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The Illusion of Who You Are

Post-theism doesn’t deny our need for salvation, only that we should expect it from elsewhere. Moreover, it’s not about getting rescued or delivered to a better place, free of enemies or bodies to drag us down. Such themes are common in so-called popular religion, particularly its theistic varieties, where believers are conditioned to anticipate the liberated life as a future and otherworldly glory. In the meantime they are expected to stand with the congregation, honor tradition, and stick to the script.

It’s not that post-theism opposes these as a “new evil” from which we now need to be saved, as when religion is made into the enemy by secular modernists who condemn it as backward and close-minded. If we even use the term, salvation – literally referring to a process of being set free and made whole – has to do with the liberated life right now for the one who has dropped the illusion of being somebody special and getting it right.

Post-theists are more likely to seek genuine community than merely stand with the congregation, to press for contemporary relevance over turning the wheel of tradition, and to flip the script from final answers to more profound questions.

Our task, then, is to refocus our human quest (with the secularists) on the present world, but also (with some theists) on what is beyond the world we currently have in view. My returning reader is familiar with the view of constructivism that regards ‘the world’ as our shared construction of meaning, inside of which we all manage our individual worlds of more personal meaning. The world we have in view, in other words, refers to our current perspective on reality, not to reality itself.

The really real is beyond our collective and individual worlds, but it is in our worlds (not in reality) where our predicament is located.

Rather than trying to illustrate this in the abstract, let’s make it personal. Reflect for a moment on your personal world, or more accurately, on your worldview. It’s not exactly the same as anyone else’s, is it? Your worldview overlaps and agrees with some others, but there are critical differences as well.

The unique elements in your personal world are reflective of your individual lifestory – referring to the autobiographical narrative (or personal myth) that you identify yourself by. Your lifestory is a reductive selection from the stream of experience which is your life: arranged, modified, and much of it invented in the work of constructing a coherent sense of who you are.

The personal identity carried in your lifestory is therefore less than what you are in your totality – the human being of a certain genetic makeup, temperament, background, aspirations, and life experiences. In fact, it is nothing more than the persona you project to others and reflect back to yourself for validation and judgment. From Latin, persona refers to an actor’s mask through which she animates a character on stage. The mask is just an assumed identity, but it lives in a story and interacts with other actors in the progression of scenes.

Good actors make us forget that they are acting a part. You, too, have become so good at acting through the persona of identity that you sometimes forget it’s just somebody you’re pretending to be. Or maybe you’re like the majority of us and haven’t yet caught on to the game we’re all playing together.

In my diagram I have put your persona (what you project to others), your lifestory (that highly filtered and refashioned personal myth), and your worldview (the construction of meaning you use to make sense of things) inside a bubble which is meant to represent the illusion of your personal identity. I also use a fancy font to remind you that all of this is one big somewhat magical fantasy. You should be able to analyze each ‘level’ of this fantasy and confirm how illusory it all really is.

But here’s the thing: most of us don’t understand that our identity is just an illusion. To understand that, we would have to see through the illusion instead of merely looking at it and mistaking it for reality. What might otherwise serve as a ‘positive illusion’ – referring to a belief system that positively orients us in reality, connects us meaningfully to others, and supports our evolution as free, creative, and responsible individuals – becomes instead a delusion in which we are stuck. This is the predicament that our salvation resolves.

As a delusion, the unrecognized illusion of identity devolves into a profound sense of separateness from each other and everything else. Our frame of perception collapses to the horizon of personal concerns, only to what affects us and our own interests. Because the project of identity is not self-standing but depends on the assent and approval of other actors equally deluded, ego (the part of us that is pretending to be somebody) is inevitably insecure to some extent.

Of course, we want to be secure, so we form attachments to the world around us, which we hope will make us feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I name the four ‘feeling-needs’. We all have these feeling-needs, and it’s only a secondary question whether we might be safe, loved, capable, and worthy in fact. The point is that we need to feel these in some positive degree in order to have security in who we are. The deeper our insecurity, however, the stronger our attachments need to be, since they are supposed to pacify us and make us feel good about ourselves.

And as attachments require that we give up some of our own center in order to identify with them, the delusion grows more captivating the more scattered our devotion becomes.

In the diagram we have moved from in/security to attachment, and from what’s been said about attachments it should not be difficult to see where ambition comes into the picture. An ambition has a dual (ambi) motivation, combining a desire for the object and its anticipated benefit (feeling safe, loved, capable, or worthy) with a fear that the object might not be there as expected, might not stay around, might be taken away, or in the end might not be enough. Ambitious individuals are praised and rewarded in our society, which goes to show how deep in delusion a family, tribe, or nation can get.

A system of meaning called an ideology (or on a smaller scale, an orthodoxy) enchants an entire culture into believing that this is the way to authentic life.

As we come full circle in my diagram, we need to remember that meaning is not a property of reality but merely a construct of human minds. Your world is one construct of meaning, mine is another; and together along with millions of other ambitious persons we spin a web that holds us hostage in a world of our own making. Our salvation is not a matter of throwing ourselves with full commitment into this world (the secularist mistake), but neither is it about getting delivered from this world to another one somewhere else (the theistic mistake).

Instead, salvation comes as we awaken from delusion and begin to see through the illusion of who we think we are. Only then can we get over ourselves and fully embrace our creative authority, working together for genuine community and the wellbeing of all.

 

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Staying Safe, Playing Small

map-of-egoOne of the odd and wonderful things about us humans is how an extended period of juvenile dependency, which makes us impressionable to social shaping like no other species, also leaves us exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of social abuse. What could open the path for creative evolution and human progress often ends up shutting us down inside neurotic hangups and rigid convictions. Odd and wonderful, but tragic as well.

My diagram is fairly complex, but hopefully not overly complicated. Let’s take a tour by starting with that smaller break-out frame to the bottom-right. Since we were very young, each of us has been on a vigilant quest for three things: security, attachment, and meaning. I reversed their order from how they are presented in the break-out frame to acknowledge their developmental sequence in our early formation.

Our deepest and most pressing concern is for an assurance that reality is provident, that what we need to feel safe, included, and nourished is actually there for us when we need it. If it is, then our sense of security functions to open us further to reality. But if we don’t feel secure, our generalized anxiety motivates us to compensate somehow for the missing assurance, which we engineer by attaching ourselves to others with the demand that they keep us safe and satisfied.

I’m using the term attachment in a way more consistent with the Buddhist notion than how it’s used in Western developmental psychology, where it commonly refers to the close and intimate bond between infant and caregiver. But let’s keep both definitions together as representing a deep paradox we have all experienced time and again: our closest relationships are often ‘the ties that bind’ us and prevent our necessary freedom and growth.

To the degree that attachments compensate for a deeper insecurity – which they are incapable of resolving, by the way – the meaning that we construct around ourselves and those we depend on to manage our anxiety tends to be small, rigid, and closed. It’s small because we can’t risk extending our horizon beyond what we can see and control. Our meaning is rigid in that it lacks flexibility and real-time relevance. And it is closed, which is to say that our mental box excludes discrepant information and alternative views, as it inhibits healthy doubt and intellectual curiosity.

Each of us, then, lives inside a narrative construction called a world, and our world both reflects and addresses our historical quest for security, attachment, and meaning. Whether our quest went well or badly in childhood, even now as adults we inhabit a world built on those early emotional codes. Inside our world is where we came to a sense of ourselves as somebody special, with an identity of our own. Despite having reached physical maturity as an adult, this deeper and more primitive part of our personality – what is named our ‘inner child’ – still comes out and takes over whenever we get poked, hooked, or stressed.

Let’s move from the break-out frame to the center of my diagram, where a larger representation of that same box is displayed. At the top and bottom of the world frame are two important insights to keep in mind. First, every world is an exercise in make-believe. (I put the word “make” in parentheses to indicate our widespread unwillingness to admit that we are doing it.) In another post I defined belief as pretending to know something and then forgetting that we’re pretending.

In other words, we act ‘as if’ our judgments about reality are straightforward descriptions of the way it really is, when there is always an element of our need or wish that it be that way.

It’s easy to forget that reality is not made up of words, or that our words – however connected and stretched into broad fabrics of meaning – are not the reality we presume to define. Reality itself, or what I call the present mystery of reality, is just that, something that eludes our mind and its dragnet of language. Of course, so far as we have closed ourselves up inside a small, rigid, and closed frame of meaning (or world), this realization will be vigorously resisted. If meaning is relative and our world is make-believe, then perhaps our identity is a fantasy as well!

Hang on to that thought.

Those who share our world – or, more accurately, whose constructions of meaning significantly overlap and fuse with our own – are just as committed to the conviction of its truth. We are exactly the somebody special we believe we are, and each of us has our place and plays our role in the web of social interactions that contains and validates our identity. Every scenario is a role-play, every player has a role, and each role comes with a script that seems to drive our behavior without us even thinking about it.

And that’s precisely the point: this thoughtless and scripted performance of social role-plays is what keeps our world turning, as it keeps us under its spell.

Welcome to the consensus trance. The word ‘trance’ is in parentheses because no one wants to admit that much of our life in society (and even in privacy) is lived in a state of robotic stupor, enacting programs that have been installed in our brains.

Moving our attention to the center of the frame we find ego, that separate center of personal identity who’s the star of our show. One aspect of personal identity faces the other – other egos, objects, and even the whole shebang of what’s going on (so-called ‘objective reality’). Particularly in our social interactions – which, we must keep in mind, are role-plays in make-believe – ego takes on what we might call ‘modal identities’, referring to who I am in this or that social context. The Latin word persona (“to speak through”) describes the mask a stage actor would wear in personifying a character in a play, usually equipped with a small fluted mouthpiece to amplify volume and aid in voice projection.

A persona might also be thought of as a kind of socially approved deception. As long as we perform our roles according to script and in conformity with the consensus trance, we can lead others to believe that we are the roles we play. Because others who share our world are already susceptible to being duped in this socially acceptable way, we sometimes take advantage of the opportunity by leading them to believe something about us that is neither honest nor true. (As we are not typically eager to confess this, I’ve put the word ‘deceive’ in parentheses.)

While our ego’s persona (one of many) displays and projects only what we want others to know about us, there is a corresponding but opposite aspect that stays out of view – or at least we try hard to keep it hidden. This is what Carl Jung named our shadow, and its dark shade covers not only the things we don’t want others to see, but also things about ourselves we have neglected or ignored. In addition to those inclinations and tendencies in ourselves that had to be pushed down and out of sight (i.e., repressed) so we could be accepted and included – and which, as Jung insisted, are frequently projected onto others who then serve as our enemies and scapegoats – there are deeper treasures like creative intelligence, artistic talents, and dormant potential that go undiscovered.

Now it should be obvious that when we are profoundly insecure, co-dependently attached, and held hostage by our convictions, the parts of ourselves we are repressing and the social deception we have to carry on just to stay in control (or so we believe) conspire to cut us off from others and from our true self. You might think that since everyone is playing along, what’s the harm?

As it turns out, the harm of staying safe and playing small is significant indeed. According to the spiritual wisdom traditions, the serenity we’re seeking as human beings, and which conventionally gets confused with the security we can’t get enough of, is only accessible by a descending path of surrender through the self. The grounding mystery is only found within, as we are able to release our need to be somebody special and simply relax into anonymous being.

And the harmony we long for, which gets confused with a quality of attachment that is not even possible, calls us to transcend the demand that others play to our script and take the ascending path to genuine communion instead. What I like to call the turning mystery of unity is beautifully exemplified in the nature of our universe (“turning as one”), but it can be found wherever individual egos can get over themselves and join in togetherness.

If we can’t – or won’t – surrender inwardly to the grounding mystery and transcend outwardly to the turning mystery, the consequence is that we end up sacrificing fulfillment on the altar of security; we forfeit community for the sake of our attachments; and we come to despair inside a world that is far too small for our spirit.

 

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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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