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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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