Tag Archives: taoism

Human Progress

In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell says that “Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us.” He read the world’s mythologies as “magnified dreams” (ibid) projecting through metaphor and fiction the inner potentialities and evolutionary adventure of the human spirit. Even if the Hero of this journey typically returns home with boons (treasure, technology, virtue, or wisdom) for the society that he or she left behind in accepting the call, Campbell’s Jungian lens skewed his interpretation in favor of individual-psychic over communal-ethical values.

In a sense, what I’ve been working on in this blog is a model of human evolution and personal development that follows the Hero back home – but then continues the journey into the work of creative change where relationships are transformed and a New Reality comes into being. I call this New Reality “genuine community.” Not to be mistaken as just another synonym for the group, community represents a qualitative shift from the interpersonal to the transpersonal, where partners step into an altogether new mode of being-together.

But getting to that point involves a lot of formational work for the individual, which Campbell analyzed into a dozen or so elements that make up the Hero’s Journey. My diagram illustrates its major moves as well as normal complications that can pull ego formation off course and into the weeds. I’ve set the entire cycle over the image of Taoism, where the polar principles of Yin and Yang are honored for their respective contributions to the dynamic whole of reality.

It should make sense as we get into it, so let’s be on our way.

We begin – and now by “we” I mean each of us on our own Hero’s Journey – in a condition where consciousness is immersed in, contained by, and dependent on a kind of fluid matrix of countless relationships and interactive forces. This is the womb of our antepartum existence, although we can’t be said to “exist” (from Greek existere, to stand out) quite yet due to the fact that we cannot survive outside this protective and provident universe.

But it’s also true that even outside our mother’s womb we continue to depend for our survival and development on what surrounds and contains us.

This helps us understand the prevalence in mythology of a paradisaical womb-state of the first humans at the genesis of time; but also why the birth experience is represented in both religious myth and some transpersonal schools of Western psychology as the paradoxical moment when we fall out of oneness and into the realm of duality – where a liberated life awaits.

And because the actual birth experience is serving as a metaphor of our possible deliverance or awakening from the dark (unconscious, inscrutable, and ineffable) conditions of oneness which presently encompass us, our access to this “pre-ego” state of consciousness persists as a major theme in many mystical teachings and meditative practices.

Again paradoxically, the undifferentiated state of oneness (or communion) is both that from which consciousness seeks freedom, at the same moment it is also the ground and wellspring of consciousness itself.

Psychologically speaking, we need to “fall” out of oneness and into our own separate existence as individuals before we can find our way to genuine community. Even as we move out of communion – that is, out of the envelope of oneness in quest of ego identity – its web of provident conditions continues to sustain us, albeit below the threshold of our conscious awareness. (In More Than You Think I name this our “sympathic mind.”)

In other words, while the “separation consciousness” of ego is recognized (in Buddhism and Christianity, for instance) as the alienated state of our human condition prior to salvation (Buddhist enlightenment, Christian atonement), our breakthrough to that higher state of consciousness is made possible by our primordial fall from oneness.

A more “negative” view of ego formation identifies it not just with our fall from oneness, but also – and we might add inevitably – as the separatist principle that gets us hopelessly entangled in our fallen state. My diagram illustrates this further fall, which mythology depicts as a realm of perdition, estrangement, and profound suffering, as a tightening spiral that diverges from the proper path of the Hero’s Journey and pulls us down.

The insecurity of our separation is experienced psychologically as anxiety, and this in turn motivates us to latch onto whatever promises to make us feel better (i.e., less anxious). This attachment, however, becoming an object of our desperate need for succor, cannot satisfy the demand but instead only magnifies our frustration and drives us deeper into the despairing exhaustion of depression.

I happen to believe that this debilitating spiral of anxiety, attachment, frustration, and depression is the neurotic complex at the core of our modern mental health (and spiritual) crisis.

If we were fortunate to have been raised in a sufficiently provident home environment by good-enough taller powers, our personal identity and sense of self can find their center in a position of ego strength. Through our fall out of primordial oneness, consciousness has found a stable stage “east of Eden” (outside the garden paradise) where we are unique and self-conscious individuals.

Even if our early life wasn’t all that provident, we can still find our center and gain liberation from the spiral of suffering by coming in touch with our true self. This is what Carl Jung called “individuation”: the integration of personal identity around a center of ego strength.

This is also where the question “Who am I?” plays such a crucial role in our Hero’s Journey. Because what we identify “as” (e.g., tribe, class, sect, race, or species) is correlated to what we identify “with” (other members of our tribe, class, sect, race, or species), this question has the potential of breaking open those smaller identities we may have taken on as part of our security strategy.

We come to understand identity as a function of our affiliation with the human family (Judeo-Christian), all sentient beings (Buddhist), the web of life (native American), and even with the universe itself (e.g., the New Cosmology of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme).

As this larger and more inclusive identity begins to reshape our perspective, it also transforms our values and inspires a new way of life – in community. The undifferentiated consciousness at the beginning of our journey, which fell into separation and duality and gradually found itself (by healthy development or salvation) properly centered in ego-consciousness, breaks out and circles back to unity consciousness where “self” and “other” are together as one.

Our journey doesn’t end with this new awareness and self-understanding, but continues with our consideration of “the other” in the choices we make, as we live with greater intention for the prosperity and wellbeing of all.


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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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The Creative Life

In our exploration of creative change, it is tempting to romanticize creativity into a free-ranging, spontaneous, and artistic-expressive activity that defies limitations. There is something to this, of course. The “creative life” does seem to stand at the far end of a continuum from the “secure life” where everything is safe and comfortably tucked in.

But that’s the thing about continuums: like the Yin and Yang of the Chinese Taoist symbol, a little of each extreme is inherent in its distant opposite.

Creativity and security might be thought of as the twin-yet-opposite forces in human experience that play against, around and into each other in our evolutionary quest for fulfillment. One can’t be defined without some reference to the other, but each represents a “pressing concern” that powerfully affects our quality of life. And because they are at opposite ends of a continuum, it can be enlightening to investigate their interplay in our daily experience.

Security has a lot of emotional weight, especially these days when terrorism and international politics keep reminding us how fragile the status quo really is. As one of those pressing concerns shaping our sanity and happiness, security is deeply entwined with our development, going way back into that first holding environment of our mother’s womb.

A small yet influential structure in our brains called the amygdala, which specializes in initializing internal states and reactions in situations of perceived danger, is in full operation already by the eighth month of gestation.


Most organisms – and even many plant species – curl inward or retract when the “vibe of danger” is in the air. They will unfold and relax only when the coast is clear and things return to normal. Security, then, appears to be a key indicator that life takes into account on a moment-to-moment basis. Danger and risk could result in extinction, so natural wisdom (also known as instinct) will be quick to move (or “freeze”) the organism in a manner that is appropriate to the perceived threat so that security can be recovered.

Interestingly, this factor of security seems strongly associated with the notion of “ground” that I have explored in other blog posts. The descending path of meditation leads the focal center of conscious awareness deep into that “place that is no place,” beneath identity and below the reach of language. This might be the same “place” that organisms naturally “go” when they pull into themselves for security.

A human being will also contract and withdraw under hostile or inhospitable conditions. The mystic, however, is one who develops the path of inward descent in order to surrender ego, relax the body, and release fully to the present mystery of reality. This can appear as nothing but an escape from reality to those observing the meditator – in tranquil repose or undisturbed contemplation, not nervously buzzing about like the rest of us.

The ground of being is not an abstract philosophical concept, but a metaphor for that deeply inward station where who you are (ego) is relinquished and the whatness (the be-ing) that you are is manifested to awareness. Going there is how you can catch your balance, find your center, recover your focus and be fully present to what’s going on right now.

It is out of this grounded, centered, balanced and focused place that your creativity proceeds – up and out into the extended context of your life. The creative spirit ascends and flows along a “stairway” of progression thresholds – from cells to tissues to glands to organs to organ systems, and out through the body into the particular opportunity, challenge, or predicament of the situation at hand.

At each point of transmission, a mechanism or method of control supports the freedom of a higher purpose. Each cell, for instance, operates according to a mechanism of control whereby its energy needs and functional integrity are maintained. But in addition to its own energy needs, the cell “opens up” to be incorporated in a lattice of many cells functioning together as tissue.

This self-transcending intention – opening up and contributing to the higher-order purpose of a larger, more complex system – is a perfect picture of what I mean by creativity.

The point here is that this higher freedom (from the cell’s perspective) is made possible by a deeper control. This principle is demonstrated in countless ways, as in the example of a musician who is not “free” to create inspiring music until she has achieved sufficient control of her instrument. Such control at this level is conscious, voluntary and learned, while most control farther down is instinctual, autonomic and reflexive.

Now we know that if the musician-to-be is feeling insecure within herself, the facility of her control on her instrument will be compromised and she may never become an accomplished (creative) artist. Perhaps she will lack precision in her movements, as she trembles and frets. Or else she may grip down with such force that she produces a strained and unpleasant sound. She is not free to create because her insecurity is interfering with her artistic control.

If instead she is inwardly grounded, her movement on the instrument will strike the perfect balance of control and freedom, thus serving as a spring of creative intention. Her attention can then be dedicated to the purpose of playing – the feeling she wants to express and evoke, where she wants to go with the music, or where she wants to take her audience.

How does this translate to the creative life? It should be obvious, but let’s talk it out.

Creativity (or living out your creative purpose) is in dynamic interplay with security (your ability to stay grounded). When you are calm and inwardly established, the control you bring to the tasks of living will be in balance with the freedom that your skill mastery makes possible.

The greater your mastery – what I earlier called “facility” – the less conscious attention is required in the performance of a skill, which means that consciousness is liberated for creative expression and accomplishment. But if your manipulations are too effortful, to the point where you become frustrated and try harder to force an outcome, the gears will likely seize up and the performance will crash.

The creative life is living on purpose and with purpose. You are able to go beyond yourself because you are not obsessed with yourself. Letting go and getting grounded lets you take up your life with creative intention.

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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in The Creative Life


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