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The Three Stages of Consciousness

In this post I want to play with a big backgrounding idea that’s been shaping my thoughts on human nature and creative change for some time now. It’s about consciousness and how our human evolution and individual development can be understood as progressing through three distinct stages.

I’m using this term in both its temporal and spatial connotations: as a relatively stable period in the process of growth and change, and as a kind of platform from which a distinct perspective is taken on reality.

The best way I know to clarify these three stages of consciousness is by appealing to our own individual experience. Each of us is somewhere on the path to what I call human fulfillment, to a fully self-actualized expression of our human nature. And from this particular stage on the path, we engage with reality and experience life in a distinctive way.

This is the “hero’s journey” featured so prominently in world mythology, classical literature, and contemporary cinema. The “truth” of such stories is less about their basis in plain fact than the degree in which we find ourselves reflected in their grounding metaphors and archetypal events.

Our Great Work is to become fully human, and the one thing complicating this work is the requirement on each of us that we accept responsibility in making our story “come true.”

Let’s name the three stages of consciousness first, and then spend more time with each one. I call these stages Animal Faith, Ego Strength, and Creative Authority, and they appear in precisely that order over the course of our lifetime – assuming things go by design. But keeping in mind the spatial meaning of “stage,” I want to point out that each earlier stage persists as a platform in the evolving architecture of consciousness where we can go for the unique perspective on reality it offers.

Animal Faith is a stage of consciousness anchored in the nervous system and internal state of our body (i.e., our animal nature). From very early on, our brain and its nervous system was busy collecting sensory information from the environment in order to set a matching baseline internal state that would be most adaptive to our circumstances.

If the womb and family environments of our early life were sufficiently provident – meaning safe, supportive, and enriched with what we needed for healthy development – our internal state was calibrated to be calm, relaxed, open and receptive.

This ability to rest back into a provident reality is Animal Faith, where faith is to be understood according to its etymological root meaning “to trust.”

As our deepest stage of consciousness, Animal Faith is foundational to everything else in our life: our experience in the moment, our manner of connecting with others and the world around us, as well as to our personal worldview.

With an adequate Animal Faith, our personality had a stable nervous state on which to grow and develop. This stable internal foundation allowed for a healthy balance of moods and emotions, which in turn facilitated our gradual individuation into a unified sense of self, the sense of ourself as an individual ego (Latin for “I”).

When these three marks of healthy personality development are present – stable, balanced, and unified – we have reached the stage of consciousness known as Ego Strength. From this stage we are able to engage with others and the world around us with the understanding that we are one of many, and that we participate in a shared reality together.

By this time also, a lot of effort has been invested by our family and tribe in shaping our identity to the general role-play of society. We are expected to behave ourselves, wait our turn, share our toys, clean up when we’re done, and be helpful to others, just as we would want others to do for us.

Our identity in the role-play of society, the role-play itself and its collective world of meaning – all of it is a construct of human language and shared beliefs. Meaning, that is to say, is not found in reality but projected by our minds and sustained only by the stories we recite and enact.

Positive Ego Strength is intended to serve as a launch point for such transcendent experiences as selfless love, creative freedom, contemplative inner peace, joyful gratitude, and genuine community. Without it we would not have the requisite fortitude and self-confidence to leap beyond our separate identity and into the higher wholeness implied in each the experiences just mentioned.

I name this stage of consciousness Creative Authority because it is where we become aware that we have full authorial rights over the story we are telling – of the story we are living out. In Creative Authority we realize that each moment offers the opportunity to choose whether we will be fully present, mindfully engaged, and creatively involved in our life’s unfolding. If we want a meaningful life, then we need to make it meaningful by telling stories – maybe new stories – that heal, redeem, reconcile, sanctify and transform our world into the New Reality we want to see.

The liberated life thrives up here on the stage of Creative Authority, in the realization that the world is composed of stories, that our beliefs condense like raindrops out of the stories we hold and tell, and that we can tell better stories if we so choose.

Reality looks very different depending on whether we’re taking our perspective from the stage of Ego Strength where our separate identity is the fixed center around which everything turns, or if we are looking out from a vantage point “whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (quoted by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By and taken from a 12th-century meditation entitled The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers).

The shift requires a breaking-free and transcendence of who we think we are, as well as a surrender of all that is “me and mine.” It is at the heart of the Buddha’s dharma, Jesus’ gospel, King’s Dream and every other New Story about humanity’s higher calling. The essential message is that the fulfillment of what we are as human beings is beyond who we think we are as separate identities in pursuit of what will make us happy.

To rise into that resurrected space of the liberated life we have to die to the small, separate self we spend so much of our life defining and defending.

That’s the Hero’s Journey each of us is on: Learning to release our life in trust to a provident reality; coming into ourself as a unique individual on our own sacred journey; and at last breaking past this stage in the realization that All is One, everything belongs, and that this timeless moment is too holy for words.

 

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Getting Off

Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.

The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.

If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.

This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.

Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.

It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?

The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.

On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.

In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.

Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.

In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.

When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?

But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.

So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!

Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.

Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.

What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.

Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).

Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.

The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.

Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.

This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.

While spirituality is the art of getting off.

 

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More Than You Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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The Heart and Hope of Democracy

Let’s begin this meditation on the heart and hope of democracy with you identifying yourself with either the Blue or Red sphere in the diagram above. Then let’s pretend that all of your life you’ve been training to be the best Blue or Red you can be. From an early age your tribe was actively shaping and colorizing you, giving you careful instructions, applying timely discipline, and downloading all the necessary codes that would eventually get you to the point where, today, you don’t regard Blue or Red as one option among two (or many) but as who you are.

Beyond that, Blue or Red is also how you see the world around you. The meaning of things and the issues that grab your attention hold a strong correspondence to the perceptual filter of your identity. Blue or Red concerns just feel more important to you, and you make friends more easily with other Blues or Reds. Having the same values and beliefs about the world helps your conversations stay in tracks that are familiar and predictable.

If you are Blue, then those Reds are way off base. If you’re Red, then those Blues have no clue what’s going on.

Being sure of your identity as Blue or Red, you are vigilant to keep reddish or bluish tendencies in check. In fact, quite often it’s easier to determine where you stand on something by checking out the other color and then taking the opposite position. If your tribe has done its job and you remain strong in your convictions, the separation between you might as well be another feature of reality itself. You are Blue or you are Red, and they are way over there, outsiders to the one and true way of being in the world.

Democracy will always be challenged by the duality of opposites.

Blues and Reds might relish the fantasy of living out their days in a land exclusively Blue or Red, where everyone believes and behaves the same way – the right way, their way. But such a fantasy amounts to nothing more than what Joseph Campbell called a “utopiate”: a utopia or “no place” in the imagined future that sedates the mind like opium and keeps consciousness, now in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

As long as Blues and Reds see color as essential to the nature of what and who they are, ideology will continue to be mistaken for reality.

Indeed, living in a fantasy is not far from a true description of what’s going on for you as a Blue or Red. A better word perhaps might be trance, seeing as how your identity, beliefs, values and way of life were “put on you” starting at a very early age, like someone put under a spell by a hypnotist. We could justifiably call this entranced state “separation consciousness,” since its principal effect is in convincing you that you and that Red or Blue over there are entirely separate and have absolutely nothing in common.

Now, I’m not suggesting that who you are and what you believe are meaningless, for clearly they mean everything to you.

However, if we pause to consider how the meaning of anything is not found in the thing itself – Where exactly is the meaning of a flower or a star? – but is rather put on it by our mind, usually in agreement with other minds, then the notion of meaning as a spell and belief as a kind of trance might start to make more sense.

As long as Blues honor and respect only other Blues and bluish values, and as long as Reds honor and respect only other Reds and reddish values, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

We need to arrive at a place – which is no utopia but actually a step closer to reality – where Blues and Reds can listen to each other, ask questions that seek understanding, confirm this understanding by paraphrasing it back to the owner, and then join the work of constructing a world where they can coexist in peace, but even more where they can thrive in mutual honor and respect.

According to the dictionary, being worthy of honor and respect is the definition of ‘dignity’. The heart of a healthy and vibrant democracy lies in the dignity individuals recognize in each other. If we ask where this worth resides or attaches itself, it can’t be with those socially conditioned, culturally relative, autobiographical factors that define your identity as a Blue or Red.

When we assign dignity to anything at this more superficial level, we end up amplifying things that separate individuals rather than connect them.

For a healthy democracy, dignity must be acknowledged as attaching to human nature itself. Underneath all of that overlay of personal identity and far below the trance-state where Blues and Reds contend for supremacy, you are a living, sentient, and self-conscious human being. Every human being is worthy of honor and respect, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ideology, socioeconomic status, and even moral character.

If you are a human being that happens to be Blue or Red, your humanity makes you equal with everyone else. That Red or Blue over there is not your enemy but your potential partner in dialogue, referring to that disciplined process described earlier where we listen to each other, ask questions to gain a better understanding, confirm our understanding by paraphrasing each other’s perspective, and then engage in the work of constructing a world where we can live and flourish together.

When we can do this, when Blues and Reds can become partners in a process rather than enemies across an ideological divide, the trance of separation consciousness will drop from our minds like a veil. This revelation is what is meant by “awakening,” as your spiritual intelligence sees through the illusion of separateness (and of identity as well) and becomes aware of, or wakes up to, the unity of all things.

As the hope of democracy, genuine community is characterized by unity consciousness.

But community isn’t only about a change in awareness. If All is One, as unity consciousness bears witness, then there is no ‘outside’ and therefore no ‘outsiders’. This ethic of radical inclusion is the flowering manifestation of that deep realization in the heart of democracy, of each person’s dignity as a human being. At the very least it means there are absolute limits to what Blues and Reds can do to each other.

It also means that everyone, of whatever color, needs an invitation to the table if democracy is to work.

Finally, a spiritually awakened community that is radically inclusive will be thoroughly humane. In the English language our word ‘human’ was originally spelled with an ‘e’, but over time it bifurcated into ‘human’ which frequently means ‘only human’ (i.e., weak and fallible), and ‘humane’ which describes the tender virtues of grace, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and the like.

As a mark of genuine community, the commitment to a shared life that is thoroughly humane is absolutely critical to the health and longevity of democracy.

So if you are Blue or Red, remember that this not what you are most basically. The construction of your identity as Blue or Red doesn’t have to make every other color a threat and enemy. Hold your beliefs but don’t let them take your mind hostage. As best you can, try to see through the veil of who you are and of the world as you presently conceive it, to what is really real.

The heart of democracy is inside every Blue and Red, and its hope is a world that includes us all.

 

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