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Creatures and Creators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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Meaning and Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

Web of Meaning_MatrixFirst Zone of Meaning: Neutrality

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

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

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

Second Zone of Meaning: Conflict

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

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

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

Third Zone of Meaning: Paradox

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

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

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

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

                                                                               

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

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

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

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

 

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Myth and the Matrix of Meaning

Homo mythicus – I know it’s not a word, but perhaps it should be. Human beings are myth-makers.

We create meaning by telling stories. Personal anecdotes and nursery rhymes, factual reports and fairy tales, thin excuses and passionate confessions, epic histories and heroic adventures, religious creeds and scientific theories – these are just a few of the types of stories we tell. Identity itself (ego), that prize and protected treasure of contemporary individualism, is constructed out of countless storylines.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. Your personal myth is based on some very early stories your family told you, stories that carry assumptions about the way things are, where you belong, and what’s important in life. Such core beliefs are sown into the very fabric of your sense of self. You no longer question them – if you ever did – simply because they condition and qualify your grasp on reality at the subconscious level.

Matrix_1But our stories don’t simply arise spontaneously out of the creative imagination. It’s not like we got bored one day ten thousand years ago and decided to pass time spinning yarns by the campfire.

In other words, humans don’t tell stories because we have nothing else to do. Stories are how we orient ourselves in the world, and are what our worlds are made of. They carry the rhythms of our bodies and brains into the rhymes and reasons that make life meaningful.

In this blog post I want to offer up the idea that meaning itself is constructed upon a matrix of primary human concerns. If our stories are to mean something, they must take into account and work out an interpretation of life with respect to these primary concerns – and just these four.

Security. Human newborns are defenseless, vulnerable and dependent. One way that evolution accommodated our species was to get us delivered “prematurely” and prolong our development over the course of twenty years or so. During this time the operating system and local applications of our culture get downloaded into our brains. In varying degrees depending on our circumstances and early parenting, each of us emerges from childhood with a sense of security – that there is enough of what we need to live and grow.

Suffering. It’s also a fact of our existence that we don’t always get what we need to live and grow. Reality is not perfectly safe, and no security arrangement in life is permanent. This was the Buddha’s insight: Life is suffering. In the end you will lose your life, and you will lose much else along the way. Hanging on and gripping down only sets you up for anxiety, frustration and disappointment – in a word, for more suffering. The reality of suffering – chronic pain, sudden loss, heartbreak and loneliness – is something we cannot escape, though we do our best to medicate, minimize or distract ourselves from it.

Freedom. Another primary concern of humans is a function of our ability to take control (to a limited extent) of our bodies and the natural environment. The acquisition of skills and invention of various technologies has opened the scope of our freedom at an accelerating pace over the millenniums. Mastery at one level creates opportunities higher up – such is the calculus of human progress. Dependency at an early age gives way to autonomy as we grow up, taking more of life into our own control and putting more options at our disposal. A meaningful life is one you must choose – now more than ever before.

Fate. But there are limits, and every choice has its consequences. Whereas much about our world is made up and open to revision, the reality of life places constraints around our talents, strengths and possibilities. Genetic temperament deals us the cards and personal character plays them out, over time reducing the different combinations and alternate endings we might choose. And then there’s the fact that no one gets out of here alive. Probably much more than we know or can admit, the denial, avoidance and postponement of death drives much of what we do.

As the above diagram suggests, these four primary human concerns stand in relationships of paradox and tension. Specifically, security and suffering are really the polar opposites of a shared continuum, while freedom and fate are similarly related. None of the concerns can be properly understood and appreciated in any absolute sense. At this very moment, as you compose your personal myth of meaning, you are somewhere between security and suffering, freedom and fate. The patterns you weave are anchored on these four primary human concerns.

Matrix_2The matrix of meaning also includes what I’ll call four universal motifs, which show up everywhere in the stories we tell. A motif is a narrative theme; we might think of them as the major storylines that we weave together into our worlds. They also stand as pairs in creative tension.

Play. The meaning of your life is produced out of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and make-believe. Reality, very simply, is; but a world is something you put on – as in “putting on” a play. When you were a young child, role-play and pretending, dress-up and games were how you began to experiment with meaning-making. And of course, the costumes and toys you played with were also “propaganda devices” in your early socialization, by means of which gender instruction and class values were installed in your psyche.

Work. Eventually you needed to learn the importance of effort, determination and sacrifice in pursuit of certain outcomes and extrinsic rewards. This second motif shares the continuum with play, allowing for the possibility that your work might also be something in which you find creative enjoyment. It isn’t always the case, however. For many of us, work is simply what’s required to pay the utilities and put food on the table. Perhaps the most obvious difference between work and play is that play without purpose is infinitely entertaining, while work without purpose is one of the deepest hells we can know.

Love. Sex, intimacy, companionship and care – what would life be without these vibrant frequencies of human connection? Your earliest experience of love was likely in a nursing embrace, which may be why we have a difficult time distinguishing between feeling loved and feeling full, and why some of us eat when we’re lonely or feel unloved. The relative position of this motif to freedom and suffering in the matrix confirms what we eventually find out on our own: While love requires freedom, it moves us into attachments that eventually bring suffering.

War. You won’t find a culture anywhere on earth that doesn’t tell stories of adversarial relationships, interpersonal conflict, tribal conquest and political revolution. “Love and War” are certainly two motifs that play well together in the movies, probably with roots in our animal prehistory when males fought for sexual access to females. (What prehistory? you will ask.) As long as the primary concern of security is wrapped up in territory, resources and possessions, the borderland menace of invaders and thieves will keep the war motif strong in our minds. There’s also something about adversity that, as we say, builds character.

Matrix_3That’s the matrix of meaning: Four primary human concerns and four perennial narrative motifs are the “stuff” of which all stories are made. As the temperament, life circumstances, and developmental career of each person is unique, the pattern of meaning that we can call one’s personal myth (along with its corresponding world) will be individualized to that extent.

The matrix reminds us that our stories and the meaning we construct out of them are serious business. They are not supposed to distract us from the responsibility of making our lives count for something, and they shouldn’t divert our thoughtful reflection away from the challenges we face. The stories we tell at the individual, interpersonal, tribal and cultural levels will be meaningful in the degree that they assist us in spinning webs we can live in, webs that connect us in relevant ways to each other and to our home planet.

Above all else, our stories, worlds, and webs of meaning need to lift us out and provide a way back into the present mystery of reality.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.

 

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Inner Dialogue

Robinson: “Each of us, if we are in any way integrated, has a center from which our lives are lived, and our ‘world’ is what is enclosed within the circumference of that circle. Yet often we are more conscious of the edges than the centers, corresponding to the bounds of an animal’s territory which it stakes all to defend. The edges may be hard, the boundaries barricaded, while the centers are relatively unformed. The effect of dialogue is to bring to consciousness, and therefore to strengthen, our centers – so that where we stand will often in the process become clearer and firmer. But we do that by being prepared to soften our edges, to open up the frontiers, and let down our defenses.”

Human beings are world-builders. By now it should be clear that we are using this term in reference to the habitats of meaning that give humans the illusions of security, identity, significance and purpose. These are regarded as illusions simply because they are language-dependent and not found as “facts” in reality. As spiders spin webs out of their own bodies and then depend on their webs for survival, each of us spins a world around ourselves and calls it home.

At the center of my world is “me,” this self-identified maker of meaning. Underneath me are the various supports that hold me up and define who I am. Gender, family, class and tribe are the primary roles that locate me in society and give me recognition as a member. Together we inhabit a shared world called culture, which is a web that stretches across generations and geographical regions and is reinforced by sacred stories called myths. These stories anchor our common identity in a prehistory of ancestors, founders and heroes, as well as in a supernatural realm of gods, saviors and saints.

The movement of postmodernism was energized by the discovery that beneath our web-worlds is a reality much less “solid” than we thought. The foundation of divine providence, for instance, or even something as seemingly rock-bottom as matter itself, are shown to be just deeper constructs of language. The security we feel in being held up by something loving and reliable (matter and mother have a common origin) is perhaps an irresistible need of ours, stemming back not just to our individual infancies but into our existential condition as a species.

And what about the boundary of my world? What’s beyond that? If I don’t think about it too much I can persist in the illusion of a significance and a purpose that continue to infinity. God’s in control, everything happens for a reason, and all things work together for good. It’s a mark of faith not to ask questions, or so we’re told.

But eventually we bump up against … not reality, but other worlds. I am confronted with your very different way of representing reality, and if mine was merely a representation and not the way things really are, I might be worried. We can have differences, but they will have to be superficial, minor disagreements. When push comes to shove, I can’t compromise on my convictions. Not that I won’t. I can’t – there’s too much at stake.

John A.T. Robinson is perhaps best known for his 1963 book Honest to God, in which he challenged the mythological literalism of the Bible and urged his readers to consider the possibility that the divine reality is not merely something bigger than we can imagine, but might even be something other than what we can imagine. Robinson took his inspiration from the likes of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom advocated for a divine mystery beyond our religious conceptions and doctrinal convictions.

The present mystery of reality is not meaningful but beyond the meanings we construct and attach to it. Our dogmatic and aggressive defense of meaning belies an insecurity often unacknowledged – except where we readily point it out in our opponent. If we could relax a little at our edges and meet each other with more honesty, humility and faith, we might realize that our meanings are a lot less absolute and unchanging than we pretend they are.

But as Robinson explains, the condition of our boundaries – how flexible or rigid they are, how open or closed, how responsive to mystery or reactive to difference – is a function of how integrated we are inside. Internal balance, contemplative clarity, intellectual coherence and spiritual grounding are all terms that relate to our center, where each of us is rooted in the present mystery of reality. If we neglect this dimension of our life and become disconnected at our roots, the natural concerns of survival and evolutionary fitness will become combative obsessions at the edges.

Now in this book (Truth is Two-Eyed), Robinson is exploring what he calls an “inner dialogue,” where the spider in the middle of the web – our self-identified ego and the meaning we spin into our separate worlds – opens up (or down) through its own center and into the real presence of mystery.

With “one eye” we see this relationship of self to mystery in terms of communion, between an “I” and a “Thou.” Importantly, this Thou is not the personified god of mythology and doctrinal orthodoxy, but an irreducible “Other” or otherness at the heart of our human experience of reality. This is the Western Way.

And with our second “eye” we see the present mystery of reality less as an interplay of I and Thou, than as a single undifferentiated Oneness playing both parts of the relationship. We are not so much confronted by reality as immersed in it, saturated with it, and essentially the same as it. This is not the same as saying, “I am god,” for the I and Thou are both manifestations of one mystery. This is the Eastern Way.

Robinson is inviting us to consider spirituality as a dialogue of “meeting” (Western Way) and “merging” (Eastern Way), communion and absorption, as our response to the mystery and our identification with it. We can engage this dialogue outwardly, at the table with Christians and Buddhists, for instance, where different constructs of meaning (worlds) seek to understand each other.

But this outer dialogue is not likely to produce the kind of mutual respect and profound appreciation we so desperately need on this planet unless we are each engaged in the inner dialogue of a deep, contemplative  spirituality.

Just relax. It’s going to be all right.

 

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