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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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Spirituality Basics 3: The Liberated Life

As the third in my trilogy of posts on Spirituality Basics, this one will move our focus to the question of what the liberated life looks like. We grappled with the predicament of our human condition as off-center and caught in the delusion of separateness; and then spent some time on salvation as the breakthrough to unity consciousness where this veil of separation falls away and we truly understand that All is One.

We are left, then, with the challenge of trying to explain what this all is for: What kind of life is the liberated life?

Simply asking the question reveals a working assumption in my understanding of spirituality: that its ultimate value is manifested in our way of life. While the ecstasy of mystic union and the activation of higher consciousness, along with whatever special powers and abilities these might confer, are frequently highlighted as indicators of spiritual awakening, I think this leaves a still more important benefit out of the picture.

Not individual exceptionalism, but genuine community among free and creative individuals is where our evolution is leading, and community is a way of life.

The liberated life is necessarily a life with others. A solitary or hermitic existence, therefore, would deprive spirituality of its most important challenge – which is not preserving the soul for beatitude in the next life, cultivating esoteric revelations, or even joining an elite spiritual order of like-minded adepts, but rather putting wisdom into practice at home, in the office, and on the streets.

We should also extend this notion of community to include other species and the biosphere of Earth itself, since living with the big picture and long view in mind is a strong characteristic of wisdom.

For this post I will use the metric of clarity to help answer the question of what the liberated life entails, and clarity in two distinct senses. My diagram illustrates three differently colored horizontal rows transected by a vertical column, with key terms attached to each. Perspective, passion, and purpose (the rows) represent something of a complete set, and each one exemplifies some measure of clarity, as I’ll explain below.

The contribution of presence is to pull these three into alignment (as suggested by the vertical column) and thus provide an overall clarity to the set which I will call ‘superclarity’.

It should make sense as we step into it, so off we go.

The liberated life holds a perspective on reality that is informed by experience, based on evidence, and as large as the universe. Whereas the insecure ego prior to liberation is compelled to manage a very small frame around what matters – the personal horizon of “me, mine, and ours” (i.e., others like me) – a truly transpersonal perspective on reality excludes nothing from the All-that-is-One.

Clarity of perspective (or vision), therefore, can be defined simply as the degree in which our mental picture of things is an accurate representation of the way things really are.

Now, right away the point needs to be made that no representation, with even the greatest degree of clarity, is identical to the way things really are. There is an infinite qualitative difference between the present mystery of reality and the mental images, poetic metaphors, or more technical concepts we use to re-present it to ourselves. When we forget, it is like presuming to carry off the river in a bucket. Both popular religion and religious fundamentalism are notorious for this.

Whenever we take our perspective on reality from the standpoint of ego, our horizon of interest is just that small. The more neurotically insecure ego is, the smaller this horizon becomes.

A second scale of clarity is our passion for life. Passion here refers to a receptive openness to life as well as devotion to what truly matters. Clarity of passion is about having a heart-connection to people, places, and experiences that inspire in us feelings of peace, love, gratitude, and joy. Needless to say, neurotic insecurity prevents such connection because opening to life makes us vulnerable to pain, loss, and grief.

But closing ourselves to these also removes us from the happiness and wellbeing we desire. Our passion celebrates both the transient and eternal (timeless) value of being alive.

When I speak of purpose in this context, I am not referring to some objective plan or mission that we are expected to fulfill. An external assignment of this sort can be distinguished from what I mean if we name it the purpose of action, or the goal that our action is moving toward. A goal is objective and stands ahead of us in time, somewhere in the near or more distant future, and is something still to be accomplished.

The clarity of purpose which I have in mind here, however, is not anchored to something objective, nor can it be objectively measured. Purpose in action refers to the intention by which we live our life – a commitment to living ‘on purpose’, as we say. This doesn’t mean that the liberated life merely drifts along haphazardly from one moment to the next. There are still things to get done and goals to achieve!

The difference is that our action is not just a means for reaching a desired (or obligated) end, but is rather the very actualization of intention in each present moment – a sacred end in itself.

So we have three scales (perspective/vision, passion/devotion, and purpose/intention) with some measure of clarity in each. Even prior to our liberation we might demonstrate a fairly high degree of clarity in one or more of these. As a rule we can expect that highly insecure individuals (neurotically attached and lacking ego strength) will be low in clarity, and likely across all three scales.

The more anxious, frustrated, or depressed we become, our clarity plummets accordingly.

The liberated life, on the other hand, is one that has been set free from neurotic self-concern. We not only enjoy greater clarity in perspective, passion, and purpose, but we have gained freedom from the delusion of having a separate identity.

Because personal identity (ego) is what ties consciousness to the past and future – neither of which is real – this breakthrough to transpersonal awareness is the salvation in becoming fully present.

I’m suggesting that we are not more or less present, but fully present or not at all. We are either inside the delusion of separation or consciously present in communion – not somewhat or for the most part. What I call ‘superclarity’ is the conscious state where perspective, passion, and purpose are perfectly aligned in present-moment awareness.

This means, of course, that we can be in and out of superclarity numerous times a day, to the extent that we allow our attention to fall hostage to anything unreal: the past, the future, ambitions and enemies. All of these are merely extensions of ego, and ego is nothing more than a construct of our imagination, our pretending to be somebody.

At such moments we catch ourselves and come back to reality. The liberated life is a path and not a destination, leading always back and deeper into the here-and-now.

 

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The Enjoyment of Wellbeing

A large number, maybe even the majority of us are managing unhappiness from day to day. We have hope that the script will flip and we’ll break through to something more satisfying, but the wheel turns again and we find ourselves in the same old cage as before. By god, we want to be happy, but there are just so many things that seem to get in the way.

There’s always tomorrow.

If we understood the cause of our unhappiness, perhaps we could snap out of it. Our tendency is to blame things and other people outside ourselves for how we feel. Our circumstances are the reason we’re stuck; that’s why we’re unhappy. Which of course means that our hope for happiness awaits a better job, a different spouse, a new set of circumstances. If the problem is outside of us, the solution must be as well … or so we tend to believe.

But it isn’t outside of us, neither the problem nor the solution. Understanding our unhappiness and why we spend all this time and energy trying to manage it is the only way through. Otherwise all we’re left with is hanging curtains in our prison cell to make it seem more like home.

The question we need to ask is how we got into this cage in the first place. Logically if we reverse our steps and unwind the script that landed us here, we should be able to make some different choices.

Let me start this process by distinguishing between what I’ll name primary concerns and ultimate concerns. Primary concerns arrived at our door even before we had the capacity to reflect on them. In fact, the deepest of these primary concerns pokes our nervous system far below conscious thought, at the very roots of self-consciousness.

Security is our sense of being supported in a reality that is safe and provident. As this spontaneous feeling depends to a great extent on the nurturing love and attention we received as newborns, our sense of security – and of reality at large – is a function of having caring and able parents.

But you know what? No parent is perfect, and every family system has endemic dysfunctions with histories trailing back into ancestral generations. Our mother couldn’t be present every time a pang, ache, or startle announced itself. Our father didn’t always respond with the motherly compassion we were expecting. As a result, insecurity gained a foothold in our nervous system – just a toe perhaps, or some greater degree of magnitude. But there it was. Maybe reality wasn’t so safe and provident after all.

The thing that makes a sense of security problematic, of course, is the fact that reality is not all that secure. Accidents do happen. Normal processes stray into abnormalities. We don’t get what we need right when we need it. Sometimes we just don’t get what we need, period.

When this misalignment between our needs and reality occurs at a level where we are most dependent on what’s outside ourselves, the insecurity can be overwhelming and debilitating.

When we feel sufficiently secure – not perfectly, but sufficiently – we are enabled to begin taking control in our life where necessary and appropriate. Gradually we find our center and begin relying less on our taller powers and other props. We learn how to control our sphincters, our movement, our fingers, our tongue, our temper, our thoughts, and our actions. This primary concern of control is essential to our sense of integrity: of how well our identity and our life hold together, persisting through time and across circumstances as a unified system.

But when we are insecure, this natural progress toward control gets complicated. The feeling that we are not safe and that reality is not provident may compel us to grab on for relief to whatever is nearby. Or we might insist on clinging to our supports longer so we can continue borrowing on the stability they provide.

In either case, our insistence on control (but not in the healthy sense) locks us up inside a web of neurotic attachments, with an unrealistic expectation and impossible demand that they deliver on our need to feel secure. That’s what the cage represents in my diagram above.

In this condition, freedom, the third of our primary concerns, is simply not possible. Besides, the very idea of freedom provokes anxiety in us since it would mean being without all these safety strings attached. The prospect of living outside the cage is terrifying when we’re convinced that reality is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Having all we need to feel secure in our prison (though not really), we may only dream of freedom. But we will sure as hell never leave what we have for its sake. This is what I mean by “managing unhappiness.”

The short dotted arrow extending vertically from primary concerns to ultimate concerns indicates that while the process of development would normally cross this threshold, many of us choose to stay inside the bars. True enough, we probably don’t see this as a choice we’re making but simply as the way things are.

We are just making our way as best we can, except that this ‘way’ is going nowhere. Time’s circle finds us in the same state of mind as the day before, as the year before. And even if we manage to exchange one disappointing relationship for another, the same neurotic insecurity soon enough makes it just another prison.

Before we leave this tragic condition, I should make the point that all our chronic troubles as a species can be traced to this preoccupation with managing unhappiness. All of them. It’s even likely that a majority of our medical ailments and diseases are psychosomatic – not merely comorbid with our neurotic insecurity, but caused by it.

Think of all the economic, political, and religious strife over the millenniums with its cost in terms of hopes trashed, lives lost, futures foreclosed. All because we are convicts of our own convictions, hostages to ideologies we have ourselves created in the expectation that maybe this, maybe that will bring us what we presently lack.

A few have found liberation, though not from the insecurity of existence. They realize that life is not perfectly secure, and neither is their longevity or individual prosperity guaranteed. Their key realization, however, has to do with the difference between the inherent insecurity of our situation and the open option of allowing that fact to shake our nerves to shreds.

There is always the option (which is why it is qualified as ‘open’) of releasing the anxiety, recovering our center, taking control where we need to, and choosing another way. Not a different partner or profession, but something that ultimately matters.

Only when freedom is embraced and not abandoned for the false security of a cage, are we able to direct our creativity and devotion beyond the management of unhappiness. The first of our ultimate concerns is purpose, which refers not to someone else’s agenda for us – even a patron deity of religion – but to our own commitment to live intentionally. When we live ‘on purpose’ we are more aware of where we are, not just our physical location but more importantly where we are in the moving stream of our life.

Opportunity reveals itself only to the one who is paying attention, who is purposefully engaged.

Perhaps the most important engagement of a life lived on purpose is with the construction of meaning. Whereas the millions who are managing unhappiness believe that life is meaningful or meaningless as a matter of fact, those living on purpose understand that life just is what it is, and that its meaning is up for us to decide. In this respect meaning is a function of the value, identity, and significance we link to things, to other people, and to the events of life.

This entire system of linkages constitutes what we call our world. Worlds are human constructions, and each of us is responsible for our own.

Meaning isn’t only an individual affair, however, since our personal worlds are nested inside larger tribal and cultural worlds. The overlaps and intersections are places where we find agreements, differences, misunderstandings, or conflicts, as the case may be. Obviously – or I should say, what is obvious to the person who is living on purpose and taking responsibility for the meaning of his or her life – whether this greater scene is a marketplace, a wilderness, or a battlefield depends a lot on our guiding principle of truth.

Is there an absolute and final meaning of life? Many who are managing unhappiness inside their prisons believe so. Indeed they must so believe because life is only bearable if there is a meaning beyond question – an infallible, absolute, fixed and transcendent meaning that makes our searching, fighting, dying, and killing for its sake worthwhile.

Or maybe meaning is never final. Maybe our world construction project will never be finished. Maybe it’s not just about how reality-oriented (i.e., factual and evidence-based) our world is, but also how effectively it facilitates our fulfillment as individuals. By this I don’t mean just another synonym for feeling happy. To be ‘filled full’ is about reaching our capacity, realizing our full potential, filling out into a fully self-actualized human being.

Because meaning and world are anchored to us as persons, fulfillment is necessarily apocalyptic: we see that our world is not the last word, that there is life (authentic life) on the other side of meaning, and that this larger experience is profoundly transpersonal – bigger than us, beyond us, including us but not revolving around us as we once believed.

Our quality of life at this level can be described as enjoying wellbeing, where being well and being whole inspire a deep joy in being alive. This doesn’t mean that things always go our way or that we always get what we want. Existence is still inherently insecure and nobody’s perfect. But we have released our demand that it be otherwise.

Happiness will come and go. Our circumstances and life conditions will inevitably change. Only now we can let it be. In time, more of us will leave our prisons where we manage unhappiness from day to day, to take responsibility for our lives, stepping mindfully and with gratitude into each moment we are given.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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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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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character

characterThe diagram above illustrates my newly refined definition of religion, as a cultural system that links together (from the Latin religare) individual consciousness (or psychology, represented in the purple triangle) and the larger order of existence (or cosmology, represented in the dome overhead) by means of sacred stories (or mythology, represented in the moving wave between them) that serve to orient us in space, guide us through time, connect us to one another, and support us across the adventure of life.

Once again, I am speaking here of religion itself, not necessarily of this or that religion, numerous examples of which have indeed lost this unifying function and fallen out of relevance in our day. I’ve explored in other posts what happens when religions misread their myths by taking them literally, defend outdated models of reality, and neglect (or even condemn) the inner depths of mystical awareness. They die, but continue on in fundamentalist orthodoxies, megachurch celebrity cults, metaphysical roadshows, or militant end-time sects.

Effective and relevant religion will provide the orientation, guidance, connection, and support that individuals and communities require throughout the full course of human development. Ultimately this will also include breakthrough realizations of a ‘truth beyond’ our conventional beliefs, and of a ‘power within’, deeper even than that cherished center of personal identity (i.e., ego) which religion itself (as theism) had earlier made the focus of salvation. This post-theist excursion into a more experiential, communitarian, and globally-minded spirituality is where the evolutionary design of our human nature is headed.

In a recent post I suggested that the narrative device of Apocalypse, which can be found in all developed mythologies, is not referring to a future cataclysm of world-collapse, but instead represents a self-conscious awareness inside the mythopoetic (storytelling) process itself, of their status as sacred fictions. Outside these narrative constructions of meaning is the present mystery of reality, the terminal end of our stories and thus of the storied world itself.

If mythology has done its work – referring to the orienting, guiding, connecting, and supporting functions mentioned earlier – then we are ready for a psychological breakthrough to a more rational, responsible, and reality-oriented way of life.

My term for this liberated mode of experience is ‘creative authority’: when the individual not only sees through the constructions that had earlier draped both reality and consciousness with veils of meaning, but goes on to take responsibility as the principal author of his or her own personal myth and its associated world. If it sounds like we’re returning to life under the shroud, I must emphasize the key insight of this breakthrough realization, which is that the individual is now a self-conscious storyteller.

In other words, we have entered the ‘ironic mode’ (Northrup Frye) where the storyteller is aware of the fact that he or she is spinning narratives across a mystery that cannot be named.

This brings us to the interesting challenge of composing our own personal myth. The art of storytelling (or myth-making) is millenniums old, which means that we have a vast library and useful tools at our disposal for the project before us. In this post I want to reflect on the features of well-developed character, using this term in its literary and not so much its moral (or moralistic) sense. A character is thus a narrative personification, an identity in story who strives (Greek agon) for (as protagonist) and against (as antagonist) the plot in its unfolding. A ‘good’ character (again, not in the moral sense) is one that evinces certain traits and makes the story particularly interesting.

Our work as self-conscious storytellers of our own personal myths will involve constructing an identity for ourselves that possesses four traits in particular: memory, integrity, grounding, and volition.

Memory

In any good story, character is an identity that becomes stronger (i.e., more definite and self-consistent) over time. A character’s memory has to do with how recognizable it is with respect to what we’ve already come to know about him or her in the story up to this point. The story’s audience starts to anticipate how a character will respond by virtue of how he or she behaved in similar scenes or challenges earlier in the narrative. With growing confidence in a character’s memory, they are better able to trust his or her performance.

As we take responsibility for the construction and management of our personal identity, each of us should consider the fidelity of our character to the person we have been. This is not to suggest that we simply repeat the mistakes of our past, or that spontaneity and fresh departures are out of the question. Even if we should undergo a conversion of some sort, the memory of character will deepen our understanding and empathy for others, adding dimension and complexity to the person we are. This is an aspect of what is known as wisdom. Alternatively, neglecting the character trait of memory can make us insensitive to others, even projecting on them the dark energies of our own repressed and forgotten shadow.

Integrity

If the character trait of memory is what establishes consistency through time, then integrity is about consistency across space, or across the landscape of life situations and social engagements. A narrative character who changes dramatically from one engagement to another leaves the audience unsure as to ‘who’ will show up next. In psychology this lack of consistency across situations is evidence of ‘dissociative identity’ (formerly ‘multiple personality’), where a personality lacks sufficient ego strength to coordinate and unify otherwise diverging streams of subconscious motivation and demeanor.

In the early years of ego formation when we were being shaped, instructed, and managed by our tribe into a compliant member of the group, identity contracts dictated our role in each social situation. Now, stepping through the Apocalypse and into our own creative authority, we can take ‘authorial control’ over the person we want to be. We can join the role-play, fully aware that it is just a social convention in make-believe. Or we might take a stand for a more authentic, self-honest, re-imagined and creative way of being together. This is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Grounding

A ‘grounded’ character in story doesn’t simply drift above the moving scenes, essentially detached from the situational dynamics of time and setting. He or she has the feel of belonging, of being rooted in that narrative world and not just an alien passing through. In this sense the story isn’t merely ‘about’ the character, but unfolds around and through the character’s individual evolution.

My returning reader will recognize this idea of grounding from my frequent references to ‘the grounding mystery’, that inner depth of spiritual life where our personal identity sinks and dissolves into an ineffable sense of being. Of course, if ego is caught in a neurotic tangle of insecurity and self-defense, any suggestion of sinking and dissolving into something else will be vigorously resisted, and inevitably misunderstood. Creative authority requires that we ‘loosen up’ and release ourselves to the deeper process, so that we can carry that ‘power within’ into the affairs of our daily life in the world.

Volition

Our fourth and final character trait picks up with that last sentence – as we take action and work out the evolving plot of our personal myth. In story, the action of a ‘weak’ character will be determined by external events and circumstances, whereas a ‘strong’ character chooses and determines it for him- or herself. Volition (from the Latin vol for will) is about a character taking action rather than reacting, moved by an internal drive or desire. The better stories in mythology, literature, film, and stage are those that are driven by strong characters whose action seems to proceed from their center.

As we break through from a mode of role performance (acting out the instructions and expectations of our tribe) to one of role transcendence (using our role in a more purposeful and creative way), we are able to construct a personal myth that supports the life and genuine community we really want. We don’t pick up a mask of identity (a persona) because someone else tells us to, because a tradition (or consensus trance) calls for it. We can live out of our own center, for values and aims that others might not find agreeable. Our action is not about defiance or transgression, but instead arches toward a deeper, higher, or longer goal.


More and more of us are ready for the responsibility of writing our own story, of composing our own personal myth. Our tribe and culture have done their part, for better or worse, and now it’s our turn. We have finally come to realize that our identities and the worlds we inhabit are really nothing more than narrative constructions, meaningful fictions of our personal and interpersonal life.

It is time to step into our own creative authority, take leave of the gods, and become fully human. This is life after the Apocalypse.

 

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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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