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The Force of Character

For the longest time the debate was between Nature and Nurture as to which shaping force was greater in determining human personality, behavior, and destiny. Genetic determinism or social engineering (aka behaviorism) each argued for the larger role, with pretty much everybody agreeing that both were somehow in the mix.

Had anyone bothered to ask the therapists, counselors, or your reputable “good listening friend,” they would have learned that more than nature and nurture is in play on this question. There’s also the force of momentum as it builds through our repeated beliefs and behaviors over time. The first enactment requires focused deliberation, but with each repetition it becomes a little easier, a little more automatic, using less and less conscious effort as this momentum starts to take over.

What we’re describing can be called the force of Character, borrowing directly from the way the identity of a narrative character becomes more “solid” and predictable as the story progresses. It belongs with Nature and Nurture in our best understanding of what shapes and determines human experience.

In addition to our genetic predispositions and social conditioning, then, our cumulative habits of thought, judgment, behavior and belief – that is to say, our character – make us who we are.

The references to story are especially fitting in this discussion, since our personal identity is also a narrative construct. Who we are – as distinct from what we are as human beings – is something put together, literally composed out of numerous storylines that tie us to roles, anchor us in role plays, and shape our identity to the groups where we belong.

Inside those external storylines are others that define us internally, to ourselves. These conspire to form our self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, referring to how secure, capable, creative, and resilient we see ourselves as being. Our internal storylines are ever-present as our continuous self-talk, in the steady stream of thoughts and opinions we repeat to ourselves.

As my diagram illustrates, with repeated performances of these external and internal scripts our character becomes more solid and predictable. Our identity eventually gets so determined by our past that it can seem impossible to break the habit of who we are.

It helps me to think of this using the principle of complementarity from elementary physics. Also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it states that quantum reality will “behave” as a particle or a wave depending on how the researcher sets up the experiment. At that level, energy can either be defined by its discrete position (as a particle) or measured for its dynamic flow (as a wave) – but never both at once.

These both turn out to be true representations of quantum reality, but we must choose which way we see it.

Another analogy is the Rabbit-Duck Illusion. Looking at the image, you can see the head of a rabbit or the head of a duck, but not both at once. The image “behaves” according to what you are expecting to see.

All of this relates back to our discussion on character in the following way. Character itself – our personal identity as composed of multiple intersecting external and internal storylines – corresponds to Heisenberg’s particle: discrete, holding its position, and apparently solid.

But if we choose, we can also understand personal identity as a “wave” of countless interweaving narratives. And the dominant storyline, which I will call our “active story,” is the one we are telling ourselves and others right now. It’s also likely the one we’ve been telling ourselves for quite some time, qualifying it as our personal myth.

Back to my diagram. A correlation exists between our character (particle, rabbit) and active story (wave, duck) such that early on, when character is still getting set, our active story has a broad scope. A broader scope to our story means a wider spread of possibilities before us. When we are young and the momentum of character is still relatively undefined, the future ahead of us seems broad with many options and we frequently engage in imagining what we will one day grow up to be.

As our repeated thoughts, judgments, behaviors and beliefs take on a more solid and predictable shape (i.e., character), however, the scope of our active story begins to narrow down. Our choices effectively eliminate or close down some possibilities as we commit ourselves to our personal quality world. A benefit of this narrowing effect on the scope of our active story is that its range also starts to lengthen.

As we enter adulthood, our active story provides a longer view on the future, even as our options are reduced in number. We get a stronger sense of direction and purpose, which is another way of saying that our character becomes more set: we know who we are, where we’re going, and why it matters.

Morality at this point is less about following rules and obeying authority than behaving and believing in a way that’s consistent with who we are – being true to ourselves, as we say. Now, if our identity is one of positive belonging, social responsibility, and ethical commitment to the greater good, then being true to ourselves is a good thing indeed.

It can happen, though, that our character gets formed by negative storylines, such as abuse, insecurity, shame, resentment, and self-doubt. Once it gets set, being true to ourselves can be pathologically self-centered and socially destructive. To us it feels like righteousness and living by the strength of our convictions, when our active story is actually bringing down the Apocalypse.

My returning reader is familiar with my characterization of conviction as belief that holds the mind hostage (like a convict). Now we can see how character-formation and conviction go together. Our active story narrows down to just one line of truth (“the only way”), and our conviction prevents us from even seeing alternatives, much less considering them.

This is how we bring down the Apocalypse. The most destructive human actions in history have been driven by conviction, committed for the sake of and in devotion to some absolute truth.

The rest of my diagram shows how the construction of identity (ego) requires our separation from all that is “not me.” From this vantage-point, we can look outward at the objective world, literally “thrown over” and around us, as well as inward to our subjective ground, “thrown under” or beneath us. It’s important to understand that these two realms and our access to them are conditioned upon a stable, balanced, and unified sense of self (called ego strength).

If our character has been set by negative storylines and our convictions are righteously inflexible, we are unable to engage the objective world responsibly or cultivate our subjective ground for inner peace and wellbeing. In this case, the force of character trumps (pun intended) nature and nurture, committing us to a path of suffering and self-destruction.

Hell, we might as well bring everybody else down with us.

 

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More Than You Think

Let’s start with an interesting scientific fact. You have 100 billion neurons in your brain, 40 thousand neurons in and around your heart, and 500 million neurons in your gut. We’re used to thinking of neurons as “brain cells,” but that’s a serious misnomer perpetuated by our brain. Neurons are not simply nerve cells, but a very special type of nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses and networks with other neurons to generate the miracle of consciousness.

We have some justification to assume, then, that consciousness resides in these three nodes: the cephalic (head) node, the cardiac (heart) node, and the enteric (gut) node. We can also assume that these three nodes communicate among themselves, supporting a highly integrated global state of consciousness in our body.

It’s likely a mistake, however, to conclude that what’s going on in our heart and gut is similar to the business transpiring in our head.

This post offers a “theory of mind” that significantly expands our common notions of where it is and what kind of experience it facilitates. My diagram depicts the internal anatomy where consciousness is generated and resides, along with the distinct way each node engages with reality.

The spinal axis or corridor along which the three nodes of consciousness are situated suggests the kundalini system of Oriental psychology, and I will adopt a similar developmental scheme according to which things first get established lower down and rise upward, with the cephalic node (brain) taking much longer – more than two decades! – to come fully online.

One more interesting observation to make is how your brain’s anatomy is a triune (three-in-one) structure, with a primitive (basal or ‘reptilian’) layer enveloped by an ancient (limbic or ‘old mammalian’) layer, and capped with a more recent (cortical or ‘new mammalian’) layer most highly developed in our own species. It’s interesting how each of these layers in brain anatomy correlates with a distinct node of consciousness.

Thus the primitive basal brain shares a strong communication link with the enteric node in your gut, as the ancient limbic brain links with the cardiac node in your heart, while the newest cortical brain constitutes its own self-involved loop.

Rather than tracking this exploration with the rise of consciousness through the three centers, it might be easier to begin where you spend almost all of your conscious time: in your head. The idea of a self-involved loop is significant because of its suggestion that cephalic consciousness might be wrapped up in its own business more than the other nodes. And this starts to make sense when we remember that the cortical brain is responsible for constructing the mental model of reality affectionately known as your ‘quality world’ (William Glasser).

As a construct, your quality world is entirely inside your mind and maintained within the logical network of language, imagination, and thought. I will designate the cephalic node of consciousness your logical mind, taken from the Greek root logos (word, thought, theory, order, reason and meaning). And because world is the objective counterpart to a subjective self, the logical mind is also where your ego identity (“I”) is housed.

In The Heart and Hope of Democracy I defined ‘separation consciousness’ as the consequence of constructing identity upon its own separate center of self-conscious awareness and casting everything else into the position of ‘not-me’ (other, object, It). The logical mind is the Storyteller whose autobiography is your personal myth, constructed around a main character (ego) and unfolding inside a narrative world of its own creation.

“I” stands apart from reality inside a personal world, just like an actor inside a theater.

If all of that sounds a little psychotic, let’s not forget that our developmental progress as individuals and our evolutionary progress as a species depend in no small way on this sophisticated production in make-believe (also called ‘meaning-making’). The entire complex of human culture exists only in our minds, yet where would we be without it?

Although meaning is arguably not ‘out there’ in reality to be found, humans have been more than willing – even eager, and devotedly so – to surrender or destroy everything for its sake.

But now I’ll ask you to allow awareness to drop down from this cephalic node of your logical mind and into your heart-center. You might even experience a sensation of being suspended in a web of – what is it, energy? Feeling? Presence? The cardiac node of consciousness is what I will call your sympathic mind. Not sympathetic, but something more basic than that: an experience of resonance with your surrounding environment, a subtle perception drawn from your participation in an invisible web of communion.

Such a drop out of the trance-state of separation consciousness and into this experience of sympathic communion is one of the critical achievements of an effective meditation practice, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions. The departure can be compelled by an apocalyptic (world-collapsing) event such as a catastrophic loss or personal trauma. Or it can be more gradually and deliberately facilitated through a method of contemplative engagement with the present mystery of reality.

Because by arriving here you have already released the self-world construct of personal identity, your experience is of a seamless continuity between and among all things. It’s no longer “I” in here and “all of that” (others, objects, its) out there, but everything together as one. This explains why the heart plays such a central role in your participation and sense of connection with what’s going on around you, as the node of consciousness registering feelings of intimacy, belonging, compassion, gratitude, and bereavement.

One more drop downward and you release your place in the vibrant web, descending into the enteric node of consciousness and what I call the grounding mystery (or ground) of your existence.

Here there is no separate self, not even a sympathic communion with everything around you. Those 500 million neurons are generating a deep and slow frequency of consciousness that manages the internal state of your living body, as a metabolic conspiracy among your visceral organs, glands, and cells. This node of consciousness is the seat of your intuitive mind.

Intuition is classically regarded a special power of clairvoyant perception, a “sixth sense” that enables one to ‘see things’ that aren’t objectively there or are still in the future.

However, rather than subscribing to some theory of metaphysical realism where these invisible and impending images are taken as actually out there somewhere, a simpler explanation is that your intuitive mind is picking up information from that deeper register of what Carl Jung named the ‘collective unconscious’, where the archetypes (“first forms”) of your animal nature, with roots deep in evolutionary history, carry the ‘racial memory’ of our species.

Similar to how the accumulation of experiences over your lifetime gives you more exposure to the variety of opportunities and challenges of being alive, and thus a larger memory store from which you can derive wisdom and anticipate the future, so your intuitive mind draws on the collective experience of countless generations stored in the visceral organs of your gut. Its images are therefore not received from some metaphysical realm beyond, but instead arise as ‘revelations and foretellings’ inspired out of this grounding mystery within.

This interpretative shift from metaphysical realism to depth psychology is a crucial part of the phase transition from theism to post-theism.


Your mind is not just what’s going on inside your head. Together with your heart and gut, your brain is engaging with reality and generating an experience far bigger than you think. If you can just drop deeper into the present mystery of reality, you will come to realize that all along you have been “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows” (Polynesian saying).

 

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The Future of Truth

Let’s see if we can agree on a definition. Truth is not matter of how many of us agree on it, how important or integral it is to our worldview, how central it may be in the definition of who we are, or how it makes us feel. Truth is not what we want it to be, or what the authorities say it is. Truth, rather, is a measure of how reality-oriented an idea or belief is, how well it orients us in reality and connects us to what is really real.

We human beings spend a good part of our lives making up the meaning of life, constructing the quality worlds (W. Glasser) that make life meaningful. That meaning is more or less true in the degree it orients and connects us to reality. When it doesn’t, we are living inside something else – a fantasy, a delusion, a deception: something more made-up than real.

It’s fashionable these days to speak of “my reality” and “your reality,” as if we each can decide what is really real. If it works for me, then it’s “my truth.” You can have yours, and our truths don’t have to match or agree. But if we can agree that truth is a measure of how reality-oriented our quality worlds are, then it’s about more than just what confirms our beliefs and supports our individual (or tribal) ambitions.

Reality is always beyond the meanings we spin and drape across it, and our beliefs allow more or less reality to show through.

The word “truth” from the Greek (aletheia) refers to removing a cover to show something for what it really is. Truth, then, is not the thing-itself but rather the thing-as-revealed, in the moment of revelation (or realization), an experience whereby the present mystery of reality appears through our constructions of meaning. Our experience of it is mediated by our beliefs about it.

To have a genuine experience of reality, our beliefs about it must be true; otherwise our beliefs will not reveal anything and all we have is meaning. You might ask, What’s wrong with that?

My diagram illustrates the standard sequence of Four Ages over our lifespan, represented archetypally in the Child, Youth, Adult, and Elder. (The numbers between Ages mark the critical threshold years when our engagement with reality shifts and everything gets elevated to a more complex and comprehensive perspective on reality.) Childhood, then, is the Age of Faith; Youth is the Age of Passion; Adulthood is the Age of Reason; and later adulthood (our Elder years) is the Age of Wisdom.

As far as the construction of meaning (or our quality world) is concerned, adulthood is the time when our belief system joins the mainstream and we take our place as custodians of culture.

The reality orientation of our beliefs and belief system, however, is largely a reflection of how things went for us during those earlier Ages. In ideal circumstances – given perfect parents, a supportive pantheon of taller powers, and a protected resource-rich environment – the Age of Faith would have instilled in us a profound sense of providence and security.

We then carried this positive sense of security into the Age of Passion, when we set out on the adventure of experimentation and discovery. We formed new relationships, expanded our circle of influence, and became more centered in our personal identity.

Having achieved a high degree of ego strength, grounded in a provident reality and positively connected in a web of relationships, our belief system is now open and flexible. We understand that our knowledge-claims need constant updating in order to be more reality oriented, and we are conscious of the fact that our beliefs – the names, definitions, explanations, and predictions we hold about reality – are only labels and mental constructs.

This acknowledgment keeps our mind in a state of perpetual curiosity: forming questions, testing conclusions, making more associations, and expanding our horizon of knowledge.

At some point, which typically corresponds to a breakthrough realization that our identity is a construct separating us from what is really real, we come into a unifying vision of reality: everything is connected, nothing is separate, and All is One. This universal truth – true of all things, everywhere – is the high mark of spiritual wisdom. By the light of this realization we understand that reality is a universe (a turning unity), that we belong to the whole and have a responsibility to our fellow beings. Furthermore, we are a human manifestation of being, a personification (or coming-into-personhood) of the universe itself.

Our unified vision of reality doesn’t suppress or discount the play of opposites generated by and arranged around the ego – body and soul, self and other, human and nature – but rather enables us to appreciate their mutuality and interdependence, the way they together comprise a dynamic whole.

Otherwise …

Our belief system is fixed and closed, with no significant reality outside the box even recognized. Truth is absolute – pure, everlasting, and utterly beyond question: It is the only one of its kind. It doesn’t include everything, but is rather above and outside the rest. Our devotion to absolute truth is glorified as conviction, which perfectly names the condition where our mind is held captive (as a convict) inside the prison of rigid beliefs. Truth is not a matter of looking through our constructions of meaning to the really real, since our constructions are the truth.

The psychological habit of thinking this way came about as part of a strategy for screening out anything in reality that might challenge our emotional need for things to be black or white. Our belief system helps us compensate for and manage a personality that lacks a clear center of executive self-control (aka ego), an inner balance of moods, and a stable grounding in the rhythms and urgencies of the body.

Because we are off-center and insecure, we insist on being accommodated by everything outside ourselves.

The future of truth swings in the balance between curiosity and conviction, which ultimately play out into the alternatives of wisdom or terrorism.

 

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