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What We Really Want, and Why We Settle for Less

For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.

Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).

And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.

We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.

The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.

But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.

Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.


My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.

In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.

So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.

Security

This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).

Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.

If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.

Connection

When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.

On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.

Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.

In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).

Significance

Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.

When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.

My single word for all of this is significance.

The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.

And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.

The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.

Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.

If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.

In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.

Be well.

 

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The Harmony of Intelligence

mood_mode_modelI recently offered up the idea of our “quadratic intelligence,” of four distinct types of intelligence in us that open up and come online in developmental stages, each one engaging us with a dimension of reality. I pointed out how Western psychology and education theory have only recently come to realize that our earlier notion of an “intelligence quotient” (IQ) was really measuring only one of these types and not intelligence as a whole.

The ensuing scholarly “discovery” of emotional intelligence (EQ) and spiritual intelligence (SQ), of how both of these bring deeper support and expanded horizons to the rational intelligence so highly prized in our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) culture, is challenging us to adjust our categories around what it means to “be intelligent.” In addition to these three types of intelligence, I suggested that we complete the set with a fourth: visceral intelligence (VQ), which is more or less equivalent to what we already know as the autonomic nervous system.

I took my reader for a quick ride up the channel, starting in the unconscious internal state of the body (VQ), connecting emotionally to the environment outside the body (EQ), parsing and classifying the object of experience into a rational system of meaning (RQ), and breaking out of this logical box into the spontaneous intuition of a higher wholeness (SQ). A successful breakthrough of spiritual intelligence to some extent depends on an equanimity of emotional and rational factors – not so engaged (EQ) or detached (RQ) that genuine transcendence is prevented.

In this post I want to clarify this theory further into its distinct modes of intention and how they work together in the full harmony of intelligence. “Mode” is derived from the root mod, which refers to a way, manner, form, or style in which something exists or behaves. I hope to show how our human way of being and manner of life grows more distinctively human as we ascend through the network of our four intelligences.

Visceral intelligence (VQ) represents a mode of intention that anchors consciousness in its deeper ground. The internal state of our nervous system seeks to hold the body in a dynamic equilibrium where an electro-chemical conspiracy of events sustains us in life. Out of this provident ground arises consciousness itself, which must preserve its anchor in the body, and through the body to the living earth.

A step up from the largely autonomic processes of our internal state brings us into emotional intelligence (EQ) where the mode is to engage with the environment around us. Emotional engagement begins very early in life and serves the function of connecting our internal state (VQ) to the realm outside the body, adjusting state as necessary and motivating behavior that is adaptive. Another derivation of mod is “mood,” referring to this matching of internal and external, internal state to external situation, in a generalized temperament that bridges the two realms.

From emotional intelligence we move into rational intelligence (RQ, formerly IQ) where the mode of intention shifts from engagement to detachment. Obviously this mode serves us well when our objective is to grasp something for what it is in itself rather than how it may be affecting us personally. Western science has perfected this modus operandi of detached observation in its experimental method, which has enabled us to take control of our environment in remarkable ways.

Our characteristically Western preference for rational operations over emotional feelings when it comes to what we believe we can really count on for a truthful experience of reality, has led to the unfortunate consequences of environmental degradation, inter-human violence, and neurotic disorders. We have become adept at constructing thought “models” – yet another term with roots in mod, involving our conceptual ability for abstract representation – as our emotional programs remain snagged in adolescence and early childhood.

The healthy balance of emotional and rational modes of intention is how I define equanimity – a high value in many wisdom traditions around the world. Importantly equanimity is not about suppressing or subtracting from our animal nature, but rather harmonizing its deeper impulses in a mode of conscious life where passion (EQ) and reason (RQ) complement and support each other. I would agree that equanimity is all too rare in society today, where part of ourselves seethes in raw emotion as the other part analyzes everything (literally) to death.

This is exactly where our widespread lack of “ego strength” (a related idea to equanimity) has us stuck: collapsing spontaneously into mental chaos (borderline personality), swinging wildly between emotional extremes (bipolar mood), and splitting into a variety of subpersonalities that contend for the seat of control (dissociative identity). Absent a secure center of self-conscious autonomy (ego), these inner demons take us over – especially when we are stressed, anxious, or frustrated, which is to say more and more of the time these days.

When I identify the intentional mode of spiritual intelligence with transcendence, I want to guard against any tendency to separate it from our embodied life. As I see it, it’s been a mistake of rationalism to represent the soul as metaphysically alien, existing apart from the body as its resident ghost. Transcendence, here, should not be interpreted as going beyond the body and leaving it behind. What we transcend are the rational constructs by which we define and classify reality, and believe one thing or another.

To grasp all at once the unified mystery of existence requires us to “go beyond” what we think we know. The tightly interlocked system of meaning that we spin around ourselves like a spider’s web may answer our needs for security, identity, and significance, but it also separates us from the present mystery of reality. This veil must be pulled aside for the sake of mystic communion with reality as such. It is in that higher mode of intention that we realize All is One.

If we had equanimity and ego strength, and were firmly anchored in the provident ground of life, the invitation of spirituality to step through the illusion of meaning and into oneness would be accepted with joy and celebration. The centerpiece of this illusion is our self-concept as separate and fully autonomous individuals, immortal beings on our way through to something better on the other side.

Genuine spiritual freedom is about getting over ourselves.

 

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Mystical Faith and the Way to Peace

And now we began to drive through that narrow strait. On one side was Scylla and on the other Charybdis. Fear gripped the men when they saw Charybdis gulping down the sea. But as we drove by, the monster Scylla seized six of my company–the hardiest of the men who were with me. As they were lifted up in the mouths of her six heads they called to me in their agony. But I could do nothing to aid them. They were carried up to be devoured in the monster’s den. Of all the sights I have seen on the ways of the water, that sight was the most pitiful.

– Homer’s The Odyssey

S_CIn Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.

Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.

And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.

                                                                                                 

In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.

The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.Quad

I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.

Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.

Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.

In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.

Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.

This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.

Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.

It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.

So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.

But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.

Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.

Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.

The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.

Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.

This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.

 
 

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Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.  What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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Holding On and Letting Go

Anderson: “People of power and position are not the only ones who resist threats to a belief system; so do ordinary people who have internalized that belief system and take it to be absolute reality. The collapse of a belief system can be like the end of the world. Even those who are most oppressed by a belief system often fear the loss of it. People can literally cease to know who they are.”

One of the working threads in my current conversation regards (a) world as a human construction of meaning. There are as many “worlds” as there are mentally functioning human beings on this planet, and each individual migrates through numerous world-constructs in an average lifetime.

A world is not reality, but only a representation of reality. It is “made up” of our recurrent thoughts, persistent opinions, personal and family stories, as well as the overarching myths of our culture that can bridge many generations. Inside these enclosures we feel relatively secure, conserve an identity (or several identities), search for significance, and work out our purpose.

Another, but less inclusive term for what we are calling a world is belief system, which tends to take the discussion in a more cognitive direction. Beliefs are judgments and conclusions that nevertheless still require an emotional “boost” to cross any gaps in logic, insufficient evidence, or lack of direct experience. From the root-word meaning “to hold dear,” belief is less about knowledge than commitment.

We are emotionally attached to our judgments about reality. It gets even more complicated when we realize that many of our beliefs are nothing more than emotional commitments to other beliefs. We need them to be right, or else all hell might break loose. At least our worlds might fall apart, which is probably worse.

Anderson makes the point that “ordinary people,” as distinct from those in positions of power and privilege, are just as defensive of the worlds that make their lives meaningful. We could also add those of lesser fortune, who labor and strain under the weight of oppression. If you see yourself as a victim of evil-doing, at least you have an identity equipped with its relevant concerns, coping strategies, aspirations for freedom and “the good life,” along with your own retinue of fellow victims, enemy-oppressors, and occasional benefactors.

The fact is, we need our worlds just as much as our worlds need us to create them. Problems arise when we forget that we’re making it all up and start insisting on our world’s absolute truth. The postmodern discovery is that every world is a project (coming out of us), a construct (built and arranged around us), and a representation (of reality). While our amnesia regarding its origin and status as so much pretense may be adaptive to some degree, our insistence on the absolute truth of our belief systems is where all wars, most divorces, and many mental illnesses likely begin.

After the birth of what I am calling the “postmodern discovery,” many believed that the time had come for humanity to advance beyond the need for belief systems altogether. But that turned out to be just another emotional judgment (belief) of an emerging worldview – another phase in the evolution of worlds, despite the elevated self-consciousness of its perspective.

It seems to me that the real challenge is to occupy our worlds in humble awareness of their nature as fabricated, provisional and necessarily short-sighted views on reality. Psychologically we can’t live without them. But in the interest of our health and longevity as a species, and of the health of our planet, we need some combination of courage and compassion to reach through the emotionally charged boundaries that separate us from each other.

When our worlds do collapse – either completely as in the phase-transitions to a “new mind,” or only partially as we slowly outgrow earlier convictions – the experience can be nothing short of apocalyptic. What had provided security and a place to stand feels as if it is falling away from under our feet. What had provided us with orientation and a sense of direction suddenly comes to pieces above our heads.

Because who we are is so deeply implicated in how we see reality, the breakdown of our world amounts to a loss of identity.

Just as post-theism entails transcending or going beyond the objective existence of the mythological god, so too does this evolutionary moment require that we loosen up and let go of our egos as fixed identities. Such self-transcendence needs to happen if we have any hope of staying in touch with what’s really going on, with the really real, with reality.

Letting go is scary, and it’s not without risk that we release what has given us security for what might lead to fulfillment.

This is where the old guard is typically called in. Tribal authorities, holy tradition, sacred scriptures and the mythological god are all being summoned in  defense of our out-grown worlds. We don’t want to lose what we have, even though it has already lost much of its relevance to our daily lives. So we close our eyes and hunker down, and call it faith.

If we take the step from this fixed position, we want our foot to land on another fixed position – somewhere we can lean into and put our weight, something that’s stable and certain. But both stability and predictability are features of belief systems, not actual experience; of worlds, not reality.

The present mystery of reality is dynamic, and actual experience is much more fluid than our rigid belief systems can comfortably admit. And yet it’s a mark of both maturity and faith when we can climb to the edge of our worlds and leap from what we think we know, into what is beyond belief.

 

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The View from Down Under

De Mello: “The trouble with people is that they’re busy fixing things they don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.”

“Problems” motivate our efforts to fix them. A problem means that something is wrong – at least in our everyday way of speaking. A math problem, interestingly enough, is not broken but waits to be solved or figured out. If you come out with the wrong answer, then you’ve got a real problem.

My favorite one-word synonym for reality is mystery – as in the present mystery of reality, or the real presence of mystery. This mystery is the deeper ground beneath/within us, as well as the greater whole around/beyond us. At the personal level this mystery turns up as you and me, doing our best to figure things out.

All of this could inspire contemplation and wonder, but what we seem to bump up against most often are problems. Whereas reality is a vibrant web of causes and conditions, effects and forces that seems to go “down” and “out” to infinity, our personal worlds are simple by comparison. Even though we want to believe – or do we have a need to believe? – that the mystery of our own lives is a problem to solve or perhaps even “fix,” chances are good that many of our problems are self-created. To paraphrase Nietzsche: If all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.

De Mello invites us to consider a different way of approaching reality – not with our tools but with intelligence. Specifically with a contemplative intelligence, one that takes in the Big Picture, sinks through appearances, and ponders the mystery in its depths. There will always be time to “figure it out” or “fix it up” the way you want it – or maybe there won’t, who knows?

But if we’re busy constantly trying to fix what we think is wrong or broken, the genuine mystery of being alive in this moment and somehow connected to all things passes by our blinders. The deeper ground and greater whole become invisible to us. Can we reach the point where they eventually become inaccessible to us as well – so tangled in problems that we lose our sensitivity to the mystery?

Our worlds have problems, but reality is a mystery. It’s when a natural force like a tornado comes into our world and upsets the arrangement, leaving damage and injury in its wake, that it becomes a problem. From a distance the weather phenomenon is fascinating and awesome. Just don’t come too close to me and mine.

Relationships have conflicts, and if these conflicts go on too long, we might say they’re broken and need fixing. I suppose it’s possible that many of my chronic troubles with others have to do with deeper or larger patterns that I don’t understand. It’s easier to point the finger of blame – at the other, of course. What if relational conflicts are really (that is, in reality) places where we come together at our differences, but just don’t understand the higher Tao that’s playing your Yin against my Yang?

As a constructivist, I appreciate the way in which our worlds provide the security, identity, significance and purpose we need to make life meaningful. Also as a constructivist, I accept these as “positive illusions” – things we need in order to keep our sanity and express our creative nature as a species.

We make it up, find problems in what we make, and spend our time and energy fixing the problems. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

What would happen if we took a more contemplative approach to our lives? Spending less time reacting to the problems we create – which only tends to generate more problems – and more time understanding our own creativity and its roots in reality, could make a real difference.

Understanding something doesn’t necessarily mean that we can explain it. The two metaphors are intriguing: explanation refers to “folding out” or opening up what is hidden in the deeper layers, while understanding involves “standing under” something and seeing it from the opposite angle of ordinary perception. The undersides of many things can be rather shocking.

Explanation is a kind of diagnosis, a necessary step toward fixing what’s wrong or broken. Moreover, it’s analytical, surgical and reductionistic in the way it spreads out the innards of something for closer examination. Once the frog is fully dissected, of course, all you have is frog parts. The living mystery is not just the parts in working order and functioning properly. It’s something more, something else, which vanished when Kermit went kaput.

This is not to say that explanation has no place in our quest for knowledge. Western science and philosophy have built up quite a library over the centuries – picking reality apart, cutting it up, breaking it down, charting its innards. We have come to know a lot about the composition of things, how they can be re-engineered, genetically modified, and synthetically replicated to do more for us.

But what if the real problem is our present discontent, our greed for more, a chronic frustration that fuels unrealistic expectations and set us up for disappointment? The deeper the disappointment, the harder we poke. The harder we poke, the more inflamed things become. Smaller problems multiply from the Big Problem.

Perhaps we need to get a different perspective on things. Before we start pulling them apart to fix them, let’s try to understand what’s really going on.

 

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Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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