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God and COVID-19

Times like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in religion. On the “worse” side are declarations to the effect that the challenge we face is an instrument of god’s will. It has been sent for the divine purpose of punishing sinners, testing the righteous, or maybe just as a demonstration of god’s awesome power.

Just now, some conservative Christians are spinning stories classifying the coronavirus pandemic as god’s judgment on globalism, with its tendency toward moral promiscuity and contaminating his revealed truth (given to us, not them) with worldly deceptions. That’s frequently how children, as well as full-grown adults who are stuck inside an an obedience-based morality, try to justify their taller/higher Power’s presumed omnipotence in the face of tragic experience. They screwed up, or somebody else did, and now they are paying the price.

Of course, it’s not the conservative Christians themselves who have sinned. Or maybe they did, by making too many compromises. Now their faith is being tested and purified. Hopefully they will learn their lesson and get it together, which means tightening the orthodoxy, strengthening defenses, and protecting their membership against future lapses.

You see? It’s possible to spin the narrative any which way – “the narrative” referring to how human beings try to find meaning in the midst or in the wake of undeserved pain and catastrophic loss.

Our big brain pitches experience into the future, in the form of expectations and predictions of what’s next. So when the unexpected and unpredictable tragic thing happens, we are compelled to find – or else spontaneously create – a story that connects it to the past or present we think we know, or to a future we believe is coming.

One problem with trying to put a theological (god-narrative) spin around our suffering is in the way it pulls us out of the present experience itself and into our heads, where this and every kind of story is spun. You might think that the therapeutic benefit of escaping raw suffering for a story that explains it, justifies it, downplays it, or even takes it personally would outweigh any value there might be in simply taking it as it comes.

When human beings become clinically unhappy, it’s either because we are stuck inside a story that’s preventing us from a realistic engagement with and healthy adaptation to the world, or because we are lacking a coherent story to make sense of our suffering. The Jungian psychologist James Hillman believed that a client in therapy is really seeking a case history, a narrative account that gives their suffering a context and assigns it a meaning.

And then there are those who can’t seem to break out of a story that is contextually irrelevant or maladaptive to the changes and challenges of real life. When the mind is so locked inside its beliefs, we call it “conviction,” and this is the true source of our suffering.

Once upon a time – a very long time ago – religion provided people with stories that engaged them imaginatively with reality and helped them adapt creatively to the vicissitudes of actual life. Although many of its “classical” stories, called myths, seem quaint now and out of touch with our modern sensibilities, back then at least – when a culture’s model of reality (cosmology), guiding stories (mythology), and way of life (morality) were fully aligned – people were enabled by religion to find grounding and orientation amidst suffering and in the wake of tragedy.

But no longer today.

The devastation and hardship brought on by COVID-19 cannot be reconciled with a god up in heaven. Where is that anyway, in a universe which has no “up”? To declare that “god has a plan” and “everything happens for a reason” (meaning to serve some objective) may calm our anxiety for a moment by the presumption of someone “out there” who has it all under control.

But such reassurances no longer work to give us grounding in life, center us emotionally in our experience, connect us compassionately to the suffering of others, and inspire us to act responsibly for the greater good.

One thing we can learn from the coronavirus is how deeply involved we are in the web of life, how connected we all are to each other, and how much we need each other’s company, kind hospitality, and warm loving touch to be healthy, happy, and whole.

If you have the virus right now, it’s not because you are a sinner. God is not putting you through this to test your faith. It’s not even part of some larger plan or higher purpose.

In the West especially we tend to confuse the use of god as an explanation of why we suffer with the gracious Presence, or grace-to-be-present, that we long for most deeply in life.

But it is possible for you to be present to your experience, to simply and fully be in this moment.

Every true religion cautions against using your god as a mechanism for denying mortality, escaping suffering, or otherwise explaining it away. Rather than tying your pain or loss to something external to it, try to relax more deeply into it. Instead of allowing yourself to be overtaken by suffering, open your awareness so as to include it within the present mystery of being alive.

God isn’t an explanation, but a metaphor of the present mystery that eludes every explanation. The coronavirus may be happening to you, but this profound mystery is the deeper truth of what you are.

Take care of yourself, and let others care for you. Sometimes the way through is just letting it be.

 

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World Creator

In this post I will propose that there are just four basic narrative plots upon which we – each of us, any of us, all of us – construct a meaningful life and the world we live in. The Greek word for this basic narrative plot is mythos, referring not to one story or another but to the structural “spine” upon which all stories are composed. Setting, characters, rising action, climax, and denouement are countless in their variety, but these basic plots are just four in number.

Further, I will propose that these four myths “awaken” in our psyche during specific periods of development, designated across cultures in the archetypes of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. In other posts I have named these The Four Ages of Life and identified the chronological thresholds as the years 10 (between Child and Youth), 25 (between Youth and Adult), and 60 (between Adult and Elder).

By the time a threshold is reached, the critical work of world creation as it anchors to the myths of previous Ages will either facilitate or complicate the work of the coming Age. In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, I will assume that things go reasonably well, and that the project of world-creation is allowed to advance more or less without a hitch.

Each of the four myths is a central organizing structure around which countless stories are composed.

The many stories arranged around a common myth will take its principal theme into a wide variety of expressions, but they will all address, in one way or another, its focal concern. Let’s look at the four Myths more closely and try to appreciate how they get weaved together into the larger story of our life and the world we create.

The Myth of Grounding and Orientation

As young children we have a deep existential need to know, not intellectually but viscerally, that where we are is safe and provident. Stories of Grounding and Orientation answer what is perhaps the most fundamental question: Where am I, and what’s going on here? This is not yet the question of identity (which comes next), but rather of security. Is this a place where we can relax, reach out, and find what we need to live, grow, and be happy?

As implied in the name, this myth is foundational to all the others. Our impression of reality during the first decade of life is recorded in our nervous system, calibrated by our brain to match and adapt to the conditions of our early environment. Our need for security, to feel safe and that we belong, overrides every other emotional need.

All subsequent experiences will be evaluated according to whether they confirm or challenge this most basic sense we have of reality as provident.

On the cultural level, the Myth of Grounding and Orientation inspired primordial stories of provident beings who brought the world into existence and created the first humans. The gods themselves are not the focus of such stories, but are rather mediating agencies that serve to project intentional design into the cosmos and our human place within it. If some stories give account of how a once-perfect order fell into disarray, there nevertheless remains the relatively stable vantage-point from which this perspective is taken and the story is told.

The Myth of Identity and Purpose

After our first decade we are thrown into the quest for who we are and why we are here. The Myth of Identity and Purpose inspires stories of heroes who move out from zones of security in search of adventure, discovery, achievement, and conquest. Just as the earlier stories about gods are not really about the gods so much as the world order they set in place, these hero stories are less about the characters themselves than the formation – and various transformations – of Identity and Purpose.

The Age of Youth is powerfully anchored to this Myth. As adolescents we are frequently confused over who we are, and we busy ourselves with trying on one identity after another. We are sure that “no one knows me,” but in truth we don’t even know ourself.

Our experimentation with different identities exposes the constructed nature of identity itself, as something that can be put on and off, made up and changed on a whim – but it’s the most urgent and serious thing we care about!

What we probably can’t appreciate so much at the time is how personal Identity and Purpose are codified into social roles, and how every role is situated in a role play. In other words, identity is essentially about who we are on the performance stage of society. If we happen to be less secure in our sense of Grounding and Orientation from childhood, the quest for Identity and Purpose can be straight-out tortuous as we try to find security in something that isn’t even real!

The Myth of Love and Sacrifice

The Age of Adulthood is about settling down and establishing ourselves in society. A sense of being supported in a provident reality and curating a competent personal identity eventually facilitate our landing in more enduring partnerships, professional responsibilities, and maybe a family to manage. The Myth of Love and Sacrifice inspires stories of commitment, fidelity, and devotion. Life is now about investing ourselves in things that are worthwhile and more lasting.

“Sacrifice” refers to the act of giving up something of value for the sake of something more highly esteemed.

Commitment to one thing implies the surrendered pursuit of other things. Along with that, a sacrifice of our individual freedom for the sake of a married relationship is a declaration of our preference for what we deem a higher value. Lest we think that adulthood is only about “giving up” on the pleasures and excitement of life, such intentional acts of sacrifice actually serve to make life ultimately meaningful.

The many stories composed on this Myth of Love and Sacrifice include those of Jesus on his cross, Mother Teresa serving in the slums of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell. These individuals willingly surrendered their own freedom, entitlements, and life itself in devotion to what they considered a transcendent value.

The Myth of Suffering and Hope

When we reach the Age of the Elder after 60 years, our experience of life is deep, wide, and rich in both many joys and countless pains. The lessons we’ve learned along the way are translated into a wisdom concerning what truly matters, the precious value of little things, and how to see through (or past) the distractions of everyday life. Stories of Suffering and Hope give full acknowledgement to the burdens of existence – to the hardships, the losses, the betrayals, and the personal failures – but without giving them the last word.

In traditional cultures, elders are the respected guides and advisers of society, honored for having lived so long and learning so much.

If we don’t always have “the” answer to a question, we have likely observed or undergone things that can shed some light on the matter. In the very least, life has taught us that absolute answers – answers that are final, beyond question and not open to doubt – are more often irrelevant, and usually deceptive.

A familiar story of Suffering and Hope is one we can find in every culture, holding a vision for what lies beyond this life. Once again, however, just as with the earlier stories of gods and heroes, stories of heaven and the afterlife are not really about these things at all. Their truth is therapeutic rather than literal, encouraging us not to fixate or be consumed by life’s pains and losses, but instead to keep them in perspective as only part of a much larger picture and longer view.


Throughout our life we are creating a world that carries and reflects our deepest concerns as human beings. The stories we tell are anchored in the timeless myths of Grounding and Orientation, Identity and Purpose, Love and Sacrifice, Suffering and Hope. The best of all worlds is one that makes room for others, as it gives us the support we need to become fully human.

 

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The Story That Got You Here

Here’s what I already know about you, even if we’ve never met. You were conceived and developed in your mother’s womb, during which time you were physically attached to her by an umbilical cord that delivered the oxygen and nutrients you needed. That was your paradisal “garden of Eden,” where everything you required was instantly provided and you wanted for nothing.

Eventually you were expelled from Eden, detached from its provident environment and deposited in a very different space with cold air, bright lights, and loud noises all around you. It wasn’t long before someone took you in their warm embrace (likely your mother) and gave you breast milk or formula to drink. This is the true origin of “comfort food.”

Thus began a new era of attachment, this time emotional rather than physical. Your mother or principal caregiver would be your secure base for years to come, serving archetypally to shape and condition your primal impressions associated with intimacy. Your own emotions were entrained with hers, and you wouldn’t even regard her as “someone else” for quite some time.

Gradually you did detach sufficiently from mother to establish your own center of agency and self-control. Those early feelings and reflexes around intimacy, however, have continued to support and complicate your adventures in relationship ever since. If one or both of you had trouble letting go, or if you tried to manipulate each other emotionally in a codependent relationship, those same habits have likely caused trouble for you over the years.

We all tend to default to our Inner Child when we feel stressed, tired, threatened, or in pain – and relationships can be very stressful.

During this same time, your tribe – including other taller powers, possible siblings, and a growing society of peers – was busy downloading and installing in you all the ideas, values and judgments that comprised their collective worldview and way of life. This ideology functioned to frame your perspective and filter your experience of reality. So, just as you were gaining some detachment emotionally from mother and others, you were also attaching intellectually to this shared ideology and finding your place in the world.

Even though ideology sounds very heady and abstract, it is actually rooted in just a few very deep stories or “foundational myths” that you and others around you constantly recite. You do this in formal and informal gatherings, but even when you are by yourself these stories circulate as the “self-talk” in your mind.

They filter out anything in reality that’s not compatible with your running script, or else they spin meaning around it in order to make it so.

At base, this recycled anthology of stories – let’s call it your mythology – both reflects and helps you negotiate your relationships with others. And just as the branches of a tree reach up and conspire to create an overarching canopy, all of these stories intertwine overhead, so to speak, in the construction of your world, the habitat of meaning where your personal identity and tribal memberships are held.

So far, so good? You lived for nine months or so inside the primordial paradise of your mother’s womb, physically attached to her by an umbilical cord. Then you were born and proceeded to attach yourself emotionally to her and others around you. By the narrative technology of stories recited to you, with you, and eventually by you, an intellectual attachment – which I will now call belief – was formed to the ideas, values, and judgments of your tribe.

The energy that binds your intellectual attachment to some idea or other is a carry-up from the emotional dynamics of your Inner Child, a personality complex with roots in those deep unconscious reflexes around intimacy and belonging. There is the idea or formal statement of the idea, and then there is your emotional commitment to its truth. Your commitment is what makes it a belief.

For a reason you probably can’t explain, you simply need it to be true.

Some beliefs are so strongly anchored to the foundational myths of your tribe (and thus also to who you are as a member of your tribe), that defending them is not really a matter of how realistic, reasonable, or relevant they happen to be, but how “confessional” they are of your shared identity as insiders.

To question them would tamper with the very meaning of your existence; and challenging their validity is tantamount to committing apostasy.

Besides, your canopy of meaning works well enough, right? It maintains your membership, confirms who you are in the world, and allows you to carry on with your daily affairs. But does it facilitate your contact with reality, with what is really real?

Those especially strong beliefs, so strong that they prohibit you from questioning or even recognizing them as constructs of meaning and not the way things really are, go by the name “convictions.” They hold your mind captive, just like a convict in a prison cell. And because such beliefs tie you back to your Inner Child – not your trusting innocence in this moment but to an “old” pattern of insecurity and feelings of helplessness – convictions are by definition intellectually primitive and pragmatically obsolete.

There is a part of you – we’ll call it your Higher Self – that is aware of the fact that your beliefs and the stories behind them are constructions of meaning and not the way things really are. Reality itself is beyond words and explanations, a present mystery that eludes every attempt of your mind to pin it down and box it up. Naturally, your Inner Child wants to keep this realization from entering conscious awareness, as it threatens to unravel the world you have weaved together so meticulously over the years.

If it should be true that your identity and life’s meaning are only “made up,” then what would be left? Your existence would be perfectly meaningless.

Another way of saying this is that reality is indescribably perfect, just as it is: without words, transcendent of your thoughts and stories about it. It’s not just that words can never fully capture its mystery, but that its mystery is ineffable – unspeakable, prior to language, and always Now.

To throw your words and stories around it is like dipping a bucket in a river. What you have is a mere bucket of water: while perhaps useful for something, it is not the river itself. Furthermore, your bucket-shaped extraction is already nothing more than a tiny sample record of the river as it was then, not as it is right now.

This realization is both a spiritual breakthrough of present awareness and a kind of apocalypse for the world you’ve constructed around yourself. Whether it’s more breakthrough or breakdown will depend largely on the strength of your convictions, how persistent they are in making you intolerant of reality.

But not to worry: when the curtain opens or goes up in flames, you will finally see things just as they are.

Once you’re on the other side of meaning, life just makes a lot more sense.

 

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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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Who Tells America’s Story?

Our present era of “fake news” has introduced the American public to a key premise of constructivism, which is that meaning is constructed by human minds and always perspective-dependent. What we call “news” is someone’s perspective on what happened and what it means. Until now we have counted on the news media to tell us the truth, thinking they are giving us “just the facts.”

But there are no plain facts, only data that have been selected from the ambiguous “data cloud” of reality. Our authorities are those who hold the rights of authorship and tell the rest of us stories of what it all means. If authority is power, then this power is a function of how convincing or inspiring an author’s story is, how effectively it influences the belief and behavior of others.

Just now we’re starting to understand the extent in which fact selection, taking perspective, and constructing meaning are determined by a deeper belief regarding the persistent ambiguity of what’s really going on.

Actually this deeper belief is energized by a need to resolve the ambiguity so it can be made to mean something. What I’m calling the “persistent ambiguity” of reality is profoundly intolerable to our minds, which work continuously to turn it into stories that make sense. Stories frame a context, make connections, establish causality, assign responsibility, attach value, and reveal a purpose (or likely consequence) that motivates us to choose a path and take action.

The resolution of ambiguity breaks in either of two directions: downward to (either/or) division or upward to (both/and) unity.

Once the divisions are made – and remember, these are based on narrative constructs of difference – the battlefront is suddenly obvious to us and we are compelled to choose a side. Below the grey ambiguity is where we find the diametrical opposites of “this OR that.” There is no room for compromise, and one side must win over (or be better than) the other.

Above the ambiguity is not simply more grey, but “this AND that” – not differences homogenized but mutually engaged in partnership. An upward resolution in unity means that distinctions are not erased but rather transcended in a higher wholeness. Up here, “this” and “that” are seen as symbions (interdependent organisms) in a larger ecosystem which both empowers and draws upon their cooperation.

Now for some application.

The reality of American life is and has always been persistently ambiguous. From the beginning there have been differences among us, and some of the most highly charged differences fall under the constructs of religion, race, and politics. We need to remind ourselves that these constructs are fictional categories and not objective realities. Being Black or White is one thing (in reality); what it means to be Black or White is quite another (in our minds).

Race relations in American history have been complicated because each side is telling stories that exclude the other. The same can be said of religion and politics as well.

Some of us are telling a story of division. According to this story different races, religions, and political parties cannot peacefully coexist, much less get along or work together. The ultimate resolution for them – called in some circles the End of the World or Final Judgment – will be a permanent separation of “this” from “that.”

No more grey forevermore, Amen.

The more open-minded and cautiously hopeful among us nevertheless complain that because so many of these others are telling stories of conflict and exclusion, it might be better for the rest of us to leave them behind. They observe how our current president and the Religious Right that supports him share a conviction that “winning the deal” or “converting the sinner” is the only way forward. Once these stalwart true believers lose cultural real estate and finally die out, we will be able to make real progress.

But that’s a story too, isn’t it?

What about this:

America is a national story about (1) racial diversity, religious freedom, and political dialogue; (2) around the central values of self-reliance, civic engagement, and enlightened community; (3) protecting the rights of all citizens to pursue happy, meaningful, and fulfilled lives.

Is this story true? Well, what does it mean for a story to be true? According to constructivism, the truth of a story has to do with its power to shape consciousness, set a perspective, orient us in reality and inspire us to creatively engage the challenges we face with faith, hope, purpose, and solidarity. For most of our history true stories have brought us together in community. Indeed, they are the very origin of human culture.

The provisional answer, then, must be that an American story of upward resolution (unity) will be true to the degree in which we devote ourselves to its realization. Short of inspired engagement, a story merely spins in the air without ever getting traction in reality. It never has a chance of coming true.

Are there racial conflicts, religious bigotry, and political sectarianism in America? Yes, of course. But look more closely and you’ll find many, many more instances of interracial concord and friendship, a grounded and life-affirming spirituality, and individuals of different political persuasions talking with (rather than at) each other about ideals they hold in common.

If we give the media authority to tell our American story, we can expect to hear and see more about where the ambiguity is breaking downward into division. Why is that? Because the media depend on advertisers, advertisers need eyeballs on their ads, and stories of aggression, violence, and conflict get our attention. Cha-ching.

Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, if we hear the same story of division several times during a media cycle, our brain interprets it as if there were several different events – more frequent, more prevalent, and more indicative of what’s going on in the world.

There’s no denying that we need leaders today who genuinely believe in the greater good, who dedicate their lives to its service, and who tell a story that inspires the rest of us to reach higher. Complaining about and criticizing the leaders we have will only amplify what we don’t want.

The real work of resolving the persistent ambiguity of life is on each of us, every single day. Starting now, we can choose peace, wholeness, harmony, unity, and wellbeing.

The stories we tell create the world in which we live. America is worthy of better stories.

 

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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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Myth and the Matrix of Meaning

Homo mythicus – I know it’s not a word, but perhaps it should be. Human beings are myth-makers.

We create meaning by telling stories. Personal anecdotes and nursery rhymes, factual reports and fairy tales, thin excuses and passionate confessions, epic histories and heroic adventures, religious creeds and scientific theories – these are just a few of the types of stories we tell. Identity itself (ego), that prize and protected treasure of contemporary individualism, is constructed out of countless storylines.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. Your personal myth is based on some very early stories your family told you, stories that carry assumptions about the way things are, where you belong, and what’s important in life. Such core beliefs are sown into the very fabric of your sense of self. You no longer question them – if you ever did – simply because they condition and qualify your grasp on reality at the subconscious level.

Matrix_1But our stories don’t simply arise spontaneously out of the creative imagination. It’s not like we got bored one day ten thousand years ago and decided to pass time spinning yarns by the campfire.

In other words, humans don’t tell stories because we have nothing else to do. Stories are how we orient ourselves in the world, and are what our worlds are made of. They carry the rhythms of our bodies and brains into the rhymes and reasons that make life meaningful.

In this blog post I want to offer up the idea that meaning itself is constructed upon a matrix of primary human concerns. If our stories are to mean something, they must take into account and work out an interpretation of life with respect to these primary concerns – and just these four.

Security. Human newborns are defenseless, vulnerable and dependent. One way that evolution accommodated our species was to get us delivered “prematurely” and prolong our development over the course of twenty years or so. During this time the operating system and local applications of our culture get downloaded into our brains. In varying degrees depending on our circumstances and early parenting, each of us emerges from childhood with a sense of security – that there is enough of what we need to live and grow.

Suffering. It’s also a fact of our existence that we don’t always get what we need to live and grow. Reality is not perfectly safe, and no security arrangement in life is permanent. This was the Buddha’s insight: Life is suffering. In the end you will lose your life, and you will lose much else along the way. Hanging on and gripping down only sets you up for anxiety, frustration and disappointment – in a word, for more suffering. The reality of suffering – chronic pain, sudden loss, heartbreak and loneliness – is something we cannot escape, though we do our best to medicate, minimize or distract ourselves from it.

Freedom. Another primary concern of humans is a function of our ability to take control (to a limited extent) of our bodies and the natural environment. The acquisition of skills and invention of various technologies has opened the scope of our freedom at an accelerating pace over the millenniums. Mastery at one level creates opportunities higher up – such is the calculus of human progress. Dependency at an early age gives way to autonomy as we grow up, taking more of life into our own control and putting more options at our disposal. A meaningful life is one you must choose – now more than ever before.

Fate. But there are limits, and every choice has its consequences. Whereas much about our world is made up and open to revision, the reality of life places constraints around our talents, strengths and possibilities. Genetic temperament deals us the cards and personal character plays them out, over time reducing the different combinations and alternate endings we might choose. And then there’s the fact that no one gets out of here alive. Probably much more than we know or can admit, the denial, avoidance and postponement of death drives much of what we do.

As the above diagram suggests, these four primary human concerns stand in relationships of paradox and tension. Specifically, security and suffering are really the polar opposites of a shared continuum, while freedom and fate are similarly related. None of the concerns can be properly understood and appreciated in any absolute sense. At this very moment, as you compose your personal myth of meaning, you are somewhere between security and suffering, freedom and fate. The patterns you weave are anchored on these four primary human concerns.

Matrix_2The matrix of meaning also includes what I’ll call four universal motifs, which show up everywhere in the stories we tell. A motif is a narrative theme; we might think of them as the major storylines that we weave together into our worlds. They also stand as pairs in creative tension.

Play. The meaning of your life is produced out of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and make-believe. Reality, very simply, is; but a world is something you put on – as in “putting on” a play. When you were a young child, role-play and pretending, dress-up and games were how you began to experiment with meaning-making. And of course, the costumes and toys you played with were also “propaganda devices” in your early socialization, by means of which gender instruction and class values were installed in your psyche.

Work. Eventually you needed to learn the importance of effort, determination and sacrifice in pursuit of certain outcomes and extrinsic rewards. This second motif shares the continuum with play, allowing for the possibility that your work might also be something in which you find creative enjoyment. It isn’t always the case, however. For many of us, work is simply what’s required to pay the utilities and put food on the table. Perhaps the most obvious difference between work and play is that play without purpose is infinitely entertaining, while work without purpose is one of the deepest hells we can know.

Love. Sex, intimacy, companionship and care – what would life be without these vibrant frequencies of human connection? Your earliest experience of love was likely in a nursing embrace, which may be why we have a difficult time distinguishing between feeling loved and feeling full, and why some of us eat when we’re lonely or feel unloved. The relative position of this motif to freedom and suffering in the matrix confirms what we eventually find out on our own: While love requires freedom, it moves us into attachments that eventually bring suffering.

War. You won’t find a culture anywhere on earth that doesn’t tell stories of adversarial relationships, interpersonal conflict, tribal conquest and political revolution. “Love and War” are certainly two motifs that play well together in the movies, probably with roots in our animal prehistory when males fought for sexual access to females. (What prehistory? you will ask.) As long as the primary concern of security is wrapped up in territory, resources and possessions, the borderland menace of invaders and thieves will keep the war motif strong in our minds. There’s also something about adversity that, as we say, builds character.

Matrix_3That’s the matrix of meaning: Four primary human concerns and four perennial narrative motifs are the “stuff” of which all stories are made. As the temperament, life circumstances, and developmental career of each person is unique, the pattern of meaning that we can call one’s personal myth (along with its corresponding world) will be individualized to that extent.

The matrix reminds us that our stories and the meaning we construct out of them are serious business. They are not supposed to distract us from the responsibility of making our lives count for something, and they shouldn’t divert our thoughtful reflection away from the challenges we face. The stories we tell at the individual, interpersonal, tribal and cultural levels will be meaningful in the degree that they assist us in spinning webs we can live in, webs that connect us in relevant ways to each other and to our home planet.

Above all else, our stories, worlds, and webs of meaning need to lift us out and provide a way back into the present mystery of reality.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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