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The Last Delusion

If you ask most people “Who are you?,” after their proper name you’re likely to get a short list of roles they perform in the various social niches of their life. As I use the term, ‘niche’ refers to a particular environment of social interaction where individual members carry identities assigned and scripted by a coherent narrative which they all accept as the story of what’s going on.

Every time we step into a niche, we do so at the entry point of a role – unless we are a stranger or an intruder; but even then we will be regarded as a stranger or intruder, which is a kind of role as well. Roles can be thought of as personas (from Greek theater for the ‘masks’ worn by stage actors), and every persona comes with a script that we need to learn and personalize (or make our own). Depending on the niche, a particular role will be more or less flexible in allowing such personalization, but in some cases there is no flexibility whatsoever.

The coherent narrative mentioned above is an essential aspect of a niche; you might think of this ‘story of what’s going on’ as the temporal (time) counterpart to the contextual (space) aspect of a niche. All of the smaller interactions unfolding between and among the member roles are contained and validated by the bigger story, and it would not be a misuse of the term to call this bigger story a myth. Myths are narrative compositions that serve to construct our concepts and images of what really matters to us – or, which is more likely, myths make certain things matter to us.

A myth establishes what it means to live and act inside its niche: who we are, where we’re going, why it matters, and even what we want.

In our family niche, for example, the myth tells us that what we want is security, love, and belonging; these are values we associate with what a family should be (or ideally is). Our own family is a ‘true family’ to the degree it matches this archetype as established in the myth. In a different niche – say, the workplace – other values may attach to what it means to be a member, how we should live and act in that setting according to its primary myth. Maybe not security, but risk-taking; not love, but power; not belonging as much as standing out and getting noticed.

Another term important to understand is World, which is not a synonym for the global environment, planet Earth, or the universe at large, but designates the total set of niches where our identity is constructed and negotiated. As each niche has its primary story, or myth, we can call this total set of big stories our mythology – simply the collection of myths that orient us in reality and determine our perspective on what matters.

A mythology, in other words, is to our world as each myth is to its niche. The world is therefore a narrative complex of many stories that projects a logosphere or ‘sphere of meaning’ around us, inside of which we wear the masks and perform the roles that define who we are.

The normal course of socialization aims at our full identification with the roles we play. This is why the average person you ask will tell you “I am ______” by naming the different roles they play in life. But they’ll probably not use or even think of who they are in terms of role-play. In a simple and straightforward sense they are the personae that the niches of daily life require them to be.

This is what I call the First Delusion.

Historically our wisdom traditions – referring to the ancient heritage of mystical insights, life principles, and ethical ideals – have served to liberate individuals from this trap of mistaken identity. You are not the roles you play in life but the actor who is playing the roles. Your true self is distinct from the masks, scripts, stories, and stages on which you perform. When you realize this, you will no longer be subject to the vagaries of your ‘audience’ – all those others whose approval, praise, or criticism have been your driving motivation. From now on you can live your life not as a role-performance but in the spirit of freedom and creative authority.

The message might continue, however, telling you that just as your roles are temporal (in time), temporary (for a time), and relative to the roles of other players in the niches of your world, your true self is eternal (outside time), everlasting (for all time), and separate from all the drama. There may even be some nonsense about this true self making a ‘contract’ with destiny to incarnate in the fleshy vehicle of your mortal body, perhaps cycling through numerous such incarnations until the moment you see the truth, the truth sets you free, and you can reclaim your divine nature.

This I will call the Last Delusion.

That added twist on the message – the whole thing about your true self being metaphysically transcendent, immortal, and divine – plays well to an audience that is world-weary, chronically anxious, and self-obsessed. Just like us.

Its character as a delusion is focused in the way it diverts liberation from the First Delusion (“I am the roles I play”) by conceiving our ego (the actor) as an absolute center of personal identity, separate and separable from the body, an essentially indestructible unit of pure consciousness from an altogether different realm. The healthy and necessary deconstruction of identity encouraged by our wisdom traditions gets aborted in the interest of saving the ego from extinction.

But what’s wrong with that?

It’s not necessary to attach a moral judgment (wrong or bad) to this maneuver, but maybe a therapeutic one will make sense. Therapy is concerned with healing, health, wholeness, and well-being – values that are central to a developing spirituality as well. In the early stages of development individuals are guided by society into the First Delusion, where we are expected to carry on with our assigned roles. Thus engaged, we are most susceptible to the instructional download of cultural assumptions, priorities, and aims which are critical to social stability and cohesion.

Living by such programs is what Nietzsche lambasted as ‘morality’: getting in line, following the rules, and effectively subordinating our creative spirit to the value-orthodoxy of the tribe. For roughly the first half of life this is how it goes for most of us. The structure and sequence of incentives offered to us – hugs, stickers, trophies, awards, certificates, promotions, and titles – fuel our motivation to play along and do our best.

At some point, however, the luster starts to fade and we find ourselves having to muster the effort to keep at it. Only now we are getting a sense that it is all, indeed, a play. Granted, a very serious theatrical production in ‘let’s pretend’, but a pretense nonetheless. And those who really get caught up in it tend to be the most pretentious among us!

Lots of research correlates this disillusionment with the transition of mid-life, when all those prizes for conforming begin to feel less interesting or important. Or at least they don’t connect as much to the authentic self we more deeply aspire to be.

Regardless of when it comes about, our developing spirituality has brought us to the threshold of genuine self-discovery and liberation. This where the wisdom teachings drive home the message:


It’s not all about you. The life you have is transient, and each moment is profoundly precious. Get over yourself and invest in what really matters – not for the reward or recognition, but because in so doing you are fulfilling your reason for being, which is to give your life as a ransom for many. They need to know this shining truth as well, so be a light on their path in the time you have left.


And this is also where we might get lured into the Last Delusion, taking to believe that we are above it all, just passing through and on our way to live forever, somewhere else.

 

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Ego’s God

Post-theism, unlike atheism with which it is commonly confused, advocates for the necessity of theism in the full development of human beings. If I am critical of theism – referring to the belief in higher beings who supervise and intervene on human affairs – it is not because I think its contribution to our progress as a species is no longer needed, but that its worldview for the most part is so outdated as to render it largely irrelevant to life today. I have explored this loss of relevance in recent posts already (Religion and the Snow Cone Universe and The Three Stages of Religion), so I’ll rest my case for now.

According to the general course of religion’s evolution across the millenniums, theism occupies the middle stage between animism and post-theism, which makes it either a successful bridge or a tragic barrier to what Abraham Maslow named the “farther reaches of human nature.” When it succeeds, the personal ego can be transcended in the interest of communion, responsibility, love, and fulfillment. But when it fails in its essential function, theism locks the ego down in regressive attitudes and self-preoccupation, where “me and mine” become anchors of an insatiable consumerism, dogmatic orthodoxy, and redemptive violence.

The present failure of theism is partly due to its insistence on defending an obsolete worldview, but even more to this lockdown on the ego – on its insecurities around death and its ambition for immortality. My title for this post has a double meaning, referring on one hand to the way that god inspires and endorses an acceptable range of possibilities in the formation of individual identity (ego), as a member of this or that tribe. I consider this the essential function of theism. Obedience to the will of god, worship of god’s attributes, and conformity with the character of god as represented in the myths and testimonies of tradition, draw ego development in the direction of this ideal.

The other reading of my title is more consistent, in my opinion, with what theism today has become: Ego is god. This is where it becomes “all about me and for my sake,” where religion is reduced to the services that meet my needs and will ensure my everlasting destiny in heaven when I die. If these services and assurance were not there, ego would have no reason to stay with religion or “be religious.” Today churches compete for the attention, entertainment, satisfaction, membership, and fair-trade donations of the ego-as-god.

To understand how we got here, we need to examine more closely the process of ego formation and the forces that hold ego together. There is widespread consensus in developmental psychology that ego (referring to the individual’s separate center of identity) is not something we are born with, but must be constructed through the process known as socialization. The ego is thus a social construct and is molded, i.e., disciplined, shaped, dressed up, and acknowledged as “one of us,” an insider, a person of value and member of the tribe.Ego Dynamics On the way through this gauntlet of moral engineering, the identity under construction must negotiate two opposing values: to fit in with the group, but at the same time to stand out as an individual. It could be argued that the ego’s need to belong (fit in) precedes and is therefore deeper than its need for recognition (to stand out). But then again, the mere urgency of needing to fit in presupposes some degree of separation or exposure. So I will assume that these two opposing values arise together, forming an inherent tension (and anxiety) in the process and product of socialization known as ego.

In order to fit in and stand out, the ego must be provided with rules and expectations. Every tribe (referring here to any organized and internally engaged human population, beginning with the nuclear family) will have its conventions as to what being “one of us” must look and act like. As the individual toggles back-and-forth between belonging (but without getting buried in anonymity) and recognition (but without losing the connection of human intimacy), ego is trying on various personae or masks.

Each mask represents commitment to a role, and every role is part of a role-play, the elaboration of which is known as culture. In the early years an individual will try on a variety of masks, pretending to be a doctor or nurse, cowboy or Indian, cop or robber, grocery clerk or celebrity fashion model. Through it all, of course, is the felt pressure to be a “good boy” or “good girl” according to the morality of the tribe. Eventually certain masks will become more or less permanent identifiers, as the identity an individual settles on or is stuck with. Typically these demarcate the roles that will involve him or her in such conventional pursuits as marriage, family, and career.

Some masks and the energies they elicit are discouraged by the tribe, as perhaps not appropriate to “who we are” or to the way a good boy or girl should behave. As Carl Jung explained, these roles and their associated inclinations must then be split off and pushed out of sight, in order to ensure the individual’s acceptance by others. This split-off aspect doesn’t just fall away and disappear, however, but lurks behind the ego as its shadow – alluring, scandalous, forbidden, and dangerous. Jung theorized that our full individuation into a whole self is only possible as we are able to come to terms with our shadow and find ways of reconciling it back into our personality. Only then, after integration, balance, and stability have been achieved, can we transcend or go beyond the ego into higher transpersonal experiences.

A primary function of theism, as I’ve said, is to arrange and orient tribal life around an image of ultimate reality, personified and projected as a provident agency behind the mortal realm where we humans live and die. The deity (referring to this personified representation in myth, art, and theology) puts on display, as it were, the attributes that devotees glorify in worship and strive to obey in daily life. In this way, the moral development of culture over the millenniums has followed a trending line of ascent, from basic commitments to the primary group, through an opening-up to outsiders (strangers), and into still more enlightened practices of benevolence and forgiveness (as it concerns the enemy).Ego_Deity_DevilPost-theism urges us to continue this progression, to the point where we have fully incarnated the virtues of our deity – or to put it another way, where the projected image of our own dormant nature is finally reached and awakened in the way we live. At that point we can take up the responsibilities of loving each other, caring for the earth, and being faithful “higher powers” to the generations depending on us. They are just starting out on the adventure of ego-formation, which means that we must be creative mythmakers, wise advisors, and provident stewards of the theism that is shaping them. An important stipulation is that our representation of God (as deity) must be congruent with the cosmology that contemporary science is revealing to us.

But whereas theism might lend a bridge for the longer arc of our spiritual evolution, it is currently hung up on the ego – and hung up by the ego, in the form of deities who are calling for jihads, damning outsiders, and demanding purity over love. God’s shadow, which is the condemned and unacceptable parts of ourselves that have split off and taken metaphysical reality as the devil, is seen at work in liberal politics, in the civil rights of minorities, the decline in church membership, and in the general deviance of our youth.

In the crusade of true believers and fundamentalists against the menacing shadow of evil in the world, “the devil” is actually magnified and empowered. Violence against terrorism only intensifies aggression, just as the state-sanctioned murder of murderers only justifies more murder as a solution to our problem. The split within us thus gets played out as a split down the middle of reality, and in our campaigns to root out and destroy the shadow in our enemy, we are pushing ourselves and everything with us to the verge of extinction.

Ego is not god, but neither is God an ego. The thing that religion seems so desperate to rescue out of the world will bring about the end of the world and take us all down – unless we can wake up first.

 

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The Path to Wholeness

According to the conceptual model that I’ve been developing, the familiar designations of body, ego and soul refer to distinct mental locations, or standpoints in reality. Traditionally, the dualism of body and soul has dominated the conversation, with ego sneaking into the meeting relatively recently. Soul was identified early on as the “true self,” with body its temporary container. Now ego has become another (albeit more psychological than spiritual) name for the soul.

This confusion of terms, along with the tendency in metaphysical realism to make the soul into a “separate thing,” and the tendency in scientific materialism to reduce the soul first to the ego (personality) and then to the body, leaves one to wonder whether re-definitions are even advisable at this point. Perhaps we should simply scrap the traditional vocabulary and move on.

Such frustrations as this are common in transitional periods of culture, when the vocabulary that supported an earlier (but increasingly outdated) worldview is still being pressed into the service of constructing meaning. Of course, archaeologically it is expected that by stepping back into the mind-space of ancient languages we today can reconstruct how earlier cultures saw the world. But we also need to make sense of reality for our time, and we are stepping into a decidedly postmodern period of history.

So in the interest of reinterpreting the traditional terms of body, ego and soul for a relevant postmodern conversation, I am offering this notion of standpoints in reality. Another spin through this vocabulary revision might help put things in perspective.

BESThe diagram to the right is intended to be read from the bottom-up. I’ve arranged it this way to acknowledge the organic and evolutionary nature of the topic under consideration – i.e., what is a human being? Living things tend to grow “up,” which means that human development can be understood as progressing through phases of growth, perhaps even according to specific “stages” of relative completion along the way.

If a stage can be thought of in the spatial sense, as a specific location where one can stand and take a perspective on things (as on a theater stage), then we are very close to my notion of a “standpoint in reality.” Each stage or standpoint (body, ego, soul) provides a unique mental location where a human being engages reality. The present mystery of reality is thus revealed to us as three distinct realms: sensual/nonpersonal, social/interpersonal, and spiritual/transpersonal.

Body is represented in my diagram by a circle, or more accurately a cycle. The body functions as an energy converter, taking up the vibrational oscillations of inorganic (air, water) and organic matter (food), dismantling and re-engineering it into more energetically “open” packages of living cells.

The body’s own biological clock moves through the revolutions of daily activity and nightly rest, and every level deeper into its organic interior is characterized by this same dynamic of cycles. All of this is occurring right now far below conscious awareness or direction, which is why I call it the “unconscious present.”

With an evolutionary history of millions of years, the body is animated by powerful urges and instincts. The very fact that I’m here right now is a credit to the success of these drives and reflexes in my pre-human and human ancestors. It stands to reason that I should be able to trust this animal intelligence for continued evolutionary success – if it weren’t for the additional fact that I’m involved in a tribe.

Ego is represented by a horizontal line moving left-to-right, which stands for the developmental project of constructing an identity – a “one of us.” The tribe must work with the body’s animal nature, in the interest of training and channeling its instinctual energy into behavior that supports (or at least doesn’t interfere with) social order. Sometimes this means working against its urgencies and impulses, putting restraints in place to keep it under control.

This process of imposing restraints, incentives, and permissions on an animal nature in order to shape a self-conscious identity (ego) is summarized in the term “instruction.” The most important part of constructing this “one of us” involves instructing it with the rules and values of our tribe (family, clan, club, culture). This is Nietzsche’s “morality,” and while he didn’t appreciate the way it can frustrate human freedom and stunt human creativity, some such system of constraints is necessary for a peaceful and productive coexistence.

Identity, then, is instructed. All the way from the language we are taught, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with, and the gender we express; from the family and work roles we take on, the degrees or certifications we pursue, and the destinies we chase after – who we are seems to commit us to specific ambitions in life. The judgments and preferences of our tribe gradually become internalized and situate us firmly in the mental location of “us.”

Because ego is a product of past instructions and a project of future ambitions, the present moment is nothing but a vanishing threshold between its twin obsessions. And if early socialization involved neglect, abuse, or repression, then the personality might host a significant “shadow” of insecurity, shame and resentment. The shadow tends to pull the ego into earlier configurations of itself where the personality got hooked or held back.

When the personality gets hooked in this way, ego might compensate – sometimes with considerable assistance from the tribe – by projecting the shadow forward and ahead of itself, into moral crusades against those who express outwardly what it can’t accept in itself. Since the shadow can also include talents ignored or left undiscovered, ego can become a relentless critic of those more courageous and/or successful.

As each of us is aware, the social realm of ego and tribe can be endlessly fascinating. Because dualism – past/future, shadow/mask, self/other, right/wrong, and good/bad – is woven into the very structure of identity itself, an entire lifetime can be spent sorting it all out. A spiritual consequence of this is that the individual may very rarely, if ever, become consciously present to the mystery of reality.

As I said, the present moment is inaccessible to the ego, whose identity is stretched between past (instructions) and future (ambitions). About the only way ego can add value to time is by extending it indefinitely into the future. As its developmental antagonist, the body, is time-bound and mortal, ego took to itself the virtue of everlasting life.

But everlasting life is just “more life, without end.” In order to experience true immortality, the individual must break past ego altogether. In the standpoint named soul, reality is experienced as the timeless ground and always-present universe of being.

The ground invites awareness by an inward path into the depths of being-itself, beneath and prior to the separation of ego. Mindful breathing is a widely practiced meditation technique that brings conscious attention to the softness and gentle rhythms of the body. Drop your concerns, set thoughts aside, let go of “me,” and just sink into this present moment. This is the “narrow gate” – invisible to the ego – that opens to an ineffable and unqualified mystery.

The universe elevates and expands awareness beyond the ego by a different path. Spiraling out, around, and beyond “me” is a wondrous and apparently infinite community of beings. In this moment I am connected to all things, and all things are turned into one (“uni-verse”). It is astonishing just to consider a provident universe, where conditions are just right (at least in this corner of reality) to support the emergence of life and the evolution of consciousness.

Attention itself is a miracle.

In the standpoint of soul, this present moment is all there is. Grounded and connected, ego is transcended and all personal references are left behind. Here and now, I am whole and all is one.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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The Trance

Kierkegaard: “There is an ignorance about one’s own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit.”

Each of us, regardless of our ethnicity, class, sex or education level, is living a lie. Well, maybe not an intentional lie, but at least a good game of “pretend.” We were great at it as kids, dressing up and role-playing adult situations. Then we passed through a phase called adolescence, when adults suddenly became boring, stuffy and oppressive. When the time came and we stepped into our own social responsibilities and long-term relationships, pretending was in again – but now, oddly enough, it’s “the way things really are.”

If we’re not careful, this adult pretense can occupy us for at least a lifetime – some Hindu religions believe it takes several turns of the life-wheel before we even stand a chance of waking up from the trance. In the Christian West, you have one crack at it. If you don’t come to enlightenment before the lights go out, too bad for you. There are no remedial classes.

We’re talking about ego, of course – your personal identity as shaped by experience and social conditioning. You may actually believe that you are a 21st-century, white, middle-class male (oh right, that’s me) who carries a membership card for this club, this party, this denomination. To the degree that you are totally sold-out to these tribal affiliations, you are deceived. And who is deceiving you? Ah, there’s the rub: it’s you. You are being deceived by one part of yourself to believe that you are all that.

Ego links us into a social niche which provides us a role to play and a mask to wear. This is who you are in this circle, we are told, and things will go better for you if you play by the rules. And why wouldn’t we? Acceptance, approval, recognition and respect – all the forces that go into constructing a “good boy/girl,” a “good husband/wife,” a “good Christian/whatever” – seem like worthy pursuits and high standards.

Life in society for the ego is a long line of such identity contracts, each one requiring its own mask and role to play. The longer we’re in the game, the added layers and facets of who we are effectively bury and pull attention away from what we are. Eventually you are the suit you’re wearing. In his interview with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Joseph Campbell cited the Star Wars character Darth Vader as the archetype of a human being who has gotten so wrapped up in his social role, as to lose the capacity for life apart from it.

This is what Kierkegaard means by self-deceit. While the probability increases with the length of time spent in the masquerade of culture and tribal life, this loss of soul through the captivation of ego happens to young and old alike. In fact, much of conventional psychotherapy involves some type of regression work where the client is guided back into childhood when a primary role of victim (abuse), orphan (neglect) or slave (control) was forced on them by their family.

Now as adults they continue to suffer with anxiety and depression in that part of their personality called the “inner child” where issues of trust, intimacy and power are hooked. Their present relationships aren’t working and they can’t seem to break out of the looping scripts and scenarios that so defined their early life – and who they are today.

While conventional psychotherapy works on the horizontal time-line of the client’s life story, there is another axis that intersects this one: the vertical present. At any moment, the realization can dawn that “I am not the roles I have been given or that have been forced on me; right now I am free to be my authentic self.”

Variously called enlightenment, revelation, or disillusionment – depending on the degree of pain involved in dis-identifying with the suit/mask/role – such experiences are truly transforming. They are not about working with or around the developmental hang-ups of ego, but rather opening up to the deeper resource of the client’s spiritual life (soul).

In the meantime, barring any disturbances, your ego can carry on, fully entranced and sufficiently self-deceived. Kierkegaard was fairly notorious for his attempts to shock his fellow citizens out of their zombie state, as when he cut his pants at mid-calf and walked the town. Egads! Sometimes just a small change-up can be enough to make people look twice and start to wonder. He wasn’t trying to throw social fashion into an upheaval, but to creatively remind us that our social identities are chosen and put on every day.

Here’s a way of looking at it. Reality is a swirling, dynamic and ineffable mystery that supports your existence in each passing moment. Your world is a construction of meaning, spun and stretched across the abyss like a spider’s web. A good part of it – think of the radial strands that anchor this web-world and give it stability – is the work of your tribe, culture and race. These are the “big ideas” and “ultimate concerns” for which generations of your ancestors have lived and died. Now it’s your turn.

But occupying the web of meaning requires that you step in at specific “locations,” and these are your principal roles. Your roles link you to other players in the web, and communication between roles generates and sustains the shared world of society. In a particular role you have several energy-masks you are allowed to wear, each one serving as a filter for self-expression and social attachment.  The number of masks (think of these as moods or modes of interaction) defines the range of identity you are permitted in a given relationship or scenario. Playing by the rules is very important at this level, and your tribe enforces a moral code intended to keep everyone in line. So far, so good.

Now just play this whole thing in reverse – from relational masks to social roles to tribal rules and finally to the general picture we have of “the way things really are” (our shared world) – and you can get a sense for how entrancing it all is. You may believe that you have absolute freedom to be who you are (and this is part of the illusion), but each mask is ultimately tied into a cultural worldview which is generations or centuries deep.

Yes, the mythological god has a critical role to play in all of this as well. But notice, culture has given the grand architect and moral supervisor of the universe only a limited number of masks to wear. It’s all very well managed.

… until someone wakes up from the trance.

 

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