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The Topography of Myth

If you had three choices and you had to pick one, which of these words would you choose to name your core value: attachment, autonomy, or achievement? By ‘core value’ I mean a priority concern that is positioned at the solar center of a system of associated values. Attachment has connection, security, and belonging orbiting around it. Autonomy is anchor for the values of control, freedom, and self-determination. And Achievement is at the center of purpose, progress, and success.

Most likely you recognize the importance of all three core values, and we should more accurately think of them as comprising a cluster rather than as mutually exclusive alternatives. But still, you can probably identify one over the others – at least at this time in your life – as having priority. Which one?

My returning reader might hesitate in choosing attachment as a core value, since I tend to regard it as complicating factor in our development toward creative authority as individuals. The larger multicultural discussion around the topic of attachment acknowledges it as the positive bonding characteristic of healthy relationships (Western), but also as a compensatory maneuver whereby we cling to other people with the impossible expectation that they make us secure, happy, and whole (Eastern). In reality it’s both the connection that makes for positive partnerships and the latching-on that can ruin them. I’ll let it be a paradox (both/and) for you to sort out.

In this post I’d like to reflect on what Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s journey, the particular shape and pattern that myths from around the world share in common. Beyond their local differences and unique climes, these stories describe a path that is universal. As Campbell pointed out, we might attribute this similarity to cultural diffusion, where it moved outward from one (originating) society to the others by way of migration, conquest, commerce, or evangelism.

His own study inspired him to adopt a different explanation, however, which traces these universal themes, symbols, and storylines into the depths of human psychology. In this case, hero journeys across cultures trace a similar mythos (or narrative plot) because they emerge from and speak to what human beings everywhere experience in common. Another influence on my thinking was Northrop Frye, who in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature conducted an archaeological dig into Western literature, following the diamond vein still deeper into biblical myth, and there uncovered the archetypes of our storytelling imagination.

I will pick up here, in fact, by taking the major moves of the Bible as myth – not merely of the myths found in the Bible, but the Bible itself as constructed on a primary mythic pattern. Here we find three major moves anchored to geographical locations that serve more as timeless archetypes than specific places (here or there): the Garden, the Desert, and the City.

Genesis itself begins in a garden, and Revelation ends with the fulfillment of all things in a New Jerusalem, the city of God. In between is the desert, where the Hebrew slaves made their escape, the exiles reinvented Judaism, Jesus endured his temptations – and through which each of us must pass on our way to adulthood.

My proposal is that these three themes – Garden, Desert, and City – correspond to the three major phases in our growing up as human persons. Thus the Garden represents childhood, the Desert is the setting of youth, and the City stands for our establishment as adults. The storyline that links them together is the hero’s journey.

Part of the reason you selected the core value that you did has to do with your individual experience on this journey, a good portion of which was supervised by your parent(s) and other taller powers of the adult world. Your taller powers were responsible for you, and for your journey to be a success they needed to provide certain things to you early on.

The Garden is where (and when) your most basic needs for survival, comfort, and intimacy found their ‘answer’ in reality. You needed to experience reality as provident, as sufficient to your needs and a safe place to be. In a word, your parent(s) and other taller powers were responsible for your protection. In my diagram I have placed a triangle to symbolize what in psychology is called a secure base, which originally referred to mother and subsequently was transferred to other things, places, and people.

In the beginning it was natural for you to seek protection in your mother and attach yourself to her (in the positive, Western, sense of attachment). But eventually you needed to internalize your secure base, to self-soothe and rely more on your own ability instead of grabbing onto whatever and whomever could make you feel better (in the negative, Eastern, sense of attachment).

Just because you may have picked attachment as your core value doesn’t necessarily mean that you are insecure and emotionally dependent on others. You may have had a very positive and supportive experience in the Garden, which instilled in you a strong preference for connection, security, and belonging.

But as is required of every one of us in growing up, you eventually needed to let go of mother and leave the Garden for the journey ahead, on your way to becoming a self-standing and responsible adult. The Desert between Garden and City is a region of trials and tribulations, as we can find in hero myths all around the world. There is no ‘covering’ (the literal definition of protection) to hide beneath; exposure to the sun, extreme temperatures, and predators is a real danger.

As the Garden is associated with attachment, the Desert is about autonomy: learning how to take control, step into freedom, and strengthen your self-determination. Even before you formally left the Garden for the Desert, your parent(s) and other taller powers were encouraging you to “do it yourself.” Using the potty, tying your shoes, reading books on your own, and riding a bike: everyone had an interest in helping you become a less dependent member of the household.

Encouragement is a demonstration of love and is distinguished from compassion by its kind refusal on the part of the parent (or teacher, trainer, coach, or therapist) to take over and finish the task.

In addition to encouraging your effort, your parent(s) also had to empower you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources for what needed to be done. Again, empowerment is very different from the over-used tactic of intervention, where someone more capable steps in and helps the process along. Empowerment, on the other hand, typically takes more time and patience (which is why schools today prefer to intervene), but its far superior benefit is the individual’s self-confidence and inner strength.

Your autonomy therefore was a consequence of being both encouraged (“You can do it!”) and empowered (“Here’s how: Watch me, then you try”) in your progress toward taking control in your life. It’s associated with the Desert and its dangers because progress doesn’t always come easily, but is fraught with setbacks and numerous failed attempts. If your parent(s) and other taller powers – we should throw siblings and peers into the mix as well – were less helpful, patient, and forgiving, you may have learned that taking control was not safe. In failing to satisfy their expectations, you were risking the loss of their love and acceptance as well. Or it might be that their demands were impossible to ignore with impunity, so you became a “control freak” and perfectionist just to stay on their good side.

If the archetype of Mother (however close your actual mother came to incarnating it) represents a secure base where you could always go to to feel safe and loved, the archetype of Father (and to some degree your actual father or father figure) stands for what I call the proving circle. I’ve placed it in my diagram next to ‘achievement’ since it was (and still is) where your ability was tested and your accomplishments validated.

A critical part of becoming a responsible and productive adult involves submitting yourself to the judgment and feedback of others. Depending on how this feedback was delivered and how personally you took it, you came to regard yourself as an individual of worth with a valuable contribution to make. Or not so much.

The Desert, then, is where you learned how to accept the loss of having someone always looking after you, where you needed to be on your own in order to discover both your capacity and your limitations. It’s also where you learned the importance of determined effort (work) in getting where you want to go in life. And if all went well enough, you learned that risk – making yourself vulnerable to failure and rejection in your pursuit of what really matters – is a paradoxical amplifier of life’s meaning, for it is out of those experiences that we grow the most.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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The Quadratics of Transformation

This is a blog about creative change. My posts on the whole have been exploring creative change along several distinct trajectories – personality and life experience, spirituality and religion, individual and community. Working the angles on transformational change has gradually clarified what I now take as the essential dynamics of what’s involved in the transformation of anything whatsoever. I’m going to call it the “quadratics of transformation.”

Behind its more technical mathematical definition from intermediate algebra, “quadratic” derives from quadratus, the Latin word for square. In the ancient world, the geometric form of a perfect square represented stability, symmetry, and wholeness. The four elements of earth, air, fire and water, for instance, were taken as the deep structure of reality itself. As I use the term here, quadratic transformation refers to the fourfold dynamic that plays out in transformational change – the way a given identity resists or undergoes alteration in form as it evolves over time.

QuadrixWe might take anything as our example, but let’s put a human being at the center of the Quadratic as our particular identity for consideration. As we follow the vertical axis upwards, we engage the context in which that person exists. Also called its environment or setting, we will use the more interesting term SYSTEM as a reminder that this person participates in a larger context of forces and conditions. From the perspective of our identity-in-focus (a person), the system is external – outside, around, enveloping and inclusive of identity itself.

If we start again with personal identity, we can take the vertical axis downwards, which moves us deeper into or within the person. Here we find internal forces and conditions such as the individual’s self awareness, his or her self-image, and a very interesting configuration of intelligence, talent, orientation and neurotic styles. When it comes to personal transformation, the tangles, fixations, and hooks in this internal configuration of the self represent a covert factor in the dynamic of change. Going “down” into the self pushes us deeper into its GROUND.

As we shift attention to the horizontal axis, we move to the left (in the Quadratic) where we are confronted with the power of HABIT. This refers to the routines and patterns that persist through time, somewhere along the sliding continuum into unconscious, reflexive, automatic and compulsive activity. By definition habit is conservative, keeping routines (including assumptions, preferences, and behavioral responses) that have been “working” to some extent. This so-called success of a routine might actually interfere with the individual’s personal achievement or pursuit of happiness, but still be conserved for its value in coping with stress.

Opposite to habit in the Quadratic of Transformation is the force of PURPOSE, which is progressive in the sense that it looks to what’s next or farther in the future and moves the person in that direction. In contrast to a rock, which is just about all habit, a human person has more potential to change (to grow and advance) – that is to say, the person has more purpose than the rock. Purpose here does not refer to a metaphysical plan or “mission from above,” but to the intention of identity, how creatively it leans into its options and stretches toward fulfillment. In human beings, purpose takes shape in strategies, goals, and the choices guided by intended outcomes.

So transformational change is the interplay of these four factors: a surrounding context (system), factors internal to the “self” (ground), the conservation of routines (habit), and an intention for the future (purpose). Eliminate just one of these quadratic factors and transformation will not happen. A weak or “shaky” internal ground makes identity unstable. An inadequate system (poor or missing resources) will put it at risk. Habit that has fallen out of date or is stuck in a blind repetition compulsion stifles creative freedom. And the lack of intention or directed purpose effectively forecloses on the future. Instead of transforming, identity will collapse on itself, become exhausted or obsolete, get stuck in its own ruts, or miss opportunities for progress.

                                                                                  

Relevance to Parenting and Education

In the field of education the Quadratics of Transformation can be immensely helpful in optimizing learning and supporting student success. Instead of simply pushing information at students, educators might become more deeply involved in the process of activating intelligence, promoting aptitude (rather than merely assessing it), and working with the unique quadratics of individual students.

In order to succeed in life and reach some degree of self-actualization, a human person needs a strong internal ground of faith, self-confidence, openness to experience, and encouraging self-talk (e.g., “I can do this!”). Such internal strength serves as the basis for resilience, adaptation, and the ability to exploit failure for the wisdom it can teach. Too many people struggle with a paralyzing sense of self-deficiency and unworthiness. Creative educators work early on to help establish in their students (and parents in their children) a provident foundation of self-efficacy.

In recent years, especially with the discoveries of neuroscience into how the brain develops, the value of “enriched environments” of learning has gained acceptance. Beyond just surrounding the student with an interesting variety of instructional media, student development is greatly enhanced as the individual becomes increasingly aware of his or her place in a larger system of resources and co-factors of learning. As a participant in a broader and richer context of knowledge, agencies, tools and services, the student can appreciate the excitement of learning as a cooperative achievement.

If they are reached soon enough, children can be taught the fundamental skills of effective learning and academic achievement. This goes beyond memorizing the alphabet and math tables, into techniques of setting up the problem, forecasting outcomes, identifying the steps, and constructing a strategy. These skills are gradually established as habits of effective learning and problem-solving through consistent practice. Routines become habitual and require less and less attentional effort as they are performed with consistency. Creative parents and educators understand the prime importance of helping youngsters practice and conserve the proven habits of success.

It’s difficult to reach a goal if one hasn’t been clarified and anchored in the future. When individuals are very young they need to borrow the prefrontal cortex of their adult advisors (parents, teachers, coaches), which is the region of the brain most involved in discriminating options, predicting possible outcomes, taking the long view, and making calculated decisions. Evolution has generated a very interesting situation for humans, where children need to rely on adult skills and abilities far into their development (late into the second decade of life).

If educators are fixated on instruction and assessment – unconcerned with education proper (educare refers to leading the student out into a broader or better understanding) – teaching will not awaken in students the aspiration toward higher ideals or the strategic intelligence for realizing them. Parents too, of course, can get overburdened and distracted by the stress of their responsibilities, interfering with their ability to model or encourage their children to look ahead and live with purpose.

If parents and educators can take a more holistic approach to bringing up our children, we can work together to support their development into internally grounded, intelligently connected, fully skilled and innovative leaders in life. The Quadratics of Transformation is a methodological tool that can help us better help our children.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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