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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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Whole Picture, Whole Brain

I’ll start with a proposition, and then work it out in more detail below:

The meaning of life is an ongoing construction project involving two parallel processes, communion and knowledge.

Communion refers to an experience of no-separation, where your existence is felt as not just connected to but as “one with” the rest of it. The present mystery of reality rises into manifestation as you, but also as that other, which means that both (and all) of you express into form something which is itself formless.

If that sounds overly mystical, then you should at least be able to agree that anytime you touch this thing or that thing you are touching the universe, since these (along with countless other things, both nearby and far-flung) are symptoms of a single universal event.

Knowledge, on the other hand, presupposes a separation between you and the object you presume to know (or know about). Outside and all around you revolves that same universe, but now you are looking at the qualities that differentiate one thing from another, and you from the rest. Whereas your existence manifests the grounding mystery, it also participates in a turning mystery which includes you and everything else.

From your vantage point, each thing is apprehended according to what distinguishes it and sets it apart. Gathering this information and representing it in your mind, then testing your conclusions by repeated experiences (or more rigorously by repeated experiments) is what we call knowledge.

The construction of meaning involves both processes: (1) a deep sense of communion or oneness with reality, and (2) a conceptual representation of the objective qualities that distinguish things and allow for the classifications of knowledge.

If this also sounds like the difference between spirituality and science, then you’re on to me. For the past several years, I’ve been building a case for regarding spirituality and science as inherently complementary, non-competing enterprises in our construction of meaning. They both tell stories – the myths of religion and the theories of science – but they are not telling the same kind of story.

Myths are stories of communion, and theories are stories of knowledge. One constructs meaning out of a primary experience of oneness with reality, while the other constructs meaning as a system of explanations by which reality is increasingly known.

As I tried to show in The Wheel of Fortune, a scientific theory of the primordial singularity that released energy into matter, and a religious myth of the primordial dragon whose dismemberment by a god formed the cosmic order, are not competing explanations for how the universe came to be. The theory is an explanation about how it came to be (a question of causality and evolution), while the myth is a revelation of why (a question of intention and purpose).

Today’s science still doesn’t permit any serious consideration of intentionality in the universe, most likely because that’s the step which historically has put careless scientists on a slippery slope toward the necessary postulate of god’s existence.

In fact, religious myths are not better explanations, nor do they require a belief in the objective existence of god. Myths are narrative tapestries constructed from the dramatic elements of setting, character, intention, agency, and outcome. They were designed for traditional occasions of sacred performance, when this veil (i.e., the tapestry of words and images) would be pulled aside and the community suddenly found itself in a universe awaiting their response.

Scientific theories are not composed for sacred recital, and they don’t presume any kind of back-and-forth dialogue between human intelligence and the greater universe. Knowledge without communion produces something less than meaning, something meaningless, what Albert Camus in The Rebel named “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Camus’ nihilism was an understandable conclusion at a time (following the Second World War) when many had lost faith in human nature and hope for the future.

The modern West has been bereft of a sense of communion for so long that we’ve grown accustomed to a feeling of homelessness in the universe. An exponential increase in our knowledge registry over the past 500 years has coincided with a steady decline in our general report on the meaning of existence.

I’m not suggesting that while science sends us into despair, our only salvation is to believe in the objective existence of god, the immortality of the soul, or the literal realities of heaven and hell. The qualifying terms “objective” and “literal” indicate that what had begun as metaphors of sacred fiction are no longer appreciated as such, but have been pressed instead into service as referents to supernatural facts.

Those who believe and defend their religion as an infallible source of knowledge are responsible for its inevitable degradation to a catalog of superstitions. Once again, the point I’m making is that spirituality – along with the form it takes in healthy religion – seeks to cultivate an experience of communion with reality, not knowledge about reality.

The best analogue of this relationship between spirituality and science is the bicameral nature of the human brain. In fact, I will contend that our best way of overcoming the current impasse with respect to defunct religion and meaningless science is to consider what goes on in our brain on the path to maturity.

My diagram places a graphic of a brain at the center of the universe, the ultimate meaning of which is the shared project of spirituality and science (as earlier proposed). The right (peach colored) hemisphere corresponds to key terms on the left side of the picture, as the left (blue colored) hemisphere corresponds to the terms on the right – in the crossover of functions characteristic of our brain.

The right hemisphere has more downward-projecting nerve pathways into lower (more primitive) brain centers and the body’s internal state. Consequently it is more “somatically gifted” than its neighbor to the left (from the Greek soma for body). It houses the neural anatomy (nerve nuclei, circuits, and networks) that facilitates our gut feelings, intuitions, hunches, and premonitions. Since our language centers are located in the left hemisphere, such experiences facilitated by the right are essentially ineffable (beyond words, indescribable, speechless).

Developmental neuroscience discovered that from the time we’re born until about age ten our right hemisphere is dominant. This doesn’t mean that nothing’s going on to the left, but that our primary mode of engaging with reality is somatic – through our body, from our gut, more emotional than rational. As newborns our right hemisphere entrained with our mother’s right hemisphere to form the empathic bond that would serve as our secure base.

The experience of communion, and hence the inspiration of spirituality and many of the earliest, most enduring metaphors of religious mythology, has its roots in this resonance of brain and body (via the right hemisphere), of our body with our mother’s body, and still deeper into the rhythms of life, “Mother Earth” and the provident universe.

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11, the average human brain makes a dramatic shift from the right hemisphere and into the left. The talents of our left hemisphere are semantic, focused in language, logic, analysis, reasoning, and rationality. Just as the right hemisphere communicates with, by, and through our body, the left hemisphere uses the conventions of language to participate in the collective mind of our tribe and culture. In this way we acquire a knowledge of reality that builds on the theories of others as well as on our own observations.

That word “observe” helps to distinguish the strength of our left hemisphere from that of our right. Observation presupposes a critical separation between observer and object, a separation brought about by the right-to-left shift mentioned above – a shift away but not apart from the right. Our right hemisphere takes in reality from its unique position of communion with it, which is what is meant when we “behold” something. We don’t gather intel on a separate object with our five physical senses, but rather we grasp something by our sixth sense of intuition prior to its separation as an object.

Our brain’s leftward shift can be mismanaged by culture (as it has in the modern West) into more of a severance, where the values of observing, analyzing, and explaining reality not only outweigh but drive out the right-sided virtues of beholding, contemplating, and revealing its mystery.

I suspect that our Western conflict between science and spirituality – which, I need to stress, is distinct from that between reason and superstition, or between ethical responsibility and religiously motivated terrorism – is really the cultural manifestation of our failure to integrate the two hemispheres of our brain.

What could (and would) be a normal developmental process of drawing an intuitive sense of communion with reality (right hemisphere) into our empirical knowledge about reality (left hemisphere), has instead collapsed into a sense of being adrift in an indifferent and meaningless universe. Our knowledge won’t ultimately matter – that is, it won’t support and enrich the meaning of existence – unless we can recover our communion with reality.

 

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Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of  The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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