulling and pushing, blending and separating in the dance of reality, generating the ten thousand things and dissolving them simultaneously into the ineffable secret of the Tao which cannot be named.

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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Telling Stories, Coming True

As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.

We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.

To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).

I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.

monomythThe diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.

The Monomyth

At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.

I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.

We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.

This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).

Comedy

Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.

Romance

Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.

Tragedy

Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.

Irony

The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.

The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.


When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.

Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.

 

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Our Creative Brain

I am fascinated with the human brain, and since I own one, I try as best I can to understand how it works. Without reducing all that I am to my brain and what goes on inside it, I nevertheless have a strong suspicion that everything I am is deeply dependent on this three-pound wonder between my ears. In reflecting further on the matrix of meaning and the myths by which we construct our worlds, I’ve come to a revelation concerning how all of this might be brain-based after all.

Web of Meaning_MatrixHere is my illustration of what I call the matrix of meaning – the crisscrossing polarities of primary concerns (orange) and narrative motifs (black) – and the web we construct on its frame as we weave the pattern known as our world. A deeper exploration of the matrix itself can be found in my post “Myth and the Matrix of Meaning” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2), while more about the peculiar construction of the web and its zones of meaning is in “Meaning and Paradox” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-sv). The opposition inherent to the four polarities gives the matrix its creative energy, which in turn compels this incessant human activity of meaning-making.

As I reflect on the matrix and particularly on the zones of meaning with the brain in the back of my mind (how’s that for a twist?), I begin to see how the three zones correspond to three main evolutionary divisions in our brain’s anatomy: (1) the primitive brain stem enfolded by (2) the limbic system and crowned with (3) a cerebral cortex. Each division evolved with specific responsibilities to the whole, and all of them work together for the survival, adaptation, and fulfillment of our potential as a species.

NeutralityThe brain stem (informally known as our “reptilian brain”) is responsible for the internal state and basic life-support of our body. Activities such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature and the countless visceral events that must be coordinated in regulating the dynamic balance called homeostasis are monitored and adjusted from the autonomic control center of the brain stem.

Notice how the first zone of meaning, neutrality, is deeply similar to the brain stem’s preoccupation with homeostasis. Could it be that this natural balance-point in the body’s internal state is at the root of our preference for familiarity, comfort, and living on “autopilot”?

We like to stay where things are manageable, where the situational demands on our attention and effort are minimal. If we could, a part of us would prefer lounging in the warm sun as long as our animal nature is content.

Meaning-making begins, then, with our basic needs for safety, warmth, and nourishment. Once the channels of provision are flowing, it’s easy for us to stay in those grooves and succumb to the sleepy rhythm of the day-to-day.

Conflict

But as we know, we can’t stay there indefinitely. Life throws us curve balls and our automatic routines are upset. In addition to a brain stem that
works compulsively to keep us alive, humans (and all other mammals) possess a limbic system, which gives us the ability to respond emotionally to our environment.

Obviously any organism that can link up an association between an external object or event and its own internal state, so that the merest stimulus suggesting that object or event in the future elicits an anticipatory response, will have a survival advantage over an organism lacking this emotional talent.

Once again we can see a correlation between the brain and meaning-making. Emotion is equipped for life in the “conflict” zone, where the polarities in the matrix generate stress and strain. The limbic brain is also the niche in our nervous system where ego begins its career, also known as our inner child. In our quest for identity (ego = “I”) – typically most desperate and dramatic during adolescence – we are trying to figure out where we belong and how we are special.

Stories of privilege, entitlement, and superiority serve to bolster the ego and make us feel that everything revolves around “me and mine.” If the body seeks homeostasis and validates our narratives of contentment and the status quo, ego frequently instigates conflict in its ambition to be first, highest, and best. There’s no need to recount the damage done to ourselves, our relationships, and our planet as ego tries to exploit conflict in its favor, whatever the cost. I want to win, don’t you?

Paradox

The most recently evolved division of our brain is the cerebral cortex – all those billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections that carry the impulses of experience into conscious thought. At this level the brain is further organized into lobes, circuits, and nuclei specialized to process specific kinds of information coming across our senses.

Beyond this sifting-and-sorting business, however, the cortex also gives us the ability to restrain our urges and reflexes, to extract general ideas from concrete examples, to think critically and strategically, to imagine what’s possible and to transcend opposites. The farthest forward of specialized structures and last to come fully online is our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, rationality, forethought, and responsible behavior.

Another interesting feature of the cerebral cortex is its lateral division into left and right hemispheres. While the differences between the two hemispheres are commonly misrepresented in popular literature, research has revealed the left side (above and behind our left eye) as more gifted in abstraction and analysis, while the right side tends to be better with information that is concrete and intuitive. In the “conversation” between the hemispheres, conducted across a structure called the corpus callosum, our higher brain is able to reconcile opposites as paradoxes rather than have to come down on one side or the other (dualism).Zones_Brain

What we’re talking about here is our higher self, also known as the soul, which is where our adult intelligence resides. Only as we are able to move out of neutrality and rise above the conflict can we refine our appreciation for the complex nature of experience. The greatest paradox of them all – the timeless mystery within us and the turning cosmos around us – is home to the soul, the zone where we construct and celebrate ultimate meaning.

 

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