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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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The Illusion of Who You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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Staying Safe, Playing Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hang on to that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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