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Change Your Lens, Change Your World

phoropterMost of us have had the experience of getting our vision diagnosed by an optician. A fancy instrument, called a phoropter, is maneuvered in front of our face and positioned on the bridge of our nose. As the technician clicks various lenses over each eye and we try to read some letters or view a scene, we are asked to judge which of two clicks makes the picture more distinct. Eventually we arrive at the specific power of refraction that will compensate for the weakness and astigmatism of our unaided eyesight.

If we think of the phoropter as a metaphor for culture and the way it clicks various lenses between our minds and reality, we have a useful illustration of constructivism. The basic idea is that our minds do not merely look for and find meaning in reality, but instead they make meaning by constructing a model of reality and using this model as a frame for draping the stories, theories, judgments and expectations that constitute our personal worlds. I’m using ‘worlds’ in the plural because each of us manages a world unique to us (so we all have one), and we also progress through a variety of distinct worlds (or worldviews) over the course of our lifetime.

In a recent discussion with others in the wisdom circle I attend, we were reflecting on the different worlds of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, and the profound differences between our Western world and the worlds of other cultures and nations. From the ancient Greeks we inherited our accent on the individual as a separate and irreducible center of identity, dignity, sentiment, and agency. Perhaps as an effect of the fact that the Greco-Roman culture overarched a wide region of numerous indigenous societies, the detached and self-standing individual became the locus of supreme value. After the ‘dark age’ of medieval Europe, this priority of the individual reasserted itself with the Renaissance ideal of the hero-artist.

lensesOther cultures, both ancient and contemporary, view reality through a different lens from that of Western individualism. Instead of looking at the collective through a preference for the individual, they define an individual through the lens of community. It’s not that the individual is unimportant; rather, the individual only makes sense as a function of the whole. Self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s community takes precedence over competition among individuals for self-advancement.

Not only might competition of this sort be discouraged in community-oriented cultures, such a mentality and behavior will likely be condemned, even punished by banishment from the group. A Western individual is apt to condemn this attitude in turn as both repressive and ignorant, since a community exists for the sake of individuals and not the other way around.

Not all Westerners are individualists, and we could surely find many individualists within the more community-oriented cultures of our day. The point is not to draw a geographical or even a cultural boundary between the two types, but to reflect for ourselves as to which lens holds priority for us. As we view reality and construct our worlds, which lens is in front of the other? Our first lens (the one in front) will automatically filter and qualify the other, as the core beliefs by which we construct our worlds and live our lives.

The answer is probably more complicated than my question leads us to think.

When the individual is before (i.e., in front of the lens of the) community, typically the rights of the individual will take precedence over his or her responsibilities to the community. In my recent post The Great American Divide I suggested that capitalism, as one of the seedbed traditions beneath the American world(view), is based on a philosophical preference for the individual over the community. According to this view, a community is essentially a collective of individuals seeking economic opportunities that will support and promote their personal ambitions. This is not to say that capitalism necessarily breeds selfishness in its devotees, but Adam Smith did affirm ‘rational self-interest’ as one of its driving forces (competition being the other).

A preference for the individual over community keeps the tether of moral values firmly staked to a concern for the benefits and risks to the self. If altruism plays any part, then it’s in the form of what the communitarian philosopher Philip Selznick calls ‘bounded altruism’ (The Moral Commonwealth, 1994). Here the outreach of individuals extends to familiars and fellow members, but not to strangers or outsiders. The reciprocal turnaround of value back to the individual needs to be fairly short in order to justify one’s investment, charity, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Generally speaking, commitments of this kind to strangers or outsiders do not bring reciprocal value to the benefactor – a liability for which American capitalism offers compensation in its provision of tax write-offs for donations.

On the other hand, when community is before (i.e., in front of the lens of) the individual, a responsibility to the greater good sets constraints around individual rights. This doesn’t mean that individuals can be arbitrarily stripped of property and freedoms whenever it serves the collective interest, which is how individualists often paint the problem. Granted, when the collective is really little more than an aggregate of individuals under the control of a dictator or special-interest bureaucracy, the individual – particularly those at the bottom or outside the circle of power – is, we might say, perfectly expendable. History has shown this time and again.

So obviously we need to be more careful in the way we define ‘community’. It is decidedly not merely a synonym for the collective, that essentially disconnected aggregate of individuals mentioned above. A community (literally “together as one”) represents a qualitative shift in consciousness where the self-other reciprocity and competition of capitalism is transcended (included and surpassed) in the experience of empathy, advocacy, and communion. The individual is not subtracted or subordinated, but rather honored and lifted into this higher consciousness of community life.

Again, in my post The Great American Divide I made a case that democracy, as the second seedbed tradition beneath our American worldview, is based on a philosophical preference for the community over the individual. For Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, this order of priority meant that individuals are not essentially competing units of self-interest; rather they are self-transcending agents in the synergy of ‘a more perfect union’. With its emphasis on our individual responsibilities to the community, this tradition of American liberal democracy insists that our rights as individual citizens are only defensible within a larger culture where individuals work together for the common good.

So what I earlier called the ‘great American divide’ turns out to be a fundamental dilemma posed to each of us. As we step into our creative authority, it is up to us to decide which of these lenses has priority to the other. Each commitment provides some counterbalance to the other, and in their tension is where we must construct a life of meaning.

 

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The Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul

Human Education

Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. – H.G. Wells

A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Its apparent self-contradiction can generate a tension so strong that it snaps and collapses into a dualism of either this or that, this versus that, this but not that. In a paradox, this and that are held as complementary in a larger truth that can be appreciated only as their tension is preserved.

The paradoxical nature of education is suggested already in the very definition of the word. Very simply, to educate is “to lead out.” From the Latin educere, it can refer to “leading” a mind “out” of ignorance and into knowledge, or to “leading” the deeper intelligence and native talents of mind “out” of dormancy and into actualization. Which is it? If we can honor the paradox, it is both.

But the paradox of education has not been honored, particularly in the West where the operating assumption is that what we need to know and know how to do, if we have any hope of making it in this world, is something we need instruction in. Our natural ignorance must be dispelled with the information and techniques that make society work. Otherwise we will be left in a ‘state of nature’ with the beasts, infants, and idiots – ‘blank slates’ forever.

In a way, this preference for technical knowledge over self-actualization, for mastering the outer world over nurturing our inner spirit, plays out in “the two cultures” (C.P. Snow) of Western education, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) on one side; the humanities, the arts, religion and philosophy (HARP) on the other. Because STEM prepares students for professions in the industries driving our world economy, and while HARP amounts to a major distraction from real-world concerns, the Western curriculum in recent decades has been steadily shifting away from spirit and more to machines, out of feeling and more into thinking – more and more into facts, data, analytics, and the technical skills that society depends on.

As the gap widens, a general appreciation for and even an understanding of our own inner life is rapidly diminishing.

Working in higher education, the human cost of this shift is painfully obvious. As the process of education gets reduced to classroom instruction, standardized testing, grade rubrics, academic interventions, and remedial accommodations, students themselves get left out. It may appear as if students are the principal value, but in actuality they are little more than an ID number, a GPA, a graduation and job placement statistic. An expert stands at the front of the room and all the blank slates are arranged in straight rows, facing forward, passively absorbing the data-stream. More students than ever before are succumbing to boredom, depression, anxiety, and the autoimmune complications that fall out from these.

It might sound as if I’m advocating for more art and music in our schools, and while I think that would be a good thing, it’s not the point I’m making here. The leading-out-of-ignorance and leading-out-into-expression models of the educational enterprise are not mutually exclusive, as my argument for their paradoxical relation suggests. It’s not that STEM aligns with the first model and HARP with the second, and that we need more HARP to fix our problem. Our current crisis in education cannot be reduced to the disappearance of performance studios and the proliferation of laboratory classrooms.

As paradox, education is both about preparing students for the workaday world of adult life and assisting in their self-actualization as human beings.

When a paradox is functionally intact, the tension generated between its internal poles is apprehended by our minds all at once, as it were. It is one thing – paradoxically. But after its tension snaps and this unity collapses, repairing a paradox to its original state isn’t simply a matter of gluing the pieces back together. As in all dynamic unities, the whole is always more than the mere sum of its parts. So too, an active paradox is one plus one … plus. For education, I believe this non-added ‘plus’ is its soul, now lost.

In the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is depicted as a big egg who falls from atop a wall and breaks into pieces. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Our solution for education will not come by tape and glue; we need to contemplate the chicken (unacknowledged in the rhyme) that came before the egg.

We should agree that education is not only a matter of preparing future employees for the job market; it is also about developing human beings. When the paradox snaps and the process becomes one of filling blank slates with the technical information and employable skills they will need to punch clocks and pay taxes, we stop teaching students how to think and start imposing an orthodoxy of what to think. It’s a short but precipitous slide from there to standardized testing, academic failure, and the crisis we have on our hands.

When I consider the soul of education, what I’m getting at is the deeper spiritual source out of which human consciousness, thought, feeling, desire, and intention arise; it is the grounding mystery within. My reader needs to know that I attach no metaphysical status to this grounding mystery: it is neither some thing or some place, nor can we properly say it exists on its own. It is not god – although I do regard the grounding mystery as the inspiration behind our best metaphors of god.

Finally, in calling this deeper source spiritual I am not thereby setting it apart from the physical realm and our animal life, as in the classical separation in religion of ‘soul’ from ‘body’ – yet another symptom, along with our current malaise in education, of the Great Collapse.

In the diagram above, I offer the image of a tree to illustrate what I mean by the soul of education. My use of an organic metaphor rather than a mechanical one is intended to make the point that education is a living enterprise; it is dynamic, vibrant, and constantly evolving – or it could be, and hopefully will be again one day. Just as in the life of a tree, there is directional flow in the life of education, which I represent in the four terms arranged around the tree.

The place within, where the grounding mystery – that wellspring and spontaneous stream of consciousness – first crosses the threshold from ineffable experience into the articulate network of language, is our imagination. Metaphors (from Greek, meaning to “carry across”) quite literally are preverbal images that translate experience into meaning and serve as foundational insights into the nature of reality. Imagination is perhaps what makes us most uniquely human, and its death is the moment when education begins to lose its soul.

These primordial images rising out of the metaphorical imagination stimulate a more conscious creativity, enabling us to see beyond the given facts into a wider range of probabilities, hidden frontiers of possibility, and even into what is only conceivable but not (yet) possible. Human creativity is a productive and prodigal force in the universe, generated by a powerful urge to simply bring forth and realize what is within us. When it gets blocked, stifled, or penalized for not staying inside the lines, the consequence is spiritual frustration and all the psychosomatic illnesses that Western medicine refuses to validate.

When creativity is allowed to flow and the imagined possibilities can continue to evolve, the wonderful outcome is innovation: bringing about something utterly new. What do we see when we consider human culture – its hardware in the infrastructure, architecture, art, technology, clothing, costumes, uniforms, utensils, instruments, tools, machines and all the rest? And what about its software in the languages, disciplines, theories, paradigms, belief systems, codes, laws, principles, ideas, and ideals that comprise our many systems of meaning? These things are not mere facts of nature but artifacts of culture, and all of them started as innovations of human creativity.

Which brings me quite naturally to my fourth term: community. From previous posts my reader will know that community is not merely a synonym for ‘family’ or ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ or even ‘society’. While these other terms can be defined quantitatively, as a collective of individuals who relate or are related in specific ways, community names a qualitative up-shift in the consciousness of a group, where the intentional and empathetic interactions of members prime conditions for a consilient leap to higher unity. (For more on this, see The Promise of Consilience.)

Community in this sense serves as an incubator of innovation, a provident support for creativity and a deep engagement with the metaphorical imagination. It is itself a manifestation of all this magic happening deeper down, even as it holds sacred space for the magic to happen. In my view, this is what education is and what our schools should be doing.

We need to become communities of learning by restoring the paradox of education and recovering its lost soul.

 

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Flow in the Creative Life

I am of the opinion that a human being desires. Before this desire gets directed along a particular channel and attached to a specific object, it is life in its purest form. Life, desire, creativity and spirit – these are deeply synonymous terms in the vocabulary of what it is to be human.

Think of desire as the current that activates and inspires our experience at different levels. Oriental philosophy offers the idea of chi or energy and the various chakras or activation points along the vertical axis of the spine. Each center opens out to reality at a unique frequency of intelligence and concern. When the chakras are fully aligned and activated, an individual experiences “flow,” fulfillment and well-being.

The West has its own chakra system, although it hasn’t been developed to the degree of detail and sophistication as in the East. Typically these activation points go by the names “mind,” “heart,” and “will” – where mind thinks, heart feels, and will moves you to act. Medieval philosophy in many ways is best understood as a sustained contemplation and dialogue on these three energy-centers in human experience.

For their part, soul and body are not regarded as additional centers but refer rather to the deep interior (soul) and animal nature (body) of a human being. It was only later that a third dimension was clarified – not a “power” or energy center but what I have elsewhere characterized as a standpoint in reality – named ego. This is the socially constructed and self-conscious identity of an individual person.

As a construct, ego lacks the “substantiality” of the soul and body, and for that reason it would be acceptable to say – with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a project and projection, a rather neurotic contraction of defenses, attachments and delusions.

In the language of liberation, awakening, and the creative life, ego is our primary obstacle. It’s what needs to “die” – in the words of Jesus (the Christ) – so that our deeper life can rise up and find its wings.

Back to the energy centers. This idea has become particularly interesting to me of late, as I reflect on creativity, desire, and spirit. I am appreciating more how the truly creative individual is one whose mind, heart and will are perfectly aligned and fully activated. In order to work out the implications of this, let’s look more closely at each of these Western chakras.

For our purposes I will use the organs of the brain, heart and gut as visual representations of mind, heart and will. And even though we are born with all our organs intact – with the brain nevertheless continuing to mature still into our third decade – I am going to begin this reflection at the gut level and move upwards, following the direction of development.

GutWhy is it that you feel sick to your stomach or have issues with your intestines when you feel distressed or threatened? Your gut is a system of organs working together to metabolize nutrients and remove toxins. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, your gut gets thrown into high gear so that you can have all the energy you need to get out of danger.

Your gut is the energy point where you feel either securely grounded or dangerously at risk of not getting what you need to stay alive. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as provident and supportive, something greater in which you can trust and have faith.

Of course, the indisputable fact that you are alive is proof enough that you live in a provident universe. Not only “this place,” but this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, and the entire cosmos are conspiring at this moment to provide what you need to stay alive and flourish.

  • Key words here are: Providence, Support, Security, Trust and Faith.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to points above. If it’s uncertain, or if you were raised in a home where there was lots of deprivation, neglect, abuse and repression, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your gut. You can expect your health and happiness issues to be centered there.

HeartBut let’s say you are faithfully grounded in a reality that is provident and supportive. This sense of security is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your heart.

Why is it that when someone close to you decides to leave or is suddenly taken away, you feel “brokenhearted”? Why do so many people suffer from heartache? Your heart, more than any other organ, is connected to every other organ and outpost in your body. By its very nature it is about cooperation. When the connection between your heart and another organ is lost or obstructed, that organ will die.

Your heart is the energy point where you feel either intimately connected or coldly removed from the web of mutual interdependence. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as relational and loving, something in which you can belong and find love.

A distinction between Western and Oriental cosmology is that while the latter regards the multiplicity of separately existing things as an illusion, Western philosophy and science affirm it as foundational to what the universe is. A corollary of this idea is the view that being is essentially relational and dynamic rather than monistic and unchanging.

  • Key words here are: Relationship, Communion, Intimacy, Belonging and Love.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to the next point above. If it’s absent or doubtful, if your experience has involved more than your share of exploitation, rejection, betrayal or dysfunctional relationships, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your heart. Your health issues might be centered here, in the physical consequences (or early symptoms) of losing your passion, compassion, and communion with life.

BrainBut let’s say you do feel a strong sense of belonging and healthy rapport in your relationships. This sense of intimacy is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your brain/mind.

Why is it that a lack of clarity in your efforts to make sense of something gives you a headache? Why are people so ready to trade their lack of meaning and purpose for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment plan? Your brain is your “executive” organ, the seat of conscious awareness, and the worktable in your construction of meaning. Its dual responsibilities are to regulate the internal processes of your body and articulate the neural platform of your mind (thinking self).

Your brain is the energy point where the certainty of your life’s meaning is managed. With its unique cognitive powers you are constantly sounding a transcendent reality for echos of significance. At this level of intelligence, reality is scanned for patterns, rhythms, and correlations, which are then analyzed, synthesized, and fantasized into a cross-referencing system of meaning known as your world.

What you seek is understanding, and as you are busy with the process of constructing meaning, various checkpoints along the way (conventionally called “facts”) challenge your brain to update its world-picture.

Key words here are: Transcendence, Meaning, Certainty, Understanding and Truth.

Now, if the ascending path of desire has gotten tangled up and caught on hooks farther down, leaving only a trickle of energy by the time it reaches this point, your personal meaning can become extremely rigid, awkwardly outdated, and curiously dogmatic. When your intellectual guidance system is out of sync with the actual coordinates of reality, you should expect headaches – physical and otherwise.

                                                                           

Okay, so there you have my interpretation of the Western “chakra system.” Human creativity is an inverse function of the “impedance” in this flow of energy/desire/spirit through the primary centers of the gut, heart and brain.

The more impedance – that is to say, the greater degree in which this creative flow gets “hung up” and pulled off center into the various ailments, demons, and neuroses of our predicament – the less creative we are. (I suppose it’s obvious to also say, the more destructive we tend to become.)

The creative life is grounded in the provident mystery of reality. It flows outward into communion with all things. It strives to ask better questions, ones that will deepen understanding and open up a larger vision for our lives.

I think this model has a lot to commend it. Philosophy, theology, politics, business, commerce, art, science, medicine, ethics – we stand a chance of getting our cultural system back on track and centered again.

And just to think, it all begins with you and me.

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Metaphors of Life

Metaphors operate at a level where experience first breaks over the threshold into expression, the real presence of mystery into representations of meaning. At a very deep level – just short of the very deepest – human beings orient themselves according to a guiding metaphor of life itself.

What is life, and what is your place in it?

Western culture is organized around a guiding metaphor of life that we could name circling the drain. With its accent on the individual, everything tends to be oriented according to the individual’s perspective, more specifically to the perspective of that separate identity called ego. drain

This is who I am. This is my tribe. These are the things that belong to me. Such are the ambitions I have for myself. I have a limited amount of time to realize my dreams, and finite resources to exploit before my time is done.

I do my best to hold and protect my own, to get what I need and have enough of what I want, but it’s very apparent that life is leaking away from me all the while.

This drain metaphor of life spawns other secondary metaphors, which are more enmeshed in language and hence more meaning-full. The farther out and dependent our minds become on this web of meaning, the more dogmatic we get in our beliefs, the more convicted of our certainties, and the more vulnerable we become to anxiety and depression. We worry over many things, sink into fatigue and discouragement, and get just enough rest to rush out and try it again.

Western religion has compensated for this inherent bipolarity in egoism with its invention of an afterlife fantasy where the ego will live on forever once the body expires. Physically my body is trickling down the drain with each passing minute, but I (ego) will not die. Instead I will pop out on the other side, fully intact and without the drag of a mortal frame. Over there, I will be reunited with my loved ones who went down the drain before me, and I will be everlastingly happy.

The metaphor of circling the drain, therefore, is what inspired our familiar and highly defended notion of salvation as a rescue project. What we’re looking for cannot be here, for the obvious reason that everything is going down the drain. Our only hope is to find the way out – out of this world, out of our bodies. Not really out of time, exactly, since heaven is supposed to be everlasting, but at least in time without a drain to worry about.

Outside of religion, the metaphor of life as circling the drain has stimulated a view of the individual as consumer – needing, demanding, taking, devouring, using, spending, wasting and casting aside the leftover junk. We have been brainwashed to regard ourselves as chronically empty – of what exactly, no one knows for sure. But there are countless fillers on display in the marketplace that we are encouraged to try out. Keep your credit card handy.

So we oblige by filling ourselves up with all manner of “stuff” and in the process have become discontent and possessive, malnourished and overweight, popular and lonely, renting storage and buying insurance policies to keep it all safe as we inwardly waste away.

                                                                                  

There is another metaphor of life, one that predates our Western notion of the drain by thousands of years. Its roots are in the organic intelligence of the body – the very problem from which the ego seeks escape. It is central to a grounded and mystical spirituality. Instead of circling the drain, this metaphor invites you to join the stream.

riverLife is a flowing river, and you are part of the mystery. There’s no need to throw yourself into a tightening spiral of anxiety, craving, attachment, frustration, disappointment, desperation and depression.

True enough, since the larger culture has been constructed around the drain metaphor, you will be tempted to regard this idea as something else you need to take and make your own. But that’s just ego again. 

By its nature, a stream cannot be possessed. If you should try to dam it up and turn it into a reservoir, you might achieve the illusion of ownership and control, but your entire perspective will have shifted to a vertical axis centered on leakage and loss prevention – the drain again.

Joining the stream promotes a very different outlook on reality, a different way of orienting oneself in the world. As a metaphor, it counteracts the ego’s tendency towards nervous consumption and the grip-down on me and mine. Rather than closing focus down into a spiraling anxiety around the drain hole of mortality, the stream metaphor opens our focus up to the larger reality to which we belong.

Our separation from reality and antagonism to life is only a delusion of ego consciousness. I (ego) am not really separate from everything else, but my insecurities and defenses make it seem so. And yet, this mistaken sense of separateness is what alienates me from my body and hence also from life itself.

The metaphor of life as a stream is also a gentle reminder that it’s not about me. Admittedly it can be a considerable – perhaps even traumatic – change in perspective that’s required, and one that isn’t supported by the general culture we live in. To some extent this has always been the case.

Even though their teachings were later turned into programs of escape from mortality and its complications, Siddhartha and Jesus were really speaking about the opportunity afforded in each moment of life to release the neurotic compulsions of “me” and “mine” for the sake of a larger and more participative experience. The Buddhist “no-self” (anatta) and the Christian “new mind” (metanoia) are early concepts that get at this idea of joining the stream.chart

The above chart sets in contrast these two different images, identifying the points where each guiding metaphor works its way into our worldview, our fundamental attitudes toward life and the values we uphold, as well as our approach to the mysteries of death and dying.

Everything changes as you learn to give in to the greater reality, rather than stubbornly insist that reality deliver on your demands. You are wonderfully free of convictions and the need to be right. You begin to understand that nothing belongs to you, that there is only One Thing going on here and you are part of it.

In life and death, you can be fully present and trust the process. This is the essence of faith.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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