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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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A Mandala of the Spiritual Life

When you were still in the womb and for some time after you were born, you were entirely dependent on the provident support of your taller powers for the protection, nourishment, warmth, and loving attention you needed to thrive. Being helpless and defenseless, and having no sense of yourself as an “I” in relation to a reality that was “not me,” the effect of your earliest experience was to prompt your nervous system to spontaneously adapt itself to the conditions around you.

This baseline nervous state of your brain and body established your place in the order of things, registering the degree in which those early conditions evoked from you a response of trust or mistrust. A trusting nervous system is calm, open, and engaged with reality, while an untrusting one is anxious, closed, and disengaged. It’s important to realize that at this point you were not really “thinking about” anything or observing discrete “things” outside of “me.” You had no language to make such distinctions, nor a centered ego to provide perspective for rendering judgments.

In the ensuing years of early childhood, with the acquisition of language and thought, and managed increasingly by an emerging center of personal identity (ego), your web of family relationships likely perpetuated and confirmed that primordial attitude of trust or mistrust. In a truly provident environment your taller powers were securely centered in themselves, as they lovingly connected with you. They used their power to shape and influence you in positive ways, but rarely to manipulate or oppress you.

Their love supported and enabled you to get established in your own center of identity without feeling that you had to please, placate, flatter, or impress them in order to win their approval.

Relationships that feature this dynamic balance of power (integrity/autonomy/influence) and love (altruism/intimacy/compassion) possess a strong bond of trust. Without it, no relationship can be healthy or last for long. Your capacity to trust and to be a trustworthy partner is one of the most precious legacies of your infancy and early childhood. Even today as an adult, when other people try to attach themselves to you for the security they need, or try to manipulate you into serving their neurotic cravings for control and self-importance, this capacity to trust keeps you centered, or able to quickly recover when you do get pulled off your center.

My diagram offers what I’m calling a “mandala of the spiritual life,” and in the background is a compass to remind us that your human spirit is an intelligence that seeks wholeness, fulfillment, community, and wellbeing. Regardless of what your early life was like, this spiritual intelligence continues its quest for what is authentic and wholesome. And because no family is perfect and every parent has an “inner child” that is somewhat insecure as a consequence of their early experience, the collective of human cultures from the dawn of history have preserved and handed on the spiritual wisdom we all need.

We ignore this collective wisdom to our peril. Without it, the insecure “inner children” of parents cannot allow their actual children to become grounded and centered in themselves, but instead they manipulate them into serving their own neurotic insecurity. These children, effectively attachments of their parents, never learn to trust, and then proceed to pass this insecurity (and mistrust) into their children – and on it goes.

If the loss of one’s center (literally “missing the mark” in archery) is the meaning of our word “sin,” then perhaps this deep inheritance of insecurity and mistrust through the generations stems back to the “original sin” of those first self-conscious and insecure primates who started the process so many millenniums ago.

The balance of power and love as trust in healthy relationships is among those wisdom principles we can find. As partners stay centered in themselves and use their personal influence (power) to support each other and deepen their relationship (love), the bond of trust grows ever stronger. They are able to be present to one another, to be open, vulnerable, and honest with each other. This is one essential dimension of the spiritual life: living in relationship with others, moving deeper into genuine community.

A second dimension is represented in my mandala as a vertical axis rooted in the ground of inner peace. Your learned capacity for trusting others opened up a place deep within yourself where you can relax into being. A calm nervous system allows you to sink below all the agitations and ambitions of your personal life, into the cradling rhythm of your breath.

It’s likely this creative support of your breathing body is what inspired one of the most widely attested metaphors of the spiritual life (spiritus, ruach, pneuma, prana = breath). Its rhythm of taking in and letting go reveals the inner secret of life itself.

Enjoying inner peace, you can simply let things be; or you can use your creative freedom to bring about necessary change. The spiritual life is neither passive nor active, but engages reality with the understanding that “all is one” and “we’re all in this together.” Such a spiritual understanding allows you to be intentional rather than reactive, to live on purpose and by a higher purpose – higher (and larger) than your personal concerns (ego) and beyond the limited sphere of human interests alone.

With our consideration of inner peace, creative freedom, and higher purpose, we have arrived at the apex of the spiritual life. The mandala might lead you to conclude that coming into your higher purpose breaks past the plane of relationships and its dynamic balance of power and love. Perhaps a “fully self-actualized” human being is someone who possesses supernormal abilities of clairvoyance, teleportation, miraculous powers, and the like.

But in fact, the fulfillment of your spiritual life lies in a near-devotional commitment to love, and to forgive without conditions; to encourage and support others on their life journey; and to be the provident reality they can fully trust.

 

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Who Tells America’s Story?

Our present era of “fake news” has introduced the American public to a key premise of constructivism, which is that meaning is constructed by human minds and always perspective-dependent. What we call “news” is someone’s perspective on what happened and what it means. Until now we have counted on the news media to tell us the truth, thinking they are giving us “just the facts.”

But there are no plain facts, only data that have been selected from the ambiguous “data cloud” of reality. Our authorities are those who hold the rights of authorship and tell the rest of us stories of what it all means. If authority is power, then this power is a function of how convincing or inspiring an author’s story is, how effectively it influences the belief and behavior of others.

Just now we’re starting to understand the extent in which fact selection, taking perspective, and constructing meaning are determined by a deeper belief regarding the persistent ambiguity of what’s really going on.

Actually this deeper belief is energized by a need to resolve the ambiguity so it can be made to mean something. What I’m calling the “persistent ambiguity” of reality is profoundly intolerable to our minds, which work continuously to turn it into stories that make sense. Stories frame a context, make connections, establish causality, assign responsibility, attach value, and reveal a purpose (or likely consequence) that motivates us to choose a path and take action.

The resolution of ambiguity breaks in either of two directions: downward to (either/or) division or upward to (both/and) unity.

Once the divisions are made – and remember, these are based on narrative constructs of difference – the battlefront is suddenly obvious to us and we are compelled to choose a side. Below the grey ambiguity is where we find the diametrical opposites of “this OR that.” There is no room for compromise, and one side must win over (or be better than) the other.

Above the ambiguity is not simply more grey, but “this AND that” – not differences homogenized but mutually engaged in partnership. An upward resolution in unity means that distinctions are not erased but rather transcended in a higher wholeness. Up here, “this” and “that” are seen as symbions (interdependent organisms) in a larger ecosystem which both empowers and draws upon their cooperation.

Now for some application.

The reality of American life is and has always been persistently ambiguous. From the beginning there have been differences among us, and some of the most highly charged differences fall under the constructs of religion, race, and politics. We need to remind ourselves that these constructs are fictional categories and not objective realities. Being Black or White is one thing (in reality); what it means to be Black or White is quite another (in our minds).

Race relations in American history have been complicated because each side is telling stories that exclude the other. The same can be said of religion and politics as well.

Some of us are telling a story of division. According to this story different races, religions, and political parties cannot peacefully coexist, much less get along or work together. The ultimate resolution for them – called in some circles the End of the World or Final Judgment – will be a permanent separation of “this” from “that.”

No more grey forevermore, Amen.

The more open-minded and cautiously hopeful among us nevertheless complain that because so many of these others are telling stories of conflict and exclusion, it might be better for the rest of us to leave them behind. They observe how our current president and the Religious Right that supports him share a conviction that “winning the deal” or “converting the sinner” is the only way forward. Once these stalwart true believers lose cultural real estate and finally die out, we will be able to make real progress.

But that’s a story too, isn’t it?

What about this:

America is a national story about (1) racial diversity, religious freedom, and political dialogue; (2) around the central values of self-reliance, civic engagement, and enlightened community; (3) protecting the rights of all citizens to pursue happy, meaningful, and fulfilled lives.

Is this story true? Well, what does it mean for a story to be true? According to constructivism, the truth of a story has to do with its power to shape consciousness, set a perspective, orient us in reality and inspire us to creatively engage the challenges we face with faith, hope, purpose, and solidarity. For most of our history true stories have brought us together in community. Indeed, they are the very origin of human culture.

The provisional answer, then, must be that an American story of upward resolution (unity) will be true to the degree in which we devote ourselves to its realization. Short of inspired engagement, a story merely spins in the air without ever getting traction in reality. It never has a chance of coming true.

Are there racial conflicts, religious bigotry, and political sectarianism in America? Yes, of course. But look more closely and you’ll find many, many more instances of interracial concord and friendship, a grounded and life-affirming spirituality, and individuals of different political persuasions talking with (rather than at) each other about ideals they hold in common.

If we give the media authority to tell our American story, we can expect to hear and see more about where the ambiguity is breaking downward into division. Why is that? Because the media depend on advertisers, advertisers need eyeballs on their ads, and stories of aggression, violence, and conflict get our attention. Cha-ching.

Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, if we hear the same story of division several times during a media cycle, our brain interprets it as if there were several different events – more frequent, more prevalent, and more indicative of what’s going on in the world.

There’s no denying that we need leaders today who genuinely believe in the greater good, who dedicate their lives to its service, and who tell a story that inspires the rest of us to reach higher. Complaining about and criticizing the leaders we have will only amplify what we don’t want.

The real work of resolving the persistent ambiguity of life is on each of us, every single day. Starting now, we can choose peace, wholeness, harmony, unity, and wellbeing.

The stories we tell create the world in which we live. America is worthy of better stories.

 

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The Gospel According to The Eagles

So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.

The Eagles, “Already Gone”

I have been developing a theory that explains our human experience as the consilience of four distinct threads of intelligence, in what I name Quadratic Intelligence. While the threads themselves were identified long before I got to the drawing board, the quadratic model is my own innovation.

My preferred way of reading the model is organic, starting from the most primitive thread and proceeding along their evolutionary line of development until the full set is in view. Thus we begin in visceral intelligence (VQ), grow into emotional intelligence (EQ), articulate and expand rational intelligence (RQ; the conventional ‘IQ’), and at last awaken to the higher virtues of spiritual intelligence (SQ).

It’s important to understand that the four threads are not stacked on top of each other, but rather together comprise the braid of quadratic intelligence. There is a hierarchy among them nonetheless, with higher/later threads dependent upon the integrity of deeper/earlier ones. This same evolutionary sequence can be observed more broadly in the “tree” of animal life on earth: rooted in instinct (VQ), branching into feeling (EQ), flowering in thought (RQ), and bearing fruit in wisdom (SQ).

My model provides a useful way of representing the ideal of ‘self-actualization’ across the species and especially in our own.

As illustrated in my diagram, each thread of intelligence has its own focus and aim. Visceral health, emotional happiness, rational meaning, and spiritual well-being name these four ‘driving aims’ in humans, none of which can be neglected or removed without serious consequences to our overall quality of life.

Once again, each emerges out of and weaves strength back into the braid – although it is possible for the braid to get ‘knotted up’ in places, creating complications and dysfunctions throughout the system. My interest in the present post is to elucidate a particular kind of tangle among the threads of quadratic intelligence, in the formation of convictions.

My returning reader is likely acquainted with my working definition of conviction, as a belief that has taken the mind hostage and prevents it from thinking “outside the box.” It’s helpful to picture an otherwise curious, creative, and perfectly capable mind caught like a prisoner in a cage: a convict of its own conviction.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a cage at the threshold between our emotional and rational strands of intelligence, in order to represent the composition of conviction. It possesses a rational element, insofar as it is a meaningful proposition about something. It is logical, if not necessarily reasonable. It makes sense, even if it’s not very sensible. Other minds can understand what it means, although it may be completely without basis in reality or actual experience.

The reason we hold convictions – or rather I should say the reason our convictions hold us – really has little or nothing to do with their rational character as meaningful propositions. It’s from deeper down in the structure of intelligence that convictions draw their energy, in that all or nothing, black or white, one and only way commitment we make to them emotionally.

Whereas an otherwise reasonable proposition of opinion or fact remains open for verification  because we are letting rational curiosity move us closer to reality, a conviction closes our mind off from reality in recital and defense of what must be true regardless.

In one way or another, every conviction is a passionate insistence on the conditions of our happiness – that we can’t be happy without this or that in our life, unless it is for us exactly what we need it to be, or not until some future time when our demands have been fully met. Partly out of ignorance and partly by deceit, we will often argue and fight for the truth of our claim without admitting our underlying unhappiness and desperate need to be right.

An all-or-nothing, black-or-white, one-and-only-way manner of thinking (RQ), therefore, is merely a rationalization of our unresolved emotional insecurity (EQ). We need to feel less vulnerable and exposed, so we insist that something or someone, somewhere or upon some future day, will make our insecurity go away for good.

Conviction, in other words, is perhaps the most obvious symptom of our chronic unhappiness.

If this wasn’t tragic enough – since nothing outside us, anywhere, can deliver on our demands and truly make us happy – the tangled knot of strong convictions further prevents the fruiting of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). Not only is energy tied up in forging those cages of belief, but it is siphoned away from the deeper insights and higher aspirations that would support our genuine well-being.

To understand these deeper insights and higher aspirations, we can take the two roots of our word “well-being” and follow each in a different direction. Well derives from the root meaning “whole,” so I’ll name that set our holistic aspirations for wholeness, harmony, unity, and fulfillment (as in “filled full”).

Our holistic aspirations open us to the revelation that All is One, and that the present mystery of reality lies beyond the meanings we construct and drape in front of it.

Being is the present participle of the verb “to be,” so I’ll name this second set our existential insights into presence, release, emptiness, and serenity. Our existential insights invite us into a deeper experience of the grounding mystery which is be-ing itself, and into the profound realization (or disillusionment depending on how difficult it is for us to let go) that our own identity is also but a construct without substance.

As we consider the existential insights and holistic aspirations of spiritual intelligence, an interesting paradox is revealed particularly in that curious juxtaposition of emptiness and fulfillment. From the perspective of ego this paradox appears as a self-canceling opposition or meaningless contradiction, for how can we experience emptiness and fulfillment at the same time?

But of course, this apparent dualism is only a function of ego consciousness itself, separated from reality by the convictions that simultaneously give us refuge and hold us captive.

As the spiritual wisdom traditions have been reminding us, all we need to do is drop the illusion and stop pretending, and this truth alone will set us free.

When our spiritual intelligence (SQ) is awakened we also become healthier (VQ), happier (EQ), and live more meaningful (RQ) lives. The good news is that, while we may struggle and suffer for a long time inside our small cages of conviction, the key to liberation is already in our possession.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2018 in The Creative Life

 

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Who Do You Think You Are?

The modern paradigm of medical and mental health has a built-in bias for diagnosis, due in large part to its historical interest in isolating and treating pathology of various kinds in the body and mind. A consequence of this bias is that while we can zero in on what’s wrong or not working properly, our understanding of what constitutes psychic (mind) and somatic (body) wholeness is less developed.

Individual sufferers go to professionals for help, many of them privately hoping that their psychosomatic health and quality of life will be elevated as a result. Instead they find themselves subjected to ‘treatment plans’ designed to suppress symptoms of dis-ease rather than actualize genuine wellbeing.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s in counseling I was surprised – and increasingly more aggravated – by the requirement put on students to choose our guiding theory from among current orthodox protocols of diagnostic psychotherapy. As professional therapists we would need to work closely with insurance companies, with doctors who could prescribe drugs, and (of course) with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is continually inventing more categories to pigeonhole the symptoms of suffering among the general population.

Even then it was obvious to me that a concept of ‘disorder’ must presume some deeper grasp on what ‘order’ (aka health, wholeness, or wellbeing) is, but this was barely discernible in the literature and never explained in the classroom. I began to suspect that some larger conspiracy might be directing our training as students and future professionals in the field. As counselors (and not drug prescribers) we could offer short-term talk therapy for clients, but the real money lay in tying client symptoms to more serious disorders with a basis in neurobiology that could justify pharmaceutical interventions.

Now, I’m not denying that some cases can benefit from a combination of talk and drug therapy – although the trend these days is to get patients through counseling and on open-ended prescription medication plans if their symptoms persist, which in 70% of cases they do. Strong research suggests that this rather abysmal success rate of therapy (of either type or in combination) can be attributed not to the particular protocol used, but to the fact that individual sufferers don’t readily take responsibility in the salvation they seek.

And this, in my opinion, swings back around to a diagnostic paradigm that effectively ignores the person and reduces suffering to symptoms seemingly outside the individual’s choice or control.

If we are to take responsibility in our suffering as well as creative authority in our pursuit of wellbeing, we need psychotherapeutic models that envision us as actively engaged in the construction of both suffering and wellbeing. In a sense, that’s what I am working toward in this blog. So it’s in that spirit that I offer another installment on the question of identity and our human journey.

My diagram contains a lot of terminology relative to the construction of identity, but we’ll step through it in a way that simplifies things considerably. Let’s begin at the middle, where the executive center of identity known as our ego is represented. Ego is how we identify ourselves, as the starring actor in a story we’re continually telling ourselves and others – our personal myth. Every myth has a supporting cast of other actors whose importance in the narrative is a function of their proximal influence on matters concerning our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

Each of these four feeling-needs (referring not to the fact of our being safe, loved, capable, or worthy, but our need to feel we are such) presents itself at a critical period of our development, in this precise sequence, rising upon earlier ones and setting the stage for those coming later. (As is often the case with my diagrams, information should be read organically from the bottom and flowing or growing upward.)

The four feeling-needs further organize into two broader concerns connecting to ego’s need to belong (or fit in) and be recognized (or stand out) – the two polar drives in our construction of identity. Belonging answers our need to feel safe and loved; recognition satisfies our need to feel capable and worthy.

You can appreciate their polarity in the way they pull against each other: the effort to gain approval (a type of social recognition) often involves a willingness to give up some anonymity (a type of social belonging). Conversely, if our first priority is to hold a position of acceptance (another type of belonging), we will try not to draw undo attention to ourselves (another type of recognition).

In dynamical systems, something called an ‘attractor’ is a recurrent code that draws a system into persistent patterns of organization. In our consideration of the pattern known as personal identity (or the construct of who you are), two polar attractors drive development: at one end is the secure base (an attractor for safety, love, acceptance and belonging), while at the other end is the proving circle (an attractor for personal power, worth, approval and recognition).

Archetypally these correspond to our mother (or mother figure) and father (or father figure), respectively. A number of Freud’s most enduring insights can be liberated from his theory of sexuality and better understood archetypally in these terms instead.

The unique admixture of temperamental predispositions, environmental conditions, and personal life events tends to ‘lean’ our personality more toward one attractor than the other. Even within the range of so-called normal psychology this is the case. A normal well-adjusted personality can value belonging over recognition, or vice versa. The important point is that both attractors and their associated values are critical to our identity and mental health.

What this suggests is that our individual personality can be understood (not diagnosed!) as either security-seeking or esteem-seeking. Identifying more with one doesn’t mean that we have no interest in the other; healthy identity is somewhere in the balance of both. If you happen to value safety and love over power and worth, it may simply reveal that close relationships are more important to you than personal achievements, not that accomplishing things and making progress don’t matter.


You were probably waiting for me to mention this: It can happen that the balance snaps and we get stuck at one pole or the other. Security becomes everything and we end up giving all our energy to pleasing and placating the people we feel we can’t live without. (This is common among children of addicts and victims of abuse.) Or else if we’re caught at the other end, we stay busy trying to flatter and impress others so they’ll esteem us as somebody important and worthy of praise. (This is frequent among celebrities and performers of various kinds.)

The goal of development is to hold the balance and use our stable center of personal identity to leap (or drop) into a larger (or deeper) experience of wholeness and wellbeing. More about that next time …

 

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Spirituality Basics 1: The Human Condition

One complaint that can legitimately be leveled against religion is over its tendency to complicate something which is really quite simple. An overlay of codes, rules, values, and beliefs quickly obscures the shining truth at its core. Tragically this accumulation of secondary material can become a religion’s primary concern, where it gets so caught up in its process that it loses sight of its purpose.

How many religions promote themselves as “the only way” when all they end up doing is getting in the way of our genuine liberation and wellbeing?

In this post and the next two I will clarify what I understand to be the basics of spirituality, without the overlays and parochial jargon. My experience and observations bear out that when a religion keeps these basics in view, all that secondary material can serve well to further interpret, amplify, situate, and apply them in a most relevant way. The basics alone are probably insufficient in themselves to provide the kind of practical support and guidance that religion can. But again, without this core in view, a religion turns into a source of spiritual injury, discouragement, and confusion.

The place to begin is always where we are, and the spiritual quest must start by taking into account our human condition.

In the very word religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) is a critical clue as to what this condition entails, which might be diagnostically summarized as isolation, alienation, estrangement, or simply separation. The Greek hamartia (off target) and Pali dukka (out of joint), central metaphors of the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively, both use the idea of suffering as the result of losing our center, struggling for balance, and lacking in functional wholeness.

This off-centered condition skews our perspective on reality and compels us to cling to whatever can provide some stability. But of course, such clinging to anything outside ourselves – what the Bible calls idolatry and Buddhism names attachment – only perpetuates and amplifies the fundamental problem, which is that we are still not centered within ourselves. Our condition only worsens the harder we try to fix it.

This desperate anxiety – a potent amalgam of craving and fear – splits our motivation between the desired object (craving) and the possibility of not getting the fix we need (fear).

These dual motives of craving and fear work against each other, as when the fear of failure distracts our focus and interferes with the achievement of our goal. The prefix ambi- in the word ambition identifies this opposition of two competing motives in our pursuit of what we believe will make us happy. Personal ambition, then, refers to the bipolar motivation that oscillates between craving and fear, excited for success but anxious over failure, never fully satisfied because the supposed solution is irrelevant to the real problem.

Rather than wising up to this internal contradiction, however, we invest ourselves in risk protection, giving up some of what we want now for the sake of having enough later. Or we inflate the value of the goal in our mind to justify and compensate for the anxiety that’s ripping up our insides and snapping the stem of life’s meaning.

So far, I have left unmentioned the actor in the middle of this fantastic mess – the “I” behind our cravings and fears, the one who is seeking an external resolution to an internal predicament. The word in Greek is ego, and so we use this term to designate our personal identity, the unique and separate person we regard ourselves as being. From the middle of this experience our identity seems very substantial – indeed (with Descartes) as more real than anything else.

Everything around us changes, but this center of self-consciousness is immutable, enduring, and by virtue of being separate from the body, maybe even immortal.

Despite this feeling of substantiality and permanence, our personal identity is actually a social construction, utterly insubstantial and in constant need of being reminded of who we are by telling ourselves stories. The longest running narrative might simply be called “the story of my life,” and its main plot anchors us in smaller stories about the past as it orients us in other stories about the future.

If we say that the past and the future are not real, we mean that they are not present, which is the only moment when anything can be real. The past is no longer and the future is not yet; both are dependent on the standpoint in time called Now.

“The story of my life” – or our personal myth, where mythos is Greek for the “plot” that provides continuity beneath and throughout the changing scenes of a story – is obviously not the unbroken record of every Now since we were born. Only certain events are included, just the ones that contributed major or minor threads to the narrative tapestry of our personal myth. And for those that are included, factual accuracy is less important than their thematic contribution to our overall sense of identity and meaning.

Interesting stories are about compelling characters, and the construction of identity has been a collective effort of weaving together a confabulated autobiography of “who I am.”

An essential and early part of this collective effort involved gaining some independence for the ego from the urgencies and instincts of the body. An urgency refers to an urge connected with a survival need, such as the urge to eat for the sake of nutrition, or the urge to breathe for the sake of taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

There is an immediacy about urgencies that makes them unnegotiable – or at least we can’t put them off for very long. If we should try to hold our breath too long, for instance, the autonomic urgency of breathing will take over, even if the conscious mind that is trying to pull off this stunt has to be put temporarily off-line so the rhythm can be resumed.

The body is possessed of many such urgencies working together in systems, rhythmically and reliably supporting its life as an organism. If an urgency is urgent action around a specific need of the body, then an instinct has to do with compulsive behavior of the body in pursuit of what will satisfy this need. Hunger is the urgency around our need for nutrition, but the coordinated behavior of the body in search of food is driven by instinct. Since instinct represents a higher level of coordination, there are far fewer instincts than urgencies in the body.

Because instincts are responsible for motivating us to behave outwardly, our tribe had a strong interest in shaping and directing our behavior in ways that would complement, or at least not conflict with, the norms of society.

As Freud discovered, the instincts of sex and aggression particularly pose a challenge to this project of managing social order. We needed to learn when and how it was proper to act on these instincts, and when it was necessary to restrain them. However, if the discipline of restraint on aggression was severe enough, or if our tribe coded sexuality with abuse, secrecy, and shame, the construction of our personal identity came at a cost of repressing these instincts – condemning them, denying them, pushing them behind us and into what Jung named our Shadow.

By this gradual but at times traumatic process of socialization, our ego was formed. The more severe the repression, the more pronounced was our separation from the body. If severe and pronounced enough, our sense of self might have completely dissociated from the body, turning it into an enemy of the “good boy” or “nice girl” our tribe demanded that we be. Or maybe we adopted an alter-ego, a split in our personality through which the irrepressible compulsions of the body could still be gratified.

It’s this need for separation that lies at the heart of our human condition. Once the body has been alienated – that is, pushed away as other – our project of personal identity has the one challenge left of breaking free entirely from the body’s mortal coil.

A denial of death thus becomes the driving impetus behind our ambition to gain deliverance and live forever. But let’s not forget about the intrinsic character of ambition, which is that it contains two contrary motives – a craving for something and a fear of not having it. The excessive preoccupation in some religions with the goal of everlasting life without the body inevitably carries within it a pathological denial of death.

My diagram above is meant to be read from left-to-right following the progression of development through the formation of personal identity (ego). Farthest left is the representation of our essential nature as animals (body) with a capacity for contemplation, creativity, self-transcendence, and genuine community (soul). We might be tempted to regard the imposition of ego consciousness and its delusion of separation as something regrettable, and maybe better eliminated.

But the paradox of spirituality is that self-transcendence (literally the expansion of awareness beyond the limits of personal identity) is not possible without a stable ego in place. We must first become somebody before we can get over ourselves.

It’s that question of ego stability that determines whether subsequent development goes in a healthy or pathological direction. We have already described one side of this pathology, in the repression of instinct and ego’s dissociation from the body. This is about the negotiation of our personal identity with respect to the natural inheritance of our animal body. On the other side of this divide is a less ancient but still very old cultural inheritance that carries instructions of its own, which we know as wisdom.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this cultural wisdom has much to say about our place in the universe, our connections and responsibilities inside the great Web of Life, the waking potential of the human spirit, and the aim of our existence.

Much of this wisdom is well known: How cultivating inner peace is key for making peace with others. How living for the wellbeing of the greater whole promotes health and happiness for oneself. How opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations. How letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise. How living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

These are all things we might consider obvious, as they are wisdom principles in the cultural atmosphere of our species and intuitively confirmed in our own quiet reflection.

But we don’t pay attention. Or else we print these wise sayings on wall posters and desktop calendars, but let them remain in perpetual contemplation rather than put them into action. This separation of who we are and how we live our lives from the cultural inheritance of wisdom is what I call ignórance – where the accent identifies a willful disregard rather than a mere naiveté or lack of knowing.

This, too, is a kind of denial; but instead of pushing something (i.e., instinct or mortality) behind us, we simply turn away and act as if that spiritual wisdom doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it is impractical, unrealistic, or intended for someone else. To be honest, we would have to admit that the fulfillment of our personal ambitions requires that we ignore what we deep down know to be true.

By separating ourselves thus from this historical bank of universal truths, we can continue with our pursuit – of what cannot make us happy, healthy, or whole. At least we can do it without guilt or needing to feel responsible for the consequences that fall out from our choices and actions.

There we have the basics of spirituality. Our essential nature as spiritual animals is abrupted by the imposition of a socially constructed personal identity, or ego, whose ambitions (e.g., for success, wealth, fame, supremacy, or immortality) are generated by some combination of repression and ignórance. The repression of animal instinct makes it possible for ego to achieve its delusion of escape and independence. But over time we must construct a number of defenses against the spiritual wisdom that would otherwise challenge our ambition and the stories we are telling ourselves.

When we finally “get it,” when we realize that our personal ambitions cannot be fulfilled and will not resolve our fundamental problem, which is the fact that these ambitions keep us off-center and perpetually discontent, an opportunity presents itself for our genuine liberation and wholeness.

We can at last get over ourselves and reconcile with our essential nature. The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Now our human adventure can find its true and higher path.

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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