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Out of Depression

The most significant accomplishment for any human being is to become fully human.

That may sound redundant to some, and like a downgrade to others, but those who are most in touch with the human adventure have long insisted that we are still a long way from the evolutionary ideal of our species. And they’ve been saying this for a few thousand years.

By evolutionary ideal they mean something akin to what the philosopher Aristotle named “entelechy,” the intrinsic aim of development which is evident in all living things. With every species of life above the microbes, an individual’s development advances to maturity through formal stages and transitional phases of growth. Reaching maturity involves more than just getting bigger, of course, as numerous capacities for survival, self-control, reproduction, intelligence, creativity, and self-awareness gradually awaken and come “online.”

Our human “growth chart” tracks four distinct kinds of intelligence:

  • a visceral intelligence (VQ) that regulates the internal state and health of our body
  • an emotional intelligence (EQ) that manages our engagement with the changing situations of life
  • a rational intelligence (RQ) that constructs and regularly refreshes our model of reality, and
  • a spiritual intelligence (SQ) that orients us within the unity of existence and grounds us in being

That last one, our spiritual intelligence, is also the last to come online in a fully conscious way – if it comes online at all. Its awakening depends on the successful development of the others, for they are needed to provide the steady platform of a self-conscious identity (ego), from which we might leap into the unity of existence or drop into the ground of being.

The tragedy of our human experience, then, is tightly bound to the question of how well-established we are as self-conscious (and self-aware) individuals.

My diagram illustrates the dual-yet-complementary trajectories of successful development, in the self-actualization of our human nature and our self-transcendence into the higher wholeness of things: fulfillment and wellbeing. According to the special “language” of our soul (SQ), this duality is paradoxical – both/and, yin and yang, not separate things coming together but an essential polarity manifesting “the Tao that cannot be named” (Lao Tzu).

Whether we are speaking of the actualization or transcendence of self, a healthy formation of ego is critical to our spiritual fulfillment and wellbeing.

Let’s follow this dual trajectory without consideration of any complications, impediments, or failures it will ordinarily confront along the way. Only with such an abstract and depersonalized picture in mind, can we see with accuracy what unfolds inevitably for all of us.

Consciousness begins life fully immersed in the visceral intelligence of our animal nature. The urgencies of survival (breathing, ingesting, excreting, sleeping) are all that matters. Even into the first months and years of life, our primary concern – although this is almost entirely unconscious – is with getting what we need to stay alive and safe. Attentive and provident caretakers enabled our nervous system to settle into a baseline default mode called security: We have what we need to live, to love, and to grow.

This baseline security served as the “solid ground,” emotionally speaking, from which we could reach out, explore, and connect to the reality outside our skin. A literally sensational realm of delights and dangers quickly synced up with our primal sensitivities to pleasure and pain, shaping our behavior along a path of general good feeling, or happiness.

At this stage of development our emotional intelligence was forming memories and making connections that supported a positive sense of self and an optimistic outlook on life.

With a neurotically stable (VQ) and emotionally balanced (EQ) identity-in-formation, we were enabled to construct a mental model of reality that would further support our intellectual need for orientation and meaning. Our rational intelligence (RQ) is free to do this all-important and uniquely human work of making meaning only by virtue of the emotional balance provided from below. And with all three of these distinct threads of intelligence fully aligned, the beliefs we hold and the world they compose can be flexible, reality-oriented, and always open to update.

A truly meaningful world is one that encourages forays into the present mystery of reality, which is by defintion beyond belief and perfectly meaningless.

Such positive and healthy development, whether aided or impeded by the temporal conditions of our unique family history and social situation, is impelled by the “entelechy” of our evolutionary ideal as a human being. Much in the way we might say that an apple tree, by its nature, intends to produce apples, there is a similar intention in our own nature towards fulfillment and wellbeing, to actualize our full potential and transcend ourselves for a higher wholeness.

Each of us should be able to put a pin on the growth chart identifying where we are along this dual trajectory of human evolution. Just before we do that, however, let’s do a reality check. I earlier acknowledged that things don’t always go so well.

To be honest, I think we need to admit that they never go without a hitch – and that’s true of anyone who has ever lived.

While our visceral intelligence drives us to seek security, where we have enough of what we need to be safe, healthy, and strong, our taller powers and family environment might have been far from provident. Instead of a default state of security, our nervous system was calibrated to these unfavorable conditions in what we know as anxiety. Relaxing into our life just wasn’t an option. A chronic vigilance, nervous tension, and a deep distrust in reality became our basic mode of consciousness.

When anxiety (VQ) is taken up with us to the level of relationships and social interactions, we try desperately to manipulate others into making us feel secure. We latch on and grip down emotionally (EQ), begging or warning them not to leave us or let us down. Whereas our emotional intelligence ought to be connecting us in healthy bonds of intimacy and affiliation, instead it gets entangled in neurotic attachment.

For all the manipulation it requires, and with the unavoidable conflict it generates, any relationship forged around insecure attachment simply cannot support the happiness we seek.

And to the degree we are locked inside dysfunctional relationships, hanging on with our last hope, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us are correspondingly small, rigid, and unrealistic. When a belief we may once have held comes instead to take our mind hostage, it becomes a conviction. It is now the “only way” of seeing something, the absolute and unquestionable truth of the matter. Our rational intelligence (RQ), which would normally build and routinely revise its model of reality, has been made a prisoner (a convict) of its own invention.

If we happen to be caught in that self-reinforcing conspiracy of anxiety, attachment, and conviction – which, if you’ve been with me so far, can rightly be named the “spiritual pathology” of our species – there is one place it will predictably lead: depression.

On the way there, we are likely to cause or contribute to all kinds of damage, suffering, and violence; but that is where we are headed. Very aptly described, depression (a condition of being “pressed down” or made low) is where the human spirit languishes and may eventually die.

In that low place we feel hapless (“this is happening to me”), helpless (“there is nothing I can do”), and hopeless (“there’s no way out or through”).

But of course there is a way through, and it begins as we get grounded again and find our center.

 

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Talking To Ourselves

For the past 100 years or so, we’ve been coming to terms with the idea that the meaning of life, the world we inhabit, and we ourselves are constructs of language. Not long ago we believed that meaning was “out there” to be discovered in external reality, like a hidden treasure buried in the nature of things, perhaps by god himself. Then, as we came to accept our mind’s role in the assignment of meaning, we began to realize that the world we live in – that peculiar arrangement of meaning which provides us with a sense of security, identity, orientation, and significance – is really a complex system of symbols and hence also a mental construct.

Most recently, although this is only true of Western culture, as India and the Orient came to the insight long ago, we are trying to adjust ourselves to the idea that even the separate center of self-conscious personal identity – dignified with the Latin name “ego” – is nothing but an aggregate, a composition in both senses of that word.

It is “made up” of analyzable elements, each of these also a construct, which are together composed into a streaming narrative that is our personal myth. In contemporary Western philosophy and psychology this general epistemology (theory of knowledge) is known as constructivism. In the East it is called Maya: the constructed illusion of meaning, world, and self.

In this post I want to make quick work of personalizing this rather abstract theory by dismantling the box that defines our sense of self. I find it helpful to think of these elements, four of them, as fused together like lines at right angles and forming a rectangle: our box. Our individual box is meant to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs for security, identity, orientation, and significance, as already mentioned. It provides us with location and perspective, a kind of psychological shelter but also with a lookout on reality.

Let’s take those elements, or sides of our box, and examine them more closely.

Visually, and developmentally, at the base of our self construct are the anchors that secured our deepest connection to reality as infants and young children. The maternal (M) and paternal (P) archetypes manifested in degrees of clarity through the forms of our actual mother and father.

Freud built a good deal of his psychoanalytic theory around our relationships with these two principal “taller powers” of early life. But their appreciation as archetypes (literally “first forms”) goes back thousands of years into the ancient art of storytelling.

Sacred myths of every culture are rooted in the maternal and paternal archetypes, representing our most distant memories and primal experiences.

According to archetypal psychology, these two archetypes carry echoes of our first encounters with a maternal figure who enveloped us in her warm love and made us feel safe; and a paternal figure who first encountered us as “Other” and provided for us from outside the boundary of our nascent self.

Father came to us, whereas we came from Mother.

Our development would be a dramatic adventure of gradual separation from Mother and fascination with Father, as we began to take on an identity of our own. Our present capacity for intimacy as adults traces back to those early intimate bonds with Mother and Father.

This is not to say that everyone’s actual father and mother were clear epiphanies of the maternal and paternal archetypes. Some of us grew up without one or the other in our life, in which case our one active parent had to serve as our generative Ground and transcendent Other. Some of us were raised by preoccupied, distracted, neglectful, controlling or abusive parents, which made our quest for intimacy all the more complicated. Nevertheless, and whoever served as anchors in our early life – whether as biological, adoptive, or surrogate parents to us – these elementary figures negotiated the bonds of intimacy that would qualify or compromise all our relationships henceforth.

Unavoidably in contemplating the maternal and paternal archetypes, we will recognize certain stereotypes in the roles our parents might have played during those first years. We’ve already identified the maternal archetype with warmth, love, and safety; and the paternal archetype with a provident otherness that “called us out,” as it were.

The maternal and paternal archetypes are taken up by society and played out by actual mothers and fathers, in different parenting “styles.” I want to focus specifically on interactions we had with our mother or father during more stressful experiences where we were challenged beyond our ability or lost our nerve at the edge of security, and we somehow failed. How each parent acknowledged our failure, and actually talked to us about the experience and our feelings, was in the form of “resolutions” intended to help us recover and move on.

I will identify three stereotypical resolutions with each archetype.


Our mother, manifesting the maternal archetype, characteristically took us in her arms and spoke these three Resolutions of Comfort:

  1. It’s okay.
  2. Let it go.
  3. Just relax.

Essentially she was saying that our failure wasn’t such a big deal, and that our feelings mattered more. Her intention was to ease our pain, take our attention away from the negative experience, and assure us of her unconditional love.


Our father, manifesting the paternal archetype, characteristically approached and called out to us these three Resolutions of Encouragement:

  1. Brush it off.
  2. Face your fear.
  3. Try again.

In a way, he was also telling us that our failure (in effort or of nerve) was not the end of the world. His intention was to rouse our determination, turn our attention again to the challenge, and urge us back for another attempt.


Both comfort and encouragement are “strength” words. Comfort literally means “to come with strength,” as in one who joins us in our suffering and offers support. Encouragement means “to give (or put in) heart,” which is what we most need when we have lost our passion, will, hope or desire (associated in many cultures with the heart). In speaking these Resolutions of Comfort and Encouragement to us, our mother and father were, in different ways, building the foundation of our self construct.

Over time, these same resolutions were gradually internalized by us, so that, in later life experiences of failure and insecurity, we could remember them (i.e., speak them to ourselves) and move past our pain. They became habits that carried us through life, shaped our values and beliefs, and provided inspiration for our roles in relationship with others.

Our box is complete.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Deconstructing Yourself

One important application of the idea that meaning is constructed by our minds and not discovered in reality is in the way it forces us to see ourselves in our constructions. The meaning we put together and project onto things is itself a symptom of our deeper insights, aspirations, ignorance, and insecurities. Our product reveals (and exposes) us as its creator: as Jesus said, You will know the tree by its fruit.

For each of us, the most pressing and significant construction project is the construct of who we are.

A constructivist psychology regards personal identity as something we piece together and put on, and it’s not a coincidence that our very word person derives from the Greek name for the mask an actor wore on stage in characterizing a role. We get our start as sentient animals, and over time we, by the instruction, support, and occasional interference of our tribe, construct a personal identity which allows us to participate in the various role plays of society.

So, as with every other artifact of meaning we construct, it stands to reason that we should be able to deconstruct the person we’ve been playing on stage and mulling over in the privacy of our dressing room.

Because we have pieced it together over time – or to use a different metaphor, since we have weaved this sense of who we are from threads provided to us or spun ourselves – we can also (if we so choose) delineate the pieces and unravel the strands in pursuit of a radical self-understanding.

Such an endeavor is not for everyone. Many of us have installed a system of secrets, defenses, and illusions in order to maintain our identity as singular individuals, a kind of absolute and immortal unit impervious to analysis. To a person, as we might say, these individuals are working hard to hold it together, and they are afraid of learning what they’re really made of, as they are of coming apart to nothing.

But as the spiritual wisdom traditions attest, coming apart to nothing is actually the path of liberation to life in its fullness.

My diagram should be seen at the broadest level as a ‘T’ design, with a vertical line joined to a horizontal line at its bisected point. The horizontal line represents time, while the vertical line is structure. In what follows we will commence a deconstruction of personal identity, and you can take it as personally as you dare.


At the joint of time and structure is the executive center of personality known intimately as ego, or “I-myself.” To the left, corresponding to the past, are the multiple strands going into the weave of this narrative construct of identity, the persisting form of which is called character. The farther back in time you might try to follow this narrative braid, the looser its weave becomes until the strands separate and trail off into the mists of amnesia.

It’s important to understand that this fixed number of threads – think of them as minor storylines – does not exhaust the possibilities but only comprises a selection of memories and imaginings used in the construction of “my past.” The longer weave of these minor storylines constitutes your personal myth (Greek for “plot”) – the grand story and heroic adventure defining who you are.

A familiar anecdote implicates character with destiny, acknowledging how your view of the future as well as the choices that co-determine your fate are in large part projections through this persistent habit of personal identity. Just as with the past, then, the future is really just “my future,” or the view of what’s ahead (so to speak) as determined by your past experiences and present beliefs.

With that we will turn 90° and make our descent along the vertical line in my diagram.


The first layer in the structure of identity – not first or earliest in the sequence of time, but most recent and closest to the surface – consists of those core beliefs by which you apprehend yourself, other people, life in general, and existence itself. A belief is more or less rational, even if not always or very often reasonable or realistic.

In addition to its rational element, a belief carries an emotional commitment – a will and passion to take as true something that isn’t obviously so.

Radical constructivism regards any and all beliefs as closures around a mystery too fluid and elusive to fully define. Words are only labels, propositions mere mental buckets you dip into the living stream, and the conclusions you draw out are curiously bucket-shaped, though you rarely give it a second thought. When it comes to your core beliefs, referring to those judgments by which you lock and stitch together the storylines of personal identity, the conclusions are so close to you, so much a part of who you are, that you can’t see the difference.

Every one of your core beliefs – about “my self,” other people, and everything else – represents an emotional investment in a judgment about the way it is; or better, about the way you need it to be.

The question of why you need it to be that way brings us to a deeper layer in the structure of identity. Those beliefs, remember, are only conclusions to a process transpiring farther below (and back in time). With each deeper layer you engage a more primitive, older and more basic, set of forces in the construct of self.

What I name neurotic styles are six adaptive strategies by which every young child negotiates the landscape of family dysfunction in order to satisfy four subjective needs. Later in life as an adult you continue to carry your personal favorites in that complex of emotional intelligence called your Inner Child. When you get poked or hooked, or when you become stressed and exhausted, your adult controls on behavior can fall offline and your neurotic styles take over.

A quick review of those subjective needs will help you, in coming back up, better understand your personal neurotic styles.

Every child has a need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – arising developmentally in that order. In identifying the satisfaction of these needs as a feeling, quite independent of whether it is a fact, I am qualifying what I mean by calling them subjective needs. Your reality was that the early environment of life was not perfectly safe or unconditionally loving, for no family circle is or can be. As a consequence you did your best to find satisfaction for each subjective need in the one higher up and next in line.

Thus your need to feel loved was complicated by an unmet need to feel safe, and so you attached yourself to others with the expectation that they make you feel both.

It is at this threshold, between your need to feel safe and loved (the security needs) and your need to feel capable and worthy (the esteem needs), that your neurotic styles were formed. As an adaptive strategy, each neurotic style is a power stratagem (a kind of ruse or trick) employed for the purpose of getting what you want; most basically, to feel safe and loved.

Even when you applied your will to achievements beyond the immediate goal of feeling loved (and presumably safe), the validation of your worth in accomplishment still depended on being recognized, praised, and admired (i.e., loved) by others.

The six neurotic styles that play out these power stratagems for security are listed and briefly defined below.

  1. The Worrywart (phobic-avoidant): running away or staying clear of risk and danger
  2. The Fixator (obsessive-compulsive): spending nervous energy in trivial repetitive tasks
  3. The Recluse (passive-depressive): giving up, withdrawing, and waiting for help
  4. The Hothead (explosive-aggressive): intimidating others by angry outbursts
  5. The Fanatic (manic-obsessive): glorifying one thing as the answer to everything
  6. The Saboteur (passive-aggressive): working indirectly to undermine another’s success

One last step down into the structure of identity brings us to the registry of your nervous system, where the feelings of being un/safe, un/loved, in/capable, and un/worthy either allow you to relax in faith and trust, or else cause you to clutch up in anxiety and distrust.

From here your body’s internal state will either invite or impede a deeper descent of awareness into what I name the grounding mystery.

Passing into this deep grounding mystery is only possible to the degree you have released the construct of identity, getting over yourself and dropping the drama of being somebody for the sake of resting quietly, and anonymously, in Being itself.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2018 in Philosophical Underpinnings

 

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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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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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What’s Holding You Back?

security_self-esteem_fulfillmentIn recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of self-esteem. Our children will grow into unhappy adults unless we can build up their sense of specialness and unique importance. Young people should believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and that nobody has a right to get in their way. What this self-esteem campaign has produced is a generation of entitled and self-absorbed consumers. Whining, deserving, litigious little brats.

Okay, not all young people are this way, and it’s not just young people who are stuck on themselves. To some degree I am stuck as well, and so are you.

What might be an unimpeded path to the actualization of our true potential as human beings becomes instead an obstacle course where our time and energy are tied up with something much smaller, and much, much less important. As with all living things that develop according to a genetic ideal encoded in their DNA, human beings are destined to grow into maturity and express the essential nature of our species.

This developmental achievement is what I call fulfillment, which is not exactly the same as happiness or positive self-esteem, although these are highly correlated. When our progress to maturity is frustrated – blocked, undermined, or snagged – a fixation on being happy (or less unhappy) and admired (or at least respected) can drive us deeper into suffering. Critics of the term fulfillment tend to confuse it with a self-focused aim in life where the only outcome that matters is personal pleasure, success, and glory. But that’s not how I’m using it.

Again, our fulfillment as human beings is what comes about when our individual talents, creative intelligence, and deeper potential are actualized – discovered, expressed, and allowed to flourish.

To understand why so many of us don’t make it there, and what might be personally holding us back, we need to move our attention to where it all starts. At the other end of this developmental and evolutionary time-line is our primal need to know that reality is provident. This knowledge is not a conceptual understanding but instead plants itself in the basic workings of our nervous system.

From even before we were born, our brain and nervous system were picking up critical information from the environment and matching these with our body’s internal state. Survival was the primary concern, which meant that our baseline internal state needed to match those conditions so as to optimize our chances to live.

An impoverished, unstable, or hostile environment triggered our nervous system to assume a more vigilant baseline state, which turned up our sensitivity and decreased our reaction time to any sign of threat or danger. For some of us, this sensitivity was set so high as to keep us in a chronic state of anxiety. Most of us, however, were fortunate enough to have gotten what we needed not only to survive but to be fairly healthy and well-adjusted. But none of us came through the gauntlet of those prenatal, neonatal, and early childhood stages of life without some insecurity – not one of us.

It was this universal human anxiety that motivated our attachment: first to mother and other caregivers, then to pacifiers and favorite toys; later to friends, romantic interests, material possessions and titles of social influence. 

These attachments served to calm us down by giving us something to cling to, and we identified with them so closely that they became part of who we are. As we grew older, we simply ‘traded up’ from infantile attachments to juvenile attachments to adolescent attachments to adult attachments, but their value as anchors of security and extensions of our identity remained functionally unchanged.

The process of ego development, then, is deeply entangled with this dynamic of insecurity pacified by attachment, and the gradual construction of identity through our identification with whatever helps us feel better about ourselves. The self-esteem movement arose at a time when cultural change and uncertainty compelled many parents, teachers, coaches, and therapists to pacify us with whatever toys, accommodations, trophies, or pharmaceuticals we needed. We were the center of their attention, the consumer of all their best efforts.

We didn’t mind at all having these treasures laid at our feet, and it wasn’t long before we came to feel that we deserved it – and more!

As I said, attachment is inherent to the process of identity-formation. All of us have some insecurity over whether reality is sufficient to our needs. Is there enough of this? Will there be enough of that? Am I good enough to be loved? Will you leave me if I’m not enough for you? What if this new partner isn’t a perfect match, the next prize is less satisfying, or your promise to me doesn’t come true?

Our obsession with security, self-esteem, and looking for happiness in something, someone, or somewhere else, has us trapped in the rocks of our own altar. Each stone in our altar is an attachment we feel we can’t live without. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are. Worse yet, without this or that attachment in the construct of our identity we would succumb to meaninglessness and anxiety.

Because identity is the product of identifying with something or someone else, and because the ego looking out from this unique composition of attachments is so idolized in society and popular religion, we are entombed inside the altar of self-esteem.

Ego is everything. Or at least it’s the only thing that really matters.

Breaking free is a matter of getting over ourselves, finally realizing that our identity is nothing more than a confabulation of attachments and the outlook on reality we have from here. Everything is reduced to the frame of our convictions, filtered according to the prejudices and ambitions that define us. Once we see that, the moment when our disillusionment really sets in, is the breaking of a spell, the apocalyptic end of our world as we knew it.

Inevitably we find ourselves on the near edge of a depression, a deep hole that threatens to pull us in. If we should struggle to throw the covers back over our head and return to the trance of who we were, we likely will fall into profound anhedonia – the inability to find any pleasure, happiness, or meaning in life. We are hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it.

Wait! Maybe ______ can save me. I deserve to be saved, don’t I?

The spiritual wisdom teachings across higher cultures invite us to take a second look at this dreaded depression, whereupon we will notice that it is actually filled with water. We don’t have to fall helplessly to the bottom of a hole, for this water will bear us up and deliver us to the far shore. All we need to do is let go of who we think we are, release all attachments, and simply trust the process – or as we say, go with the flow.

In that instant we will be on the farther shore, now the starting point of a new beginning – apocalypse, resurrection, and genesis all in one.

Finally free of attachments, our relationships can become healthy; or maybe we accept the fact that we need to leave some of them behind. We take creative authority and start making choices with a much bigger picture in mind. We become more fully human as we relax into being. The deeper truth of what we are comes through, and we live it out with honesty, courage, and loving-kindness.

“The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus, “is a human being, fully alive.”

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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One Life

ego-estrangementEach of us lives inside a box where things make sense, we feel we belong, and the meaning of life is managed. We got here through a long process of socialization as our tribe shaped us into a proper member. Our identity may seem more substantial than that, but actually who I am and who you are is a social construction that has absolutely no validity outside our box. Identity and membership always go together.

Our experience inside the box has both an objective dimension, referred to as our world, and a subjective dimension, affectionately known as our self. Each of us has a self and a world, and our separate worlds periodically click together and overlap in places where our perspectives on reality are in agreement. We also disagree at times, and our disagreements can turn into conflicts – even violent conflicts as we strive to keep our different worlds intact. If my world should lose its credibility, my self is also in jeopardy since each is implied in the other.

Self is my centered experience of having an identity. Everything that is unique to who I am – my fantasies, insecurities, and ambitions; my personal myth (i.e., the story of who I am), secret aspirations, and the records I keep on those who owe me something or deserve a favor – is kept in this inner room of mirrors.

Objectively my world is not boundless, for that would imply it has no closure, and meaning requires closure. Meaning is contained and defined inside a world horizon, and anything beyond my horizon of meaning is meaningless – at least to me, and I’m the only one that really matters. (Of course you do, too, inside your world.)

Try to imagine your box, my box, and the almost countless number of other boxes that comprise the mosaic of culture: each of us trying desperately to defend our ‘truth space’ as we stay connected to (or try to avoid) the others. There’s no denying that we need each other, and that the great project of human culture somehow depends on our ability to get along, but managing the meaning of life is demanding work!

If we were fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family where we could develop our talents and potential and were positively assisted toward the achievement of ego strength, then the transpersonal experiences of communion (an inward mystical path to the grounding mystery) and community (an outward ethical path to the turning mystery) opened us to present reality outside our box. Such experiences are not about enlarging our box or magnifying the meaning of life, but instead they engage us with a present mystery that is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect). It very simply is.

It’s not about “my” security, identity, or significance at this point. Whether it comes to us as a rational observation or a mystical intuition, we are spontaneously aware that All is One; or as an ethical realization, that We’re All in This Together. I am grounded in being itself, a manifestation of the provident universe, and a participant in the higher wholeness of all things. Healthy religion has the purpose of bringing us to this position of centered strength (or personal integrity) so that we can drop inwardly or leap outwardly into the One Life.

I have to insert that qualifier “healthy” in acknowledgement of the fact that religion can also interfere with our progress to the transpersonal mystery of holy oneness. This happens when religion gets hijacked by leaders and other influencers who have failed to progress in their own psychospiritual development. Their insecurities, attachments, ambitions, and convictions have them locked inside a box that, for them, is the way – the one and only way of salvation. Yet it’s not a way at all, but a cul-de-sac, a spiritual death trap, a closed and rigid box.

When religion ordains and institutionalizes the arrested development of such individuals, eventually the orthodox portrait of deity gets twisted and corrupted into a projection of their neurotic personalities. Others under their leadership and influence contract this same sickness, and the entire company can spin into dogmatism, bigotry, violent aggression, or even suicide.

If this sounds like a description of the way things are in the Big Box of our global situation, then we have some insight both into how we got here and where the path of liberation leads. You should know, also, that there are many thousands of others who are presently waking up to the One Life all around our planet, and their percentage of the human population is steadily growing. Perhaps you and I can be instrumental in accelerating the process of awakening, by understanding its unfolding in ourselves and serving its advent in others around us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the current pathology, and then remind ourselves of the way out.

Paul Tillich was one of the most important Christian theologians of the twentieth century, and his one-word assessment of our human condition (in this stuck, sick, and fallen sense) was that we are estranged from ultimate reality, which he named being-itself or the ground of being. Estrangement is defined as the state of being removed or kept at a distance, as in the case where an individual is estranged from his or her family. Along with this separation, then, are attitudes and feelings of distrust, condemnation, shame, and hostility.

Tillich wasn’t implying that human beings are condemned by a god, but that our ‘fall’ into a separate ego has infected our general outlook on reality as something set apart and over-against us, menacing and unfriendly.

This anxious outlook on reality can take hold of a religion, as I mentioned above, but religion isn’t its only victim. Other cultural institutions, most crucially the family where the shaping of our personal identity begins, are also taken over. Whereas the gradual differentiation of a separate identity would normally lead to a stable, balanced, and unified personality under the executive management of a healthy ego, when this process isn’t conducted by a caring and supportive community, our insecurity overwhelms us and we shrink our box to stay safe and in control.

In my diagram above, estrangement is connected with two other terms which correspond to the self and world dimensions of personal identity. The fallen condition of estrangement (pathologically separate from reality) is felt internally as emptiness. Synonyms might be discontent, insatiable craving, and the belief that we are deficient or profoundly defective. Externally we are confronted by absurdity, by the nature of reality as ‘absolutely mute’ – indifferent to our needs, unresponsive, cold and uncaring. Tillich believed that the modern era could be characterized as suffering from a spiritual malady of meaninglessness (as earlier eras had struggled with guilt or death).

The condition of estrangement, then, signals our abrupt removal from unity consciousness – from both the grounding mystery within (instead, we are empty inside) and the turning mystery beyond (instead, the cosmos is absurd). This is when we are especially susceptible to religions that promise to save us from this world and reward us with life everlasting.

Where is our true liberation, then? Not in an other-worldly paradise of some kind – although even in this mythological image there is a kernel of insight, since what we seek is engagement with the present mystery of reality, which awaits us outside our box and on the other side of meaning.

 

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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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