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The Topography of Myth

If you had three choices and you had to pick one, which of these words would you choose to name your core value: attachment, autonomy, or achievement? By ‘core value’ I mean a priority concern that is positioned at the solar center of a system of associated values. Attachment has connection, security, and belonging orbiting around it. Autonomy is anchor for the values of control, freedom, and self-determination. And Achievement is at the center of purpose, progress, and success.

Most likely you recognize the importance of all three core values, and we should more accurately think of them as comprising a cluster rather than as mutually exclusive alternatives. But still, you can probably identify one over the others – at least at this time in your life – as having priority. Which one?

My returning reader might hesitate in choosing attachment as a core value, since I tend to regard it as complicating factor in our development toward creative authority as individuals. The larger multicultural discussion around the topic of attachment acknowledges it as the positive bonding characteristic of healthy relationships (Western), but also as a compensatory maneuver whereby we cling to other people with the impossible expectation that they make us secure, happy, and whole (Eastern). In reality it’s both the connection that makes for positive partnerships and the latching-on that can ruin them. I’ll let it be a paradox (both/and) for you to sort out.

In this post I’d like to reflect on what Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s journey, the particular shape and pattern that myths from around the world share in common. Beyond their local differences and unique climes, these stories describe a path that is universal. As Campbell pointed out, we might attribute this similarity to cultural diffusion, where it moved outward from one (originating) society to the others by way of migration, conquest, commerce, or evangelism.

His own study inspired him to adopt a different explanation, however, which traces these universal themes, symbols, and storylines into the depths of human psychology. In this case, hero journeys across cultures trace a similar mythos (or narrative plot) because they emerge from and speak to what human beings everywhere experience in common. Another influence on my thinking was Northrop Frye, who in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature conducted an archaeological dig into Western literature, following the diamond vein still deeper into biblical myth, and there uncovered the archetypes of our storytelling imagination.

I will pick up here, in fact, by taking the major moves of the Bible as myth – not merely of the myths found in the Bible, but the Bible itself as constructed on a primary mythic pattern. Here we find three major moves anchored to geographical locations that serve more as timeless archetypes than specific places (here or there): the Garden, the Desert, and the City.

Genesis itself begins in a garden, and Revelation ends with the fulfillment of all things in a New Jerusalem, the city of God. In between is the desert, where the Hebrew slaves made their escape, the exiles reinvented Judaism, Jesus endured his temptations – and through which each of us must pass on our way to adulthood.

My proposal is that these three themes – Garden, Desert, and City – correspond to the three major phases in our growing up as human persons. Thus the Garden represents childhood, the Desert is the setting of youth, and the City stands for our establishment as adults. The storyline that links them together is the hero’s journey.

Part of the reason you selected the core value that you did has to do with your individual experience on this journey, a good portion of which was supervised by your parent(s) and other taller powers of the adult world. Your taller powers were responsible for you, and for your journey to be a success they needed to provide certain things to you early on.

The Garden is where (and when) your most basic needs for survival, comfort, and intimacy found their ‘answer’ in reality. You needed to experience reality as provident, as sufficient to your needs and a safe place to be. In a word, your parent(s) and other taller powers were responsible for your protection. In my diagram I have placed a triangle to symbolize what in psychology is called a secure base, which originally referred to mother and subsequently was transferred to other things, places, and people.

In the beginning it was natural for you to seek protection in your mother and attach yourself to her (in the positive, Western, sense of attachment). But eventually you needed to internalize your secure base, to self-soothe and rely more on your own ability instead of grabbing onto whatever and whomever could make you feel better (in the negative, Eastern, sense of attachment).

Just because you may have picked attachment as your core value doesn’t necessarily mean that you are insecure and emotionally dependent on others. You may have had a very positive and supportive experience in the Garden, which instilled in you a strong preference for connection, security, and belonging.

But as is required of every one of us in growing up, you eventually needed to let go of mother and leave the Garden for the journey ahead, on your way to becoming a self-standing and responsible adult. The Desert between Garden and City is a region of trials and tribulations, as we can find in hero myths all around the world. There is no ‘covering’ (the literal definition of protection) to hide beneath; exposure to the sun, extreme temperatures, and predators is a real danger.

As the Garden is associated with attachment, the Desert is about autonomy: learning how to take control, step into freedom, and strengthen your self-determination. Even before you formally left the Garden for the Desert, your parent(s) and other taller powers were encouraging you to “do it yourself.” Using the potty, tying your shoes, reading books on your own, and riding a bike: everyone had an interest in helping you become a less dependent member of the household.

Encouragement is a demonstration of love and is distinguished from compassion by its kind refusal on the part of the parent (or teacher, trainer, coach, or therapist) to take over and finish the task.

In addition to encouraging your effort, your parent(s) also had to empower you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources for what needed to be done. Again, empowerment is very different from the over-used tactic of intervention, where someone more capable steps in and helps the process along. Empowerment, on the other hand, typically takes more time and patience (which is why schools today prefer to intervene), but its far superior benefit is the individual’s self-confidence and inner strength.

Your autonomy therefore was a consequence of being both encouraged (“You can do it!”) and empowered (“Here’s how: Watch me, then you try”) in your progress toward taking control in your life. It’s associated with the Desert and its dangers because progress doesn’t always come easily, but is fraught with setbacks and numerous failed attempts. If your parent(s) and other taller powers – we should throw siblings and peers into the mix as well – were less helpful, patient, and forgiving, you may have learned that taking control was not safe. In failing to satisfy their expectations, you were risking the loss of their love and acceptance as well. Or it might be that their demands were impossible to ignore with impunity, so you became a “control freak” and perfectionist just to stay on their good side.

If the archetype of Mother (however close your actual mother came to incarnating it) represents a secure base where you could always go to to feel safe and loved, the archetype of Father (and to some degree your actual father or father figure) stands for what I call the proving circle. I’ve placed it in my diagram next to ‘achievement’ since it was (and still is) where your ability was tested and your accomplishments validated.

A critical part of becoming a responsible and productive adult involves submitting yourself to the judgment and feedback of others. Depending on how this feedback was delivered and how personally you took it, you came to regard yourself as an individual of worth with a valuable contribution to make. Or not so much.

The Desert, then, is where you learned how to accept the loss of having someone always looking after you, where you needed to be on your own in order to discover both your capacity and your limitations. It’s also where you learned the importance of determined effort (work) in getting where you want to go in life. And if all went well enough, you learned that risk – making yourself vulnerable to failure and rejection in your pursuit of what really matters – is a paradoxical amplifier of life’s meaning, for it is out of those experiences that we grow the most.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Fully Present

Fully PresentIn the Wisdom Circle I’m part of, conversation flows along tangents into topics that interest us or challenge our pursuit of a relevant secular spirituality. Whatever arena we wander into, it’s not just a new perspective we’re after, but some kind of meaningful and responsible course of action. Given such-and-such, what can we do in the interest of greater honesty, integrity, and effectiveness? Our objective in every case is to clarify how a fully engaged spirituality might affect or transform the way we live in this world.

I am reminded of the diagnostic matrix used in conventional psychotherapy for identifying and treating a client’s peculiar form of suffering. Typically a strong and overwhelming feeling of unhappiness is what first motivates an individual to seek professional help, and it’s here that interpretation begins. And as such feeling will commonly exert either a suppressive or compulsive effect on behavior, sapping one’s drive or spurring conduct that only adds to the problem, any counselor who’s paying attention will also look carefully at what the client is doing.

After the linkage between feeling and behavior has been established, the task of therapy becomes one of bringing to light the associated thoughts and beliefs which have the client locked in a mindset that is perhaps irrational, unrealistic, juvenile, or delusional. As thinking provides an overlay of commentary on suffering – adding justification, self-judgment, conspiracy theories, or just more confusion to the pain – it is necessary to get this storyteller out of the closet and into the light of interrogation. It is hoped that by changing up the mental script a client will begin to feel better about things, start acting differently, and thereafter produce more positive results.

In the diagram above, a red line from feeling to doing represents that irresistible impulse to act in ways that perpetuate or amplify an individual’s suffering. The curved green line is meant to illustrate that elevation into thinking which will expose the faulty logic and distorted beliefs keeping it all in play. Higher elevation into thinking involves the individual in more rational reflection and discrimination, where the driving narrative of one’s personal myth can be analyzed, updated, and strategically modified.

In our Western psychology of mental health, these three correlates – feeling, doing, and thinking – form the ‘holy trinity’ of therapy. The better therapies work with all three in a more or less balanced way. Nevertheless, each one has also been favored over the others in the major schools of medicinal (feeling), behavioral (doing), and cognitive (thinking) therapy. Competition among these schools has prompted research into which modality is superior, or what combination of factors represents our magic door to mental health.

Interestingly enough, the research has shown all of them to be about equally effective, and maybe the results improve a little when they are combined in some way. But ‘effective’ here doesn’t mean significantly effective. In fact, they perform just slightly better than placebo and often come with side-effects no one wants. Research consistently bears out the greater influence of another factor, quite apart from the specific treatment protocol: The quality of relationship between therapist and client (called the therapeutic alliance) proves to be the real magic door. Any why is that?

In my diagram, the deeper essence of this fourth factor is identified as the individual’s sense of grounding in a reality that is supportive and provident. Obviously, a therapist (or anyone else) who is welcoming, trustworthy, empathetic, insightful, and encouraging will demonstrate such a reality to the client. The ‘alliance’ part of this involves an individual in gradually calming down, finding ground, getting centered, and opening up to the other person. The more open a client becomes, the more confirmation he or she receives that reality is provident and supportive, which in turn encourages an even deeper release and a larger horizon of faith. This is the dimension of being (be).

This factor of grounding offers a fourth correlate in a more complete picture of mental health and happiness. Changing how we think with talk therapy, how we feel with drug therapy, and/or what we do with behavior therapy is not enough. I have drawn lines from each of these three to the grounding mystery within, because it’s only as they are internally grounded that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be genuinely creative. Otherwise, insecurity will tend to hijack our faculties and generate a delusion of our separateness (isolated, exposed, defensive, critical, judgmental, etc.) – where true happiness is impossible.

You’ll notice that the line between think and be is actually an arrow, from the latter to the former. Because thinking is the mental activity by which we construct meaning and build out a worldview, it is vitally important that its product (i.e., our perspective on and orientation in reality) is properly grounded in the way things really are.

No doubt this reveals my cognitive bias, but enough of my own experience and observation of others has convinced me that until our thinking is reality-oriented and the meaning we construct is sufficiently clear-sighted to acknowledge that the grounding mystery cannot be captured in words or theories, we will tend to become prisoners of our own convictions and fall that much farther out of touch. By the time that happens, how we feel and what we do have been commandeered by a distorted, outdated, and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A human being is a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment. Ideally we live our lives as passionate and reasonable people, growing ever more proficient in the skills that help us be successful individuals, partners, parents, community members, and citizens.

The big question has to do with the degree in which we have realized our full potential, evolved our consciousness, and found our way back to the place it all begins, right here and now.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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How Do You Lean Into Reality?

Compass MandalaWho among us can resist the invitation to identify ourselves on some grid or scale or chart of personality characteristics? As long as we don’t have to feel as if we are being stuffed inside a box or stabbed to a pin-board, classified and labeled as only this, the exercise can be endlessly fascinating. There’s nothing ego enjoys more than gazing into a mirror. The mystery of what we are, underneath who we think we are, lures us into contemplation, willing to check boxes or circle numbers that promise to unveil “the real me.”

There is a strong industry in personality testing designed to help us understand ourselves, get along with others, and find the secret to a happy (or happier, since it’s never enough) and more successful life. To be honest, Americans probably top the chart when it comes to vanity and self-obsession. We spend more money and effort on improving ourselves – enhancements, reductions, tucks, infusions, exotic therapies, and best-selling self-help programs – perhaps mostly because we’ve been conditioned to measure ourselves against the perfect fakes of celebrity culture.

So, I appreciate you stopping at my booth to see what I have to offer. You’ll be glad to hear that I have no questionnaire for you to fill out or pre-cut “types” for you to try on. What I offer is a simple way to identify how you lean into reality and make sense of life. Similar to the popular personality type-finders, we will begin with some key terms that distinguish major ways that all human beings engage with the Big Show. What It’s All About will vary across interpretations according to our individual preferences, inclinations, and concerns – that is to say, how we lean into reality.

My use of a compass analogy (see the illustration) is intended to make the point that we lean into reality not only by virtue of the way we have been wired and conditioned, but also in response to the situational and developmental challenges that life brings our way. Regardless of where you’re going, a compass can provide reference and orientation, although it can’t tell you where to go or how to get there. It will faithfully tell you where north is, without insisting that you always (or ever) travel in that direction. In the same way, my compass model can help clarify your preference for leaning into reality, but it won’t point you to a goal and prescribe your path.

Let’s begin with some definition around the cardinal terms of my compass model.

Reason (North)

You might be someone who leans into reality with Reason, which means that you have a preference for rational, logical, and objective modes of engagement. To look for the “reason” in things is to search for causes, patterns, principles and ideas that correlate and unify the myriad data-points of experience.

Urgency (South)

Standing opposite of Reason is Urgency, which is all about what needs to happen NOW. Urgency is rooted in urges, in the pulsing, throbbing, and driving desire of life itself. If you lean into reality with Urgency, you have a preference for embodied, visceral, and instinctive modes of engagement.

Passion (West)

If you lean into reality with Passion, your preference is to be moved – attracted, enticed, inspired, provoked – to an experience of intense feeling. Passion doesn’t typically initiate the experience it seeks, but opens to reality in an attitude of expectancy, excitement, and romantic adventure.

Purpose (East)

Standing opposite of Passion is Purpose, which is more about intention than objective. In other words, leaning into reality with Purpose – or as we say, “on purpose” – speaks to a kind of mindful engagement with what’s going on, at least as much as where it’s going or whether a goal is reached.


You might notice how the cardinal terms on my compass match up in interesting ways to the geographical orientation of world cultures, with northern zones tending to be more rational, southern zones more sensual, western zones more romantic, and eastern zones more meditative. Once again we need to be careful not to pigeon-hole entire cultures and ethnic groups, just as we want to keep our options open as individuals. But the correlation is at least a curious one.

As you consider these four general preferences, you will probably realize that one term alone is insufficient in representing how you lean into reality. For instance, you might see yourself as oriented by a combination of Reason and Purpose, in which case your preference would be more of a northeast (NE) style (or EN, if Purpose is stronger than Reason) than a straightforward North or East. Or maybe you tend to combine Passion and Urgency, in which case your preference would be more of a southwest (SW) style (or WS, if Passion is stronger than Urgency) than a straightforward South or West.

My personal observation is that if we strictly identify ourselves by one cardinal preference alone, the term opposite to it on the compass will often haunt our happiness and success as a menacing “shadow” principle. This doesn’t imply that it is sinister or diabolical, necessarily (although it can show up in such guises as the Trickster, Devil, or Adversary), but only that its status as a denied or excluded part of ourselves forces it to break in where it’s not welcome. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that such unreconciled splits within ourselves are ultimately behind the conflicts we have with each other.

The ideal, I suppose, would be a dynamic balance among all four orientations. By that I don’t mean that we should strive to occupy the center of my compass, in an imperturbable state of absolute neutrality – which is a pretty good definition of what it means to be dead. Rather, a dynamic balance would mean we still have our preferred way of leaning into reality, but that we are not so “convicted” (held captive) by it that we can’t shift and adapt our mode of engagement to creatively meet the challenge of a new situation.

Finally, there is the question of how this idea of leaning into reality and the four cardinal preferences might help us better understand why we click or clash with the other people in our lives. Does an “opposite type” (across the compass) or an “adjacent type” (in a position next to ours) make a better life partner, coworker, teammate, or friend? Or should we be looking for associates just like ourselves, who hold essentially the same beliefs, values, and motives as we do?

Personally, I don’t vote for that last one.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2015 in The Creative Life

 

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