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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Enjoyment of Wellbeing

A large number, maybe even the majority of us are managing unhappiness from day to day. We have hope that the script will flip and we’ll break through to something more satisfying, but the wheel turns again and we find ourselves in the same old cage as before. By god, we want to be happy, but there are just so many things that seem to get in the way.

There’s always tomorrow.

If we understood the cause of our unhappiness, perhaps we could snap out of it. Our tendency is to blame things and other people outside ourselves for how we feel. Our circumstances are the reason we’re stuck; that’s why we’re unhappy. Which of course means that our hope for happiness awaits a better job, a different spouse, a new set of circumstances. If the problem is outside of us, the solution must be as well … or so we tend to believe.

But it isn’t outside of us, neither the problem nor the solution. Understanding our unhappiness and why we spend all this time and energy trying to manage it is the only way through. Otherwise all we’re left with is hanging curtains in our prison cell to make it seem more like home.

The question we need to ask is how we got into this cage in the first place. Logically if we reverse our steps and unwind the script that landed us here, we should be able to make some different choices.

Let me start this process by distinguishing between what I’ll name primary concerns and ultimate concerns. Primary concerns arrived at our door even before we had the capacity to reflect on them. In fact, the deepest of these primary concerns pokes our nervous system far below conscious thought, at the very roots of self-consciousness.

Security is our sense of being supported in a reality that is safe and provident. As this spontaneous feeling depends to a great extent on the nurturing love and attention we received as newborns, our sense of security – and of reality at large – is a function of having caring and able parents.

But you know what? No parent is perfect, and every family system has endemic dysfunctions with histories trailing back into ancestral generations. Our mother couldn’t be present every time a pang, ache, or startle announced itself. Our father didn’t always respond with the motherly compassion we were expecting. As a result, insecurity gained a foothold in our nervous system – just a toe perhaps, or some greater degree of magnitude. But there it was. Maybe reality wasn’t so safe and provident after all.

The thing that makes a sense of security problematic, of course, is the fact that reality is not all that secure. Accidents do happen. Normal processes stray into abnormalities. We don’t get what we need right when we need it. Sometimes we just don’t get what we need, period.

When this misalignment between our needs and reality occurs at a level where we are most dependent on what’s outside ourselves, the insecurity can be overwhelming and debilitating.

When we feel sufficiently secure – not perfectly, but sufficiently – we are enabled to begin taking control in our life where necessary and appropriate. Gradually we find our center and begin relying less on our taller powers and other props. We learn how to control our sphincters, our movement, our fingers, our tongue, our temper, our thoughts, and our actions. This primary concern of control is essential to our sense of integrity: of how well our identity and our life hold together, persisting through time and across circumstances as a unified system.

But when we are insecure, this natural progress toward control gets complicated. The feeling that we are not safe and that reality is not provident may compel us to grab on for relief to whatever is nearby. Or we might insist on clinging to our supports longer so we can continue borrowing on the stability they provide.

In either case, our insistence on control (but not in the healthy sense) locks us up inside a web of neurotic attachments, with an unrealistic expectation and impossible demand that they deliver on our need to feel secure. That’s what the cage represents in my diagram above.

In this condition, freedom, the third of our primary concerns, is simply not possible. Besides, the very idea of freedom provokes anxiety in us since it would mean being without all these safety strings attached. The prospect of living outside the cage is terrifying when we’re convinced that reality is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Having all we need to feel secure in our prison (though not really), we may only dream of freedom. But we will sure as hell never leave what we have for its sake. This is what I mean by “managing unhappiness.”

The short dotted arrow extending vertically from primary concerns to ultimate concerns indicates that while the process of development would normally cross this threshold, many of us choose to stay inside the bars. True enough, we probably don’t see this as a choice we’re making but simply as the way things are.

We are just making our way as best we can, except that this ‘way’ is going nowhere. Time’s circle finds us in the same state of mind as the day before, as the year before. And even if we manage to exchange one disappointing relationship for another, the same neurotic insecurity soon enough makes it just another prison.

Before we leave this tragic condition, I should make the point that all our chronic troubles as a species can be traced to this preoccupation with managing unhappiness. All of them. It’s even likely that a majority of our medical ailments and diseases are psychosomatic – not merely comorbid with our neurotic insecurity, but caused by it.

Think of all the economic, political, and religious strife over the millenniums with its cost in terms of hopes trashed, lives lost, futures foreclosed. All because we are convicts of our own convictions, hostages to ideologies we have ourselves created in the expectation that maybe this, maybe that will bring us what we presently lack.

A few have found liberation, though not from the insecurity of existence. They realize that life is not perfectly secure, and neither is their longevity or individual prosperity guaranteed. Their key realization, however, has to do with the difference between the inherent insecurity of our situation and the open option of allowing that fact to shake our nerves to shreds.

There is always the option (which is why it is qualified as ‘open’) of releasing the anxiety, recovering our center, taking control where we need to, and choosing another way. Not a different partner or profession, but something that ultimately matters.

Only when freedom is embraced and not abandoned for the false security of a cage, are we able to direct our creativity and devotion beyond the management of unhappiness. The first of our ultimate concerns is purpose, which refers not to someone else’s agenda for us – even a patron deity of religion – but to our own commitment to live intentionally. When we live ‘on purpose’ we are more aware of where we are, not just our physical location but more importantly where we are in the moving stream of our life.

Opportunity reveals itself only to the one who is paying attention, who is purposefully engaged.

Perhaps the most important engagement of a life lived on purpose is with the construction of meaning. Whereas the millions who are managing unhappiness believe that life is meaningful or meaningless as a matter of fact, those living on purpose understand that life just is what it is, and that its meaning is up for us to decide. In this respect meaning is a function of the value, identity, and significance we link to things, to other people, and to the events of life.

This entire system of linkages constitutes what we call our world. Worlds are human constructions, and each of us is responsible for our own.

Meaning isn’t only an individual affair, however, since our personal worlds are nested inside larger tribal and cultural worlds. The overlaps and intersections are places where we find agreements, differences, misunderstandings, or conflicts, as the case may be. Obviously – or I should say, what is obvious to the person who is living on purpose and taking responsibility for the meaning of his or her life – whether this greater scene is a marketplace, a wilderness, or a battlefield depends a lot on our guiding principle of truth.

Is there an absolute and final meaning of life? Many who are managing unhappiness inside their prisons believe so. Indeed they must so believe because life is only bearable if there is a meaning beyond question – an infallible, absolute, fixed and transcendent meaning that makes our searching, fighting, dying, and killing for its sake worthwhile.

Or maybe meaning is never final. Maybe our world construction project will never be finished. Maybe it’s not just about how reality-oriented (i.e., factual and evidence-based) our world is, but also how effectively it facilitates our fulfillment as individuals. By this I don’t mean just another synonym for feeling happy. To be ‘filled full’ is about reaching our capacity, realizing our full potential, filling out into a fully self-actualized human being.

Because meaning and world are anchored to us as persons, fulfillment is necessarily apocalyptic: we see that our world is not the last word, that there is life (authentic life) on the other side of meaning, and that this larger experience is profoundly transpersonal – bigger than us, beyond us, including us but not revolving around us as we once believed.

Our quality of life at this level can be described as enjoying wellbeing, where being well and being whole inspire a deep joy in being alive. This doesn’t mean that things always go our way or that we always get what we want. Existence is still inherently insecure and nobody’s perfect. But we have released our demand that it be otherwise.

Happiness will come and go. Our circumstances and life conditions will inevitably change. Only now we can let it be. In time, more of us will leave our prisons where we manage unhappiness from day to day, to take responsibility for our lives, stepping mindfully and with gratitude into each moment we are given.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Creatures and Creators

nature_cultureHuman beings are creatures of nature. Our physiology and complex nervous system are products of the evolution of life on planet Earth, and the roots of our genetic code are entwined with countless other life-forms. Some mythological accounts notwithstanding, our species evolved over many millions of years and we are utterly dependent on the web of life which is our home.

Human beings are also creators of culture. Our advanced brain and nervous system have endowed us with exceptional social, cognitive, and artistic abilities by which we have erected a profoundly complex habitat of meaning – symbols, language, architecture, technology, commerce, and worldviews. Culture wasn’t here before we arrived, but emerged gradually as this creative synergy continued to evolve. As distinct from the web of life mentioned earlier, culture is the web of meaning that we humans spin out of our minds and then take up residence within.

In the long run of our evolution, then, we were first creatures (and still are) and over time became creators. The more invested and involved we became in the production of culture, the more we tended also to lose our sense of membership in, and responsibility to, the natural realm. On the big-picture scale of things, the reality of our living body and its provident environment is the grounding mystery out of which mind has emerged to construct a home and contemplate the turning mystery of the cosmos.

As beings we are expressions of being-itself; as human beings we are privileged to look out on the wonder of existence and participate in the great community of life.

In my diagram, a diagonal arrow ascends from the bottom-left signifying our evolutionary path toward self-actualization, by which I mean the activation-into-maturity of our full capacity as a species. As Alan Watts often said, just as an apple tree “apples,” so our planet (and the universe itself) “peoples.” Each of us is a late-arriving manifestation of the universal process, the cosmos both looking out on its own Great Body and looking into its own Deep Soul through the intelligence that we are.

I have elsewhere associated these two lenses of human intelligence – one looking out and the other looking within – as science and spirituality, respectively. For millenniums they have mutually confirmed our intuition that All is One and that We’re All in This Together.

This, I would say, is the prime discovery of our species, and all of our most important endeavors are in one way or another searching out, pondering on, and celebrating what it means. Instinct keeps us rooted in the life-force, Tradition conserves our identity and way of life, Innovation presses us into new possibilities, and Wisdom invites us to higher wholeness – or, as the times demand, it also warns us against damaging the whole and thereby foreclosing on our future.

The long course of our evolution stretches from survival to well-being, from self-preservation to self-actualization, and our challenge has been to hold these very different value systems in balance.

In my diagram again, “nature” and “culture” are depicted as comprising a color gradient between them. Across my many blog posts and graphics, black represents the animal nature of our body, purple represents the higher self of our soul, and the orange in between them stands for our inner child, ego consciousness, and personal identity – depending on the context of consideration. It is in this ‘orange zone’ that we get hung up, held back, pushed down or pulled apart by the various neuroses of insecurity.

All of the great spiritual teachings share a suspicion against this nervous bundle of personal identity, as somehow the culprit responsible for our chronic suffering, strained relationships, intertribal violence, and life-degrading consumerism.

It is this cult of personal identity, centered around our altar to ego, that gets us so self-involved that we forget our essential nature as fellow creatures (siblings not masters) and world creators (artisans not shoppers). In the effort of managing our insecurity we cling to what (and to whom) we expect will make us feel better, but only really manage to entangle ourselves in these attachments and magnify our misery. For that we take medications, throw ourselves into distractions, or maybe sell our soul to some form of bigoted dogmatism.

What we can’t understand – and likely couldn’t accept even if we did understand – is that ego cannot be liberated. “I” am a prisoner of what defines me, as my identity is inextricably tied to those trappings of tribe, nation, ideology and ambition that make me who I am. In order to advance along the path of self-actualization to fulfillment and genuine well-being, this neurotic little tightwad must completely unwind, dying to its own seed-form (as Jesus taught) or dropping the illusion of its separate self (as the Buddha taught) for the sake of a larger and fuller experience of life.

Oftentimes, even when this shining truth is glimpsed, it has been immediately corrupted into a program for saving the ego rather than moving beyond it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should aspire to a life without identity, devoid of ego, and utterly detached inside some metaphysical bubble of bliss. That, too, is a gross misunderstanding and corruption of the shining truth, one that often leads into a labyrinth of esoteric nonsense and kitsch religion, lacking all relevance to daily life. To repeat, our challenge is neither to glorify the ego nor to pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather to rise above and move beyond its self-centered vantage on reality; to step through the curtain and rejoin the universe, already 14 billion years underway.


In my diagram are also represented the four strands of our Quadratic Intelligence – visceral (VQ: needs), emotional (EQ: feelings), rational (RQ: thoughts), and spiritual (SQ: intuitions). Even though I don’t focus on them explicitly in this post, they are included to provide some cross-reference for my returning reader. Go here for a deeper dig into Quadratic Intelligence. You can also search “quadratic intelligence” for additional posts on the topic.

 

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The Supreme Paradox

Supreme ParadoxI’ve written before on what I call the Matrix of Meaning, referring to a deep code of primary concerns and narrative motifs that generates the very fabric of our worldview. A sense of self and reality is the central construct in our personal myth, orienting us on the pressing challenges and emerging opportunities in our journey through life. The Matrix is deceptively simple in design, but the patterns of meaning it can produce are beyond number. Your life story and personal worldview are very different from mine, but the same Matrix of concerns and motifs is behind them both.

My first-time reader needs to know that I am a constructivist and employ the term ‘myth’ in its more technical (rather than popular) sense, as a narrative plot that holds the body of a story together and drives its action. Although we may have authorial liberties regarding the style and idiosyncratic features of our personal myth, the deeper structure is determined by what the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Ananke, or Necessity. In other words, how you respond to adversity, hardship, pain and loss is unique to you as an individual, but the inevitability of suffering is universal for human beings. This was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth.

My diagram depicts the Four Ages of individual development, and these, too, are universal archetypes in mythology: the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. I’ve indicated the average years over a lifetime when we transition from one to the next, but these shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors. The developmental challenge of a given Age might not be successfully negotiated, in which case our neurotic hangups around its primary concern will be carried into the next challenge, compounding our difficulty in making it through. Indeed, the fact that none of us gets out of childhood without some insecurity throws light on the question of why the human journey can be so damned complicated.

Northup Frye’s four literary types are also included in my diagram, each one corresponding to an Age and its driving concern. Comedy is the up-swing to ‘happily ever after’. Romance follows the heroic quest for an ideal. Tragedy descends the plunge-line of misfortune. Irony provides a double-vision between what is said at the surface and what is meant underneath. Our personal myth will predictably move through these distinct narrative frames, forcing us to adapt our construction of meaning to the shifting focus of our life in time. Although many have tried, any attempt to impose a frame of comedy over the reality of suffering only ends up forfeiting a potentially life-changing insight behind a veil of denial and make-believe. Needless to say, otherworldly religion is especially good at this.

The multicolored arc across my diagram represents the progression of consciousness through an ‘animistic’ body-centered stage (color-coded black), through a ‘theistic’ ego-centered stage (orange), and farther into a ‘post-theistic’ soul-centered mode of life (purple). Only a small minority are willing, or even able, to release personal identity (ego) for a deeper mystical realization and larger ethical vision. The rest of us fall in line with the status quo, take refuge inside our convictions, and succumb to the consensus trance. This is when theism can become pathological and our god starts looking like a glorified version of ourselves – a moody, judgmental, and self-righteous bigot.

My purpose in touring through the diagram in such detail is to lift into view the paradoxes in play throughout. The security of early childhood is in polar tension with the suffering that comes on as we mature. Much of suffering has to do with the loss of attachments that anchor identity and meaning for us, but which also represent for us a reality that is safe and supportive. Security and suffering, as primary concerns coded into the Matrix of Meaning, are paradoxically related. It’s not security or suffering, but the tension between security and suffering that drives our construction of meaning. Similarly, freedom and fate are polar opposites, making the interplay of our control in life and the conditions outside our control a second creative opposition. Freedom and fate only seem to exclude each other, while real wisdom involves learning to live inside and with their polarity.

This consideration of the paradoxes inherent to the Matrix of Meaning, and how these concerns compel us to make meaning that is at once relevant to our situation in life and capable of orienting us successfully throughout our journey, brings me to what I’ll call the supreme paradox. I refer my reader back to the diagram, specifically to that arrow arcing across from left to right. This represents the arc of our lifespan, tracking through the Four Ages (if we live long enough) from birth to death.

Especially during the first half of life, and most critically in those early years, we experience the uplifting support of reality in our growing body, a nurturing family system, and a wide world of opportunity. Such a conspiracy of virtuous forces instills in us a deep assurance of reality as the ground of our existence. We are the living manifestations of a 14 billion year-old process, a flower of consciousness emerged from this magnificent universe, the cosmos contemplating itself in wonder. Surely this is the root inspiration of true religion: the ineffable sense of being sustained by a provident reality, coming to be and living our days under the watchful intention of a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. All the mythological gods who provide us with nourishment, protection, guidance, and solace are metaphorical personifications of this provident ground of existence.

There are other gods as well, who begin peeking in as our exposure to reality becomes more complicated and challenging. These are dark forces – tricksters, shadowy forms, and unseen solvents that slowly erode the foundations of our neat and tidy worlds. Yes, reality is the provident ground of existence, but it is also the inescapable abyss of extinction. Coming-to-be and passing-away are the paradoxical reality of our life in time. We may want only a reality that supports and promotes our rise into identity, safekeeping our existence forever and ever, but that’s not how it is.

As Carl Jung pointed out many times and Lao Tzu made the central insight of his reflections on the way (Tao), light and dark are not absolutely exclusive of each other. Rather, they swirl together, pulling and pushing, blending and separating in the dance of reality, generating the ten thousand things and dissolving them simultaneously into the ineffable secret of the Tao which cannot be named.

 

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Telling Stories, Coming True

As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.

We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.

To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).

I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.

monomythThe diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.

The Monomyth

At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.

I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.

We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.

This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).

Comedy

Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.

Romance

Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.

Tragedy

Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.

Irony

The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.

The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.


When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.

Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.

 

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This Is Your Life!

Nature took a huge risk in giving our species self-control and free will. Of course, I need to qualify these terms right away, as our self-control and free will are really quite limited. But the degree in which we have these is behind most of what today we celebrate (and sometimes regret) as our distinctly human contribution to life on this planet.

When in our prehistory this endowment occurred is impossible to say, but if our individual development through the lifespan recapitulates the timing and sequence of our evolution as a species, then we can confidently say that it began early. In all honesty we have to admit that it’s probably still in process, seeing as how so much of our tribulation along with the collateral damage we are causing is a consequence of our immaturity and neurotic hangups around self-control and free will. Self-control achieves a liberation of creative energy from the compulsive drives and reflexes of instinct, while free will invites the question of how this creative energy will be otherwise invested.

The beneficiary (and executor-in-training) of this endowment is that peculiar little miracle called the ego. For thousands and perhaps millions of years, the human body and soul have changed very little. The outward orientation of consciousness to its surroundings and the inward orientation to its own grounding mystery are essentially the same today as they were at the dawn of our history. The difference – and the difference-maker – across that great span of time has been this center of self-conscious identity: the “I” (ego).

As I said, although it may have begun to appear many millenniums ago – in the “childhood” of our species – we are at present certainly farther along but (just as certainly) significantly short of where we need to be. Nature’s gamble is still in play. It’s reasonable to assume that our evolutionary progress as a species advances according to how far we are individually able to develop and use our creative energy for the greater good. Our individual hangups may hinder human progress more than we realize or want to admit.Arc LifespanMy diagram above illustrates the timing and sequence of human development as it tracks with the formation of ego consciousness. The arcing magenta-colored arrow represents the lifespan, which I’ve divided into four periods – the early life of a Child, followed by the age of Youth, maturing into a longer period of an Adult, and culminating in the late life of an Elder. Before I dig deeper into each of these four periods, let’s stay at this level of resolution and think about the major ideas carried in my diagram: Ground, Character, and Destiny.

Character is first of all a literary term referring to personalities (human or otherwise) that are introduced and developed in stories. At first introduction a literary figure is a cosmetic placeholder, just a name filled in with the bare details we need to know as an audience. As the story progresses we are given more information and observe this personality in various situations of challenge, agency, and reaction. Over time (which means farther along the narrative) the figure takes on weight and consistency, to the extent that we can reasonably predict how he or she will behave next.

That’s what I mean by character: the habit of identity that accumulates around individuals as they follow their inclinations (or restrain them), respond to their circumstances (or hide from them), and choose their path through life (or look for excuses). The one doing all of this is ego, which makes character the “weight and consistency” that determines identity as time goes on. I’ve tried to illustrate this increasing influence of character on identity by the color gradient of the word (getting darker and heavier from left to right).

Destiny refers to the culmination of development, to what I have elsewhere called the “apotheosis” of the individual and evolutionary fulfillment of our species. Its most important meaning is subjective – that is to say, the clarity of vision that individuals, communities, or even entire generations have concerning the longer purpose of their existence. The color gradient of this word is also intended to suggest that this future vision becomes more vivid and attractive with the formation of character.

The third big idea represented in my diagram is Ground, which should be familiar to my readers. Ground is not some thing, but the generative source and support of all things; it is being-itself. Also called the grounding mystery, it’s the internal wellspring of existence accessible only by the descending path of introspective meditation. Even though it’s the best and most widely used metaphor for this mystery, “ground” is still only a conceptual qualification for what cannot be named or known. This ineffable nature of the grounding mystery makes it a limitless source of inspiration, which helps to explain the lush variety of mythopoetic depictions of God across the world religions.

But let’s come back to character, as it’s really the central idea of my diagram. Our evolutionary endowment of self-control and free will tracks with the gradual ascent of ego consciousness, as the individual increasingly becomes a “separate” center of identity. I put that word in quotes to remind us that separateness, along with the associated delusion of independence, is really only an apparent separateness (and independence) and is itself dependent on a crisscrossing system of suspension wires called agreements or beliefs.

In other words, who (we think) we are is nothing more than a function of what we attach ourselves to or push away from, constituting an “identity contract” that characterizes us (literally) as “for” this or “against” that. The identity contract itself will record various subsets of attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and responsibilities that fill out what a given role entails.

As we advance along the arc of our lifespan we are taking on additional identity contracts, even as we step out of others and leave them behind. The more defined our identity is, the stronger our character is, since character is nothing but the “weight and consistency” that identity accumulates in the process of becoming somebody (ego). On balance, the older we are the more identity contracts we are likely to hold. A newborn baby has no ego as yet, but soon enough she will begin taking on agreements and entering identity contracts with the powers that be.

The formation of character is thus a life-long project. But this project doesn’t proceed in a haphazard manner; we don’t simply take on identity contracts at random. Instead I will suggest that the arc of ego development moves through distinct evolutionary fields that coincide roughly with chronological periods of time – the four ages of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. The age thresholds indicated in the diagram (10, 25, 60) shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors, but rather as average ages at which an individual is likely to cross over from one major period (or evolutionary field) to the next.

Each age is oriented on an existential concern, which in a previous post (“Myth and the Matrix of Meaning”: http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2) I named a primary concern that acts as a magnetic attractor of values and interests. Now I can place these primary or existential concerns in the developmental context of an individual lifespan, specifically in this chronological order: security (Child), freedom (Youth), suffering (Adult), and fate (Elder). I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing an individual thinks about or dwells on in a given period. Obviously there is much else going on. The point, however, is that each existential concern – even if not explicitly registered in consciousness – pulls all other values into its gravity.

The remaining components of my diagram are “mood” (at the deep center) and four literary modes, or types of story (along the periphery of the arc). I am borrowing these modes from the work of Northrup Frye, a giant in twentieth-century literary criticism.

Mood is a kind of mode in its own right, referring to the physical-emotional state of the nervous system persisting over time. Our experience of life is profoundly conditioned (filtered, shaped, limited, and oriented) by our prevailing mood, which is how provident we feel reality is as it concerns our security, freedom, suffering, and fate. The ideal physical-emotional state is what we might name confidence (or faith), an inner assurance that the present mystery of reality supports us in our need.

During each of the four ages of life (Child, Youth, Adult, Elder) the individual is composing a life narrative (or if you will, a personal myth) that organizes his or her experience around the stage-relevant existential concern. One mode of story is the comedy, which constructs a narrative about security (home, supervision, protection, resources), the invasion of security threats, and the successful defense of home base. A comedy in this sense is not necessarily a “funny” story, but rather carries an optimistic confidence that everything is going to be all right or “happily ever after.”

Just as a comedy isn’t necessarily “comical,” a romance isn’t always “romantic” in the sappy sense. As a literary mode, romance is a story about freedom (adventure, risk, discovery, inspiration), the trials that wait beyond the horizon, and the validation of desire for a worthy ideal. Romance has an obvious correlation to the age of Youth, when an individual typically grows bored with the current world-order and pushes the boundaries of fashion, propriety, safety, and moral permission.

To associate adulthood with suffering and tragedy should elicit protest – but maybe not from adults themselves. The plot-curve of tragedy trends in a definite downward direction, engaging along the way in experiences of suffering (pain, obligation, sacrifice, loss), typically without an upward reversal of fortune to make it all better. The Buddha’s dictum that “life is suffering” rings true for many adults who have to learn the art of living with pain, of reconciling their youthful dreams to actual achievement, and carrying on after the loss of friends, employment, or aging parents.

As an individual progresses into the age of an Elder, the boundaries of what is possible begin to collapse more closely to the limits of reality. Since one’s character is largely the product of all that’s happened, of all the choices made, of the way things just happened to shake out, is it a fallacy to believe that all of it is as it had to be? What good is wishing it had been otherwise? In the greater scheme of things there may be limits and necessities that ultimately call the shots – what the ancients called fate. The literary mode of irony provides a double vision on the narrative, where the self-control and free will of its characters are contained and determined by the story itself. Just as in real life, the last period on the final sentence brings everything to an end.

Now, while that seems like a needlessly pessimistic note to end on, let’s remember that wisdom – the esteemed virtue of later life – is an understanding of how to live in harmony with the greater rhythms, higher wholeness, present mystery, and terminal conditions of our life in time. Before we shuttle our elders off to nursing homes, we might honor their lives and really listen to their stories.

 

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Meaning and Paradox

A while back in a post entitled Myth and the Matrix of Meaning I offered a way of understanding our personal and cultural myths (referring simply to a narrative plot, from the Greek mythos) as constructed upon a deep system of codes (matrix) which generate the concerns and motifs that preoccupy us as human beings. If our lives are to have meaning, the stories we tell and put into action must orient us meaningfully inside this matrix.

Meaning is not something we look for and find in reality, but rather something we as humans project onto reality. We spin meaning like a spider spins a web: it comes out of us, anchors to the matrix at specific points (which I’ll review in a moment), stretches across the present mystery of reality, and serves as a habitat. So the popular notion of our “search for meaning” is fundamentally mistaken. If we find meaning, it’s only because someone else put it there. Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a floor clipping of our own or an unpublished draft we don’t remember setting aside long ago.

The belief that meaning is out there to be discovered is part of the heritage of theism, which, particularly in its monotheistic variant, promotes the myth that (a) god purposefully created the universe and made it meaning-full. Our “search for meaning,” then, is coming behind god and finding what he put there beforehand. Conceivably there is nothing that does not “have” meaning; we just need the intelligence and wisdom to discover it, or else count on some angel or ordained expert to reveal it to us. As theism loses currency these days, more and more people are having to come to terms with the responsibility of making the meaningful life they want.

The matrix of meaning consists of four primary human concerns and four narrative motifs. Each concern and motif exists in polarity with another concern or motif. Thus the concern of Security stands in opposition to that of Suffering, while Freedom stands opposite of Fate. Other creative and interesting relationships among the primary concerns are the more lateral associations of each concern with its neighbors on either side. Similarly the motifs comprise oppositions of Love and War, Work and Play. This dynamic of polarity – opposites that are connected along a continuum – gives the matrix its creative energy.

For a deeper dig into the primary concerns and narrative motifs making up the matrix, you might be interested in the post referenced earlier. At this point, however, I want to explore the composition of meaning as it is spun around, between, and across these supercharged polarities of the matrix.

Web of Meaning_MatrixFirst Zone of Meaning: Neutrality

The design of the matrix, as illustrated in the above diagram and already mentioned, is all about polarity. If we could go to the very center of all this creative opposition we would arrive at a point where each polarity is effectively neutralized, approaching a kind of perfect and non-energetic equilibrium. One set of stories that human beings weave defines a zone in the web of meaning (colored bronze in the diagram) which I will name neutrality. This is where we feel comfortable and things are “manageable” – stress and conflict are minimal, we are holding it together, and things are copacetic.

When life is fairly predictable and we know our way around, a trance state can start to set in. Living our lives doesn’t require much deliberation, as the routine pushes us along and behavior becomes automatic. Humans perhaps have a natural preference for neutrality, where the situational requirements on our active attention and focused effort are reduced and we can accomplish our daily tasks without too much mental investment.

It is also in this first zone of meaning that the more profound insights into reality picked up by sage philosophers and mystics are “dumbed down” into the platitudes and catchphrases of pop-culture. We think that repeating a fifty-cent affirmation at the beginning of each day will fill us with spiritual vitality, or that going to church will add significance to our lives. We glorify our messiahs and turn shamans into celebrities, then give them book deals and send them into early retirement.

Second Zone of Meaning: Conflict

Moving out from the center puts us deeper into the countervailing forces of polarity, where the strain of this-against-that is acutely felt. This zone of meaning (defined by a mauve strand in the web) is definitely not comfortable and our well-practiced habits of life don’t move us very effectively through the stress. Consequently it amplifies into distress, interfering with our ability to manage well, think straight, and accomplish our goals. Quite often our disturbed state will upset the status quo in our relationships, stirring up miscommunication and discord.

One short-term value of conflict is that it can focus us in an instant, which makes it a common tactic of politicians and preachers when they want to jolt their constituents and congregations out of complacency. Conflict just feels electric and alive. Occasionally we will actually seek it out as a kind of therapy for lethargy and boredom with life-as-usual. Antagonism – directing our energy in opposition to something we hate or can’t stand – can be a quick fix when irrelevance starts seeping under the floor-boards of our world. If it goes on interminably, however, we can lose hope and start looking elsewhere for purpose.

Many of us at this point (or in this zone) take steps to relieve our distress by self-medicating (with food and intoxicants), seeking help from medical or mental health professionals, or using exercise to burn off our nervous energy. If we do nothing, then our nervous system is at risk of crashing into depression. We might try a meditation technique for a while and experience some initial benefits, but it’s not long before the strain of life – or in a more existentialist vein, the “burden of existence” – turns the discipline into one more demand on our precious and shrinking resource of time.

Third Zone of Meaning: Paradox

While popular wisdom, which turns out not always so wise, calls us back from the strain of daily life into the zone of neutrality where meaning is flat and predictable once again, our real challenge at this point is to step through the strain and into the higher tension of paradox (violet strand). But whereas the tension of the second zone is merely unproductive and exhausting strain, the tension of paradox is creative. This is where a dualism such as freedom versus fate is finally understood as a proper polarity: freedom in fate, and fate in freedom.

Creativity is itself paradoxical, as a marriage of freedom and fate, chaos and order, wild energy and fixed form, raging waters and the stable riverbed. Each of the four polarities in the matrix can be appreciated in this same way (as paradox), but only as we are able to push above the neurotic dualism of everyday life strain. It’s not freedom or fate, security or suffering, love or war, play or work but all of these currents swirling together in the vibrant stream of reality.

We come to learn that our moral campaigns and utopian ideals where fate, suffering, war, and work are eradicated and the world returns to its original paradisaical state of bliss, are nothing more than fantasies – and sometimes dangerous delusions. It’s at this stage, in fact, that we become aware of our human responsibility in constructing meaning and creating the worlds we want to live in.

The present mystery of reality is transparent and opaque, random and provident, the ground of being and the abyss of extinction. And just as in quantum physics, reality will “show up” according to what we set out to prove.

                                                                               

Imagine that each of the zones in my diagram outlines a world we have constructed and inhabit. Each step outward across the web of meaning translates the tension inherent to the matrix into a larger and more complex (and also complicated) worldview.

We can choose to live small and stay where the tension is minimal, where our daily habits allow us to sleepwalk through life.

Or we might sign our allegiance to one dogmatic orthodoxy or another, drawing excitement, purpose, and hope from a crusade we believe in.

We also have the option of stepping through the veil of conflict and taking in a bigger picture, where the world (our world) is not such a simple place – for neutrality and dualism are both simplistic constructs. As our web of meaning is capable of supporting an appreciation for polarity and paradox, we can live with ever-greater fidelity to the way things really are.

 

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