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Getting Off

Humans have been seeking happiness ever since self-consciousness threw us out of the garden of simple need satisfaction and into the quest for personal fulfillment. Inside the garden, reality was experienced as a provident web of support. Outside, we are on our own – or so it feels. Our human condition – separate, self-conscious, and profoundly alone – drives us to seek after whatever might resolve our insecurity and make everything all right again.

The spiritual wisdom traditions have been telling us for a long time that our real problem is not that we are alone, but that we are not at peace in our aloneness.

If we could find our center and dwell there in mindful presence, the crosswinds of life wouldn’t push us off-balance as easily as they do when we’re reaching outside ourselves for whatever we hope can save us. Wisdom’s counsel is about discovering, in the literal sense of ‘taking away a cover’ – a veil, an illusion, a misunderstanding, a mistaken belief, a false story – that is obscuring the truth of what we are.

This truth is not something we can render in words, definitions, and doctrines, for in essence it is an experience. To know yourself in this deeper sense is not a matter of possessing factual information about yourself, but rather of being grounded in your own life and living mindfully from its center.

Because spiritual wisdom eschews propositional truth in favor of experiential truth, its worldwide and perennial mystical-ethical tradition is often at odds with dogmatic forms of religion – really with orthodoxy of any kind.

It should be the most natural thing for us to live life from our own true center, so why is it so rare? Why do a vast majority of us get stuck on the restless Wheel of Suffering, and why do such a large number of these get pulled into clinical unhappiness?

The answer as to why we get stuck probably is as variable as our individual identities are unique, and it quickly loses revelatory power as it deteriorates into reasons and excuses.

On the other hand, how we get stuck on the Wheel of Suffering is much more simple and straightforward. There are certain things we have to do, once we’ve forsaken our center, in order to get hooked on the Wheel. And there are things we have to do, once we’ve gotten hooked, to keep ourselves there.

In a sense, I’m going to tell you what you already know.Our true center is where we are mindfully present to life, where we are in touch with what’s really real (aka reality). To abandon our center and get hooked on the Wheel of Suffering, it’s necessary to tell ourselves a story. At the center there are no stories, only the experience of being alive and its deeper invitation to inner peace.

Almost always we jump out to the rim of the Wheel when we tell ourselves a What if? story: “What if it goes wrong?” – “it” standing for whatever we believe is a key to happiness, or at least to our feeling less unhappy.

In the diagram above I have color-coded this story yellow, which represents the energy of anxiety. We typically abandon the present moment by jumping into the future – or rather, into a story about something that might or might not happen. We take this future scenario as critical to the security, happiness, or meaning of our life. For it to ‘go wrong’, the thing we feel we can’t live or be happy without must be imagined as slipping away, breaking apart, failing to arrive, or just falling short of our need.

When we are anxious, we are living in the future. The more we fixate on the worrisome thing, the more helpless we feel – and for good reason, since the future is beyond our control and doesn’t exist anyway. Many of us get stuck here, in chronic anxiety that keeps us trapped inside our What if? story – or is it that we are stuck inside our What if? story which keeps us trapped in chronic anxiety?

But then there may come a breakthrough – or at least that’s how it can feel – motivating us to take control. So we grip a little tighter, set forth our ultimatums, manage every detail, and buy more insurance against the likely disaster. This part of the narrative is color-coded red, as its energy is aggressive. And because we are trying to control something we cannot actually control, we soon come to realize that it’s not working.

So what do we do? We redouble our efforts and try harder!

Here the energy on the Wheel starts to shift again, from red/aggression to blue/disappointment. The expected outcome hasn’t come about. We are growing exhausted and cynical, struggling just to stay engaged or even interested in what we had earlier believed was the key to happiness. The cost is proving to outweigh the gains.

Many of us simply give up at this point. Our story becomes a judgment on life itself, or on whomever or whatever has let us down. Life feels like it’s circling the drain and we are sinking fast. When we are depressed, we are living in the past, rehearsing – therapists call it ‘ruminating’, like how a cow burps up food to chew it some more – what went wrong, where and when it went wrong, and who’s to blame.

What we don’t realize is how our anxious efforts at control actually fulfilled the prophecy of our What if? story.

Both of the spiraling whirlpools we’ve looked at, one tightening in anxiety and the other pulling us down into depression, are, in the language of medicine, ‘comorbid’ (presenting simultaneously or in mutually reinforcing cycles).

Back in the nineteenth century psychopathology had given the name neurasthenia (“nervous exhaustion”) to a condition that appeared to cycle between anxiety (nervousness) and depression (exhaustion). Later in the twentieth century this common condition would be analyzed into two presumably separate disorders, with each one further differentiated into dozens of distinct subtypes, which justified the proliferation of psychotropic drugs as treatment.

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that such protocols, along with the multi-billion-dollar industry they now support, are statistically ineffective and dangerous in their side-effects. They produce just enough of a positive ‘bump’ – although the effect is not due to the drugs themselves but rather to the patient’s belief in their efficacy, called the placebo effect – to keep us on the Wheel.

The beliefs that “There’s nothing I can do” (the story of anxiety) and that “Life has let me down” (the story of depression) are at once places on the Wheel where we can get pulled into clinical unhappiness and revelations of genuine wisdom, in the way they clarify foundational truths of the liberated life. Indeed, the liberated life is not an outcome of what we do, but more about being present and letting be. And in fact life is not designed to fall in line with our expectations, so learning how to live more in touch with the way things really are, in radical acceptance, is how we get back to our center.

Sadly however, many of us don’t listen to anxiety and depression in this way. Instead we use distractions, medications, and rationalization to mask or move through our unhappiness as quickly as possible. Whether it’s just the mercy of time passing, or the respite from worry that depression affords us, eventually something shiny will catch our eye: the key to the door of our way out.

This one will be our salvation; or so we believe. And yet, this is only another story, or a new turn of an old story. It is another hook that will keep us on the Wheel of Suffering for another revolution, at least.

While spirituality is the art of getting off.

 

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Living From Our Higher Nature

I would say the major reason why humans suffer so much and project their suffering onto each other is that we don’t understand ourselves. There is indeed a truth that can set us free, but it involves more than just getting our facts straight.

This truth has to do with waking up to what we are.

Let’s begin where much of our suffering is focused – in the cycle of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression we spin through as we chase after whatever society tells us should make us happy. We feel anxious that it might not work out, frustrated when it doesn’t go our way, and depressed after our hopeful expectations lie deflated at our feet. This dual motivation of desiring after something and fearing that it won’t work out or be enough is at the heart of what we call “ambition” (ambi = two or both).

But society doesn’t just say, “Go, be happy.” It provides us with roles to play, scripts to follow, and masks to wear.

Each role connects us to a social system called a role-play, where others are playing their part as well. Connecting in this choreographed way ensures that everyone belongs and has a purpose. The roles, scripts, and masks just mentioned are preserved and passed along by traditions, rituals, and customs. Altogether, these comprise the objective components of morality.

Morality isn’t only around us, however, for it also has a subjective dimension. This includes the values, preferences, aims and beliefs that society downloads to our identity, serving to direct consciousness to those things that will support and promote the ambitions of those in control.

Uh, oh. You can see where this entire illusion folds back and zips into itself, can’t you? As long as we are brainwashed (downloaded) early, we will stay in line, play our part, follow the script, and passionately defend the tribal orthodoxy.

All of what we’ve been talking about so far is what I name our “second nature.” It’s not something we’re born with, but must be constructed for us by those in charge. Our taller powers at home eventually are replaced by higher-ups in society, and for some of us by a higher power in heaven overseeing it all. These are the ones who tell us what to do, what not to do, and how we can secure the happiness we seek.

We can summarize the work of socialization – referring to the process of turning us into well-behaved members of the tribe – in the activities of blocking, shaping, guiding and inspiring. Those last two activities of socialization should, in the best of all possible worlds, help us make wise choices and discover our own creative potential as unique persons.

But sadly and too often this doesn’t happen, largely because the blocking and shaping in those early years ends up crimping down on our “first nature” and filling us with shame and self-doubt. Blocking can be repressive and shaping coercive, with the outcome being that we can’t trust the body we were born with.

Of course, if society happens to be morally puritanical and authoritarian, this is right where they want us. Seeing that we cannot trust ourselves, we have no choice but to put our faith in those who claim to have all the answers.

Our second nature is therefore all about fitting in and going along with the collective role-play currently in session. Each role gives us a place to stand, a script to follow, and a small collection of socially approved, context-appropriate masks to wear. It also connects us to others, but mostly in this more or less formalized way. To “be somebody” is to have the recognition of others in the same play, and we maintain that recognition as long as we responsibly perform our role.

It may sound a bit harsh, perhaps, to characterize our second nature – the traditions, rituals, and customs; the roles, scripts, and masks; our values, aims, and beliefs; tribal morality, personal identity, and our driving ambitions; in short, who we think we are and what the tribe expects of us – as living in a trance, but that’s actually what it is. All of it is made up, put on, and acted out on the cultural stage as if it were the way things really are.

When consciousness is fully invested in this performance, it is under a spell – and most of us don’t realize it!

Dutifully performing our roles and managing our identity, following the rules and doing our part: Sure seems like it’s where everything is supposed to end up, right? What else is there? Maybe we can just quit, fall back into our first nature and live like animals. Or we could foment a revolution by redefining some roles, changing the scripts, and replacing backdrops on the stage. Some of us crave more recognition, as others deserve to be demoted or dismissed from the cast.

But all of that drama is still … well, drama. If all our solutions to the unhappiness we feel have to do with either dropping out, getting promoted, or suing for benefits, we remain fully entranced.

This, by the way, is where many children and most adolescents live, which is why I also name our second nature our “inner child.” It’s the part of us that tries desperately to please, placate, flatter, and impress the taller powers, higher-ups, and god himself in hopes we can get things to go our way.

It’s also where a lot of adults live – not in their higher nature but stuck deep in their insecurity and attachments, caught on the wheel of craving, anxiety, frustration, and depression.

The good news is that we don’t have to remain stuck here. The bad news is that our way out will require us to wake up from the trance. Depending on how deeply entangled we are, this breakthrough will come as an insightful epiphany, a troubling disillusionment, or an outright apocalypse – a complete conflagration and end of the world as we know it.

If the blocking and shaping action of our early socialization was not oppressive but provident, it is likely that we were also provided the guidance and inspiration we needed to discover our true talents and potential. We were given roles to play, rules to follow, and beliefs to hold, but they came with a message assuring us of something more beyond the role-play of tribal life.

The spell was a little weaker and the delusion less captivating. Instead of merely performing our roles we we empowered to transcend them.

When we are encouraged to contemplate the higher wholeness of things; when we are challenged to act with the wellbeing of everyone in mind; and when we are free to get over ourselves for the sake of genuine community and the greater good, we are living from our spiritual higher nature.

Fully awake, we have found liberation from suffering. Now we can be the provident taller powers that our children need.

 

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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.

 

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The Consilient Leader

Reality Process

Reality is not a thing, but a process comprised of three interacting forces which are universal throughout the Great Process we call ‘the universe’. Consilient leaders understand this process, working with rather than against it.

Not long ago I made a case for taking a little-known term out of seclusion and applying it in a fresh way to the realm of education. The term is consilience, and it speaks to what we hope will happen in every classroom (as well as outside them), where individual teachers and students are inspired to “leap together,” each beyond the self and together in community, caught up and transformed in the experience, returning to their individual centers of consciousness with deeper insight, better understanding, informed wonder, and a passion for more.

Now I want to move consilience outside of education proper, to explore its relevance for leadership. The most effective leader, I propose, is a consilient leader who understands and works with the forces that everywhere interact in the process of reality affectionately known as our universe. Consilient leaders are more effective than nonconsilient ones, and individuals who cooperate with the universe tend to be healthier, happier, and more successful than those who strive against it, or who try to exploit its provident nature for selfish gain.

I don’t mean to suggest that consilient leaders own more property or occupy higher social classes than these others. ‘Success’ here is not measured by status but by skill; consilient leaders are more skillful in what they do because they know how to move with the forces of reality rather than against them. In providing for the emergence of life and the ignition of consciousness, for a fertile culture of social support and our own self-actualization as human beings, the universe has set the stage for consilient leaders – indeed, the universe is a manifestation of consilience on the largest scale.

One more qualification on this term ‘consilient leader’ before we jump into the diagram above. By leader I am not necessarily referring to an individual who leads others – a boss, manager, director, principal, president, general, prophet or pastor. I realize that I am crossing against a conventional assumption when it comes to what makes a leader, but I have a much bigger vision in mind. Seeing as how the universe has provided for the rise of creative authority (also known as self-actualization in human beings), a consilient leader is one who uses this creative authority to harness and channel its three forces for the ongoing evolution of genuine community. Others may or may not follow, but the consilient leader is still on the leading edge of human evolution.

Let me give you a guided tour through my diagram, beginning with those three rounded rectangles arranged along the vertical axis. The first term in each rectangle names a level of organization in reality, while the second term identifies the force behind it. It will be easier to understand if we start with the middle set of terms: individual and integrity. By individual I mean any thing that more or less stands on its own – not in some absolute sense, since essentially All is One (as the name ‘universe’ implies), but relatively, in its own individual center while still in relationship with other things. The force that keeps the individual intact is integrity, literally holding together as a whole.

Individuals exist (taking a step upward in my diagram) in systems, which are higher-level organizations that illustrate consilience in an obvious way: a system is more than the mere sum of its parts (individuals). A second force, called synergy, connects individuals together and lifts them into a more energetic and complex web of influence. Synergy, then, is not merely additive (1+1) but exponential, with the higher circuit created in their connection capable of containing the energy jump (the force of integrity at this higher level), multiplying its value, and sharing power across the system.

As we swing down to the bottom of my diagram we begin to feel the effect of reality’s third force, entropy, which refers to the tendency in any organization to collapse into more stable energy states, approaching a state of critical stability called the ground. As the metaphor suggests, ground is the deepest support, a baseline value that represents a threshold between order and chaos, between the intact individual and its disintegration. (In the context of spirituality, what I name the ‘grounding mystery’ is the threshold and lower limit where self-consciousness dissolves into unconscious life, which is the deepest register to which our contemplative awareness can descend.) 

We might be tempted to imagine a universe where entropy is not in play. Isn’t it a depressing thought, all this breaking down, falling apart, and collapsing toward nothingness? Who needs it? Actually, we do. The whole universe would be impossible without the down-pulling force of entropy and its stabilizing ground. Of course from the individual’s perspective entropy is a major buzz harsher. But systems would burn themselves out in limitless synergy if it weren’t for the counterbalancing effect of entropy, bringing things down for rest and regeneration. And right in the middle of this cosmic tug-of-war, the force of integrity does its best to keep the individual intact.

So, my definition of a consilient leader is one who understands that reality is a process manifesting from the interaction of three forces, which contain energy (integrity of the individual), connect individuals (synergy of the system), and collapse systems into more stable states (entropy and the ground). It should be clear from my diagram that reality is not a simple three-layer cake, but that these three forces interact throughout the universe, making nearly every speck an individual, caught up in systems and eventually dissolving into its ground. Look around and you’ll see evidence of their interaction everywhere. Learn how to work with these forces and you are on your way to becoming a consilient leader.

There remains one part of my diagram to be explained: that box of four terms to the right of center. I’ve added these as a reminder that even consilient leaders are individual centers of personal identity, or egos, and their most important work is with other egos, as we all make our way, by fits and starts and frequent setbacks, into that most consilient and highly complex of systems known as genuine community. Egos complicate the work considerably, and the consilient leader must have a self-honest and perspicuous understanding of the challenge they represent. I’ll move down the list fairly quickly, encouraging my interested reader to explore other posts of mine where I analyze ego in greater depth.

Every self-conscious center of personal identity (ego for short) holds certain ambitions for itself. True to the word’s etymology, ambition involves the twin drives (ambi) of desire and fear, one (desire) straining for an imagined or promised reward, while the other (fear) harbors doubt and a growing anxiety around the prospect of failure or falling short of the goal. The insight that desire and fear lock the ego inside an interminable wheel of suffering is a central tenet of Buddhism. Nevertheless this is where ego is bound to stay – which is also why, for the Buddha, the only way out is through the realization that ego is without substance and simply dropping out of the wheel.

These ambitions of ego are really the out-working effort of strong beliefs concerning the nature of things, the meaning of life, and the prospect of happiness. So strong are these beliefs, in fact, that they hold the mind captive and prevent the individual from “thinking outside the box.” Such beliefs – not held by the mind but holding the mind hostage in this way – are called convictions. As their prisoner (literally a convict), the mind is unable to entertain differing points of view, consider evidence against its own absolute truth, or even imagine any truth outside its precious orthodoxy.

Through a combination of ruthless self-examination and social observation, a consilient leader understands that convictions are really just a defensive measure for the protection of certain attachments by which ego identifies itself. Attachments may be about nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or whatever, but basically they are ways that individuals identify themselves with (or against) the world around them. The earlier they form, the deeper and more powerful they tend to be, pulling ego into the delusion that without them it is nothing. And again, but from a position of clarity rather than delusion, the Buddha would agree: the ego is really nothing.

Inside even these attachments, then, is a persistent anxiety over the insecurity of ego’s condition. Because it is a construct of social experience and merely the managerial function (lacking substance) of personality, ego is inherently insecure – not only in feeling but in fact. This insecurity seeks compensation in attachments; attachments build justification behind convictions; and convictions drive the ambition for supremacy, perfection, retribution, salvation, glory, or whatever will finally make it better.

I should emphasize the point that every ego has this neurotic architecture – even the ego of a consilient leader. The difference between the consilient leader and the rest is that he or she understands this and is vigilant to the occasions when ego conceit is posing as true integrity.

 

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