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Settling for Less

Evolutionary theory offers an explanation of how our human species emerged and adapted from simpler, more primitive life forms, and then proceeded to evolve, more psychologically and technologically than biologically, through a series of cultural revolutions. In the modern period, as individual development across the lifespan was more carefully studied, some theorists noted how individual stages of development seem to follow the same sequence as the evolutionary phases in human emergence.

Accordingly, primitive human culture was psychologically similar to early childhood today, where societies lived more in their bodies and closer to the guiding influence of animal instinct and the rhythms of nature. With the rise of the more advanced city-state came new concerns regarding national identity, the differentiation between insiders and outsiders, and the management of roles across the social scene – very much like an individual today during that embattled period between childhood and maturity called adolescence (literally “becoming adult”).

In the evolutionary history of human culture, just as in the developmental history of individuals today, the process of becoming a self-actualized human being has gotten hung up around fixations on security. In ideal (or good-enough) situations where basic needs are met and individuals internalize an assurance of reality as provident, security is adequately established and the higher challenges of maturity can be engaged. When this doesn’t happen, however, the need for security persists as a preoccupation, overriding and “out-competing” subsequent opportunities along the way to self-actualization.

Maturity_Development

The above diagram illustrates this “schedule of opportunities” in human self-actualization (which I also call fulfillment), along with the various ways that progress gets arrested when security is compromised. The schedule is comprised of four stages, which can be thought of as advancing steps that provide important stability for what is to come. Thus security itself is the stable foundation for healthy love. This in turn provides support for the adventure into freedom, which then serves the individual’s sense of higher purpose in life.

With each advancing step, more of the individual’s destiny is put into his or her own hands, where courageous and creative choice shapes the future. Along with this growing responsibility, however, comes increased risk, putting more in jeopardy – in the form of rejection, disorientation, and failure – as the path unfolds. You should be able to empathize with those who forfeit love or freedom or purpose for the sake of “playing it safe.” For all I know, you may be one of them. Most likely, we all struggle with this to some extent.

When the need for security during infancy and early childhood is compromised, the individual’s nervous system gets set at a higher “idle speed,” raising vigilance and sensitivity to signs of trouble. Of course, it’s likely advantageous to be hyper-aware of external threats or problems as they arise. But ordinary life is never without stress, which means that such individuals frequently overreact and end up making things worse for themselves. What might have simply floated down the stream of experience instead triggers alarms and initiates avoidance/protective/aggressive measures that can actually create a problem of pressing urgency.

In relationships a primary adaptive strategy that an insecure individual will commonly use is called attachment – not the quiet, oxytocin-infused tranquility of the nursing bond, but a neurotic gripping-down on one’s partner for the assurance that reality is safe, provident, predictable, and under control. As you might guess, no relationship can deepen and grow in positive ways when one or both partners are clinging to the other with such frantic intensity. The natural course of flux and change provokes high anxiety that pathologically interferes with the need of the partnership to evolve.

Whereas healthy relationships provide a necessary support for the individual’s forays into experimentation, autonomy, and personal choice (freedom), a critical shortage of internal security will often motivate him or her to surrender freedom to another’s control. This is what I mean by submission: putting oneself under the will and command of someone or something else in hopes that this external power will hold everything together and make it all right. Again, while a dependent and helpless newborn needs to surrender to the providence of caretakers, later on, by the time an individual ought to have developed some healthy autonomy, such security-seeking submission only fosters the conditions for co-dependence, exploitation, and abuse to occur.

Finally, deep-seated and chronic insecurity will undermine the individual’s liberation into a life of purpose – by which I mean a life lived with purpose, on purpose, for a purpose that is uniquely his or her own, and which is experienced as a high calling of universal import. My word for this neurotic alternative to a holy purpose is obedience, fittingly derived from the root-word for “servant or slave.” Just as with the other terms, we need to distinguish a normal and healthy kind of obedience from one where free will and personal responsibility are effectively canceled out and replaced by simply “doing what you’re told.”

A self-actualizing adult human being is not necessarily one who constantly challenges the rules and expectations of society, but neither does he or she blindly fall in line with what external authority dictates (including also the status quo, or what “everyone else” is doing). Just because some authority demands conformity with a certain way of thinking, believing, or behaving doesn’t mean that it’s true or right or just. And just because “God says it” in the pages of scripture doesn’t put it beyond debate or doubt or conscience.

This last point brings me to my chief complaint against theism: not in the way it personifies and locates God as the patron deity of one or another tribe of true believers, but how it promotes attachment, submission, and obedience in its devotees. Theism today has become for many a shelter of security where love is reserved for insiders, where individual freedom is discouraged or condemned, and where being “purpose-driven” amounts to living by the rules and doing what god wants you to do. Never mind that the job description is conveyed through a long line of all-too-human brokers, each borrowing on the authority of others long dead, out of this world, or metaphysically inaccessible to the rest of us.

Considered developmentally, theism ought to help establish in the individual a deep security in the grounding mystery; orient him or her on a personified ideal of love, freedom, and purpose; and consistently challenge the believer to “be like unto god,” to the point where the divine character is fully internalized and incarnated in daily life. Then (and really only then) can self-actualized parents, teachers, and community leaders conspire benevolently in demonstrating providence to the very young, encouraging faith and lifting up a new generation of holy human beings.

 

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The Spirituality of Dropping Out

In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about purpose and the importance of living a “purpose-driven” life. In Christian circles especially, the message has been that knowing god’s purpose for you and living with a mission-in-mind is what it’s all about. This has turned out to be a “best-selling” proposal, as apparently many people are looking for purpose in life. Whether specifically religious or not, we like to think there’s something we can do or jump on board with to give our lives direction and meaning.

But what is purpose, and what does it mean to have one? For most of us it’s probably identified with being useful or having a function. We are reassured in knowing that god has a use for us, that we fit into his design scheme and have something we can wake up to each day. If there was no grand purpose to existence, then life would be meaningless. If this moment in life isn’t hooked into a forward trajectory of end-values, then there would be no reason to go on.

And if there happens not to be a god up there directing our lives toward the goals of prosperity, salvation, and a better setup later on, then we’re screwed. In previous posts I’ve made the case for god as a construct of meaning, and purpose as a positive illusion that keeps us sane and tilted to the future with hope. It hasn’t been my agenda to discredit these things – I’m neither an atheist nor a nihilist – but only to explore their importance to the general guidance and inspiration in what may be regarded a meaningful life.

In this post, however, I want to say something about the even greater importance of “dropping out” of meaning from time to time. While religion – the meaning, the message, the morality and the mechanics of what is going on at the surface – is concerned with keeping people plugged into the mission, our soul (and spirituality) really has no interest whatsoever in “making it,” fitting in, or “getting there.” Instead, what we seek at the deepest level is what I name the present mystery of reality, or real presence.

Let’s unpack this a bit more so we can see the difference between a “purpose-driven” life and one that is “presence-seeking.”

skipping stoneIn the illustration above, daily life is represented as a skipping stone on its trajectory through time. The stone itself is the “I” of ego, the construct of personal identity that carries the imprint of my earliest relationships and the role assignments of my tribe, along with the peculiar neurotic styles that defend and compensate for my emotional wounds. Ego suffers under the delusion of substance – that “I” have reality and matter more than anything, though it’s nothing but a reflex of contractions, preferences, attachments, and convictions.

As I said, none of us get very far along in life without our share of bumps, bruises and emotional wounds. Ego is the part of me that I want you to see: my glow, my charisma, my accomplishments and lofty goals. I am careful to play this to the audience so they will regard me highly, approve of me and give me accolades, and maybe (if I’m lucky) envy me for my magnanimity. I am a handsome actor.

Underneath me – or rather, on the underside of ego – is my shadow. This includes those parts of myself that I don’t want you to see, the parts I’m ashamed of or unsure about. At the pain-center of my emotional wounds, inside the ring of self-defense and coping strategies, is a sense of vulnerability and “not enough.” If I can keep these hidden, or maybe outwardly project their opposites into a moral crusade of some kind, then I’m safe.

But here’s the thing. Every time I arc closer to reality, the reflection of my shadow on the water’s surface confronts me with a challenge to acknowledge and confess what I’m up to. As I approach the real presence of mystery, this forsaken and repressed part of myself comes closer to the threshold of self-awareness. When I make contact with reality, this negatively charged shadow repels me into another launch – and off I go for another arc across the pond of life.

Behind me, then, is the momentum in this game of “Outrun the Shadow” that I’m busy playing. If my ego-and-shadow duality is sufficiently polarized, this push from behind will exhaust itself into a fall only to be recharged the moment I barely touch what is repulsive and unforgivable in myself. So I contract with renewed purpose – with the necessary look-away from the present moment and my internal conflict, along with the requisite conviction concerning the high importance of the end I am pursuing. Onward Christian soldier.

Look right there, at the very point where momentum flags but before the ego is flung out again. This is something we habitually overlook in our skipping course through life: Let’s call it intention. What is intention? It is related to purpose, but isn’t end-focused like a purpose-driven life is said to be. Very simply, intention is not living for a purpose but living with purpose – or as we commonly say, living on purpose.

Whereas “purpose” in the conventional sense gets tied to future goals and making forward progress, intention doesn’t have an outcome in mind, no end-point in the future, but rather represents the opening of awareness to the depth of life in this moment. It descends along a vertical axis into present-moment experience, into the present mystery of reality. The real presence discovered here is not a something from somewhere else; it is not a being, but being-itself, the power and freedom to be here and now.

From the surface perspective, the one who “drops out” of the official program of a purpose-driven life is a loser, a quitter, a defiant and godless mystic. He or she stops fussing and stressing over the “many things” that the rest of us are trying so hard to manage. Instead of working to please god, fit in his plan, and accomplish his mission, the mystic enjoys a deepening communion with the present mystery. He or she surrenders ambition, letting the neurotic tangle of personality unwind and dissolve away. No future salvation for this one; it’s a pity.

From below, however, the spirituality of dropping out is really about dropping in – into the here-and-now, into this body, this breath, into this quiet presence of being. In this deeper place, the ego boundary that had separated me from the rest of reality suddenly transforms into a threshold connecting me to everything. What had put me against reality now joins me to it – but not ‘it’ … just this.

Religion at the surface attaches incentives of rewards or penalties to the obligation of reaching out and helping others. A spirituality of the depths knows that self and neighbor are really one – an awareness that opens out into compassion, benevolence, generosity and forgiveness. There really is nothing to hold onto, nothing to defend, nothing to chase after, and nothing to lose.

When I rise from this contemplative state, put on my costume of identity and step back into the game, others will get a sense that the game is changing.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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