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The Pursuit of Immortal Glory

The universe is a great Web of Life. You might argue that because so much of it is uninhabitable (dead rocks and nuclear furnaces) we should keep our discussion on the topic of life focused solely on our home planet. But we must remember that Earth is itself a product of the Universal Process which began some 14 billion years ago, and even if our planet was the only place where life exists across the entire 96 billion-light-year diameter of the observable cosmos, we are logically bound to the conclusion that the universe is alive. And conscious. And holding this thought, right now.

The Web of Life, then, extends out into the cosmic surround, includes the whole earth, the vibrant system of living things called nature, and your body as an organismic member of this system. Your body can’t survive apart from the support of nature, nature can’t continue without the favorable conditions of Earth, the earth wouldn’t exist had not the universal process conspired in the way it did for our planet to get formed and flung around its home star.

You may feel separate and all alone at times, but that’s something else, not your body.

I have placed you in the above diagram, nestled in the Web of Life as an embodied and natural earthling, a child of the cosmos and latter-day descendant of stars. For now we’ll focus on the purple figure outlined in black, ignoring everything behind you and to the right. Black is my color code for your animal nature, which is extroverted in its orientation to the environment (nature, Earth, cosmos) as you reach out for the shelter, resources, and connections you need to live.

Purple represents your inner awareness, oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery of consciousness. Also called the Ground of Being, it is how our provident universe is experienced from within, so to speak, in the uplift of existence. This grounding mystery of being can only be found within as you detach attention from the sensory-physical realm and allow awareness to drop past “mine” (property and attributes), “me” (the felt object of self), and “I” (the center of personal identity), into the deep and timeless present.

Consciousness has no object at this point. Ground is merely a metaphor reflecting the experience of mystery as both source and support of existence in this moment.

This duality of outer and inner orientations of consciousness, one through the body and out to the Web of Life, and the other through the soul and deeper into the Ground of Being, is what constitutes your essential self as a human being. You are a human animal (body) with a capacity for contemplating the inner mystery of being (soul). Because your highly evolved brain and nervous system make this dual orientation possible, you and your species may be the only ones with an ability to contemplate your place in the provident universe.


I should be clear that it’s not entirely by virtue of your advanced nervous system that you are able to break past the boundaries of personal identity for a larger (Web) or deeper (Ground) experience of reality. You need a center of personal identity (color coded orange in my diagram) in place to make such transpersonal experiences even possible. We call them transpersonal precisely because they are about going beyond the personal center of identity and its limited frame of reference. The center is who you think you are, and the frame is a construction of meaning where your identity belongs. It is your world.

Things get interesting at this point, and not just a little complicated, since ego formation is not an instinct-driven process, but instead depends on your tribe. The construction of identity and its frame of reference (world) is accomplished over the first three decades of your life. During that time your tribe is selecting or suppressing temperamental predispositions according to its standards of a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. As time goes on, the incentives for compliance evolve from candy or spankings, to grades, degrees, bonuses, and promotions. The goal is to shape you into “one of us,” someone who belongs, follows directions, and will do anything for the sake of honor.

Even though your personal identity is a social construction, your tribe still had to work with (and on) an animal nature that really doesn’t care very much about rules and expectations. A strong instinct for self-preservation needed to be reconditioned so that you could learn how to share and make sacrifices. Impulses connected to elimination, aggression, and sexual behavior had to be brought under control and put on a proper schedule. The means for accomplishing all of this is called social conditioning, and the primary psycho-mechanism for its success is the ego.

Somehow your constructed identity needed to be sufficiently separated from the animal urgencies of your body, but without losing the tether to your embodied essential self.

This is where, in the deeper cultural history of our species, religion progressed out of animism and into theism. The higher power of a patron deity not only served to give supernatural sanction to tribal morality, but it functioned also as a literary role-model. I say ‘literary’ because patron deities live only in the storytelling imagination (aka mythology). Every deity is a kind of personality construct, a literary invention and projected ideal reflecting back to the tribe those character traits and virtues which the community aspires to emulate. In exchange for their worship, sacrifice, and obedience, the patron deity bestows favors and rewards (e.g., success in childbirth, bountiful harvests, increases in wealth, and beatitude in the next life).

If we look closely at the patron deities of name-brand religions today, we can identify three qualities common to them all. Underneath and behind the tribe-specific virtues, its devotees honor their deity as immortal, supreme, and absolute. In the pictorial language of myth these translate into a depiction of the deity as separate, above, and outside the ordinary world of everyday concerns.

An even closer look will reveal these qualities as the driving aspirations of ego as well.

In the need to establish a separate center of personal identity, ego must first be differentiated from the body. Because the body is mortal, ego must be – or aspire to become – immortal. Notice that the ego’s status with respect to the body is ‘not’ (im-) mortal, a simple negation without any meaningful content. In addition to being separate from the body, ego takes its position above the body (the literal root meaning of the word ‘supreme’) and manages things from up there. Finally, as a final move of separation, ego begins to regard itself as essentially independent and outside the realm of bodily concerns – just like the deity.

According to my theory of post-theism, the intended outcome of theism is the internalization of the patron deity’s ‘godly virtues’, to the point where its projected ideal is no longer needed. The individual assumes creative authority in his or her life, taking responsibility for modeling the virtues of maturity, ego strength, and community interest. This is especially important to up-and-coming theists (the younger generation), who need taller powers to show them how to be and what to do.

Throughout this very fascinating game we can’t forget your essential self. The construct of identity can now serve in the transpersonal experiences of empathy, communion, and wholeness. If we can survive ego’s pursuit of immortal glory, these are the promise of our human future.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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Impossibly Human

Schedule of NeedsI spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of human beings and what we need to be fully human. In that quest is an acknowledgment that humans don’t always live up to their potential – that, in fact, we frequently underachieve or leave unrealized what is in our nature to become.

Perhaps due to the ambivalent “gift” bestowed on us by God or evolution, referring to our ability as self-conscious choosers to determine our own destiny, ours might be the only species on this planet that routinely frustrates its natural design. There is in the apple seedling an impetus or inherent purpose that drives development towards becoming a mature fruit-bearing apple tree. Nature has provided us with something similar, but our self-actualization takes us far beyond physical maturity and reproductive fitness.

The analogy is still provocative, however: If apple seeds are intended to become apple trees, what is the analogous evolutionary ideal that is even now tugging at our genes, shaping our personalities, and luring us in the direction of human fulfillment? Almost two and a half millenniums ago, Aristotle named this internal impetus or inherent purpose the entelechy of a living thing, an inner aim that guides development to its natural completion. Apple trees just “go with the flow” and attain self-actualization practically every time, while human beings, with our self-conscious free will, end up getting in our own way and almost always make a mess of ourselves.

In this post I will present a theory of human needs, about what we need to be fully human. Instead of categorizing these needs according to where they fit among the “stacking” intelligences of our physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects – exemplified most famously in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – I will consider the possibility that our needs as human beings are not so stackable and complementary, but are rather inherently in tension with each other.

To satisfy one need puts a strain on other needs; and to hold on to satisfaction – or to think that we can “get it” and be done – around any of our needs will tend to generate anxiety and ultimately depression, insofar as the latter is a state where we lose hope of ever finding what we really need. This inherent tension among our needs, along with our tendency to get hung up in anxiety or pulled down into depression, might make us wonder whether our species represents a failed experiment of nature. We got loaded with a set of needs that is impossible to satisfy as a whole. Maybe.

My diagram above lays out what I regard as our evolutionary needs as human beings. The “stair-step” design is an effort to avoid the limitations of the stacking model, which is too vertical and static, while retaining a developmental perspective. Needs to the left are both deeper and earlier than those to their right, just as needs to the right are higher and later than those more leftward. I don’t want to dispose entirely of the idea that our needs open up in some kind of sequence (thus the left-to-right progression up the stairs). But with each “step” a new element of tension is added to the mix, further complicating the prospect of self-actualization as we go along.

So let’s dig a little deeper into each of these five human needs, and try to get a feel for how impossibly human we really are.

SecurityI define security as the assurance an individual is encouraged to have by virtue of being grounded in a reality experienced as provident and supportive. By identifying it with an inner assurance I am deliberating separating security from the question of whether the individual’s reality is actually provident and supportive. In other words, security is an internal perception more than it is a description of external conditions.

Typically when our biological urgencies for air, nourishment, protection, and bonding are met, the “idle speed” of our nervous system gets set to an RPM that is relaxed, calm, and open to our surroundings. The organism-environment duality is perceived as auspicious and favorable to life – in Einstein’s words, the universe is friendly. We needed security – this assurance – when we were born (even before), and we haven’t stopped needing it ever since.

EnjoymentBut soon we need more than just to feel secure – not just more secure, but something more than security alone. Our developing nature opened out to reality in quest of enjoyment: pleasure, amusement, happiness, and excitement. To enjoy something is to find joy in it, or to take joy from our experience of it. While security has to do with the mood or mode of being as calibrated in our nervous system (anxious or calm, recoiled or open to reality), enjoyment is about emotional engagement with what has our attention.

Because enjoyment requires an open engagement with reality, this need introduces “competition” with our need for security. While security is basically passive in seeking confirmation that reality is provident to the animal urgencies of our body, our need for enjoyment compels us to actively seek what will bring pleasure and excitement. Opening ourselves in this way to reality, however, exposes us to pain and harm as well. It seems we can’t have total security and real enjoyment at the same time.

MeaningPerhaps the first efforts at meaning-making in humans were inspired by a need of consciousness to ascend to a vantage-point on reality where the inevitable suffering of life can somehow be reconciled and included in a single worldview. We need to know that the pain, hardship, and bereavement that haunt our happiness are somehow worth it.

Beyond this therapeutic function of meaning, though, is the way it crisscrosses reality with threads of causality and purpose, value and significance, identity and reference that our minds can inhabit. This web of meaning gives us a way of connecting the dots of experience, imagining patterns across the complex features of existence and otherwise confusing events of our lives. We have only recently begun to appreciate to what extent meaning is in the eye of the beholder – not “out there” in reality but projected by our minds for the purpose of making sense of things.

TranscendenceWhy can’t human beings just be content in our webs and worldviews? Why do we grow bored with the agreements and interpretations that once contained our experience so neatly? Why do we keep asking questions and challenging the answers? What is it that compels us to look over the wall, push the envelope, and try new things?

I think the answer is that we have a need for transcendence, to “go beyond” whatever boundaries and horizons define our current reality. (Let’s not forget that these boundaries and horizons are not actually in reality itself but projected onto it by our minds.) Perhaps something in us knows that meaning is a self-made illusion, and that genuine contact with reality requires a daring outreach into the unknown. Perhaps the fact that we are dynamically alive and continuously evolving beings makes it unavoidable that our comfortable castles in the air eventually become too small to contain our spirit.

I don’t want to confuse this need for transcendence with a metaphysical interest in the so-called Transcendent. This isn’t a “need for god” or for the supernatural in our lives. The compulsion to go beyond meaning is an implicit acknowledgment that humans need not simply more meaning, but something more than meaning. Since even our highest and most sacred meanings are still only qualifications on the present mystery of reality, we need to go beyond even these in our quest for authentic being.

FulfillmentI am using the term “fulfillment” here to get at the idea of self-actualization, where nature is perfected, as it were, in the mature and fully developed individual. It is common in the traditions to envision this ideal state as the liberated, exalted, and glorified personality, depicted in theism as a deity who actively expresses and models the virtues of our higher nature.

This is one of theism’s important contributions to our human adventure: What we might call “the moral character of god” (again, referring to the mythological deity) serves to attract and inspire our ethical formation in the direction of those qualities upon which human well-being and genuine community depend. With fulfillment, these virtues and attributes are gradually internalized by (or awakened in) the aspirant, opening out into new varieties of post-theism where the need for an external role-model is finally transcended.Schedule of NeedsThe question remains whether this destiny of human fulfillment is even possible, given the inherent tension among our developmental (and evolutionary) needs. Inevitably, it seems, tension produces conflict, and conflict – internal and interpersonal – gets us tangled in neurotic contradictions, chronic frustration, inter-tribal hostilities and more suffering. We grip down on the wrong things for security. Our craving for enjoyment becomes addiction. We surrender truth for meaning. We opt for self-improvement over transcendence. And in the end we sacrifice fulfillment on the altar of security, forfeiting our higher nature for the sake of a few petty ego conceits.

Perhaps we are impossibly human.

 

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